Vet shares experience as helicopter pilot
By Cpt. Willis (Jerry) Heydenberk
Chase County Veteran
Vietnam was a defining point in my young life. The 18 months I spent in that war-torn land on two tours definitely made me a better man and helped me appreciate life more.
Like many others, I wondered why serving on so many helicopter combat missions allowed me to return home when other pilots went out each day on perilous flights and did not return.
Listening to the company loudspeaker at the end of the day announce the call numbers of the helicopters that did not return. Those crews of four perished somewhere in the lush jungles of Vietnam and would never return.
My earliest field experiences had me sleeping in an Army cot inside a group tent just below a hill with a 105-mm howitzer situated on it.
The cannon blasted out Harassment and Interdictory (H&I) fire every 45 minutes, and my cot must have hovered a few feet with every blast.
Constant mud and humidity reminded us it was Monsoon season in Vietnam and muddy boots and sweaty fatigues were always in style.
One of the several tasks our 155th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) handled was air evacuation of wounded soldiers. Regularly we did combat resupply of munitions such as shells and rockets, oil drums and hot meals in vacuum containers.
The 9th Republic of Korea (ROK) troops had a daily ice cream run for one of our helicopters. When the Korean unit came under fire, our pilot had to pull up. His delivery was never made so he and his crew enjoyed a special dessert treat courtesy of the Koreans.
I will always remember my first call to pick up body bags. It came at a landing zone (LZ) close to Kontum in the Central Highlands.
As the five olive drab bags were loaded onto the rear of the helicopter I was piloting that day, I realized the finality of those Americans whose bodies would later be laid to rest in front of their family and friends back home.
That day started with their lives active and involved with their buddies in the field and now their day had ended tragically and forever.
As Post Information Office (PIO), I was assigned to write the history of the 155th AHC and also to act as Administrative Officer. That job entailed writing letters home to those whose lives ended in combat in our unit.
Once I had to write to the parents of a security force enlisted man killed by friendly fire. But the hardest was to send the letter to parents in California of a pilot who was a “short-timer” and was set to rotate home in the next two weeks.
He and his co-pilot flew a helicopter loaded that day with two 50-gallon oil drums and when the anti-aircraft fire hit their aircraft, they and their crew were burned beyond recognition before they hit the ground.
To write letters about two pilots I had just shared helicopter controls with literally within the week was hard. To send these letters to parents who wanted and expected their sons to come home to them was just part of the air war that I experienced in Vietnam.
I’m glad I came home. Some paid the full cost of this war.
Cpt. Willis (Jerry) Heydenberk is a retired United Methodist pastor presently living in Imperial. This personal story is part of our efforts to highlight Chase County veterans and their experiences during the Vietnam War era. We will continue to feature stories that are submitted in anticipation of the AVTT Traveling Wall’s visit to Imperial April 23-26. If you would like to submit a story please email us at
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