By J.V. Houlihan Jr.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” (“It is a sweet thing to lay down one’s life for one’s country.”)
“I want you all to close your eyes now, and picture 8 people who are near and dear to you, people that you love,” said Air Cavalry Scout helicopter pilot, Tom Suprock. He said these words to a class of my students several years ago. Tom came and spoke to my English class about his experience as a Scout pilot in Vietnam. He readily accepted the invitation. Everyone did as he instructed, and closed his eyes. Later, we would find the why of this exercise.
“At age nineteen I was drafted into the Armed Forces, and was asked whether I wanted to walk through the jungle, or fly over it. I chose to fly over the jungles of Vietnam,” he said. “I was sent to Fort Walters in Texas for flight training, and then on to Fort Rucker, Alabama, to begin my training as an Air Cav Scout pilot.” Suprock was taught to fly an OH-6A Cayuse Army helicopter, a.k.a. a Loach. “These aircraft were used for armed recon missions, and we basically went out looking to pick a fight,” he said. “We’d fly low looking for footprints, clothing, trails, rat traps (the Viet Cong ate rats) and any other signs of the enemy. When we found him we called in the Cobra Gunships to do what they needed to do.”
Tom Suprock is an intense man. He stands 6’5’, and strikes an imposing figure. He walks with a limp. He talks with an assertive yet humble cadence. As a Scout pilot, he was shot down 9 times. He was wounded several times. Suprock was awarded twenty-four Medals for Valor: The Distinguished Flying Cross, The Purple Heart, The Air Medal, The Vietnam Cross for Gallantry, The Rhode Island Cross, and many others. According to Webster, Valor is defined as: strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness: personal bravery. “The Medals don’t mean anything,” he said, “and Combat Veterans will never refer to themselves as heroes, in fact, they dislike the term.” Suprock says the real heroes are his brothers he lost in Vietnam. “I got lucky,” he said. “I got to come home.”
“Until you squeeze a trigger to try to kill someone before he tries to kill you, you don’t know what combat is and nothing can prepare you for that,” he says. Suprock spoke of finding out things deep down in yourself you never knew about until faced combat. “I came out of the sky in the front seat of a Cobra with the left side of the aircraft on fire and we were falling to the ground like a streamline manhole cover, right toward the people who shot us down, but we kept going and we fought.” Suprock talks of fighting for his “brothers,” in combat.
Suprock’s Loach or LOH, which is an acronym for a Light Observation Helicopter, was introduced in 1966. It was used for reconnaissance, escort and attack missions. It carried a pilot and an observer. It had a mini gun which was capable of firing four thousand rounds per minute—it also carried an M-60 machine gun—with 3 full magazines— which hung from a bungee cord at the door of the aircraft. Suprock also kept a 45 between his legs—for protection of his groin— during missions, and he had a Thompson machine gun attached to his leg. “If I had to jump out of a downed aircraft the weapon came with me so I could continue to fight,” he said. This was the type of helicopter that Suprock was severely injured in from enemy ground fire. He was shot out of the sky, and sustained injuries that he deals with—still. It was war on wars terms.
“During the Vietnam War, helicopter pilots had to be very aware of their altitude because the enemy was capable of shooting an aircraft out of the sky with small arms’ fire,” said Suprock , “once when returning to our base from a mission, I noticed a Huey (troop transport aircraft) heading in the opposite direction, and I saw that he was flying too low—not good.” he said. The Huey was flying below the Army standard of fifteen hundred feet, and was in range of ground fire. “They were shot down because of their low altitude,” he said, “the Huey crashed in a rice paddy and the enemy was leaving the tree line to get to the aircraft.” Suprock changed course and flew his Loach to the crash site. “I landed and we stripped off the mini gun and ammo to reduce weight as eight soldiers spilled out of the Huey and ran toward my aircraft,” he said. Due to the weight limitations of the Loach, Suprock would only be able to take 5 of the 8 men. “I had to make my decision based on the estimated weight of each man,” he said. Suprock pointed at the men he could take, and the looks on the faces of the men he had to leave behind haunt him to this very day. “I see those men every night I go to sleep.” As the enemy was leaving the tree line and now heading toward the downed Huey, Suprock could not do a vertical take-off. The Loach was so heavily laden with men inside and hanging outside the aircraft, he had to do a running take off and skimmed the top of the rice field until he could get enough lift and get the aircraft into the air and out of range. “We got back to our base. It was just another day’s work,” he said.
As stated earlier, Tom Suprock does not consider himself a hero. He is a Combat Veteran who was lucky enough to come home. Suprock was chosen to represent the State of Rhode Island’s Veterans at the groundbreaking ceremony for Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D C. Tom Suprock came and spoke to a group of students about his experience as a warrior who did his duty to the best of his ability, and for his brothers who are now names on a wall in our nation’s Capital. Finally, today Tom Suprock still does whatever he can to help Combat Veterans—these men of Valor have a powerful bond.