Captain – U.S. Army, 335th Assault Helicopter Company (Cowboys)
and 7th of 17th Air Calvary (Ruthless Riders)
Vietnam War (1966-1974)
James Stein was born in Lehi, Utah on December 28 1946, but by the time he entered high school he had lived all over the United States. His father was an engineer, and travelled for his work, so Stein and his family moved from Utah to New Mexico, to South Carolina, to Tennessee, to California, to Michigan, back to California and finally back to Utah. Stein was not the only military man in the family; his father and seven uncles served in either the Army, Navy or Air Force during World War II and Korea. Stein’s younger bother Tom served in Army Aviation as a helicopter crew chief in the mid 70’s. His mother was a housewife who raised the kids and later at the age of 52 fulfilled her dream of graduating in nursing.
Stein was living in St. George, Utah when he was drafted. Stein had finished two years of college, and had basic work experience doing heavy construction while working with his father on water dam projects in California. His family was taken by surprise, due to his education, but was not necessarily against the idea. Stein’s mother felt that the army would, “give [him] some structure.” He attended basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. For Stein, basic training was almost entirely a physical exercise, and since he had just finished playing football in college, he didn’t find it challenging.
After basic training Stein went to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, known as “Little Korea”, where he became a heavy equipment operator due to his experience with his father. Stein was designated platoon leader but even in his first leadership role Stein had little trouble with the training. Stein was then assigned to a 12-week course at Engineer OCS (Officer Candidates School), and for the first time he encountered difficulty, though it was mainly a matter of self-discipline. He completed the program and graduated as an Engineer 2nd Lt. Stein was then sent to flight school, first was primary training at Fort Wolters, Texas then advance and combat training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Stein remembers that his training there was fast-paced. The high demand for helicopter pilots during that period meant there was a lot to learn in a short amount of time. For Stein, training was all about discipline. Mental attitude was key; Stein believes that the way he was raised and the hard-working habits he had developed were his greatest assets. Stein remembered one dogma that helped him through, “They could wear you out, but they couldn’t beat you.” Completing flight school, Stein was assigned to Vietnam.
His first assignment in Vietnam was with the 335th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the “Cowboys”, located in Bear Cat, 30 miles southeast of Saigon; a base shared with the Thai Army. Most of his missions consisted of inserting troops into a landing zone and later extracting them from a pick up zone. In between pilots flew either supply or medevac missions. Stein remembers, “As a newbie you are referred to as a ‘Peter Pilot’, not sure of anything but treated quite well.” Stein soon realized that his training was far from over. Once at the base he received OJT assault training, learning how to land directly to the ground instead of a hover, how to land in a hot LZ, what kind of landing was appropriate in which scenarios, how to fly in formation and generally how to execute the necessary maneuvers he would be performing on missions. New pilots didn’t get to fly right away; that privilege had to be earned. Helicopter crewmen trusted each other with their lives; their fates were too intertwined to allow for any mistrust or hostility.
The living conditions and amenities were sparse, but adequate. Stein lived in one level barracks with the other officers in his flight platoon. At the base he could receive three hot meals a day, if flying maybe one. While in the area of operations however, meals consisted mainly of C-rations. Aircraft and ammunition, however, were always in full supply. When Stein was in Pleiku, his base’s supply lines were cut off and supplies had to be flown in, forcing them to rely on C-Rations alone. Stein and the other troops could communicate with their families back home; he wrote letters and made audiotapes but there was no telephone communication. The entertainment provided for the troops made no lasting impression on Stein; he remembers that movies would be brought in, and that once you were there long enough you were allowed off base, but otherwise there was, “not a lot going on.”
While the entertainment might not have left an impression on Stein, the camaraderie stayed with him for the rest of his life. Stein says he had, “a fantastic unit” and the more he got to know his fellow pilots and crew the more he appreciated them. This feeling was extended towards his commanding officers as well; they were “fantastic”, with effective training programs. As a member of a helicopter crew, Stein experienced one of the tightest bonds the military has to offer. “One thing you find is that in a helicopter unit you all learn to count on each other… What one does is in relation to what the others do. If a helicopter goes down, you count on a unit helicopter for the rescue. After the mission, you all try to help each other…” During his service with the 335th Stein was a slick (troop carrier) & gunship platoon commander, operation officer and a command and control pilot. He recalls a high percentage of crews, including himself, extended for a second tour, highlighting the depth of camaraderie.
Stein believes that he and his company accomplished what they were assigned to accomplish. “…we were very effective in what we did, in what we were trying to accomplish. Whether or not what we did helped the country I can’t tell you, its political. We were very good at what we did.”
