Tag Archives: Marble Mountain

He was truly ‘unforgettable’

By JOHN KANELIS / johnkanelis_92@hotmail.com

Reader’s Digest magazine has a regular feature that tells of the “most unforgettable characters” in people’s lives.

Many of us have met people who fit into that category.

Well, the most unforgettable character in my life has passed on. I got word of his death tonight and I want to share a tale or two with you about him.

His name was Henry L. Quisenberry, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He was my commanding officer for a time while I served in Vietnam. He died Jan. 31 at his home in Enterprise, Ala.

I reported for duty in Vietnam in the spring of 1969. I was assigned to the 245th Army Surveillance Aircraft Company at Marble Mountain, Da Nang, with orders to report for duty on a crew assigned to service an OV-1 Mohawk.

Col. Quisenberry showed up eventually to assume interim command of the 212th Aviation Battalion. As I recall, our CO was on R&R and Col. Quisenberry was filling in. While he was there, he called me to his office. I had no clue what he wanted.

He was sitting behind a desk. He offered me a cigar and invited me to sit down. “I see here that you’re a Mohawk repairman,” he said. “Well, I am a Mohawk driver.” He told me the Mohawk is a reliable bird and he enjoyed flying it.

He then told me he needed me to report on a temporary duty assignment with what was called the Army Aviation Element, based at the I Corps Tactical Operations Center in Da Nang. My duties would include running a radio, and clearing aircraft to land at a helipad nearby. We scheduled flights for officers and scrambled troop lift and fire support missions for Army helicopter units based at Marble Mountain.

Col. Quisenberry was a fantastic officer. He was loyal to his men and always had our backs. He was serving his third tour of duty in Vietnam and he confided in me that it would be his last tour, that he intended to retire as soon as he returned home. He was a great story teller

An incident occurred that illustrates how reliable he could be in a pinch. A pilot sought to land on our helipad. I was on the radio at the time. I couldn’t quite give him clearance to land; I cannot remember the circumstance. We began arguing over the air about my reluctance to clear him to park his bird. I mentioned Col. Quisenberry over the air, referring to his call sign. The pilot then said, “You better tell Check Pull Alpha Six to get his sh** together,” at which time Col. Quisenberry — who was standing behind me and overheard the entire exchange — grabbed the radio receiver and said, “This is Check Pull Alpha Six. Park your bird and report to me … pahdnuh.

The colonel then chewed the pilot out royally and told him to apologize to me for being an ass over the air.

There you have it. Col. Quiz embedded himself at that moment as the most unforgettable character I ever met.

Attention, fellow Vietnam vets: Go back to where you served

A conversation I had this morning with a fellow member of the McKinney Sunrise Rotary Club brings to mind something I have believed for the past 30 years.

I believe it is vital for any Vietnam War veteran who is able to return to that country to see what I discovered when I was able to return there in 1989, two decades after I arrived there in service to my country.

I learned that the war had ended. It was over. The shooting had stopped. The country that had survived all that explosive bludgeoning has become a beautiful land full of generous people.

My Rotary friend had recalled a question I had asked a fellow who delivered a program at a recent meeting. I asked him if he had been back. He has not returned and the gentleman seemed a bit perplexed by the question.

I told my friend this morning about my emotional discovery when I returned there 30 years ago. I had gone to Southeast Asia with other editorial writers and editors on a factfinding mission. At the end of the official portion of the trip, I flew from Saigon to Da Nang with two fellow journalists — who also are Vietnam vets — to see the place where I served for a time so many years earlier.

Our guide, Mai, accompanied us to Da Nang. We took a cab from our downtown hotel to Marble Mountain, where I served for a time as an aircraft mechanic with the Army’s 245th Mohawk Aviation Company.

We were walking along the sandy soil. Mai told me how the Vietnamese had absorbed all that we had built there and repurposed it for their use. Pierced-steel planking had become fence material; they used lumber to build housing.

Then it hit me like a runaway freight train. The war was over! That’s when I broke down and sobbed like a child for about three or four minutes. My friends backed away, as did Mai. I cried all by myself.

Then it was over. I wiped my face dry. Took a deep breath. I extended my arms to my two friends and to Mai. I was cleansed. I had shed the emotional baggage I never realized I was lugging around.

I did not traipse through the bush. I did not fire my weapon in anger at the enemy. I performed rear-echelon duty. However, returning to that place in November 1989 reminded me that the war was raging when I arrive and it was raging when I left.

I saw that place in an entirely new context.

That is why I tell my fellow Vietnam War veterans that they, too, need to see the country is at it is today, not as it was when they left.

They, too, might be cleansed.

‘Wall That Heals’ comes to Amarillo

They call it “The Wall That Heals.”

