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Mark A. King, WO1, U.S. Army, Helicopter Pilot, Vietnam War

Author: John Vick

LEFT: Warrant Officer candidate Mark King, U.S. Army. [Photo: Mark King] RIGHT: Brig. Gen. Oden pins the Air Medal on WO1 Mark King, Tan Son Nhut, Airbase, Vietnam, Aug. 24, 1964. [Photo: Mark King]

Warrant Officer King did his best to hide behind the dyke at the edge of the rice paddy. He and Skip Bundy had just guided his UH-1B Huey to a “controlled crash” in the middle of a rice paddy near Vinh Long, South Vietnam, after his engine was taken out by enemy fire. With bullets flying overhead, he and his crew had crawled toward a dyke for protection. Fearing he was about to be overrun, he thought, “What am I going to do with a .357 sidearm and six bullets?”

He decided to crawl back to the Huey and get a bigger gun. “I crawled to the back of the helicopter where our M-60 machine gun was mounted. We carried a converter kit to make a ground mount for the M-60, so I got the gun and kit and crawled back to the protection of the dyke. I had 300 rounds of ammunition and I was ready to ‘rock and roll.’”

Fortunately, King didn’t have to use the M-60. He recalled, “About 15 helicopter gunships suddenly appeared overhead and proceeded to rake the enemy positions with suppressing ground fire. An unarmed helicopter [called a ‘slick’] came in, picked us up and took us back to Saigon.”

For his actions near Vinh Long on June 19, 1964, Warrant Officer Mark A. King received the Army Commendation Medal of Valor.

Mark Anthony King was born December 12, 1942 in Andalusia, Alabama. His parents were Gaston and Oletta Donaldson King. Mark had two older brothers, Joel and Wayne and would have a younger brother, Harry. Mark graduated from Andalusia High School in 1961 where he was a star football player on the bulldog football team. After graduation, he signed a football scholarship to play for Auburn University. At the end of his freshman year, he was playing second team guard for the Tiger freshman team coached by Vince Dooley.

During the summer of 1962, Mark worked for the City of Andalusia as a meter reader. He decided to give up football and enlist in the Army. Mark was one of the first five civilians selected to go directly into helicopter training. Prior to that time, helicopter trainees came from the regular Army. He was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and completed basic training in 1963. King was then sent to Warrant Officer Candidate School and basic helicopter training at Fort Wolters, Texas. Mark finished pre-flight training in late December 1963. From there, he was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for advanced helicopter training where he flew the UH-1A Huey. King Received his wings and was commissioned as a Warrant Officer on May 12 1964. He was sent to Vietnam on June 11, 1964.

Warrant Officer candidate Mark King in his OH-23 Hiller helicopter trainer at Fort Wolters, Texas.
[Photo: Mark King]

King recalled his arrival at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, “As I exited the plane, two First Lieutenants [Swift and Ikman], met me at the bottom of the stairs. They pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to fly gunships. I replied that I did and they proceeded to take me to the assignment office. There I met a Major I remembered from Fort Wolters who asked me if I had any problem ‘killing the enemy?’ I told the Major, ‘None whatsoever.’ That’s why I thought I was sent over here.’” King was assigned to the UTT [Utility Tactical Transport] Company, Dragon Platoon.

A few days later came the mission described above near Vinh Long. Although King was not wounded in the controlled crash near Vinh Long, He realized that the gunships had “saved the day.”

Warrant Officer King received his first purple heart not too long after the Vinh Long mission. He recalled, “We were flying a recon mission west of Saigon. My aircraft call sign was ‘Saber 7 alfa,’ and I was flying wing for my company commander, Major Jim Jagers [call sign ‘Saber 6]. We were flying a recon mission and doing a low-level run with fire. Just before I was hit, I saw bunkers built into the side of a rice paddy dyke. Suddenly, a large caliber bullet came through the windshield and hit my rocket sight, just two inches from my face. The rocket sight blew back into my face, knocking me off the controls and exited through my door window, leaving a large hole. My crew pulled me off the controls to see how badly I was injured. My co-pilot, Mike Davis, was able to recover the aircraft and fly us out. We called ‘Saber 6’ and suggested we find another landing zone.”

In a month or so, King was made aircraft commander and assistant armament officer. He was also named Class A Officer [or paymaster] for the UTT Company. The troops were limited in how much cash they could receive and King disbursed about $65,000 per month.

On one occasion when the armament officer was on leave, King was asked to demonstrate a new rocket launcher for Brig. Gen. Delk Oden. The 2.75 in. rockets were carried in two pods mounted underneath and on either side of the helicopter. Each pod carried 18 rockets and the test required firing all 36 at one time. After flying with the general to the test range, King landed and left the general at the observation area. He then lifted off and proceeded down range to line up with the target.

King recalled, “As I came across the firing line, I was aiming 500 yards downrange.

