Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series highlighting the stories of Sandpoint men who served combat duty during the Vietnam War. As always, I am eternally grateful for those who served and sacrificed so much for our country.
Bill Collier has led an interesting life, to say the least.
The decorated Vietnam War veteran served a year in combat, flying the H-34 helicopter on over 9,200 sorties, most of them pulling wounded Marines out of combat. He is the author of two books based on his experiences, has flown for just about every outfit from Air America to aerial logging and has recently rescued a derelict H-34 from the junkyard. Here is his story.
Dreams of wings
Collier was born in Sonoma, Calif., an agricultural area that became the center of the budding wine industry.
He was fascinated with airplanes early on because his childhood home was located on the north end of Hamilton Air Force Base.
“Frequently airplanes would fly over our school,” said Collier. “You’d see the F-86s joining up in formation … I remember I said, ‘Cool, I want to be a pilot when I grow up.’”
While most boys in the late ‘50s collected baseball cards, Collier collected airplane cards.
When Collier graduated high school in 1961, he went to two years of junior college in Napa with aspirations to become an engineer, but after realizing it involved higher math and physics, he realized it wasn’t his path.
It was during a period of transition and indecision when Collier met a Marine recruiter who put him on the path that ended with him behind the stick of a combat helicopter.
With the assistance of the recruiter, Collier entered MARCAD — a Marine aviation cadet program — and was sent directly flight school. This was in 1964 when the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was still ramping up.
After flight school, Collier was sent to the New River Air Facility near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for training.
“It was obvious by then that we were all going to Vietnam,” said Collier. “Actually, I like to tell people I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of North Carolina. It was a shithole, and you can quote me on that.”
When asked why he chose helicopters instead of jets, he said there really wasn’t a choice in the matter.
“I’m glad I flew helicopters,” he said. “The reason for flying jets is to kill people. You drop bombs on them, or you shoot them down with your air to air missiles, or your gatling guns or whatever they have on the jets. My job as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot was saving lives. I feel really good about that.”
Trial by fire
Second Lt. Collier arrived in country in July, 1966, to a place called Phu Bai, about 50 miles south of the DMZ. He started out in the co-pilot seat.
“The way the military does it, you spend a few months flying co-pilot while you learn the ropes,” said Collier. “Then you’re the aircraft commander and the new pilots fly with you and you teach them. It’s a very good way to do things because you’re not thrown into combat without any experience at all.”
It was a medevac mission that served as Collier’s baptism by fire.
“It was one of the scariest events of my life,” he said.
After only six weeks in Vietnam, Collier’s mission was to fly into a place called Mutter Ridge where an ongoing battle had taken place to gain control of a hill.
“We turned off all of our lights and spiraled down very carefully,” said Collier. “The Marines were shooting up the hill at the enemy and the enemy was shooting down at the Marines. The Marines had red tracers and the enemy had green ones, so it was like horizontal fireworks.”
Once in a while, a few tracers would point into the air toward the sound of his approaching helicopter.
“There were a lot of bullets in the sky,” he said. “I could barely see anything and neither could the captain.”
The captain then asked Collier to be ready to hit the hover floodlight switch, which flooded light everywhere—also making the H-34 the biggest target around.
“A helicopter is made out of magnesium,” he said. “And we had the highest octane fuel. All it takes is a few tracers to go through the fuel tank and it would explode. I knew I was dead, right then, when I hit that switch. I was only 23 at the time, and I didn’t want to die yet.”
But Collier, being the dutiful Marine that he was, swallowed his fear and flipped the switch, flooding the battlefield with light.
“Amazingly enough, nothing happened,” he said. “I have no idea why they didn’t shoot us full of a million holes.”
The hoist was lowered to the battle, the Marines on the ground loaded the wounded man into the basket and he was pulled successfully into the helicopter. They cut the lights, cleared the trees and flew home.
“It still makes me nervous to talk about it,” he said.
After his first experience at the terror of battle, Collier found himself shutting down emotionally to cope with the trauma of flying into live fire.
“After that, I thought there was no way I was going to survive this war,” he said. “But I’ll just do my best and hope I’m lucky and be careful and see what happens.”
Six weeks later, Collier had another incident that shook him even harder.
“I was the same area, same ridge, the same Marines, the same battle,” he said. “Marines would take a hill and they didn’t have enough troops to occupy what they took, so the enemy would take it again and we’d take it back.”
When Collier was halfway to the extraction point, the Marines on the ground told them to standby because they were involved in a heavy firefight. Collier and the captain orbited at 4,000 feet waiting for the signal to move in.
Unbeknownst to Collier at the time, the Marines on the ground had become overrun and called for emergency artillery. Normally, helicopter pilots communicated with artillery officers to safeguard against friendly fire incidents, but in this emergency situation, the artillery came without warning.
“We were in the way,” he said. “One of the [artillery] rounds hit my wingman, about 100 feet off my left wing. My wingman exploded into a fireball and fell into the bushes. Five men, instantly incinerated.”
Combat helicopters had an attrition rate of about 20 percent, which meant that 1 out of every 5 pilots were killed in combat. The odds went up with every mission flown, and Collier racked up an astounding number of missions during his tour.
