The Tunnel Rats return to the historic Everett’s Music Barn at 4055 Stonecypher Rd, Suwanee, GA 30024, on March 28th at 9:00pm.
The 2004 documentary In The Shadow Of The Blade follows the journey of a restored Vietnam War UH-1H Huey across the United States to document the stories of Vietnam veterans and their families. These stories provide an extraordinary opportunity for understanding and healing, which for decades, alluded those who served in Vietnam.
Among the stories told in the film, one stands out as a lesson in hope, persistence, and “doing the right thing.” It’s the story of “Baby Kathleen,” the South Vietnamese infant who survived against all odds. Without the servicemen who found her in the arms of her dead mother, the helicopter pilot, and servicemen who flew her to a field hospital, and without the doctors and nurses who tended her wounds, Baby Kathleen would be yet another civilian casualty of the Vietnam War.
Georgia’s own Donna Rowe tells the story of “Baby Kathleen” in the documentary. Donna served as the triage nurse captain at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon during 1968-69. One day, a helicopter radioed they had a severely wounded infant on board. As there were other hospitals in Saigon and the triage room was overflowing with wounded, Vietnamese civilians were last on the triage list. Despite protocol, Donna made a decision to take in the wounded baby girl.
Not sure the infant would survive, she buttonholed a Catholic priest on the way to surgery, demanding he baptize the baby. Making do with water from a spigot, and with Donna, and the two men on the gurney’s sides as witnesses and God-parents, the priest baptized the girl, Kathleen Fields. Donna chose the name Kathleen from a song her father used to sing to her, and Fields for the name of the 3rd Field Hospital.
Baby Kathleen survived her wounds and stayed at the 3rd Field Hospital – again against the rules – until an American soldier wanting to adopt Kathleen cut through the red tape and bureaucracy to do so. “Kathleen” made her way to the United States to live with her adopted family.
Thirty-three years later, Donna told “Kathleen’s” story to a reporter whose article led to finding “Kathleen” in California, Donna met “Kathleen,” her adoptive parents, and her children. They remain friends today.
Sid Orr tells the story of a man walking along a beach where thousands upon thousands of starfish had washed ashore. He sees another man picking up a starfish and throwing it back into the sea. The man continues, one-by-one throwing starfish back. The man walking along the beach asks the other, “what possible difference can you make. Look at all these starfish.”
The other man picked up a starfish and tossed it back into the ocean and said, “Made a difference to that one.”
Among the wounded and dying of the Vietnam War, Donna Rowe and her colleagues made a difference to “Kathleen.”
Huey picture courtesy David Whitworth
Terry Garlock – “The Story of baby Kathleen,” The Citizen -November 19, 2015
Laura Raines – “Memories of an Army nurse,” Atlanta Journal Constitution – June 11, 2011
To provide quality services and support, based upon the concepts of self-esteem and self improvement, to Vietnam veterans throughout the State of Georgia that will enhance and enrich their lives and the lives of their families.
The Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance Chapter One, Marietta GA, raises money each year to fund the Colonel Al Rowe Memorial Holiday Food Program. For over 12 years, this program has served over 3,500 Active Duty, Guardsman, Veterans’ families, disabled Veterans and their widows, with utilities and living expenses.
In 2006 at the beginning of the war of Iraqi Freedom, Colonel Al Rowe, GVVA Chapter One president, 2001-2006, and the GVVA board recognized an urgent need of active duty military families. Lower ranking military personnel were struggling with minimum military pay while serving during the war, leaving some unable to afford a holiday meal for their families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. To answer the need the GVVA Chapter 1 established the Holiday Food Program.
As the GVVA became more involved they realized the need spread into the vast veteran community in Cobb County and beyond.The Holiday Food Program is now directed in coordination with the Command of Dobbins Air Reserve Base of the U.S. Air Force and the Georgia National Guard to identify the families that need assistance with food during the holidays. Over the past 12 years, the Holiday Food Program has helped feed over 3,000 families who has a member actively serving our nation or state. The Holiday Food Program has also assisted needy veterans with food, utilities, or living expenses.
