“It Was Our Airplane; We Let The Pilots Use It”: A Crew Chief With The Gray Tigers In Vietnam

William R. Upton


Bill Upton was born in Oklahoma in 1945. He grew up with two brothers and two sisters. In 1949, the family moved to Albany, Oregon, where his dad worked as a laborer at a lumber mill and at a gas station. When Bill was 16 he began working at the gas station to help support the family. He dropped out of high school at 17 and decided to join the Army. He trained at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, and Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, as a combat engineer. He enjoyed learning about demolitions and building pontoon bridges. His first assignment was in South Korea at Tongo-Ri, less than five miles from the DMZ, where he worked in a supply room and POL (Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants) dump. His unit was responsible for building roads and pontoon bridges. He reenlisted for Airplane Mechanic School and returned to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, with a follow-on assignment at Ft. Benning for the Caribou Training Course. While stationed at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam, feeling it was his patriotic duty. He first had to complete SERE school, noting that his prior engineer training really paid off. In December 1965 his unit shipped out, flying 16 planes (CV-2B de Havilland Caribou) from Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, to Vung Tau, Vietnam, by way of Travis Air Force Base, Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam, and the Philippines, all at 230 miles per hour. They followed Bob Hope’s plane across the Pacific, but unfortunately, Bill missed the show. His unit, the 57th Aviation Company “Gray Tigers,” was stationed in Vung Tau, a resort town that was serving as a base for an Australian unit. A typical day involved flying resupply missions back and forth to Saigon, but there were plenty of other missions too. He remembers transporting troops once or twice a week, taking fresh Soldiers out and bringing “rough” Soldiers back. His crew did anything necessary to save lives. He describes several interesting missions, including a tricky landing in cross winds at Go Cong. Occasionally his plane was shot at, and after one flight he counted 13 bullet holes in the aircraft. Once, his pilot let him take the controls for a take-off flying from Qui Nhon to An Khe. In 1967, the Caribou were transferred to the Air Force, and it hurt the Army crews to have to give up their planes and train the Air Force pilots and crew. When he returned from Vietnam, Bill became a Huey Mechanic before leaving the service in 1968. He worked at a machine shop for a while before using the GI Bill to attend college. In 2004, he published a memoir, “Pizza and Mortars: Ba-Muoi-Ba & Body Bags,” chronicling his experiences in Vietnam. In this interview, Bill talks about his childhood, his time in the Army (including service in Korea and Vietnam), and his life after the military. He recalls repairing an oil leak on his plane when his unit was alerted for the Dominican Republic. He cut his finger on a safety wire and the Battalion Commander helped bandage his injury. He reflects on his favorite missions (flying Donut Dollies around Vietnam and making booze runs to Saigon) and the missions he did not like (flying those who were killed in action and transporting barrels of Agent Orange). He describes receiving counseling for Post Traumatic Stress, and how talking with other veterans helped him. He shares how his impression of his service in Vietnam has changed over time. At the end of the interview, he states, “The Army gave me something in my life.” Stay tuned at the end of the segment for a guest appearance by his grandson, a West Point Cadet.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Teamwork Camaraderie War in the Air Military Techniques Returning from War Writing the Soldier's Life
interviewer David Siry
date 22 November 2022


name William R. Upton
service Combat Engineer / Aviation Mechanic
unit HHC, 8th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division; 57th Aviation Company
service dates 1963 1968