Part 1 of 3


His helo was shot down four times in Vietnam. Twice behind enemy lines.

“Did you ever get a feeling that you’re falling out of bed? It’s like your stomach’s kind of up in your chest? Well, just imagine being in a helicopter, 500 or 600 feet, and all of a sudden you’ve lost power and the bottom drops out. Well, you’re on your gun, you’re trying to shoot the enemy. And you know the crash is coming. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it from happening. The three or four seconds it takes for you to crash just seems like a lifetime.


His helo was shot down four times in Vietnam. Twice behind enemy lines.
“Did you ever get a feeling that you’re falling out of bed? It’s like your stomach’s kind of up in your chest? Well, just imagine being in a helicopter, 500 or 600 feet, and all of a sudden you’ve lost power and the bottom drops out. Well, you’re on your gun, you’re trying to shoot the enemy. And you know the crash is coming. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it from happening. The three or four seconds it takes for you to crash just seems like a lifetime. It’s a helpless feeling ...there’s nothing that can be done until you hit the ground. You just wait,” says Don Wilmot of Sterling Township.   


His unit was known as “Tweed’s Tigers” serving under Commanding Officer Col.  Mac Tweed. Don was a  crew chief/ door gunner with the Marines HMM-361 helicopter squadron, aboard Yankee November (YN)21. He flew 440 missions, 360 of those combat missions, including 200 successful medivacs.


“You may have to shoot your way out or in two or three times, that was still considered one mission ...For my 360 combat missions, I was awarded 18 air medals,” he said. “I was also awarded the combat aircrew wings. You get flight wings when you fly. But, when you go into combat, that’s a special set (of wings).”


One of the highest honors he received was the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, for his “ability to silence the enemy.” 


Major Fred Patterson
As he shares his story, Don talks about the man who influenced him most— Major Fred Patterson. They flew many crucial missions together, feeling “fortunate” to be flying together, Don said. Major Patterson was the pilot, Don was the crew chief/ door gunner.
“Different missions tested the ability of the crew to survive,” he said. They were shot down twice in four month’s time. “The second time, Major Patterson received a career-ending head wound,” Don says.


18 helicopters blown up
When he landed at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam, on October 13, 1965, Don was all of 21. “They called me ‘the old man.’ Most of the people under me were 17, 18 and 19. The average age of the Vietnam veteran was 19 years ...So, (Vietnam) was basically a war fought by youngsters,” he said.


The heat was unbearable. “It was 118 degrees. It was quite a shock. Well, before we landed, we were issued a rifle and one bullet. The big joke aboard the airplane was, ‘Is this one bullet to shoot the enemy or to shoot ourselves?’ The airbase basically was a secure landing zone. We landed and they were supposed to have a helicopter base set up for us at Marble Mountain. But, when we got there, there was nothing. The base wasn’t ready yet. We were two weeks early. So, for two weeks, we slept out in the rain and some of us slept in the helicopters. There’s four men assigned to a helicopter. You have your two pilots. You have your crew chief/ door gunner and you have your window gunner,” he said.


“The war was out in the bush for us when we first started over there,” he recalls. That all changed on October 28th. “They overran our base. One o’clock in the morning, approximately 100 sappers — they were basically the Vietcong Commandos on a suicide mission — came onboard base and they had satchel charges. Well, we were green. And everything was set up to fight the enemy outside the base. All of a sudden, when they got inside, it was a whole new situation. It was quite a battle that night. They blew up 18 of our helicopters. We managed to kill 17 of them. We had three (Marines) that were in a helicopter sleeping ... a medivac crew waiting to get called out. The medivac crew was killed. My helicopter had three holes in it from the fire that night.” One of the Vietcong responsible was the local barber, hired to work on base. “We found maps on the ones that we killed that showed every detail, where every bunker was, where the helicopters were. These guys would come in during the day to work and just visually mark it all down,” he said.