A young Army aviator in flight school understands too many mistakes in training can easily result in an unwanted transfer to a new career field. Once bitten by the aviation bug, a pilot’s license is the only known cure. One thing a trainee shouldn’t do during “a soft field landing” practice at low level is to accidently pull the fuel mixture throttle. To do so starves the engine of fuel, the engine cuts off and at low level the plane and its trainee are going down.
The instructor in another aircraft spotted the Army trainer sitting in the middle of a field, which meant an unauthorized landing had taken place. More irritated than concerned, he asked the pilot cadet via net, “What in the world are you doing, Blanton?”
Without offering detailed information, Blanton replied, “Engine trouble, sir.”
The young lieutenant telling the whopper was Steve Blanton, a Grady Baby and present resident of Newton County. From sitting in a vacant field imagining his Army aviation career had just crashed and burned, Blanton would circumvent the rookie mistake and go on to serve his country with distinction for 31 years until retiring in August of 2008 with the rank of brigadier general.
He recalled a childhood lacking modern conveniences. “Shoot, we were dirt poor. No indoor plumbing, and I remember toting buckets of water from Granny’s house because she had city water. Heat was generated by a wood burning stove and we used the old lamp lights. I thought we were rich when we finally got electricity.”
By the time Blanton received his high school diploma from South Cobb in 1966, two of his brothers were already serving in the Marines. “That is what I wanted to do,” Blanton said. “Marine aviation, jet fighters to be exact. So when I started my collegiate education at North Georgia College, I joined the Army cadet corps with the option to apply for a Marine commission. Well, I ended up signing an Army contract. Shoot, I was rolling in dough, an enormous $50 per month.”
A new program was introduced at North Georgia College called ROTC Flight Training. Blanton said, “I could not believe my good luck, free flight courses in Cessna 150s, ground school and the opportunity to earn a private pilot’s license. We knew upperclassmen were being lost in Vietnam, but we were young, immortal, and flying was very exciting.”
Keeping his hand off the fuel mixture throttle, Blanton earned his wings as an Army aviator. Choppers awaited his future. From February 1971 until August 1972, Blanton learned the gauges, knobs and throttles of several rotor-winged aircraft. On Army airfields from Virginia, Texas, Alabama, and finally Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, he learned maintenance and gained air time in choppers like the CH-54 Skycrane and TH-55 Osage. His comment on learning how to hover the obsolete Osage, “Like standing on a basketball while drying off with a towel.”
His next chopper to master was the legendary Huey of Vietnam fame. Blanton said of transitioning from the Osage to a Huey, “Like leaving behind a Model T Ford and crawling into a Cadillac.” Then he got his hands on the newest and deadliest helicopter in the Army inventory, the sleek Cobra assault chopper. Of that transition, Blanton claimed, “Like going from a Cadillac to a Ferrari, with armament.”
August of 1972: Blanton arrives at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon. “My assigned base was Can Tho in the enemy-controlled Mekong Delta. I flew ash and trash missions most of the time. Most of the American troops had pulled out by then and the ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) had taken over ground operations. We flew combat support missions and resupply to fire bases and other hot spots, basically a bullets and beans mission.”
Beans indicated everything but ordnance; bullets meant aerial combat missions including high-ranking officers aboard to plot B-52 strikes. “I never flew the Cobra in combat,” Blanton stated. “My bird was a Huey for my entire tour of duty. By that time in the war the so-called rules of engagement had become the rules of fools. I’ll give you an example. If we spotted an enemy concentration and called in the coordinates, the upcoming strike would be debated and planned then maybe, if lucky, the bombers would show up 24 hours later. The enemy knew what the heck was going on. They knew we weren’t sightseeing in the Huey, so they simply moved out of the area. An Arc Light (B-52) strike is a heck of a thing to witness, it’s awesome, but a total waste of ordnance if an enemy is given time to skedaddle. After the strike they fly in damage assessment teams to survey the bomb damage. Well, the team would come under immediate enemy fire. The team didn’t find bodies, only a live and kickin’ enemy that all the rules favored.”
