When John Dickinson arrived at the airport in Saigon, Vietnam in 1969 aboard a commercial jet from the United States he was a recient graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who had just finished helicopter flight school in Pensacola.
The lieutenant j.g. had been assigned to “The Seawolves,” Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three, the navy’s only attack helicopter squadron stationed on the ground in Vietnam at the time. Headquarters for the unit was Binh-Thuy.
“I recall when I walked down the steps from the airliner and reached the Saigon Airport tarmac I was hit by a blast of hot, humid air filled with an exotic aroma I had never experienced before,” the 67-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident recalled four decades later. “Right away I knew I was in a far different place.
“The Seawolves flew patrol looking for targets of opportunity. We also responded to our people on the ground who were in trouble and under enemy fire,” he explained. “The Huey helicopters we flew had a four-man crew. They were armed with a 7.65 mini-Gatling gun, two rocket pods and twin .50 caliber machine guns in the doors on each side of the aircraft.
“During my last six months in Vietnam I was sent to one of our outposts at the extreme south end of the Mekong Delta located near a little village called Song Ong Doc where the Song Ong Doc empties into the Gulf of Thailand.
“We had two Hueys based there and we lived in hooches next to our choppers. The U.S. Navy had a riverboat squadron based at the mouth of the river nearby,” Dickinson said.
“Our perimeter security was provided by local militia. This amounted to a couple of local guys in a foxhole. The coverage was sparse. To the north of us, further up the delta the VC (Vietcong guerillas) were strong.
“We’d fly patrol or tactical air support missions almost every day. Our most difficult task was responding to people who needed our help. We’d fly into their area and provide them with air support. We never knew what we were getting ourselves into. Our air patrols were usually much calmer activities.”
Ironically, it was when Dickinson was returning to base from an air patrol mission that proved to be his most harrowing flight during his year in Vietnam.
“I was the copilot on one of two aircraft returning from patrol when the other helicopter was hit in the engine by enemy fire. They were forced to make an emergency landing in an open field,” he said. “The crew of the downed aircraft was immediately under fire from VC and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) regulars. This was out in the middle of nowhere, not near our base.
“We kept circling the downed helicopter to keep up the firefight from the air. At one point we made one attempt to land and pick up these people, but they waved us off because they were receiving too much enemy fire,” Dickinson said. The Huey crew was holding off the enemy the best they could with their onboard fire power.
“The firefight on the ground took hours and hours. The Huey crew was eventually rescued by an Army helicopter team,” he said with a smile. “It was such a relief to see them returned to base uninjured way after midnight.”
“Sometimes at night I would go out on the front porch of our hooch and stare into the blackness and wonder why the enemy didn’t just come in and overrun us. We had little security, a couple of locals in a foxhole,” he recalled.
“A few days after I left our outpost and was headed back to the States they were attacked and overrun by the VC and the NVA. Both our helicopters managed to get off the ground, but I never found out what happened to the rest of our people who weren’t in these helicopters,” Dickinson said.
When he first arrived in Vietnam in September 1969 he happened to meet an 18-year-old hostess named Ngoc-Ha at the American Officers Club at MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) Headquarters in Ca Mau. They hit it off and a letter writing campaign ensued. Then a romance developed between the young Vietnamese girl and the helicopter pilot.
Before he flew off for home Ngoc-Ha was pregnant with his child, although he didn’t know it.
They promised to stay in touch by letter until they could sort out their lives and figure out something more permanent. For months the two lovers tried to correspond, but for whatever reason few of their love notes reached their intended.
Nine months later Ngoc-Ha had Dickinson’s son, a boy she named Minh. By this time the young navy lieutenant was far away and the love of his life was lost in the turmoil that became Vietnam under the Communist North Vietnamese a few years later when the Americans moved out and the government in the south collapsed.
Ngoc-Ha eventually moved on with her life. She was married a South Vietnamese Army officer before Vietnam fell to the Communists. Because of her connections with the Americans during the war and the fact her family was relatively well off with a rice and fruit plantation, she was put in prison. By then she had three children, two others by her Vietnamese husband. He was also imprisoned by the Communists and eventually faded from her life.
When finally released from prison, Ngoc-Ha spent years trying to escape with her brood from Vietnam and her Communist antagonists. Finally in 1982, after four failed attempts, she made it. With the assistance of a German refugee agency, she boarded a freighter with her children and they all ended up as refugees in Munich, Germany.
After all these years, Ngoc-Ha had not forgotten, John, her first love she lost when he returned to the U.S. in 1970 after his year tour in Vietnam. She got an American friend who agreed to see if he could locate him when he returned home.
“She knew I was from Minneapolis and she knew my name, but that’s all he had to work with. He got a Minneapolis phone book and began calling people with my name,” John explained. “On his third call he got me and asked if I had ever known a girl in Vietnam named Ngoc-Ha?
“Immediately everything came together after all these years,” he said. “We got together again 20 years after I had left Vietnam. We were married in 1992.”
She brought all four of her children to the U.S. and they eventually became American citizens.
Minh Dickinson, their first born, lives in San Antonio, Texas and owns a concrete business and has just opened a mobile food cart business that sells Vietnamese food. He is married and has two daughters who are attending Texas A&M University and a son in high school.
“They are doing very well,” John proudly explained.
Ngoc-Ha’s second son, Khai, graduated from George Washington University in D.C. He is about to complete a master’s degree in business. He works for an international law firm in the U.S.
Her youngest daughter, Duc-An, is currently in college and plans to be a dentist. Her oldest daughter, Lynn, is a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
After returning from Vietnam, Dickinson spent four more years in the Navy and then got discharged.
“I decided to do something really different I always wanted to do. I attended the University of Minnesota and got a degree in Studio Art. After that I got a job with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Department. After almost 30 years working for the city I was the head of a design and cultural arts program the city ran when I retired,” he explained.
He and Gnoc-Ha moved to Port Charlotte in April 2007.
Click here to read part two.
Name: John Duff Dickinson
D.O.B: 22 Dec. 1945
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minn.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1968
Resigned Commission: 1973
Unit: HAL-3 and HSL-30
Commendations: 13 Air Medals, Vietnam Service Medal, Expert Pistol Medal.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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