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Turner Demmons was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, flying rescue missions.

Courtesy photo

In the spring of 1963, Turner Demmons graduated from Flathead High School. Inspired by his brother, who flew C-130 military transport planes, the younger Demmons set his eyes on becoming a pilot.

Demmons took the appropriate steps, attending the University of Montana before earning his commission in the U.S. Air Force. He earned his wings in 1969, when his plans to become a pilot took him to Vietnam.

While Demmons ended his flying career years later piloting helicopters for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and medical flights for St. Patrick Hospital, it’s his experience in Vietnam that has stayed with him for nearly 50 years.

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Q: What was your first experience with Vietnam?

A: I started flying the C-141 transporters. We’d go to Utah, pick up a load of munitions and go over there (Vietnam). We’d come back with the black body bags or wounded Army guys. We all knew we were going to Vietnam. We were all first lieutenants. I got orders to go fly helicopters, which was a death sentence. All you had to do was watch the 6 o’clock news.

Q: What was your experience as a helicopter pilot?

A: We had 13 helicopters and about 20 pilots and a bunch of para-rescue guys for when somebody got shot down. We always had two crews on alert. We always flew with two helicopters and two AE-1 Sandy Raider sky pilots. They would go in and troll for gunfire, to see if the place was safe for us to go in and hover and drop the penetrator to get these guys out. Those AE-1s were armed to the teeth. They were the ones that plowed the roads for us. We were talking to the pilots who’d been shot up and punched out. Small arms weren’t a problem for us. It was AAA batteries and missiles that had us pull off. We helped locate where these guys were, but we didn’t effect the rescue, so that part was a failure.

Q: Why do you consider it a failure?

A: I saw the lights of Hanoi and saw the lights of the pilots we were looking for down in the bushes. We were talking with them and they were hunkering down. I was the lead pilot. I made the decision to pull off. It was getting dark. I’ve got five guys on my machine and five guys behind me. I told the pilots we’ll see you in the morning. We’re heading back and low on fuel. My compass freezes and I take us over the nastiest part of Laos and we start taking gunfire. It knocked out our No. 2 engine. I was looking down through the right shin window and I could see these beautiful orange balls coming up. It reminded me of the Fourth of July on Seeley Lake. I told everyone to break up. Nobody got hit except us. We can’t maintain altitude and I had everyone put parachutes on. I thought we were going to go down in Laos, which was a bad place to go down.

Q: What happened then?

A: Our base for recovery was Udorn (Thailand). It was not our home base, but it was the safest place we could go. I had the gaggle behind me. When I landed, I got back on the radio. I knew the other helicopter was right behind me, but now I’m checking on the (AE-1 Sandy Raider) pilots. The one pilot asked me to send a tug out. He’d run out of gas and didn’t have enough to taxi off the runway. It was that close. But he was making sure we didn’t end up in the brush ourselves. It’s a real band of brothers. But those downed pilots sure wanted out of there. I told them we’d be in at first light. We sent another group of Sandy Raiders and CH-53s at first light and got them out.

Q: The memories still seem fresh to you.

A: I’m 70 years old and I’m still a little emotional. The combat missions, even with the failures, we knew were doing the right thing. The hardest missions I ever flew were the C-141 transporters with wounded guys in the back. I was a co-pilot at the time. We usually depart Saigon and refuel in Hawaii and fly to Travis Air Force Base where the big hospital was. The nurse would come and tap me on the shoulder. She’d give me a slip saying such-and-such name, rank and serial number just died.

Q: What about the Vietnam War has stayed with you?

A: I still have trouble with the people who treated us the way they did when we got back. I spent 22 years in the military, both National Guard and active duty, and we used to wear our uniform. When we couldn’t get space available on a military flight, you’d go jump on United or American Airlines. We’d get 50 percent off, but it wasn’t worth it to walk through the terminal with the comments, the looks and disdain everyone had. I quit wearing my uniform, even though I was really proud of what I did.

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