Ronnie G. Leonard
THE LAST RIDE
The Diamondheads: Standing (l to r): Bobby Connell, Danny Driscoll, Poncho Salazar, Jack Mosley, Ron Leonard and Gary Tompkins; Bert Rice in Pilots Seat. Kneeling: (l to r) Don Stone and David Stock. Far Right: Ron White
For days the anticipation of the reunion of B. Company 25th Aviation Battalion had been running through my head. It would be the first time many of us had seen each other in 33+ years in Cu Chi Vietnam. It would prove to be an emotional experience. One of healing long lost camaraderie, and laughter, a weekend to remember for a lifetime.
I had worked many thousands of hours to make this happen. The men of Diamondhead were brothers like no other I had met in my life. I needed to find them, to say goodbye before I was gone back to some pile of ashes perched on a shelf somewhere without ever having had the chance.
We had fought a valiant war for an unappreciative America. We had risked our lives for each other, some of us loosing it. Maybe these upcoming few days were why I was spared. On October 4, 1968 I should have died in a mid-air collision but for some reason was spared. Maybe this was why.
I took it upon myself to give us what we were cheated out of, to somehow make it right for us if only for a weekend. I spent more than a year locating first one member then another until I had found about 250. We needed a reunion to help heal those wounds we had inside, the ones you can’t see; the ones embedded in your soul, the ones you dream about and wake up sweating and screaming with. The ones you have no one to talk to about who really understands. Only the camaraderie of Diamondhead could do that. We were a “Band of Brothers”, and I would just have to band them together again one last time. Maybe none of them would understand the importance of being with each other one more time until it was over, but they would in the end understand.
We got no damn Parade when we came home, only jeers and abuse. I would give us the parade we needed, Our Parade, the one we never got when we came home. We deserved it.
With the help of Paul Pelland, a Charleston resident and former Vietnam helicopter pilot, the details were worked out with the Citadel in Charleston S.C. We would be the guests of honor or at least one of the guests of honor at their traditional Friday parade on April 12. That was accomplished and everyone appreciated it. I saw the smiles. I saw hardened veterans starting to soften and become if just for a little while the youth they once were. To me those memories will always be priceless. Those mental images themselves had been worth all the effort to make it happen
I needed something else. I needed a helicopter. The common bond we all had of the “Helicopter War” fought in a far-away place called Vietnam. It would be the glue that stuck the event together. It would be the catalyst of the re bonding that would occur.
I knew of a Diamondhead OH-6 that was being restored in Calif. I contacted the owners, and it wouldn’t be ready in time, maybe for Reunion Phase II in Phoenix in June, so I would just have to settle for any old Huey. I guess that would be better than no helicopter at all.
Out of the blue about six months ago Steve Lindley a sergeant with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department contacted me and wanted to know if he could bring one of our old ships to the reunion. I nearly had a heart attack. My prayers had been answered. It was not just any Huey, it was 961 an old bird we all had intimate knowledge of. It was our old Smoke Ship. Innumerable medals had been earned in that ship. It still had the bullet holes of honor and battle scars it acquired with us in Vietnam. It had rescued LRRP teams from certain death, it had medi-vaced dying soldiers to the 12th Evacuation Hospital who otherwise wouldn’t have survived, and it had rescued downed pilots and crews. Yes, she was a hero herself. She had but one more Diamondhead mission to accomplish, “Our Last Ride”, the ride that would make us whole again, the ride that would bring one chapter in our life to an end.
As Saturday morning arrived, the weather was clearing in Charleston S.C. but there was a 200-foot ceiling in Greenville S.C. 961’s departure had been delayed. God could not let this happen. This final chapter had to be played out in its entirety. It could not end like our war in Vietnam half done. Finally at 1 P.M. the call came on the cell phone the weather had cleared, and they were inbound and would arrive in an hour. As time ticked away the anticipation grew.
I had for months kept a secret. I had told them the aircraft was flying in, but I had failed to tell them, the old crewmembers, they would get to go flying. In case something went wrong I didn’t want myself, or the crewmembers to bear the disappointment of it not happening.
In the distance we could hear that all familiar Wop, Wop, Wop that only a Huey makes. It brought cold chills up my spine. Very faintly at first but as she got closer the crescendo got louder and louder until it rattled the windows of the hotel as she settled to the grass in the vacant lot behind the Holiday Inn. As I surveyed the crowd I found Jack Mosley, and Poncho Salazar hugging each other and so many smiles you couldn’t count them all. I too was smiling; my little plan was coming together and I still had the secret they didn’t know safely secured in my head.
