CONYERS — Arriving ‘in-country’ during the infamous communist Tet Offensive of February 1968, Vince Przybyszewski experienced the complexity of the war called Vietnam. "My first stop was Vung Tau in the Mekong Delta. The guys were having a barbeque during operations,” he said. "I was handed a plate of chicken and a cold beer at the same time a damaged Huey gunship force-landed with its hydraulics shot out, a door gunner with leg wounds and three fingers missing, the co-pilot shot-up and bleeding, and I’m standing there with a plate of barbequed chicken and a cold beer thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten into?'”
Przybyszewski found out soon enough. At 31 years old, he was the "old man” among 18- and 19-year old warriors. The Conyers resident studied animal husbandry at Long Island Agriculture and Technical Institute after attending high school in his native New York City. He had a change in careers when U.S. Navy recruiters visited his campus looking for aviators.
After ground school in Pensacola, Przybyszewski gained piloting skills at Saufley Field on T-34s before receiving advanced flight training on T-28s that included formation flying, instrument training and gunnery.
Sent back to Pensacola, he mastered helicopters before being assigned to icebreakers in Antarctica.
"I flew Bell H-47s choppers and the H-19s in some darn cold weather,” he said. Przybyszewski later sailed the Mediterranean and coast of Africa aboard a Marine amphibious ship. He was eventually assigned to a little-known but feisty unit designated as HAL-3 (helicopter attack, light, 3rd squadron) and better known as the Seawolves.
Sent to Vinh Long, Przybyszewski navigated a Huey gunship above the murky waters and Communist controlled villages of the Mekong Delta. "We always flew in pairs,” he explained. "We covered each other.” Mostly flying at treetop level during combat, the Seawolves attacked and destroyed enemy sampans and ammo-laded vessels, implanted and extracted Navy Seals, coordinated close support air strikes with South Vietnamese advisors, and dodged enemy fire.
"We took rounds through our overhead panels on occasion,” Przybyszewski said. "But luckily none of my crew was ever hit.”
As lead pilot, Przybyszewski controlled and fired 2.75 rockets from two weapons pods; the co-pilot controlled four M-60 flex-machine guns on each side of the fuselage, and two door gunners provided covering fire from two M-60s.
"The 18- and 19-year-old door gunners were my heroes,” he said. "The young men would stand exposed on the outside skids during combat to fire directly below our chopper; they were veterans in no time. Intense combat does that to you.”
Sent back to Vung Tau to fly as a maintenance test pilot, Przybyszewski took up a Huey with reported "strange noises and vibrations” when disaster struck.
"I had a full crew aboard. We were up 600 feet when the short shaft failed between the engine and rotor, meaning we lost power,” he said.
The Huey plummeted straight down. Przybyszewski recalled, "We crashed inverted (upside down). My crew came out OK, but I was pretty banged up.” Luckily a Med-evac chopper had witnessed the crash. Hospitalized within a remarkable 15 minutes, Przybyszewski suffered compressed vertebrae, facial lacerations, a broken wrist, and had rods and pins inserted into a crushed right ankle.
"Yep,” he said. "They sort of pinned me back together.” His war was over. Rehab took six months.
After his recovery Przybyszewski finished his service as a flight instructor on H-57 choppers at Ellison Field. He left the Navy in 1970 with 40 percent disability.
Reflecting on what it takes to fly into combat, Przybyszewski said, "Your training is the key, but so is the courageous heart of the pilot. You have to be willing to go in when common sense tells you not to, but you do, because your Band of Brothers is down there needing your help.”
Przybyszewski returned to college and earned a master’s degree in microbiology. Employed as a research microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, he received a commission with the uniformed Public Health Service, retiring after 30 years of active duty with the rank of commander. Now quartermaster for the Conyers VFW, he said of his duties, "I’m busy as hell sorting out problems.”
The United States Congress passed a resolution last year to honor the veterans and families of HAL-3. Disestablished in March 1972 after six years of existence, the unique squadron entered naval aviation history.
The 3,000 HAL-3 veterans lost 44 aviators; earned 156 Purple Hearts, 31 Silver Stars, five Navy Crosses, 101 Bronze Stars, 219 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and several other commendations that feasibly made it the most decorated Navy squadron during the Vietnam War.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran’s Story,” a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.