It’s considerably tougher to spot the enemy through the treetops at night so Paul Watters gripped the controls of his helicopter even tighter as he maneuvered through the gunfire.
His copilot beside him offered a second pair of eyes as they hovered above the tree line. Behind them, two door gunners, both kids no older than 18 or 19, returned fire with .50 caliber machine guns ripping out of the side of the aircraft.
“You’re young. You’re invincible. I was 24. You’re thinking ‘shoot at me, go ahead,’” Watters said thinking back some 50 years to his time in the Vietnam War. “We lost a lot of guys. I was one of the fortunate ones, I guess, because we took a lot of bullet holes in that helicopter.”
Watters spent 27 years in the Navy, serving during both Vietnam and the Cold War. He never had any interest in the military growing up. Hardly anyone in his family had ever served before him.
“Uncle Sam had a lot to do with me joining,” the 74-year-old puts it now.
Watters hadn’t been out of college two weeks before he was drafted. He assumed it was only a matter of time before he was selected and he’d already thought things through. He enjoyed being on the water sailing and swimming and such so when he was called, the natural choice was to enlist in the Navy.
“I knew it was coming. They were taking anybody that could fog a mirror,” he said. “You have to understand. I grew up in Southern California in the mid ‘60s. The military was something I’d never concerned myself with. I had interests in different areas, leave it at that.”
An impressionable 22-year-old surfer with a long mustache and shaggy brown hair stared back across the desk at the naval recruiter, who too wore a mustache though much shorter and tighter. Behind him hung a recruiting poster of a steely-eyed aviator posing with helmet in hand on the wing of a F-4 Phantom jet. Watters couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
“Oh, you think you can be a pilot huh?” the recruiter asked Watters with shades of condescension.
“I didn’t even know the Navy had planes,” Watters thought to himself.
“So the Navy, I took it as a challenge.”
In flight school, students with the highest grade point averages choose their aircrafts first. Nearly all of the jets were spoken for by the time Watters was dealt a UH-1 Iroquois, better known as a Huey helicopter.
“I thought it was kind of cool,’” Watters thought. “I’m flying Hueys equipped with rockets and machine guns, armed helicopter gun ships on a mission was to support the river line forces in Vietnam.”
The 16-man crew set up camp in plywood hooch huts raised on stilts about 6 feet over the tide and mud flats of river canals in Southern Vietnam. The crew was made up of two helicopters operating on alternating shifts that switched every 12 hours to steadily supply aerial gunfire support for the naval patrol boats nicknamed the Brown Water Navy that monitored the area.
“They’d call and we’d come shooting,” Watters said. “You have a sense that you know what you’re doing and you trust the guys you're with 100 percent. There’s also a sense that there could be one out there today with your name on it.”
Watters and his crew operated on standby, prepared to fly at a moment’s notice. Some shifts required more than others. Days in the jungle dragged on, so hot and humid that sweat would roll from your forehead too often to even bother wiping your brow. There was a distinct smell in the canals too that could turn your stomach when the breeze would roll down the river wrong.
“You get used to it all after a while,” Watters said.
The base sat less than 100 yards from a local farming village. A loose chain link fence divided the two. Watters’ crew was young, the eldest 28 years old and thus nicknamed Pappy. The villagers were mostly older adults who kept to themselves. The children, though, inquisitive in nature, would greet their neighbors at the fence. Soldiers broke the language barrier with their newfound friends through games of rock, paper, scissors. The vocabulary lessons eventually included things like mouth, nose and ears too, words the children found hilarious.
It’s easy to lose sense of yourself in the jungle. Mail was invaluable as the only connection to home but it took weeks into months to be delivered back and forth. A pallet of mail intended for a nearby Coast Guard ship landed at Watters’ camp one day. He and a few others flew it out to them about 15 miles off the coast. They were repaid with forgotten luxuries like a hot meal served with actual silverware. They took warm showers and received haircuts and clean shaves while their flight suits were washed and pressed. They posed for pictures to include in next month’s outgoing mail before they departed back for the canal.
“You don’t realize how bad we all stunk until you clean up a little bit,” Watters said. “Really rough, very austere living conditions.”
Watters woke one night to the rumble of explosions outside. An ensuing cloud of dust blanketed his mosquito net and top bunk. Rapid rifle fire erupted nearby. Fuel tanks on floating barges were exploding from incoming mortar and rocket fire.
“All hell was breaking loose,” Watters recalls. “We were under attack.”
