Steve Bookout had a varied flying career in South Vietnam from flying SOG, Phoenix, PRU, Marine Snipers as well as General Westmoreland who became a life long friend. He is also a good friend of John McGovern who we have also done an interview with. Steve also features in a new film about the Razorback Gunship Platoon. You can find more information here.
He also had a cousin who ran recon with SOG and paid the ultimate price being KIA in 1970. You can read about Charles Bookout at the end of this interview.
"My Lightship's business end. Jan,1970"
Modern Forces: Can you give us some background on your military career?
Steve Bookout: My enlisted service was quite checkered, but you be the judge. Just after graduating from High School, an Army recruiting post card was found affixed on the inside of an old copy of the Saturday Evening Post. It was filled it out and scribbled a note that said "I want to be an infantryman", plain and simple. Signed it and popped it into the mail Wednesday afternoon. The next Monday evening, my Dad answered a knock at the door. Low and behold, you'll never guess who was standing outside! Three stripes up and two rockers down.
The Army recruiter took me to Ft. Des Moines, Iowa and got me signed up. Traveled to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training. Turns out that there were too many enlistees at "Ft. Lost In The Woods". So after about a week, some of us were sent to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky for our training. My first duty station was atop Mt. Tamalpias across the bay from the Presidio of San Francisco. No infantry up here. I became a radar man for an ARADMAC missile battery. I had been bamboozled! In order to get a job closer to home, I traded duty stations with another boy from Iowa who had the same job as me, but at another Post. Went to Olathe Naval Air Station in Kansas to another Nike-Herc battery. Radarman again? Not this time. Switch board operator! Needless to say, disillusionment was setting in with my military career to date. After one year, I re-upped for 6 years to get the duty assignment/Post I thought I needed. Went to Ft. Knox and became a tanker....for 3 days. Turned out that bigger and better things were yet in store as my next job was as a Drill Instructor for basic trainees. Was I being punished for bad karma or something? The war was stepping up, men were being sent overseas and man power within the Stateside military was at a premium. Nine months into pushing troops, yours truly was sent a mile away to become an MP. Oh woe was me!
That was the last straw. I applied for rotary wing flight school, got accepted as a Warrant Officer Candidate, and graduated with Class 69-9. Upon obtaining our Warrants, we were given a "dream sheet" to fill out. We had to list our three most desirable duty stations. Almost every swinging dick's first choice was Germany. A few put in for Hunter-Stewart AFB for advanced aircraft training (Cobras) or fixed wing. The form had be filled out and submitted, but I could read the writing on the wall and so filled out; Viet Nam. Viet Nam. Viet Nam. Lo and behold! Uncle Sam finally took pity and granted my request.
"Here is another shot of my favorite chopper, our light ship. You can see my red Razorback hog on the radio compartment door. Look closely, just below the tail pipe, and you'll see a red star painted on a small metal patch. That's how we indicated enemy hits on our birds. Old 437 had taken so many hits that when the Razorbacks stood down and were disbanded, the Vietnamese refused to accept her into their air force. She was sent back home, rebuilt, flew for a few more years and then was sold to Columbia where she's still kicking butt. I loved this bird. As soon as I'd strap in, she would no longer exist because she would transform into an extension of my body. If there were Geniis and I had three wishes, she'd be wish #1."
Modern Forces: How did you come to be involved with SOG?
Steve Bookout: My first duty assignment was with Charlie Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division then located in I Corps. This was in 1969. If John Wayne would have made a movie about a helicopter company, he would have portrayed the Charlie Co. CO.
My call sign was Phoenix 62. Charlie Co. flew ash & trash, combat assaults, supported ARVNs and Special Forces. We also "jumped the fence" on a regular basis into Laos and once in a while, North Viet Nam.
My first mission came the next day after signing in at the company. A large Special Forces team was in hot contact about nine miles into Laos. I was grabbed to fly co-pilot as everyone else was out flying. Upon arrival, it looked like some photograph of the Argonne Forrest in WWI. The LZ was at the edge of a cliff, trees laying down, shattered into grotesque shapes, no leaves at all, and smoke rising here and there. We were required to hover down thru the remains of trees still standing. This required us to swing the tail rotor one way or the other several times to avoid striking limbs and branches. Did I say Hot? Crikey, I was not prepared for what went on in such a short span of time and this was only my second day with Phoenix!