Upon Colonel Al Rowe’s death in 2014, the GVVA Board of Directors renamed the program in his his honor for his dedicated service to the veterans and the military families in our community.
The Tunnel Rats were honored to perform for Vietnam Veterans, their families and friends as the Georgia Department of Veterans Service and Cobb County Commissioner Mike Boyce recognized Vietnam veterans in the Cobb County area. The Tunnel Rats set up outside and played from 12:30pm to 2:00pm.
Enjoy the slide show:
Tunnel Rats performing a crowd pleaser:
Have you ever heard someone recounting an experience that was very similar to your own? Painful or pleasant it often evokes the feeling of “Hey! I’m not alone in this!” For veterans this can be especially powerful.
When we asked Sanfora DiMola, a long time PTSD counselor who was introduced to PTSD by veterans returning from Vietnam in 1965 – If you had one message you would like to all veterans and their families to know, what would it be? Sanfora replied without hesitation, “You are not alone, and there is hope.”
In our experience, when Vietnam veterans share experiences, whether in prose, or poetry, song, or art, you can tell when it hits the mark. In some cases it can help ease the sense of loneliness, guilt or shame that has plagued so many of our Veterans. In some cases it might be a life line thrown at just the right time.
We came across this piece titled The Sound That Binds written by Keith Nightingale to share the experience of flying to and from combat in a Huey. Keith says: “I wrote this as a Grunt that rode to work on these for two tours and more. This is what you flew from the passenger perspective.”
The following appears unedited. Hope you enjoy it, and share it with others who might also.
The Sound That Binds
Unique to all who served in Vietnam is the UH1H helicopter- both devil and angel which served as both extremely well. Whether a LRRP, US or RVN soldier or civilian, whether, NVA, VC, Allied or civilian, it provided a sound and sense that lives with us all today. It is the one sound that immediately clears the clouds of time and freshens the forgotten images within our mind. It will be the sound track of our last moments on earth. It was a simple machine-a single engine, a single blade and four man crew-yet like the Model T, it transformed us all and performed tasks the engineers and designers never imagined. For soldiers, it was the worst and best of friends, but it was the one binding material in a tapestry of a war of many pieces.
The smell was always hot, filled with JP4 fumes, sharp drafts accentuated by gritty sand, laterite and anxious vibrations. It always held the spell of the unknown and the anxiety of learning what was next and what might be. It was an unavoidable magnet for the heavily laden soldier who donkey-trotted to its squat shaking shape through the haze and blast of dirt, stepped on the OD skid, turned and dropped his ruck on the cool aluminum deck. Reaching inside with his rifle or machine gun, a soldier would grasp a floor ring with a finger as an extra precaution of physics for those moments when the now airborne bird would break into a sharp turn revealing all ground or all sky to the helpless riders all very mindful of the impeding weight on their backs. The relentless weight of the ruck combined with the stress of varying motion caused fingers and floor rings to bind almost as one. Constant was the vibration, smell of hydraulic fluid, flashes of visionary images and the occasional burst of a ground-fed odor-rotting fish, dank swampy heat, cordite or simply the continuous sinuous currents of Vietnam’s weather-cold and driven mist in the Northern monsoon or the wall of heated humidity in the southern dry season. Blotting it out and shading the effect was the constant sound of the rotating blade as it ate a piece of the air, struggling to overcome the momentary physics of the weather.
