Admiral Ziemers Reunion Speech, 1996

Seawolf Reunion Speech
Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer
July 4,1996 Washington D.C

Thank you Con for that introduction. I have mixed emotions about being here. As a passive member of the SEAWOLF Association, I expected something different from you this evening. This is not a group of “old men talking about their days in Vietnam,” as I expected. What I have seen and experienced is something different, something with a much deeper meaning. This is a “family affair”– a gathering of brothers. My thoughts and the text of what I planned to say have changed. I am delighted to speak to you tonight — for a couple of reasons.
First — this is the first opportunity I have had to participate in a SEAWOLF reunion. I have been a passive member — that’s going to change tonight!

Second — I escaped the Pentagon tonight. I was supposed to be standing duty at the NMCC. Because of this invitation, I was able to twist the arm of an Air Force General to swap watches with me. If I only had one year to live, where would I want to live it? It would be as an Admiral in the Pentagon! This has been the longest year of my life! (Those of you who have worked in the Pentagon know what I mean.)

It’s an honor to stand before you tonight as one who is proud to say, “I flew in HAL-3, I was a SEAWOLF, half a world way, almost 25 years ago.” Like you, I have been the beneficiary of my association with the squadron. Let me give you a couple of examples.

As a LTJG, I was sent to the Philippines to go through Jungle Survival School. Many of you took the same opportunity to get a week of “R&R” in the PI. I was drinking a coke at the Cubi Point O’Club with a bunch of jet jocks that had just flown in from Yankee Station. They were talking about A-7’S, MIGS, F-4’S, and SAMS.
When one of the guys asked what I flew, I laid it on pretty thick and said,
“What kind of gunships?”
“Helicopter gunships.”
“What ship are you flying off of?”
“In country.” (That got his attention!)
“What is it that you do?”
I said, “We support the river patrol boats and the SEALS.”
“Seen any action?”
“Taken any hits?”
I was in! Because of the mission — because of the action, I was accepted immediately. That’s what I mean when I said I was the beneficiary of the organization — instant credibility! Two months ago in the Pentagon, I ran into RADM Richards, who had been a SEAL supported by DET-1. Some of you may have flown with him. When he learned I had flown with HAL-3, he said, “You guys saved our butts — if it had not been for you guys, I would not be here today.”

I did not fly with DET-1. Some of you guys did. But again, your performance has given HAL-3 a reputation that remains legendary throughout the Navy today. All of us are beneficiaries of that.

There are people in this room whom I admire and respect, whom I have not seen in 25 years, like my Gunner Terry Mize and my co-Pilot Mike Ried. I was not prepared for the emotional reaction I felt tonight when I saw them. It was as though time had not skipped a beat. There are those of you who have flown more missions, are more highly decorated, and have more dramatic stories to share — you should be up here as the guest speaker!

I suspect the reason I was invited to speak was because of my recent selection to “Flag,” I am grateful for that but to make sure you keep this in perspective let me share a joke with you.

This evening I am going to talk about two things. First I am going to reflect a little on the past and risk getting a little personal. And then, I am going to do what Con has asked me to do — talk a little about the Navy today, and about armed helicopters for the future. I promise that will be a very short part of my remarks.

At the last reunion, RADM Kevin Delaney gave a very inspirational talk about the history of HAL-3 and its accomplishments. I will not be able to match that tonight.

The purpose of this reunion is to allow our minds to drift back over time and reflect on when we flew together over the Mekong Delta. In preparation for my remarks I went into my files and I pulled out journals that I had written when I was in Vietnam. Here are a couple of stories that jumped out.

About one month into detachment, we were given clearance to conduct target practice on a couple of “empty hootches” in a “No Man’s Zone.” Nobody was supposed to be on the ground. After pickling a couple of rockets, the door Gunners began firing their M-60’S. Suddenly, one of the gunners saw a man running between the hootches. We ceased fire immediately. While we were trying to sort things out we noticed that this man remained in the open. We called back to the Army and challenged our clearance. I was quite annoyed because we had been briefed this area was unoccupied. The Army expressed an interest in interrogating this gent, so we went down and landed. The door gunner got out, patted him down, and invited him to “come fly with us!” I do not know if that was legal — but we did it.