It has been brought to Amarillo, Texas. It has been placed at John Stiff Memorial Park in the southwest corner of the city. It is a replica of one of the most powerful memorials ever built: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I intend to visit this wall. Maybe it’ll be Friday. Maybe on Saturday. Maybe both days.

Allow me this bit of candor. It won’t “heal” me. It won’t bind any emotional wounds. It won’t bring me peace that was lost long ago.

But I want to see it. I want to visit with some brethren who’ll be there to pay their respects, perhaps to one or more of the men and women whose names are etched on that wall. It contains the names of more than 58,000 mostly young Americans who died during the Vietnam War.

I’ve had the extreme pleasure of seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen it three times. The first time was in 1990; the second in 1996; the third time just this past June.

But here’s the thing: My healing, my emotional reckoning occurred the year prior to visiting The Wall in 1990. It arrived in November 1989, while visiting Vietnam two decades after being deployed there as a young soldier.

The moment of healing occurred while I and two friends were walking along the sandy soil at Marble Mountain, just south of Da Nang, where I served as an Army aircraft mechanic during the Vietnam War. I served in a secure area. It bristled with Army, Marine Corps and Navy equipment and personnel. We shared an airfield with the Marines. The Navy had a big logistics base across the highway from our battalion.

Our guide was walking with us that day in November 1989. She told us how the Vietnamese swallowed up all that we left behind when our military involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973.

That’s when it overcame me. I started sobbing. I cried hard, man! It lasted about two, maybe three minutes. Then it was over. I wiped the tears off my face. I took a deep breath.

Then I realized it: The war is over!

That was my healing moment.

I hope this weekend to share that experience with fellow vets who haven’t had the honor I received when I returned to that beautiful land. I also hope the wall will heal them them, too.

Waiting anxiously for a landmark event

I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to call Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s upcoming PBS documentary special a “landmark television event.”

They’re going to chronicle an event that shaped a generation of Americans. It made a lot of young Americans grow up in a major hurry. “The Vietnam War” airs beginning Sept. 17 over 10 days; it comprises 18 hours of viewing.

Burns told AARP magazine: “We have a kind of historical amnesia about Vietnam.” He said it is “like an amputated limb that still itches, still aches. If we as Americans want to get over the divisions we feel today so prominently, it’s important to understand the place where they began.”

AARP calls Burns and Novick’s project a “doozy.” Boy, howdy. Is it ever.


Millions of Americans are going to watch this event with a special interest. These are those who reported for duty at some time during the Vietnam War. They were affected by it openly and viscerally. The war brought them pain, which many of them brought home with them.

I was fortunate in that regard. I didn’t suffer physical pain as a result of my service there. I’ve noted already that I was what grunts called a REMF, a “rear-echelon motherf*****.” I worked on Army airplanes and later scrambled missions at the I Corps Tactical Ops Center in Da Nang.

But in November 1989, I had the rare honor of returning to Vietnam, 20 years after I reported for duty at Marble Mountain. I went back to Marble Mountain at the tail end of a three-week fact-finding trip I took with 20 other journalists, members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. We toured Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. At the end of that “official” journey,” two colleagues and I flew north from Saigon to Da Nang as part of a personal sojourn.

We arrived in Da Nang and then took a car out to Marble Mountain. We strolled along the sandy terrain where I had walked as a young soldier. Our guide was explaining to us how the Vietnamese had absorbed our physical presence at Marble Mountain, how they had taken possession of all we had left behind. They put it to use for their own purposes, she said.

That’s when it happened. I broke down in tears. I began sobbing. I cried like a little child. Our guide, Mai, stopped talking. My friends backed away. I was alone with my emotions for, oh, just a few moments. Then it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a deep breath.

At that moment, I was cleansed of some unknown pain. I felt a sense of relief. I had shed a load of emotional baggage I never even knew I had been lugging around since my departure from the war zone two decades earlier.

I was a happy man. That “amputated limb” no longer “aches.”

I have told Vietnam veterans since my return from that marvelous journey that they, too, need to return. I get mixed reactions from them. I don’t press the issue; it’s for them to decide.

Ken Burns is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker with a huge body of work that’s been broadcast for decades on PBS. His collaboration with Novick is highly anticipated.

It will be a landmark event. I also am quite certain a lot of Vietnam vets will learn something about a critical chapter in their lives. They also might learn something about themselves.

Does it get any better than that?

Who are you callin’ ‘antique’?


Man, I’m feeling old today.

My body isn’t aching. I’ve got most of my marbles. My memory’s still pretty keen.

I just read a headline about “antique” weapons of war being used against the Islamic State.

The picture attached to the story is of an OV-10 Bronco, a twin-engine airplane used during the Vietnam War.

