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To the Limit

An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam

Johnson, Tom A.

Publication Year: 2006

Helicopter pilots in Vietnam kidded one another about being nothing but glorified bus drivers. But these “rotor heads” saved thousands of American lives while performing what the Army classified as the most dangerous job it had to offer. One in eighteen did not return home.

Tom A. Johnson flew the UH-1 “Iroquois” — better known as the “Huey” — in the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the First Air Cavalry Division. From June 1967 through June 1968, he accumulated an astonishing 1,600 flying hours (1,150 combat and 450 noncombat). His battalion was one of the most highly decorated units in the Vietnam War and, as part of the famous First Air Cavalry Division, helped redefine modern warfare. With tremendous flying skill, Johnson survived rescue missions and key battles that included those for Hue and Khe Sanh and operations in the A Shau and Song Re valleys, while many of his comrades did not. His heartfelt and riveting memoir will strike a chord with any soldier who ever flew in the ubiquitous Huey and any reader with an interest in how the Vietnam War was really fought.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Related Titles, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

Author’s Note

Tom A. Johnson

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pp. xi

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pp. 1-2

The 229th AHB (Assault Helicopter Battalion), 1st Air Cavalry Division, was one of the most highly decorated helicopter units in the Vietnam War and the first to test the air mobile concept. They did so in the battle of the Ia Drang valley in 1965, made famous...

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1 The An Lao Valley Incident

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pp. 3-38

Tonight, this 19-year-old will most likely leave us. His wounds are massive. Like others before him, he thrashes about on the hard aluminum floor bathed in blood and suffering. Repeatedly, he calls for his mother, not his God. At great risk to ourselves, we will push our flying abilities and...

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2 1st Air Cavalry Division: My New Home

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pp. 39-64

The Standard Airways Boeing 707 jet is slicing through crystal-clear air at a speed of nearly 500 mph somewhere off the coast of California. I have never been this high above the earth, yet this combat-loaded airplane struggles for even more altitude on its long journey to Vietnam. Peering out the small porthole window, I am awed by the beauty of a sky that seems...

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3 LZ English

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pp. 65-74

With LuRay at the controls, we depart An Khe at 1600 hours. Turning east, we begin a steady climb to 3000 feet. This is the first time I have really seen the country and it is beautiful. It is a notably fine summer afternoon. Today’s visibility is unlimited, and the pale blue sky is dotted with puffy white clouds drifting at the 5000-foot level. To the north, I can see a mountain range that is lightly cloaked in gray...

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4 My First Engine Failure

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pp. 75-88

The time I spend reading Pat’s letters is special for me. As I read her words, she and home seem close and I can block out, for a few moments at least, my loneliness. “You’ll be on stand down tomorrow, Johnson.” A voice abruptly cuts into my thoughts. “Oh, yeah?” I reply sharply, before looking up from my seat on the edge of my cot....

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5 The Bong Son River Crash

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pp. 89-98

I turned 21 on February 14 of this year and have been in Nam since June 11. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the gory sights talked about by the older pilots, but this is about to change. Charbonnier and I have been working ash-and-trash missions all day for the 2/8 of the Cav, transporting ammo, food, and water into, and refuse out, of the An Lao valley, when we receive a call to extract casualties from...

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6 The Battle of Song Re Valley

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pp. 99-110

Last night was a restless one because of persistent rumors that something big is about to happen. At 0500 hours, Major Beyer gathers all the pilots and crews in the mess tent for a company briefing. “Today A/229th will become part of a battalion-size lift deep into Charlie country. We will pick up two companies of the 2/8th battalion and airlift them into the Song Re [pronounced ‘Song Ray’] valley, which is located in the...

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7 Bill Lee Crashes Hard

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pp. 111-130

“Tom, you ready for some wake-up sludge?” Bill Lee enters the 1st Platoon tent as he does most mornings to see if I am ready for coffee. “You bet. What time do you have, Bill?” “Official Greenwich Mean Time adjusted to Southeast Asian Combat Time is 05:45! Today is . . . [he pauses to suggest a gong] Tuesday, August 15, 1967.” “Jesus...

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8 Changing Seats

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pp. 131-144

Pat writes me every day; I write her an average of one letter every other day. I miss her and home more each day as familiarity with the daily Air Cavalry routines gives me more time to think. I do not yet realize that these will be the most exciting times of my life. This morning we are issued a new SOI; our call sign changes from Python to Bandit, and Tom Cat changes to Smiling Tiger. Recently, Lieutenant...

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9 The LZ Geronimo Incident

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pp. 145-152

I can easily envision the leaves falling from the oak trees back home. Carrollton, Georgia, is near the base of the “Great Smoky Mountain” chain. You have only to drive a few miles north to enter the most breathtaking mountain scenery imaginable. Near the end of September, the leaves begin to lose their greenish complexions. In mid-October, the maples and...

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10 Battle of Tam Quan

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pp. 153-162

For two weeks now the 1st Cav high command has been aware of an increasing incidence of Viet Cong probes of perimeters all over the Bong Son plain and around LZ English. In fact, LZ Laramie, which is high on a ridgeline along the mountains that form the eastern side of the An Lao valley, has come under a night attack in which four Americans were killed...

