Joseph M. Bilitzke
Chief Warrant Officer – U.S. Army Aviation
Vietnam (1966-1969), Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991), & Operation Enduring Freedom/GWOT (2000-2006)
Joseph (Joe) M. Bilitzke, of San Anselmo, California, is a distinguished career military officer. Bilitzke served in the Army, both active and reserve, for 40 years and has been deployed across the world. He has flown missions from Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait to Afghanistan. Bilitzke served with the elite Special Forces group and was attached to Project Delta, the forerunner of the current Delta Force. Now in retirement, Bilitzke continues to travel around the world exploring and learning. A man with wanderlust and a gusto for life.
Bilitzke was born on May 16, 1944 in Detroit, Michigan. He spent his formative years in Michigan and was son of the Michigan Deputy Attorney General. Many of Bilitzke’s family served in the military. His father and two paternal uncles all served as military pilots during World War II, and his paternal aunt was a nurse in Italy during World War II. Bilitzke’s career in the military began at the age of fourteen when he joined the Civil Air Patrol, and the Civilian Auxiliary of the Air Force. He became well acquainted with military rules, regulations and life, prior to actually going into active military service. Bilitzke continued his involvement with Civil Air Patrol and Civilian Auxiliary through high school and college. While attending Michigan State University, Bilitzke decided to join Army Aviation. According to Bilitzke, “I wanted to fly knowing that the draft was always facing every young male after the age of 18. I took the examinations for Army flight school, passed those examinations and volunteered to attend Army Aviation helicopter training. “
Bilitzke was sworn into the US Army in late 1966 and attended basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana in January 1967. According to Bilitzke, “it was a 9 week course where we spent a lot of time running, learning how to fire weapons, maintain our uniforms, a lot of time being hollered at, and of course, everybody had to experience going through KP. I learned how to peel potatoes at 3 in the morning in a mess hall.” He also felt his training was taken very seriously. “The whole purpose of basic training at that point in time was to prepare each of us for Vietnam. Again, that was our inevitable destination for the vast majority of people going through basic training,” noted Bilitzke. “I think both the training, and those of us who were participating in the training, were all very serious about what was being presented, and how it was being learned because it literally was going to be a life and death situation in a matter of weeks following basic training”, claimed Bilitzke. He further noted, “We were thrown a lot of material, in a very short period of time, expected to absorb it, and to be able to learn the methods being taught.”
After completion of basic training in March 1967, Bilitzke went to Fort Walters, Texas to begin primary helicopter flight training. His first month was strictly academics, he never saw a helicopter. The rest of the time at Fort Walters was split between academics: learning aviation and aeronautics, and the other half of the time was spent on a flight line learning how to fly helicopters. Bilitzke joked, “throughout it all, we were assigned a tactical officer whose sole purpose, we always thought, was to make us quit. It was constant harassment and double-timing, we ran everywhere we went.” The whole idea, he later learned, was that if he couldn’t take the harassment in primary flight school, than he would probably not make a good candidate to be flying helicopters in a combat situation in Vietnam. Following Fort Walters, Bilitzke and his class moved on to Fort Rucker, Alabama where they began the advanced portion of flight school, and eventually moved up to Huey Helicopters. Bilitzke spent the next several months in advanced flight school with a tactical officer at his throat the whole time. However, he learned how to fly on instruments, to fly at night, learned cross country, and honed all of the skills that were initially taught to him at Fort Walters in primary helicopter training.
In December of 1967, Bilitzke graduated from flight school and received the rank of Warrant Officer One, in conjunction with being awarded his wings. From that time on, Bilitzke was a member of the U.S. Army, Aviation Branch. Bilitzke’s father, a veteran and former Air Force Reserve Squadron Commander, was very supportive of his joining the Army. His mother, however, as with most mothers, was not so happy with the choice, especially knowing that following flight school that Vietnam was the inevitable destination. According to Bilitzke, upon joining the Army he knew that he would most likely be sent to Vietnam.
