Thursday, July 15, 2010

Harry ~ Pilot Extraordinaire

Harry Stevenson spent 4 years in Korea. He watched me come and go. Harry grew up in Philadelphia and ended up doing the high school to flight school thing like I did, just a few years earlier than me. Early enough to make it to Vietnam. He ended up in Vietnam at a young age and found himself as Cobra Gunship Lead at only 18. My friend Chuck Hutchinson who tucked me under his wing at Travis AFB on my way to Korea, served with Harry in Vietnam with the 23rd Infantry. They told some amazing stories. Tall Tales by anyone's standards, yet true. Harry accumulated a few Tall Tales in Korea too. I am privileged to have known Stevenson as both a mentor and a friend.

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We had a live fire exercise in the Buffer Zone where the Koreans originally wanted us to use Freedom Bridge as a target. The Americans talked them out of that and convinced them to let us use a hill on the Imjin River's edge right by the bridge instead.

The hill had a brand new concrete bunker being constructed inside of it. The Cobra pilots wanted a harder target than just the hill, so they picked out a bunker window to aim at to see if they could shoot rockets inside.

A few days after the live fire exercise I took the the 1st Platoon leader, Captain Ballou on a BZ training flight. Harry asked if he could ride along in the back with his camera. When we flew near the bridge, Harry suggested we land so he could checkout the bunker they had used for a target. After we shutdown and approached the bunker a Korean military jeep approached us with a Korean full bird colonel onboard. Captain Ballou introduced Harry to the Colonel as the man who shot up his bunker.

The Korean Colonel looked at Harry with a strong scrutinizing gaze and said, "I think you understand your weapon systems very well, but I think you misunderstand your target." The Colonel wasn't very happy about his brand new bunker being all shot up. Evidently Harry and the boys in the Cobra Platoon managed to fire quite a few live rockets through the window and into the bunker.

There was another live fire exercise on the east coast of Korea where they floated a raft far out in the Sea of Japan for a target. The 117th our sister unit arrived on the scene first and fired several rockets at the raft without any hits before the 128th arrived. When the 128th arrived, Harry was the first to take a shot at the raft. One shot, one kill; Harry demolished the target with his first rocket. Chuck Hutchinson came over the radio right after Harry destroyed the raft and said, "We should have know the competition would be over once Stevenson arrived!".

Harry became a General's pilot toward the end of my two years in country. He was a pilot for both General Grange and General Livsey while in Korea. I went through Army Flight School with General Grange's son who was a captain at that time. WOCs (Warrant Officer Candidates) and commissioned officers did not socially mix during school, but I remember General Grange's son well from our escape and evasion exercise and mock POW camp at the completion of flight training. He impressed me as a very STRACT soldier and a good leader.

One day Harry gave General Grange a Cobra ride over Camp Red Cloud. During the flight, Harry rolled in on the camp several times in mock gun runs. This flying exhibition pissed the Military Police off and one was dispatched to write the miscreant pilot a ticket once they landed. Well, Harry landed on the Camp Red Cloud helipad to let the General out. Once the Cobra was shutdown a MP walked smartly toward the Cobra with a sense of purpose. As the MP got close, General Grange finally climbed out. Recognizing the General stopped the MP in his tracks where he rendered a crisp salute followed by a sharp about face and a retreat back to his vehicle.

Very early one morning the South Koreans caught a team of North Korean infiltrators on a photo taking expedition trying to make their way back to North Korea in the area north of Chuncheon Korea. I was told I would have gotten to lead the flight that was launched to assist in the North Korean infiltrators' capture, but I had spent the night in the Ville and was unavailable, so my 1st Platoon counterpart, Dan Britt, was chosen to lead the flight into the Buffer Zone north of Chuncheon near where the Bukhan river crosses into the DMZ. Dan was in flight operations busy working on preparing a Buffer Zone flight plan to file and get a Buffer Zone access number for entry into the Buffer Zone when Harry walked through the door. Harry picked up the flight plan Dan was working on and said, "What's this?" As Harry tore the flight plan in half and tossed it into the garbage and said, "This is for real boys, lets go!"

In reality, Harry was a general's pilot at this time and probably had means to acquire an access number for BZ entry without going through the normal protocols that Dan and I didn't know about. But, that is just conjecture and speculation on my part. I never asked him and don't know for sure. If Harry didn't have a special means to acquire access, he is the one individual who could pull something like that off.

I showed up later in the morning at the start of a normal day and was told about all the excitement I had missed. I was also given a service mission to carry a couple of American officers into the area to investigate the situation more. They had me land on the riverbank of the Bukhan River right where it flowed under the southern DMZ fence. They told me to shutdown and wait for them while they got into a waiting boat and traveled into the DMZ.