I remember the Bronco. I saw them take off almost hourly from an airfield in a place called Marble Mountain, just a few miles south of Da Nang.

I was assigned to an Army aviation battalion on the western side of the airfield. The OV-10s were piloted by Marines assigned on the other side of the strip. The Marines were stationed with a group called MAG 16, which is shorthand for the 16th Marine Air Group. They flew Broncos, Cobras, Hueys and the Marines’ version of Chinook twin-rotor helicopters.

OK, so I didn’t work on the Broncos, which look vaguely like the old P-38s of World War II; both planes had the twin-fuselage design.

They were effective weapons back then. I guess they’re doing the job now against the Islamic State.

According to the Daily Beast, the Broncos’ mission is somewhat hush-hush. They’ve been used to test updated equipment installed on the birds.

I recall the Broncos being fairly fast and agile aircraft. They would provide firepower to aid ground troops working in the I Corps region of South Vietnam. Today, they’re being used in a similar capacity against Islamic State terrorist fighters.

As the Daily Beast reports: “There are plenty of clues as to what exactly the Broncos were doing. For one, the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide many details about the OV-10s’ overseas missions implies that the planes were working in close conjunction with Special Operations Forces. In all likelihood, the tiny attackers acted as a kind of quick-reacting 9-1-1 force for special operators, taking off quickly at the commandos’ request and flying low to hit elusive militants with guns and rockets, all before the fleet-flooted jihadis could slip away.”

It’s interesting — and somewhat gratifying — to me that tried-and-tested equipment still has its place in this new world of high-tech warfare.

However, to call them “antique” makes those of us who watched these birds fly in their prime feel, well, a bit older than our years.

I can do without the reminder.

R.I.P., young soldier

I posted this blog essay two years ago to commemorate Memorial Day. I want to share it again today as the nation prepares to honor the memories of those who have fallen in battle.

I don’t dwell too much on these kinds of things, but I’m thinking today of a young man I knew briefly many years ago.

His name was Jose DeLaTorre. We served in the same U.S. Army aviation battalion at Marble Mountain, a heavily fortified outpost just south of Da Nang in what used to be called South Vietnam. He served in a different company than I did; he worked on a UH-1 Huey helicopter crew while I was assigned to a fixed-wing outfit, the 245th Aviation Company, which flew OV-1 Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft.

One day in June 1969, Jose came bursting into our work area full of enthusiasm. He was going home in just a few days. I recall he’d extended his tour in ‘Nam several times. I think he had served something like 32 months in-country. I recall he usually was full of it – even on his quiet days. But on this day, Jose was pretty much out of control with excitement.

Later that day, his Huey company scrambled on a troop-lift mission. DeLaTorre did what he usually did when his company got the call to lift off: He strapped himself into an M-60 machine gun and flew as a door gunner on the mission.

It was supposed to be a “routine” drop at a landing zone. It wasn’t. The LZ was “hot,” meaning the ships were greeted by heavy enemy fire when they arrived.

You know how this tale turns out.

DeLaTorre was killed in action that day.

I didn’t know him well. Indeed, it took me 21 years – when I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. in 1990 with my wife and sons – to learn he hailed from Fullerton, Calif. I saw his name carved into The Wall. I paid my respects and, yes, choked back the lump in my throat.

Today I’m thinking of that effervescent young man and the 58,000-plus other names on that monument, as well all those who have fallen in battle since the beginning of this great republic.

May they all rest in peace.

Thank you for your sacrifice.

R.I.P., my fellow soldier

This blog post is adapted from a column I wrote for the Beaumont Enterprise; it was published on Aug. 24, 1990. With the country set to commemorate Memorial Day, this essay pays tribute to one young man who died in service to his country.

It took me eight years to make a journey to The Wall and to learn for myself what so many Americans have been talking about since it went up in 1982: the sight of those 58,000-plus names identifying each of the men and women who died in the Vietnam War; the array of keepsakes and tributes lined up at the base of the stark monument; the looks in people’s faces as they touched the name of a loved one while etching it on a sheet of paper pressed against the black stone.

I took my family to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to look for a name I remembered only as “De La Torre.” He wasn’t a buddy exactly. We weren’t close. He was an Army helicopter mechanic and a door gunner I knew in Vietnam. We did not serve in the same company; mine was a fixed-wing aircraft unit, his was a Huey company next to ours at a place called Marble Mountain, just south of Da Nang.

And yet, I saw him on his last day on Earth and the memory of his happiness at flying his final mission that day in June 1969 stayed with me long after the shock of his death had worn off.

De La Torre popped into my work area full of excitement. “Hey man,” he said to no one in particular, “I’m going home!” He had one more mission to fly — aboard a Huey on a troop lift into the mountains near Da Nang. De La Torre was a gung-ho guy, I guess, because he had extended his tour several times in Vietnam. I recall him saying he had been in-country for 32 months, well past his allotted one-year obligation.

