A hero’s last ride
Carl Gray won’t tell you he’s a hero, and he waves off anyone else that says it, but he is.
The Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and dozens of Air Medals he earned flying helicopters in Vietnam say he is.
Gray is one of the only people in our spiral arm of the universe who can tell you whether a helicopter — and a pilot — flies better or worse with bullet holes in them — lots and lots of bullet holes.
In wartime, Gray rescued prisoners of war, single-handedly held off the enemy after his helicopter was shot down and after his M-60 machine gun ran out of ammo, he loaded his injured and unconscious crew onto a medevac helicopter while returning fire with a .38 handgun.
He was shot down five times and wounded three times during two tours in Vietnam.
In peacetime he has flown countless rescue missions with HAATS, trained hundreds of other pilots to do the same and been a team roper and heavy equipment operator.
Gray has been everywhere and flown everything. He flew the Kiowa, the OH-6, Hueys, Blackhawks — almost anything with rotors. Some birds are better than others, but one there’s one thing true about them all.
“If you’re gonna fly it, you’d better learn to love it,” he said.
Pay attention and you’ll notice that the ring tone on his cell phone is the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the music under one of the best Vietnam era videos made.
He started flying in 1967 and last week called it a career.
The last Vietnam Vet
Gray’s retirement is the end of an era at HAATS, the National Guard’s High Altitude Training Site. As far as anyone can figure, he may be the last Vietnam era pilot in the country still flying on a military contract.
He saddled up an OH-58A Kiowa helicopter last week for one last flight.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said during his preflight check.
Gray trained most of the current senior aviation officers in the Colorado National Guard, so you know they’re trained right.
“He came from that core of guys who exudes leadership,” said Lt. Col. Josh Day, one of the many senior officers Gray trained.
Gray predates everyone on the HAATS staff.
“His imprint on this is indelible,” said Sgt. Maj. Greg Clancy.
He always treats officers — and everyone else — with respect, Day said, even when he wondered what on God’s green earth they were doing.
“When he explained that we might be better served to do something another way, we listened,” Day said. “And he was right.”
“One of the unique things about Carl is he’s still flying and is a two-tour Vietnam pilot; not many can say that,” said Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi, the current HAATS commander.
Through HAATS, Gray trained pilots from all over the country and the world through NATO. Most of them loved it; some lived because of it.
One, an Iraqi, was so happy that he stayed here, defecting to the United States after he completed his HAATS training.
Gray entered the Army in 1967 and left in 1971 after two tours of Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. The Ketchum, Oklahoma, native was looking for something outside a combat zone, and his brother and cousin were already in Vail. They told him about a job making wooden signs using a router for the ski company.
“It’s clean and indoors,” they told him.
He moved to Vail in less time than you could say “Will anyone be shooting at me?” No, they will not.
Telling war stories is generally more fun than tragic, he said.
Gray flew an OH-6 in Vietnam, a Light Observation Helicopter — LOH in Army parlance — a small-ish bird mounted with a couple guns. They’d fly around Vietnam at treetop level looking for the enemy, who often found them first.
He’d chase the enemy around trees as he flew, sort of the same way kids chase each other around trees when they’re playing. Except no one was playing. They were shooting.
The seats were armor reinforced and would stop a 30-caliber round most of the time. The floors wouldn’t stop much. They wore what they called “chicken plates,” armor plating strapped to their bodies. The radio was mounted to the floor between his legs and it stopped some of bullets, but not all of them.
“We took fire all the time. Those are the facts of life,” he said smiling.
Fun and fighting
Gray was 20 years old in Vietnam. They flew all day under heavy fire and did other stuff at night, most of which is none of your business. He smiles as he remembers being in San Francisco and about to ship out, but he couldn’t get a drink because he was too young. He just says age wasn’t an obstacle in Vietnam.
Most of the men he served with were about his age.
“Our commanding officer used to say it was like trying to keep a bunch of kids in line,” Gray said.
There’s a lot to be said for youthful enthusiasm, though.