To divert anxiety, a soldier/piece of freight, might reflect on his home away from home. The door gunners were usually calm which was emotionally helpful. Each gun had a C ration fruit can at the ammo box clip entrance to the feed mechanism of the machine gun. The gun had a large circular aiming sight unlike the ground pounder version. That had the advantage of being able to fix on targets from the air considerably further than normal ground acquisition. Pears, Apricots, Apple Sauce or Fruit Cocktail- it all worked. Fruit cans had just the right width to smoothly feed the belt into the gun which was always a good thing. Some gunners carried a large oil can, much like old locomotive engineers, to squeeze on the barrel to keep it cool. Usually this was accompanied by a large OD towel or a khaki wound pack bandage to allow a rubdown without a burned hand. Under the gunners seat was usually a small dairy-box filled with extra ammo boxes, smoke grenades, water, flare pistol, C rats and a couple of well-worn paperbacks. The gun itself might be attached to the roof of the helicopter with a bungi cord and harness. This allowed the adventurous gunners to unattach the gun from the pintle and fire it manually while standing on the skid with only the thinnest of connectivity to the bird. These were people you wanted near you-particularly on extractions.
The pilots were more mysterious. You only saw parts of them as they labored behind the armored seats- an arm, a helmeted head and the occasional fingered hand as it moved across the dials and switches on the ceiling above. The armored side panels covered their outside legs-an advantage the passenger did not enjoy. Sometimes, a face, shielded behind helmeted sunshades, would turn around to impart a question with a glance or display a sense of anxiety with large white-circled eyes-this was not a welcoming look as the sounds of external issues fought to override the sounds of mechanics in flight. Yet, as a whole, the pilots got you there, took you back and kept you maintained. You never remembered names, if at all you knew them, but you always remembered the ride and the sound.
Behind each pilot seat usually ran a stretch of wire or silk attaching belt arrayed with a variety of handy items for immediate use. Smoke grenades were the bulk of the attachment inventory-most colors and a couple of white phosphorous if a dramatic marking was needed. Sometimes, trip flares or hand grenades would be included depending on the location and mission. Hand grenades were a rare exception as even pilots knew they exploded-not always where intended. It was just a short arm motion for a door gunner to pluck an inventory item off the string, pull the pin and pitch it which was the point of the arrangement. You didn’t want to be in a helicopter when such an act occurred as that usually meant there was an issue. Soldiers don’t like issues that involve them. It usually means a long day or a very short one-neither of which is a good thing.
The bird lifts off in a slow, struggling and shaking manner. Dust clouds obscure any view a soldier may have. Quickly, with a few subtle swings, the bird is above the dust and a cool encompassing wind blows through. Sweat is quickly dried, eyes clear and a thousand feet of altitude show the world below. Colors are muted but objects clear. The rows of wooden hootches, the airfield, local villages, an old B52 strike, the mottled trail left by a Ranchhand spray mission and the open reflective water of a river or lake are crisp in sight. The initial anxiety of the flight or mission recedes as the constantly moving and soothing motion picture and soundtrack unfolds. In time, one is aware of the mass of UH1H’s coalescing in a line in front of and behind you. Other strings of birds may be left or right of you-all surging toward some small speck in the front lost to your view. Each is a mirror image of the other-two to three laden soldiers sitting on the edge looking at you and your accompanying passengers all going to the same place with the same sense of anxiety and uncertainty but borne on a similar steed and sound.
In time, one senses the birds coalescing as they approach the objective. Perhaps a furtive glance or sweeping arc of flight reveals the landing zone. Smoke erupts in columns-initially visible as blue grey against the sky. The location is clearly discernible as a trembling spot surrounded by a vast green carpet of flat jungle or a sharp point of a jutting ridge. As the bird gets closer, a soldier can now see the small FAC aircraft working well-below, the sudden sweeping curve of the bombing runs and the small puffs as artillery impacts. A sense of immense loneliness can begin to obscure one’s mind as the world’s greatest theatre raises its curtain. Even closer now, with anxious eyes and short breath, a soldier can make out his destination. The smoke is now the dirty grey black of munitions with only the slightest hint of orange upon ignition. No Hollywood effect is at work. Here, the physics of explosions are clearly evident as pressure and mass over light.
