499 Signal Detachment Avionics
281st Assault Helicopter Company
5th Special Forces
Nha Trang, South Vietnam
499th Signal Det. area
My assignment to the 499th Signal Detachment became known to me while I was still stationed in Germany with The Equipment Maintenance Group. When I received my orders notification, I was very apprehensive because I had never worked with airborne avionics before. I called my Department of the Army point of contact, CW4 Bill Draper, and asked if I was to be scheduled for Avionics school located at Ft. Rucker, AL or Ft. Gordon, Ga.
Mr Draper told me that I didn’t need any schooling because of my experience with managing eight Communications and Electronics repair facilities and two Ground Avionics Equipment teams which supported the Ground Avionics equipment located in 44 US Army airfields in and around Germany supporting the US Army aviation mission in Europe. His reassurance didn’t make me feel any better because I was going to Vietnam.
I was 27 years old with a German born wife and four very young boys. I dropped my family off with her sister’s family at Lawton, Oklahoma and reported to Travis AFB, Ca with air transportation to Tan Son nut then to Cam Ranh Bay. Upon arrival at Cam Ranh Bay, I reported into the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion and finally to the 281st Assault Helicopter Company located in Nha Trang. This was in March 1968. I returned home March 1969 exactly one year to the date. I make the note because soldiers in other units were able to return early.
My first few days found that I was the Detachment Commander designate. I also found that as a Chief Warrant Officer (CW2), I was the most senior warrant in the Company. Everyone else must have just graduated from Flight School because they all were basic Warrant Officer, (W1). Administratively, I was the Det. Cmdr. for the first six months and then the next six months of my tour of duty, I was the Avionics Section Chief under the 281 AHC, Maintenance Section.
August 10, 1968
I never met my predecessor or my replacement if there ever was one. SSG Engebretson, the Detachment NCOIC provided me an in briefing. I also received an in briefing with the 281 AHC Company, Commander Major Ruskauff. I remember Sp5 Frank Becker, now that I have contacted the 281st AHC Association, but none of the other Avionic repairmen’s names come to mind until I have found pictures and faces with their names on the back of the pictures which identified all concerned. Every once in a while, faces mentally appear but not their names. Becker was either at the work bench repairing equipment, operating our tactical switchboard or flying gunner with the Slick Ship Platoon. I accepted his role, because it made our support mission much more meaningful. The other avionic technicians spent a great deal of time between equipment repair in the shop or on the flight line with the helicopter crews. My management style was to allow personnel to do their jobs with only minimum guidance. If they did their job, I let them alone recognize exceptional work and reward it. I had superior enlisted technical personnel and never had to provide direction other than minor guidance. They all knew their jobs and knew the importance of the work needed to support the 281 AHC combat mission and the 5th Special Forces Delta Detachment. To the best of my knowledge, Avionic support contributed a 100% avionic availability. I never knew of a helicopter not able to fly because of an avionic or communications issue.
The big buddha over looking the city.
I heard a great deal about Tet of 1968 because it all happened just before my arrival at the 281 AHC. I was told that the Gunship Platoon flew flight after flight on a continuous basis to stop the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong attack as they tried to drive through to Nha Trang via the big Buddha and capture the city and the US Airforce airbase. Everyone who wasn’t flying was on the flight line revetments and as the gunship would land, these extra personnel would hot refuel the aircraft and reload the machineguns and the rocket pods so the helicopters would only need minimal time on the ground and then return to the NVA/Vietcong attacking fight. Needless to say the good guys won but only after killing a great deal of the enemy.
While I was assigned to the 281 AHC there were three different commanders; Major Donald Ruskauff, Major Andrew Miller and Major Ellie Lynn. I was more familiar with Major Miller and Major Lynn than Major Ruskauff, because the first few months in country were nothing more than a blur.
CWO Wilber "Lee" Brewer, on one of the
few down days
sunning and relaxing
on the concrete patio.
As the Detachment Commander, I was invited to live in the China Sea beach area Officer’s Villa. This wasn’t a nice experience, because I felt that I was being used as the “flunky”. The primary issue was the water system that periodically stopped because of an air clog and had to be relieved. The problem was that the outlet that needed to be relieved was up inside the attic and you had to climb in there to open the valve. Since I was the new guy, junior officer and the only warrant officer living in the villa, I was the person who had to do the dirty work and climb into the attic to relieve the air block. It didn’t take long and I requested to return to the officer barracks. Life became much better at the Officer barracks.
On the duty down side, since I was the only non-rated officer in the 281 AHC, I was given as many of the extra duties such as Vector Control Officer, etc. that the Commissioned Officers normally would be tasked as an extra duty. Also, officially I was never recognized for being a detachment commander, although as you can see throughout this story, I was the Detachment Commander of the 499th Signal Detachment. This status would have identified me as one of the few if not the only warrant officer with combat command time. My career is over, so it doesn’t matter now.
