This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
Joe Sepesy was born and raised in Youngstown during the fifties, a child of the “Greatest Generation.” His father was a Marine who served on Guadalcanal, his uncle a Marine who served in China, and another uncle who served with the Navy on the USS Ben Franklin. Our NASA space program was in its infancy during his youth, which fascinated him; and Joe knew at a very young age that he wanted to fly in the military. At age 16 he joined Youngstown’s Squadron 301 of the Civil Air Patrol and was a Cadet/First Lieutenant by the time he joined the Army on 12 Dec 68 at the age of 18.
Army Basic training for Joe was at Ft. Polk, LA; and immediately thereafter he began the Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Course (Class 69-49) at Fort Wolters, TX, soloing in an OH-23 on 14 July 69. Joe’s training was then completed at Hunter Army Airfield, Fort Stewart, GA. His instrument training was in the OH-13, followed by UH-1 “Huey” transition. On 25 Feb 70, Sepesy graduated as a Warrant Officer 1 with silver U.S. Army Aviator wings.
The following month he was in Vietnam, stationed for the next year at Phouc Vinh in Central III Corps, assigned to Bravo Company, 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Calvary Division, Airmobile. Missions included combat assaults and direct combat support of 1st Cav and ARVN troops. His Area of Operation was Northern III Corps from Tay Ninh to Xuan Loc, Bien Hoa to Cambodia.
Warrant Officer 1 Sepesy was shot down on 18 Apr 70 and broke his back. He said nothing to the flight surgeon, however; because he didn’t want to be grounded.
From 1 May to 30 Jun, most of his missions were flown over Cambodia. On 14 May 70 he earned his first Air Medal for Valor while conducting an emergency night resupply mission at Landing Zone “Ready.” In spite of intense enemy ground fire, Joe and his crew landed and offloaded their cargo of ammo & supplies to the grunts and made it safely back to home base. During his two months of operations over Cambodia, Joe logged 280 combat hours and had a number of close calls. On 14 June he nearly crashed at Fire Support Base “David” while providing flare illumination during an enemy assault.
Joe earned his second Air Medal for Valor on 6 July 70. In order to accomplish a medevac mission, his crew had to chop the bamboo with the Huey’s rotor blades, and they were thus able to rescue the injured and carry them back to base for medical care.
On 26 July 70, during his Aircraft Commander checkride, an enemy .51 cal machine gun opened up and struck the tailboom of Joe’s Huey, missing the tail rotor driveshaft by just one millimeter. On 28 July1970, Joe was upgraded to Aircraft Commander and his official call sign became “Masher 24.”
Following R&R to Hong Kong & Sidney, Australia, Joe was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer 2 on 25 Feb 71.
After his 30-day leave back to Youngstown, Joe had accepted a six-month extension tour from April through late October 1971. Bravo/227 was redesignated the 59th Combat Assault Company, 1st Aviation Brigade; and its new Area of Operation was much of II Corps - from Dong Ba Thin to Bong Son, along the coast, and inland from Ban Me Thout to Dak To and the tri-border area in the Central Highlands. During this period he also experienced a number of close calls while flying combat sorties in support of U.S. & allied forces. During one combat assault mission, approximately 15 tracers went through the left cargo door and out the right cargo door, behind Joe’s head, while on short final to a ridgeline landing zone. Fortunately - and unbelievably - no one on board received a scratch!
Sepesy returned to CONUS and served ten months at Ft. Bragg, NC, including tours with the 82nd Airborne (Oct 71 to Feb 72) and then the 5th Special Forces Flight Detachment (Feb to Aug 72) During this period he also received his standardized instrument ticket and OH-6 transition at Ft. Rucker, AL.
From Aug 72 to Feb 73 Chief WO 3 Sepesy served his third tour in Vietnam. This time he was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, 1st Aviation Brigade, at Lane Army Airfield, An Son, in II Corps, near Qui Nhon. His call sign was now “Bulldog 13,” and his new mission was combat assault and support of ROK troops. On 10 Jan 73 he was reassigned to H Troop, 10th Calvary (still at Lane) flying the OH-6 “Scout.” His new call sign was “Yellow Scarf 32.”
