Nathan D. Shaffer, U.S. Army,OH-6A“Loach” Helicopter Door Gunner, Vietnam and the return of his chopper

This fascinating story was written by Colonel Ron Albers, USAF, retired, for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.  This is the story of how a door gunner in Vietnam unbelievably tracked down his helicopter.  Click here for tons of pictures and more information.

Motts Military Museum has collected literally thousands of military memorabilia from conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War and even before. What makes our museum somewhat unique is that nearly every item on display covering WW I to the present was personally donated by veterans or their family members. Warren Motts, our Founder/Director, therefore, knows the personal stories behind the vast majority of these items. Certainly one of the larger and perhaps more unusual items on display is the OH-6A “Loach” helicopter recovered and restored chiefly because of extraordinary efforts by museum member Nate Shaffer of Spencerville, Ohio. And Nate’s own history with this chopper makes for a truly fascinating story.

With a desire to serve in Vietnam, Nate voluntarily enlisted in the Army and was inducted on 9 Oct 67 He completed basic training at Ft. Gordon, GA, and graduated from airborne school at Ft. Benning, GA, in late June 1968. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg until his deployment to the 173rd Airborne at Landing Zone (LZ) English at Bong Son, South Vietnam from May 69 to May 1970. At the end of this one-year tour, Nate volunteered to extend his total three-year enlistment in the Army for an additional two months on one condition: that he could serve as an M-60 door gunner on an OH-6A “Loach” helicopter at Phuc Vhin with the Charlie Troop Scouts of the 1st   Squadron of the 9th Calvary Division (which has a huge presence in our museum’s Memorial Brick Garden.)  His wish was granted.

As far as research of tail numbers can tell, there were 11 such Loaches in his unit at that time; and their mission was one of the most dangerous in the entire war zone. Flying at treetop level, they “trolled for fire,” as Nate puts it. This small, slow-moving, noisy craft with its crew of three (pilot, door gunner, and observer) had the unpleasant task of seeking out enemy ground forces and drawing fire from their weapons. A short distance behind them and a couple thousand feet above them was a Cobra gunship (armed with rockets, mini-guns, and grenade launchers) that was prepared to eliminate the enemy once the Loach crew had found it.  Unfortunately, the casualty rate for the crews of these Loaches was nearly 50%. Nate’s second tour lasted six months, and he flew almost daily during this period – luckily finishing it unharmed.

For some reason, the pilots with Charlie Troop Scouts flew different helicopters all the time in Vietnam, but the gunners were pretty much assigned to the same tail number. Nate’s was #15990. (Actually, the full serial number is 69-15990, and the OH-6A is usually called a “Cayuse.” It received the nickname, “Loach,” because it was used as a Light Observation Helicopter – LOH.) Nate was, therefore, able to christen it with his own moniker, “ZIT.” His girlfriend at the time (later his current wife of nearly 43 years) was named, Tiz, and he doesn’t really know why he spelled it backwards.  It’s worth noting that the Army bought #990 in February of 1970, and it arrived the same month as Nate at Phuc Vhin – May of 1970. So it was almost brand new then.

In reviewing some detailed records on the history of helicopter 69-15990, we discovered documentation that it was badly damaged by ground fire on at least three occasions. In each case, it was flying at 60 knots (69 miles per hour.) Once it was at 125 feet above ground level (AGL,) the second time at 80 feet AGL, and the last time at 50 feet AGL. Now that’s “low and slow” over hostile enemy territory!

Anyway, after successfully and safely completing his 18 months of duty in Vietnam, Sp-5 (E-5) Nate Shaffer was redeployed to CONUS and honorably discharged on 10 Nov 70. He returned home to Spencerville, marrying Tiz in July 1971.  From 1972 through 1978 Nate served as a staff sergeant in the Ohio Army National Guard for three years followed by another three years with the Army Reserves. In 1978 he left the military entirely to spend more time pursuing his passion of SCUBA diving.

