Robert Brockmeier

Helicopter Pilot Captain Brockmeier: His Journey in the Vietnam War

Profilers: Alec Wyndhamsmith, Annie Wu, Shihao Huang

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Involvement with The Military

Alec: How did you get involved with the United States military 

Captain Brockmeier: I graduated from USC in 1963, NROTC Scholarship. I went to flight training in Pensacola. (I) was designated a naval aviator and a navy helicopter pilot on 21 August 1964… uh with orders to go to helicopter anti-submarine squadron two. I went through what they call RAG training or replacement air group training with HS10 for about three or four months and I finally joined the squadron in February of 65 and I spent three years with that, and then one year it would be island because I got extended. I got out, stayed in the reserves, and worked for the united airlines for 32 years. I finished up as a captain in the naval reserve.

Alec: What year were you deployed to vietnam?

Captain Brockmeier: First cruise was August of 65, and then from there we went down to South China Sea and Gulf of Tonkin.

Most Memorable Experiences in Vietnam

Captain Brockmeier: I picked up a downed air crewman that bailed out of an air force helicopter rescue. The only reason they got him was the fact that he had a cigarette lighter that he lit… because he was up against the side of the hills. We saw the light come in there and picked him up so all of a sudden HS2 was qualified and the navy was qualified to do night helicopter rescues. Uh.. needless to say the rest of the crews believed we had one other helicopter that was hit. They landed on top of a mountain and the four crew members were all saved. I think the last guy knew how long that halfway up the rescue hoist was when they had to get out of there so he was swinging free and clear for a while but they all got back to the ship just fine. We conducted search and rescue missions, delivered the mail, and picked up people that were transferred out and threw a plane guard on the carrier we were on the USS Hornet CV 12. in case you’re interested you know I’ll need it. (For) my particular unit, we were detached and sent to the Forrestal 2859 for about two or three or four weeks while hornet was in civic faith only normal operation. During that time several things occurred when the Forrestal blew up because an errant missile that went across the belly tank of an A4 on the other side caused a big fire. John McCain was in the a4 is below uh on the side of that. They all got out but needless to say there were 130 some other people killed as a result of the fire and explosion. (If) you look at the life magazine, the centerfold of that particular thing in 67 shows a picture of the uh half end of the flight date on the Forrestal with a hole in. I flew the helicopter with the photographers that took that picture. I did not fly that day that was we had one out of seven days off so I spent that time in the forward Ward room so we were forced to abandon and go down to the forward hanger deck where we assisted a lot of the medical personnel, particularly guys that had been burned and so on and so forth. (In) following day, the remains of several of them were sent over to a hospital ship. I don’t remember it was reposed or what but needless to say that was a unique experience. During that particular time in July, we had one uh one group fly and recover in a pilot that was down the Hill. [what was his name… I don’t think… right now] John Bender and Neil Sparks. He got the navy cross for that because they got a hit and knocked out the radios but they managed to get back to the ship with a pilot. Um I flew one mission over there, North Vietnam, looking for the guy. This is in July and uh we did not get them there were four aircraft that were lost at the F105s two of them were killed. The guy that i went to get was eventually captured as a POW (Prisoner of war). Uh we did not get shot at either going in or out. My roommate Dennis Peterson and his crew member Ben and the two their crewmen were in a mission to pick up a guy that had been down for a day or so and eventually they went in there but the North Vietnamese had set up some additional anti-aircraft sites around where they knew the guy was and then it got shut down and the whole crew was killed.

Impression Of Vietnam And The War

Alec: What was your impression of Vietnam? Did you get to spend any time in the country itself?

Captain Brockmeier: Actually, other than flying over portions of North Vietnam, the answer is no. In fact, the carrier was far enough off the coast. I think with one exception where I saw portions of the very South and North Vietnam was we put the wrong vector. That was about the extent of my dealings with Vietnam.

Alec: what do you think that your overall opinion of the war itself? Do you think we should have gone into Vietnam? Do you have any opinion on the matter?

Captain Brockmeier: My opinion on it was based on a lot of the stuff that I heard in President Johnson at the time. Either they gave him the wrong information or he got way late on the thing. That attack that went on allegedly on some destroyer apparently was distorted, so they went into this operation of retaliation if you want to call it that. Overall he was trying to help South Vietnam, but the way the government was set up, and this that the other thing it was not going to work.

Transition Back To Civilian Life

Alec: What was your transition back in civilian life? Did you face any adversity coming back from the anti-war movement? or in the military was it pretty normal?

