September’s Luckiest Hoosier Alive: James Thompson
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
In 1971, Carmel resident James Thompson was in Vietnam where he was assigned as an adviser to the field maintenance unit of the Vietnamese Air Force division. The Chinook helicopter rotor blades were made of a composite sandwich material that was a fiberglass over a honeycomb and it had the bad habit of unbonding. Though they had a test set to check for issues, it often went on the fritz. One day, Thompson was tasked with finding a helicopter pilot to fly the test set from Bien Hoa Air Base to the Army’s depot ship at Vung Tau for repairs.
“I located a seasoned army pilot on his third tour in Vietnam,” Thompson says. On their way back from Vung Tau, they got a radio call asking if they could pick up an American chaplain and drop him at a leper colony to distribute food and clothing. They agreed, so after dropping off cargo for the Vietnam Air Force, they picked up the chaplain and two security guards.
“I’d brought along my camera and was snapping photos of the lush, green countryside,” recalls Thompson, who grew suspicious as they approached the leper colony and didn’t see a soul in sight. “It seemed odd since usually a mob of people is waiting to swarm the chopper to receive the precious cargo.”
As they were letting down, suddenly the pilot pulled up on the collective control so violently that it threw the chaplain and his guards to the floor. Thompson reflexively reached to grab one of the guard’s M-16 rifles from flying out the open side door.
“What was that about?” Thompson called to the pilot on his headset.
“The landing zone was mined,” the pilot responded.
The close brush with death left Thompson shaky, though even as they returned to Bien Hoa he thought, “Hey, this is a war zone. This kind of thing is expected.”
Nevertheless, back at the base, Thompson was eager to learn details.
“How did you spot the trap? Thompson asked.
“It’s an old VC trick in which they set up butterflies,” the pilot explained, using his hands to imitate the broad wings of a butterfly. “They’re the size of two ping-pong paddles and painted to blend in with the grass. When the rotor downwash hits them, they collapse like this.” He moved his palms from a spread-out position to a praying pose. “That sets off Claymore mines all around the landing zone that detonate horizontally, making mincemeat out of a Huey and everyone inside it.”
“You clearly saved our bacon today,” said Thompson, who had a wife and two young daughters back home.
It seems it was radio communication that gave the Viet Cong the chance to set the trap.
“The VC listened on every frequency, so when they heard that we were going to drop off the test set and pick up the chaplain and his supplies, that gave them plenty of time to set up the mines,” says Thompson, who was in Vietnam for just one year. During that year, he got shot at a handful of times, always when he was in a chopper.
“They were lousy shots. They always hit the tail rotor,” Thompson says. “The near-landing at the leper colony was the only time I ever was in real peril over there.”
Despite the peril, Thompson says he enjoyed his tour in Vietnam.
“I grew to really like the Vietnamese,” Thompson says. “They’re clever, wonderful, industrious people.”
Thompson, who was raised in Indianapolis, attended Arsenal Tech High School, and received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue, served 23 years in the Air Force before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1980.
“I’m a very lucky guy to be here,” Thompson says. “Had I used another pilot that day, I would probably not have survived.”