In January of 1968, Bilitzke was deployed to Vietnam. After only a few days in Vietnam, he was able to experience the Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968; the simultaneous attack of over 100 different military and civilian cities and military sites. According to Bilitzke, he spent all of 1968 and part of 1969 in Vietnam serving first in a Huey, or “slicks”, the troop carrying Huey helicopters, and then moving over to Huey helicopter gunships, which he flew for the rest of his tour in Vietnam. When he first arrived in Vietnam, Bilitzke was a Warrant Officer One. A Warrant Officer is an officer with a specialty; aviation. Once he got into gunships, Bilitzke eventually moved from what he lovingly called “Peter Pilot”; the right seat of the helicopter, to the left seat as an aircraft commander, to become a fire team leader which gives you command of a number of gunships, in support of the troops on the ground, and the other unarmed helicopters. Bilitzke was also a Property Book Officer which meant you had to maintain all of the supplies, from the helicopters down to the ammunition, for the helicopter gunship platoon. Bilitzke held these positions until he terminated his tour active duty in Vietnam in 1969.
When Bilitzke first arrived in Vietnam, he felt “lost, befuddled and bewildered.” He explained, “there is no training that is going to give you the ability to walk into your first duty station in Vietnam and have any idea what’s going on. We were literally assigned to a senior pilot, and that individual personally guided me, and helped me learn the ropes for the first few months in Vietnam.” For the majority of his deployment in Vietnam, Bilitzke was attached to Special Forces, in particular to Project Delta, the forerunner of the current Delta Force. He primarily lived under canvas, out in the field, eating LRRP and C- rations. Once in a while, he was able to get back to his home base which was the headquarters of the Fifth Special Forces Group, where the aircraft could be maintained and he could get a little R&R before going back to the field. Bilitzke claimed that the food in Vietnam was generally acceptable and if he drank lots of water after eating LRRP rations (issued to members of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols), he could get this food to fill him up. As far as entertainment, Bilitzke claims it was generally early to bed, and early to rise when he was in the field. There was no entertainment, no computers or telephones, and no computer games. Bilitzke said, “We had each other and a mission to do, so we spent a lot of time waiting for the next mission.”
Each unit in Vietnam had a particular mission. Bilitzke worked with Project Delta, Fifth Special Forces Group, and there were a lot of specialized activities. One such activity was learning how to fly with 3 people at the end of a McGuire rig. A McGuire rig and is simply a long rope with three harnesses. Bilitzke had to learn how to fly with people dangling from a McGuire rig with people going up and down rope ladders. Once he got into gunships, Bilitzke claimed, “it was learning the weapon systems and how to fire the weapon systems most effectively.” Bilitzke’s highest rank when he left Vietnam as a Chief Warrant Officer 2.
Overall, Bilitzke felt the morale of his unit in Vietnam was good. He claimed that there is a vast difference between an Aviation Unit and a Ground or Infantry Unit. Bilitzke noted, “in 1968, the draft was in full force, so the vast majority of the infantry on the ground were draftees and were people who basically did not want to be there.” He noted further, “those of us in an Aviation Unit were all volunteers, and although we may not have been real thrilled with our particular plight sometimes, we were all there because we had volunteered to be there.” Bilitzke felt very positive about his fellow personnel in Vietnam. He claimed, “You would live and die for the person flying next to you. We were a band of brothers, enlisted and officers. We flew together, we lived in the field together and people lived and died together. We were all there as a unit, as a team. For the most part, we would do anything necessary to help that person next to you.”
Following his active duty tour in Vietnam, Bilitzke returned to Fort Rucker, Alabama to the Army Aviation Center. He went through instructor pilot training and became an instructor pilot for instructor pilots in helicopter gunships. Bilitzke taught pilots from all branches, including foreign pilots, how to become instructor pilots in helicopter gunships. He performed both platform and flight instruction during his next few years back in Fort Rucker between 1969 and 1972.
