John Wagner

As Interviewed by Stella Rae Kinard, March 14, 2017

John Wagner: In His Own Words

I looked down and here’s this helicopter with fire coming out. Here’s this other one limping off. Here’s all these tracers and everything coming out of these tree lines, and smoke, and 50 calibers banging behind my ear. It’s like the most chaotic thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s more than you can handle! It’s just frightening!

And so, we’re circling, and all of a sudden this voice comes up on the radio. It was a black marine captain. This voice says, “This is Captain Johnson.” He says, “My crew chief’s hit, my co-pilot’s hit. Vietnamese troops coming at us, looks like from the right side and the left. But I got my marines out and deployed.” Because he had picked up like 15 marines, so he got them out around the helicopter. He said, “I think I’ve got everything under control.” He says, “Y’all come back and get me when you can, you hear?” It was the coolest thing I ever saw. I mean it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life.

It took about 4 hours of bringing in jets and all this kind of stuff to finally go down and get those guys out, and the whole time this guy would come up on the radio, “This is Captain Johnson, everything's cool down here.” So I thought that was the coolest guy I had ever been around. I mean I just couldn’t believe it.

So the next day, I’m in the radio room. The radio room is where you go just before you go out on a mission. So I was sitting in the radio room, and this black marine captain comes walking in. I don’t have a mission assigned to me yet, and he looks out in the room at the different pilots sitting around. He says, “I’ve got to take a flight down to Chu Lai.” He said, “I need a co-pilot, anybody want to go with me?” There’s not a sound, not a sound. And finally I said, “Hey!” I said, “I’ll fly with you.” So we go out, we get in the helicopter, and we’re taxiing down the runway getting ready to take off. This guy turns and he looks out the window, and on the back of his helmet he’s got this tape that says, “If you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose.”

So the story was, this guy was in Vietnam for his 3rd tour. He’d been shot down more than any pilot in Vietnam. But he was just convinced that life was so bad in the United States that he didn’t care. He was just going to fly helicopters. So it turned out that the reason nobody volunteered, was this guy had been shot down more than anybody in Vietnam. Nobody wanted to fly with him! I still thought he was the coolest guy I ever saw.