US Army, 178th Assault Support
Helicopter Company – Specialist 5
Vietnam War (August 1966 – August 1969)
Bob Means feels dire frustration in regards to his experiences with the U.S. government while in Vietnam; this frustration is reminiscent of that Germany felt following World War I. Despite far fetched near death mishaps, Means looks to ameliorate the world of its problems.
Means was born in Alameda, California; however, grew up in Oakland. His mother was a housewife, but still managed to complete a tremendous amount of work with the PTA and his father was a liquor salesman. Means’ father and uncle served in World War II and his mother served in the civilian corps. Graduating from high school in 1965, Means was aware of the Vietnam War, and he thought that he and his friends would be drafted. He thinks the U.S. got involved in the war to keep people free back in Vietnam.
Prior to being drafted, Means was a high school graduate and had completed about six months at Laney College. He had worked at his local Chevron Station, Standard Oil which he enjoyed because he got to work on his car. He liked to use his hands and get a little dirty. When he was drafted, Means was living in Oakland, California. His family assumed that he would be drafted and thus there was little reaction at all to the occurrence. Since he wanted to fly, after being drafted, Means enlisted in the Army with a provision that he would have an opportunity to apply for pilot school.
Prior to his basic training, Means applied and failed to get into Warrant Officer Candidate School to be a pilot, which he had wanted to be. This was due to the fact that the test he took was on rotary-wing aircrafts and he only knew about fixed-wing aircrafts. Even so, Means was able to stay in aviation for a three-year enlistment. Means had basic training for the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis, Washington and later went to Fort Rucker, Alabama. At Fort Rucker, he learned a lot about all the different kinds of aviation engines, which included: opposed engines, radial engines and so on. After that, Means went to Fort McClellan, Alabama and worked on a twin engine CH-40 helicopter there, that had previously crashed.
At basic training, Means’ experience was normal. He liked the fact that the rules were really clear. He also thought of it as similar to playing for a serious sports team. If one of the team members screwed up, then the entire team would have to pay for it. Means had no trouble following the rules. There was one occasion in which Means got chewed out for not shaving, but that was it. Overall, Means felt that his basic training was taken very seriously and was terrifically thorough and effective. He was able to complete the training with relative ease because he had been raised by strong parents who held him accountable and that was very similar to how his training was run.
Before being sent to his first assignment, Means had a leave for one to two weeks. During that time he specifically remembers selling his 1955 Chevy then for $350.
Means was sent to Vietnam in August of 1967. Upon his arrival at Cam Ranh Bay, Means received special training. He was trained on a helicopter that was no longer in use. He was later sent to a newer helicopter, the Chinook, which is still used today and will be used in years to come. He kept moving north until he ended up around Chu Lai and did some guard duty up there. He was then assigned to the 178th Assault Support Helicopter Company. At this time Means was a private first class.
One of Means’ duties before he got his own helicopter and became the crew chief was a “shit stirrer.” Specifically, there were big plywood structures with holes in them for guy to go in and crap (latrines), and under them there were 55 gallon drums. Then guys like Means would throw diesel fuel in and light it on fire, get a big stick and stir it. That’s how they would empty the drums. While he did this, it was extremely hot in Vietnam and it was even hotter with the fire coming off.
In Vietnam, Means also crewed a helicopter. He flew every day and put thousands of hours in the air. There were two pilots and three enlisted crew, which included Means. His chopper would resupply units, bring artillery out, sling-load underneath the helicopter, do combat assaults with troops on board and pick up aircrafts that were down. He thought his assignment was pretty cool because he was in Vietnam to do a meaningful job with machines that he enjoyed. The living situation was mediocre at best. He would reside on the beach in Chu Lai away from the flight line. Means would sleep in bunks with somewhere around 30 guys in a place. The food was awful. He remembers the mess hall having roast beef that had a fake red color that didn’t look right. On his helicopter he had C-rations that had to be heated up to eat. Means and his crew would put some sand in it and put some JP-4 helicopter fuel and light it to cook the food. He describes the food as tasting like the JP-4 which wasn’t good. Even so, he still believed it was better than the mess hall food. Then on occasional CARE package from home would bring beef jerky and that was what everyone lived for. For entertainment, Means had an Enlisted Men’s Club down by the beach where he would go and drink warm Korean beer, but for the most part Means didn’t need much entertainment as he would be busy flying for 16 hours a day.
