Dennis O’Connor: Saving Lives With Supplies

Dennis O’Connor in his jungle utility uniform, date unknown. Photo Courtesy of Dennis O’Connor.

Dennis O’Connor knew he was going to be drafted: “In March of 1970, a friend of mine [with draft number 254] got drafted. My number was 256, so on May 27, 1970 I enlisted because I figured my number was up. I served until May of 1985 when I was put out on a medical discharge.”

Dennis enlisted to be an Aircraft Repair Parts Specialist, 76 Tango and served in Vietnam from December of 1970 to December 1971. “I didn’t even think about Vietnam until I got out of AIT [Advanced Individual Training] and then my whole class went to Vietnam. They were short of 76 Tangos. I was pretty surprised to get assigned to Vietnam. They kept us in a holding company for two weeks waiting for one guy to turn eighteen because they couldn’t send a 17 year-old to Vietnam. As soon as he turned 18 we got on the bus.”

“We had two weeks leave, then straight to Vietnam. Normally people got 30 days of leave before going, but we were so critically short that we got only two weeks.”

“At Oakland Army Depot, we were issued jungle fatigues and all that good stuff. We flew to Alaska to refuel, and let me tell you getting off a plane in jungle fatigues when it’s 30 below zero is not fun. Then we flew to Japan, then to Bien Hoa Air Base. My first thought on arrival was what the hell have I gotten myself into?”

“We got on a bus to Long Binh and heard the sound of rockets or jet engines overhead, and everyone was looking out to see what it was, and the driver said ‘Those aren’t jets, that’s outgoing artillery. Watch that hill over there.’ And we all watched and a moment later the hill disappeared under the bombardment. It was a VC training camp, we were told.”

The UH-1 “Huey” helicopter was a multi-role utility aircraft. Depending on configuration, the Huey could be used for combat air support, resupply, observation, troop transport, and medical evacuation of wounded Soldiers. This UH-1B from the 179th Aviation Company is outfitted for the gunship role with 2.75 inch rocket pods and M-60 machine guns mounted on the outrigged pintle. Hueys with the side doors removed in this fashion were referred to as “slicks” by the troops. The door gunner, SGT Dennis Troxel, is armed with an M-60 machine gun. Photo Courtesy of USAHEC.

“I was assigned to the 79th Transportation Company. I worked in operational readiness. We were responsible for keeping 365 aircraft flying up in the II Corps area. We were having trouble getting parts shipped up north. They put together a liaison team in Saigon, and I went TDY to Saigon to work on this team at the Aviation Material Management Center under the 34th Support Group. I spent three months down there.”

“My sole purpose there was to get high priority parts. We had a hard time getting rotor blades for UH-1s. We had to go to Long Binh to the open storage depot. There was a Chief Warrant Officer 4 there who was equivalent to a Brigadier General as far as his power went. We went through the open storage area, and here were stacks and stacks of these rotor blades, and we got the stock number. I mentioned to my driver, Sgt. Mack, that I noticed those rotor blades were back ordered and we couldn’t get them. They were necessary because we had hundreds of aircraft that needed these rotor blades. So I went into this Warrant Officer’s office. He’s a gruff old guy. I wish I could remember his name. And he told us that we were full of crap, there weren’t any rotor blades out there, his stock control computer didn’t show any in stock. So we took him out to the storage yard and showed him where they were about 100 of them. Anyway, we got them on the next flight out, and he quit using their computers after that and went back to the card index.”

“Then I went back up to Thuy Hoa for the last three months I was in country and it was pretty quiet. We had one incident where sappers got in our wire, and they were trying to take out the fuel depot. We had huge million gallon tanks. The sappers got in the wire, they didn’t get out. They were intervened with, and they were killed.”

“The only time I had guard duty over there was the week of Tet of ’71. I was on perimeter guard right where our open storage was. There was a guard tower, two guys in the tower and one guy in the bottom, and there were three towers along the line. And here before, a sniper had gotten up on top of this church that was right outside the wire, I mean it was like fifteen feet, and the guy got up on the roof of the church and picked off all the guards in those three towers. It was just harassment, he didn’t care if he killed them or not, he just wanted to make a point. Well, he made his point, we made our point, and he was dead.”

Troops disembark from a Huey during Operation Attleboro. Whether providing air support, medevac, resupply, or bringing in reinforcements, helicopters performed critical tasks on the battlefield. There is little doubt that through his efforts to keep damaged helicopters flying, Dennis O’Connor saved American lives. Photo Courtesy of USAHEC.

“So the first night of guard duty I was a little nervous. I had a captain who was Special Forces that was the duty officer that night. He came out with a fancy rifle with a night scope, and he swept the area and it was clean. So we relaxed.”

