Like many Wyoming families, Phil McLeod’s family has a strong tradition of service to nation. Both his father and two uncles served in World War II. Growing up on the Wind River Reservation, McLeod was a full-blooded Eastern Shoshone, and his uncles taught him how to live in the field, hunt and manufacture his own gear. As a youth, he attended high school at the renowned Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, where he graduated with a mechanic’s degree. He was an active participant in rodeos, winning multiple prizes as a saddle bronc rider.
Offer he could not refuse
He never worked as a mechanic, instead at a rodeo in Fort Douglas, Utah (Salt Lake City), he received a greeting from the president of the United States that he could not turn down. Drafted in Sept. 1965, he trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, and in Nov. 1966, he arrived in the Republic of Vietnam.
Although he had never even flown in a helicopter before, in the best tradition of the U.S. Army, he was assigned to the 128th Helicopter Assault Company of the 1st Infantry Division as a helicopter gunner. He was afforded rudimentary training that was intended to include training flights, but when he “was shot at on his first training mission” his “training” was deemed to be completed.
‘Shoot into the smoke’
Over the next ten months he flew “every kind of mission” — reconnaissance, troop transportation, MEDEVACs and engaged in innumerable fights. On one mission, they found the infantrymen marking their position with smoke grenades and “fighting hand-to-hand with Charlie.” He received a terrible order from the ground commander “to shoot into the smoke.” Although “we killed seventeen friendlies, we saved our own troops.” The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army fought from extensive “tunnels and holes” and bunkers, and “Charlie was a good shot.” However, McLeod had exceptional eyesight and “could see things on the ground real easy” — a skill that enabled him to spot the enemy on the ground and successfully engage him upon numerous occasions.
He was shot down three times, the first time with a new pilot who became badly rattled, and almost shot McLeod as he set up a perimeter to protect them. It was a long 20 minutes - he “could hear Charlie talking, he was so close” – before another helicopter rescued them.
Worst day in Vietnam
His worst day came one day when he was “coming home from a good mission” and “off to the left, 300 meters down, I saw a dead tree with a huge snake hanging off it; it must have been 16-feet long.” He received permission from the pilot to “go ahead and shoot at it.” He did so, and “the snake fell down.” When he landed and contemplated what he had done, it “broke my heart to shoot at the snake just to kill it.” He had been taught by his uncles to only kill when you had to, and to “only kill what you eat.” It still bothers him to this day.
Finding some humor
Sometimes Vietnam was not always terrible and frightening; sometimes it could be amusing. At their base they lived in “hooches” with their outhouse about 50 feet away. One night, a fellow soldier had to answer the call of nature, and headed to the outhouse, flashlight in hand. A horrible scream from the outhouse shortly ensued, and the soldier furiously scrabbled on hands and knees into the hooch, his pants around his ankles, hollering about a “huge snake.” A scurry to the outhouse revealed the “huge snake” to be a baby cobra, less than a foot long. But in the dim flashlight beam, it did indeed appear to be “huge!” The “huge snake in the outhouse” was cause for barracks room humor for a long time afterward.
Vietnam’s first rodeo
One day he met a Navajo, who was also a rodeo rider. The young Navajo soldier had actually deployed to Vietnam with his rodeo spurs. McLeod made him a bull rope out of manila, and they created bull bells out of recycled artillery shells. Locating a large Brahma Bull, they led him to an alley, where they had established a rodeo corral out of trash cans. McLeod and his Navajo friend were going to hold the first, and to this date quite possibly the only, rodeo ever conducted in South Vietnam. A crowd of Vietnamese children were gathered as spectators, but unfortunately the bull proved to be so tame that it would not buck.
Missions going awry
Many times the missions did not go as planned, particularly one “top secret” mission they were dispatched on to support the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Unfortunately, somebody in the ARVNs was “in cahoots with Charlie,” and three helicopters were shot down in the ensuing debacle.
And even relatively routine missions could become anything but. One day supporting the Seabees east of Saigon, near the river, his crew observed another helicopter behaving strangely, low in the mist. Suddenly the “helicopter” accelerated out of the fog and, racing skyward, vanished. McLeod and his crew had seen an actual UFO. Invited to dine with the SeaBees, who “ate real good” the pilot approached their table, “What we saw this morning — we never saw.”
On another occasion, his Chinook was being flown by another pilot on his first mission, and the helicopter was shot up with one of the gunner being wounded. McLeod kept asking permission to return fire, but the shaken and frightened pilot kept telling him, “Negative, negative fire.” Finally, McLeod “shot anyway” and his accurate and deadly gunfire “saved the ship.” The pilot later thanked McLeod for taking the initiative.
While he was in Vietnam, his combat aviation battalion was assigned the first double rotor CH-47A helicopter, an extremely large and slow helicopter that proved to be a “bullet magnet.” A new unit, the 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company, was formed to fly the Chinooks, and Specialist McLeod was assigned to the new helicopters. McLeod hated flying in them; he much preferred the faster and more nimble Huey. He was assigned to man the machine gun on the back ramp of the Chinook, for “Charlie soon discovered he could shoot at the helicopter from the rear.” He ended up being shot down twice in the Chinooks.
On September 5, 1967, his helicopter was riddled, and he was shot twice in the legs. Although severely wounded, McLeod kept fighting, and his accurate and deadly gunnery saved the helicopter. His fellow door gunner was “shot in the stomach and went into shock.” Although badly wounded himself, McLeod rendered first aid to his fellow gunner and “he survived.”
Specialist Philbert McLeod would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his gallantry. He was so badly wounded that he had to be evacuated to Japan for treatment, and finally was discharged for disability from Fitzsimons Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.
Returning to the rodeo
McLeod refused to let his damaged legs prevent him from competing in rodeo, and had a saddle custom made for him that was “NFR legal.” He competed in rodeos for seven years, and then worked for the Bureau of Land Management as an oil and gas inspector for 19 years. He continuously suffered with leg problems; some days he would end with his legs so badly swollen that he had to return home and lie down for the rest of the night, until the swelling went down. When he could no longer spend an entire day in the oilfields standing on his feet, he retired from the BLM.
Now an Eastern Shoshone Tribal elder, and a proud Vietnam veteran, Philbert McLeod continues to serve both his nations.
Editor’s note: Philbert McLeod passed away January 15, 2016, in Casper.