As her engine shut down, and as her blades whistled in the afternoon breeze slowly coming to a stop, her old pilots and crewmembers mobbed her. Climbing on her like it was yesterday to check out all the bullet holes and scars of honor she had earned so long ago. Poncho Salazar her old crew chief, and Jack Mosley her old gunner climbing up in the gunners wells which had been home so many years ago. Charlie Burnett once her gunner was also checking out the intimate portions of the old girl he knew. I got out the camera to capture those personal memories forever.
We had five pilots on hand that had flown this old bird on many combat missions and they too took their places in the pilot’s seats and that last picture. It was beautiful and brought back oh so many memories from that distant land we all knew so well.
While everyone was taking pictures, reminiscing the past adventures of this old bird I walked over to Steve Lindley and thanked him for bringing her and presented him and the crew that flew her to Charleston with a Diamondhead patch. That would link the past with the future. Wherever they would go something of us would be with them. We discussed “The Last Ride”, which was verified and would occur. Still the secret of what would soon occur was secure in my head.
Ex First Sergeant Davison took up a collection and we sent the Sheriff’s Department off to lunch in style.
Upon their return from lunch Sgt Lindley pointed at Jack Mosley, Poncho Salazar, Chuck Burnett, and me to get in the back where we quickly staked out our favorite spots. Bob Segers was assigned the left seat. With everyone buckled in but me, the seat belt was refusing to work I don’t care how far I sucked in my not so skinny old gut. Poncho was sitting in the floor with his feet dangling out the right side, Chuck Burnett in the passenger seat next to the door, Jack Mosley in the gunners well on the left side, and myself still struggling with the seat belt in the right side gunners well.
Sgt Lindley hit the starter switch and the old girl responded immediately. The whine of the starter generators kicking in, the tic-tic-tic of the igniters searching for fuel, the whoosh of ignition, the blades slowly starting to spin searching for 6000 RPM, the singing of the blades as they cut through the afternoon air. The pungent odor of burnt
JP-4 in the air brought back the memories of those late night missions so long ago. I remembered the good times and the bad times. In my mind I could still here the pilots of yester year “Cu Chi tower, Cu Chi tower, this is Diamondhead 961 on the Beach, scramble”, and the towers reply “Roger Diamondhead, your clear south on the active”, and then the beeping of the engine up to 6600 RPM as the blades beat the air into submission. Yes those were the days.
We lifted off and could feel the lightness on the skids, which put a huge smile on my face. Poncho’s and my eyes met, nothing but smiles no words were necessary. Sgt Lindley brought her up to a 20-foot hover tipped the nose over and we were off and quickly were up to 800 feet and turning right up the Cooper River. Below I could make out a yacht, if it were only a Sampan it would have been heaven. It seemed a little odd to not have an M-60 machine gun in the mount in front of me, but that was OK. In my old age I would probably hurt myself with one. We swung out over the trees and dropped it down and buzzed along just off their tops and I caught myself looking for bunkers and spider holes. Such memories…
Over the Intercom I heard Sgt. Lindley ask Bob Segers if he wanted to fly her. I agree with Bob, that was the dumbest question of all time. In about two seconds Bob was right at home, just like he had done so many times before. We flew on for 5 or 10 minutes. We encountered a little turbulence and the blades popped as it clawed at the air. It was like music to my ears. Soon we were headed back to the LZ but Bob just had to do something fun, no straight in approach no sir, not today. A tight 360 over the Hampton Inn across the street at 500 feet almost standing her on her side was the call of the hour. That brought a group cheer from all of us in the back. I swear that lady in the swimming pool flashed us with her bathing suit top. I lobbied for a go around to make sure but was over ruled. I had flashed back to the old plantation out of Dau Tieng and the French lady we would sneak up on in the pool there occasionally. Yeah, those were the times.
It had been fifteen minutes of heaven. Fifteen minutes that would put to rest a lifetime of pain and a closing of a chapter in our life. It was also the beginning of a new era, a new chapter in our lives of new friendships, and continuations of old ones, that hopefully would grow and continue on far into the future. It had been “The Last Ride”, but what a ride.
©Copyright April 18, 2002 by Ronnie G. Leonard