Late but not forgotten: Gary Klopfenstein earns the Silver Star
Assault-helicopter pilot Gary Klopfenstein flew so many missions in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, he lost count. Highly trained, the pilot kept himself and his flight crews alive with proper planning and by-the-book execution. That, he knew, would raise the odds of a good outcome in a war that seemingly had no end and, some say, no point.
By late August of 1969, the enemy had established a major resupply route using Cambodian territory to bring munitions and supplies down from the north. The route crossed back into Vietnam in the muddy delta where the powerful Mekong River empties into the South China Sea.
How to disrupt that operation was problematical as Cambodia was off-limits. Helicopters were the game-changers in modern warfare but they were also vulnerable in this oddly protracted struggle.
American soldiers and gunships had recently engaged the Viet Cong there, but to a draw. Now a blocking action by more boots on the ground was needed to “destroy the gate,” the trailhead near the border.
At 1:30 a.m. on Aug 30, the 114th Assault Helicopter Co. received orders to insert 35 more combat troops into the assault on the “gate.” Within moments Warrant Officer Klopfenstein launched into the darkness with his human payload, flying lead in his Huey transport helicopter, or Slick, a term used to describe a modified Bell UH 1 Iroquois (Huey) in which weapons pods are removed to make room for more soldiers.
Three slicks were in formation, flanked by dual gunships. Armed only with a pair of onboard M60 machine guns, the 22-year-old flew a bee-line above the enemy-laced rice paddies toward the landing zone.
As far as Klopfenstein was concerned, it was just one more mission in this sprawling if treacherous rice-bowl of South Vietnam. Enemy activity was increasing sharply in those fertile dung fields, no doubt troubling to the nearby capitol of Saigon.
The bird approached short final (one minute to the landing zone) and requested the firing of two rockets, whose bright flashes defined the spot where soldiers would exit by jumping to the ground. Then the transport ship would quickly peel away.
Charlie (the Viet Cong) who had fought so stubbornly to protect this operation was also there, waiting.
Suddenly ground fire ripped through Klopfenstein’s descending transport.
The flanking gunships immediately lit up the rice paddies with return fire, but Klop’s instruments were now shattered and bullet holes peppered the craft. The engine and hydraulics were dead. He heard moaning from wounded crew members and troops and fought for descent control. Flames were already consuming the wounded bird.
Calling on all his training and discipline, Klop was able to guide the powerless shell to a soft if fiery landing.
The two other Slicks rapidly disgorged their soldiers and flew out. The 35 new troops (minus casualties) immediately joined the ongoing conflict. Fierce fighting raged as Klop now scrambled to save lives.
Attacking from the sky, the gunships also provided precious moments of cover. Klop reached crew and passengers of the burning aircraft. He organized survivors and guided them to the relative safety of a rice paddy dike. That’s when he realized his crew chief, Chuck Zorn, was missing. He knew he had to return to find Zorn somewhere in the flaming wreck and would be in Charlie’s sight the whole time. But, like every real hero, he didn’t think twice.
Gary Klopfenstein understands responsibility. He was a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service before being drafted in 1967.
He remembered a colleague telling him, “get helicopter flight training if you can.” He did just that and went on to earn the Instructional Pilot and Lead Pilot designations as well.
That training brought him an alternating schedule of “Ash and Trash” missions. ASH stood for Assault Support Helicopter, consisting mainly of inserting and extracting Navy Seal teams and moving GIs into assault positions.
Every other day he would fly these combat missions and in the alternate days he flew the “Trash” flights, referring to administrative flying of VIPs or parts resupply missions, including supporting the South Vietnamese army.
ASH missions were his favorites. Seal Teams were busy in the Vietnam war.
“After a mission they’d be extracted by helicopter,” Klop recalled. “We flew a ton of Seal extractions. Normally the pick-up point is the highest peak, but the Mekong Delta is absolutely flat. That’s choice target practice for Charlie.”
Indeed many of Klopfenstein’s helicopters were perforated by bullets, but remained airworthy — until that night in August 1969, when his bird was blown out of the air.
“So I found my crew chief alive but pretty badly wounded. I gave him first aid, then carried him to the dike where the survivors could better help,” said Klopfenstein.
The modest Klopfenstein doesn’t mention it all happened unprotected from enemy fire and the shelter was hundreds of exposed feet away from the scene.
The survivors found a working radio and Klop called in support. Time passed and then the AC-47 gun ship arrived, bristling with 4,000-rounds-per-minute machine guns blazing from nearly every window and door. Nearby units sent in everything they could, and the VC disappeared as they often did when the advantage was lost.
“Charlie didn’t like conventional battles, he preferred hit-and-run tactics,” reflected the hero pilot.
Klop guided the evacuation helicopter to the new location by strobe light, then refused to board until he had assisted the last wounded man.
In total Klop lost two troopers and a crew member in that 2:30 a.m. ambush. The VC lost 65 of their own, according to the Seals who came back the following day to make certain Klop’s helicopter was totally destroyed. It was.
New assignment and surprise
Soon after, the helicopter warrior was reassigned to Texas to complete his service obligation.
He was handed an envelope to carry to the new assignment containing his own files, accompanied by the stern order, “Don’t look inside.”
But he did. And there to his surprise he discovered he had won the Silver Star for his actions in the downed helicopter incident but no one had told him nor had there been a ceremony. That seemed odd, as the Silver Star is only one position lower than the Army’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
Time passed. After his separation, he went back to school and in 1974 earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Davis. But fighting fires had been his calling for many years and with few jobs available for a zoology major, he accepted a position in 1976 with the Arden Fire Department, forerunner to the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department.
He retired from Sac Metro as battalion chief 30 years later, having developed a complex and successful helicopter division for the department.
Recently in the course of conversation with an acquaintance, Matt Swindle, Klopfenstein revealed the story of the lost medal. A Lt. Colonel in the Marines, Swindle asked if he could pursue closure on the matter and Klop agreed.
On April 17 at the Marine’s Memorial Club in San Diego, at an event celebrating Vietnam War Veterans, Marine General Anthony Zinni (RET.) pinned the Silver Star to Gary Klopfenstein’s uniform.
It had been nearly 45 years since the young soldier’s intrepid actions saved others from the burning wreckage of the Huey Slick and from possible capture or death by the VC ambushers.
The public reading of Warrant Officer Klopfenstein’s gallant reactions to the sudden arrival of hell so long ago was heard by his attending family and friends. In their proud faces the paradox of Klop’s delayed recognition became clear — had the ceremony taken place in 1969, the story would have been reduced to military clichés, and the brave pilot would not have known that because he helped others survive, he survived, and because he survived, this appreciative and loving band of witnesses became possible.
Wars begin to fade into numbers as the years go by. Klop knows the stats. In the 10 years of the Vietnam experience more than 7,000 Army Hueys flew in service. More than 3,300 were lost. Of an estimated 40,000 pilots, just over 1,000 perished along with 1,115 crew members.
Klopfenstein lives on 5-acres in Shingle Springs with wife, Lyons Realtor star Linda Babin. Son Matthew, 26, is in law school, daughter Rachael just graduated UC Davis and is starting grad school at Oregon State University. Youngest daughter Jessica is a freshman at Oregon State.
Asked about regrets, Klopfenstein is quiet for a moment. “One,” he said quietly. “The abandoned friendships. I regret not staying in touch with all the war guys I served with.”
If Crew Chief and door gunner Chuck Zorn or any soldier who flew with the 114th Assault Helicopter Company reads this, be advised Lead Pilot and Warrant Officer Gary Klopfenstein is reaching out to you.