Greetings, all and sundry!
I would like to thank Michael for the opportunity to broach and examine a topic that may seem odd to some. Though for those who were old enough to sit through the nightly evening reports from the monopoly of news during the 1960s. And later in films about a faraway place called Vietnam; may strike a familiar note.
For anyone born in the early 1960s and beyond. There are many sounds borne of childhood that will bring heads up to look in all directions. The first and most cherished is the familiar sound of silver bells announcing the approach of the iconic Good Humor Man behind the wheel of his white truck. Another is the sharp sound of a traffic cop or lifeguard’s whistle at a community pool. The third is a sound heard for so long it’s instantly identifiable as to not raise an eyebrow. The age old “Whop! Whop! Whop!” of any variation of the immortal Hughes helicopter. In either early Army Olive Drab or Dirt Brown. Quickly adapted by the armed forces to replace the Jeep. Deuce and a half trucks, close air support aircraft and armored personnel carriers. In a war nearly forgotten with the passage of time.
Often seen in dramatic insertions of infantry troops into the valleys and rice paddies throughout the DMZ and points west and south. The ubiquitous ‘Huey’ helicopter and its relations close and extended, always seemed to be on hand. En masse, or singularly hugging the treeline in search of prey. To that end, I have assembled four films where the director’s take on preferred mode of transportation of troops, supplies and letters from home is more than duly noted.
Communicating Strength Through Sound: Helicopters in Vietnam
My first choice is going to be rather obvious. Both in selection of sounds and the proper and often devastating use of helicopters as an updated airborne Blitzkrieg of armor, infantry and artillery. Apocalypse Now and its iconic airborne assault speaks volumes.
Not only in its projection of overall firepower with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, but also in the wide variety of mechanized mayhem. From the Air Cavalry’s troops and their assembled M-16s. To the pintle mounted M-60s, pylon mounted quad M-2 Heavy Barreled .50 caliber Browning Machine Guns and pod mounted High Velocity Artillery (HIVAR) Rockets. The soundtrack fits the montage like a custom fitted suit. Scratchy voice overs and all. Culminating in a piece of film that is powerful, random and deadly.
The second slot goes to Stanley Kubrick’s brief ode to helicopter resupply and medical evacuation performed by the Marine’s distant, larger and piston powered cousin of the Huey. The Sikorsky CH-34 “Chocktaw” depicted in the initial assault across the Perfume River into the NVA help city of Hue and its fortress like Citadel.
The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” depicts the insanity of the moment. Soldiers on both sides more attuned to humping the bush and fighting in the jungle. Suddenly presented with the conundrum of Urban Warfare, Which means fire and maneuver. Pray to God you don’t get hit. While also following the tenets of US military scripture. Armor precedes and enforces infantry. Clearing a path for infantry to proceed. Even if armor is specifically an open terrain weapon. The city of Hue would have to be taken one street. Then block at a time. Backed up by tanks with General Purpose and Beehive artillery rounds. Which highlights the significance of the “Birds”. Grunt jargon for helicopters delivering the sinews of combat and quickly evacuating the wounded.
High marks go to Mr. Kubrick for selecting the United Kingdom’s gas turbine powered “Weyland” variant of its US cousin, “Choctaw” helicopters. Air power was very scarce during the siege of Hue. Due to close quarters, buildings. low ceiling, fog and overall crappy, rainy weather. And the smaller “Huey” helicopters did Army Dust-Off, Med-Evac missions when not strafing the Citadel itself. The “Chocktaw” seems much more in line with the Marine’s tradition of getting the most from older, near obsolete, hand-me-down weapons systems. And making them work.
Even higher marks and kudos for the defunct Beckton Gasworks outside London. And have it fill in so well for shelled, pock marked and ravaged sections of the city of Hue. Also for the Bassingbourn Barracks in Cambridgeshire and its doubling for Joker’s barracks at Parris Island, SC.
Third place goes to Randall Wallace, Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s collaboration, We Were Soldiers of 2002 and its final combined assault in the Ia Drang Valley. The song, “Sgt.MacKenzie” is just short of a Scots dirge that covers all the bases of the Air Cav’s unenviable position of attacking uphill to take on the well dug in, encamped and tunneled NVA stronghold.
A can opener of major proportions will be required. In the form of several fully decked out Hueys. With rocket pods and quad mounted M-60s to come up behind Col. Moore’s troops with fixed bayonets. Then swoop in for some serious softening of slowly retreating NVA and their sandbagged Heavy Machine Gun emplacements. So the infantry can move in, mop up and hold what they got.
The slow motion. Often cinema verite cinematography heightens the carnage of the first Airborne/Air Mobile Cavalry operation of the Vietnam war. By inserting troops into a few map grids and acres of land where US troops at first glance, should not have been. Very much like the French at Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier. Though quickly accessible to re-supply and reinforcement. Even through attempts at being overrun. And pushed back by calling in danger close airstrikes.
Big props to Mr. Wallace for sticking to rifles, uniforms, load bearing gear and steel pots of that time. The first generation M-16s with their three prong flash supressors are what were issued. And the troopers’ stripes, name tags are where they are supposed to be. Even the California location is correct for it being more dry wash and forest than jungle.
John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill from 1987 sews up fourth place. With its downbeat, almost dour, hammer and anvil, heavy bass back beat of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals. Prefacing the delivery yet another platoon of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne to the base of Hill 937 in the Au Shau Valley in May of 1969.
The song is really more focused upon the soldiers. Who have a feeling of bad deja vu in another attempt to take a hill whose crest is controlled by the enemy. And may very well be surrendered weeks after its capture. By those calling the shots in the White House and not The Pentagon. In film about bravery and dedication to duty in a long, drawn out live fire exercise in the face of strategic futility.
Mr. Irvin score high for casting a solid group of then unknowns. Led by Dylan McDermott as Sgt. Frantz. Who struggles with his shortened chain of command (Other NCOs and Specialists) to give the new enlistees and draftees he’s responsible for. A half way decent chance of survival. Fighting uphill in what one day may be loamy dirt. Then deep, sucking mud after a brief, torrential Monsoon. Slowed to a standstill as rifle and mortar fire rained down. Calling for artillery support from distant fire bases. Only to have the friendly incoming rounds fall short due to humidity clumping the shells’ propellant charges. In another well developed and executed, fairly well faithful to the facts stories of fortitude in the vace of Pyrrhic victory.
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