The pilot turns around to give a thumbs up or simply ignores his load as he struggles to maintain position with multiple birds dropping power through smoke swirls, uplifting newly created debris, sparks and flaming ash. The soldiers instinctively grasp their weapons more tightly, look furtively between the upcoming ground and the pilot and mentally strain to find some anchor point for the next few seconds of life. If this is the first lift in, the door gunners will be firing rapidly in sweeping motions of the gun, but this will be largely unknown and unfelt to the soldiers. They will now be focused on the quickly approaching ground and the point where they might safely exit. Getting out is now very important. Suddenly, the gunners may rapidly point to the ground and shout “GO” or there may just be the jolt of the skids hitting the ground and the soldiers instinctively lurch out of the bird, slam into the ground and focus on the very small part of the world they now can see. The empty birds, under full power, squeeze massive amounts of air and debris down on the exited soldiers blinding them to the smallest view. Very quickly, there is a sudden shroud of silence as the birds retreat into the distance and the soldiers begin their recovery into a cohesive organization losing that sound.
On various occasions and weather dependent, the birds return. Some to provide necessary logistics, some command visits and some medevacs. On the rarest and best of occasions, they arrive to take you home. Always they have the same sweet sound which resonates with every soldier who ever heard it. It is the sound of life, hope for life and what may be. It is a sound that never will be forgotten. It is your and our sound.
Logistics is always a trial. Pilots don’t like it, field soldiers need it and weather is indiscriminate. Log flights also mean mail and a connection to home- where real people live and live real lives. Here is an aberrant aspect of life that only that sound can relieve. Often there is no landing zone or the area is so hot that a pilot’s sense of purpose may become blurred. Ground commander’s beg and plead on the radio for support that is met with equivocations or insoluble issues. Rations are stretched from four to six days, cigarettes become serious barter items and soldiers begin to turn inward. In some cases, perhaps only minutes after landing, fire fights break out. The machine guns begin their carnivorous song. Rifle ammunition and grenades are expended with gargantuan appetites. The air is filled with an all-encompassing sound that shuts each soldier into his own small world-shooting, loading, shooting, loading, shooting, loading until he has to quickly reach into the depth of his ruck, past the extra rations, past the extra rain poncho, past the spare paperback, to the eight M16 magazines forming the bottom of the load-never thought he would need them. A resupply is desperately needed. In some time, a sound is heard over the din of battle. A steady whomp whomp whomp that says: The World is here. Help is on the way. Hang in there. The soldier turns back to the business at hand with a renewed confidence. Wind parts the canopy and things begin to crash through the tree tops. Some cases have smoke grenades attached-these are the really important stuff-medical supplies, codes and maybe mail. The sound drifts off in the distance and things are better for the moment. The sound brings both a psychological and a material relief.
Wounds are hard to manage and message for the bird. The body is all soft flesh, integrated parts and an emotional burden for those that have to watch its deterioration. If the body is an engine, blood is the gasoline;–when it runs out, so does life. It is important the parts get quickly fixed and the blood is restored to a useful level. If not, the soldier becomes another piece of battlefield detritus. A field medic has the ability to stop external blood flow-less internal. He can replace blood with fluid, but it is not blood. He can treat for shock, but he cannot always stop it. He is at the mercy of his ability and the nature of the wound. Bright red is surface bleeding he can manage but dark red, almost tar-colored, is deep, visceral and beyond his ability to manage. Dark is the essence of the casualty’s interior. He needs the help that only that sound can bring. If an LZ exists, it is wonderful and easy. If not, difficult options remain. The bird weaves back and forth above the canopy as the pilot struggles to find the location of the casualty. He begins a steady hover as he lowers the litter on a cable. The gunner or helo medic looks down at the small figures below and tries to wiggle the litter and cable through the tall canopy to the small up reaching figures below. In time, the litter is filled and the cable retreats -the helo crew still carefully managing the cable as it wends skyward. The cable hits its anchor, the litter is pulled in and the pilot pulls pitch and quickly disappears-but the retreating sound is heard by all and the silent universal thought-There but for the Grace of God go I-and it will be to that sound.
