Dave Swoboda was in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1969. He graduated from Billings West High in 1965. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Swoboda: "My folks saw what was going on in Vietnam, and my folks were pretty much wanting me to go to college and stay out of what I ended up getting into, which was fair. I went to college — I didn't know what I wanted to do, and basically I killed a year. I did OK in some classes and others I left without dropping.
"We're out one night, carousing, and I see a friend of mine and I said, 'Jerry, how you doing?' He said, 'Great.' 'What you doing tomorrow?' I said, 'Well, Jerry, I am going to go down and join the Army.' He said, 'What a great idea. Come pick me up.' So we went on the buddy system. We went out to Fort Lewis — there was an airline strike at the time, otherwise we would have wound up in Fort Polk, Louisiana. It was kind of a godsend that the airlines were not flying at that point."
Swoboda completed basic training in Fort Lewis and went on for advanced training in avionics, electronics in aviation in Fort Gordon, Ga.
Gazette: So your parents had tried to keep you out of Vietnam. What was their reaction when you said that you were going down to join the Army?
Swoboda: "I put a lot of gray hairs on my father's head — for a long time. He wasn't thrilled. My dad was in World War II."
Swoboda received his orders for Pleiku. He was trained to repair or replace electronics in helicopters.
Swoboda: "At 19, you're bullet-proof. Whatever is going to happen to somebody is going to happen to somebody else. This is going to sound cavalier, I had concerns, certainly you do. Once you get over there, it was kind of an adventure. You're a dumb kid. It was an adventure. It was like cowboys and Indians with real bullets, except that you don't realize that when people go down initially, they don't get up. That's kind of in the back of my mind and in country itself.
"In Bien Hoa, which is in the south (where he landed), it was hot. We landed probably at 11 at night. When they put us on the buses, there was a Jeep in the front with a .50-caliber and Jeep behind us with a .50-caliber. So, again, you don't know what to expect. ... That was my first impression, and when we got to Pleiku, it's just a whole different place. Pleiku is 2,500 feet (in elevation). It's only about 700 feet lower than Billings. We're in the central highlands. It was not super hot. It was nice and cool. It got pretty cold during the monsoon."
The helicopters Swoboda worked on were a combination of slicks (troop transport helicopters, primarily UH-1s or "Hueys"), gunships and observation helicopters.
Swoboda: "Our job was scouts. We took the OH-23s (observation helicopters) and they had a pilot and crew chief and bungee cord machine gun, an M60, and they would go out literally with the rotor wash and see what they could find. If they could draw fire, the gun ships would circle over head and come in and soften up the area with rockets and mini-guns and so forth. Then, the slicks would come in with the troops. That was our initial things we did."
Gazette: We've heard that when the helicopters were back at an airbase, they became targets for the enemy — the idea is that if they're disabled or destroyed, they can't be used to go out in the field so the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese would want to bomb airfields.
Swoboda: "They became targets obviously, even out in the field. I have pictures of one that was pretty much stitched up the middle with machine guns, but nobody was hurt. I think one pilot may have been hit in the heel, so that wasn't good for him. Generally, they were targets. ... They wanted the radios. The NVA, that was primarily what we were dealing with and some Viet Cong, they wanted the radios, so before I got there, it's a terrible story and I actually didn't see it. A (OH) 23 went down. The pilots were still in, and they were executed as they were in their seats and you could see where they'd taken a machete and whacked the radios and took off with them and all the (communications) gears that was with it. So, if a ship went down, my job was to get out all the electronics out of it. It didn't happen that often, but it did and we had to do that. ... That still sticks with me today."
Gazette: They wanted the communications gear so they could hear what we were doing?
Swoboda: "Right. ... So if you thought you were being picked up by enemy radios, then you had to change channels. But, you can't just say, I'm going to from 78.3 to 44. You had to have some sort of something. I remember that I was on a flight one time and they changed channels, said, 'We're going to Jack Benny plus four.' So, if you know comedy history, you know Jack Benny always was 39 on his birthday, so you went to 43."
Gazette: When you had to retrieve communication gear from a ship that went down, that sounds pretty tough. It sounds like harrowing work.