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11 The LZ Tom Incident

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pp. 163-178

Nearly a month before my R&R, I inherited a very special mission, called a lightning bug. Lieutenant Runyan, who had originally been the A/229th representative for this mission, somehow convinced me that I needed to take his place just before he DEROS’d. The customs and practices of war in Vietnam can sometimes seem strange. During daylight hours, when helicopter crews find VC or NVA out in the open...

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12 Christmas at LZ English, Republic of Vietnam

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pp. 179-190

The temperature is near 100 and the humidity is over 90 percent, even though it is Christmas Eve. This day goes like any other day. The only calendar in Vietnam is the one that counts down the days until you go home. There are no Mondays or Tuesdays, no quitting time, and no overtime. I have already logged nearly 800 hours of combat flying time and another...

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13 The Death of James Arthur Johansen

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pp. 191-216

Throughout late December and early January, the “rumor mills” were spreading the word that the entire 1st Cavalry Division was about to pull out of the II Corps tactical area. No one really believed this until three days ago, when Major Beyer called a meeting in the mess hall. “Today MACV Deputy Commander General Creighton Abrams ordered General...

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14 Can Chickens Really Fly?

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pp. 217-218

Two days after Ingamar’s crash, on a sunny afternoon, I am flying what will be my last mission over the An Lao valley, another boring run in support of ARVN (do-nothing) troops. Before taking off I had the crew chief illegally requisition a white rooster in addition to the livestock that have been placed in my care for the short flight to the extreme north...

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15 The 1st Cavalry Moves North

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pp. 219-230

The departure of A Company from LZ English has been delayed by three days because of Ingamar’s crash. Yesterday, we broke down all the tents and burned what could not be taken on the move. LZ English, for all practical purposes, is now barren except for the thousands of sandbags that have been cut and drained of their contents. All nonessential personal...

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16 The Tet Offensive of 1968

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pp. 231-242

Tet Nguyen Dan, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, begins on January 31, 1968. It is a national Vietnamese holiday and all MACV military commanders are instructed to stand-down. What a way to conduct a war! This has to be one of the dumbest decisions made by the stateside powers-that-be. Whoever heard of stopping a war for a holiday? General Tolson, the...

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17 The LZ Striker Incident

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pp. 243-262

At this very moment, Hue is engulfed in what history will record as the major battle of the entire Tet Offensive. Hue has been made off-limits to the 1st Cavalry units. This battle is going to showcase the Marines. The civilian idiots in Washington and their counterparts, the South Vietnamese politicians, do not want the old imperial capital of Hue destroyed. The beautiful...

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18 Khe Sanh

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pp. 263-284

In the early days of March, 1st Cavalry Division commander General Tolson met with the III Marine Amphibious Force commander to make the initial plans for the assault that would relieve the beleaguered Marine outpost at Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh is in the northwestern corner of I Corps, just south of the DMZ and east of the Laotian border and some 35 miles north and west of Quang...

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19 Near Disaster, Night Insertion at Thor

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pp. 285-298

Since the initial assault into the Khe Sanh operational area, all Bandit crews have flown long hours. Our workday begins long before the sun breaks over the horizon and ends with a touchdown between the sandbags using landing lights. Most of us are logging eight hours a day flying time. By the time I wake up, have breakfast, do mission briefings,...

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20 The Circus Act Extraction

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pp. 299-330

On March 9, the CQ awakens me at 0500 hours and instructs me to meet Major Beyer in the operations bunker. Beyer is grinning and chewing on his unlit cigar. “Tom, how would you like to have a few days off?” I know that smile very well. “No thanks, sir. My last few days off I ended up attached to the Marines in Phu Bai, doing rescue missions inside the Citadel...

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21 A Shau Valley, Lair of Lucifer

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pp. 331-372

“Well, it’s not a rumor anymore,” I announce. I have just entered my tent and dumped my flight gear on the air mattress. “You mean A Shau?” “Yep. I mean A Shau.” “How do you know for sure?” a young pilot asks in disbelief. “I’ve just had a briefing at Battalion.” As I turn to face the young pilot, transistor radios fall silent. Someone goes into 2nd Platoon’s tent to pass the word...

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22 No Rest for the Weary

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pp. 373-378

Four hours after being extracted from LZ Vicki and landed in A/229th Company area, I find myself strapped into the seat of another Huey. The following day, April 22, 1968, I am once again flying combat assaults, with the rest of the Bandit aircraft, into the A Shau valley. During these missions, we are the target of 37mm rounds. The FM radio squeals loudly for three seconds followed by three seconds of silence, then...

Appendix 1: What Makes Helicopters Fly?

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pp. 379-382

Appendix 2: Confirmed Killed Class of 67-5 First Tour

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pp. 383-384


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pp. 385-390


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pp. 391-394

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About the Author

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pp. 395-396

From June 1967 through June 1968, TOM JOHNSON flew Huey “slicks” for A Company 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. During that time, he accumulated 1150 combat hours and 450 noncombat hours for a total of 1600 hours flying helicopters. Considering that the average civilian pilot will fly about 50 hours a year, he spent...

E-ISBN-13: 9781597974462
E-ISBN-10: 1597974463
Print-ISBN-13: 9781597970013
Print-ISBN-10: 1597970018

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Aerial operations, American.
  • Military helicopters -- Vietnam.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • Johnson, Tom A.
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