U.S. Army, 25th Aviation Battalion, “A” Company,
“Little Bear” Assault Helicopter Company
Vietnam War (1965-1968)
Flew In Over 250 Combat Missions as a Helicopter Door Gunner
and Received 11 Air Medals with 3 for Valor
Anthony Lazzarini is a modern day Renaissance man. Lazzarini is a Vietnam hero, an acclaimed author, playwright and screenwriter, a classic car enthusiast, a race car driver, and an electronics and mechanical expert. Today, Lazzarini dedicates himself to dispelling misconceptions about the Vietnam War through speaking engagements throughout the Bay Area and his writing. Lazzarini speaks from experience, as a Vietnam helicopter door gunner, one of the deadliest professions in aviation. His goal is to explain what really happened in Vietnam and help people separate fact from fiction.
Anthony Lazzarini was born in San Francisco, California on November 1, 1946. He spent his formative years in San Mateo County and was the product of two hard working parents. Lazzarini’s mother was a waitress and his father owned an auto wrecking business in San Francisco. Lazzarini spent his youth taking parts off wrecked cars for his father’s business and developed a strong mechanical aptitude which would later come in handy in Vietnam. Lazzarini’s father was also a Merchant Marine during World War II, and his older brother served in the Marines prior to any conflict in Vietnam.
After graduation from high school, Lazzarini initially worked for his father’s business and had no plans to pursue a college education. During a visit in Honolulu with a relative that was an Army Staff Sergeant, Lazzarini was encouraged to enlist in the Army. The draft was still in place and enforced. His relative had some local connections in Honolulu and arranged for Lazzarini to take some tests to see if he qualified for aviation school. Unbeknownst to many, Lazzarini had a secret desire to learn to fly and he had an incessant need for speed. He passed the qualification test which guaranteed entrance to flying school and Lazzarini enlisted in the Army on February 5, 1965. At the time, Lazzarini was single and didn’t have much to leave behind. According to Lazzarini, his father didn’t understand why he enlisted in the army, but his mother was happy he would get a bit more structure in his life.
Lazzarini did his basic combat training at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1965. He learned to run properly, did lots of physical therapy to stay in good shape, learned to regulate his diet and exercise to build up his stamina, learned about weapons, medical techniques and survival. Overall, Lazzarini felt the goal of basic training was to “break you down and build you back up”. He felt his training was taken seriously and was very effective. This training is what “kept him alive”, claimed Lazzarini. He coped with his training through mental toughness. Lazzarini felt, “no matter how tough it was, many before me had gone through it and survived. I was just as tough and good as them. If they could do it, I could do it”.
After completion of basic combat training, Lazzarini was sent to Fort Rucker in Alabama for five months of transport helicopter mechanic training. Lazzarini’s prior mechanical experience came in handy during this training. Upon completion of this special training in September 1965, he was assigned as a helicopter mechanic to the 25th Aviation Battalion, “A” Company, a division of the 25th Infantry Division, at the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. Shortly after arriving in Honolulu, Lazzarini was further trained to be a helicopter door gunner and received the rank of E-3. The position of helicopter door gunner originated during the Vietnam War. As a door gunner, enlisted crew chiefs served as the helicopter maintenance supervisor and operated a machine gun that was either mounted to the helicopter or attached via a bungee cord to enable better shot accuracy. Safety lines were usually attached to the gunner, as they regularly leaned out of the helicopter to operate the machine gun. The position of door gunner was not very popular during the Vietnam War due to the intrinsic vulnerability of operating a machine gun in the open door of a helicopter. According to Lazzarini, “a door gunner was a high risk position with a life expectancy of about 20 seconds in combat”.
