written by Curtis McLachlan
Curtis McLachlan is a Vietnam veteran who owns Curtis McLachlan Construction & Remodeling in Carson City, Nevada. He also runs the Vietnam War Memorial Museum in Carson City.
SP4 Curtis McLaughlin, June 1970-April 1972, Vietnam
In 1969, just after I’d graduated high school in the Los Angeles area, my mother died in a car accident. My father had died the same six years earlier, when I was 13 years old.
I lived along in the empty house until courts stepped in and locked me out.
I lived in my car, worked odd jobs, and showered occasionally at buddies’ houses. Then, in September 1969, I got my draft notice.
With no other future I could see, I signed up for a three-year hitch in the Army, knowing full well I would be heading to Vietnam.
My recruiter told me about another guy scheduled to go in at the same time as me with the same MOS, aviation mechanic. He said to watch out for him in Basic Training, he’d probably be in my same training company.
The recruiter was right. I met Douglas B. Kent toward the end of Basic at Fort Ord, right before 10 days leave. Since I had no one to go home to, I went with Doug and stayed with his family. His parents, it turned out, had known members of my family. It felt good to make that connection.
Doug and I both headed off to Fort Eustis in Virginia for helicopter mechanics school, where we were trained as propeller and rotor mechanic specialists.
Doug and I left for Vietnam together in June 1970. We were put in the same “holding tank” at Cameron Bay while we awaited orders. Doug eventually went to Pleiku. I got assigned to the 155th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) Camp Coryell, Ban Me Thuot.
I gave my orders to my commander and followed him down the flight line toward what I thought would be the prop and rotor shop.
Instead, it was the turbine engine shop. I hadn’t been trained on turbine engines at all. It’s a higher-level skill and requires a lot more time and training.
“Sir, what am I doing here?”
“See that GI over there,” the commander said. “He’s leaving in two weeks and you will be in charge of this shop. I suggest you get your head out of your ass, son. This is the Army and you’re in ‘Nam now. I suggest you start to learn and understand your new responsibility so you don’t get our men killed because you didn’t do your job correctly.”
I spent what seemed like 24 hours a day reading up on helicopter engines and asking as many questions as I could think of. I don’t know how I stayed awake for two weeks or how I took over the operation once the guy I replaced rotated out. All I know is I had the responsibility not to get our men killed by keeping those Hueys in the air.
During my two-weeks crash course, I ran my first test flight. When you replace a helicopter engine, you have to take it on the flight line and test it. I was told to get my gear and test gauge equipment to read the metering.
I had no idea what gear or equipment he meant, but the crew chief helped me out. In the helicopter I went, behind the pilot.
We took off. It seemed like I was supposed to do something, but what, I had no clue.
After a few minutes in the air, the pilot called me up front to the co-pilot’s seat.
The pilot then let go and said, “she’s all yours now.”
I took control of the Huey and learned the very basics of how to keep a bird like that in the air.
The 155th shut down after four months, and I went to the 192nd AHC in Dong Ba Thin. Once again, I was in engines shop and still didn’t really know what I was doing. I also filled in as door gunner and on the rescue and recovery team.
The 192nd went home, and the 243rd Chinook unit moved in. Chinooks meant two engines, twice the responsibility per helicopter!
One day, I was flying in a Chinook back to base. I leaned over through the gunner’s window to take a picture from about 3,000 feet up. I slipped.
I felt myself falling helplessly into the abyss, when I felt a big hand grab the back of my pants and pull me into the Chinook.
I looked around. No one was there. Just the pilot.
My life hasn’t been the same since that moment. I knew I wasn’t alone.
One time, a Chinook from another unit called in for an emergency landing. He only had three of the four landing gear working. A fron wheel and arm had gotten ripped off by tree tops. He was low on fuel and needed to land.
A small group of us prepared for the landing. We got a 55-gallon drum, filled it with water, and took it to a place in the field away from the flight line. If something went awry, we didn’t want anything else to be destroyed.
The Chinook came in and landed on its back gears and gently hovered as we placed the drum under the broken front gear. The pilot lowered the front into the drum.
The drum started to buckled and give way to the weight of the Chinook. The pilot lifted off it.
We needed a new plan.
We tried a similar drum, this time, filled with sand.
By this time, the fuel gauge was on empty. The crew was sweating it out. If the blades stopped rotating, the pilot wouldn’t be able to control the bird, the blades would hit the ground, and the helicopter would just explode apart.
The pilot expertly set the Chinook down on the sand barrow. It started to crush, but then stopped and held.
We scrambled out from underneath the helicopter and yelled, “It’s holding! Get the hell out now!”
Just as the last crew member exited, the helicopter ran out of fuel and stopped.
After the 243rd was sent home, I moved to the 388th Support Unit in Vung Tau, where the in-country R&R was located. I pulled guard duty in the old French bunkers and guard towers until it was my turn to board the Freedom Bird for home.
We landed in Fort Lewis, Washington, around midnight. The idea was to arrive under dark to avoid protesters. I had to process out of the service. That took a couple hours. Then, a “thank you” steak dinner. A steak dinner for serving your country.
At Fort Lewis, I washed my face, exited to where you could get a cab, and headed to the airport for a flight to LAX.
I landed at 6:30am and headed to my sister’s apartment. No one was there.
The one thing I wanted to do was drive my ’63 Corvette, which had been awaiting my return.
If things had been different, I might have gotten together with Doug and his family. But Doug had been killed on January 5, 1971 at Pleiku. He was up on a test flight in a Huey after a new engine had been put in. The helicopter wasn’t ready for action, and it crashed.
In the years that followed, I tried to forget Vietnam and followed my strong will for survival.
I became a successful contractor in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area of Nevada.
In 1985, I saw the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in Reno, It sparked a desire to revisit the memories I had tried to put behind me. I dug out old photos of Vietnam and started building my first photo display panel, which eventually grew to become an entire Museum.
Now in semi-retirement, I’m seeking a permanent home for the Museum, so the memories of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country can be preserved. The ideal location would be close to Northern Nevada. If you might be able to help in any way, please contact me.
Check out the Museum’s collection at our website!
243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company, Dong Ba Thin, Vietnam