As we took off, I noticed this man was an older guy about sixty-five. I felt pretty lousy because we had almost killed him. We dropped him off at the Army Intelligence Operational Center and a couple of days later, while on another patrol I called the Army up and asked what they had found out. Here’s what the Army said, “We know this guy, he is a nice man. We pick him up every time we do a sweep of that area. We are really glad that you did not hurt him. By-the-way, he has a message for you, he wanted us to pass that he really enjoyed the helicopter ride and he wants to thank you very much!”

As I flipped through the pages, I read about Tom Hiers, the Southern Baptist Chaplain who showed up at Dong Tam and conducted his first service. LT Kirk Todd, myself, the organist, and the chaplain were the only ones in attendance. The next week I grabbed the entire off duty crew and we filled the first two pews. By the time I left DET, eight months later, the chapel was full. We could not seat another person. I guess what that means is one’s spirituality is directly proportional to the next fire-fight. People were getting the message.

I re-read the account of the infamous Born Free Mission, where we chased a bunch of homing pigeons across the Delta with transmitters strapped to their backs trying to locate a POW Camp.

I also read about leaving Vietnam for Travis AFB aboard the Freedom Flight. I know all of you remember that flight very well. We landed in the middle of the night and I will never forget getting off the airplane and seeing the American flag illuminated with a bright spotlight. It was magnificent and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I arrived in Detroit, in uniform, to my “Welcoming Committee” which consisted my uncle and my fiancé, Jodi. No other expectations, no parades; that was all I needed. Those were a few of the things that were in my journal and it had been a while since I flipped through it.

Another thing that we all know and understand very well, was that Americans always came to the rescue of other Americans. When we received a “Scramble-1 call,” it indicated that one of our brothers was in trouble. Whether it be Army, Navy, or Air Force, “strict radio procedures” went out the window. Usually when things calmed down, we were able to re-group and head back to base. Comments from the ground units normally sounded like this, “You guys really saved our tails!” An understated reply would go back, “All in a nights work — Just doing our job.”

We all lived by the maxim “that”, even in death we would not abandon each other.” No one asked our race, our religion — if we were rich or poor. All we needed to know was that one of our American brothers was in trouble. Only a few of us here tonight are still wearing the uniform. While for most of you, the uniform has been put on the shelf for a number of years. What matters most is that those of you who wore the uniform together – as SEAWOLVES — enjoy a bond that is difficult to characterize with words. I appreciate that even more after being here with you tonight.

How our paths crossed at that point in history between (1972 and 1976, as we found it our fate to fly together in the Mekong Delta during the war, varies with each one of us. My perspective on Vietnam and “The “War” is a little different than the average SEAWOLF.

My first trip to Vietnam was not aboard the Freedom Flight. I went to Vietnam in 1947 onboard a converted WWII Troop ship. My parents were headed to South East Asia as missionaries where they were assigned to a country called French Indochina. The Japanese had been defeated. The French Colonialists were returning to the country to re-establish their businesses and plantations. We settled in Da Lat Province in the village of Ban Me Thuot. Most of you were not familiar with this part of the country because it was in the central highlands. As a kid, I remember seeing the French Indochinese War come and go. I recall chasing the French Legionnaire convoys through our town with other native children; running behind the dusty trucks encouraging the French soldiers to throw out their equivalent of C-Rations to us.

As you recall, in 1954, the French “threw in the towel” after the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”. The country was divided at the 17th Parallel, and that set the stage for the War that we fought in. (Incidentally, President Eisenhower sent 50 Technical Advisors to assist the French. Some of you, who might be H-2 pilots or aircrew may remember a guy named Norm Myers. He was a Tech Rep for Kaman Aerospace, but in his earlier life had served as one of those 50 guys that worked out of Hai Phong, in the early 1950’s.

The peace that came to Vietnam lasted only a few short years. Travel was unrestricted, and as a kid, I traveled through the country with my father — it was a beautiful country! Seven thousand foot mountains in Da Lat, the central plateau; and the highlands had lakes nestled up in the hills; and the tropical, lush forests. Not to mention big game hunting that would rival anything in Africa. The thousands of miles of delta that we all flew over, manicured coffee, tea, and rubber plantations. As a teenager, I would walk for miles and explore caves that the Japanese dug during WWII. I have very pleasant memories of those days growing up in Vietnam.

