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Author Topic: Helicopter interrogations in Nam
sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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I'm beginning to wonder if the story of U.S. soldiers taking 2 POW's up in a chopper, throwing one out, causing the other to sing like a canary hasn't reached UL status.
It seems that almost every time I mention to someone that I was an interrogator in the Army (90-94), and that we were trained ONLY to run approaches and question, he or she tells me that they have a friend (or a friend of a friend [Razz] ) that was in Vietnam who saw (or used) this method of interrogation regularly. I always point out that over 90% of Vietcong prisoners broke on the direct approach (what is your unit?), but they always look at me like I don't know what I'm talking about.
Yes, I know it did occur. I've done internet research on it, and found ONE credible account of a Vietnam vet actually witnessing it happening, but I had to sift through a whole lot of hits and a whole lot of text to find it. It WAS, however, quite common for ARVN soldiers to do this.

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Silas Sparkhammer
I Saw V-Chips Come Sailing In


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Of the Viet-vets I know, one claims that he was involved in this. His version was that they pushed a guy out of a helicopter, on a tether. Then they hauled him back up, and cut the tether. They guy talked...

The way my friend told it, they then shoved the guy out the door anyway. He said that they believed that the enemy was not taking prisoners, so they didn't see any reason they had to.

I have *no* way to know if my friend was telling the truth or just letting off steam and telling tall tales.

I can tell you that three of the Viet-vets I know personally are kinda screwed up, mentally. One is a total basket-case, homeless and babbling.

This was a war that lacked a psychological support system...

Silas (sorry, anecdotes only) Sparkhammer

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Then both vanish earth's dominion, man is native to the skies.

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Sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Here's one second hand account I could find of this. I'll find the first-hand account tomorrow. I have to search for it again because I forgot to save the site. [Dumb]

It's from the Vietnam War Crimes Hearings:
quote:
STATEMENT OF ROBERT B JOHNSON Capt, U.S. Army, West Point, Class of 1965.

JOHNSON: Because the 3 men who follow me have specific testimony about war crimes initiated by 2 generals, I shall be very specific and very brief.

In 1965, I was taking a class in West Point on land warfare, even by a major who had returned from Vietnam after being wounded, and he showed us the slides and told us in a joking way how American pilots and other pilots in Vietnam would send each other parts of VC bodies--heads, angers and ears--as jokes, wrapped as Christmas presents.

He also told us a good way to get POWs to talk was to take 2 up in a helicopter and throw 1 out, and the other talked immediately. He said it in a very serious vein. I rec'd no meaningful instruction whatever on the law of land warfare while I was in West Point. I did not know what the law of land warfare was until I returned from Vietnam in 69.

But did this West Point professor actually witness this, or is he merely circulating a story he heard?
quote:
He also told us a good way to get POWs to talk was to take 2 up in a helicopter and throw 1 out, and the other talked immediately.
Wouldn't it be more "immediate" to handle that sort of interrogation on the ground with an M16? Why waste time finding a willing pilot, loading the prisoners onto a helicopter, and getting to a good altitude?

Why expose yourself and the crew to enemy fire?

Why risk there being a lot of witnesses to a war crime? On the ground, there'd be much fewer.

Why interrogate someone in a helicopter if you can help it? Hueys are noisy machines, and I wouldn't want to try to understand a scared-to-death prisoner who speaks a difficult foreign language.

It's also pretty windy in a Huey. If the prisoner had maps (an interrogator's wet dream), the rotor-wash would be a nightmare.

This really isn't an ethics concern. I hope I didn't sound judgmental of what happened during that war. I honestly have no idea how I would have handled being there.

It just seems impractical on every level. It did happen, but really that often?

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Sgt Otter
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Sawduck, it could be the Russian Roulette/Deer Hunter phenomenon.

There are no documented cases of American POWs being forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of either Viet Cong or NVA captors.

It was never mentioned before the film "The Deer Hunter" came out. Yet, as soon as that movie came out, practically every Vietnam vet or relative of a vet would swear up and down that they had a buddy or a relative who had to do this.

Even the screenwriter said that the roulette scenes were totally false, and were used to symbolize the random violence, cruelty and futility of the Vietnam conflict. Yet to this day, I see webpostings on Vet's sites talking about how they had a buddy who was killed or emotionally scarred after being forced to play Russian Roulette.

Although, the only film I can think of off the top of my head where an American soldier throws a Vietnamese prisoner out of a chopper is Blue Thunder.

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noreen
We Three Blings


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There is also the story of soldiers returning from Vietnam being spit upon. At the time (I was born in 1950) I don't remember anybody saying they had seen it, done it, had it happen to them; or seeing anything in the news about it (TV, papers, mags). But since the '80s it is always mentioned as fact (especially by the chicken hawks).