With the official Vietnam ceasefire effective 28 Jan 73, Sepesy was assigned to III Regional Embassy Flight Detachment at Pleiku. His call sign was now “Zebra 24,” and his mission was to recover POWs and support the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS, the UN peacekeeping force) observers.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joseph M. Sepesy separated from the U.S. Army with an honorable discharge on 17 February 73. His numerous awards and decorations include
3 Bronze Stars, 3 Air Medals with “V” device, 74 Air Medals, and 3 Commendation Medals. Unit citations include the Valorous Unit Citation for action in Cambodia, Vietnamese Gallantry Cross, and Vietnamese Civic Action Honor Medal. Joe ended his flying career with a total of 3205 flight hors, 2200 of which were combat hours. In 1975 the United Veterans’ Council presented him with the Outstanding Vietnam Veterans Award. He was the recipient of the Ohio Military Hall of Fame Medal for Valor in May 2003 (and you can see his name engraved in our display at Motts.)
After his release from the Army, Joe served in the Ohio National Guard, N Troop of the 107th Armored Cavalry Regiment, from 1973 to 1974. He used the G.I. Bill to attend classes at Youngstown State University, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude in August 1977 with a BS in Education. Before beginning his teaching career, Joe flew offshore for oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico for one year. Since then he has spent 28 years as a teacher in junior and senior high schools and plans to retire in 2009. A man of many talents, Joe has also written several novels and other works. He continues to work on his Vietnam memoirs, as well as several works of fiction. For more than five years he operated his own international brokerage for collectible works of art. He also was for a number of years a self-employed guitarist and vocalist in a dance band. He has been an active member of numerous professional, civic, and military organizations - including Motts Military Museum.
Joe currently lives in Boardman, Ohio, with his wife, Lesley, and daughter, Jackie.
Joe Sepesy has been interviewed on videotape at length by Warren Motts; and the museum is presently in the process of cataloging all such tapes in its collection. It is part of the museum’s legacy to document the tales behind the displays and artifacts, because there is a veteran’s story behind each and every article in the museum.
Some comments in Joe’s own words:
“I had the honor of serving with extraordinary pilots, highly skilled and courageous and am proud to be a member of this band of brothers.”
“I attended my first reunion of the VHPA (Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association) in July 2006 in Washington DC. This was a fantastic and emotional experience for me. I saw guys I hadn’t seen since 1970, and we all understood… We all understood.”
“Four of us hung out together during flight school. Two were killed in action, and the other two of us were wounded.”
“ Our missions included Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) insertion and extractions, psyops warfare, medevac, and command & control sorties.”
“We frequently had to land fully-loaded Hueys in hover-down LZs in the middle of the jungle. Some were over one hundred feet deep, holes carved out of the jungle by grunts with chain saws and explosives. Of course, bad weather and enemy activity always made such operations a bit more interesting.”
“We removed dead GIs from the battle field on numerous occasions, always sobering. I pulled medevacs and watched a young soldier die as I raced to a field hospital.”
“I saw a Cobra gunship lose its rotor blade and plummet to the ground as an enemy .51
cal opened up on him, severing his rotor mast.”
“I flew in my underwear during a rocket attack, to get the bird airborne and away from the falling rockets.”
“I led scores of flights of six to ten Hueys, responsible for the lives of the crews, our passengers, and the completion of the mission. I was only 21. I’d do it all over again.”
“I had the honor of serving with extraordinary pilots, highly skilled and courageous…”
We continue to meet more Vietnam veterans who visit the museum that may have actually flown on our display Huey, tail # 048. We are now in the initial planning stages to have a reunion and ceremony to honor those particular veterans, perhaps late spring or early summer, 2007. Joseph M. Sepesy will no doubt be among the attendees and honorees. After all, our museum exists to retain the legacy of such veterans and heroes.
Bell produced two major versions of the UH-1: the single engine Models 204 and 205 and the twin engine Models 212 and 412. Without any doubt the most successful version was the UH-1H (Model 205) which was kept in production from 1967 till 1977. More than 10.000 of these helicopters have been built. The UH-1 became a real workhorse, as there were versions for transport, Search and Rescue (SAR), Special Operations, gunship version (Vietnam) and a maritime warfare variant.
The UH-1 was bought by the Army, Navy, Marines and the Air Force; and Bell also sold the Huey chopper to more than 45 other countries.
The Huey was introduced in the Vietnam War, and played a very important role; because, for the first time in military history, troops were landed in enemy territory as a combat ready unit. During Vietnam the Army used thousands of UH-1 helicopters, for medevac, transport, and as gun ships. The transport version was equipped with M-60 machine guns mounted in each side door to cover the soldiers after they have landed. About 2.500 Huey helicopters were lost during the Vietnam conflict. Only 1.200 were lost in combat, the other 1.300 choppers were lost in operational actions, with a loss rate of less than one in 8.000 sorties. The medevac choppers (which became known as Dust-Off operations) were unarmed and usually unescorted. They had a loss rate that was three times greater.
During the Vietnam War Bell produced 160 choppers per month (1967).