After spending 21 months with the 335th Stein was assigned to Fort Carson Colorado and the 43rd General Support Group as an operations officer. He was there for six months before receiving a transition to go to private flight school to learn how to fly fixed wing aircraft and receive a commercial flight certificate. Stein never took leave while he was in Vietnam; instead he took an extended leave in between his first tour and his extension; he spent that time traveling around the United States seeing friends that he had flown with.
After finishing fix wing training Stein volunteered to return to Vietnam. Once there he was assigned to the 7th of 17th Air CAV (known as the “Ruthless Riders”) at Pleiku for what would be his last combat assignment. Stein’s role was different this time around. He now flew a helicopter known as a “light observation helicopter”, nicknamed Loach, that flew mainly reconnaissance missions. Stein remembers this time fondly, “Shortly after arriving I assumed command of a volunteer recon platoon know as the ‘Scalp Hunters’ and got to do what I always loved to do, which was fly everyday.”
During his time with the 335th Stein ran combat assault missions for the 7th and 9th ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Divisions, “…we received a lot of fire, lots of ships got shot down.” In the CAV our missions were to find the NVA and where they were moving. The same was true for his time in the Air CAV Stein could receive fire three or four times a day. Stein himself was shot down ten times, but as he says, “I had no issues or problems at all. “You can be scared but not afraid”. Stein said three things kept him going while in Vietnam. Like many men in Vietnam, the thrill and excitement were invigorating, war was an adventure like nothing he had experienced before. Stein was also lucky enough to do what he loved everyday: fly. Lastly, Stein’s aircraft doubled as a medevac (medical evacuation) and could be used to extract wounded soldiers back to base. Every time Stein flew he had the opportunity to save lives.
June 19, 1972 Stein was shot down for the tenth time and took a round in his right knee, resulting in the amputation of the leg. Looking back at the many rescue missions he ran for advisors, pilots, and crewmembers, especially during the Battle of Kontum, Stein felt he really should have died. During the time though, Stein says: “I felt invincible”. Even after the loss of his leg Stein didn’t immediately leave the service. He transferred to the Army Adjutant General Branch, and graduated from the Army Career Course in Indianapolis. After the course Stein decided to take a medical retirement.
Stein received Silver Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, the Cross of Gallantry with Gold & Silver Star, and 94 Air medals as well as several other defense ribbons.
After retiring from the military, Stein learned to ski at Lake Tahoe and participated in programs with the US Ski Team, giving him the opportunity to ski with some of the top skiers in the country. Stein traveled the country skiing and playing golf for ten years. While living winters in Park City, Utah helped the U.S. Ski organize the first two “Jill Saint John/Paul Mason” Celebrity Ski races, raising funds for the Ski team. During the summers, he organized many regional amputee golf tournaments and two national events.
Stein experienced no re-entry problems when he returned to the States. The general opinion of the American people was kept from the soldiers while they were in Vietnam, so Stein didn’t realize what was going on until he returned home. Stein was written up in “Star and Stripes” and appeared on television and received many letters, some “great” and some “horrible”.
He didn’t go back to school, simply because he didn’t feel the need to. Instead he got his real estate license, which he decided wasn’t for him. He then went to work as an operations officer for a private company in the Bay Area.
Stein still keeps in touch with many of the pilots and crewmen he met during his service. Every two years there is a reunion for every member of Stein’s 335th AHC and there is an annual reunion of the 7th of 17th CAV. The reunion features several activities and many videos, as well as a meeting room open 16 hours a day where there is always someone to talk to. Stein says that the reunions are, “Just a good time to get together and talk about what went on. The war stories get better and better every year. It’s good to get out there and clear your mind and talk about what went on.” In addition to this company reunion, Stein is a life member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association and has attended many of their reunions. He also makes sure to visit two of his friends from the war in Alabama every year. Forty years later these men and women still go to reunions and have a good time with each other; as Stein says, “There is a great bond in the aviation field.”
For Stein, the toughest part of his service was seeing so many of his comrades getting wounded and killed. As time went on though, “You get used to it and learned to live with it.” Stein remembers that he “…had no difficulty in going into enemy controlled territories, the tough thing was trying to convince your other pilots to continue doing it. To be a leader, show them you can do it and they will follow.” Stein was constantly flying, and he is grateful for that. “That was one of the great things, I was able to be out there with them all the time… I had responsibilities back at the base camp…but it was mainly in the AO (Area of Operations) where I wanted to be.”