Early in the 1960’s the infiltration of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong commenced. Accounts and stories of the intimidation, terror and brutal torture imposed on the villagers started to become common place. Many of my personal acquaintances and friends fell victim to torture and death. It was clear to me as a teenager that the will of North Vietnamese was being imposed upon the South Vietnamese people. As the United States got involved with the military build up, there was not doubt in my mind, that our interest was to ensure the political freedom of the South Vietnamese people. In the bigger context, our national interests were being served by “drawing a line in the sand” to keep the Communists, the Russians, and Chinese from coming down and influencing that part of Asia. Unlike the French and the Japanese, the Americans did not have any interest in the country’s natural resources. We did not have any desire to run their nation.

We can debate the method and the politics of the conflict, but there is no doubt in my mind, that our nation was trying to do the right thing. I left Vietnam after high school and entered the college scene in 1964. I was very active as a minority voice, supporting in principle, what the American Government was trying to do in Vietnam.

Not all of my initial experiences in Vietnam were good. On January 30, 1968, the TET offensive hit Ban Me Thuot where my parents were assigned. Some of you might have been flying during the TET Offensive. As you recall, that was one of the first times that the North Vietnamese used conventional weapons (Tanks, artillery) in such a significant way. The attack on Ban Me Thuot was swift and it was effective. The mission compound where my parents were assigned was overrun. Satchel charges were used, killing one of the missionaries and his daughter. Scores of Montagnard tribesmen were injured and started coming to the mission station for security and medical treatment. The fighting was intense, and after a couple of days of siege, and several aborted evacuation attempts, my father left the safety of his bunker to try and negotiate with the North Vietnamese for permission to move some of the injured to another hospital. During that exchange, he was executed by a North Vietnamese soldier with an AK-47 automatic weapon. Five other American missionaries were killed. My mom, seriously injured by a grenade, was the only American survivor. She was subsequently captured by the North Vietnamese and forced to leave the mission compound. Several days later, when the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops counter-attacked, she was literally thrown off the back end of a truck, abandoned by the North Vietnamese as they retreated from the city. They thought she was going to die from her 18 shrapnel wounds. Fortunately, she was recognized by a friendly tribesman who took her to the Provincial hospital for treatment. From there the U.S. Army medical system took care of her — quite well I might add.

I left college to meet her C-141 MEDIVAC flight to Andrews Air Force Base. It was one of the most dramatic memories in my life. Upon arrival, I went aboard the airplane and saw my mom, a 49 year old lady, with premature gray hair, strapped to a stretcher with 60 other young, injured soldiers returning from Vietnam with combat wounds.

As I attempted to encourage her, she held up her hand and held out a note written to me. She had written the first stanza of the old Gospel hymn, “Count Your Blessings.” It went like this: When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged thinking all is lost, Count your blessings, named them one by one, It will surprise you what the lord has done.

Then she listed her blessings. The first one was that she had been able to serve the Vietnamese people for twenty-five years. The second was that she was able to have my father as a partner for twenty-seven years. The third was that she was thankful for her personal faith and lastly she listed her children by name…I even made the list!

Why am I sharing this story with you? Because the TET Offensive, that some of you flew in so nobly, affected me, but in a very different way.

I finished college a couple of months later and was drafted. I decided to evade the draft (pause) by joining the Navy. Before I knew it, I was in Pensacola going through Flight School. I did not have the foggiest idea what I was doing!

Six months into the training program during a “No FlY” day, I saw a movie that introduced me to the SEAWOLVES. The movie depicted some pretty brave Navy guys flying off ships in South Vietnam doing some pretty interesting things. While the mission and flying looked challenging, what really intrigued me was the notion that if I could get orders to that squadron, I could return to Vietnam. In retrospect it was almost preordained that I would go back to fight on behalf of my friends — the South Vietnamese.