“But on the night of Tet – you have to understand: we use red tracers. The VC and NVA use green tracers. The night of Tet, all hell broke loose at midnight. It was just firing in the air. All these Vietnamese were having a ball celebrating the New Year. But the thing that was scary was that there were more green tracers than red tracers. And that’ll get you nervous.”

“Then, a couple of hours later somebody got up on the roof and we could see him moving. We called in, and the captain came out and scoped the area, but the guy had gone by then. So nothing happened.”

“We had some drug problems, guys doing drugs. I lost my best friend over there, he was doing drugs. He was in the 4th Infantry Division at Anh Khe. He was on R&R and he stopped in to see me and spent the night in my hooch. And he excused himself and went out and smoked a cigarette that was loaded with heroin. I never understood the rationality behind it because the first time they smoke the thing they throw up, then they have to smoke another one to get high. He was hooked. He was a straight A student in high school, ran cross-country. But something happened to him over there, he saw something he didn’t like, and decided to dive into the drugs. He came home from Vietnam and a couple of years later he died. That was a wasted life.”

“One time I got done with one 16 hour shift, it was midnight; I went to take a shower. The shower room had an old French latrine, with the pull handle commodes, and shower heads that came out and rained on you. There was a tile floor that was slick, so you had to be careful. I was in there taking a shower, and it was ice cold water. I took 365 cold showers. I don’t take cold showers anymore; I swore when I left country I would never take a cold shower again. So, just as I lifted my leg up to wash my foot a round went off. They sent in three or four mortar rounds that landed on our runway and blew some holes in it. I was just harassment, but we were close enough that the concussion knocked me on my butt. I high-tailed it out of the latrine to my hooch. By the time the third round went off I was in my hooch; I got my steel pot [helmet], put my pants on, got my flak jacket, and was in the bunker. I hauled it down the company street buck naked. I didn’t care; I needed my steel pot and flak jacket.”

Visitors at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) can visit this recreation of a Vietnam “hooch”, faithfully reconstructed using blueprints and photographs in the USAHEC archives. Photo Courtesy of the Army Heritage Center Foundation.

“We had old wooden hooches that were infested with cockroaches. Other than that, though, we had good living conditions. We were four to a hooch, we had a wall locker and a foot locker. The only bad thing about the hooch was it was close to the latrine, the mess hall, and a crematorium outside the post. When they fired up the crematorium, latrine, and mess hall it was pretty bad. The latrine had a cesspool, but at Thuy Hoa and elsewhere, waste was disposed of by burning.

According to Dennis, the food for most of his tour was horrible. “We ate water buffalo seven days a week. They said it was roast beef, but I’m convinced it was water buffalo.” He and his buddies started liberating c-rations to avoid the chow hall. “For the last three months I was there, we ate c-rations. They couldn’t figure out where the c-rations were going, so they put a chain link fence around and on top so we couldn’t get in. They didn’t bolt it to the floor though, so we got a forklift, picked it up, got the c-rations, and set it back down. Now these were dated 1949, and this was 1971, so you do the math. But they were still edible and better than the chow hall.”

“I was going to extend for six months, but I had the occasion to go to the USO to use the phones and talk to my parents, and they talked me out of it. In retrospect I’m glad they did. My unit was disbanded and moved up to Pleiku. They got hit pretty hard in the spring offensive. So I might not have survived that.”

For many Vietnam veterans, one of the most vivid memories is of burning human waste. This was a common form of waste disposal in Vietnam. Soldiers assigned to burning detail would drag the barrels full of fuel and waste out of the latrines and set them on fire. Then they would have to monitor the process to ensure that the waste all burned up and that the fire did not get out of control. The process is sanitary, but generates a lot of foul-smelling smoke. As these images from a recent Army publication show, the process is still in use today in places where more conventional methods are impractical.

Dennis remembers that his homecoming was not easy:

“Coming home was a unique experience. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it, so I had no one to talk to. So I didn’t enjoy my leave. My friends didn’t know where I was coming from, so I couldn’t talk to them.”

“It was all-in-all a good tour. I was fortunate. I had some post-traumatic stress and dealt with survivor’s guilt for a long time, but I’m pretty well over that. My wife says I have some violent dreams, but I can’t remember them.”

As for the war in general, O’Connor does not feel personally responsible for the outcome:

“The Vietnamese people were good people. We did them wrong. We should have fought that war to the end. We didn’t, we quit on them. I’ll never feel good about that. But I don’t have to answer for that, the politicians do.”


O’Connor, Dennis. Oral History Interview Jeffrey G. Hawks, October, 2016. U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center*

U.S. Army, ATP 4-25.12: Unit Field Sanitation Teams. 30 April 2014

*This interview has been submitted for preservation and may not be available to the public yet.

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