NVA were at the edge of the woods running towards us like demons and firing AKs. The SF operatives were throwing their dead and wounded aboard, and we punctured the belly of the Huey with a stump without getting the skids on the ground. Even though all our weapons were working overtime, the PAVN kept coming. (I was no help because there were only six rounds for my .38.) We attempted to bring her up, but the ship was overloaded. Every unessential thing, helmets, packs, chicken plates, cans of oil, and etc. were tossed overboard trying to lighten her. Slowly we arose. I had beeped the engine up to MAX. RPM, but it started to decay as did rotor rpm about half way out of the hover hole. Rounds had hit our bird in several places and the temperature gauges started to climb. Our main rotor blades chopped wood and a pretty good vibration had set in before we cleared the twenty foot trunks. When we finally cleared the tops, we pedal turned, dropped our nose over the cliff and took a roller coaster ride down the mountain side rebuilding rpms and began our run towards the A Shau valley and home. Both of us pilots had sweat rings in our armpits, nerves were really frayed, temps still climbing, the rotor vibrations getting worse, and the smell of the dead were making the idea of getting back home seem remote. We shut down at the surg hospital at Camp Evans and found about 3 feet of each main rotor blade missing, the transmission had taken took a hit, the engine two and I was thinking this had been a hell of an initiation.
The company was kept very busy for the next several days. A thirty ship combat assault had just been completed one afternoon and my aircraft commander, who was also our instructor pilot, said "Mr. Bookout, you haven't had your standardization check ride and your local area orientation ride to show you the boundaries of our area of operations yet." He gave me an autorotation upon arrival at Evans and I greased her onto the runway. We were both laughing as we hovered over to the "nest", because the two rides were supposed to be the very first flights I took---well over two weeks earlier.
Once in a while some of the teams we inserted or extracted were wearing fatigues that had been painted black and I thought it odd. These men were quiet, polite, and most serious. It seemed to me that they carried all ammo and those lemon flavored "no shit" bars.
"My SPH-4 flight helmet today. The little VC flags on the back of my helmet were for personal kills, and no, they weren't flying aircraft"
Modern Forces: What was your role supporting SOG, what would be a typical mission?
Steve Bookout: I thought a lot of one of the SF Captains I flew several times. Whenever it was him that had to be extracted, there were always Oreo cookies waiting for him. He'd set back, pop one into his mouth, close his eyes, and smile while it dissolved in his mouth. On another mission, he was one of two that were able to climb aboard under heavy fire.
Another bird had inserted them into a LZ and got shot up in the process. The insertion quickly became a Romeo Fox-trot. The LZ was located in the midst of an NVA battalion. We picked up his radio call and responded since we were about six miles away from his location. It was going to be hot since tracers were much in evidence, but the unwritten law of us Phoenix was: If Americans were on the ground, Phoenix would get them out". While hovering over the pick up point, I realized that time had slowed down. I could see everything crystal clear, had plenty of time to make decisions, controlling the Huey was effortless, there was no sound or enemy bullets striking us. I was unaware of anything except control of that helicopter. The entire mission seemed to drag on and on. All the while and back in real time, the crewchief and gunner pulled them up on strings, but some were shot by NVA as they climbed. Our entry, extraction and exit took perhaps a minute, but I had been oblivious. The Captain said not a word. Leaned back and chewed the entire bag of Oreos with narrowed eyes and the sternest face I'd ever seen.
When we'd go to Quang Tri for a SOG mission (you can read about us in 'The Price Of Exit' by Tom Marshall, another Phoenix) we'd be told that if we went down, we'd be listed as missing in action-presumed dead. No one was coming after us and we accepted it as it was our job. Sometimes we weren't allowed a map to get us to the drop off point and we'd have to rely on one of our pax to guide us over the spot. We knew how to get home, though. Once we made the insertion, Marshal Dillon's sage advise to "get out of Dodge" was quickly followed.
During my time flying SOG related missions, I never saw anyone wearing the familiar SOG patch. In fact, no one on a mission was wearing anything that would ID them. I do remember seeing SOG insignia painted on signs at different bases, such as advertising a HQs or club. Some of the pilots would be given a patch on occasion by a grateful sergeant who's butt had been pulled out in the nick of time.
"Insertion somewhere in Laos. SW Lang Vei?" Photographer: Ted Olsen, Phoenix 65
Modern Forces: What other units did you work with in Vietnam?