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Sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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As I was doing the research on this, I did read about how soldiers coming home from Vietnam were not given a hero's welcome (I'm sure their families tried though), but yeah, you're right. I've always heard about them being spat on too, but I've never actually met someone who said it happened to them.
I dunno. I guess wars breed UL's. The ones who spread them are, more than likely, the ones who actually saw the least and want to entertain civilians. It seems that the soldiers who saw the most don't like to talk about it.
And I think you're right, Sarge. I'm sure that movies spawn war UL's too, though I still haven't heard of any real-life air cavalry vets who claim to have played classical music over a PA during their attack. [Smile]

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Sgt Otter
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Well, Colonel Kilgore was reportedly based on Colonel David H Hackworth, although Col Hackworth never blasted Wagner.

I can't remember if he surfed either.

As for the spitting on GIs, I find this a strange story. US soldiers returning from Vietnam would have to fly a MAC (Military Airlift Command, operated by the US Air Force) flight from one of the airbases (like Da Nang) in South Vietnam to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. From there it would most likely be another military flight to Travis AFB in northern California. From there, it would probably be another military flight to their stateside base, like Fort Campbell, KY for the 101st Airborne, or Fort Bragg, NC for the Green Berets, all of which would be like stepping into the lion's den for a hippie, if not completely off-limits.

Of course, a soldier taking leave and flying to his home for some time off would take a commercial flight, but I find it hard to picture a bunch of anti-war protesters waiting around airports all day for some random GI to step off of a random flight.

I'm sure there was some hassling, name-calling, bar fights, but I doubt there was organized "spit-ins."

I heard alot of the dogging of US soldiers returning from Vietnam came from WWII & Korean War vets (exampled in Born on the 4th of July) who couldn't figure out why these American troops couldn't beat a bunch of guys in black pajamas.

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Ursa Major
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by Sgt Otter:
[QB]Well, Colonel Kilgore was reportedly based on Colonel David H Hackworth, although Col Hackworth never blasted Wagner.

I can't remember if he surfed either.

[QB]

I've never heard this and I'm pretty well-versed in Apocolypse Now lore. My understanding is that the character was based (second-hand from John Milius' friend Steve Kanaly) on Lt. Col. John B. Stockton of the 9th Cav.
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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
[H]e or she tells me that they have a friend (or a friend of a friend) that was in Vietnam who saw (or used) this method of interrogation regularly.
You know, Sawduck, one of Brunvand's correspondents suggested that the military equivalent of a FOAF ought to be AGOI ("A Guy Over In") [1], which sounds pretty good to me. But I digress.

There are two remarkable articles on belief tales that not only circulated among GIs stationed in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, but also have been passed between Veterans in the years since. It's important to note, however, that neither of these studies really approach these narratives with a view to discover their underlying truths (except, perhaps, to look for pre-Vietnam War antecedents); rather, the authors focus on these as "stories told as true" –- a common descriptor for a legend -- and try to determine what belief in these narratives says about the teller and his audience. (Fair warning, then: this may be less than satisfying to those of you who will settle for nothing less than bunking or debunking.)

John Baky's White Cong and Black Clap: The Ambient Truth of Vietnam War Legendry, Part I and Part II detail several distinctive legends of the era and briefly mentions "chopper drops."

quote:
This cluster of anecdotes focuses on the ideologically suspect image of the routine ejections of rope-bound VC prisoners from the wide-open doors of American helicopters. The ceaseless repetition of this image in the films of the era has risen near to Gospel in its stature. With bound VC prisoners hurtling Earthward in mid-scream, booted gleefully from American choppers, we are given a twinned icon that achieves mythic power. This legend is reinvented so often that the sheer quantities of helicopters and rope would seem logistically much harder to get and keep than the correspondingly requisite numbers of poor prisoners. In fact, in an extraordinary case of logical absurdity, the film Off Limits actually has an American Colonel hurling himself out the door after tossing out three suspected VC.
Thomas Barden and John Provo, who –- like Baky –- are themselves Vietnam vets, collected evidence of similar beliefs among GIs, and included this take on interrogation-stories [2],

