Post Vietnam - Air Assualt Badge
When the 101st Airborne Division returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from Viet Nam in February 1972, about all that returned were the unit colors, and a command group with a few staff officers and senior NCOs. Almost all soldiers, SSG and below, were immediately discharged when they arrived at Oakland, California, or Seattle, Washington. The 101st Airborne, then called the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), returned to buildings vacated by the recently inactivated "U.S. Army Training Center, Fort Campbell, Kentucky." Major General John Cushman was the Commanding General, but he had a headquarters with no hindquarters.
The 101st was almost exactly 1/3 airborne. That is, the Third Brigade (the former 173rd Airborne Brigade, with the Geronimos of 1-503rd and 2-503rd Infantry, and the Rakkasans of 3-187th Infantry) were on jump status. First Brigade (1-327th and 2-327th Infantry and 2-502nd Infantry) and Second Brigade (1-501st Infantry, 1-502nd Infantry, and 1-506th Infantry) were leg. One third of the division support elements were airborne on status, the other two-thirds were straight leg. So, for example, the 326th Engineer Battalion had one airborne company, but two leg companies. Same for the 501st Signal Battalion, the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, and so on.
This organization wasn't really as bizarre as it sounds. After all, during WWII the 101st wasn't 100% parachute. Then it was 1/3 parachute and 2/3 glider forces. Under the theory of "the helicopter is the new glider," the airborne were to provide a light, fast vertical envelopment/assault capability, while the airmobile elements would follow up with sustained and heavier forces. At one time the Division Museum (Pratt Museum) at Fort Campbell even had a spectacular mural painted the length of one wall. It showed the 3rd Brigade parachuting in and seizing an airfield in the manner of the Rangers at Point Salinas, Grenada. Once the airfield was secured, a fleet of C-130s and C-141s were depicted landing and disgorging the 1st and 2nd Brigades, with UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters. The airmobile elements then fanned out, linked up, and defeated the enemy. But it couldn't happen without recruiting a division's worth of soldiers, one third of them airborne.
There was intense competition among units for every soldier who walked in the door at the 21st Replacement Detachment, particularly if they were airborne or had prior service. How desperate were they? Well, I reported to the 101st Airborne Division after breaking a bone in my ankle on my second qualifying parachute jump at Fort Benning. While not fully airborne qualified, I was supposed to go on and report to my airborne unit, jump with them, and mail manifests back to Fort Benning to receive my wings (a process I have always referred to as "getting my airborne wings by correspondence course"). Unknown to me, the commander of the Division Pathfinder Platoon, CPT Patrick Dougherty, had been hounding the G1 for airborne qualified lieutenants to fill the pathfinder platoon.
As fate would have it, on the day I walked in and reported to the G1, the G1 was on the phone with CPT Dougherty yet again. "OK, OK, I'll find you one." He looked up and saw me standing there with my orders in my hand, and said "Hey, Lieutenant, are you airborne?" I started my explanation: "I just came from Airborne School, but " the G1 turned back to the phone "OK, I've got you one, his name is" (grabbed my orders) "2LT Bloodworth, Charles S." After he hung up, I gave the G1 the full story of my not-quite-airborne status, and he laughed. He thought it was funny that he had assigned a leg to the Pathfinders, and said "well, if CPT Dougherty wants an airborne lieutenant that bad, he can get you airborne qualified."
On April 25, 1972 the Pathfinders were scheduled to put on a simple helicopter demonstration jump for several busloads of high school students. My best friend from OCS, 2LT William "Bill" Groce, drove his Corvette out to Corregidor Drop Zone. I drove out in my Fiat, a tiny car that the others used to call "the roller skate." The others assembled, each driving their own privately owned vehicles.