When I fired the rockets, the helicopter stood on its nose at about 900 feet. As I was recovering the ship, I could see rockets hitting from the 500 -yard line, all the way back to where Gen. Oden and my crew were standing behind a berm. The last two rockets landed within 50 yards of Gen. Oden. When I returned to the observation area, they motioned for me not to land but to hover. They removed the pods as I hovered. It turned out that the bomb brackets couldn’t hold the front of the pods and they were hanging down at about 90 degrees. After I sat the aircraft down, we found that one rocket had hit the skid on the pilot’s side and knocked out a chunk. Thereafter when Gen. Oden wanted a test done, he asked for me. I also had the privilege of flying his boss, Lt. Gen. Easterbrook.”

In late September or early October of 1964, King was part of an incursion into Cambodia that destroyed a village and caused an international incident. He recalled the incident, “We landed at a special forces camp and were briefed on the mission, complete down to which houses to hit first. A special forces Captain accompanied us as an observer. The mission went perfect as planned. We left the area and proceeded to shoot up sampans on a nearby canal. We were traveling at low speed, at a low altitude when we were ambushed. I saw a VC [Viet Cong] come out of the water with a shotgun, firing straight at me. I heard the impact on the aircraft but was not harmed. After landing the aircraft back in Vietnam, we counted 26 bullet holes in the aircraft. One shot hit on the side of the aircraft where I was sitting but was stopped by the side-armor plate on my seat. One shot hit the observer Captain in the leg. He had to be evacuated back to the States for surgery. He was not unhappy with his ‘million-dollar ticket’ back home and we had several toasts at our bar before he left.”

The battle of Benh Gia was fought in late December. The Dragon Platoon was sent in to assist an ARVN [South Vietnamese Army] unit which had been ambushed and decimated by the VC. By the time King and the other pilots arrived, the VC had withdrawn. The Dragon Platoon put down suppression fire in the surrounding area while the dead and wounded were removed.

By the time Warrant Officer Mark A. King was medically-evacuated from Vietnam on February 9, 1965, he had completed more than 725 combat missions with more than 538 hours in combat.

WO1 Mark A. King receives the Bronze Star Medal, the Air Medal with 15 Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Army Commendation Medal at Ft. Benning, Georgia, July 23, 1965. Making the presentation is Col.William H. Zimmerman, LAAC Commander. [Photo: Mark King]

King’s Dragon Platoon was part of an assault near Benh Gia that had lost two armed helicopters and had about a dozen wounded men. King recalled the next mission after that, “A few days after the first Benh Gia mission, we flew back with a heavy fire-team. The U.S. Special Forces advisor had sent word that the VC were massing a large force near Benh Gia and he was concerned that his force might be overrun.

“It was getting late and my fire-team leader, Roy Azbel [Dragon 3-2], called for a low-level strike over the tops of the trees near a rubber plantation…About half-way through our firing run, Dragon 3-2 flew right into what looked like a curtain of tracers and broke left. I broke right to try and avoid the tracers. I could see that Dragon 3-2 was on fire about the same time he came on the radio screaming that ‘he was on fire.’ I told him I was right beside him and that he needed to try to make it to a clearing up ahead where I would pick him up.

“We were about half-way to the clearing when I saw his tail-boom come off and Dragon 3-2 went down into the trees, upside down and exploded into a ball of flame. After circling around a few times and seeing no signs of life, we headed back to base. There was nothing we could do but come back the next day when it was quieter and let ground forces recover the bodies.”

Not long after the battle of Benh Gia, the Dragon Platoon was stripped of its guns and made into troop transports [slicks]. King asked to be transferred to the Playboy Platoon which was still operating gunships. He was accepted and began operations with his new platoon immediately.

On February 8, 1965, the Playboy Platoon was part of an assault against a large VC force that had been detected north of Benh Gia. This time, the entire helicopter company of 20 gunships was sent in to support the assault. King recalled, “The VC were well dug in and camouflaged in the LZ [landing zone]. As the first wave of helicopters deployed their troops in the LZ, the VC opened up with withering fire. They shot down three of the troop-carrying aircraft and one of our gunships, killing the pilot, WO John Urban.” The fighting in the LZ was hand-to-hand and continued until dark when the VC retreated back into the jungle. The Playboy Platoon returned to their staging area near Vung Tau [about 60 miles southeast of Saigon, on the coast] to rearm and refuel.

On February 9, two gunships flown by WO King and Lt. DeYoung, were sent back to the assault area north of Benh Gia to provide escort for a maintenance helicopter and a downed Huey. WO King was flying Playboy 17 and the fire team leader, Lt. DeYoung, was flying Playboy 18.

King recalled, “After the other aircraft had departed the area, we left and as I was climbing to altitude, my ship came under fire by a large caliber weapon. We heard four large explosions followed by a fifth that struck our engine... I immediately looked for a place to land. I turned left toward a small clearing in the dense jungle. I saw that I was going to be short so I pulled my rotor down to 5000 rpm in order to stretch my glide… we were falling like a rock.