Now he was going home, he declared quite proudly that day.

We learned later that evening that our guys weren’t prepared for a “hot landing.” Intelligence reports said enemy soldiers were nowhere near the landing zone. It was to be a “routine mission”: Drop the troops off and leave. The reports betrayed De La Torre and the rest of the men on the mission. They were met with intense enemy fire. I then was left to ponder the death of someone I didn’t know well but whose ebullience at the prospect of going home remains burned into my memory.

What I learned at The Wall, quite simply, was De La Torre’s first name, which I knew once had forgotten. In truth, we were on a last-name basis.

I knew little about Jose Manuel De La Torre when our paths crossed briefly in Vietnam. I don’t know much about him now, except for his full name, that he was about five years older than me and that he came from Fullerton, Calif.

Still, De La Torre seems a bit more like a friend now than when we both served in Vietnam. Granted, I don’t know what he liked or disliked, his favorite sport, food or movie actor. I don’t know how he coped with the fear of flying all those missions or if he was just too crazy to be scared.

I will settle gladly for merely relearning this young soldier’s full name. It was a small, but significant moment of discovery at The Wall, a place of profound sadness. Yet I came away feeling happy and satisfied that I got to know, a little better, a soldier whose last words to me were that he was going home.

Rest in peace, Jose.

Dreamlifter story causes flashback

I had a flashback today as I read stories about that mondo-jumbo jet landing and then taking off from that tiny airport in Wichita, Kan.

The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, specially outfitted to haul airplane parts around the world, landed at the wrong strip in Kansas. It was headed for McConnell Air Force Base, with its much longer runway.


My flashback returned me to Marble Mountain in what used to be called South Vietnam. I arrived there in March 1969 and reported for duty as an aircraft mechanic with the 245th Aviation Company, which comprised OV-1 Mohawks, one of the Army’s premier surveillance airplanes. We shared the small strip, just south of Da Nang, with the 16th Marine Air Group — aka MAG 16. Our strip was short, as our Mohawks were essentially a short takeoff and landing bird, as were the OV-10 Bronco gunships the Marines flew across the way. We also had a couple of UH-1 Huey helicopter companies, as did the Marines.

I can’t remember the precise length of our strip. I think it was around 4,000 feet.

Well, I awoke one morning, walked out of my barracks — and noticed a TWA Boeing 707 jetliner vertical stabilizer towering over our complex.

The plane was supposed to land across town, at the big Air Force Base equipped to handle aircraft at that size. I cannot remember how in the world that big ol’ jet ended up at our strip. But there it was.

The bird sat there the entire day and took off the next morning. They dumped almost all the fuel from the plane, leaving just enough to keep it in the air for five or so minutes as it flew to “Da Nang Main.”

The Dreamlifter that landed mistakenly in Wichita this week likely had to do the same thing to get into the air.

Pilots who make mistakes like this do have a way of redeeming themselves. I recall thinking in the spring of ’69 that the guy who lifted the 707 off the ground in Da Nang and landed it over yonder may have saved his job.

Keep flying, B-52

The Air Force wants to upgrade its B-52 bomber fleet. My hunch is that the bird will be performing missions for the United States until hell freezes over … meaning forever.


Have you ever noticed the absence of the term “aging” when referring to the B-52? It’s been operational for more than 50 years and is still performing the mission for which it was built, which is to inflict heavy damage on enemy forces.

I actually have a B-52 story.

My story is brief, but fascinating — at least for me.

I was en route to Vietnam in March 1969. My TWA charter jetliner had departed from Oakland, Calif., with stops in Honolulu and Okinawa. We left Okinawa and were headed to Bien Hoa airport in South Vietnam.

As we approached the coast of Vietnam not long after dawn, I peered down from my window seat and saw plainly below us a formation of B-52s heading in the opposite direction. They were painted in jungle camouflage colors — as if that would make them more difficult to spot from the ground? I don’t know their destination, but I’m presuming it was perhaps to Guam, where the Air Force ran a huge bomber base during the Vietnam War.

We continued on and I saw bomb craters all over the landscape as we started our descent into Bien Hoa. I cannot attest that B-52s created the craters, but I’m guessing it’s a good bet they did.

That was 44 years ago. The B-52s hadn’t been in service all that long.

I would hear the big birds at work once I reported to my post at Marble Mountain, just south of Da Nang. I took comfort then as a young soldier in the constant rumbling we would hear on the other side of the mountains.

The LA Times reports that the fleet is about a tenth of the size it was during the B-52s’ heyday. Still, the Air Force wants to keep them in service. I’m not betting on anyone grounding the remaining B-52s any time soon.