The school busses arrived as we waited for the helicopter. We gave the students a briefing, including "pull-off demonstration" in which a canopy was deployed on the ground to show them how they worked. Then the UH-1 Huey showed up, bearing CPT Dougherty and SSG Mifflin Tichenor, who had just been assigned to the platoon. SSG Tichenor needed a jump to get his jump pay started, I still needed to jump to get my wings. They had decided to ride in on the helicopter from the airfield to make sure it was rigged correctly with the floor mounted "doughnut" anchor line cable. It was about 10:00 in the morning. The winds had been gusting all morning. We were supposed to be limited to a maximum of 13 knots to jump, but we had the MC1-1 steerable canopies, so we had decided to let 15 knots be our decision point. It didn't matter, the winds were now a steady 18 knots, over 20 mph. The jump was scratched, much to the disappointment of the students (and SSG Tichenor and myself).
The pilots then offered to "put on a little air show." They proceeded to do low hovers, high hovers, pedal turns, sideways and backwards flights, nothing particularly fancy or dangerous. That ended the demonstration. The pilots had two hours of fuel, and were just going to "burn it off on the back 40" when the pilot radioed the DZSO: "Hey, any of your guys want to get some stick time?" We couldn't believe it. The pilot was willing to let the Pathfinders, none of whom were rated aviators, fly the helicopter. We had heard apocryphal stories of aviators in Viet Nam who had taught their crew chiefs to fly in case the pilots were shot on an LZ and unable to take off. It was considered a form of life insurance. Based on the offer from this pilot, apparently those stories were true.
2LT William Groce was first to leap at the offer. He asked: "Who wants to drive my 'vette back?" [from the DZ]. CPT Dougherty, who loved Corvettes, agreed to drive it back. SSG Tichenor had left his car at the airfield, so he stayed with the helicopter. I asked, "Who wants to take the roller skate back?" but got no offers. So we watched as the pilot got out of the cockpit of the helicopter and climbed into the back cargo compartment, while 2LT William Groce got in the pilot's seat and strapped in. They took off, in what appeared to be a regular takeoff. We watched and waved as they turned west and climbed to a few hundred feet. I said to myself "That lucky son of a bitch." Then the main rotor head snapped off.
The helicopter nosed over and free fell to the ground. The next sound was the high school students, some screaming, some crying. We got them on their busses and out of there. Then we raced to the crash site, there was no fire, but it was clearly not a survivable accident. The pilot, CW2 Howard Blanton, Jr. was 22 years old. He was lying on the ground next to the wreck, not a mark on his body, as if asleep. 2LT William Groce, 26 years old, was still strapped into the pilot's seat, which had broken loose at impact, sending him face first into the instrument panel. His was a closed casket. The co-pilot was CW2 David Allen Green, also 22 years old, killed upon impact. SSG Mifflin Tichenor, 29-years-old, had been struck by some object as the forward part of the helicopter broke up, and then was thrown from the aircraft. He was also lying alongside the wreckage, dead from severe head injuries prior to ground impact.
The accident investigation team from Fort Rucker didn't have any difficulty in quickly determining of the cause of the accident. Examination of the main rotor head and the mast showed that an event called "mast bumping" had occurred. Mast bumping happens when the main rotor blade pivots like a teeter-totter under light load or no-load conditions, as when a novice aviator over-controls the stick (cyclic) and puts the helicopter into near zero g-force conditions. In a fraction of a second the mast is overloaded and it snaps. In this case the blade pivoted down and sliced through the left side of the cockpit after breaking off. The blade was recovered several hundred meters away. Embossed in the leading edge, in reverse type, was the word "BELL". This matched the raised lettering on the co-pilot's anti-torque foot pedals of the Huey, destroyed when the blade sliced through and struck them. But the co-pilot's feet were intact. The inevitable conclusion: the co-pilot didn't have his feet on the controls. 2LT Groce, the non-rated Pathfinder, had been in total control of the aircraft.