Captain Brockmeier: No, I was fortunate that the airlines in 1968 or 1969 were hiring. I submitted applications to the United American Delta and maybe a couple of other ones. The one that responded was United. I went in there for a personal interview. [And] of course they asked me questions like what did you apply through helicopters and they kind of looked at me like I was lower than you know what. I said yeah but keep in mind you got three guys Smith, Wayne Willard, and one other guy who were United pilots that got out in 68, 67 who were based there, and I said they weren’t helicopters. [so] I got accepted and got hired two years later, and I got furloughed for six months. I got rehired, and I was furloughed again for two and a half years. Then finally the rest of my career, finished up as a 747 captain.

Alec: Do you see a difference in the way veterans were treated coming back from Vietnam as compared to being how veterans are treated nowadays?

Captain Brockmeier: I have to say my experience with veterans was limited to going to the PA hospital in Long Beach to basically register as a veteran and hopefully sign up to get my Covid shots. While I was there, the process was extremely slow. I won’t go into that. I had to go back about a week later this year, but I was amazed at the number of veterans that came in there on wheelchairs or crutches or they were in the bed where they were wheeling around for something. I had never ever experienced that before. The veterans that i knew. The guys that got out for the most part seemed to get along just fine. They did not experience any of the items that you see or read about in the paper.

Highlights In Vietnam

Alec: Do you have any more particularly notable experiences you want that you would like to share from Vietnam in the armed service?

Captain Brockmeier: Well the highlight i think of the career was that the trip to Cairo or to Egypt where flying around there. I mean we got to fly around the pyramids at 200 feet but the Egypt thing was probably the highlight, the positive. The negative one was flying into North Vietnam trying to rescue this guy. All they told us was he’s on the west side of the hill, and the east side of the hill was on fire and apparently that was the national east side of the hill fire burning day because there were significant numbers. We got down to about 100 feet flying around a farmhouse only to realize there was a flawed AAA battery on a truck parked next to the house.

Alec: Can you explain to the listeners what a quad AAA battery is?

Captain Brockmeier: Oh, quad is four 12.7 millimeter anti-aircraft machine guns. That’s why it’s a quad triple A anti-aircraft. It’s used quite a bit for shooting aircraft down at a lower altitude so we just swing bullets up there. Eventually if you get hit enough, something’s going to go out.

Alec: No one is manning this anti-aircraft gun.

Captain Brockmeier: The time that we were in there, we’re flying around trying to pick this guy up. It was not manned, it was just parked there. Now I don’t know whether there were people in that farmhouse at the time or not but the A1s or Spads as we used to call them. They were provided search and rescue and they released a plain yard if you want to call it that. (If) anybody shot at us, they could immediately detect where it is and go in there and shoot back but for some reason we did not get shot at. We finally had to leave because i didn’t want to run out of gas you know, spent an hour and a half in there yeah that was about it.

Alec: You talk about your normal day-to-day life in Vietnam being pretty boring just flying over the ocean, do you have any idea why they were asking you guys to embark on those missions?

Captain Brockmeier: Well, the air force was primarily the search and rescue operation for all of Vietnam and they flew out of I believe was Thailand or a couple of other places and they flew MH-3s. They were a little bit different than the SH-3 that we flew because the crew member had a much better opportunity to pick somebody up and they were trained to do that.

Closing Remarks And The Loss of Friends

Alec: Do you have any closing remarks you’d like to say to wrap up any parts of vietnam or talk about how it made you feel?

Captain Brockmeier: I was glad to have done my three years in three and a half years in the regular squadron. When I got extended for a year, I had an offer they came up with. You said you want to do this, and that was back from one of the navy… a union gunship squadron based in South Vietnam, mostly of LS East that didn’t work with the South Vietnamese to combat [North] Vietnam. For one reason or another, I really don’t like getting shot at. Unfortunately I don’t have armor piercing, armor-piercing skin, so I elected to finish off my immediate career… [indiscernible].

Alec: Can you speak a little bit about the death of your friend Dennis? Did that have any impact on your life?

Captain Brockmeier: When he was shot down and killed, it was a very trying experience because we had to pick up on all of his items in the room, and send them back to his wife, a widow, and she was about eight months pregnant, seven or eight months. (She) delivered a child subsequently… so yeah it makes you wonder why in the world…[indiscernible]. The subsequent to that when they had South Vietnam where the North Vietnamese army and the VietCong were pretty much wiped out and there was a news that said the war is lost. Well actually it turned out the war was won because the North Vietnamese had nothing left, so we didn’t know about that until later. So that was the extent of my Vietnam experience. 

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