Joe Kline, public information officer for the city of Gilroy, was the door gunner on helicopters while serving in Vietnam, and had various other aviation positions. Patch had a chance to chat with the military-history buff. Check out what he had to say, below.
Gilroy Patch: What was your job in Vietnam?
Kline: I was in the army, and my job was as a helicopter crew chief, so I flew on the helicopters as a crewman. I was the door gunner on the left-hand side when we were on missions and flight, and when we weren’t flying, I was responsible for the mechanical upkeep of the aircraft. The unit I was in was the Kingsmen. The division I was in was the 101st Airborne, which is the Screaming Eagles.
Patch: How old were you when you left, and how long did you serve?
Kline: I was 20 when I left, and I turned 21 over there. I got back in March of ‘71. I had a couple years of college before I went in, but then I got bored of going to college, and a lot of my other friends were in Vietnam, so I said this is something I think I want to do. I cancelled my student deferment, and about a week later I got my draft notice. So I say I volunteered for the draft, because I knew that as soon as I cancelled my deferment that I’d get drafted.
Patch: When did it hit you that you were leaving for war?
Kline: It didn’t get really personal for me until I got my draft notice, and I remember I got my notice on July 16th 1969, and one reason I remember that is because that’s the day they launched the first moon rocket that landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong.
I think when I got the notice I had something like two weeks to get my things in order and then leave, so that‘s when it became real. I went up to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. That’s when it really hit—when I was away from home for the first time.
Patch: What was your experience like?
Kline: It was extremely interesting, I loved it. There was the 10 percent sheer terror part, but the rest of it was great for a 21 year old who liked mechanical stuff, and aviation. And our whole purpose for doing what we did was to support the infantry—those guys down there on the ground, and living in the jungle. So we got a really good feeling from doing that.
Patch: Was your plane ever shot down while in combat?
Kline: We took hits lots of times, but I was never wounded. I was actually lucky. I was never shot down, which is pretty unusual. Most helicopter crews get shot down a couple times in a tour.
Later on in my tour I was involved with an incursion into Laos. We were flying American helicopters, flying South Vietnamese troops into Southern Laos to try and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was the largest helicopter operation in history, and I think it remained the largest up until Desert Storm. But we had to fly at three of four thousand feet for that, and it was really bad because the North Vietnamese were used to firing at jets in Laos and they had real heavy anti-aircraft weapons and radar control, so we lost a lot of helicopters there. And you were flying high, so if something happened you had a lot of time to think on the way down.
Patch: Do you have one experience that’s particularly memorable?
Kline: One of the most memorable experiences was during the Laos operation I was mentioning. One of our crews got shot down right after I left, and it was our company commander and the crew chief and pilot and co-pilot, who were real good friends of mine. A military forensic team that’s based in Hawaii, and goes all over the world looking at crash sites, actually found their crash site just in 2004, I think, and they did the excavation and they found teeth, but it was enough to positively identify all four crewmen, who had been listed as Missing In Action. And we found out they were going to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in April of ‘05 or ‘06, so we got 30 guys from our unit to go back to the burial at Arlington and we got to meet the families.
Patch: How was it coming back from the war, with all the protests that were going on against it?
Kline: That was probably the hardest part. The whole time you’re over there all you think about is going home. I was nervous about coming home, I had heard about all the protesters and that kind of stuff. And of course I was very welcomed by my family and my friends, but the thing that bothered me the most was the indifference. In those days, unlike now, people took out their frustrations a lot of times on the soldiers. When we first got into Vietnam, Americans were totally behind it, and it wasn’t until after the Tet Offensive in ‘68 when they started to turn.
I was never spit on or anything like that, but there was a lot of indifference. It really used to bug me because I’d be at a party or something, and you’d have these guys who were telling their college stories and everyone was hanging on every word about some stupid, goofy, little college story, and then if you bring up anything about Vietnam, the people just turned around. It was just indifference, and I think that’s one reason that a lot of the Vietnam vets kind of stuck together, cause we could talk to each other more so than we could a lot of other people.
Patch: Would you mind telling me about your military artwork?
Kline: Most of the stuff I do, the prints that I sell, I customize them by actually painting the guy's nose art and tail number right onto the prints. And what’s rewarding about that for me is that a lot of people buy artwork as an investment, they’ll sell it in five or 10 years for a profit, but most of my stuff that goes out is going to stay in the person’s family. Its been very, very rewarding and gratifying over the years. Just dealing and meeting other vets and getting compliments from them.
Patch: What words of wisdom do you have for soldiers currently serving?
Kline: I often tell the younger guys I speak with to appreciate what you’re going through now, because what you’re going through now is going to be with you for the rest of your life. And I tell them that you probably don’t realize it now, but you’re going to make friends that will be your friends till you’re 60, 70, 80 years old. One day it’s going to be over, and they don’t realize yet what a profound impact it’s going to have on their life.