The accident was an embarrassment for the Pathfinders and the 101st Aviation Group. It was quickly covered up, and news of the accident was limited to a single article the next day in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle newspaper. [April 26, 1972, page 1, below the fold]. There was a perfunctory memorial service in the base chapel that may have lasted 20 minutes start to finish, and consisted solely of reading the military biographies of the four deceased soldiers. For years no one spoke about the accident. We had to soldier on, in any event, trying to get the Division filled, trained, and rated C-1 (operationally ready). Almost all of the officers concerned were discharged within a few years when the Army entered a period of post-Viet Nam reductions in force. There is no memorial, no history, not even in a Pathfinder or Airborne web page have I been able to find describing the accident and the men who died. It is as if they never existed. Years later, when my third son was born, I was again at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I named my third son William, and when he was old enough I told him of 2LT William Groce, my buddy from Infantry OCS and the 101st Airborne Division Pathfinder Platoon. I'd like to get the word out to all Pathfinders, especially those of the 101st Airborne Division, so these men are not forgotten.
As I said, a massive push was underway to recruit soldiers to refill the division. The draft had ended, this was the time of VOLAR (Volunteer Army). Soldiers had to be recruited, with slogans such as "Today's Army Wants You." Recruiters were given recruiting incentives, such as "Unit of Choice" (guaranteeing that the recruit would be assigned to a specific unit); "Station of Choice" (guaranteeing that the recruit would be assigned to a specific location); "Airborne Duty Option" (guaranteeing airborne training and a jump slot assignment); there were of course MOS guarantees, and so on. Every soldier in the Division was told he was to be an assistant recruiter. The Pathfinders and the 3rd Brigade did parachute demonstrations in front of county fairs, and at high schools. We showed movies at malls, and did static displays with parachutes, radios, AK-47s and other weapons in the court house square of cities all around Fort Campbell.
Obviously one of our biggest draws was to wear our Class A uniforms, with a garrison cap with glider patch, backgrounds on our wings, and trousers bloused into spit-shined jump boots. And it worked. We recruited hundreds of young men, perhaps thousands, who came into the Army under a much- reduced threat of being sent into combat. There was enhanced pay and GI Bill benefits, and the elimination of many of the irritants to service life that were part of the Army until that point: Saturday morning muster formations, weekend passes, KP duty. These men came into the 101st with a guarantee of Unit or Station of Choice 101st Airborne/Fort Campbell and airborne duty status. Jump pay for enlisted men was $55.00 per month, a considerable bonus for a soldier with $300 - $400 per month in base pay. Hazardous duty pay alone could provide a respectable car payment in 1972.
By 1973 the mix of airborne and non-airborne soldiers, with the difference in pay and prestige, was causing serious morale problems. Fights were not uncommon. Airborne soldiers not assigned to a jump slot were occasionally jumping, either legally (with permissive no-pay orders) or illegally (sneaking onto aircraft with the connivance of jumpmasters who might be their roommate). In an effort to keep a uniform appearance, even the leg soldiers were permitted to wear the garrison cap with glider patch and bloused boots, but of course they had no wings. That was heresy to the truly Airborne. Then matters reached critical mass when the Department of the Army pulled the entire 101st Division off jump status.
That was an even greater morale crisis, as jump pay was stopped, but car payments continued. Also, it appeared that the 101st would be forced to revert wearing low quarter shoes and the round service hat (derisively called the "bus driver hat" by Airborne soldiers). The Army doesn't use the expression "breach of contract." The correct wording is "unfulfilled enlistments" and suddenly the 101st was facing hundreds, if not thousands of them. Those recruited under the Unit/Station of Choice and Airborne options couldn't have both. They had three choices:
- Waive the Unit/Station of Choice and transfer to another unit on jump status. In 1973 this meant the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry in Italy (that's pretty far from Tennessee/Kentucky); or the arch-rival 82nd Airborne Division, or;
- Waive the Airborne Duty Option and stay with the 101st at Fort Campbell, but possibly wear the same uniform every other leg in the Army was wearing, or;
- Demand an immediate Honorable Discharge, with VA benefits if they had been in 180 days. This last option looked pretty good to a lot of soldiers.