quote:
The story most [Vietnam veterans who responded to the authors’ request to share bits of Vietnam-War legendry] recalled was of suspected Viet Cong being dropped out of helicopters, or being threatened with it as an interrogation technique. One remembered that a marine named Osborne had testified before Congress in the 1970s about harsh counterintelligence methods in the war. He told about the routine First Marine Division ploy of taking two prisoners up and throwing one out so the other would "spill his beans all over the place." He then described "some other tricks those guys had up their sleeves, like the insertion-of-a-dowel-into-the-brain-via-the-ear trick, starving a suspect to death who was confined in a cage, and everyone's favorite of shocking genitalia (both male and female) with field telephone generators." Most believed the chopper-drop stories were true. One informant mentioned fake executions. "Never saw anyone dropped from a chopper, but I was told by an American interpreter that it was fairly standard procedure to take off with a prisoner, blindfold him in the air, and then fly down slowly to a three foot hover and push him out. Absolutely terrifying." The idea of torturers learning from Shakespeare goes against basic humanist tenets, but this does sound a lot like the scene in King Lear in which the blind-folded Gloucester jumps to what he think to be his death from a low rock. [p. 223]
Several of you have noted those "spitting stories." You might be interested in reading Baky's take (item 2, near the bottom of the page).

quote:
I guess wars breed UL's. The ones who spread them are, more than likely, the ones who actually saw the least and want to entertain civilians. It seems that the soldiers who saw the most don't like to talk about it.
Interesting. Barden and Provo mention that,

quote:
legends are symbolic reflections of the fears and concerns of their tellers. As such, they help us delineate the boundaries of the soldiers’ social space; and a highly pressurized space it was. The military hierarchy (REMFs) was behind, the hidden enemy (the Viet Cong) all around, the formal enemy (the North Vietnamese Army) ahead, and the mental construct of 'the Nam' versus 'the World' within. Fragging stories reflected the tension between 'lifers' of all ranks, those who whole-heartedly supported the war effort, and the rest, the vast majority of the troops who wanted simply to survive their tour. Luck legends fulfilled our expectations. Patrick Mullen, in his research among Texas Gulf Coast fishermen [ref. given], found that a group's folk beliefs and belief narratives increased in relation to the danger of their work, and what work could be more perilous than war. Stories of war crimes on both sides echoed the extremity of the situation –- severed heads by the roadside, bodies falling out of the sky, piles of living arms on hospital floors. Add to these horrors the contamination of two things the troops held as especially important and personal -– beer and women –- by poison, disease, and razor blades, and you have a vision of a dark and dreadful place indeed. [pp. 227-228]
-- Bonnie

[1] The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story, p. 155. Of course, Brunvand's chapter on "Some Oddities of Military Legendry" is a keeper; sadly, however, it doesn't include anything on Vietnam-War-specific legends, though it does discuss general military-folklore themes common to most modern wars.

[2] T.E. Barden and J. Provo. Legends of the American Soldiers in the Vietnam War. Fabula 36: 217-229 (1995).

The authors touch on many of the themes Baky addressed, and comment a great deal about his earlier treatment of these tales, but they also gathered up other rumors. A complete listing of the war-specific anecdotes they describe:

quote:
(1) The Black Syph; (2) White Viet Cong; (3) Piecemeal Mailings; (4) Fragging Stories; (5) Indigenous Personnel as Spies; (6) Waking up in the Morgue; (7) Amazing Luck Stories; (8) Stories of Our Cruelty; (9) Stories of Their Cruelty; (10) Razors in Viet Cong Prostitutes' Vaginas; (11) Viet Cong Rebar Crossbows; (12) Viet Cong Trickery Stories; (13) Nguyen Nguyen, the Viet Cong Ammo Carrier; and (14) Ghostly Viet Cong Music.
Barden and Provo briefly note the following narratives, but fail to develop them, since these were collected "just as our study was being concluded":

quote:
(15) Burying or blowing up damaged vehicles or material to avoid paperwork; (16) Viet Cong giving insultingly low bounties for sinking U.S. river boats on the Mekong River; (17) Units being singled out for attack, usually due to gross incompetence (C Company, 1/11th infantry was the example given); (18) The infamous Ba Mi Bah 'Tiger Piss' beer (also called '33') being injected with 20 percent formaldehyde for more 'kick' and as a preservative; and (19) The use of pantyhose by soldiers on patrol along the Mekong to prevent leeches [sic] or make them easier to remove.


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Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

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Sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Thanks, Bonnie. I'll have to check those resources out. In the meantime, I'd like to venture a theory of my own about this:
quote:
Originally posted by Bonnie:
...the authors focus on these as "stories told as true" –- a common descriptor for a legend -- and try to determine what belief in these narratives says about the teller and his audience.

Considering that Vietnam was one of the first wars where helicopters played such a major role in troop transport, I'd guess that riding in one had a huge impact on soldiers. Because of their lower airspeed, the troop doors could be left open. When stationed at Ft Campbell, I had a few opportunities to ride in Army helicopters, the Huey being among them. The one I rode in had its troop seating configured so that you sit facing the open door. When the chopper would bank right, I could look straight down at the ground without trying. And of course, it's impossible not to imagine falling out of one of those things. Thus, new machinery + fear of heights = new legend.

