I was just a little kid in a movie theater, but I’ll never forget the moment. Back then in the mid-1940s, the pre-movie material was made up of newsreels. As I sat there waiting for the movie to start, footage of concentration camps being liberated filled the screen, featuring gaunt, skeleton-like creatures surrounding our American soldiers.
In shock, and with no small amount of fear, I turned to my father and asked, “Who’s that?”
My dad responded, “That’s you!”
You can’t hide. That’s why I slapped a Star of David on the back of my pilot’s helmet. I wore that helmet of fierce Jewish pride through hundreds of combat flights in Vietnam.
My career as a Huey pilot in Vietnam was not exactly expected. I graduated ROTC as an Armor/Reconnaissance officer. My first winter in the Army found me in a freezing cold outpost at the Czech-German border. I was sitting there feeling miserable, when someone behind me suddenly called out, “You know, you’re an idiot!” I was quite surprised by the quick and undeserving insult, but the guy, a helicopter pilot, continued: “Why are you freezing out here on the ground, when you could be flying helicopters in and out, and you’ll be back in the officer’s mess in no time?” That was it—he had hooked me. I signed up for transfer to helicopters, and within a month I was sent to flight training back in the States.
The fact is, attrition among helicopter pilots was abysmal—there was a 40% casualty rate among helo pilots. Over half the Hueys that flew in Vietnam got shot down. Maybe that’s why that pilot wanted to recruit me. While I trained hard, I wasn’t exactly a natural pilot. In fact, several of my civilian instructors predicted that I was destined to kill myself. But I was desperate not to go back to the field. I even manhandled my way into getting my first solo flight. It wasn’t pretty: the chopper bounced around like a yo-yo, but eventually I landed it and earned my wings—just barely. I graduated 84th in my class of 85 pilots.
Flying a helicopter is all about confidence, and that confidence only kicked in when I flew with veteran combat pilots in Vietnam. They really taught me the tricks of the trade, but there was one point when I finally knew I had what it takes. About 300 flight hours into my tour, I was called into a circular treeline where our guys were getting shot at. The only way to get into the landing zone was with a high overhead 360, a very difficult corkscrew maneuver. I’d seen it done a couple times, but I’d never dared to try it myself. But with the shooting going on, and knowing the boys down below needed my help, something kicked in. I maneuvered the aircraft around, and landed it like a feather. Immediately, people started jumping aboard. The crew members were yelling and screaming on the intercom: “That was the greatest 360 I’ve ever seen!” Suddenly, I realized I had done something special, and everything changed. Up until that point, the helicopter was flying me around—I was the tool, it was the master. But now the aircraft was mine.
Eventually, General Fred Weyand, who would later become the final commander of combat operations in Vietnam, selected me to become his command pilot. The story behind that was he was in a chopper that got hit over Loc Ninh. They landed safely, but fire was still coming down all around, and his helicopter was damaged. I happened to be nearby on the runway, so I quickly rushed him and his aide into my helicopter, and I flew them out of there. Next thing I know, I was notified that General Weyand had tagged me as his personal pilot.
We had one very interesting flight together in which my Star of David helmet attracted some unwanted attention. My passengers that day were General Weyand, General William Westmoreland, and the legendary General Creighton Abrams. I heard them talking on the intercom. Westmoreland was a bit tipsy, and he wasn’t happy with my helmet’s prominent personalization.
“What do you think of that Jew star?” I heard him grumble.
“What are you talking about?” Weyand asked, trying to defuse the situation.
But Westmoreland was mad, and he aggressively snarled, “I don’t like it. He’s out of uniform. When we get down to the ground I’m going to do something about it.”
General Abrams was not one who identified as being Jewish. But Westmoreland’s words struck him wrong, and I heard him bark, “Westy, shut the [expletive] up!” Nothing else was said for the rest of the flight.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that helmet any more—it got destroyed while saving my life. A few months after that conversation, I was ferrying a JAG officer on a routine flight, when rounds started coming in. A mortar blasted right through my windshield. Shrapnel hit the helmet’s visor nut with terrific force. The helmet blew off my head, and ricocheted off and hit the kid sitting on the radio console. I was badly wounded, but I managed to keep it together for the 15-minute flight to the closest hospital at Cu Chi, at which point I shut the aircraft down, and promptly collapsed.
Before combat, I didn’t know that I knew G-d per se. But I had an experience that you might say gave me an introduction to Him. We were in a newly built fortification when mortars started coming in for four days straight. The fire was so consistent and accurate you couldn’t even go to the bathroom. We had unknowingly built the base directly on top of tunnels built by the Viet Cong against the French, so they knew everything about us. It was pathetic. We were under tremendous stress. At some point while sitting in a soggy mudhole, completely exhausted, I spoke to G-d. I said, “If you save me, I promise you I will take care of people for the rest of my life.” As I pleaded with G-d, I could feel one part of my brain saying, “This is ridiculous,” while the other was saying, “No, it’s not.” We were in the middle of the monsoon season, so the rain was coming down in torrents, along with the constant explosions of the mortars. But as soon as I made that little promise, a beam of sunlight came out and hit me so hard that I fell over; and what can I say, but the mortars stopped. It was a truly spiritual experience, and I just burst into tears.