There was an event that Means will never forget. He could see his life flash before his eyes. There was a bird dog aircraft that had gone down. It was a fixed-wing observation aircraft. He remembers, “We flew by it, and I talked to my – my guys in the back. They said, ‘Do you know what’s going to happen?’ I said, ‘You know what’s going to happen is, they’re going to call us in at the end of the day to pick that thing up.’ And, in the meantime, the Gooks – pardon me. Our – our bad guys, our enemy – are going to be all set up for it. So guess what happens? At the end of the day, they call my shift to go and pick this aircraft up. So (exhales) we go in there, and they had guys on the ground. We picked it up. You know, we picked it up as a sling load underneath our helicopter, and we — You know, our job is to bring it back so they can repair it and put it back in service. We pick it up, and as soon as we pick it up, I start getting these green baseball tracers coming at us, which are the North Vietnamese 50-caliber rounds. And the tracers coming in, it’s every 5th, and I’m going, ‘Ah, shit!’ This is a long story. You probably don’t even want to know it. You know, we – we should just – don’t do it. Anyway, but now this – I guess, at the end of that story, through all of it, what I saw was, I lost this aircraft, and it was going up into my rotor blades, and I knew we were screwed. If rotor…blades strike, you can’t survive. I started to roll, and, at the time it did, and I’ve never forgotten this, (exhales) my whole life flashed before me, because I knew I was fucked.”
“And that’s where I said you can really see your life flash before you. I mean it was – It was like – It was like a flutter. It just went like that. And there were so many things in my life that I had seen. But there was – There was just a number of things that led up to that particular moment. Everything was going wrong. You know, getting shot at. I had a smoke grenade, which we used to throw, because they had gunships with me. I had a purple smoke grenade that I was going to throw, which indicated you’re getting shot at. I had a gunner up on the right side who was a new guy. And he was trained to not shoot unless you can see your target. And I’m telling him, ‘Just shoot the fuck out of everything. I don’t care if you’ve got a target. Do it.’ And I lost the smoke grenade, and it was rolling around my ship, inside, which I’ve got a magnesium floor, which is very flammable. I’ve got my pistol grip in this hand, and I’m looking at this airplane that’s going like that. And I’m telling the pilot – I said, ‘Sir, I’ve got to punch this thing off.’ Which was unusual, but ‘punching it off’ means I let the hook go, and that thing takes off. But I’d lost the pistol grip. The last thing I (loud noise) – I don’t even know why I’m doing this shit. Last thing I saw was that airplane going up – I lost sight of it through the hole, which is where my sight is, looking down it. I lost sight of it, and I knew it was going up in the blades. Therefore you’re screwed. The pilot happened to see it — we talked about what had happened – to see it out of the corner of his eye, and – and banked my ship this way. So it went off, and it broke. It broke. It – it broke the rigging we had on it, and it went off.”
The highest rank Means achieved was specialist five. Despite stories about drug abuse as a coping mechanism in wars and Vietnam in particular, Means never saw any of it. He is very proud of the men he served with. In fact there is a reunion every year, but he doesn’t attend because it’s too far away in the South somewhere. As for effectiveness, Means believes that his unit was very effective, but thinks the country let him down. He believes the U.S. had the Tet offensive in 1968 won until it became political. Even so, Means stated he would do it again in a heartbeat. Overall, Means loved his guys in Vietnam. Means also thought the officers above him did a great job.
Means coped with his experiences in Vietnam on a day to day basis using a variety of tactics. He has always been a little religious, but in Vietnam he didn’t ask God to take care of him. He was too busy being worried about the guys that got in his helicopter and about failure. During his service, Means needed no motivation as he had no choice as walking away isn’t an option. He was always allowed to communicate with his family via mail. Means always had sufficient supplies in all aspects of the word, even if it wasn’t of the greatest quality.