After Bilitzke’s active duty at Fort Rucker, he reverted to a reserve program and flew on multiple tours with various active duty and reserve units around the country from 1973 to 1986. From 1987 to 1996, Bilitzke was attached to the 343rd Medical Detachment out of Hamilton Field and Moffett Field in California. He served as an aviator, operations officer, flight section leader and a class A agent. In 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait, Bilitzke’s reserve unit, a medevac unit, was mobilized and sent to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. He served from 1990 to 1991 in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and was an aviator, medical evacuation pilot, flight section leader and a unit field sanitation and hygiene officer. According to Bilitzke, his unit was small, only 6 helicopters. They were a medevac attachment that performed medical evacuations. His unit was well trained and able to hit the ground running.
One of the reasons for the early success was the use of improved night vision goggles and GPS. During Desert Storm, the aviators flew a lot at night and flew using night vision goggles. They flew at low level, in complete darkness. “Using those goggles was certainly something that had to be learned”, claimed Bilitzke. In addition, he and the unit had to learn to use a new-fangled gadget called the GPS. They were issued some GPSs and the crew chiefs, had to determine how they were going to be attached to the aircraft and used to monitor satellites.
By Desert Storm, Bilitzke’s highest rank was CW4, Chief Warrant Officer 4, as an Aviation Warrant Officer. He was one of the two team leaders for his detachment. During Desert Storm, one team was sent up to Kuwait City, and he had the other team in Northern Saudi Arabia. Following the war, Bilitzke and his unit did a lot of transfer of wounded prisoners, bringing them back to U.S. hospitals in the area of Northern Saudi Arabia. According to Bilitzke, “For the most part, the war being as successful and quick as it was, our initial goal of having to move thousands of wounded U.S. troops, over the course of weeks and weeks, thankfully did not materialize. The ground war actually was over within a week.”
During Operation Desert Storm, Bilitzke noted, “the food was much better than in Vietnam, but the tents were the same.” They were the same World War II era tents used in Vietnam, only by this time; those World War II tents had a few more holes in them. Living in the desert, Bilitzke and his unit suffered through sandstorms that the tents were not able to slow down. According to Bilitzke, “between the sandstorms and the cold weather in the winter time, living conditions were minimal at best.” Food rations did improve by 1990 in comparison to those supplied during Vietnam.
Following his active duty in Desert Storm, Bilitzke returned to his reserve unit at Hamilton Field in Marin County. He flew with that unit until it was forced to move when Hamilton Field closed. Thereafter, he was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 363rd Regiment, 91st Division at Camp Parks from 1996 to 1997 doing training of other units who were training up to deploy. From 1997 to 2000, he was assigned to the 6/52nd Aviation Regiment, 244th Aviation Brigade in Los Alamitos, California. Following those reserve assignments, Bilitzke was mobilized once again following 9/11. He was mobilized back to a non-aviation unit, the 91st Division, during Operation Enduring Freedom/GWOT. The 91st Division was a training division and its responsibility was to train active and reserve forces that were eventually to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Biltizke served as the Assistant Division G2, the Division Security Manager, the Division Force Protection/Antiterrorism Officer, and the Division Top Secret Control Officer during Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2006, at the mandatory age of 62, holding the highest rank of CW4, Chief Warrant Officer 4, Joe Bilitzke retired from the US Army.
Overall, Bilitzke coped with life in the military by “making the best with what you have and what you have to do.” Every deployment was different for Bilitzke and the flying was different, too. In Vietnam he flew in the jungle, during Desert Storm, he flew in the desert, and during his last active duty deployment, he “flew a desk as an intelligence officer.” Bilitzke claims that “each of his active duty deployments was varied in the context of historical time and place and duties, as well as his own experience throughout his 40 years in the military.” He also noted, “I liked what I was doing. I liked the camaraderie and you have to like the military in order to stay in I believe. It was nothing I was forced to do. It was something that I volunteered to do and in retrospect, enjoyed almost all of it.”
