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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 3 years ago

Ocoee veteran author shares war tale

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Robert Hartley recounted a story from his book on his Vietnam War experience in his keynote speech at Ocoee’s Veterans Day event.
by: Zak Kerr Staff Writer/Reporter

OCOEE  Retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Hartley shared a special story while making his keynote speech at Ocoee’s Veterans Day event.

Hartley, whose book from his experiences in uniform during the Vietnam War published Feb. 24 — “Gunship Pilot: An Attack Helicopter Warrior Remembers Vietnam” — shared what he calls “Benny’s Story.”

“It was April 1968, and I had been in Vietnam for less than a month,” Hartley said. 

The team in his gunship helicopter consisted of a pilot, Hartley as co-pilot and a crew chief, Ben Stevens, who acted as a door gunner, he said. Weapons on the craft consisted of 48 rockets and a machine gun, which Hartley said were used in part to prevent North Vietnamese troops from relaying supplies and troops along the trail.

“Our unit’s primary mission was to provide direct-fire artillery support for infantry units in contact with the enemy,” Hartley said of his team’s flight into A Shau Valley. “This valley was right up against the Laotian border and was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

Vietnam War veteran Robert Hartley told the crowd at Ocoee’s Veterans Day event about one of his missions on which “all hell broke loose.”

Hartley’s helicopter and other U.S. helicopters in the area were looking for Charlie.

“As we flew … I was absolutely mesmerized by the contrast between the area south of Vietnam we were flying over and the country of Laos that lay just over the ridge line to my right,” Hartley said. “Laos was a vast expanse of lush, green, undisturbed jungle, while this area in South Vietnam was a grayish brown moonscape covered with thousands of bomb craters and shattered trees.”

Hartley noticed a truck driving along the hillside, and the U.S. had no trucks in the area. The driver stopped beneath the only tree left in that vicinity, so Hartley’s team blew it up before pulling out of a dive, he said.

“It was at this point that all hell broke loose,” Hartley said. “They … unloaded their AK-47s at us. Bullets were flying everywhere, and things began moving slowly, at least for me.”

Bullets felt like someone whacking his seat with a sledgehammer, and shattered Plexiglas fell from above. The bullets that did not pass through were lodged in their gauges, almost all of which turned off, he said.

Once the firing stopped, Hartley and the pilot were fine, but they did not see Stevens. He then noticed one of the few gauges still working was for fuel, which was leaking. They approached a U.S. landing spot not far away, when a captain of a fellow aircraft on the mission told them something was hanging from their gunship.

“He’d caught up with us and (said) hanging from our aircraft was our crew chief, Benny,” Hartley said. “Benny was hit in the back by two bullets, knocked unconscious and thrown out the door. Luckily, he had on … a 20-foot tether that connects him to the aircraft.”

Just before landing, Stevens regained consciousness and ascended his tether, throwing himself on the floor in the nick of time.

“At that moment, the engine failed due to fuel starvation,” he said. “We fell in from about 10 feet … and came to rest on the aircraft’s belly. Upon impact, Benny was tossed back out of the aircraft and came to rest beside it.”

Stevens had two huge bruises on his back and was out of action just a few weeks. Hartley counted 29 bullet holes in the gunship.

“I should have been dead,” he said. “When we pulled out of our dive, I had looked down to disarm the weapons system.”

Doing that duty as co-pilot saved his life and helped him and his pilot save Stevens — three American lives among many Hartley is proud to say he helped to save in Vietnam.

Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].

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