James Shaw was born in Detroit and grew up near the six mile/Telegraph area. He went to Redford High. After graduation he went into engineering at a Southfield company, where he was a draftsman for two years. He was drafted, and on September 16, 1966 he shipped out.
He recalls basic training being as bad as is sounds, but he says it was a neat experience. The food wasn’t very good. His drill instructor was Sergeant Davis. Basic training really turned people into fighting machines. Upon completion, he went on to advanced training for 6-8 weeks. His training was in artillery, which he says was much more interesting and less demanding. He also had an interest in helicopters and he worked with them in “air mobile.”
His flight to Vietnam took 42 hours. They landed in Cameron Bay where it was incredibly hot (105 degrees). He went up to Ankay then to LZ in the middle of a rice paddy on top of a hill. The villagers nearby helped them with day to day tasks. He lived in an underground bunker with no electricity for seven months. They survived on B rations (canned food) which weren’t tasty but got you through. Everyday life was difficult, even simple things were hard. There was no hot water, and no bathrooms. About 100 people on the LZ, which was used a lot for surveillance.
He was ready to fly the day after he arrived. His job was a gun observer for the helicopter, he would be given coordinates and they would survey the area, and assess damage etc. On the first day out, they received fire and he used a machine gun to stop it. He got two hits on his first day out. He was bothered by having killed someone, even though he realized that’s what they were there to do. They flew 9-12 hours a day, seven days a week, and did not keep track of days because they melted together. It was a very busy job but he also had guard duty at night when he was tired.
One incident he recalls includes Major Sorensen, and Pilot Quin in the Yang Province mountains. They were flying with two scout ships into a valley about 60 feet off the ground, surveying a hostile area. They heard fire and were hit. It happened so fast, the next thing they knew they were headed toward the ground, and without control of the ship. It was very scary. They went down flat, hit on the skits, and broke the rotor blades. They unbuckled and ran out of the helicopter where they were shot at. They ran to the cover of large rocks and kept the machine gun with them. Their wingship fired on the enemy and called for back-up. Within five or six minutes other gunships were there and took out the enemy fire. They were rescued by one of the gunships and flown back to base camp. The entire ordeal lasted no longer than 10 minutes. No one was injured.
He mounted a grenade launcher on his machine gun to more effectively fight back against the system of holes/tunnels the NVA used. They made up many for other scouts and were recognized by Stars and Stripes paper. In mountain ranges, which were hotspots, they called in B-52 bombers, which fly very high so you can’t hear them.
The whole sky would light up as they bombed. The Ayho valley was a thick jungle, and one day they went scouting after a B-52 bombing, and found nothing left but dirt. The damage was about a mile wide, and three miles long.
James was bitten by a centipede, and he still recalls it as the most pain he’s ever felt.
Out on a mission near a rice paddy outside of another base (LZ English) he saw movement. It was about 50 NVA soldiers in full gear. They started firing and made many hovering circles while continuing steady fire. A wingship joined in and called for more gunships. His ship’s crew was uninjured and they managed to take out many of the NVA. They discovered later that there were hundreds more NVA in surrounding paddy’s, and the fight turned into an all night battle with flares going up all night long, like daylight. It was constant fire as they shelled the whole area and the path from which the NVA came in the mountains. The US troops wiped out an entire NVA regiment that night, and some were captured. James was very shaken after that. It was his last mission as a gunner. He had logged 1200 hours of combat by this point. He said he could not fly anymore, and he became a helicopter mechanic. He was already a sergeant. He worked as a mechanic for two months to keep the helicopters in working order.
He was sent home in February of 1968.