Bob Whaley, a retired Missoula stockbroker, retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1979 after 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, a span that included three tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
A 1954 Missoula County High School graduate, Whaley spent three summers in the late 1950s as a Forest Service smokejumper out of Missoula. He enlisted in the Marines out of Carroll College in 1958, and was accepted into Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, before spending two years in flight training in Pensacola, Florida.
Whaley piloted medevac flights in the Mekong Delta at the south end of South Vietnam in 1962, nearly three years before the first American troops arrived. His second tour ended when the Huey he was flying was shot down during an operation in December 1965, resulting in a six-month stay in a Naval hospital in California. Whaley turned 34 in the midst of his longest tour of 13 months in 1968 and ’69 on the fringes of the Demilitarized Zone near North Vietnam.
Whaley’s cadre of medals includes a Bronze Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart, and 40 single-mission air medals representing over 800 missions.
Q: You’ve said you’d never exchange your experience in the Marines. What did your loved ones back home in Missoula think when you kept going back to Vietnam?
A: My family was behind me the whole time. They knew I loved what I was doing. I wouldn’t have been happy being any other place at any other time. They knew that.
Q: You flew medevac helicopters rescuing the wounded in your first and second tours. What was that like?
A: I was fortunate to participate in the very first night medevac mission of the Vietnam War in May of ’62. We thought it was a little bit hairy because they had campfires at night, and as you’re flying in there you couldn’t tell if the flickering was campfires or fire from the bad guys that were around. It was surrounded by territory heavily infested by Viet Cong guerillas. Combat operations in this area had accounted for over 100 Viet Cong casualties in the previous 12 hours, so they were around, but I don’t think they expected us to come in at night because nobody had ever done that before.
This was flying the H-34 transport. As far as I’m concerned, that tour and my second tour in 1965 with Hueys flying gunships and medevac … the medevacs were far and away the most rewarding. Absolutely. Going in and getting the guys out.
Q: In 1962, you were supporting the Army of South Vietnam troops and villagers against the Viet Cong, who had a reputation as ruthless fighters. What was your experience with them?
A: One thing I saw, we went into a village that we’d supported and got to know the village chief. They’d been overrun and we went in to provide support and pick up wounded, and there by the soccer field was the village chief’s head stuck on a stake. They did that kind of stuff to warn the villagers and anybody else around not to comply with the government of Vietnam and to support the Viet Cong. They were intimidating all the time. Very intimidating.
Q: Describe the events when you got shot down in December 1965.
A: I was the leader of four Huey gunships we had supporting the troop helicopters. We were covering a pickup in Operation Daggerthrust, flying off the USS Valley Forge down in the central coast area. H-34 helicopters were doing transport back to the ship after their mission had been completed and we waited for everybody to leave.
The last group had lifted off and they (the enemy) unloaded on us. We got hit at about 1,100 feet. They shot off our whole tail rotor drive shaft. All of our crew survived, fortunately. We were the first ones, they said, that ever survived that type of catastrophic aircraft incident. We all had serious compression fractures of the mid-thoracic vertebrae. I used to be 6-4 (laughs.)
Q: You were initially reluctant to be interviewed about your Vietnam experience, but said you changed your mind because you wanted to get some things off your chest. What things?
A: I take nothing away from the Greatest Generation, but when young Americans answer the call their country makes when the citizenry at home are against it, it shows a tremendous amount of patriotism, particularly when the cause is unpopular. Anyone who shows up when you’re backed by friends and fellow citizens … that’s easy to do under those circumstances. But it takes courage to show up when you’re being disparaged by those you are allegedly protecting.
They bring us home and then they spit on us, they insult us, call us all baby killers. We were not baby killers. My god, we saved so many lives. That first tour, I can’t tell you how many women and children we saved from these villages that had been pillaged and raped by the Viet Cong down there in the Mekong Delta. It just was unheard of some of the things that were done to these people. And we saved these lives, life after life, family after family. And a lot of our guys died doing it.