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Vietnam Voices: 'Sometimes it was mayhem, but it was controlled mayhem'

Vietnam Voices: 'Sometimes it was mayhem, but it was controlled mayhem'

From the Vietnam Voices: Veterans' stories, told in their voices series

Allan Hartman joined in the U.S. Army in 1967. He lived in Portland, Ore. His stepfather spent a career in the U.S. Air Force. He actually signed for Hartman at 17 so that he could enlist. 

Hartman: “Being around the military, it seemed like that natural thing to do. I had grown up around the Air Force, flight lines, fighter planes, displays, parades, and it just seemed like the natural thing to go into the military. I went into the Army.”

Hartman’s two brothers joined the service. His brother-in-law did a tour in the military.

Gazette: Was there any hesitation about going to Vietnam in 1967?

Hartman: “Truthfully, I didn’t have any thoughts because I was 17, and I couldn’t be sent to a combat zone. I couldn’t go to Korea. I couldn’t go to Africa. Those were all places where conflict was going on, and subsequently I was kind of held back and not allowed to do that. I did go to Germany.

“But as far as knowing where Vietnam was, living in Japan, (as Hartman was growing up,) part of our education ... was knowing where Vietnam was. A lot of the personnel in Japan were doing support for the operation in Vietnam. We knew where Vietnam was, and I knew what was going on there before I even came back to the States and joined the Army.”

Hartman was trained as a supply specialist and company armor, which takes care of firearms — from a military-issue .38 to 106mm recoiless gun. However, when he got to Vietnam, they didn’t need a supply specialist. Hartman instead found his way into a familiar area — flying. He became a door gunner on a helicopter, doing resupply, troop insertions and transport. In October 1968, he got his orders for Vietnam.

Hartman: “It was kind of shocking because I hadn’t expected that. Maybe I took it for granted; because of my age, they would allow me to do something else. You know, the one thing about your age in the military, your age means nothing. It’s just how bald your head is. You got the buzz cut, you’re in the military, and rule No. 1 is you go where they tell you.

“It gave me a moment of pause because (of) all of the stories I’d heard. The drill sergeant I had at Fort Benning had been to Vietnam for three years. He told us a lot of stuff that was going on there. Things that he thought we needed to know.”

Gazette: What were some of those things he thought you needed to know?

Hartman: “Booby traps. Quiet. Don’t bunch up. Watch out for the guys around you. Don’t make yourself a target. Just a lot of useful stuff for the jungle. I wasn’t trained for the jungle. I was trained more for a support role, but that wasn’t to say that that couldn’t happen.

“The one thing that stands out is: Don’t be stupid. Think about what you’re doing. Follow orders. If they tell you to stay down, don’t do anything to jeopardize you or the people around you. So before I left, I talked to my mom, and she had reservations about the whole thing. Ironically at the same time, my stepfather was stationed at Thailand, and from where I was stationed at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. (That) was, as the crow flies, less than 200 miles away, though I never got to see him. You can understand her apprehension. Her husband’s there, and now her son’s there.”

Gazette: That was a lot for her.

Hartman: “That was the one thing that weighed on me the most was her having to worry about both of us. Of course, she worried about all of us, but they weren’t all in or going to a war zone.”

Gazette: What did she say to you? What is a mother’s advice?

Hartman: “She told me that she loved me and to please come home safely.”

From Germany, Hartman came back to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he’d go through “jungle training.”

Hartman: “They basically expose you to things that you may encounter there, whether it’s snakes, spiders, booby traps that was the big thing, booby traps. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were very adept at making booby traps out of anything you could discard. It may be attached to something that may catch your eye that you want to pick up. ... It could be a bungee pit. It could be swing stakes that trigger and impale you. Things you might find on a trail or things you might find in the brush. There wasn’t any way they could cover every scenario, but they did try to impart information something that you could take with you.”

Gazette: So if the booby traps don’t get you, the snakes or scorpions will. This sounds like a pretty hostile place.

Hartman: “You couldn’t be complacent. Even though I had lived three-and-a-half years in Japan in the culture of Orientals, you’d think that as a kid, 14 or 15, you wouldn’t think about that, but you do because you’re in their country. You can’t help but embrace some of their customs. The Japanese were very respectful people, very trusting. But you can’t take that lesson to Vietnam. You have to put it in its context.

“Yeah, that woman that does my laundry she’s a real nice lady, she works hard, she does a good job. But I don’t trust her about that far away because this is Vietnam. This isn’t your hometown. And there’s a war going on. Things happen, people die for more, but they also die because of complacency, letting their guard down.

“That’s not saying that every step you take is measured by ‘does that kid have a grenade? Does that woman have a grenade? Does that woman with a baby is she armed; is she a walking bomb?’ You have to be guarded, but at the same time, you had to understand these are living, breathing human beings that have been thrust into a role that they probably didn’t choose, and protect yourself.

“When we landed in Cam Rahn Bay, it was quiet. That’s the one thing that struck me. The plane has 200 people on board. It was so quiet. When we landed, they came up and got everybody off. They had all these buses, blunt-nosed buses. The one thing I notice is that all the windows are covered in armor plating with slats so that you could see out and down, but that was it.”

Gazette: What is an average day in the life of a door gunner there?

Hartman: “I’ll start with the slicks picking up troops, resupplying food, (C-rations), ammunition, water. For the crew and me, our days started around 5 a.m. I had to go out with the crew chief and mount the M60s. I’d feed the belts and make sure they were armed and safe. Then I’d help the crew chief. We’d preflight the aircraft, and that’s to check all the fluid levels and the screens, all the filters. There was stuff that he could do that I wasn’t allowed to, and he’s the crew chief and I am the door gunner. Sometimes it was just waiting. ... Then we’d meet up with the pilots, and we would find out what our mission was.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mundane’ because it would sound like it was a boring day. There were no boring days, but there were times when we would just deliver some supplies or mobilize to another airfield. ... There were days when it was not so mundane. There were days when you’d pick up troops and have nine other people besides you and the crew chief in that cabin. To witness the apprehension, not only knowing where you’re going because they’d tell us if the (landing zone) was hot, if there was anything we needed to watch out for, any obstruction.