Swoboda: "If the ship went down, possibly and probably it was more mechanical than it was by being shot down. Again, we were not in that area where we were in big, big fighting. What we did besides blowing away bushes was (long-range reconnaissance patrol) insertions. ... There'd be two or three slicks and we'd do overflights.
"The overflights, we'd go toward Cambodia or Laos and we would kind of hover over different places to confuse the enemy because we knew they were out there or watching us. We would be looking for sites to drop LRRPs. LRRPs were two- to three-man teams. We'd put them in areas and leave them for two or three days and then come back and pick them up, and they would report back what was going on.
"We would do the overflights and several areas to get them confused and once we figured out where we were going, the LRRPs would be along with us and they'd pick where they wanted to be. ... We'd zip in and zip out and gone. We'd go in at tree-top level so they couldn't hear us from far. We'd wait to hear from them via radio. They would say their location, and we'd go out and get them. If they drew fire, of course, we'd go out and get them sooner, but the whole idea was not to draw fire. The whole idea was to just watch and see what was going on.
"So, before Tet (offensive in 1968) we were dropping LRRPs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail on our side of the border, and they said there's a lot of activity going on and we don't know what's going on. ... In a debriefing, they said that all the treetops had been tied together. So, we can't see from the air what's going on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So, we need to put the LRRPs in and put them more often than usual. When they came back, they said it's quiet in the daytime, but it sounds like the L.A. freeway at night. They said, 'We don't know what's going on.' But, something was going on and, of course, this is pre-Tet. Nobody was really sure what was happening but they were certain that something was going on.
"Of course, Tet was a holiday that was called a stand-down. Everybody just kind of took the day off in the war. That's the way it was set up. ... It was a day off but you had all this stuff that went down in Saigon all the way up. In Pleiku, we got 23 or 24 or more rockets, 122-mm rockets. ... We captured some guys. They were coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with two of those on the back from the north, this far south, to where they needed to drop them, then they'd turn around, run back up the trail and bring more down. So they had a lot of them.
"We got rocketed. They did shoot for the aircraft. ... We had quite a few ships destroyed. Even though they were in bunker revetments, had they not been, they would have just wiped out the whole thing. As it was, we lost five or six ships that were not fly-able. That was the first time that Pleiku had ever been hit in two years."
Gazette: Were you frequently under any attacks?
Swoboda: "No. That's the first time. I remember lying in a hooch, in bed, at night, and occasionally one big gun would go off it and it would go bang, a big loud roar and woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh and that was the shell. I'm lying in bed sleeping and I hear this woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, bang. I wake up and I think, 'That didn't sound right.' So, being really cool, I get up and start to put on my pants and shirt and as I am reaching for my boots, I hear a woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, boom and it's much closer. I gathered up my stuff, ran into the bunker and I was actually the third guy into the bunker. The other two were still in their skivvies.
"So (the bunker) filled up rather quickly. They were pretty much spot on on the airfield. One came off to the right coming in and it was an officers' hooch. But, obviously those guys were gone, too. But, it tore that thing to nothing. ... That was our Tet."
Gazette: Because you hadn't seen it before, was it a scary thing? Confusing? How would you describe what's going through your head and what happens next?
Swoboda: "Certainly, it was scary. There was not any type of comfort. But, at the same time, it was also well handled. ... There were guard bunkers, nine strands of concertina wire. So it would be very difficult to get in. But, the rockets were coming from outside. We kind of knew where they were coming from. So, as a consequence, when it happened again, and it happened four of five more times when I was there, we kind of knew what to look for.
"The next time it happened, I'm really proud of our guys. Our sister company is the 4th Aviation, and 4th Aviation was all helicopters, and I was on guard duty that night and actually facing the area the rockets came from, and we obviously didn't see them as they were coming, but 4th Av came out and they kind of flew out over where that area was. And our guys came out after the 10th Cavalry afterwards, and they literally started firing from behind us out forward of us.
"I think we took a majority of people who were firing those rockets because thereafter any rockets they threw at us in those subsequent attacks often landed outside of the perimeter of the base, so maybe we scared the daylights out of them, which I don't think so much as we got the main cadre."