Cutting a landing zone is a standard soldier task. Often, to hear the helicopter’s song, the impossible becomes a requirement and miracles abound. Sweat-filled eyes, blood blistered hands, energy-expended and with a breath of desperation and desire, soldiers attack a small space to carve out sufficient open air for the helicopter to land. Land to bring in what’s needed, take out what’s not and to remind them that someone out there cares. Perhaps some explosives are used-usually for the bigger trees, but most often it is soldiers and machetes or the side of an e-tool. Done under the pressure of an encroaching enemy, it’s a combination of high adrenalin rush and simple dumb luck-small bullet, big space. In time, an opening is made and the sky revealed. A sound encroaches before a vision. Eyes turn toward the newly created void and the bird appears. The blade tips seem so much wider than the newly-columned sky. Volumes of dirt, grass, leaves and twigs sweep upward and are then driven fiercely downward through the blades as the pilot struggles to do a completely vertical descent through the narrow column he has been provided. Below, the soldiers both cower and revel in the free-flowing air. The trash is blinding, but the moving air feels so great. Somehow, the pilot lands in a space that seems smaller than his blade radius. In reverse, the sound builds and then recedes into the distance-always that sound. Bringing and taking away.
Extraction is an emotional highlight of any soldier’s journey. Regardless of the austerity and issues of the home base, for that moment, it is a highly desired location and the focus of thought. It will be provided by that familiar vehicle of sound. The Pickup Zone in the bush is relatively open or if on an established firebase or hilltop position, a marked fixed location. The soldiers awaiting extraction, close to the location undertake their assigned duties-security, formation alignment or LZ marking. Each is focused on the task at hand and tends to blot out other issues. As each soldier senses his moment of removal is about to arrive, his auditory sense becomes keen and his visceral instinct searches for that single sweet song that only one instrument can play. When registered, his eyes look up, and he sees what his mind has imaged. He focuses on the sound and the sight and both become larger as they fill his body. He quickly steps unto the skid and up into the aluminum cocoon. Turning outward now, he grasps his weapon with one hand and with the other holds the cargo ring on the floor-as he did when he first arrived at this location. Reversing the flow of travel, he approaches what he temporarily calls home. Landing again in a swirl of dust, JP4 and grinding sand, he offloads and trudges toward his assembly point. The sounds retreat in his ears, but he knows he will hear them again. He always will.
Part I: Sid’s Story
Silent for many decades, Vietnam veterans tell their stories in different ways, through books, blogs, articles, and music. One veteran, Sid Orr, found his voice by writing Vietnam ballads, telling the emotional story through poignant lyrics reflecting his and others’ experiences during their time “in country.”
Sid grew up in rural Missouri, and like many “farm boys” of the era, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 18 after receiving his draft card. He served in the Marine Corps for four years, the last of which was in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner stationed in Phu Bai, just south of the DMZ.
After returning from Vietnam, he made his way to Georgia and joined the Georgia Air National Guard serving another 30 years!
Sid is a humble and thoughtful man, and his war experiences affected him deeply, staying with him through the decades. Like other Vietnam veterans, he felt a subconscious anger and shame that permeated his soul. And like others, he didn’t talk about it.
In the song, “Powder Blue” from his first CD, he describes how the war is never far away:
I hear the mortars on the hillside
Smoke covers my morning dew
But the damn war is never behind me
It colors all that I do
Returning from Vietnam, veterans like Sid faced many challenges. Unlike other wars, they went to war alone – not as part of a unit. They returned alone having to reintegrate into a society where many demonized those who fought “in country.” Friends, family members, and others who wanted to help didn’t understand. They couldn’t possibly. Sid says it best in his song, “He Can’t Go Back Home From Vietnam”:
He can’t go back home from Vietnam
Ain’t nobody there will understand
They want their boy back home
But that boy, he’s long gone
They took fifteen years of his
Just paid him for one
Songwriting is A Passion, a calling
By the 1980s, Sid had what can only be described as a passion for songwriting, all kinds, but particularly country western and then bluegrass. The “three-chord poet” carried a notebook and a cassette recorder with him everywhere, even pulling off the highway to record his thoughts. During this time, the Vietnam songs kept “bugging” him – they had to be written.
