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Local veteran recalls Vietnam

Nov. 11, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

One of the first things that Charlie Smoot will proudly tell you is he's a country boy at heart. Raised on a 50-acre farm near Green Valley Road, he has memories of chopping firewood for the kitchen stove and family fireplace. He remembers the aroma of ham hanging in the smokehouse and the proud feeling of killing rabbits with his brand new .22 rifle at age 9. He remembers the lengthy process of helping his dad make molasses, pulling weeds from the garden and feeding the farm animals.

Smoot has many childhood memories of growing up and graduating from Barboursville High School in 1965. He remembers his biology teacher, Mr. Tanner, because he treated all of his students with respect. He spoke fondly of Joe Avis, the band director who helped young Smoot graduate.

Smoot remembers many things from his past. Most of the events are about an average kid who enjoyed the good times while growing up with family and friends. There are also memories he has about life in the United States Army living in the jungles of Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Those memories are anything but average.

"I figured the draft would get me at their convenience," said Smoot. "So I decided to enlist after high school and get it over with. After an enlistment physical at the Ventura Hotel in Ashland, I was shipped to Fort Knox, Ky., for boot camp. Next, I traveled to Fort Rucker, Ala., where I was trained as a crew chief on a UH1D 'Huey' Helicopter."

It was common knowledge to Smoot, and the rest of his class at Fort Rucker, that they would be going to Vietnam. However, in an attempt to improve morale, their instructor told them the top four graduates would remain to become instructors. Smoot studied extra hard, only to be told at graduation he was No. 6.

After Fort Rucker, he traveled to Oakland, Calif., for three days of orientation about conditions in southeast Asia. From the west coast, he traveled to Nome, Alaska, then Guam, finally landing in a crowded C-130 cargo transport at Saigon. From there the large troop carrier truck followed the road to the 1st Air Calvary Division where he was assigned to a UH1D Helicopter gunship.

Becoming a crew chief on a "Huey" had more responsibility than the title implied. Not only was Smoot trained on the 7.62 caliber machine gun located at the side door of the helicopter, he was also trained on how to make routine and emergency repairs on the aircraft. He was also required to guard the helicopter wherever it was parked. Except for the few days he was allowed to return for rest at the military compound, his home was that helicopter during his 12 months in Vietnam. His position also entailed that he fly and operate the machine gun during every mission.

"I became an overnight sensation on my very own personal C-ration cookbook," said Smoot. "I learned how to saute the most mundane meat products to ever come from a can. You would really be surprised at the creative level you could reach with C rations when nothing else is available."

During the next 12 months, Smoot learned the difference between animal and human sounds in the jungle darkness. He could tell by the sound of a howitzer if the shell was coming his way. He also became quite proficient at firing the 7.62 caliber machine from the open door of the helicopter. When deprived of sleep to the point of being unable to function, he would be allowed to return to the main compound for sleep and hot food. Sleeping for any duration in the jungle became impossible; jungle battles were never ending, and the call to fly into the jungle to help retrieve the wounded always came without any advance notice.

"During the day, we were given missions of flushing out the Vietcong," said Smoot. "We became involved in jungle fights when our troops were overrun. Whenever we were called, we flew to that location to even up the odds. Our gunship had more patched-up bullet holes than we could count. Another mission we performed during the hours of darkness was supplying the ground troops who were constantly on patrol in the jungle. We were their lifeline by air dropping supplies, food and mail."

Smoot said there were good days and bad days while serving in Vietnam. There were times when his buddies would share some good times. Then there were times when they would cry and look for support from each other because of a close friend being killed.

"We would fly into areas where we knew causalities were," said Smoot. "With causalities always came the need for body bags; it's something you can never become accustomed to. I have tried to console the wounded on the way to the field hospital only to have some die in my arms. Those gut-wrenching memories never go away. Their young faces twisted in pain are as clear today as they were in 1965. I look back at myself standing in the door of that helicopter, feeling the heat and vibration from that machine gun, and wonder why God spared me -- that will forever remain a mystery."

And God had more than one chance to bring Sgt. Smoot home. On one disastrous occasion, they completely demolished their Huey in a crash landing. A few months later, they were badly damaged from enemy ground fire. This required an emergency landing in the jungle. Both times, the entire crew was safely picked up. After they had been rescued, the thought of the unprotected downed helicopter being plundered by Vietcong disturbed Smoot to such a degree that he convinced a pilot he could repair it and fly it back to the compound. Which is exactly what they did.

Smoot survived his tour in Vietnam. There were thousands who weren't as fortunate. He's proud to have served but is quick to say that he isn't a hero.

After a stateside assignment as a military policeman, Smoot left the Army. He retired after 38 years at BASF. He is now the current commander of American Legion Post 16 in Huntington. He is also a member of the Legion's honor guard. His service to his country still goes on.

Clyde Beal is an area freelance writer and veteran who remembers public prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance as a daily occurrence in school. Story ideas (always welcomed) should be mailed to archie350@frontier.com.