Vietnam 40 years later: Simple letter reunites 101st Airborne Division vets
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (May 31, 2012) -- With a simple "Letter to the Editor" to the Fort Campbell Courier from the Philippines, two Vietnam veterans were able to catch up after more than four decades apart.
"For 40 plus years I have wondered and searched for him," said Robert "Pinky" Pilkinton III of his comrade, Walter "Jonesy" Jones III.
Jones and Pilkinton served together in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War with the Vultures, 162nd Assault Helicopter Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, which supported a variety of units including the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
That's also where their friendship and careers were almost cut short.
It all began in Can Tho when the two Specialist 4 crew chiefs got on board the same aircraft.
While Jones' bird was in maintenance inspection and he was grounded with his aircraft, Pilkinton, a fellow crew chief, came to Jones and asked him to door gun for him.
"Yea, it sounds like fun," said Jones, who never flew with Pilkinton before that day.
"Doing the insertions, doing our job, that's always fun," he said. "Sometimes you get shot up more than others. In this case we did get shot up more."
While hovering over the landing zone, the UH-I "Huey" Iroquois they were in started to receive small arms fire.
"I had to make some critical decisions that afternoon," said Pilkinton referring to March 22, 1971, "choices that made the difference of life and death."
A round struck the helicopter's fuel cell and the aircraft immediately caught fire.
"Fortunately, a decision to top off the fuel just prior to this insertion probably saved our lives," said Pilkinton. "If there had been much vapor in the fuel cell we would have exploded in mid air."
With the increasing flames the aircraft began to spin, throwing everyone out except for Jones and the pilots.
"I remember when we lost the tail boom and we were spinning, I was watching them fly out of the aircraft from 200 feet up," said Jones. He also witnessed his friend fly out.
That's all Jones remembers. Upon impact Jones lost consciousness and later woke in the hospital with a broken leg and a shot up hand.
"Standard procedure, when a bird goes down in an assault operation, those Soldiers in the other aircraft will set up your perimeter and they'll get the crew out and secure the aircraft," said Jones.
And that's exactly what happened.
He later learned that it was Pilkinton who saved his life and who would also be able to fill in the gaps.
According to Pilkinton, the heat from the flames became unbearable.
"I glanced forward, this time the fire light on the instrument panel flashed on bright red," Pilkinton recounts. "I saw both pilots turn their heads and look at each other, almost immediately black smoke started pouring out of the instrument panel. Some of the [Vietnam Soldiers] at this point started jumping out of the helicopter."
"My face was starting to blister and my flight suit was beginning to char and melt on my leg," he continued. "Now, I had to make a decision, burn or unstrap and hope for the best. I unstrapped and jumped onto the floor face down."
The tail boom burned off and separated, that's when the violent spin and free fall started.
"I could find nothing to cling to except the floor," said Pilkinton.
According to Pilkinton there were two major factors at play: the G-force which was pressing him down keeping him in the Huey and the centripetal force which was dragging him out.
"I felt my feet slide out the left door and thought to myself, just let me hang on, I do not want to be thrown out in mid-air," he said. "About that time we slammed into the ground ejecting me about 30 yards or better from the burning wreckage. To my surprise I was still alive. I stood up, felt myself to make sure I was not dreaming and cleared the blood and debris from my eyes."
At this point, Pilkinton looked back at the pile of burning wreckage, and through the thick smoke he was able to see Jones slumped over and still strapped in.
"I ran back to the helicopter to drag Jonesy out," he remembers. "Jonesy was my priority, I had to get him out. He was in pretty bad shape but alive."
Another helicopter managed to land nearby and flew the pair to the hospital.
"I suffered some minor burns to my face and leg, a left wrist and shoulder injury, my lips were busted up, most of my teeth were knocked loose," said Pilkinton. "Also, something had hit me in the head and cracked my flight helmet from the crown all the way down the left side."
After about five days in the hospital, Pilkinton returned to the company area to recuperate. The last time he saw his friend Jones was in a body cast on his way back to the states.
"I remember asking the doctor's if he would be OK," said Pilkinton, "they told me he would, but they did not know if he would walk normally again."
The 162nd Assault Helicopter Company flew its last operational mission in late-March 1972 and stood down on April 3, 1972, after more than six years of war.
Pilkinton, who now lives in the Philippines with his wife, could not let that day go without finding out what happened to his friend. He found a story that ran a couple of years ago in the Fort Campbell Courier about Chief Warrant Officer 4 Walter Jones and decided to write a Letter to the Editor.
Through email the two were able to establish contact again.
Pilkinton was able to discover that Jones made a full recovery and is still on active duty. The only difference is now he's actually flying the aircraft that they both went down in that day in 1971.
"I almost didn't go through flight school," Jones said as he choked back tears recalling the support of his wife. "I called her that night and told her I was submitting my letter of resignation. She asked if I thought it through. She said 'if that's what you want to do then do it, but you've always talked about flying.'"
So he went to his commander at Fort Rucker, Ala., and asked to continue training and got back in the air.
After flight school he was now behind the controls of a Huey. It was 1976 and he got stationed with the Ghostriders, Delta Company, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. The same company he serves with today.
"To me the 101st is the leading edge, the cutting edge in aviation. Their concepts, their aircraft, their people; I think they bring the best out of people. The pace is horrendous, but it brings out the best," said Jones. "The 101st is just where it's at in aviation."
Jones, now with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, joined the Army in 1970, retired in 1993 and then came back in on the Volunteer Recall Program in 2005. He continues to serve, hoping to do one more tour in Afghanistan.
"I love what I do and that's the most important thing in life," said Jones. "If you don't love what you do in life, find out what it is that you do love and go for it."
In total that's nearly 30 years active duty and four decades of his life with the U.S. Army, which has brought him from Vietnam to Korea to Iraq and most recently Afghanistan.
Pilkinton, who was discharged in 1972 stayed out of helicopters for awhile until he joined the Arkansas Air National Guard for two years. In total Pilkinton was shot down in a helicopter three times and had another incident with the National Guard that he was able to walk away from with no serious injuries. That's when he decided to walk away from aviation, unlike Jones.
"As I fight back the tears of joy it lifts a weight from me knowing he survived and is doing something he loves," said Pilkinton.
He hopes one day to visit Vietnam again, specifically Can Tho.
"Some of the worst and best times of my life happened there," he said. "Good, bad or indifferent it made me who I am. I guess I want my youth back, that sparkle that disappeared from my eyes so many years ago or at least some closure to a book left open. I want to stand on the runway at Can Tho. Yes, it's still there. Let's just say it's the last chapter of a story that started many years ago."
Pilkinton is enjoying the simple quiet life surrounded by lush greenery and warm weather year round while Jones is currently trying to do one more tour in Afghanistan.
"I learned to never take life for granted," said Jones, who still wears his combat patch from his time spent in Vietnam. "There was just tears of joy when [Pilkinton] was finally able to connect. I had the same here."