Although they began as a personal cathartic experience, they evolved into a story Sid wanted to tell. The lyrics describe the action but convey so much more.
The Vietnam veteran and his family’s lives changed forever after he received his draft card. If a boy didn’t go to college, he had thirty days to decide to enlist or be drafted. From “You’ve Got Thirty Days:”
I was just 18
Figured out the score
Rich kids go to college
Poor kids go to war
Some things were not an option
Like running to Montreal
Didn’t think that way
We answered our nation’s call
Put your life on hold now
Tell your friends goodbye
You’ve got 30 days to decide
Fighting in Vietnam, the warrior faced death or worse. The Missing In Action (MIA) just disappeared. For their families, the war never ended.
In the “MIA Song: I’ll Be Right Back,” a recon patrol clears a place to dig in – one man goes out to set the perimeter and never returns.
Gonna leave my noisy helmet here
Gonna leave my belt and pack
The last thing the hero said
“Sarge, I’ll be right back.”
They never sent his helmet home.
Never sent his belt and pack.
The only remains were memories
To his hometown high school class
But they swore to God they won’t lose hope
They’ll hold out to the last
Because the promise that he made
“Hey, Mom, I’ll be right back.”
For the Vietnam vets who came home, the memories remain. As for the rest of us – there is a black granite wall that will not let us forget the 58,000+ warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice. From the song “As Long As The Black Granite Stands”:
He wore a helmet and heavy dark green vest
To protect his head and the best part of his chest
Chaplain told his men, that the vest won’t even start
To protect the wounded soldier’s heart
As long as the black granite stands
58,000 names man to man
Words of the chaplain come alive
Oh in our hearts our brothers never die
We’ll never let our brothers’ memories die
Recording Ain’t That Easy
Sid didn’t plan to make a CD, he just wanted to record demos of a few of his songs. He worked with local studios, singing and playing guitar to a piano accompaniment. After spending hours and hours on the time-consuming task of recording and editing tracks on reel-to-reel recording systems, they just didn’t sound good. Sid burned out on his songs – but he never quit writing, and wouldn’t or couldn’t let go of his Vietnam ballads.
From the mid-1990’s to 2010 recording had to take a back seat. As part of the Air National Guard, Sid “commuted” between Atlanta, GA area to Warner Robins Air Force Base in middle Georgia from 1994 to 1999. At the same time, he was taking education courses, eventually acquiring his teaching credentials. After retiring from the Georgia Air National Guard in 1999, he taught high school until he retired from education in 2010.
For the first time in over fifteen years, he had the time to devote to his songwriting, and to the Vietnam ballads that wouldn’t let him go – the time had come.
The First CD Is Born
Remembering his previous recording experience, Sid decided to go to Nashville, the “Home of Country Music,” with professional studio musicians and vocalists. He met Galen Breen at Gator Hole Studios, and the two discussed the ballads and how Sid wanted to convey his message. Sid returned home and prepared two songs a week for Galen to record. With Nashville studio musicians and the talent of 70’s country western singer, David Wills, the songs came to life in the 2013 CD release – Vietnam: The Journey.
After the CD’s release, Sid found it rewarding to receive positive feedback from friends, family, and fellow veterans who were “blown away,” or “in awe.” One veteran said he couldn’t stop listening to it – the songs touched him in ways he could not describe.
To be Continued…
In our next post, learn how Tunnel Rats Music came to be. How having like-minded and supportive people like Robin Daniel and Libby Wilson helped Sid move forward to write and produce the second CD – Vietnam: The Journey Continues.M