I flew over 650 missions. The one that got the most attention was one that also got me in trouble, but General Weyand was there to straighten things out. On May 14, 1967, I learned that a group of South Vietnamese soldiers were being ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army regiment. We had two Hueys available, but the one I hopped into was a VIP shuttle Huey, and had no armaments. I knew there would be grief about this—just a week earlier, I had flown a rescue mission using an unarmed Huey, and I’d gotten chewed out by my commander, who gave me a direct order not to do anything like that again. Well there we were, in the same situation just a week later, but I didn’t think I had a choice. So I jumped in alongside WO Tom Baca to serve as his copilot.
When we arrived at the site, we faced a big problem. The attacks were taking place on a very narrow road that was overgrown with trees and bamboo. No one had any visibility on what was happening on the ground. With no other options, we used our helicopter blades to cut through the bamboo to land and reach the South Vietnamese, despite the fact that we knew the bamboo would damage the fiberglass blades and threaten the airworthiness of the aircraft. Our two-ship flight ferried back and forth into the battle site under heavy fire from an enemy force of 650 troops five consecutive times. Due to the chaos, I was forced to exit the helicopter twice. The dire situation was that two of the three American Special Forces soldiers had already been KIA, and the 80-100 surviving Vietnamese were leaderless and needed to be herded onto the helicopter. While shoving as many men as we could onto the ship, I found myself engaging the NVA with my sidearm on two separate occasions. On our final flight out, I noticed one last South Vietnamese soldier still firing his weapons at the enemy. The other helicopter had already lifted off. We were already in the air when he came running back to us. I leaned out of my seat and pulled him onto the skids while my copilot Tom flew the aircraft out of the danger zone. I have no idea how we weren’t killed due to the heavy fire or the damage done to the blades. The only logical reason I can think of is that the thick growth of the bamboo and rubber trees blocked most direct shots from the enemy, and somehow we made it back to the base.
Upon post-flight inspection, it was immediately apparent that the rotors were beyond repair, and my Major was furious. He blew up at me and Baca, to the point that we had to be physically restrained from each other. General Weyand heard the scuffle from the other room, and rushed in to split us up. He asked us what happened, promptly ordered the Major to write up a citation for a Distinguished Flying Cross, and instructed him not to submit paperwork about us disobeying orders. Eventually, Major John Green wrote up a citation, but he did not know much about the mission so it is missing most of the details. (Many years later, Green apologized for doing such a bad job on it, and General Weyand actually wrote a letter asking for the award to be upgraded to a Medal of Honor. That has not yet happened.)
That mission was nicknamed the Cau Song Be Rescue Mission, and it gained a bit of notoriety through a BBC Special program called “Vietnam Firefight” produced in 2010, available on YouTube.
My Jewish blood was truly stirred in June ‘67. I was at HQ, and you could hear the buzz regarding what was going on in the Middle East. Everyone was talking about it: “Look what’s happening! The Arabs are going to attack the Jews!” Several of us Jewish pilots, including Peter Love, Stanley Solomon and others, began to talk. We decided we were going to fly to Israel and lend a hand – we could not stand by to watch another Holocaust, which is what looked like was going to happen. As soon as the war broke out, General Weyand brought it up with me directly. He said, “Liss, what do you think?” I said, “I’m going.” He responded, “I did not hear that… But if you want to put in for R&R, you are welcome to go wherever you’d like.” I didn’t hesitate and immediately put in for R&R.
During the first 48 hours of the war, the Arab disinformation campaign kicked in, and it sounded like Israel might soon cease to exist. The group of pilots met up, and we had no qualms to let it be known where we were going and why. I packed my gun bag, with personal sidearms as well as heavy machine guns, and we searched long and hard to find a flight that would get us close to the Middle East. We sat waiting for an aircraft for several hours, getting antsy. We finally located a plane that was going from Vietnam to Thailand to Brussels, and decided we’d somehow hitch a ride from there to Israel. But right before the plane took off, a Colonel came on board, located us, and said, “Gentlemen, there’s no need for you to go. You guys are Jewish and I’m not, but all I can say is your Israeli brothers have already crushed the enemy!”
I’ve been very fortunate. I left the Army in 1970 after acquiring 4,500 hours of flight time. I started several companies and have done well for myself. And it’s with pride that I look back on my time as a Jewish American Warrior.
This article was originally printed in the Chanukah 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.