While growing up in the Springfield, Missouri area, James “Ed” Smith notes that a friendly rivalry existed between him and a cousin. When he learned that his relative made the decision to sign up to fly helicopters in the U.S. Army, Smith convinced himself that he was not going to be bested.
“I had already completed my solo flight in a fixed-wing aircraft and when I heard of my cousin’s enlistment, I told myself, ‘If he can do it, so can I,’” Smith mirthfully recalled.
At the time, Smith was two years into a four-year apprenticeship with a local company but left his vocational training and enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1967, two years following his graduation from high school. Days later, he arrived at Ft. Polk, Louisiana to complete several weeks of basic training. He was then transferred to Ft. Wolters, Texas, where he spent the next six months in initial flight training. It was here they learned “avionics, aerodynamics, pre-flight procedures, take-off, landing and navigation,” said the veteran. While at Ft. Wolters, Smith learned to fly the Hiller OH-23 Raven—a primary helicopter trainer.
“I was then given two weeks of leave before reporting to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, in November 1967,” said Smith. “That’s where I spent the next several months learning to fly the UH-1.” (The Bell UH-1 series Iroquois helicopter has a single engine and became known as the “Huey.”)
Although he experienced many memorable moments during his training with the Huey, Smith noted that an incident occuring only days prior to his graduation at Ft. Rucker nearly ended his aviation career—if not his life.
“We had just departed an LZ (landing zone) and were about 300 feet in the air as part of a 6-aircraft formation,” he said. “I was number two in the formation and had engine failure while I was on the controls—it was just me and another student, no instructor, in the helicopter.” He continued, “We finally spotted an open field on a 30-degree slope and I was able to maneuver the Huey to the ground. It was a hard landing and the right skid was downhill parallel to a terrace and other skid above the terrace and the Huey was level when the landing was finished. God provided a good landing spot,” he affirmed. “Any further down hill, there would have been nothing to keep us from rolling over.”
Smith and his co-pilot walked away from the landing unscathed and went on to graduate several days later. A week after graduation, the young warrant officer was on his way overseas, arriving at Camp Evans in central Vietnam in June 1968—a site that had months earlier been taken over by the 1st Cavalry Division.
“I was assigned to Bravo Company, 227th Aviation Battalion and we flew the grunts (infantry soldiers) to wherever they needed to go in Vietnam to fight the North Vientamese,” said Smith. “We also transported the beans and bullets to wherever they were fighting,” he added.
The threats of battle were not limited to below the jungle’s canopy, the pilot soon discovered, and many missions resulted in damage to the Hueys from enemy fire. On one occasion, he explained, his helicopter was struck by eight .50 caliber rounds, one of which nearly severed their tail rotor drive shaft.
It was on February 27, 1969, however, that Smith became involved in a situation that not only highlighted the threats to aircraft in the Vietnam War, but demonstrated the mettle and dedication of the American aviators.
“After lifting off from a mission where we had delivered ammo, we heard a call that a Loach (Hughes OH-6 “Cayuse”—a light, single engine helicopter) had just departed an LZ (landing zone) and was shot down,” recalled Smith. “Evening was approaching and I looked around the area and saw them going down, so I set the Huey down near them and picked up the pilot and co-pilot of the downed helicopter.” He added, “They would have been on the ground overnight, which really put them in a dangerous situation,” Smith said. “For that, I was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.”
Returning from Vietnam in the summer of 1969, Smith became a helicopter instructor pilot at Ft. Wolters, Texas for the remainder of his enlistment. In 1970, he married Linda, whom he met while serving in Texas and months later received his discharge from the Army.
The Vietnam veteran was later hired full-time by the Missouri National Guard, serving more that 30 years until retiring as a Chief Warrant Offcier Five in early 2007. While with the National Guard, he qualified on a number of aircraft to include the UH-60A Black Hawk and C-12F Huron, in addition to accruing 10,648.9 flight hours. The recipient of 43 air medals from his Vietnam service, Smith also deployed to Iraq for a year prior to his retirement, where he served as a liaison between his aviation unit in Kuwait and the brigade in Balad, Iraq, for whom they provided maintenance and aviation support.
Now several years into retirement and with an extensive military career to his credit, the veteran maintains that his service as a warrant officer has provided many opportunities throughout the years.
“I enjoyed being a warrant officer because, although I didn’t want to go to school to be a captain or major, it gave me the chance to maintain my association with aviation and to fly many different types of aircraft.”
Shifting his thoughts back to his intense flight experience in Vietnam, Smith concluded, “If you flew helicopters in the Army during that time-frame (the late 1960s), you were going to Vietnam.” He added, “And you didn’t go out on a mission and say, ‘Today I’m going to rescue somebody’—that’s not the way it happened because you never knew what each day would bring.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.