Helicopter pilots received an air medal after flying 400 sorties. By the end of his tour, Collier received 23 air medals. By Collier’s estimations, he pulled 375 wounded Marines from combat and performed 9,200 landings.
The effects of combat
There was only one incident that Collier felt himself losing composure while flying the H-34. He was a week from being sent home and had been flying voluntary missions circling around to locate enemy mortar and rocket flashes to notify ground teams.
“It was boring, but I didn’t want to go back in the field,” he said. “You don’t want to die in your last few weeks.”
Normally, two helicopters were kept on standby for medevac missions, but they were both tied up, so Collier was called to go pick up wounded.
“I just about lost it,” he said. “I had to tell my co-pilot that he had to do this mission. I was so shaky. I couldn’t even hold onto the stick. That’s the only time during my 32 years flying helicopters that I ever got scared.”
But Collier made it to the end of his tour and was sent to California, now a Captain, to finish out his service. By late 1968, he was out of the military, searching for what his next moves were.
“I bumbled around a lot,” he said. “I had a pretty bad case of PTSD from all the horror that I saw. I had trouble focusing, I had trouble committing and staying in one place, so I kind of became a rolling stone for awhile.”
Over the next 27 years, Collier stumbling in and out of fly jobs all over the world: fire fighting to truck driving, aerial logging to Air America.
He flew with a reserve squadron in Alameda, worked in Alaska for the original oil exploration on the North Slope. He tried to go back to school several times, but it didn’t take. Airline jobs were tough to come by in those years due to a national recession.
Collier sent his resume out to an airline employment agency, but the only hit that came back was from an outfit called Air America.
“I’d seen Air America helicopters in Vietnam,” said Collier. “I said to someone at the time, ‘What is this purple and silver helicopter? That’s not military,’ and somebody said, ‘CIA,’ but I hated to do that spook business. But just for the hell of it, I filled out the application and sent it off as a backup.”
Six months later, after returning from his first stint in Alaska, Collier received word from Air America. He was returning to Southeast Asia.
“There was a whole second war going on in Laos … after the war was going on,” said Collier. “Almost nobody knew about it.”
Pen to paper
Collier grew up in a family of storytellers in the days before television. He never envisioned himself a writer, but slowly began to realize that in putting pen to paper, his experiences could help him cope with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress that was consuming his life.
“I went into the VA and got into some group therapy,” he said. “I did some regular one-on-one with the doc every once in awhile, but it wasn’t enough.”
Collier said he still remained dysfunctional and couldn’t hold down a job. He estimated that in the span of time between the end of his combat to 1994 he had had 100 jobs and moved 50 times.
“One day my girlfriend, who I loved dearly, said ‘Get out,’ and that pushed me over the edge,” he said. “I had nowhere to go, no money, my car was dying. It was a big hammer blow to me.”
After crashing his motorhome and searching around for a place to live, he ended up renting a room at 50 years old with a 23 year old.
“We hit it off,” he said. “He kept telling me he wanted me to meet his mother. To make a long story short, I met his mother and I eventually married her.”
Collier and his wife, Carlita, have been married for 23 years, and he ardently credits her for putting him back on track in life.
“She encouraged me and put the pressure on me to help myself,” he said. “I owe her my life, really. Otherwise I’d be living out in the woods somewhere in a Volkswagen bus on blocks.”
Collier began compiling his experiences over the years and eventually published a book called “The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps,” which was published by Keokee Books in 2014. The book has garnished over 40 reviews on Amazon, most of them four or five stars.
“Writing was very cathartic for me,” said Collier. “You know how you feel when you get too drunk and puke all that poison up? That’s how I felt when I put that book on the counter. It felt good.”
Collier said the reason he began writing was not only to shed his own personal terrors onto the page, but hopefully to reach other veterans who might be going through the same thing.
“I encourage people to read it,” he said. “If it will reach one guy who needs to go to the VA for help, that would make my life.”
As the second part of his proposed three book series on his experiences as a helicopter pilot, Collier announced that his next volume will release soon.
“Air America: A CIA Superpilot Spills the Beans,” will be published by Keokee Books and highlights the extraordinary time Collier spent flying with Air America.
The third volume will most likely include his experience flying in the South Pacific working for the US Army in a missile testing program.
Collier also serves as president of the Idaho Writer’s League in Sandpoint, which meets two times a month, every first and third Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Sandpoint Library. If anyone is interested in joining, his phone number is (208) 610-0873.
Phoenix from the ashes
In 2011, Collier received an email about a company that had bought a bunch of surplus H-34 helicopters and were selling the remains. Collier asked the Sandpoint chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America to team up so that donations would be tax deductible and ended up purchasing an H-34 for $4,500. You’ve probably seen it towed in various parades through Sandpoint.
Though Collier last flew in 1996, he said the experience of being able to see and touch such an important piece of his life is priceless.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “I love those old machines. Of all of my experiences, the most interesting happened in that machine.”
To donate toward the restoration project, please contact Cpt. Collier at the number listed above.
Looking back over his thousands of missions and hundreds of wounded comrades pulled off the field of battle, Collier said he never did it for the glory or the medals, or for any reason other than his duty as a United States Marine.
“The best medal is the live man’s smile,” he said.
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