Steve Bookout: It was unusual, but we did fly resupply to teams whose mission was not completed yet. The two times I did, the teams were in fire fights down below the trees and thus were unseen from above. They would direct us over their location as best they could by radio and we would hover down into the tree tops until the rotor blades were just missing the tops by mere inches. Then we'd kick the supplies out. I have to chuckle here because once, the team's radio operator said we dropped a box of food & ammo on a Charlie by accident while he was crouching under the tree that we were hovering in. They quickly grabbed him for interrogation. We often drew substantial amounts of hostile fire while doing this, but the triple canopy jungle made it about as hard for the NVA to see us as it was for us to see them. A round going through the floor of the helicopter sounded much like someone stomping on the floor with their boot heel. Both pilots are on the controls during situations like this. Another book about the Phoenix is 'CW2', by yet another Phoenix pilot, Layne Heath.
"One of our pocket patches still sewn on my helmet bag. I was also Razorback 33."
Modern Forces: Do any missions stand out in your mind?
Steve Bookout: The most terrifying SOG mission in my career required us to help relocate an entire Montangard village. We were the last bird in and we had been told that we had to lift the village chief's possesions out. No swaet, right? The SOG operative opened our cargo door and we watched as he, two other men, and the old chief pick up, cram, drag, rope, and somehow coax one very upset baby elephant in to the chopper. They finally were able to get the door closed, so off we went. All was cool for the first 5 minutes. The little elephant must have been getting really nervous because he started pacing his front legs from side to side. After about a minute of this, the entire helicopter is responding to him and not us at the controls. We were swinging back and forth like a pendlum. The begezus was being scared out of us because we were over triple canopy jungle at 2000'AGL and almost out of control, the old man was singing to the little beast trying to calm him down, and the crew was having a chat with the Man Upstairs. Then it got worse. The doors were closed to keep Dumbo in. It was hot in the closed up UH-1 D model and he stank. All eight of us stank....and then he took the biggest, greenest, runniest dump you've ever seen!! Talk about being sent to hell before being dead.......
"CCN Extraction, Laos West of Khe Sanh. That's part of the Ho Chi Minh trail down below." Photographer: Ken Mayberry, Phoenix 50
Modern Forces: Did you work with the South Vietnamese Air Forces during this period?
Steve Bookout: We occasionally flew sorties with the VNAF "King Bees". There were some very brave pilots who would follow us into Hell and these guys had our utmost respect. There were a few pilots though, whom we'd joke about because whenever they flew with us, you always knew where the Laotioan border was without looking at a map. They'd fly close to the border and turn back.
"One style of the Phoenix's pocket patch"
Modern Forces: Do you have any other stories or events you want to share with our readers?
Steve Bookout: During my second trip across the pond saw me assigned to the 1st platoon "Snoopys" of the 120th Assault Helicopter Company, the "Deans". I flew VIPs for a while and during that time, I flew General Westmoreland into Cambodia three times in one week. This was especially memorable for me as he was next to God in my eyes. I knew he was a helicopter pilot, too, so on the flight back to Saigon on the first trip, I asked if he wanted to fly. YES! was his very quick reply. I had my copilot remove his helmet and crawl in the back. Westy put it on, strapped in, and took over the controls. Did the same thing a couple of days later and on each occasion, his face showed an ear to ear grin. On the third mission, he brought along his own helmet and flight gloves. We struck up a friendship & corresponded with each other until his death. After the war, he told me that he had asked for that "same old 101st pilot who flew me before" for those second and third missions. He sent me a copy of his book and later a special portrait of him in his jungle fatigues which he addressed to me along with a couple of thoughts. I still have the letters and his portrait is hanging over my computer. I moved on to flying OH-58A scouts in the 120th's "Pack Rats" 4th platoon.and later that year into the "Razorback Armed Helicopters" which was at that time and until they stood down, the 3rd platoon. Flying down South in III Corps was a lot different than flying up North, but just a hairy on occasion. I was flying B model Huey gunships that had Charlie model tail booms on them. After about a month flying guns, I took over the platoon's "lightship", "firefly", or "night hawk" bird . It's mission was to search areas flying from 40 to 100 feet above the terrain at night. All navigation, landing, and search lights were illuminated during these missions and the airspeed seldom got over 40 knots. We also had a cluster light comprised of 6 or 7 DC-3/C47 landing lights which was turned on and utilized as a search light. Off to the side was a 7.62 mini gun operated from the back seat. Other types of missions I flew during this time was inserting and extracting the 3rd Marine snipers. They carried their own special rifles, and were always by themselves when reporting into us. We'd take them out first thing one night and pick them back up on the third night. Not always in the same spot. I also flew PRUs. Probably the meanest, dirtiest, cut-throat bunch of guys I ever met. We could trade for any type of enemy weapon we desired. They got paid by the pair of ears brought in and not much at that, so we used food & clothing as well as money for our transactions. I'd fly them into the Rung Sat, drop them off and them extract them a week later, sometimes sooner if they were on a "snatch" mission. These guys wore whatever clothing/uniforms they had. Nothing was standard. They may have looked like rag bins, but they were kick-ass troops.
