SCOTT TWP. — During the Vietnam War, Cary “Rhody” Rhodomoyer watched in disbelief from his helicopter gunship as enemies engulfed in flames kept fighting.

The “drugged-up” Vietnamese dropped shells into their mortar tubes until fire burned them up, he recalled.

The incident made him wonder if he could’ve stayed and fought while someone fired 6,000 rounds per minute at him.

The Bloomsburg native was just 19 when he fought communists in Vietnam’s highlands from August 1967 to September 1968. “I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “I didn’t want to go.”

But Rhodomoyer, 65, Carroll Park, fulfilled his duties. His crew gave fire support to U.S. troops under attack, saving their lives.

While others headed to bunkers during mortar attacks, Rhodomoyer’s crew took off in attack helicopters.

Convoy protection

Rhodomoyer joined the Army to become a pilot. He ended up as a crew chief due to his bad vision at night.

He was stationed at Camp Enari, a base about the size of Mifflinville.

His job was to maintain the eight “Huey” helicopters in his company, “Gambler Guns.”

Each morning, two Hueys escorted supply convoys between the towns of Pleiku and Kon Tum, a 31-mile journey.

Gambler Guns also protected choppers giving return rides to soldiers after a patrol. To keep any enemies away, Rhodomoyer fired his door machine gun, an M-60, outside the landing zone.

‘We made it back’

Whenever the Vietcong ambushed a patrol, Rhodomoyer’s unit counter-attacked.

The enemies got so close, his gunship sometimes fired at targets just 10 feet from U.S. troops.

To ensure accuracy, Rhodomoyer’s crew flew right over the enemy, rather than keeping a distance. He never had a “friendly fire” incident.

He said Gambler Guns flew in any weather: “Raining? Who cares? Foggy? Who cares?”

Sometimes, they supported 200 to 300 soldiers on assault missions.

Rhodomoyer ended each day by saying: “We made it back … .”

War of wits

Camp Enari defended its perimeter with claymore mines, but infiltrators turned them around to face the base.

Had the mines detonated, they would have shot steel balls toward the camp. U.S. engineers started securing them with concrete.

Ground troops marked landing zones for helicopters with red smoke grenades. Soon, the Vietcong began luring choppers into ambushes with red smoke.

So U.S. troops used different colors and informed chopper crews by radio.

Rhodomoyer and his crew had a few tricks of their own.

They baited enemies into revealing their jungle hiding spots. They flew slowly at about 57 mph — their normal speed was 80-100 mph — to tempt someone into shooting at them.

Big like basketballs

Each Huey originally carried 14 rockets and six M-60s. Later, Gambler Guns replaced some of the M-60s with two Miniguns that together fired up to 6,000 rounds per minute, Rhodomoyer recalled.

The aircraft commander fired the rockets. His co-pilot controlled the Miniguns.

On night missions, Rhodomoyer could see green tracers — looking like glowing basketballs — coming at his helicopter.

It was actually .50-caliber machine-gun fire.

Close call

The spade symbol was unlucky to the Vietnamese, so Rhodomoyer’s company painted the emblem on the noses of its Hueys.

Once, the soldiers of Camp Enari did a security sweep in their area.

When they found two empty Vietcong bunkers, they left spade cards inside.

Rhodomoyer’s luck almost ran out during the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the enemy.

His Huey got hit on its way out of Pleiku. After a safe landing, his pilot killed the engine.

Suddenly, it started again by itself, apparently because the fuel caught fire. Everyone escaped before the gunship burst into flames.

Taking lives

War made him a better person, Rhodomoyer said. In combat, one sees what he is capable of.

And one can do some “rotten things,” he added.

During war, youths raised on “thou shall not kill” were told suddenly it was OK, he recalled.

Training made the transition easy, Rhodomoyer explained. It prepared him to react to threats.

In battle, Rhodomoyer and his crew were told to target a shed, a row of trees or “east of the smoke (grenade).” So even when they blew people up, they didn’t think of it that way.

‘Gives me chills’

What Rhodomoyer and his friends did, they did for their comrades on the ground, he said.

Once, a young man shook his hand after seeing his flight wings at muster. The medal with eight oak leaf clusters meant Rhodomoyer had flown 225 combat hours.

The man told him a story about his unit being surrounded. But then, the soldiers heard “whap whap whap” — the sounds of a Huey approaching.

They cried and cheered, knowing they were saved.

“That still gives me chills,” Rhodomoyer said.

Rhodomoyer’s story doesn’t end here. When his sister died years later, the grieving man begins having nightmares about one terrifying day in Vietnam. Read the second part of his story.

– GARY PANG, Press Enterprise Writer, Sept. 3, 2012