More than 2.7 million Americans fought during the Vietnam War, the country in Southeast Asia where kids quickly became men, Larry Woodall said.
Military personnel had a “stout routine” for making it through the hazards of flying a Huey helicopter: “Eat, sleep, fly and drink at night to keep your sanity.”
While studying at UAB, Woodall took a break for two semesters. He’d already paid part of his tuition for senior year, but at 23, joined the U.S. Army on May 31, 1968.
Woodall was one of thousands of young soldiers who volunteered to learn to fly helicopters – often not knowing what they were getting themselves into. He was quickly approved for Helicopter School at Fort Wolters, Texas.
To fly, the Army had three qualifications: they needed people with excellent reflexes, which usually applied to soldiers between 18 and 26 years old; someone who could “figure their way out of a jam in an instant, somehow complete the mission, and get the aircraft and crew back home”; and fly extended, dangerous missions in all kinds of weather and terrain. Woodall met the criteria.
“I was a chief warrant officer and trained for about nine, very trying months,” Woodall said.
At Fort Wolters, he learned how to hover, take off and land a helicopter. That included keeping the copter right-side up using only instrumentation. Woodall left Fort Wolters with knowledge about his aircraft and military tactics, navigation, first aid and safety, and the rules for calling in artillery fire.
As a student pilot, Woodall moved to Fort Rucker in Alabama. His training shifted to flying the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, or Huey, which became a symbol of the Vietnam War.
Living the Army life, 9,000 miles from home
When Woodall finally made it to Vietnam in June 1970, the Army was working to stifle the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. He was assigned to the 134th Assault Helicopter Company, 3rd Platoon, which flew more combat missions than any other assault unit during the war.
Woodall was stationed at Phu Hiep, a small Army airport, and Tuy Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam, which had 10,000-foot-long runways. Every day dawned with a new mission for the 134th to support U.S. military units.
“I flew thousands of hours of combat flying,” Woodall said. “The helicopter was like a military taxicab. Almost anything you could put in or sling-load underneath – medical supplies, rations or weapons – were carried by helicopter. A few times, we carried pigs and goats for South Vietnamese farmers.”
Defying orders and North Vietnamese to save Army Rangers
The rainy season added to the miseries of war. During monsoon season, it rains nearly every day, all day. Woodall recalled a time in 1971 when a break in the weather was forecast, with four or five days of clear skies.
The 134th Assault Helicopter Company was in Tuy Hoa, with a mission to provide air support to Charlie Company of the 75th U.S. Army Rangers.
The Charlie Rangers sent six men on Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) teams on a search and destroy mission northwest of Tuy Hoa. Known as the “Hub,” the area was almost flat, on top of a mountain with lots of enemy activity.
On the second day after Ranger teams went into the Hub, Woodall and his wingman drew the mission to support the Charlie Rangers with two helicopter gunships. But the weather forecast was incorrect, and the monsoon moved back in, bringing low visibility and grounding the helicopters.
“We had gone over to the Charlie Rangers company area to tell their company commander that we were grounded so he could radio his LRRP teams in the field,” Woodall said. “No sooner did he get off the radio to let them know, when one of the teams came on to say they were in contact. There was a firefight and they killed two North Vietnamese soldiers. They wanted to be extracted, which was normal procedure after a team made contact with the enemy.”
The commander repeated that the helicopters were grounded, which left the U.S. soldiers on their own until the weather cleared. But the team didn’t know that the two soldiers killed were the point element of a large unit of the North Vietnamese Army moving in. Then the LRRP team made a fear-inducing call: they were surrounded, were low on ammunition and one Ranger was wounded.
“My wingman and I knew the only chance for the LRRP team to survive was for us to fly the mission and try to reach them. We also knew we were grounded and would be disobeying orders,” Woodall said.
Nevertheless, Woodall and his wingman returned to their helicopters. They told their co-pilots, crew chiefs and door gunners they weren’t required to fly the mission – only volunteers would go.
“I already knew they were all going to fly the mission,” Woodall said. “I called Tuy Hoa Control Tower for a northwest departure. Again, they told me we were grounded, instrument flight rules only. I advised them we were on a special visual flight rules mission and were departing to the northwest.”
About 30 minutes later, Woodall and his group reached the base of the mountain. They followed a river valley to the mountaintop and the Hub. When they arrived at the LRRP team’s location, North Vietnamese soldiers put their attention and guns on the U.S. Army helicopters.
“They knew the Rangers were surrounded and weren’t going to escape,” Woodall said. “After about 15 minutes and numerous gunship runs receiving heavy ground fire, I could tell these guys were going to stand and fight, even though I could see they were taking heavy losses on the ground.”
The enemy usually retreated to the jungle following several gunship runs. With the weather starting to lift, Woodall called the 134th Operations to launch another pair of gunships and two helicopters to extract the rangers.
“By that time, we’d used all of our mini-gun ammo and rockets,” Woodall said. “We were extremely low on fuel. We were making fake gun runs to keep the enemy’s attention and gunfire on us.”
Finally, another pair of gunships arrived with two helicopters not far behind. As Woodall flew to Tuy Hoa, the helicopter’s low fuel light was flashing.
“Luckily, we made it back and landed with zero on the fuel gauge,” he said.
The other two gunships broke contact with the North Vietnamese. The LRRP team was rescued and flown to an Army hospital.
“The wounded Ranger survived,” Woodall said. “It was a good day for the Charlie Rangers and the 134th AHC.”
Leaving war behind
After Vietnam, Woodall put aside the memories of war.
“I don’t talk about my Vietnam experience a lot,” Woodall said. “I left it in Vietnam. A lot of us weren’t too proud to fight in a war we didn’t win.”
Woodall made the best of the skills he learned in the military. After an honorable discharge in 1971, he flew for the Alabama Army National Guard from 1971 to 1975. With the GI Bill, he earned a commercial “fixed-wing” airplane license and later received a commercial real estate license.
For nearly 29 years, Woodall was a corporate pilot for several companies, accruing more than 10,000 hours of flight time. From 2000 to 2011, he flew rights of way as a contractor for Alabama Power Corporate Real Estate (CRE). Woodall joined CRE full time in 2012.
About two decades ago, Woodall’s home in Sylvan Springs was destroyed by an F5 tornado. His treasured Army medals – two Bronze Stars with V-Device for Valor, 18 Air Medals and other badges and citations – were lost to the winds.
The powerful storm could not steal the life lessons Woodall brought home from Vietnam.
“I came back with skills, knowing how to fly an aircraft and knowing I could survive. I know that I was lucky to come home. If I was given the choice, I’d still go back to Vietnam,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Powergrams.