Such was not the case for most of you. Your ambitions did not necessarily lead you to Vietnam, but all of us were citizen soldiers. We answered the call when it came. We were direct inputs from high school, college and the work force. The Navy took us to a war far from home. We took up arms against a determined enemy and we fought to the limit of our ability because we believed in our country and we believed in our duty. We did not fight for kith or kin. We fought for an ideal.

Some of us SEAWOLVES are not seasoned with experience but we were no less determined to fight for a just cause. We heard the same call that our forefathers heard over 200 years ago — the call of freedom.

While we were in Vietnam many of our countrymen wondered why we were there. Some blamed politics, some blamed the military, some blamed fate, some blamed misguided patriotism. The debate of why we were there, or why we got involved, will go on for years, but speaking for myself, and I believe many of you, we were there to preserve the freedom of the South Vietnamese people. That was the same freedom that our parents, our children, our wives and our girlfriends enjoyed back here in the United States. There was no doubt in my mind then, and there is no doubt in my mind now, that our country was genuinely trying to do the right thing.

Now, unless you are a veteran, you might find it odd that some of us feel indebted to the Navy for sending us to war. At the same time, none of us feel that in Vietnam there is a romantic remembrance. War is awful and when nations seek to resolve their differences by fighting, a million tragedies ensue. Look at Bosnia today. The story line should be hatred and ignorance. War is wretched beyond description. Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought, nor the cause with which it serves can glorify war. Neither do we share the exhilaration of combat.

The exhilaration that we speak of is just an instinct of survival. I think most of us are proud to have served in combat, but few of us are so removed from the memory of the emotions of combat that we mistake it for a wanton thrill. What we share is something harder to explain. It is a pride for having sacrificed together for a cause greater than our individual pursuits. A pride for having our courage and honor affirmed and tested in one moment in history. Pride for having replaced comfort and security with the inconvenience and the unknown and not being broken by the experience.

We also share, and this is a little harder for me to explain, the survivors humility. That’s kind of a provocative statement, I know, and the non-veteran may easily mistake its meaning. I am not talking about shame. I know of no shame in surviving combat, but every combat veteran remembers those comrades who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I think of it every time I pass the Vietnam wall. For those of you who have seen the painting by Jeff Teter, named “reflection” know what I mean. This painting depicts a businessman with his hand firmly planted on the wall, briefcase down by his side, his head is turned in grief. The reflection in the wall depicts soldiers reaching out with their hands to touch his. It’s a strong emotional picture. It’s those times when I think of my comrades who did pay the ultimate price. Their loss taught us everything about tragedy and everything about duty. This tragedy should cause us to look at every possible conflict in the future for another Vietnam.

I suspect every one here has been referred to as a hero at one time or another. It is at that moment when we most likely feel keenly the memory of our comrades who did not return to this country, they are the ones who paid the price for that honor that we enjoy.

None of the SEAWOLVES that did not return chose it that way. The memory of their loss encompasses almost all of our human emotions. Love, hate, despair, regret, gratitude. This is the secret, I think, veterans share. The surprising irony is that war provides the combatant with every human experience. Experiences that take a lifetime to know are all felt in one brief moment in history. One year in Vietnam.

That is why, when we are asked about our time in Vietnam and our time in war, we offer the contradictory response that it was an experience that we would, if given the choice, neither trade nor repeat. I fear that my meager powers of expression may have failed to explain my thoughts clearly. But I expect that many of you know exactly what I am talking about and it is these types of reflections, I think, that make reunions like this so special.

Now I would like to shift gears and talk a little bit about armed helicopters and hope I don’t lose you. We are currently concluding the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. The good news is that the United States is currently at peace. There is a Russian proverb that says, “peace is a period of time between wars.”

Our military has responded to over 40 contingencies since Desert Storm. Many of these operations involved non-traditional tasks like distributing food, resettling refugees, shoring up democracies in Haiti, providing medical assistance in Africa and evacuating embassies.

The question that is before our national leaders, is how do we guard our military’s unparalleled fighting ability when we call on it increasingly to do operations other than war? How do we make sure that when we have to behave like a military, we can? In other words, when we ask our military to perform missions that would make mother “T” (Mother Theresa) proud, can it when needed, perform decisively like Mr. “T”.