Watters tried to load ammunition into the M-60 machine gun but his hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t load it into the feed tray. His flight leader gave word to get the helicopters in the air so Watters and his crew dodged the oncoming fire as they sprinted some 30 yards to the landing pad.
“Every gun blazing as soon as we were in hover,” he said. “We started putting down suppressive fire all along the opposite river bank and kept at it until we ran out of ammo and got low on fuel.”
The battle would last hours into the next morning. Their helicopters were left bullet ridden but salvageable. Their camp was not. The crew was forced to abandon their canal compound and move onto the U.S.S. Garret County, a World War II era ship for the next six months.
“It was many hours of complete boredom,” Watters said. “Interspaced with a few minutes of absolute pure terror.”
Watters was home from Vietnam less than a year before he was assigned a new mission of hunting enemy submarines in the Pacific Ocean. He deployed the much larger, more advanced twin-engine Sikorsky Sea King helicopters out of San Diego off the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, the sister ship of the U.S.S. Yorktown. He and his crew ran sonar throughout the waters around the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and down through Australia tracking and plotting the hidden enemy vessels.
“Total apples and oranges,” Watters said. “One instance, I’m in combat getting shot at, somebody is trying to take me out. The next instance, it’s cat and mouse, kind of stealth. More of a mind game. You’re trying to outsmart the enemy.”
Watters was tracking near the coast of Hainan Island in China at 3 a.m. in the pitch black one morning, no stars, no moon out. He was about 120 miles from his aircraft carrier. All was silent except for the soft buzz of a commercial radio his copilot, Keith, was tuning.
“Hey, I think they’re talking about us,” Keith whispered holding one hand up in the air while he fidgeted with the frequency with the other. “They’re talking about a helicopter. I think they’re watching us.”
“Come on,” Watters fired back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Keith was Mormon and learned Chinese in Taiwan during his high school mission trip.
“Paul, no, I’m serious,” Keith assured. “This is a missile tracking radar station. And they’re talking about us.”
“I don’t know if you’re BS-ing me or not but I’ve had enough,” Watters said as they hurried back to the carrier to debrief.
“Nobody knew that guy could speak four dialects of Chinese. And I never saw him again after that night. They transferred him. He was too valuable of an asset now.”
Watters transferred a few years later to a smaller helicopter that could be flown off of the deck of destroyers rather than carriers in the South Pacific. They received a mayday call one day near a small island off the coast of Uwajima, Japan. Watters and his crew found the beached ship and extracted its sailors. They exited through the clouds over the top of Mount Suribachi. It was still littered with old gun placements and rusted tanks and jeeps. Guns sat half buried in the sand near an abandoned airplane hanger with a roof that was painted with the Rising Sun flag of Japan. One of the crew scooped a handful of sand into his pocket before they left. They divvied it into pill bottles back on the ship and every crewmember received a few grains of sands of Uwajima.
“Some incredible history,” Watters said. “I really loved what I did.”
Watters spent some time as a harbormaster on Block Island and taught at the Naval War College in Rhode Island before retiring from the Navy in 1992. He eventually worked his way into the real estate business, a job far removed from the structured naval obligations he was used to. He connected with a former Army pilot who would take him on flights to photograph his real estate listings. He’d hang out of the helicopter with a long 35-millimeter lens and have the photos developed to use in flashy promotions.
“We were the only ones doing that,” Watters said. “Before drones or anything else.”
Watters retired form real estate two years ago. He now volunteers at Patriots Point, the naval war museum in Charleston where his primary responsibility is transporting visitors down the docks in his shuttle bus or golf cart. It’s a little smoother ride than the old Hueys.
“I haven’t had one guy shoot at me in this either,” Watters jokes as he scoots past a Huey on display in the museum’s Vietnam War exhibit.
Watters still keeps in touch with about three-quarters of his old crew from Vietnam. A few, of course, have been lost to old age and such. They get together once a year for a reunion, alternating coasts with each trip. This year it’s in San Diego. In 2012, it was in Charleston, which is how Watters ended up in the Lowcountry. They catch up on family and rehash old war stories, which tend to get better with each passing year.
“Flying is an unforgettable feeling,” Watters explains. “Conceptually, it’s hard to describe what it’s like to be in control of something airborne.
“When you walk or drive somewhere, it’s two-dimensional. But in the sky, when you’re up there flying, it’s three-dimensional. I still miss that some.”