Anyway, I was on flight status and found that the 15 to 20-minute maintenance flights at night didn’t allow for enough time to qualify for flight pay. I was advised to flight missions as a gunner so to learn and understand the 281 AHC combat missions and gain enough flight time to qualify for flight pay. I flew many Sniffer missions. The Sniffer mission consisted of the helicopter pilot(s) flying the contour of the area with a 5th Special Forces NCO attendant operating the equipment. When the Green Beret NCO commanded a “mark” we would fire our M60s at the area indicated. There were at least two gunships orbiting above the sniffer mission helicopter “slicks” and when a mark was noted, they would fly down and strafe the jungle area. At first, urine detection was used and then changed to smoke detection. The transition from urine to smoke detection, I was told, was because the urine detector unknowingly detected monkey’s urine and they were killed not the enemy. Although, the enemy didn’t make too many camp fires, when there was detection, the crew knew they were shooting the enemy and not animals.
I tried to only fly with the older pilots, such as Frederick “Freddy” Funk, Wilber “Lee” Brewer, David “Fred” Sherrill, and others. I also became friends with Frank Martin, Larry Salzman and others. I knew Larry Salzman because he was wounded during a Korean Army support mission. After he was wounded, he returned to the 281 AHC with a non-flight status. Larry was assigned as the Motor Pool officer to maintain our small fleet of vehicles. He was extremely unhappy and wanted to get back on flight status, so he could fly missions again. All the pilots were this dedicated. There was like a “love affair” between these guys. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for one another.
A great deal of my time was also taken up going to many of the other Avionic Signal Detachments such as the 155 AHC at Ban Me Thout because the 10 CAB tapped me to go to these other locations to inspect and help them on behalf of the S-4. This event was like a Maintenance Assistance and Instruction Team (MAIT) effort because these other units were not up to speed as the 281 AHC was in the Avionic maintenance support mission. A lot of things I don't remember because we just responded to requirements without hesitation.
I remember Marth Raye’s visits to the 5th Special Forces Group during the time I was in Vietnam. I took her visit as something very big and well received. Her visits gave the Green Berets a little leisure time, which they well deserved. This reminds me of the activities that I did for the Avionics men. I found several pieces of Single Side Band Radio equipment and traded them to the US Air Force dining hall cooks for steaks and chicken. I took my men, except one to maintain the shop, on Saturday or Sunday (don’t remember the down day) morning to the South China Sea Beach for a BBQ. We also had some beer, sodas and liquor. I was able to do this several Saturday mornings, so everyone wouldn’t miss out. They were all deserving. In an effort to reward my men for their hard work and mission dedication, I coordinated visits to the Detachment for the Red Cross “Donut Dollies” to come to the shop so the guys could relax. These young ladies played games and entertained the men for relaxation. It seemed to work because they maintained a 100% avionic capability for the 281 AHC.
Men of the 499th Sig. Det. Avionics,
Nha Trang, Vietnam (1968-1969.
SSG Engebretson, Sitting Sp5 Frank Becker and standing right CWO Wayne Sellers.
Sp5 Rogers, SSG Engebretson and SP4 Lay
Red Cross girl, SP4 High (Blond wig and glasses), SP5 Morano, SP5 Hutchinson (was boarded out of the army),
SSG James, SP5 Hernanez, SP5 Caudill, SP5 Rogers and SP4 Lay
What was the daily routine as a member of the 499th Signal Detachment (Avionics)?
The detachment test equipment and spares were housed in the typical mobile van which would normally be mounted on a 2 ½ ton military vehicle for mobility purposes. Our shelters (3 each) were ground mounted with a wooden shed. The wooden shed was approximately 40 to 50 feet across the front and maybe 25 feet deep. If you look at the above middle left picture, two of the equipment shelters are visible. There were two vans where technicians could repair equipment and one storage van where serviceable items could be stored until needed.
Another very important responsibility was the daily (12 hours per day) of the company switch board, SB-22. This switch board was also taken on deployment and connected all of the functional elements of the 281 AHC, and the 483rd Transportation Detachment (Aircraft Maintenance). We also interfaced with the 5th Special Forces Communicators.
We were the 281 AHC “nerds”. No one never/hardly ever came to visit our shelter/location. The crew chief would call one of the repairmen when they had a communication issue. The aircraft communications consisted of FM, UHF and on-board intercom system. There was “flight following” navigational aids too but they were not used for voice communications. We always had serviceable radios and other replaceable components on hand. The technician would walk to the flight line check out the aircraft communications systems with the crew chief and replace the defective major component or fix the wiring, etc. Technicians like Sp5 Garner spent a great deal of time on the flight line with the crew chiefs just like so many of the other technicians. We were always doing things to maintain rapport to make sure the pilots and crew had a high level of confidence with our capabilities.