What was the command to do? MG John Cushman was being transferred to be Commandant of the Military Academy, and MG Sid Berry was his successor. In a stroke of genius, a solution was found that saved the day and created a new badge. Years before, the 101st had created and run what they called the Recondo School, a kind of mini-Ranger course. After instruction of hand-to-hand combat, patrolling, field craft, and intensive physical challenges the graduates had been awarded a "Recondo Badge." It was a local wear item, much like the Jungle Expert badge in Panama, or the "Pro-Life Pin" of MG Hank "The Gunfighter" Emerson in Korea. You joined the unit, you attended a short course, you earned it, you wore it while you were in the unit, and when you left you took it off. The 101st dusted off the Recondo School program of instruction and created the Airmobile Badge. That's right, it was originally called the Airmobile Badge. Locally designed and fabricated, the badge was deliberately crafted to mimic the glider wings of WWII, which hadn't been issued since the 1950s. The nose of the Huey took the place of the glider body, and the horizontal rotor blade was the spitting image of the glider wing.
Soldiers could attend a five-day yes, five-day training program and be awarded the Airmobile Badge. "In the tradition of the glider troops," who, remember, were 2/3 of the WWII 101st Airborne Division, they could bear the badge with the cloth colored background as if they were on jump status. They could wear the garrison cap with glider patch and the coveted bloused boots. From five meters away they were indistinguishable from a real paratrooper. Now everybody in the division could look like an Airborne soldier.
Real Airborne soldiers took an immediate dislike to the Airmobile Badge. Look closely at one. Now imagine coloring in the two front windows of the Huey with a black pen. Now color in the two lower chin windows and the space between them. Finally, color in the wings left and right with two black circles. Yes, it bears a remarkable likeness to Mickey Mouse. We called them "mouse wings" and by the time I left the 101st in 1974 it was still not possible to post a picture of the badge at Fort Campbell without some Airborne trooper coming by with a black felt tip marker and turning it into "Mickey Mouse wings."
Well, it took a little more tuning up. The badge had to be renamed something sexier, like the "Air Assault Badge," and the class was stretched to ten days, but to be frank, it was a gimmick. The Air Assault school didn't teach anything the typical 101st soldier didn't already know or was taught at the unit level. 101st soldiers were sling loading, rappelling, climbing up and down trooper ladders from the aft ends of hovering CH-47s and setting up PZs and LZs in combat in Viet Nam, years before the air assault badge was created. But it worked. We avoided the massive hemorrhage of soldiers. When the soldiers left the 101st Airborne Division, the badge came off, its mission accomplished.
Then how did the Air Assault Badge become a permanent wear item? As every Airborne soldier knows, there is one and only one Program of Instruction at Airborne School. From private to general, everybody goes through the same training minute by minute, mile for mile, pushup for pushup. The same rules apply for Ranger, Special Forces, and Pathfinder. I assume that also applies to SCUBA and HALO, but I haven't been there so I don't know. But early in its history the Air Assault School, in a stroke of genius, created an A Course, a B Course, and a C Course. The A Course is for the average soldier. They must stand inspection formations, get dropped for pushups, double-time everywhere, etc.
But then there is the B Course, for field grade officers (majors and above) and senior NCOs. They were allowed to come to the school each morning an hour late, skipping the inspection formation and the accompanying push-ups and chickenshit. They were gently led to the front of every line, coached on tasks, allowed to enter and exit the classrooms first, and generally handled warmly. No harsh words, and no stress. Then there was the C Course, for general officers. The C Course lasted one week. They were spoon-fed the instruction, examinations were one-on-one, and nobody watched the clock too closely on the timed runs.
The result of the B and C Courses was predictable. In barely two years the Army had a large number of senior officers and NCOs who were not Airborne qualified, but who had breezed through a special program of instruction and received the Air Assault Badge while at Fort Campbell. They wore the badge, with the accoutrements of the Airborne. But since it was a temporary wear local item, they had to remove it when they left Fort Campbell. It wasn't long before the Pentagon and the Military Personnel Center had a good number of field grade officers and senior NCOs who had received the Air Assault badge, but couldn't wear it or put it in their personnel records. The result: the Air Assault Badge quickly became a permanent wear item. As Paul Harvey would say: "And now you know the rest of the story."