Daily photo by Gary Cosby|
Walt Titchenell, left, and John Arthur Thomas, right, enjoy their first reunion with friend James Conner since the end of the Vietnam War. They served in the 1st Cavalry Division as helicopter crew chiefs and door gunners. Conner lives in Decatur, while Titchenell and Thomas live near Fort Rucker.
War buddies reunited
Helicopter pals from Vietnam War pay visit to Decatur man
“They’re crazy. If you had served with them, you would know.”
James Conner joked about two old comrades from the Vietnam War who dropped by his Decatur home for a visit.
He had not seen John Arthur Thomas and Walt Titchenell since 1966, when the trio left Vietnam after serving a year. All three returned later for another tour.
Thomas, 73, who grew up in Sarasota, Fla., retired from the Army after “20 years, four months and 28 days.” He then spent 21 years at Fort Rucker as a civilian in Army aviation, training others about helicopters.
Titchenell, 66, an Albright, West Va., native, retired from the Army after 24 years then “turned traitor” and went to work for the Navy in Indianapolis. He retired to Wicksburg, between Daleville and Dothan. Thomas lives in Daleville, near Fort Rucker.
“When I was living in Indianapolis, I’d snowbird down I-65 to the Gulf Coast. Each time I’d pass the Decatur exit, I’d wonder if Hoot (Conner’s nickname) still lived there,” Titchenell said. “Then the other day, John called and said, ‘Titch, we’ve got to go see Hoot. So I drove over and picked John up. We didn’t know Hoot had that terrible wreck a few years ago or that his health had declined so.”
Trio met in 1964
The three soldiers first met in 1964 at Fort Benning, Ga., but Thomas said they bonded when they reached Vietnam in August 1965.
They were helicopter crew chiefs and door gunners with the U.S. Cavalry, C-Troop, 1/9, 1st Division. Thomas and Conner flew H-13’s. Titchenell served on a Huey.
“We slept in the rain and the mud together, ate together and fought together,” said Thomas. “I took it upon myself to protect Hoot. He was a good soldier, a good worker. I loved him like a brother. That’s just the way my mama raised me.”
Thomas and Titchenell remember that if Conner had a weakness it was that he’d take a drink every chance he got. It was Thomas who gave Conner his nickname.
“When the first sergeant would go looking for him to do something and I knew he’d been in the sauce, I’d cover for him,” Thomas said. “He’d get happy and holler ‘woo, woo,’ like an owl, so I nicknamed him Hoot. And everybody started calling him that.”
Titchenell recalls that Conner “never mistreated anyone or made fun of anyone. James was an Alabama boy, and I guess he was brought up the way West Virginia boys were. If anyone treated someone bad, he’d better look for a good place to land.”
Thomas said he can recall looking for such places when he and Conner were members of the scout platoon, flying treetop high in an effort to draw enemy fire.
“They were suicide missions,” he said.
Titchenell talked about someone else from the war, correspondent Joseph L. Galloway. Galloway and Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore wrote a book, “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” about the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first major engagement with North Vietnamese soldiers Nov. 14, 1965.
“We flew in there the first of November and noticed a lot of activity, footprints and a wire running from the top of the mountain to the creek below. We knew it was a radio antennae,” he said. “A few days later, we set up a night ambush. We had our own infantry and a platoon of gunships. If we could take care of it, we did. But we knew we needed more people for this one. That’s when Gen. Moore and 450 members of the 7th Cavalry went in, and all hell broke lose.”
Almost immediately more than 2,000 North Vietnamese surrounded them. During a three-day fight, 234 Americans and more than 1,000 North Vietnamese died.
Titchenell flew in to extract the casualties.
“As I looked down, I saw our guys rolled up in ponchos dead,” he said. “It was a terrible sight.”
Titchenell said Galloway earned the respect of the soldiers by doing something he wasn’t supposed to do — carry a weapon.
“That made it easy for him to hop rides,” Titchenell said. “Most of the correspondents played it safe and stayed in Saigon. Joe got into the field with us. He flew with me.”
Titchenell recounted one of those trips.
“We had been shot up pretty bad earlier and there was a big gaping hole in the floor of the helicopter,” he said. “I noticed Joe taking a hard look at it after he sat down. I told him to take a look behind him. A shell was sticking in the transmission bulkhead. He moved over.”
Titchenell said he saw Galloway once at a reunion and he gave him a signed book.
And as the visitors prepared to leave their buddy’s bedside, all joined hands as Thomas said a pray.
They left him a Christmas present, a $100 bill.
“That’s a love offering,” Titchenell said, “because we love that guy.”
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