In December 1965, the Army started to send units from the 25th Infantry Division to help in Vietnam. In April 1966, Lazzarini and his entire helicopter group, the 25th Aviation Battalion, were sent to Vietnam to join the 25th Infantry Division. The battalion was transported on the USS Gordon with over 4,000 men and the journey lasted twenty one days. All the men were off loaded onto an amphibious landing transport which made a beach landing at Vung Tau, Vietnam, an area south of Saigon. Lazzarini and the men were greeted by the U.S. Navy band and banners welcoming them to Vietnam. There were also banners thanking the American soldiers for their help with the struggle against communism. Lazzarini felt the welcome was “kind of strange”. From there, the men were transported via cargo planes to Ton Sun Nhut airfield in Saigon to pick up the battalion’s helicopters which had been transported earlier. Upon arrival in Saigon, Lazzarini and the other men boarded their helicopters and were taken further in country where they were met by trucks. The men transferred to the trucks and were driven to an old peanut plantation. There, Lazzarini and the other men were told, “o.k., this is your home”. This new base camp was located near Cu Chi, in the Iron Triangle, the most treacherous area in Vietnam. According to Lazzarini, there was a heavy concentration of approximately 10,000 Vietcong in the area of the base camp.
When Lazzarini arrived in Vietnam it was very hot and difficult to acclimate to the 115 degree weather. The men relied on salt tablets due to the heat. All Lazzarini thought about on that first day was finishing his tour of duty and going home. Initial tasks for the 25th Aviation Battalion included filling sand bags, building bunkers, and establishing a base camp area. All this was done out in the open while susceptible to enemy attack. Lazzarini slept in a pup tent initially with another man. He slept on the dirt ground with his duffle bag as a pillow. The men would dig trenches around their tents to avoid the water getting in during the monsoons. Later, the army delivered 12 man kick out tent kits. These tents were assembled like kits with 2×4 pieces of wood with canvas coverings. These tents, also known as “hooches”, were built on platforms to avoid water. Eventually, the men were issued army cots.
There were not a lot of services at the base camp. There was a generator with very little electricity, no hot water, you took showers when it rained, and the water supply came from a lister bag that only held 100 gallons of water. “You learned to stay near the water”, claimed Lazzarini. Clothing was limited to what was in your duffle bag and you were constantly searching for the cleanest clothes. Initially, food consisted of sea rations and later, a 10-12 man mess hall tent was erected. The chefs would cook in the tent under bare light bulbs and all meals were eaten outside on park benches with only a canvas covering for protection. Lazzarini recalls that the metal napkin holders were particularly sturdy. After heavy gunfire one evening, one of the napkin holders was hit by gun fragment. The “fragment went right through the holder, but it was still functional”, chuckled Lazzarini. In general, he felt there were sufficient supplies except for real milk and fresh fruit.
Once the base camp was established, Lazzarini and the other men of “A” Company, call name “Little Bear”, 25th Aviation Battalion, began to train for their primary operations as an assault helicopter company. While in Vietnam, Lazzarini flew in over 250 missions with “A” Company. These operations or missions consisted of medivac missions to rescue wounded military personnel and deliver them to base camp or hospitals; combat assault missions with the intent of search and destroy; blocking force missions involving aviation combat tactics; and combined operations with the Army Republic of Vietnam. Of the missions, Lazzarini felt the most dangerous were the “Eagle flights”, a type of combat assault mission.
Eagle flights involved a decoy helicopter that was loaded up with heavily armed troops that would be able to move fast. The decoy helicopter would fly low and slow. This decoy would be in constant contact with a group of nine helicopters higher up at another altitude. According to Lazzarini, he flew in the decoy helicopter. The goal was for the decoy to draw fire, once fire was drawn, he would drop a white phosphorous smoke grenade to mark the area, and go back up and join the other helicopters. The entire group of ten helicopters would then go back and make an assault on the area that had just received fire. Lazzarini recalled one Eagle flight mission that was particularly treacherous. The mission involved 10 helicopters and 80 troops. When the helicopters made their initial landing in the suspected area of the Vietcong, they landed in the middle of 400 North Vietnamese regular troops. Apparently, these North Vietnamese troops had made their way down along the Cambodian border, near the Ho Chi Minh trail, and had set up the area that “A” Company had just assaulted, as their rest and recuperation area. A huge battle ensued, and out of the 10 helicopters in the battle, only 3 survived. Fortunately, Lazzarini walked away unscathed.