Today in this time of peace our military has new challenges. We currently have 50,682 young men and women deployed overseas. The price of freedom is high. It was in Vietnam and it continues to cost us dearly today. It’s an on going commitment, is it not? Paying premiums on freedom is like your mortgage. It goes on and on like the “Ever-Ready rabbit.” This was illustrated last week by the death of 19 airmen and the injuring of over 250 more in Saudi Arabia. The grief, the sorrow, the anger, and the reality of that to their families today, is just as real as the grief, the death and the pain that was experienced by families in Vietnam, WWII, Korea and the Revolutionary War.

The military is often criticized for not being as motivated, or as sharp as they need to be. I can tell you without any reservation that the two ingredients that held the SEAWOLVES in such high esteem — courage and valor — is alive and well in our young men and women in the military today. That was manifested in Bosnia last week.

When you look to the future of Navy helicopters, I would suggest that the future is extremely bright. The Navy has a master plan that expands our war fighting capability by modernizing the force. You will not recognize the Navy helicopter community in the year 2005. We have four primary mission areas — HC, HM, HSL, AND HS. I will not spend time to describe all of those. But we are taking 6 different aircraft and converting them to two basic air-frames. The H-60 derivative and the H-53.

For the sake of time, I am going to skip over the rest of my notes and get right to the armed helo stuff because I think some of you might find that interesting. For you door gunners, I want you to know that your mission experience, your performance and standard, lives on today in every tangible way. The need for armed helicopters crystallized in Vietnam. We learned our lessons well! At the end of the Vietnam War, with the exception of the two reserve squadrons, we got out of the business. The requirement for armed helicopters did not resurrect itself again until desert storm. Again, the Army’s helicopters led the way, and they did a fantastic job! Navy leadership saw this need and have made a commitment to arm Navy helos, put them on ships and have them ready to go for the next fight. As of right now we have a plan to arm 129, SH-60 helos for the HS, HC, and HSL communities. I will just summarize quickly the type of equipment we will have. The Penguin missile, and it is fantastic! It’s not like the 2.75 Inch Rocket. There are less than 100 of them in the Navy inventory because they costs $900,000.00 a piece! They weigh 800 lbs so you can’t throw them around. They go 17 miles, have passive tracking capability and are designed as an anti-ship weapon. We carry one per launch.

Next year were going to have hellfire missiles. They weigh 100 lbs a piece. The warhead is 14 lbs of H.E. and this is the missile we will use to get in close and personal. A little bit like HAL-3 but a bit more sophisticated. The thing has a 5nm range. It travels that distance in 37 seconds. We will carry 4 of them on one H-60. Each shot is $50,000.00! They are designed to be used against small patrol boats and oil rigs. Its laser designated, and you can not miss! For you door gunners — we have got the GAU-16. It’s basically a .50 cal machine gun. It worked then and it works great today. M-60’s for side suppression will also be part of the package. Can I sign any of you up?

In closing let me say to my shipmates from HAL-3 that you are in good hands! The crewmen who fly our helicopters are the best that the Navy has to offer. They demonstrate their commitment daily in the long hours at sea and long separations from home. They continually demonstrate their devotion through rigorous training and keeping their equipment in tip-top condition. Navy leadership is working very hard to keep our nation and our navy strong. We understand and we honor those that have gone before. We know that the price of freedom is high. We know that those who lack the will to defend their freedom are destined to loose them.

For most of us, the responsibility to bear arms in our country’s defense has been passed on to our children and our children’s children. I pray that when it comes time for them to answer the call to arms, the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen. The time and the place when they fight will not be their choice. As it once was for us, their honor will be in their answer, not in their summons. I know that in some fitting distant occasion, young men and women will be instructed in their duty by recalling our example. Many years from now people will look back on the warriors who fought so bravely in Vietnam and they will pay tribute to you. You and I know what a great tribute that is.

Speaking of honor, I want to reiterate what a terrific honor it is for me to have flown with you. To consider you my brothers — to call you my comrades. The SEAWOLVES have served this nation like no other unit and I am proud to have been a part of it. I can think of no better way of spending the 4th of July, than to spend it with you — here tonight in this banquet hall.

Thank you for your attention and for the opportunity to share a few remarks with you. Jodi and I thank you for your kind hospitality and wish you Godspeed in the future.