Vergennes man kept Army choppers flying in Vietnam
VERGENNES — When Vergennes native and city resident Ralph “Sonny” Torrey enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 at the age of 19 he had a good reason.
“It was because of my father. My father was an infantry soldier in World War II in the Philippines, and he saw a lot of action. He was a very good soldier, a decorated soldier,” Torrey said. “I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to make him proud.”
Torrey has spent 46 years as a carpenter in the Champlain Valley since leaving the military, a career that has included owning his own business with partners, spending three years on a crew restoring the steamship Ticonderoga at the Shelburne Museum, and most recently doing finish work for Goose Creek Builders.
In between enlisting and that civilian success, his military career probably did make his dad proud: Torrey saw 2,000 combat hours during about two years of service as a helicopter crew chief and gunner in the Vietnam War, mostly stationed at the Long Binh base near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.
Torrey said his father, Ralph Torrey, and he never talked with his son about it before he died in 2000, but supported him when he re-enlisted for a second tour of duty with the 120th Aviation Company’s 30th Platoon.
“I know he was proud of me,” Torrey said. “He never actually said the words. But I know he was.”
EARLY ARMY DAYS
Torrey signed up late in 1968 and began his basic training at New Jersey’s Fort Dix that December. He trained hard, both there and at his next stop, the School of Transportation in Fort Huestis, Va., something that he said paid off later.
“I took it very seriously,” Sonny Torrey said. “I think that kept me alive, because I knew instinctively what I had to do at any given moment.”
The School of Transportation was in fact an aviation school. Torrey’s enlistment test scores were good enough to allow him to choose any field within the Army, and he had always been interested in flying.
“It was just something I wanted to do, or at least something I wanted to do for the military aspect of my life, at least, and there were lots of opportunities for that in Vietnam,” he said.
When he completed training as a helicopter crew chief Torrey could have been assigned to either Germany or Vietnam. Unlike many of his peers in that era, Torrey hoped for Southeast Asia and the front lines.
“I thought if it (combat duty) was good enough for dad, it was good enough for me, to do what I was trained to do rather than pretend to do it at some safe location,” he said.
For about six months at Long Binh he worked as a helicopter mechanic. Then the mechanics were asked if any wanted to fly with the 30th Platoon. Torrey raised his hand.
“There were safer platoons to fly in,” he said. “But I’m really glad I made that choice.”
Torrey spent most of the first part of those 21 months as the crew chief of a gunship. He had two main jobs, both involving keeping the helicopter in the air.
Torrey’s first duty was mechanical.
“My primary responsibility as a crew chief is to make sure that ship is flyable,” he said. “And the insurance they had was I had to fly on that helicopter every time it left the ground.”
The second? In flight Torrey carried an M-60 machine gun. Helicopters made what they called “gun runs” in tandem. The first would approach a target and the pilot would fire rockets and mounted guns — each of which fired 4,000 rounds a minute. Torrey and the ship’s gunner would then lay down covering fire when the ship veered off and be vulnerable until its teammate made its run.
“The gunner and crew chief would have to turn and fire back toward the rear and hopefully keep (the enemies’) heads down long enough for that wing ship to come in and make his gun run,” he said, estimating he might have had to do so around 100 times.
In his second tour of duty Torrey received a new assignment: He worked on helicopter “light ships” equipped with large searchlights that patrolled the Long Binh area for enemy infiltration. Again, he operated a machine gun.
Typically, his aircraft would carry American and Vietnamese officers and a Vietnamese radio officer to coordinate with friendly patrols and made three or four two-hour runs a night over different sectors. Circling over them were gunships that they could call in if necessary.
“We would fly around at low level, maybe at 40 knots 100 feet off the ground, looking for trouble,” he said.
Two of three times a week they would find it.
“Most of the time we would find nothing. Some of the time we’d find plenty. If we found movement, we’d determine that it wasn’t friendlies,” Torrey said.
“We would get permission to fire on what we saw, the movement. If return fire was received to the extent we couldn’t handle it with just that one helicopter we had two gunships circling us at 500 feet constantly, with rockets and mini-guns and machine guns. If we got into enough trouble that we couldn’t handle it with the light ship we would pop up and put the light on our target, and the gun ships would come in and do gun runs on the area and pretty much devastate it.”
After hours of flying in circles doing nothing Torrey said they didn’t always call the gunships right away.
“We would wait until we were really in trouble before we would allow the gunships to come in because the excitement was there. I know that probably sounds crazy, but it’s a funny thing how war affects a young man’s mind and his ability to do things he never thought he could,” Torrey said. “Growing up I was one of the most passive people around. I don’t think I was ever in a fistfight in my life. I didn’t look for trouble.”
Torrey credits his training for keeping him focused on the task at hand during combat, as well as the sense of being “bulletproof” that comes with being young. He also notes the 30th Platoon, while it suffered casualties, never lost a man during his service — although two of his Vergennes Union High School classmates, including one close friend, lost their lives elsewhere in the Vietnam War.
“I’m going to say something that sounds insane, but I don’t think I ever experienced fear in the moment. Never. Being shot at and shooting back and doing what we did, I just never was scared,” he said. “Although after missions there were times my knees got a little weak when I thought about what we just did.”
Of course, despite the best efforts of many in the armed services, the Vietnam War, as it grew increasingly unpopular on the home front, turned out not to be a successful American venture.
“We came in second,” Torrey said. “It didn’t end as well as we would have hoped, we who were actually doing the work. But I think it was almost actually predetermined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and upper management that we would not win that war. That’s my opinion. I don’t think we lost that war. The war was lost in Washington.”
Possibly those in charge on the American side underestimated the opposition, but not Torrey.
“I have a great respect for the tenacity of the Vietnamese people. They didn’t have helicopters. They didn’t have air support. They were ground forces, and they were extremely dedicated soldiers,” he said. “We were up against a pretty formidable enemy in our missions. We did all that we could do.”
Despite also the fact that American veterans of the Vietnam War were not honored in the same way as returning veterans of earlier conflicts, Torrey does not second-guess his decision to do his duty.
“There were no ticker-tape parades. The World War II veterans, and I don’t want to take anything away from them, they came home heroes and treated as such. The Vietnam veterans, not so much,” he said. “I did what I honestly believed in at the time. And if I were asked to do it again, I’d do it with a better understanding of what I agreed to than when I did it.”
Torrey and his father rarely discussed their war experiences.
“He wouldn’t talk about the ravages of war. He would answer questions, but he wouldn’t initiate conversations about it,” Torrey said. “I think that was pretty typical of many World War veterans, too. They didn’t grandstand. They just did what they needed to do and went on with their lives.”
But Sonny Torrey believes there is value in discussing those experiences.
“I think talking about it is therapeutic in a lot of ways. It does get it out. You do get a chance to hear yourself say your thoughts rather than holding them inside and wondering how you really feel. Sometimes it’s helpful to see someone’s reaction to what you’re saying and thinking,” he said.
Torrey remains in contact with members of his platoon and has attended a half-dozen reunions over the years.
“The bond that develops is remarkable. When you can honestly put your life in someone’s hands and know they will do everything in their power to make sure you survive, and that’s tested, that develops a closeness, a bond that you just can’t break,” he said. “I refer to the people I served with as my brothers. I would do anything for any of them.”
And he appreciates it when someone notices his Vietnam veteran hat and says thanks.
“It’s maybe just a validation for doing something you should have done, and that people appreciate it. I don’t think anyone is out there looking to be glorified or put on a pedestal, but being thanked for my service means something to me. It really does.” Torrey said. “I just think it’s great that people aren’t afraid to come up and shake your hand and say thank you.”
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