The blocking force missions, although not as dangerous as the Eagle flights, were just as risky. These missions involved a group of helicopters dropping troops in one portion of a jungle area, and then going to back to another pick up area to get a 2nd group of troops, that would be dropped at the other end of the jungle. The 1st group of troops would flush any enemy out of the jungle to the other side, where the 2nd group of troops waited. The enemy would then be caught in the center. “One of the problems in Vietnam was that the military was always searching for the enemy”, Lazzarini opined. He also said, the “Vietcong never was going to lead us with full force and they almost always lost. [Their] tactics were hit and run.” Lazzarini further explained, the “Vietcong would not engage during the day because we had superior air power and better artillery. Whenever you had an opportunity to make an assault and somebody would shoot at us, it gave us an opportunity to engage the enemy at that time.”
Despite the dangerous missions and the short life expectancy of a helicopter gunner, Lazzarini never really felt scared. Lazzarini humbly stated, “as funny as it may sound, it seemed like a big adventure. The helicopters had no doors, I was held in by a seat belt flying at one hundred knots, wind is rushing past your face, and it was like a huge roller coaster ride. When you get into combat, your adrenaline just takes off and sometimes, you look forward to that because it is like a huge test of who you are.” For Lazzarini, his motivation to keep going was simply “the need to be a part of something kind of positive”. He further stated, “although war does not really sound like it is positive, for me it was more important to get our own guys out of bad situations, than kill the enemy”. Lazzarini also said, there were many like him that would “risk everything to get wounded guys out of bad situations and get them to a hospital”.
Overall, Lazzarini’s impression of his fellow military personnel was that they were “good guys”. According to Lazzarini, “the Army is like a big, collective group you would find in every town. There are people you like and people you don’t like. The biggest factor was the fact that that in Vietnam, no matter how bad you say you were, when the bullets start flying, you can really see the type of person you are flying with. And when you are with a team of four individuals in a helicopter, you all depend on each other to do your job, so you can all get home. There are some good pilots and some bad. And good and bad crew chiefs. It is all just a matter of human error and knowing who you can trust. You always try to align yourself with the best people because you know, if you went out with the best people, you had a better chance of coming back.” Lazzarini also stated, “the act of what you did, made you who you were”; and “your word, your action, your machine gun, is who you were”. “You needed that combination”, he claimed. “If a person’s word wasn’t good, you tried to avoid them because it could get you killed”, stated Lazzarini. However, “if the opinion you stated was true, you would get the support of all the guys”, he further stated. Lazzarini also indicated that in the Army, “you always had respect for your Commanding Officer, maybe more than you had to”.
Lazzarini felt effective in his service during the Vietnam War. He could not say that morale was good within the 25th Aviation Battalion because of the “intensity of what they did and the fact that at any moment, they could be called out to pull out some wounded guys, or resupply a company getting overcome by Vietcong.” Lazzarini explained, “you were always on a constant level of the highest alert. It was very hard to relax. You would come back after a long day of resupplying troops or a mission, get in late, and then have to get everything ready for the next day’s operation.” Many times, the mess hall would be closed and the men would have to eat sea rations. As for Lazzarini, he also had to make sure all the machine guns were taken apart, the helicopter was resupplied with grenades and ammo, and ready to go for the next day. He also said, they were “very long days.” “A lot of the time, the men in the Battalion would relax by going to the beer hall that they had built themselves. Sometimes the men would argue and fight with each other, just trying to blow off steam, because of the constant amount of tension”, he further stated. For the most part, Lazzarini claimed, “when things got really hairy in combat, we were always bound together.”
Despite the constant level of stress, there were no days off in combat in Vietnam. Lazzarini did receive Rest and Relaxation and was able to go to any of the supporting countries for about five to six days to get away from the whole situation. Every six months, he was allowed to take a week off and visit Hong Kong, Hawaii, Thailand, Taipei, or Taiwan. Lazzarini chose to visit Taipei and Bangkok. According to Lazzarini, “it was the first time [he] realized how young the U.S. really was, in comparison to the other Asian countries visited that had been around for four to five thousand years”. He was able to get in a little history and meet people he never would have met before.
During his service, Lazzarini was heavily encouraged by his officers to communicate by mail or short wave radio service with his family. He felt the Army thought it was a good policy to tell everyone at home that you were safe. If you neglected to write home for a certain amount of time, and your superiors found out about it, they would get on your case. On one occasion, after not writing home for some time, Lazzarini was notified that the American Red Cross had contacted the Army about him.