In Vietnam, Means had a leave in which he went to Australia. He had always wanted to go there even though he had no particular reason for wanting to do so. In Vietnam Means busted some teeth and got a cut on his eye, but never got shot or anything. Means is very proud of his Air Medal with “V” Device awarded twice. He received sixteen clusters for hours in the air. He also got the Army commendation with “V” Device. The rest of the medals he received were ones that everyone else gets. Today Means keeps in touch with some of the men he served with by email, but Means regrets not being able to attend the reunions.
Means was discharged at Fort Belvoir Virginia in 1969. At the time he was driving a very nice 1966 Chevelle which he paid $2000 for, which was big money then. He then drove home in it. Upon arriving home in Oakland, Means had no problem with his reception from fellow Americans. He immediately tried to contact some of his old friends and enjoyed spending time with his family at home. He started looking for a job and became a Long’s Drugs clerk. He took some flight lessons and even had all the hours he needed to get his private pilot’s license, but decided that flying had lost its luster for him. He then got into college to pursue a fire career because some guys were talking about being firemen, which sounded right up Means’ ally. He started going to Chabot College, taking fire science. During this experience, Means realized that although he was a poor student his entire life, he could be good at something if he liked it enough. He realized firefighting was what he wanted to do. He failed numerous tests and kept getting very close to becoming a fireman many times. Eventually, in 1972, Means became a fireman in San Rafael. He worked there for two years and passed Oakland’s test and did 28 years of service there.
Since his service, Means became a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Lafayette Post 8063, but let his membership lapse after he lost his seniority. Now he is post commander of the American Legion Post 313, Twin Cities. The post claims 180 members and supports themselves.
In the end, Means believes we failed Vietnam. He stated, “We won Vietnam. Our politicians, dare I say our dumbass kids back there that don’t know anything, but it’s done. We had that won. It’s actually on record by what’s-his-name, General – General Giáp, who was the commanding general in Vietnam, has also stated we had ‘em beat. But then, at Tet, our politicians and such let us down. The Vietnamese people are wonderful. I attended…an event here just last month sponsored by them. They’re very proud of being non-Communist, being a republic and such. We had all that. We had all that, and the – and the Vietnamese people were wonderful. It’s a beautiful country. So, short story long, pardon me, we let ‘em down. Our country let us down. We gave up 50,000-plus lives over there, and then my country threw us in the snow.” He believes that we must remember we had the war won. The Tet Offensive drastically changed the way things were as far as intensity is concerned. We started playing to lose.
Means believes his service was justified as he believes everyone should put some kind of service in. He believes we have a great country and we take what it offers for granted. In order to understand this and stop blaming our own problems on others, it would be good for the people of the U.S. to see what the country does for them. America is isolated and the citizens don’t understand what they have that other countries lack. “I think it – it really made me grow up. It made me realize I was capable of better things, that I could learn. That I was responsible for my actions. You know, I could go and on and on, but the military is a fantastic experience, especially since I didn’t get killed or anything. That – that was good, too. Otherwise, I couldn’t be sitting here talking with you, but, yeah. I appreciate my military service, and I think, at some level, whether it’s military or something else, everyone, including yourself – should have to do that, where – where you just – You know, you’re not in charge. Somebody is in charge of you. It’s a team effort, and you don’t just get to walk off the job or anything. You know, there’s consequences. I think everyone needs that background. I think it would help the whole country.”
Compared to other wars, Means thinks his experience has been more or less of the same idea with technological advancements along the way. Means stated, “You’re going to do stuff you don’t want to do. You do something that actually scares the crap out of you. So that’s where your training comes in. And then you can go back to the Civil War. You know, there’s a guy next to you. There’s a guy next to you here. Are you going to be the one that runs? And, if you do, which one of these guys is going to be around to tell the story? So you don’t do it. So basically, I think it’s – it’s all the same. You – you don’t want to let each other down. You’ve got to do it. It’s a mission….I used to tell my gunners. I said, ‘You’ve got to kill them before they kill you.’”
As a result of his service and how the government decided things in the Vietnam War, Means is bitter. He is bitter in a good way however, as he willingly seeks opportunities to make the world a better place so that future generations may face problems with more support than he did. He is a man of good heart and it is no surprise that he is now post commander of American Legion Post 313 as he radiates leadership.
Interview by Jacob Bruner on June 4th, 2016