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Tonawanda soldier had to fly chopper after Viet Cong fire took out pilot, co-pilot

Dennis Louth was in combat near Pleiku, South Vietnam, for 48 consecutive days in 1967, but one day stands out.

That was the day the gunner had to fly a Huey helicopter back to its base under fire after the pilot was killed and the co-pilot was mortally wounded.

Louth was an Army helicopter mechanic and a door gunner. His job was to sit in the open door of the helicopter and spray Viet Cong guerrillas with machine-gun fire from no more than 40 to 50 feet above the ground.

Hueys had four-man crews: a pilot, a co-pilot and two door gunners, one on each side of the chopper. This was hazardous duty, well within range of ground fire even from small arms.

"All the pilots made a pact that they were going to teach the crew how to fly," Louth, 71, remembered in his Town of Tonawanda home last week.

"I could get it from Point A to Point B and land it and not kill us all. That was about it," he said.

That's what happened the day the pilot was killed instantly by a bullet fired through the windshield. The co-pilot took over, but soon he was shot, too.

"The (other) door gunner was working on the co-pilot, who was still alive," Louth said. "The pilot was dead and I just took over."

Dennis Louth served as a door gunner in an Army helicopter in Vietnam in 1966-68. This is a photograph of a photo taken during Louth's Army career. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

They had practiced that in the air on the way back from previous combat missions.

"My pilot taught us how to dump him and the co-pilot out of their seats," Louth said. "The pilot would go 'I'm dead!' and we would just go to work. You did what you were supposed to do."

On that day near Pleiku, Louth flew the helicopter three or four miles back to the base.

To a civilian, it sounds like an act of heroism that might have merited some sort of decoration.

"I didn't even put in for one," Louth said. "It was just part of the job."

Louth, a Buffalo native who attended School 78 and Burgard Vocational High School, was drafted in May 1966. After basic and advanced infantry training, he was sent to Germany in November 1966.

Four weeks later, his outfit was ordered to Vietnam as the 134th Aviation Company. Louth was given 20 days of home leave before reporting to the war.

"I didn't say anything to my parents until the day before I left," Louth said. "I told them, 'By the way, I'm going to Vietnam.' My dad didn't say much. My mother went to pieces."

Of the company's original 107 men, half were killed or wounded by the time Louth's tour of duty ended in June 1968, he said.

Louth never was injured, although there were plenty of close calls. Twice, Louth was aboard a Huey that was shot down. On one of those occasions he spent three days in the jungle, exchanging fire with the Viet Cong, before American troops found him.

"When you're flying those things and that big fan on top stops turning, everybody starts to sweat," Louth said.

A vintage snapshot shows a white strip on Louth's helmet as he sits behind his machine gun. It was masking tape, used to hold up his visor after an enemy bullet knocked off the holder.

"When we were flying into Pleiku, that was hot and heavy the whole time. All the C-130s that were flying in there kept getting shot down, so they started having us guys take stuff in," Louth recalled. "You'd fly in with an aircraft full of food and fly out with bodies."

In June 1968, a month after his two-year hitch was supposed to have expired, Louth was sent home.

He quickly found a job with William J. Keller, a Buffalo printer. One of his first assignments to was deliver a load of yearbooks to the University at Buffalo. Within moments after his arrival, an anti-war demonstration started.

"If it had started before, we never would have gone," Louth said. "Somebody said something in the crowd and the guy I was with said, 'Don't talk to him like that. He's a veteran.'"

A UB student who had yelled the invective, suspecting Louth of fighting in Vietnam because of his deep tan, jumped into the open-sided delivery truck, spat on Louth and punched him, Louth said.

"I tried to keep my emotions in check," Louth said. "I didn't swing at him. I didn't punch him. I pushed him out of the truck."

After seven months with the Keller company, Louth joined the former Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. as a maintenance mechanic. He retired 14 years ago.

Louth and his wife of 48 years, Sharon, also became foster parents for infants left at Baker Victory Services in Lackawanna. They adopted the first boy they received, besides having four biological children. In all, they fostered 45 children.

Looking back on his service, Louth said he and his fellow soldiers couldn't tell at the time if the U.S. was winning the war or not.

"You were too close. You would go out, you'd do your job, you'd come back at night, if you came back, and you would have some beers, smoke some cigarettes, have a little whiskey," he said. "Every day was a different day, and you just fought the fears."

This is a patch of the Army's 134th Aviation Company that Dennis Louth was in during the Vietnam War. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

*****

Name: Dennis Louth

Age: 71

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army, 134th Aviation Company

Rank: Specialist 5

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1966-1968

Most prominent honors: Two Air Medals

Specialty: Door gunner on Huey helicopters

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