P.S. I went and looked for the first hand account of helicopter interrogations, as promised in my second post. I couldn't find it, or another one for that matter! So, I'm afraid you all will have to take my word for it, or go blind searching yourself. Sorry. [Confused]

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noreen
We Three Blings


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Just a sighting:

Throwing a VC POW out of a helicopter was mentioned in an episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati".
In that story, the GI (Crazy Charlie?) jumped out himself shortly thereafter.

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ZenKnight
The Red and the Green Stamps


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"Dead men tell no tales." Why would an interrogator summarily execute a potential source of information? How would he know the one he picks to kill isn't the one with the most information to reveal?
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dofwai
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by noreen:
Just a sighting:

Throwing a VC POW out of a helicopter was mentioned in an episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati".
In that story, the GI (Crazy Charlie?) jumped out himself shortly thereafter.

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"
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Sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by ZenKnight:
"Dead men tell no tales." Why would an interrogator summarily execute a potential source of information? How would he know the one he picks to kill isn't the one with the most information to reveal?

That's right, ZenKnight. It makes no sense.
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Dan the Seeker
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by ZenKnight:
"Dead men tell no tales." Why would an interrogator summarily execute a potential source of information? How would he know the one he picks to kill isn't the one with the most information to reveal?

Hehehe

Interrogator: Who's your commanding officer!

Prisoner: Um, remember the guy you just threw out?

--Dan

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PatYoung
Let There Be PCs on Earth


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The throwing of prisoners out of helicopters did occur during the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America by troops trained by the U.S. Although I have no info on the Vietnam allegations, the doubts raised miss a few important points.
1. Those thrown out of copters might have been individuals the interrogators were "finished with". In interviews I did with torture victims in El Salvador, they indicated that it was common for those interrogated to be executed after they were "used up".
2. Interrogators often use the threat of horrific death (the "American Taliban" Lind was apparently told by his special forces interrogator that he would be turned over to the Northern Alliance for execution if he did not cooperate)in order to secure information. Interrogators may have wanted it to be known to other potential targets that they could die falling from the sky. In many countries, human rights abusers affect an aesthetic of mutliation designed to terrorize those who see or hear of it, thereby enhancing their power.
3. The interrogators may not have been following a rational plan at all. They might simply have been acting in response to their own brutalized sense of life. Such seemingly irrational acts occur often in war.

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THUMP, THUMP, THUMP

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Sawduck
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by PatYoung:
1. Those thrown out of copters might have been individuals the interrogators were "finished with".

In the US Army, an interrogator attached to an infantry unit, for example, does quick on-the-spot interrogations, usually looking for information that would directly benefit the platoon/company he is attached to. Then when he is through, the POW's are sent to the rear for further questioning. There, the interrogators work on info that the upper echilons can use. This has been doctrine long before the Vietnam War. Only a very stupid interrogator (and I'm saying there aren't any, believe me there are) would decide that the prisoner had no more information and kill him. That's a good way to piss off high ranking officers.
quote:
2. Interrogators often use the threat of horrific death in order to secure information.
Yes, absolutely. I heard a first hand account of this from the Gulf War. But killing prisoners, especially after you're done with them, would only work against that method of intimidation. If they know they'll probably die anyhow, why talk?
quote:
3. The interrogators may not have been following a rational plan at all. They might simply have been acting in response to their own brutalized sense of life. Such seemingly irrational acts occur often in war.
Absolutely true, but I would imagine that there would be more Vietnam vets talking about this if it were all that common. I would imagine that a cameraman would catch the act on film, as in the My Lai massacre. Like I said, I found only one first hand account of this happening by American hands. The brutality of the Vietnam War makes it possible that it happened a lot, but there's no evidence.
Plus, I'll bet the Special Forces guys, upon hearing that these soldiers they trained were doing this, were shaking their heads, thinking, "What the NFBSK????"

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Sgt Otter
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by Ursa Major:

I've never heard this and I'm pretty well-versed in Apocolypse Now lore. My understanding is that the character was based (second-hand from John Milius' friend Steve Kanaly) on Lt. Col. John B. Stockton of the 9th Cav.

You're probably right, I've googled around a bit and I came up with LTC Stockton's name a lot more in reference that COL Hackworth's.

The only references to Hackworth being connected to Apocalypse Now were from Hackworth himself, mentioning that when he was trying to get a screen version of his autobiography made, several Hollywood types mentioned to him that they had heard he was the inspiration for Kilgore.

Hackworth himself didn't see much of a connection.

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