Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with an Army aviation veteran from McClure.
McCLURE — On his fourth day flying with the 188th Assault Helicopter Division, also known as the Black Widows, Landon Snook’s Huey took a round through the nose, which blasted through a toggle switch, spattered him with shrapnel, shot through toward the rear of the chopper and exited above the crew chief’s head.
“Casualties were high, usually in the high 90s (90 percent),” said Snook of the area he was flying into and out of. “This day it was high 90s. It was later in the day and we were flying re-supply — ammunition — along a river.”
The mission took place June 19, 1967, near Dan Fieng, in III Corps, south of Saigon. Snook was first pilot, part of a four-man crew that operated hueys in Vietnam at the time — two pilots, a crew chief and door gunner.
“We were getting our coordinates, about a mile away, when they popped smoke, yellow, and we confirmed, ‘Yellow smoke.’ We were coming in low and slow, ready to land, about 50 to 75 feet up and something just didn’t look right. Usually there was an American soldier waving you in. I looked out one side and spotted all these guys squatted down.”
There were two areas of smoke, which further raised Snook’s suspicions.
The shot came from a treeline some 100-200 yards away. Snook was peppered with shrapnel. His pants leg bore 19 holes and each of the knuckles on his right hand had shrapnel embedded in the skin. Snook had been wearing his chicken plate, or chest protector, and a groin protector. That decision proved wise.
“There were 47 places on my body that were bleeding,” said Snook. “At the time it happened, I didn’t realize it. When we got airborne, I realized I was bleeding. My left leg took most of it.”
As for the scene that just didn’t appear right, Snook’s suspicions as he approached were confirmed.
“There were American bodies all over the field,” he remembered. “They were without their shirts, and that was odd.”
Those men squatting as he approached were likely North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers, who used the shirts as disguises to draw the chopper in for an ambush. An American chopper was a highly regarded prize for the NVA and VC (Viet Cong).
It was about the time the shot rang through the chopper that he got the call from the Americans on the ground, who had popped smoke to signal him in. That site was hundreds of yards ahead.
It wasn’t until a later inspection that Snook learned the chopper took another round as well.
“Those things were great,” he said of the Hueys he flew.
Entry in the service
Snook enlisted in the Air Force in October 1954. He had grown up and worked on a farm in Snyder County. The 10th of 10 kids, his father wouldn’t sign on for early entry, so he waited until his 18th birthday. He spent four years in Air Force, then took a year away from service and enlisted in the Army in 1959.
Having served as a personnel specialist in the Air Force, he landed an Army job with the National Security Agency, where he served from 1960 to 1966, a gig that took him to Alaska and Fort Meade, Md.
“I knew I was going to be career,” said Snook. “I was going to retire with 20 years. I thought I may as well make all the rank that I could.”
He then applied for flight school and in February 1966 was admitted to primary helicopter school. In July, he went to Fort Rucker, Ala., and emerged from there a graduate, a warrant officer. From there it was on to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he became part of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company, a newly-formed group.
By April he was in Dau Tieng in III Corps, Vietnam. The men had to build their own hooches (living quarters) and get situated prior to manning their choppers. On June 15, the Black Widows went operational.
The division would typically fly in groups of 10 with two gun ships as well. Danger was ever present.
“I asked for it,” said Snook. “I knew I was going to be career. I had to get out and fly every day. It was my job.”
During his first tour, he turned 31 and was affectionately known as “Pappy” by the other pilots and crew members. After six months with the 188th, he moved to the 173rd Assault Company at Lai Khe, also in III Corps. The 173rd was known as “The Robin Hoods.”
On Jan. 8, 1968, Snook and his team were part of a ready reaction force, not scheduled to fly unless an emergency arose. That afternoon, an emergency arose. Snook suited up. The 9th Infantry Division was in heavy contact with a large Viet Cong unit in a rice paddy area between Can Giuoc and Go Cong. The 10-ship formation was heading in with troops who were to serve as a blocking force.
One of the choppers was flying low and its tail rotar hit the ground, pulling it out of service. That sent Snook, who was flying spare at the time, and his crew into the formation flying along a treeline. Choppers approached under heavy fire. The fourth ship took a direct hit from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which tore the left front of the cockpit from the chopper, seriously wounding the aircraft commander. The gunner and crew chief were thrown from the chopper and the pilot knocked unconscious. Of the six troopers aboard, two were killed and three wounded.
“Tracers were coming from all directions,” remembered Snook.
Any rescue of the downed chopper would have been suicidal, noted Capt. William Dismukes, the pilot, who retold his view of the action in “Eyewitness to Valor,” a feature in the U.S. Army Aviation Digest. Two other ships went down, but had their crews and troops rescued before the VC could reach them.
Snook was one of the rescuing ships.
“Another ship took a round through the engine and went down,” said Snook. “We got in and were able to rescue that crew.”
Ahead, Hopper soon came to and killed power to the engine of the downed chopper. Those not injured took heavy fire from the treeline every time their heads rose above the water line.
Door gunner Gary Wetzel, a private, waded from the safety along a nearby dike to the chopper and was attempting to get into the ravaged bird when a second RPG hit the doorframe a foot from him, ripping his left side to pieces and mutilating his left arm. He pulled himself into the cockpit, pushed the seriously wounded aircraft commander out of the seat and began to crawl toward his machine gun. He got to the gun well, and despite the horrific wounds, began firing on the VC troops as they formed an assault wave. That burst of fire provided cover for the surviving Americans to seek the safety of a nearby paddy dike, which served as cover throughout the night.
After securing their position, the captain called in support fire and the men were able to form a perimeter on high ground 600 meters away, where the men were medevacked out sometime after midnight.
Somehow, Wetzel survived. He was in surgery the rest of the night and doctors reported he almost died. His left arm below his elbow was amputated.
On Nov. 20, 1968, Wetzel received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson. He was the first man in the 1st Aviation Brigade to receive the honor.
The aircraft commander who lost his life in that crash was Timothy Artmen. There’s an Artmen Avenue near Lewistown and every time Snook goes by, he offers a salute in his honor.
“The good Lord looked after me,” said Snook. “There were days you’d be sitting waiting to take off with troops in the back and one day I had one tell me, ‘I wouldn’t want your job.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t want your job. I get out and get to go to a bunk every night. You sleep in the jungle.’”
That was the mutual respect shared between aviators and the men on the ground.
Snook’s second tour ran from November 1970 to November 1971 with the 224th Air Aviation Battalion (radio research) flying twin turboprop U21s. He served as the battalion aviation safety officer.
He logged thousands of hours flying in Vietnam and during one stint flew 23 straight days.
He earned two Purple Hearts in addition to numerous medals.
The camaraderie of the men in service can be summed up with a story told by Snook about his last days in Vietnam. When men got “short” it meant their time in country was nearing an end. As he got short, his group got called for a dangerous mission.
“I had a guy say to me, ‘I’ll take it. You’re short.’” remembered Snook. “I said no. If something happened to him I could never live with myself. You really had guys looking out for you there.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.