Lazzarini seemed surprised by the friends he made during his service. He felt, “you really find out what people were made of and what you are made of in combat situations”. He also said, “it is surprising sometimes that somebody that you wouldn’t think would be as brave, or as strong as a big, burly guy, and you are proven wrong”. Lazzarini also explained, “when you all depend on each other to stay alive, you really develop a strong bond between the crews on helicopters. Crews on helicopters are probably the strongest because you knew that if that helicopter went down, chances were that all of you could die at the same time.” Lazzarini described his relationship with his crew as a bond. He also stated, “the crew all had something in common, they risked their lives daily, but could still go back to base camp and kinda laugh it off, and then get ready for the next day”. Lazzarini also felt that the crew he served with consisted of some great guys. “Regardless of what his fellow crew would later become; successful, unsuccessful, or even criminals, they would still be the friends he made in Vietnam and they would always get his support”, claimed Lazzarini.
Lazzarini did not receive any major injuries during his service in Vietnam. He claims to have been burnt once, and developed some infections due to the unsanitary living conditions. All in all, Lazzarini was happy to come home without a Purple Heart. During his service, Lazzarini flew in over 250 combat missions. As a result, he received eleven air medals, of which three were for valor. Lazzarini defied the odds and survived the assignment of helicopter door gunner. This was the best reward for his service during the Vietnam War.
After two tours in Vietnam, at the age of twenty one, Lazzarini was discharged from the Army. His highest rank was E-4. Lazzarini claimed, “he was excited to be back home and go to a real bar”. He flew from Vietnam to San Francisco and was discharged in Oakland, California. He was only an hour from home, unlike the other men. According to Lazzarini, he and all soldiers were treated badly when they returned from Vietnam. “The sentiment for returning soldiers was not at the highest it could have been due to the negative press, negative publicity the war was getting, and the anti war sentiments. Everyone was anti military.” Lazzarini opined that it did not matter what branch of the military you were in. He further opined, “the sad thing is that a lot of these guys did great deeds, they risked their lives for their fellow Americans.” In Vietnam, “no matter whether you liked someone or not, you always had a great amount of respect for them because they were in the same position as you were”, claimed Lazzarini. He also felt, “the lack of respect when soldiers got home is what hurt us the most”.
According to Lazzarini, “people did not know what we were capable of doing, what we had done, or what we had seen”. In Vietnam, he noted that everyone stayed together as a group and bonded. However, when they returned to the states, they didn’t come back as a group; they returned as individuals with no support group. Lazzarini stated, “there was so much negativity you just kinda blew off everybody and you went off on your own”. He also stated, “there was no detoxification, nobody told you that you might have problems, or that maybe we could help you out”. What Lazzarini really wanted was for “someone to say thanks for what he did”. This thanks did not come until much later in his life.
Most disturbing to Lazzarini was that in Vietnam, “you have to become somebody when you are in combat, to get you through everything you have to see and do”. Lazzarini also explained that when you return home, you have to bring that guy back with you and he is not you. That guy is not the same guy that went over to Vietnam; he is the guy that came back. For Lazzarini, the big question seemed to be “how do you get back to who you were and back into society”. According to Lazzarini, “there is no way you can forget the things you did, and the people and things you saw”. For him, the “hard part was trying to find who I was before going over, …the fun guy, instead of the cold, harsh, strange sense of humor guy that came back”. As a result of these feelings, Lazzarini spent a lot of time by himself after his return. In Vietnam, he was always on the go and he lost the ability to stand still. As a result, Lazzarini claimed he always had to be driving fast, or have the adrenaline going. He was man with a need for speed. Lazzarini also claimed that none of his old high school friends wanted to be around him because he was so radical and a bit violent. He drank a lot in the early days of his return, drove fast cars with the top down, and tried to meet young women. As with his old friends, the women were not responsive to him as a Vietnam Veteran. Although he was just happy to be home, Lazzarini was alone a lot.
After a few months of racing cars and relaxation, Lazzarini was encouraged to pursue a career in electronics given his high mechanical and electronic abilities. In 1967, he obtained a position with an electronics company in San Carlos, California. Later, Lazzarini went to work for IBM as an engineer and became a successful businessman. The need for speed was ever present with Lazzarini. He returned to his passion for speed and began racing cars at Sears Point and Laguna Seca in California. In addition, he began to build his own race cars. Today, Lazzarini spends more time fixing up cars than racing them. He currently is the founder of the 51-50 Foundation, a classic car organization in Novato, California.