The only bad story was when someone hit our HF equipped commo jeep and bent the fender. Major Ellis thought it was me. He couldn't prove it but put a great deal of pressure on me. I was able to get it repaired without an accident report thanks to Larry Salzman. I understand Larry isn't with us anymore.
There are a few non-mission pacific incidents that really sticks out in my mind.
First, were the incoming mortars. When Charlie would attack our compound with mortars and/or rockets, at first, I would run out of the barracks with the other pilots and take cover in the bunkers. After I heard about the Warrant Office who lived on the second floor, while running down the step for the bunker, got wounded by shrapnel when a mortar which exploded in a 55-gallon drum we used for trash, I just rolled out of my bed on the floor and covered up with my mattress until the incoming stopped. Once the incoming stopped, I ran to the bunker. Sometimes a second attach would occur, so it was best to stay in the bunker until the “all clear” signal would sound.
The second incident was when the artillery base on the other side of the Nha Trang Mountains was attached. They would call in for “Puff the Magic Dragon” support. This was an Air Force C-130 equipped with mini-machine guns and tons of ammo. When they fired their guns, a stream of tracers could be seen and it looked like a long finger of death was raining down on the enemy. Many times, there were a deal of enemy killed, but a body count was difficult because the enemy would remove their dead before an accurate body count could be made. Anyway, it was an amazing sight to see and hear.
The third item was the way the 5th Special Forces cared for their own. The Officer and enlisted clubs were awesome. Friday nights was steak and lobster. The lobsters were extremely fresh. I was told the Green Berets while scuba diving training off Andre Island; they would catch the lobsters throughout the week, so we would have them on Friday.
Cockroaches: These pests were all around. In the barracks, they would crawl on the walls and ceiling, especially at night after the lights were turned off. We didn’t sleep that well at night due to the threat of incoming mortar fire or other enemy aggression. These large cockroaches were between 2 and 2 ½ inches long. They would crawl on the ceiling at night and sometimes fall onto our beds. You can imagine how fast we got out of bed. Many times, when possible, we would nap during the day and stay up late at night, so the cockroaches couldn’t fall on us from the ceiling. Down days were also a time to catch up on sleep.
I also flew gunner in the A Shau Valley but Major Miller, the Company Commander, stopped me because I was the Avionics, Communications and Crypto officer for the 281 AHC and assisted the 5th Special Forces Commo guys with their communications and crypto needs and knew too much the NVA could get out of me if captured. Major Miller came to this decision after the Delta guys captured a NVA Lt Communications officer who gave them a great deal of information about the NVA troops doing Rest and Recuperation (R & R) in Da Nang and the communications stream from Da Nang to Hanoi. I wasn’t even permitted to fly with aircraft maintenance because they were always under possible enemy fire.
During this deployment with Delta Project, we would look out across the rice paddies parameters and watch male Vietnamese clothed in black PJs, and wearing their straw hats walking down the trails. I was told that these guys may have been Vietcong, but we couldn’t shoot them unless they were aggressive towards us. It did appear that there was a slight bulge under their PJs, signifying that they may have had an AK47.
For these many years, I have forgotten as much as possible about this assignment as well as my second Vietnam tour of duty, 18 months later in 1971-72, with the 1st Signal Brigade Long Bien, Vietnam. It wasn’t until I read the well written book “Above the Best” by William McDaniel McCollum that all these memories returned. I can tell everyone that the comradery within the 281st AHC in support of the 5th Special Forces especially Project Delta was beyond the call of duty in every aspect. I am so very proud to have served with these professionals. When I read about the loss of men and aircraft, it brought back memories and tears to my eyes. The reading also tied locations, names and events together too.
It makes me as the Avionics and Communications unit officer, 1968-69, very proud of all pilots and crew when I hear or read about their missions accomplished and think about the team effort it took to make a unit like the 281st AHC great. Besides the pilots and crew there were the aircraft mechanics and test pilots who made sure that the helicopters were going to be reliable when on mission and the avionics and communications technicians who made sure that the men who flew these missions could count on their command and control communications to work without an issue.
The mission support of the 5th Special Forces, South Korean Army and others never questioned the bravery of the 281 AHC men, because they knew they would always be there for them without hesitation or reservation. It feels good that our service is recognized now after so many years later, because there was a time we weren’t so appreciated.
To all: “Thank You for Your Service”!!!
Wayne Paul Sellers, CW4, USA, Retired