Many of us witnessed helicopters being pushed off ships and otherwise destroyed as the US withdrew from Vietnam beginning in 1973. Nate always wondered what had happened to “ZIT” – ol’ 15990. Had she survived? Would he ever see her again? Nate’s search began in 1994 and continued for many years, often resulting in nothing but frustration and dead ends. With the help of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, he learned that 990 was one of only two of the original eleven or so in the 1st of the 9th that had been returned to the US. In June of 1971 990 had been reassigned for the next 11 months to 4 different units in Vietnam before she was returned to the Hughes factory in Culver City, CA, for six months of maintenance and upgrades prior to being sent to the 5th Army Reserve unit in Chicago. She later flew with a New York City National Guard unit before being transferred to the US Border Patrol in Texas, part of U.S. Homeland Security. It took a lot more frustrating research before Nate finally was in touch with the bird’s mechanic, where it was now serving with the Arizona Border Patrol at Ft. Huachuca, AZ. For his 60th birthday present, Nate’s children, Misti & Ben, arranged for Nate to fly to Arizona for a reunion. In 2008 Nate flew down, was reunited with his old bird, and spent a great couple of days swapping tales and photos with the Border Patrol pilots and maintenance personnel.

Following his visit, Nate kept in touch with the helicopter’s mechanic who e-mailed Nate every time 990 moved or changed hands. On January 27, 2010, 990 was transferred to a unit of the Border Patrol that flew out of Tucson International Airport.  After flying there for 9 months, 990 and the other Loaches were sent across town and moth-balled at the USAF “boneyard” facility at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Although it’s usually called the “boneyard,” that nickname isn’t entirely accurate or appropriate. Actually, the majority of aircraft there are stored in flying condition until given to other government agencies, sold, or finally scrapped. In early 2011 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) snatched up several of these OH-6A helicopters from Tucson and flew them to one of their operations centers in Parowan, Utah. It was not, however, before 990 had been stripped of her engine, rotor head, tail rotor, gear box, control tubes, sticks, seats and gear leg fairings. Somehow, 990 still found her way to Utah along with those birds that were still flyable. Now painted green and white and with the tail number N6186Y, she was relegated to USDA’s own “boneyard” near the Parowan airport, where, unfortunately, USDA continued to use 990 as a “parts bird” to keep existing helicopters flying (similar to an automobile salvage yard.) Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the USDA has helicopters, it’s because their Wildlife Services Division (WS) uses them to control feral swine, wolves, and coyotes in the region. These animals damage agriculture/natural resources/property and spread disease, with the latter two animals killing sheep and livestock. 

Earlier, in 2009, the Spencerville Area Veterans Memorial Park Commission had asked Nate to assist them in getting the helicopter donated to that group so that it could be displayed in Spencerville’s new veteran’s park. They made a formal request to the Army Life Cycle Management Command asking for it to be donated for their use. When Nate learned that it was in the Tucson “boneyard,” he contacted everyone he could think of to help him get the helicopter (including a personal phone call to Senator John McCain.) He was told that the chances were better for a museum to receive it, and Nate began working with Warren Motts to retrieve it. There is an incredible amount of bureaucratic red tape required to obtain surplus items from the government; but with vitally important assistance from Kevin Grant (USDA’s WS director of operations in Oklahoma) and U.S. Representative Steve Stivers’ office staff (especially Barbara Taylor,) Warren & Nate finally received word that they would be able to take possession of Nate’s beloved war bird in late 2011.

A few immediate phone calls from Nate to various moving and trucking companies soon let him know that it would cost thousands of dollars to have the helicopter shipped to Ohio. Nate decided to drive out in his own pickup, rent a trailer, and haul it back to Ohio from Utah. He had a friend who planned to go with him, but that friend and became ill and couldn’t make it. Then a second friend had to back out because of his wife’s health. So Nate hopped in his Ford F150 and drove alone to Utah in October of 2011.

He had planned to rent a trailer, but the major fleets that rent trailers didn’t have one big enough; and, when he finally found a firm that would rent one big enough, it cost more than buying one. He found a used one near the boneyard for $1000, which was more than he wanted to pay; but he needed the trailer. When he arrived to pick it up, however, the owner said that Nate had failed to call him back confirming that he wanted the trailer. So the guy had sold it to someone else. Nate had no choice but to buy a new one. He hooked it up and picked up 990 at the Parowan airport on October 17, 2011.