“Somehow the good Lord saw fit to place a large tree in my path. The tree came through my windshield and slowed our rate of descent and forward air speed. We made a hard landing and tipped over on our side in the 10-feet tall elephant grass…I was semi-conscious and still strapped in when Lt. DeYoung landed his gunship to bring us out…The rest of my crew got out without a scratch…I managed to walk to DeYoung’s ship despite being semi-conscious and in incredible pain.”

Plaque presented to WO1 Mark A. King from the 1st Armed Helicopter Platoon, 68th Aviation Company, commending King’s 538 combat hours and 723 combat missions. [Photo: Mark King]

King was flown to a soccer field at a nearby village where he was picked up by a medevac unit and taken to a Navy hospital in Saigon. Even though he was heavily sedated and semi-conscious, King remembered Brig. Gen. Oden coming by to check on him. Mark’s injuries were severe with compression fractures of his back in three places, a broken right leg, two broken ankles, fractures to both wrists and several broken ribs. With such severe injuries, Mark was evacuated to a military hospital at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines.

After King’s arrival at the hospital he received a phone call from his dad. The Red Cross had notified a local office in Andalusia, Alabama, about Mark’s condition and location. The manager of the local Red Cross was Laurie Hamiter, who had arranged the phone call.

After a short stay in the Philippines, King was flown to Brook Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It had been five days since the crash. He recalled his stay there, “It wasn’t until my arrival there that I was fully conscious. They kept my legs packed in ice for two months to restore circulation. I had to lie flat on my back for two months in order for my injuries to heal. I was there for four months before I was released.”

After leaving San Antonio, King was assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he was enrolled at the instrument flight school. Upon completion of the school, he was certified as a flight instructor and trained helicopter pilots until his discharge in May 1967.

He had served four years and been awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Aviator Badge, the Sharp Shooter Badge [rifle], the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Air Medal with 16 Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” device for Valor, the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Jump Wings, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster and the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for Valor.

After leaving the Army, King was hired by Page Aircraft of Lawton, Oklahoma. He ferried new helicopters from Fort Worth, Texas, to Stockton, California, where they were sent to Vietnam. After two months, Page lost their government contract and King went to work for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. out of Lafayette, Louisiana. He flew workers to and from off-shore oil rigs for about six months before being sent to Ecuador to work for the same company.

King flew a helicopter like this Bell 204 for Petroleum Helicopters Inc. in Ecuador. [Photo: Mark King]

In Ecuador, King flew oil drilling equipment to various jungle locations. He flew the Bell 204 helicopter which was the civilian version of the UH-1B Huey. King’s work in Ecuador lasted about ten months until the day his helicopter was caught in a treacherous downdraft and crashed. The aircraft rolled up against a berm beside a dirt road that prevented a steep roll off the mountainside. King and the other five men on the aircraft suffered multiple injuries.

He recalled, “My nose was smashed, my jaw was broken, my skull was cracked, I had severe facial injuries and my left foot was dislocated and broken. We had been operating in the jungle wearing only light clothing and we crashed at 12,000 feet up in the Andes mountains where it was about 28 degrees…After a while, two native Indian men came to us on horseback. They went to a nearby village where some Wycliffe missionaries were working on a radio tower [where they would broadcast to the natives in their own language]. They called Quito for help.

“Help finally came after about six hours and they carried us to a hospital in Quito which was operated by Wycliffe Bible Association. After about a week there, I was flown back to the States and taken to Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama.”

After about a week, King went to stay with his parents in Andalusia. He was still on crutches and his jaws were wired shut. He stayed with his parents until January 1969 when he decided to join his younger brother, Harry, at Livingston University. He earned his degree in Business Administration in 1972 and went to work in the shipping department of the Alatex in Andalusia.

After a couple of years, he went to work with Tractor and Equipment Company of Montgomery, Alabama. King still worked out of Andalusia and continued to work with them through 1977, when he began work with State Farm Insurance. He retired from State Farm after 24 years.

Mark A. King married Norma Worley in December 1970. They had three children, Marcie, Anthony and Walter. Mark and Norma divorced in December 1988.

Mark married Lynn Hutcheson Shipp in March 1997. She had two sons, Bryant and Dustin Shipp.

Mark and Lynn currently reside in Andalusia.

Mark A. King asked to add one closing remark, “It was an honor to serve in the UTT Helicopter Company, the world’s first armed helicopter company. The men I served with were closer than brothers, not by blood but with mutual respect and professionalism. Other pilots and units admired us and the VC feared us. I have no animosity toward the Vietnamese people – they were caught between communism and democracy and we lost. We did not lose on the battlefield, they just had a greater will to win.”

The author would like to thank Mark and Lynn for helping to tell his heroic story. Mark said he did so in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same.

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