Marking Veterans Day: Vietnam War pilot speaks at Prime Time event
STEUBENVILLE — Michael Bongart, Vietnam helicopter pilot, says the real heroes are the soldiers he ferried into battle, who faced booby traps, had to move through rice paddies and jungles and face the enemy.
That statement is made more poignant when one hears the rest of retired Presbyterian minister Michael Bongart’s story of survival of the Vietnam War, where he was struck in the head by shrapnel, had a part of his brain removed, a plate put into his head and returned to the battlefield as a helicopter pilot again.
Bongart, of Toronto, was the featured speaker at the Veterans Day event held at the Prime Time center on Lovers Lane Friday afternoon, sponsored by AMVETS Post 275 and American Legion Post 557.
He held the hundreds in attendance fixed on his story for about an hour, taking listeners from a youth spent around a military veteran family and going to war movies with his World War II veteran father, to the annual golf game he plays with the medic who didn’t give up on Bongart’s life on the battlefield south of Saigon in October 1968.
He recalled learning that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated when he was in Vietnam in 1968, and that there were riots in the streets. He said anyone who watched the Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary knows the conditions for a just war weren’t met.
“Patriotism was as complex then as it is now. But we must remember when we put boots on the ground, it should be morally justified. The boots that we put there should be totally supported by our society,” he said.
He has stayed in touch with the medic, Duane Garvey of Michigan, who brought him back to life on the battlefield, and they play an annual golf tournament, with just themselves in it. They call it the Dong Nam Invitational, named after the place Bongart first was taken after being wounded.
“There is no doubt in my mind that God put him on my helicopter that day. It only is by the grace of God and his passion to save my life that I’m able to stand before you today to tell my story,” Bongart said. “But that’s just one of 2 million, 500,000 stories of the men and women who participated in Vietnam.”
Bongart only lasted a semester at Shenandoah College, “floundered around for a few months” and decided to join the Army. He was rejected because he admitted to having broken his wrist as a kid and lost some mobility in his left hand.
That was in 1963. He took a job as steel mill clerk and used the money to earn a private pilot’s license. Then he saw an article in Parade Magazine in his hometown newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa., one Sunday, discussing how the Army was in need of helicopter pilots for Vietnam.
Bongart didn’t reveal his wrist injury on the second go-around with the Army, made his way into Officer Candidate School and was headed to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, assigned to the 195th Assault Helicopter Co.
Flying in formations of 10 Huey transport helicopters, accompanied by four gunships, the air crews took infantrymen from their fire bases to landing zones, cleared and hostile. He recalled ferrying soldiers back after missions, sometimes taking those killed in action aboard. Bongart served for a time with the 2nd Airlift Platoon, the “Ghost Riders,” who flew Special Forces missions. Bongart dressed in Vietnamese fatigues and flew unmarked helicopters.
“We couldn’t tell from the air where Vietnam ends and Cambodia begins,” he said with a smile. “I felt like I was really participating in the war, doing a noble thing, helping the South Vietnamese free themselves from communist aggression,” he said as he showed a picture of himself holding a big RPG round that was taken from an enemy cache on one of those secret missions.
He went back to the 195th, and on Oct. 4, 1968, was shot down some 58 miles southwest of Saigon, according to an ABC News story from the archives at Vanderbilt University. Bongart recalls the helicopter being hit in the engine, guiding it to a safe landing and the troops and his crew running away from the helicopter. His door gunner pointed out the windshield had been struck multiple times by an AK-47. The bullets had missed Bongart. He left the helicopter, found a radioman in a rice paddy, asked to call in an artillery strike against the machine gun that had hit his ship, and then began to head to a collection point for the wounded, to get his crew out of the area.
“It is true that you never hear the round that gets you,” he said. “I remember my hand came down, I hit a wooden box lid floating in the water and then went into an incredible out-of-body experience.” Bongart has described in other talks and in other places seeing and talking to comrades who were dead, heading through a light toward infinity and then regaining consciousness with a medic screaming at him to breathe. Bongart said his crew had left him for dead, but he doesn’t hold anything against them. They were helicopter flyers, not medics.
“It’s no reflection on them,” Bongart said. The ABC video shows a barely conscious and bandaged young Bongart being put on a medevac helicopter.
He was taken to the 24th Evac Hospital, where shrapnel was removed from his brain, along with a part of his right occipital lobe, which is the brain’s visual processing center.
Eventually after recovering at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland, he was put before a medical review board.
“They said we are keeping you and, since you have a defective cranium, you are grounded. You cannot go back on flight status. You will be going back to Vietnam as infantry,” Bongart said, drawing moans from the audience.
Instead, a roommate at Walter Reed was a lieutenant colonel who had worked at the Pentagon and was able to arrange a meeting with the chief flight surgeon of the Army. Advised by the lieutenant colonel to deny losing consciousness after being wounded, Bongart said the heavy-set surgeon with a German accent slapped his desk several times and shouted, “What’s wrong with desk? You can have desk for the rest of your career with the Army.”
Bongart responded by standing up, slapping the desk and shouting back, “Because desk doesn’t fly.”
He went back to Vietnam, complete with a plate in his head, in May 1971 as the operations officer in the 61st Assault Helicopter Co. Vietnam, he said, was different in 1971 than 1968. Morale was down. Infantry and artillery were being pulled out. Helicopter missions now were to provide direct support for the South Vietnamese Army and Korea. Bongart vowed his mission would be to get everyone home safe, but he lost an aircraft commander on his first return mission, and another one in June. With an offer for commissioned officers to resign and go home, he left the Army in February 1972.