“Something awful would come up and the C.O. would ask, ‘Can you do that?’ We’d say, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’”
And then they did.
The Great Escape
He was famous for a while when he and his crew rescued escaped POW Thomas H. Van Putten.
“I only did it so I could wave to my mom on TV,” Gray said laughing.
Van Putten had spent 13 months in a Vietcong prison camp before he escaped. Almost no one escaped and most who did were quickly recaptured. Van Putten, though, survived three weeks hiding in the jungle, looking for friendly forces.
Gray and his crew were scouting around for the enemy, which, as usual, meant they were flying treetop levels and taking fire. They spotted Van Putten, waving at them while leaning against a tree in a streambed and wearing the black “pajamas” of the Vietcong.
“We weren’t sure this wasn’t a VC trick,” Gray said at the time.
They flew circling the tree, guns ready to open fire, until they were sure it was an American. Gray landed and the ground gave way under his helicopter, trapping the skids under mud and logs. He rocked it back and forth, pulling it free, and hovered until they could yank Van Putten on board.
Van Putten grabbed one of Gray’s crew, Dale Wampler, by the shoulders and said “I love you.” Then he told them he was hungry.
They gave Van Putten a can of fruit and flew him to an infantry unit in the area, then returned for Wampler, who they had to leave behind because the OH-6 is pretty small.
One man army
The Silver Star is the second highest military honor, behind only the Congressional Medal of Honor, which some say Gray should have been awarded for his heroism.
Warrant Officer Gray was flying a scouting mission at treetop level over enemy territory. The enemy found them first and their helicopter “received numerous direct hits,” as did Gray and the two-man crew.
Gray was wounded and both crew members were knocked unconscious when the chopper crashed. One was pinned under the wreckage.
“He first pulled his men from the wreckage and administered vital first aid,” said Col. George Handley.
Things were bad and about to get worse.
Gray set up the aircraft’s M-60 machine gun on top of the wreckage and started blazing away, defending their position.
“For the next 15 minutes, while awaiting evacuation, he fought a one-man battle with a large enemy force,” Handley said.
While he was fighting, he used smoke grenades and hand signals to relay the status of their situation to the U.S. aircraft coming to help them.
When a medevac helicopter arrived, Gray got his two crew members into a hoist sling and into the rescue chopper.
Gray was the last man out. His M-60 was out of ammo, but he kept fighting with his .38 pistol.
Handley said Gray’s “courage, determination, selflessness and exemplary professionalism saved the lives of wounded crew members and relayed intelligence about enemy activities.”
“His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army,” Handley said.
Birds and bullets
It wasn’t all heroics.
There was the time they decided to light up a big water bird. They opened up on it with one of the OH-6’s guns, spraying mud and water everywhere but missing the bird, which walked away calmly. Gray cranked up his gun at 2,000 rounds a minute, sending cascades of mud into the blue Vietnam sky. The bird calmly walked away from that, too.
The third guy in their crew opened up with a hand held gun, but as he fired he tracked the walking bird across the front of their chopper and shot up the cowling.
The bird strolled away, untouched, and they reported the bullet holes as combat damage, which was plausible because there were always being shot at.
HAATS and cattle
Gray had been out of the military 16 years when a friend from Vietnam told him the Army was opening a training site in Eagle County and suggested that he get involved.
With HAATS, he prepared pilots from all over the world to fly combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Early in the war, many crashes were caused by pilot error.
“The goal is to teach them to manage their power in those environments,” Gray said.
That means “high, hot and heavy” — they’ll fly higher, hotter and be heavier than they were in training. Guns, bombs and missiles do that to an aircraft.
In Eagle County, Gray has also rescued cattle, horses and people — lots and lots of people. He spent the last few years as a civilian contractor, specializing in those Kiowa helicopters.
“Make me look young and tall,” he said smiling at the photographer shooting pictures prior to this week’s final flight.
The Kiowas are being retired at the end of this month, and Gray is too. He likes to rope, play golf and fish. He turns 67 in December and will do what he wants, which is what he has almost always done.
“I figured it’s time,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.