On October 20th Nate, after a solo round trip of more than 4000 miles, arrived back home in Spencerville with the war treasure he had flown more than 40 years previously. It had been an arduous trek, parts of the drive back through heavy snow in Colorado and rains elsewhere. He had stopped in Wichita, Kansas, to pick up a set of rotor blades, since those had been salvaged from 990. Again, the helicopter was in rather sad shape because of all the parts that scavengers had removed earlier that year while 990 was in the boneyard. Word quickly spread throughout the area around Spencerville that Nate would be restoring his Vietnam-era Loach, and he soon had a team of volunteers assisting him in a friend’s shop. The team tore it apart, restored it, rebuilt it, painted it, and were all done by November 8th. She looked exactly as she had in combat so long ago. To restore the helicopter from its sad state to looking new again with volunteer labor was, indeed, an amazing feat in such a short period of time.

Unlike his solo venture to pick up the copter in Utah, Nate had plenty of friends to escort him on the delivery trip to Motts Military Museum in Groveport on November 8, 2011. A number of friends from the Spencerville area rode with him on their motorcycles. Warren Motts, dressed in his Army uniform, personally led them into the museum property in his WW II Jeep. There was a nice size crowd waiting to welcome Nate and watch him and his crew unload his prize, including US Representative Steve Stivers (a colonel in the Ohio Army Guard) and a pilot and observer (both now living in the Cleveland area) that Nate had flown with in Vietnam. It was a happy, albeit emotional, reunion on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

On May 19, 2012, many members of the 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry Division attended a ceremony at our museum, and there were a number of attendees who once flew as pilots, observers, or door gunners on 990 or other Loaches, as well as Cobras and Hueys. A formal dedication was held, and many of these veterans took to the podium to tell of their own combat experiences that had occurred more than 40 years ago. Of course, Nate Shaffer was there with a smile as big as Texas; proud of his contribution so that the legacy of these brave men will always be remembered. A large number of other interested people showed up, as did several local newspaper, radio, and television reporters who covered the colorful dedication.

Nate Shaffer is an extremely humble individual and keeps emphasizing that having 990 on display at our museum was truly a team effort involving numerous individuals, without whom this project never would have come to fruition. By name, he always mentions USDA’s Kevin Grant, U.S. Representative Steve Stivers, Barbara Taylor, and Warren & Daisy Motts for providing a fitting home for “ZIT.” His many friends in Spencerville who volunteered work space, skills, tools, materials and countless hours of effort are especially near and dear to Nate’s heart. He sincerely thanks all who contributed in so many different ways. Our museum and that helicopter will now provide a lasting tribute to our Vietnam veterans, especially those who served with the 1st of the 9th and sacrificed so much.

Occasionally we read about a military item being returned to a veteran years after it had been misplaced. This happened to Nate Shaffer twice. At the very first reunion of his unit, 25 years after his return from Vietnam, one of his friends presented Nate with a pair of his paratrooper wings the buddy had found under his bunk at Phuc Vhin after Nate had rotated back to the U.S. Later on, Nate was  contacted by a gentleman in Maine who had recently visited Vietnam and discovered one of Nate’s dog tags there. 32 years after departing Vietnam, Nate was presented with that dog tag.

Motts Military Museum takes great pride in the fact that most items on display weren’t bought in flea markets, garage sales, or over the Internet. The items have been obtained with a story or their history behind them. Parked next to Nate’s beloved “ZIT” is a Vietnam era Huey UH-1 helicopter that was actually flown by another Vietnam veteran and museum member. His name is stenciled on the side of that copter, and items used during his tour of Vietnam are on display in the new wing of our museum, which should be open and dedicated soon.   

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If anyone wants to undertake a similar project, they should contact me. While I was on active duty with the USAF, I flew many of my 111 missions over Vietnam in a KC-135 tanker with the tail number 58-0008 between 1971 and 1973. A few years later, it was handed over to my Guard unit at Rickenbacker; and I flew it again until 2003, including sorties from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. In 2003 it was transferred to the ANG unit at Pease ANGB, NH, where it saw service until being flown to the “boneyard” at Davis Monthan AFB, AZ, in June of 2013. We’d need lots of help getting her home and restored, because the jet is more than 136 feet long and nearly 42 feet tall, with a wing span of 131 feet, and an empty weight of about 120,000 pounds. I’d be proud to see her parked at our museum, but I am afraid our Ford F-150 won’t bring her back. Any volunteers? Just kidding…

 

 

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