Lazzarini tries to stay in touch with some of his friends from Vietnam. He also attempts to attend Little Bear Reunions held annually in Branson, Missouri. According to Lazzarini, Branson is a very patriotic town and always does something special for the Veterans. Lazzarini is also involved with Veteran events in Marin County and speaks regularly at schools and local Rotary groups about his experiences. It is important that he share his real experiences because there are so many misconceptions about Vietnam. In addition, Lazzarini noted that many Vietnam Veterans are dying quickly, at the rate of about 400 Veterans a day. He also was recently involved with the Vietnam Experience at the Petaluma History Museum. Lazzarini served on the advisory board with other combat Veterans. The exhibit included artifacts from Vietnam and films. According to Lazzarini, the Vietnam Experience had the highest attendance of any other exhibit held at the Museum. Despite the negative sentiments of Americans back in the 1970s, the American spirit and pride in the military was clearly evident at this exhibit. In fact, during the exhibit, Lazzarini finally received the one thing he wanted when he returned from Vietnam, a thank you for his service.
Today, Lazzarini resides in Greenbrae, California. He is retired from IBM and spends his time with his cars, speaking engagements and his other passion, writing. In his spare time, Lazzarini has found time to write two award winning books, Never Trust A Man In Curlers and Highest Traditions, and four plays including a prize winning musical, Tale of the Toy Soldier. Lazzarini is also involved with film making and directing. His short film, Highest Traditions, received the Outstanding Short Film Award from the Military Writers Society of America. The majority of his work is based on his experiences in Vietnam.
In reflecting upon his service in Vietnam, Lazzarini felt that the toughest part of his service was leaving his friends in Vietnam. He explained that the guys he flew with depended on him for their lives. In fact, it seemed that he was almost a good luck charm for his crew because he was never injured, despite the odds associated with the position of helicopter door gunner. According to Lazzarini, everybody he flew with got shot down once or twice. While he got shot up a bunch of times, his helicopter never went down. When Lazzarini left Vietnam, his big concern was that he was taking his luck with him.
Lazzarini feels strongly that all American should serve our county, whether it is in the military or in some other capacity. He also believes that his service in Vietnam was justified. Years after the war, he learned about the millions of refugees that fled Vietnam, their plight and desire to avoid communist rule. Many of these refugees are now in America as citizens and contributing to our society. Lazzarini also felt that some good did come from the Vietnam war; no returning soldier will ever be treated as poorly as the Vietnam Veterans. Veterans today are welcomed home as heroes, as they should be. Veterans today are also helping returning soldiers cope with what they saw and experienced. Many Veterans do not realize that the impact of their service may not hit them for years. As a result, there are many groups and services available today for Veterans to deal with their problems, unlike when Lazzarini returned from Vietnam.
Overall, Lazzarini felt his experience in Vietnam changed him as a man, as well as his outlook on life. After living with hardly anything and risking his life for people he didn’t know, Lazzarini realized that nothing could ever be worse than his situation in Vietnam. Today, he knows that no matter how bad the situation, he can always get himself out it, clearly and logically, and survive. The experience in Vietnam gave Lazzarini lots of confidence as an individual. While he does not believe that he is indestructible, he is a much more intelligent man today capable of overcoming any situation.
Lazzarini advises young people today to “believe in yourself”. He emphasized, “no situation is too hard that you can’t overcome it regardless of the odds”. According to Lazzarini, people you don’t know, or deal with on a day to day basis, could become your best friends. As a result, he suggested that young people today “treat everybody with respect because you don’t know whether that guy is going to save your life, or end it”. Lazzarini also feels that if he hadn’t gone in the military, he would be a different man today. He feels strongly that “your life is shaped by what you do”. In closing, Lazzarini reflected on how funny it is that one act could be enough to change his whole life.
The things Lazzarini saw and experienced in Vietnam stay with him today. He has used his traumatic experiences for the positive, and shares his stories through various mediums to educate Americans. While he is the embodiment of a modern day Renaissance man and has achieved much success, Lazzarini has been able to stay quite humble. As Lazzarini said best, “he is a lucky person”.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 20, 2011