While flying these missions, I always carried my Smith .38 in a quick draw holster. In my survival vest was a US stainless steel pocket knife, an Air Force survival knife, and my sword handled hatchet/short machete. I picked up an AKS and used that as a back up for a while. Traded it off to a fellow who rode shot gun on convoys for a .45 Tommy gun. That thing was heavy and the muzzle wanted to climb more than what was desirable, so I traded that off for an AK. That went by the wayside for a Swedish K. Great little weapon, but I had trouble getting enough 9mm ammo for it. Thought it ironic that the magazines were stamped Made In Sweden in English. Swapped that for a Car-15. It was handy & dependable and used it the most. I would tape three 50 round AK mags together after filing the locking lugs down. Then the altered magazines would then fit the Car-15, giving me beau coup fire power. I loved that little gun. Bought a violin case for it on Tu Do Street in Saigon to carry it in.
"Phoenix's CCN patch done up by Butch Doan, Phoenix 64"
Charles Frankline Bookout: CCN/MACV-SOG, 5th Special Forces Group:
KIA: 04 July 1970
Steve's cousin was a recon man who paid the ultimate price, this is his listing from the Vietnam Conflict Database:
BOOKOUT, CHARLES FRANKLIN
Name: Charles Franklin Bookout
Rank/Branch: E7/US Army Special Forces
Unit: CCN/MACV-SOG, 5th Special Forces Group
Date of Birth: 01 December 1934 (Sayre OK)Home City of Record: Oklahoma City OK
Date of Loss: 04 July 1970
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 154852N 1071220E (YC362495)
Status (in 1973): Killed/Body Not Recovered
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: GroundRefno: 1647
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Source: Compiled from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S.
Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources,
interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK in 1998.
SYNOPSIS: SFC Charles F. Bookout was a squad leader assigned to MACV-SOG
(Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observation Group).
MACV-SOG was a joint service high command unconventional warfare
task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast
Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (although
it was not a Special Forces group) through Special Operations Augmentation
(SOA), which provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG.
The teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance
and interdiction which were called, depending on the time frame, "Shining
Brass" or "Prairie Fire" missions.
On the Fourth of July in 1970, SFC Bookout was conducting a reconnaissance
mission when his unit was ambushed in Laos. The team's position was near the
border of Laos and South Vietnam, south of the South Vietnam city of A Shau,
in Saravane Province, Laos.
On the first burst of fire, SFC Bookout was wounded. He was examined by one
of the squad members, and a single bullet hole was found in the left side of
his back. About 10 minutes later he stopped breathing, and no pulse could be
found. Due to the tactical situation and the intense enemy fire, the team
was instructed to move to a clearing for extraction.
SFC Bookout was left behind, because it would have slowed the progress and
endangered the lives of the rest of the team to try and carry him to safety.
It was believed that he was dead. The rest of the team was extracted safely
at about 1900 hours that day. No search teams were inserted to recover
Bookout because of impending darkness and the enemy situation.
For every insertion like SFC Charles Bookout's that was detected and
stopped, dozens of other commando teams safely slipped past NVA lines to
strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of
MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into
Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969. It was the most sustained American
campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign
soil in U.S. military history. MACV-SOG's teams earned a global reputation
as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.
The missions Bookout and others were assigned were exceedingly dangerous and
of strategic importance. The men who were put into such situations knew the
chances of their recovery if captured was slim to none. They quite naturally
assumed that their freedom would come by the end of the war. For 591
Americans, freedom did come at the end of the war. For another 2500,
however, freedom has never come.