“One of our jobs as the crew chief and the door gunner was to clear the pilot of obstructions. I was on the right side, so I was usually clear on the right. Clear on the back right. They needed to know that. But to pick up a group of guys and sometimes there was joking and cajoling and laughing. I used to think, ‘I know where we’re going, and it’s not funny. It’s not funny.’ But that was how they dealt with the fear of what they were going to do.”

Gazette: So they knew too?

Hartman: “We did the same thing. We were slapstick and happy. Once the rotors start turning and the power’s coming up, and we’re pulling out of that revetment, we’re into a whole different mode. We’re into not an offensive mode, even though what we’re doing is resupplying and dropping troops into.

“To me, it was defensive. To me, we have to be aware. We have to think about what you’re doing because your actions — my actions on one side of that aircraft — affected everybody: crew chief, pilot and copilot. If we have passengers, it affected them. I had to change when we leave. ... I would have to do my job. There were days when you almost caught it with the stinger — the rotor that came out back — and the joke was, ‘Next time I’ll fly a little lower.’ You had to have those moments to make up for the big moments that you’d face.”

Gazette: One of the things I’ve heard is that the enemy just loves shooting at anything that flies. Is that true?

Hartman: “Yeah, and they did. I found that out real fast. Our feedbelts for the M60 had tracers every fifth round, which is a red tracer. The VC and the NVA, theirs is green, so ... somebody would say, ‘Green apples at 9 o’clock,’ which meant that we were being fired on and they were using tracer rounds and they were visible.

“There was times when (it was), “How did we get through that? How did they avoid hitting us?” There were a couple times we took rounds through the bottom and the tail boom, but it was, ‘How did they not hit us?’ We should have been ripped down one side and they missed us, and thank God they did, but it seemed worse when I moved into a gun ship and I am responsible for the M60s plus I am also responsible for the mini-guns and two nine-round rocket pods. It’s a lot more armament, lots more responsibility and a lot more weight. And the job changed, too.”

Gazette: How so?

Hartman: “That’s in assault mode. We called them ‘combat assaults’ when we’d go in. It could just be support while the slicks were doing the insertions or the recoveries. We could be doing a support from above, just circling, being called in to take care of anything. Or called in to try to suppress something that was happening.

“There were other times new LZs or LZs were getting hit when we would be called in. Those were combat assualts, and that’s when we went in tail up and nose down. And now we’re in the thick of it. ... Those were times when they liked to shoot down gun ships, too. They like to shoot down to Cobras. There’s a lot of them that were lost over there. You’re slow, and the only time you’re fast is when your tail is up and going down in an attack mode. But when you’re down there, hovering around, circling around the area, you’re slow and you’re heavy. That makes you a real big target, a real slow target.”

Gazette: When you’re in assault mode, tail up, nose down, what’s that like?

Hartman: “It gets real loud. The air gets real loud. You’ve put your tail up and nose down and increasing your speed. The mini-guns and the rockets are going off at the same time slow you down so fast that the last thing you want to do is stall a helicopter or lose your lift. If you loose your lift, the blades aren’t grabbing any air.

“... I’d like to say that it’s exhilarating, but it’s so frightening because you’re shooting and the crew chief is firing, the mini-guns are going off or the rockets are going off. There’s so much noise, and your headset and helmet — you’re connected with all the communications. Giving directions into an area, how to get out of it, and all at the same time you’re supposed to give, “Right side, I’m making a hard right. Am I clear?’ because we had other aircraft with us, too. We had other helicopters. They may be stagnant. They may be next to us, behind us or below us.

“But there was times when it was just controlled chaos. Sometimes it was mayhem, but it was controlled mayhem. We’d go in with guns blazing, noise and sound. All of a sudden we’re out of it. Your heart is pumping, your ears are pounding. It’s just like the adrenaline is flowing through you. Unless you’ve experienced that feeling of holy s—-, I can’t believe we did that. Did you see that explosion? We got secondaries.

“At 18-years-old, you’re not supposed to be experiencing an explosion like that unless it’s the Fourth of July.”

After returning to the U.S., Hartman got married and divorced. He spent five years traveling around the country. He’s been married for 36 years, and he credits her with turning his life around.

Hartman: “She is the one that saw something in me worth salvaging. We’ve asked the question many a time, ‘Where would you be if we’d never met?’ In total honesty, I probably would have been dead. I probably would not have survived. I would have done something. I would have OD’ed. I probably wouldn’t have survived.

“She didn’t keep at me. She stayed with me. And she helped me to come out of this shell that I was in and see that there are things that you can accomplish, things you can experience and there’s life to live.

“That’s the one thing that’s helped me to deal with Vietnam. It was so easy to put it out there: You know what? Vietnam was 46 years ago, and that’s where it is. I have lived a completely different life since Vietnam. I’ve accomplished things. We’ve traveled. We’ve seen things. We’ve raised our kids — two great kids. But Vietnam is there, and it was there for such a short amount of time that I wasn’t going to let it dictate who I became.

“That’s the sad part of it is that there are a lot of guys out there who for 46 years — 50 years — have been dragging around this elephant that gets in their way and stops them. Stops them from experiencing life, thinking different thoughts, something that isn’t related to Vietnam. They still hold on to the devastation. One thing about the devastation is that it happened, and you shouldn’t let it stop you from experiencing the rest of life.”


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