There I was shut down only twenty feet from the southern DMZ fence as many of my buddies were having a for real shoot 'em out with the infiltrators just to the south of me. They all noticed the helicopter shutdown next to the DMZ fence and were wondering who the dummy was that was stupid enough to shutdown there where they were a prime highjacking target should any of the infiltrators get to the helicopter. Well, the dummy was me; sitting there fat, dumb, and happy as I waited. I also logged my flight as combat time because I was told that to log combat time all you needed was a mission flown against the enemy within the range of their counter measures. I thought this flight filled the bill. The operations officer, Captain Dell, told me later that he would have let me keep that as combat time if I had logged it correctly, but since he had to change it; he made it just a simple service mission. I looked at the book more closely on how to properly log combat time, but I never had another opportunity.

Harry on the other hand, made a BZ flight near the DMZ when the second infiltration tunnel was discovered. He had to delay his departure for about an hour while the North Koreans lobbed mortars at them. Harry had plenty of for real combat time. I don't know if he logged this flight as some more or not. Once during one of our alerts they issued us our .38 caliber revolvers without ammunition. Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of bullets and said, "I never carry a useless weapon."

As Harry's four years in Korea came to an end he was spending time on the phone with the Army Aviation assignments branch attempting to get a school out of Korea. Harry wanted fixedwing transition school. As a general rule cobra pilots never get a fixed wing transition. Once a cobra pilot, always a cobra pilot; so the saying goes. After several phone calls the assignments officer at Branch got pretty rude with Harry and sternly told him, "NO Mr. Stevenson. You are not getting any schools out of Korea and you are going straight to Fort Hood, and that's final." Harry replied, "Oh yeah!" and just hung up on the man. Harry's DEROS orders arrived shortly after that conversation instructing him to report to Fort Hood. Harry just threw the orders in the garbage and kept showing up for work at the Eight Army Commander's General's office. Harry's date to report at Fort Hood came and went. A couple of days after he didn't show up the phone rang in the the General's office with the appropriate officials wanting to know Mr. Stevenson's whereabouts. Needless to say, a small beehive was stirred up. In short order though, the Eight Army Commander got on the phone and Harry got a verbal extension followed by orders to the school of his choice. A few years later, I didn't even know the Army owned any jet aircraft until I heard Harry was flying them. These were used for V.I.P. flights.

When Harry finally made it back to the states he paid me a visit at Fort Rucker and invited me to take a trip with him to Fort Benning, Georgia where General Livsey was now the Commanding General of the Infantry Center and Commandant of the United States Army Infantry School. Harry wanted to pay the General a visit. When Harry and I arrived at Fort Benning the General's helicopter had just landed. Harry had me drop him off and go park while he tried to catchup with the General. Harry was wearing a denim jacket and jeans. He caught up with the general and his party just as they stepped into an elevator. Harry slipped in as the doors closed. The general had his head down thinking, talking, and slapping his swagger stick against the palm of his hand while facing the opposing door. The general didn't notice Harry slip into the elevator, but he did soon notice the silence of the two full bird colonels accompanying him. The two colonels did notice Harry and were busy giving him the evil eye as if to say, "Who the heck do you think you are slipping in here with us?" General Livsey soon looked up and around to see why his colonels were not responding to him. When General Livsey noticed Harry he exclaimed, "Harry! You ole son of a gun. What are you doing here?"

Harry told him he had just come up to visit.

When they got off the elevator the general invited Harry down to his office for coffee. One of the colonels tried to interject asking the general what he wanted to do about what they were discussing. General Livsey just said, "Later colonel, we'll just take care of that later." Neither colonel looked too happy about this unknown interloper interfering with their time with the general. General Livsey and I are both privy to something the two colonels didn't know, and that is that any time one manages to spend with Harry Stevenson is quality time worth putting most other things on the back burner where they can wait till one's time with Harry is done. A quote attributed to William Wallace from the movie Braveheart sums up best the feeling felt when spending time in Harry's presence, : "Every man dies, not every man really lives." Harry is a man that knows how to experience life and really live it to the full.

After parking my truck, I made my way to the general's office where I got to enjoy a cup of coffee and their conversation.

This extraordinary tale from Vietnam gives one a glimpse of the possible excitement one may get to experience when hanging out close to Harry:
On a cobra flight in Vietnam his copilot took him into the tops of triple canopy jungle where they disappeared from sight. Harry's wingman said, "Well it looks like Stevenson's gone!" Wrong... Harry took over the controls and flew back out of the tree tops and then back to their base. He showed me pictures of the helicopter. The main rotorblades had holes in them large enough to pass a basketball through them. While attending a Bell Helicopter ground school years later, I told that story without mentioning Harry's name. The bell tech rep, Larry Stone, said, "Harry Stevenson." Yep! Harry is one of those people that inspires respect, and he has led the life of a legend. I personally know Harry is the real deal, and it has been my pleasure to have known him.

My great regret is that I have not done a better job in sharing Christmas cards through the years and keeping up with good friends. Harry, if you get to read this you should consider emailing me a copy of one of those pictures so I can post it here.

Here is a video portraying the Cobra's mission in Vietnam:



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