Veteran flew perilous missions

Braceville resident was a helicopter pilot during Vietnam

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Vietnam War veteran C. Russ Carpenter, 74, of Braceville, kneels near a memorial that was made in his yard. Carpenter served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1968.

BRACEVILLE — C. Russ Carpenter misses flying and he said the only repercussions he’s experienced from serving his country as a helicopter pilot are tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and a bad back that required major surgery.

Carpenter, 74, who reached the rank of chief warrant officer 5, served as a helicopter instructor pilot and maintenance test pilot in the Army National Guard from 1973 to 2004. Prior to that, he flew helicopters for the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1964 to 1965 and as a government contractor from 1968 to 1973 on missions in Laos.

After graduating from Windham High School in 1962, Carpenter took a vacation in California, where he also enlisted in the U.S. Army. It was a path he said he always wanted to take because he came from a military family. His father and seven of his brothers served.

Carpenter went to Fort Ord, Calif., for basic training.

“If you come from a loving family, you sure don’t get much love in basic training,” he said. “But they have just eight short weeks to turn you from a boy from a loving family into a soldier.”

From there, it was flight training in Fort Walters, Texas, and then on to Fort Benning, Georgia, where Carpenter trained to fly troops and ammunition into villages in Vietnam. In 1963, Carpenter was sent to the Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam before the “big push.”

“We flew Vietnamese soldiers at that point,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said what stands out in his mind about those early days is that Vietnam was such a beautiful country. However, Carpenter said the harsh realities of war were quickly apparent upon his arrival.

“You’d run across so many things that were just devastating,” he said. “I remember on one of my first missions watching them unload a two-and-a half-ton truck with bodies in it. At my age, 19 or 20 at the time, that was a bit of a shock.”

But his most difficult mission happened June 10, 1965 — a mission for which he would earn an Air Medal. Carpenter, who was the co-pilot of a UH-1B helicopter participating in a resupply mission at Dong Xoai, volunteered to fly ammunition and medical supplies into the besieged town, which was under heavy attack by the North Vietnamese Army.

“He was informed that the situation was extremely dangerous,” his Air Medal letter from the time states. “With the knowledge that two helicopters had been shot down earlier in the day by enemy ground fire, he continued his approach to the landing zone.”

When Caprenter arrived, his helicopter was taken under fire by four .50 caliber machine guns and numerous smaller weapons, the letter states, yet he and the crew landed and unloaded the supplies. The helicopter was struck repeatedly, but Carpenter flew it out to Phuoc Vinh, where it was pronounced unfit for flight.

It was a terrifying ordeal flying in the middle of the night under heavy fire, Carpenter said.

“In the daytime, you can see what you’re up against,” he recalled. “At night, all you can see is the bullets coming at you.”

After Carpenter’s Army service was up in 1968, he was hired as a government contractor flying helicopters for Air America, an airline secretly owned by the CIA, on missions in Laos. During these missions, he was shot down twice, but quickly picked up and carried out.

During his time in Vietnam and Laos, Carpenter said he carried many wounded men and he experienced things one can only experience in war zones. Carpenter said he’s fortunate to have come home in one piece both physically and mentally, something that can’t be said for tens of thousands of men who served in Vietnam.

“PTSD is something that hasn’t affected me at all,” he said. “The Lord blessed me through it.”