The Library of Congress Veterans History Project Home 
Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project
Home » Leland Heywood Burgess, Jr.

"All helicopter pilots-I don't know whether they'd admit it or not-we are all frustrated fighter pilots. And we want to fly something that is strong and powerful and that you can do a lot of things with." (Video Interview, 36:30)

   Leland Heywood Burgess, Jr.
Collection image
Leland Burgess [2004]
War: Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Persian Gulf War, 1991
Branch: Army; Army
Unit: Army Artillery, Army National Guard, Army Reserve
Service Location: Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Wolters, Texas; Fort Rucker, Alabama; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Vietnam
Rank: Colonel; Colonel
View Full Description

Leland Burgess talks eloquently of the skill and accompanying arrogance helicopter pilots possess. During his service in Vietnam he flew both reconnaissance and search and destroy missions. After months of escaping enemy fire, his number came up in February 1968, when he discovered a bunker and attempted to fire on it. The return fire badly injured his arm and his craft went down. Rescue was a while in coming, and Burgess and his crew agreed they didn't want to be taken alive by the enemy. Burgess was in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive, which he saw as a great victory for the U.S. and South Vietnam, and he was disappointed to see how the ferocity of the offensive actually weakened support for the war back home.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (14 clips)
» Part 1 
Download: video (119 min.)
»Photo Album  (8 photos)
More like this
»Helicopters: The Multi-Mission Aircraft
 Video (Interview Excerpts) (14 items)
How his ROTC service led to Army aviation; signed up first for artillery, which would get him off the ground and into trucks, also away from the front lines. (01:27) No piece of cake to fly a helicopter; hovering requires coordinating hands, feet, and vision; on his first day of training, a rotor came off another helicopter, killing an instructor and student; learning to cope with fear of an accident. (05:31) First time flying at night; realizing he was flying about 20 mph because he had no view of the ground to orient himself; flying the aircraft with a hood on your head as part of training; graduation a great event; no doubts about going over to Vietnam, feeling of invincibility. (02:47)
In San Francisco for a couple of days in 1967 before shipping out; he and buddies stopping in a bar near the Golden Gate Bridge; being told to come back the next night and a party was thrown for them; that was in contrast to many GIs' homecomings a thte airport; Burgess came back on a medevac aircraft so he didn't have to endure the hostility; flying over on Braniff Airlines; as they taxied to take off, apprehension crept in; chaplain on board asking God's blessing. (02:54) Arriving in Vietnam at night; seeing naval gunfire off the coast; plane diverting to Saigon and Ton Son Nhut; on a military bus with wire covering the windows; scared by flares, mistaking them for enemy fire. (03:44) Assigned to Cu Chi; duty was to fly dawn patrol up Highway 1 to see if the Vietcong had damaged the road or set up any roadblocks; flying an H23; disappointed that he wasn't flying a Huey; all helicopter pilots are frustrated fighter pilots who want to fly something powerful; flying above 1000 feet to avoid ground fire; moving farther north to small unit with observation helicopters, even smaller than the H23; going out looking for any sign of enemy activity; they could engage, but they were mainly used as scouts to radio back enemy positions for full-power fire. (05:31)
Flying every day; routine for dawn patrol up Highway 1; recon and then search & destroy; picking up an unarmed Vietcong; having locals work for them; mistrust arising only after the Tet Offensive. (03:38) Taking the commander of one of the ground units up to look for any signs of enemy activity; that was first day he was get shot at; tracers coming up slowly then accelerating; decision made after that to arm them and engage more fully; seeing action from the air is surreal; tendency is to react more quickly after you've been hit; kidding that they weren't hit more often because of how slowly they were moving. (04:07) In every unit, one or two hot-shot pilots, who don't last too long; tactics are generally worked out to breed good results; short-timers were too careful and that wasn't good, either; they were generally assigned to routine pick up and deliver ("ash & trash") missions. (01:10)
January 29 incident: ground troops trying to search some khaki-clad bodies; turned out to be an ambush in the middle of a base camp for the enemy; Burgess and his helicopter sent to rescue them; resupplying them with ammunition; continuing to do so in the night with their lights off; midday the next day, ground troops breaking through. (07:46) Beginning of Tet Offensive in the middle of the night; learning to tell the difference in sound between outgoing and incoming fire; trying to put on his uniform over a flak vest; never been more frightened in his life; lots of rumors about Vietcong infiltration, some of them turning out to be true; winning Tet on the battlefield—enemy took so many casualties that activity ceased for a time afterwards—but the battle was lost back home, in the news media, in the halls of Congress, and on the streets. (06:30) February 17th, the day he was wounded; out for second flight of day, found large Vietcong bunker complex; tried to get big aircraft to come in and bomb it, but they couldn't make it; they engaged; on their last pass at the bunker, they were hit badly; he was hit in his right arm; one crewman had his knee blown apart; they were 15 feet off the ground at the time; wing man giving them cover to get out of aircraft; hiding in a rice paddy dike; tourniquet wasn't working on his arm; found because of the trail of blood; rescue pilot disobeyed order not to risk his aircraft and took them; they agreed they wouldn't be taken prisoner; he was 10 minutes from going into shock by the time he got back to the hospital; had been in country 9 months. (09:39)
Eager to have surgery on his arm; verdict was delayed as to whether they could save it; was heartened by a triple amputee ward mate who had a great attitude; separated from combat, you can always find someone who has it a little bit worse; recalling another hero, a nurse who sat with him in hospital in Cu Chi during an attack when he was bed-ridden; buddy brought him chest protector and steel pot; nurse held his hand until he went to sleep; what he did with the protector and pot. (06:08) Squadron reunion years later in the States; contact with man who was flying his wing that day Burgess was shot down; he felt responsible for Burgess's crash but he really wasn't. (01:46) 

Home » Leland Heywood Burgess, Jr.
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us