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  The Life Expectancy of a 2nd Lieutenant

  Vietnam Campaign Medal  The Story of Donald F. Fletcher  Purple Heart

Donald F. Fletcher, Class 04-67, KIA 31 October, 1968, approx 0850 hours

Donald F. Fletcher, Class 04-67In Vietnam there was a common phrase that had to do with the job you performed, and how long you could expect to live because of that job. When two people met each other it was common for one to ask the other "what's your MOS" (Military Occupational Specialty)? Depending on your answer, you would hear the response "then your life expectancy is about 3 months..." or whatever was appropriate for your MOS. Little more than idle talk, pegging someone's life expectancy was an exercise in morbid humor that kept all of us smiling and able to deal with the reality of death at any moment.

Signal Officers didn't have an especially short life expectancy, unless they had special training and were working in that capacity. For those without special duty training, the average Signal Officer's life expectancy was up around 11 months, which meant that if you kept your nose clean, did your job well, and kept your head down you would probably rotate back to the States with no problem. Most people did.

For those Signal Officers that went through Ranger training, or jump school, joined the Green Beanies (Green Beret), sat on a remote signal site fending off weekly sapper charges, or became chopper pilots or the like, life expectancy was dramatically lower.

Life expectancy for chopper pilots was right down there with that of an infantry ground pounder. The facts are cold and stark:

  • Approximately 12,000 US Helicopters flew in the Vietnam War. Approximately 5,000 were destroyed. That means 42% of the aircraft that spent time in the air crashed or were shot down...nearly 3 out of every 7 that flew.

  • Approximately 40,000 US Helicopter Pilots flew in the Vietnam War. Approximately 2,202 pilots were killed, along with 2,704 crewmen. For those with their hands on the joystick that means 5.5% never made it back. Considering that the average pilot flew 4 times a week, he could expect that during his tour in Vietnam he was flying up against the Grim Reaper on 11.4 of his flights. That means that every 4.5 weeks he faced death. In soldier talk, his life expectancy was 4 and a half weeks... basically, a month.UH-1D

What's often forgotten in this is that helicopters weren't built to fly around empty. They carried cargo... usually human cargo. Soldiers. One of the best was the UH-1D.

The Bell (model 205) UH-1D (1963) had a longer fuselage than previous models, increased rotor diameter, increased range, and a more powerful Lycoming T53-L-11, sporting 1,100 shp, with growth potential to 1,400 shp. A distinguishing characteristic of this ship was its larger cargo doors, as well as its twin cabin windows. The UH-1D was stretched so that it could carry up to 12 troops, with a crew of two. The first UH-1D reached Vietnam in 1963. With a range of 293 miles (467km) and a speed of 127 mph (110 knots), it was a formidable troop carrier. With so many people on board, it was also a formidable death trap when it went down.

Lieutenant Fletcher went down on a UH-1D. Lieutenant Fletcher was a friend of mine.

At the time I knew him he was stationed in Nha Trang, living in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters) village that most of us Signal Officers were billeted in. He was one of the first people I met after coming down to Nha Trang from a tour that included 7 months on a 7,800 foot high signal site outside of Dalat. My best friend at the time, Roger Elsasser (07-67), introduced me to him. For some reason Don Fletcher took Roger under his wing and treated him like a younger brother. That's the kind of guy Don was. If he liked you, he made you "family."

What I remember most about him was that to me, after 7 months in the Boonies, for a young Officer, Don was larger than life. From the first time I met him I was struck by his imposing persona. "Strack" (straight and squared away), handsome, with a square jaw and compelling smile, he exuded leadership, confidence and trust. He seemed to live with a vibrancy and joie de vivre that few others had. The BOQ he lived in had a big sign on the door that said "Go Away. This Is Not The Red Cross." The message was clear: Stand on your own two feet. Solve your own problems. Get on with life.

Nha Trang 1968 - looking westDon was assigned to the 54th Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade. One of his duties was to fly around distributing pay to those stationed at remote signal sites and the like. In one respect, you can think of him as little more than "chopper cargo." When it came to flying, most of us Signal Officers were. In another respect, since he spent so much of his time in choppers, you can think of him has having a life expectancy not much greater than that of a chopper pilot, albeit with less control over the outcome than the guy with his hands on the joystick. When it comes to a face off with death at 5,000 feet, those in the back of the bus are at a distinct disadvantage.

I remember the night before Don took off to make one of his payroll runs. I also remember the early afternoon of the next day. That's when Roger told me that Don's chopper went down that morning on a hill on the other side of the river that skirted Nha Trang. The report was that a ROK (Republic of Korea) combat team stationed on top of one of the hills had seen it going down, but that no one was able to locate its final resting place.

I, along with a few other friends, volunteered to form up a search and rescue party to locate the site and hike to it, but we were politely told that while our intentions were good, there were far more qualified people in the Army to find and rescue helicopter survivors than a bunch of Signal Officers.

As time passed, reports came back that all on board had been killed.

Just like that, a guy with a low risk job turned out to have one with a life expectancy much shorter than any of us guessed. It turns out that being a payroll officer in Vietnam was nearly as dangerous as that of a chopper pilot: life expectancy - about 8 months. Don beat it by a month.

In trying to complete this website we think it valuable to pull together as many facts as possible about those who died in Vietnam. When told of Lieutenant Fletcher's story, Major Green (OCS Graduate Chief Locator, Secretary of the Army Signal Corps OCS Association, Membership Coordinator, Historian, Director, OCS graduate of Class 02-67, and former chopper pilot himself) throttled-up his engine, pushed the cyclic forward, and pulled out all stops to find out how my friend died. Among the people he contacted was Gary Roush, President and Historian of the VHPA. Gary tracked down the incident report for the helicopter that Don was on. Click below to read it. It's sobering in its simplicity and clarity.

Thanks to Major Green and Gary Roush from all of us who knew Don. Thanks for helping us finally learn the facts surrounding the death of our friend. 

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Original Site Design and Construction By John Hart, Class 07-66. Ongoing site design and maintenance courtesy Class 09-67.
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