During his military career, Bilitzke did incur a few injuries. While in Vietnam, he received AK-47 fire and was shot. He had been in Vietnam for 3 months and was picking up the Special Forces in the jungle. There was really no landing point, so he had to hover and drop rope ladders. While team members were climbing rope ladders, he received small arms fire through the bottom of the helicopter. One of the members had climbed the rope ladder, made it into the aircraft, and was subsequently killed by AK-47 rounds coming up through the helicopter. At the same time, the rounds were coming up and Bilitzke was hit on the right side on the leg and foot. Bilitzke and the crew had to evacuate the area with the rope ladders still extended, lost one of their team members who was shot off the rope ladder, finally landed the helicopter. Bilitzke was also shot down a number of times in Vietnam and had the usual helicopter problems in Desert Storm, and as well as flying stateside. According to Bilitzke, “any time you climb into a helicopter, you have 10,000 fires moving in opposition and you always fly with the idea that that helicopter is gonna want to go on the ground whether you want it to or not.”
During his 40 years of service, Bilitzke claims that “he got the usual awards that are given to those who are in a particular war zone or area. We call them “I Was There” medals.” Bilitzke received his compliment of air medals, air medals with the V device, bronze stars with a V device, a Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit, just to name a few. During the course of his 40 year career in the military, Bilitzke made many friends. He still keeps in touch with a good number of them. Bilitzke is active in the association that was formed by his old Vietnam unit, and still gets together annually with them. He also served as the past president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association which is over 6,000 members strong. Bilitzke also still sees people that he served with in Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is also a member of the Military Officers Association of America and Reserve Officer’s Association.
Bilitzke’s retirement was marked with mixed emotions. Although he initially received an extension on his retirement from the customary age of 60 to 62, Bilitzke felt he still had a lot of things that he looked forward to doing while still in uniform. He knew, however, that it was time to give others a chance, and it was time to leave the Army. After his retirement, Bilitzke and his wife began to travel worldwide. Although he had a prosperous business in San Francisco during his reservist years, he turned the enterprise over to his employees after being mobilized following the attack on 9/11. It was too difficult to run the business while he had intelligence duties outside the U.S. Bilitzke finally gave up his business after his retirement from the military and claims to be “gainfully unemployed and reliant upon his military retirement.”
Upon reflection on his service, Bilitzke felt that the toughest part of his service was flying and getting shot at. He claimed, “as an army aviator, I think we tend to shelve the tough times and only remember and live with the times that we consider to be good times.” “I think any time you strap a helicopter on, is a scary time. I don’t care how well maintained they are, the helicopter is not designed to fly. So every little noise and every little bump tends to be given your full attention”, noted Bilitzke. He also stated, “most people would think combat is a scary time. It’s more a time of intense concentration, I believe, rather than thinking in terms of being scared.” Bilitzke feels that “military training is good training, and combat training is the best training because you tend to act and react as you’re trained.” It is what got Bilitzke through those particular times in combat.
Bilitzke feels that the sacrifices he made during his service were justified, but not in terms of the big picture that anything he did might help to save America. During any war, and especially in a combat situation, Bilitzke feels that the only thing we justify is “protecting the guy next to you.” “It becomes a very, very small world when bullets are flying and those people that are strapped into that helicopter along with you, are the justification for that particular war,” Bilitzke believes.
Bilitzke does not recall any one memorable moment during his military career, they all blur together after time. His advice to those considering military service, “Go for it.” Bilitzke notes, “we will always have a need for the military. It may be smaller numbers, but for those of you who want to go into the military, I applaud you and warmly welcome you.” He emphasized that there are two things to get ready; brains and body. The Army now accepts people who have a high school education or more. The Army is no longer an institution where people are drafted. According to Bilitzke, “young people today have a choice of being in the military because they want to be in the military. The highly involved technical military of today is going to take a highly technical, skilled and educated person, to operate the things that are needed to be operated in today’s modern military.” In closing, Bilitzke advises, “make sure you get in shape because over 30% of our youth are not accepted into the military because they’re simply too fat.” The Army, in particular, is an outdoor sport. You need to be in shape, be able to run, and carry 100 pounds on your back uphill for days and days at a time. Bilitzke advised that “being in shape is necessary for the military and for life. So, take care of your brains, take care of your body, and best of luck in military service.”
Bilitzke’s gusto for life has served him well. It kept him sharp in the jungles of Vietnam and in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. It now motivates him to keep exploring the world and continue his thirst for knowledge. He continues to move forward in life, with a happy outlook for his retirement, and his wife and Golden Retriever at his side.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 20, 2011.