Stein has shared several stories in a book, Kontum: the Battle to Save South Vietnam by Tom McKenna. Occurring in the spring of 1972, Kontum was a major spring offensive by the North Vietnamese and one of the key victories of the U.S. during the war. Stein referenced one of the many stories, the rescue of Lt. John “Tim” Conry. On May 9, 1972, after completing reconnaissance missions Stein was released to return to Camp Holloway. On his way he was radioed by command and asked to rescue a pilot of a downed Cobra gunship. Stein asked his wingman to stay on station in case Stein himself needed rescuing. On route Stein learned that Huey helicopters had tried several times to rescue the pilot, each time they were shot out of the area; Stein agreed to the mission, as he says “LOH [Light Observation Helicopter] drivers never wanted to leave anyone behind.” Stein arrived in the area at dusk and found the downed gunship but was unable to see the pilot. They hovered around taking some small arms fire before deciding to risk turning on the landing lights. Stein knew that once he turned on the lights the enemy would be able to see his helicopter and the area would erupt with gunfire. Sure enough, “The lights went on and the tracers started to zip by.” Stein’s observer sighted the pilot, Tim Conry, on his knees and Stein maneuvered to land next to him, having his observer get out and help him. Stein, “…told the gunships, once my aircraft is in the safe area blow everything else up… God you had to love those gun pilots.” Having flown guns with the Cowboys he knew how accurate gun pilots were. Stein successfully extracted the pilot and returned him to base with less than 10 minutes of fuel. Unfortunately, Lt Conry was pronounced dead by the medics. They stated Tim had been dead for hours, but Stein remembers talking to Lt. Conry twenty minutes earlier, “A chill ran up my back and as I walked out the door I took my fist and left a hole in their wall. I was pissed.” Looking back, Stein says that under those conditions they shouldn’t have had a chance of completing that extraction. It was one of the scariest moments of his deployment.
The most amazing moment of his tour came during the Battle of Kontum. Stein and his wingman, Jack Rodgers, had finished for the day and were returning to base. They agreed to fly low level through the pass risking small arms fire in favor of the high winds at higher altitude that day. As they rounded the last bend to leave the mountain pass Stein noticed a military convoy pinned down to the side of the mountain under fire. They were either ARVN or Korean troops. As Stein pressed his microphone to alert his wingman their ship was hit by three massive 50 caliber rounds nicknamed baseballs because, “…when they hit your aircraft it sounds like someone throwing a baseball from 10 feet.” Stein’s controls froze up, and the helicopter was locked in a 60-knot descent. Stein remembers, “At that same split second, as I realized that my controls were locked, my mind opened up and every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every page I had studied in the aircraft emergency procedures flashed in front of me. It was like my mind reacted to the situation and started the fastest computer sorting through the material… In the final outcome, there was not a thing we could do.” Stein and his observer had only one option: to crash-land their helicopter. They guided the helicopter by leaning in the same direction, tilting the craft, and flew as best they could towards a strip of low growth “The helicopter skids caught the top of a crater and we started to cartwheel. As we completed our first roll, that seemed to be in slow motion, I was thinking, ‘I’m still alive.’ Each time we rolled I thought the same thing… After the third roll, the aircraft stopped up side down. I asked my observer if he was OK… He then said, as he looked at me, something funny that I’ll never forget: ‘Well, are you going to turn the damn engine off?’” Stein and his observer successfully extricated themselves from the helicopter and ran to the nearby wingman’s ship under small arms fire, but neither sustained any injuries.
Stein shared one last story, one in which, at risk of sounding cliché, he stared death in the face. During his first tour, Stein had an off day from combat flying and instead was tasked to fly some supplies over to an ARVN fire support base. Stein remembers that the South Vietnamese soldiers were underfed, undersupplied, and had dangerously low morale. They had been fighting the war for years and were weary. After the supplies were unloaded from his helicopter, Stein turned in his seat and found himself staring down the barrel of a M79 grenade launcher held by a South Vietnamese soldier. Stein knew that if it were fired, the round wouldn’t detonate (to ensure it doesn’t harm its shooter the round doesn’t arm itself until it has completed a certain number of revolutions, traveling about 30 meters), however at that close range the round would have enough force to kill on impact. Stein learned that the camp was expecting a North Vietnamese attack that night, and that the ARVN soldiers were expecting to be overrun. The soldiers knew they did not have a chance, and wanted the Americans to get them out of there. Stein radioed to base asking where to take them and was instructed to take the South Vietnamese soldiers wherever they wanted to go, no need to get anyone killed. Stein took off and dropped the men where they wanted; later, Stein learned that the base had in fact been overrun that night.
Stein concluded with one piece of advice for all those interested in serving in the Armed Forces, “Go in and serve. There is nothing wrong with the military…you make of it what you want out of it… I served my country. It gave me a feeling that I could do anything. There was nothing I was afraid to do.”
Interview by Landon Kleinbrodt on July 14, 2012.