Missions into Cambodia were no different. Blanton recalled, “It’s hard to believe, but we used masking tape to cover ARMY on the US ARMY decals on our Hueys. On top of that absurdity, we had to hover 3 feet off the ground because we couldn’t touch down on Cambodian soil. I mean, really, is that a way to fight a war?”
Blanton had attended a stateside IFR course (instrument flying rules). The training saved his life in Vietnam. “We were heading back to Can Tho and spotted two thunderheads moving toward each other. We poured on the coal but didn’t make it. Our Huey was suddenly flying in zero visibility, lightning bolts dancing all around us, we couldn’t see one darn thing. The pilot was not trained in IFR so I had to take the chopper through the soup. Yeah, we made it back to base, but once on the turf at Can Tho I had to change every stitch of clothing on my body. I was soaking wet with sweat.”
Blanton recalled another testy mission over Cambodia. “The colonel on our aircraft spotted an enemy concentration and called in Navy jets. To our surprise the jets were over target in about 10 minutes. Problem was, they couldn’t see the target. One of the pilots radioed, “We can’t see anything. You guys need to go down to about 500 feet and mark the target with a smoke grenade.” I radioed back, “Say again?” He repeated the request. We didn’t have a choice, so down we go. I pulled the pin on a smoke grenade, dropped it out the window, bullets flying all around the chopper, but not one round hit the Huey. The Navy jets hit target and we flew back to Can Tho, to change our clothes, again!”
By January of 1973, the Paris Peace Talks produced a cease fire, mostly advantageous to the communist forces. Blanton said, “I actually was the one to turn off the lights for the last time at our hangar in Can Tho. We handed over 34 mission-ready Hueys to the South Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Air Force captain inspected the choppers and handed me an extensive repair list with the comment, ‘You fix.’ I handed it back to the guy and said, ‘You want, you sign.’ He left without signing, I turned off the lights, then I headed home.”
Boarding the plane at Tan Son Nhut for his flight home, Steve Blanton and all remaining American personnel had to tolerate an indignity that this journalist, thankfully, did not have to experience. Blanton: “Part of the peace agreement called for representatives from four nations to oversee the American withdrawal. Indonesia, Poland, Hungary, and Canada sent observers. All well and good, but the humiliation came from an agreement that allowed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to personally observe the American departure. For me and so many guys, that was the ultimate disgrace.”
His closing comments on Vietnam. “You know, if I’d died in Vietnam the gates of hell would have split wide open. It wasn’t until my son was dedicated to the Lord in 1976 that I finally chose the right path for my life. The Good Lord accepted me knowing all my faults. But as for the war in Vietnam, our military did not lose that war. Our soldiers did an admirable job; they never lost a major fight or battle. The war, our war, was lost at the negotiating table in Paris and in the clammy hallways of Washington, D.C. We were the best and we did our best, but politicians on both sides of the aisle did their absolute worst.”
March of 1973 is accepted as the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In April of 1975, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces occupied the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon. The war was finally over.
General Blanton’s story, like so many of the veterans I’ve interviewed, is worthy of a book. His dedication to duty and country deserves better than a newspaper column. He taught school for a total of 24 years at Rutledge Academy, Nathaniel Green Academy, Newton High School and Eastside High School. For eight years he coached high school sports: football, basketball, and track. He served as a city councilman in Rutledge for six years and a volunteer fireman for 15 years.
A man of faith, General Blanton is an active member of Rutledge Baptist Church. He’s served as a Sunday school director and teacher, church treasurer and trustee, been actively involved in the Gideon Ministry since 1985 and has been on an active speaker circuit for several years.
As with the generation of all Vietnam veterans, we did our duty as best we could under impossible rules of engagement. Like our fathers and grandfathers who won World War II, had we been given the same marching orders under the banner of “unconditional surrender” then the Vietnam War would have had an entirely different outcome. Warriors like Steve Blanton have earned the respect and recognition of our countrymen as reflected in present day sentiment. For the boys lost, for the men who have passed from Agent Orange or by their own hand, the accolades are belated but appreciated by we who survived.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at aveteransstory.us and click on “contact us.”