Among the wines made by Bauer–Kearns Winery in the Town of Belmont is a wine named Aviation Red.
Its vintner, Ted Kearns, makes the wine in the memory of the members of his unit who died while Kearns, as he puts it, “had the privilege of commanding a helicopter unit in Vietnam.”
The names of those soldiers are on a plaque that has the names of the members of the 57th Helicopter Assault Company inside the winery, those who died before, during and after Kearns’ six months commanding the company in 1969.
Kearns, a native of Benton, was a career Army officer. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in November 1960 after completing Reserve Officers Training Corps classes and enough credits for a degree at the University of Notre Dame. Kearns, his wife Helen, and their six children moved 29 times in 57 years during and after Kearns’ 20 years in the Army.
“That’s part of military life that most people don’t know — it’s toughest on the families of the service members sometimes,” he said. “When I was in Vietnam I was busy trying to figure out how I’d stay alive the next day. It was a very interesting time, and here Helen was stuck with six kids.”
Kearns started his Army career at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana as an engineer officer whose responsibilities included frequent daily flights to Army Reserve units in Indiana and Michigan.
Kearns said his pilot “was making twice as much money as I was, so I decided I wanted to fly.” He went to flight school in 1963 when “Vietnam was starting up. All the guys who weren’t married went to Vietnam as observer pilots, and I was in fixed-wings.”
After three years in airplanes, he said, “All of a sudden I got transitioned to helicopters, and I’m going to Vietnam in September.”
Kearns arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1966 as a 28-year-old captain assigned to the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Black Cats. He was named the executive officer and a gun platoon leader.
“Most of the aviators were majors, 15, 16 years of service, and a lot of those guys didn’t want to be in combat,” he said. “Some of them had 20 years, but they wouldn’t let them out because they needed pilots.”
While helicopters were introduced in the Korean War, helicopters, particularly the UH-1 Huey, were a mainstay of the Vietnam War, either transporting soldiers to and from the field, or gun ships, called “slicks,” equipped with armaments. Kearns said 1,600 helicopters flew twice daily on three-hour training flights due to the shortage of helicopter pilots.
Kearns flew 700 combat hours in his first tour. “I was a gun platoon leader, and I flew every day,” he said. He received 13 Air Medals, an award usually given for completing 25 missions.
Kearns’ first tour in Vietnam ended 28 days early when he was injured in a base accident. He returned to the U.S. for advanced engineering training.
“There were four or five pilots in there, and we all knew that sure as we got done we were going back to Vietnam,” he said.
Kearns’ second tour in Vietnam started in February 1968, when he was a major trained to fly Cobra helicopters. He commanded the 57th Assault Helicopter Company that had 14 commissioned officers, 56 warrant officers, 230 enlisted men, 28 helicopters and its own base, including a maintenance detachment, north of Pleiku, South Vietnam.
The base was powered by two diesel generators. Water came from a nearby river until a well was drilled, but the well was dry. Kearns took advice from a friend of his father’s to make the well more effective through application of dynamite.
“It was a challenge, but probably the most rewarding thing other than marrying my wife and having a family that I ever did,” he said.
The helicopters flew 10 hours a day, with a minimum of 20 helicopters required to fly daily. Pilots were restricted to 130 hours of flying over a 30-day period.
“You’re never up to strength — you’re at 65 [percent] instead of 70,” said Kearns. “As a commander I had very few hours [flying]. … There’s lots of intelligence that you have to assess every day where I was.”
When Kearns arrived, aviation companies were rotated to support Special Forces teams every 60 days. Kearns noticed the new companies always lost a crew within the first 30 days of their assignment due to unfamiliarity with the area, such as landing in craters made by B-52 bombs. Kearns asked to keep the Special Forces assignment permanently.
“I made it known that if you want to be in the fight, the place to be is here,” he said. “We always used to joke: Why would you get out of a perfectly good helicopter? We’d have to pull guys out on ropes.”
Kearns’ base was attacked by Viet Cong equipped with homemade grenades made from beer cans May 11, 1969. Four 122-millimeter rockets were fired into the compound, with two hitting a maintenance hangar. The rockets didn’t explode, but the motor of one that ended up underneath a maintenance officer’s desk started a fire that destroyed the hangar and eight helicopters and equipment. Six enemy soldiers died. The maintenance officer did not, because he was out flying at the time.
One member of Kearns’ unit died in an accidental shooting by another soldier. The others died in missions; one helicopter on a mission to a Special Forces camp was hit by a .50 caliber shell and crashed, killing all four crew members.
Kearns said his “toughest job” was writing letters to the families of those who died.
“I think most of the them didn’t want to be drafted,” he said. “The ironic part was the draftees that were there were the best soldiers — they were ideal soldiers. The maintenance crews did an outstanding job.”
Kearns’ command ended in August 1969. On the way back, he and an Army master sergeant had to deal with a sergeant first class who snapped on the flight back to the U.S.
“The sergeant and I got him under control, and we told the crew to have the [military police] meet us in Seattle,” he said.
Kearns had civilian clothing with him, which he changed into at Sea-Tac International Airport, but he still had a military haircut. As he walked through the terminal, he said, “I was spat upon. It was very hard to control your cool — that was the hardest part. They knew when the military flights were coming in.”
Kearns completed his Notre Dame degree after returning to the U.S. He spent the last two years of his Army service attached to the U.S. Department of Energy, and added a master’s degree in construction management. He retired on New Year’s Eve 1980.
Thirty years after Kearns left Vietnam, he returned to the country as a tourist, staying in a hotel that was a former Army headquarters. “Reporters lived there, and it was all one big club,” he said.
Kearns occasionally had to deal with the media in what was the nation’s first televised war. He told the story of a controversial switch in rifles from the AR-14 to the AR-15. South Vietnamese soldiers were assigned the AR-14, while American troops were still using the AR-14. When a CBS-TV crew asked a commander about the switch, he pointed to his own AR-15 and told the reporter to notice what he was using. The commander was relieved of duty shortly afterward, Kearns said.
The Kearnses hosted a reunion in 2007, when a former crew chief brought a helicopter for rides. The unit Kearns commanded has reunions every two years, in which money is raised to allow former soldiers who can’t afford to go to the reunions to go.
“About 98 percent of them never miss another reunion after that,” he said. “I think it helps them.”
Three of Kearns’ six children themselves are veterans.
“I think about it when I do these reunions — every two years I start digging stuff out,” he said of his Vietnam service. “It doesn’t bother me. … I look back on it and I say I’d do it all over again.”