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Morning Sun
  • PATRICK'S PEOPLE: "Red" Cummings recalls Vietnam War service

  • It can be hard to recognize a hero who’s come home from war. Many do their best to blend in with everybody else and lead normal lives.


    John “Red” Cummings, Arma, is one of those. He was a member of Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three (HAL-3), more commonly known as the Seawolves, the most successful and most decorated Navy squadron during the Vietnam War.

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  • It can be hard to recognize a hero who’s come home from war. Many do their best to blend in with everybody else and lead normal lives.
    John “Red” Cummings, Arma, is one of those. He was a member of Helicopter Attack Light Squadron Three (HAL-3), more commonly known as the Seawolves, the most successful and most decorated Navy squadron during the Vietnam War.
    A door gunner who flew 595 combat missions and earned 28 air medals, Cummings was recognized Monday during a Veterans Day program at Northeast High School.
    “A woman who’s known me all my life came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know you’d done all that’,” he said. “I don’t talk about it very much.”
    A 1966 Arma High School graduate, Cummings entered military service on Feb. 2, 1967 and went to basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois before going on to Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. After basic training he went to an A-4 fighter jet squadron.
    “I served with my brother, Rick, until he got out in September of 1967,” Cummings said. “I was deployed for nine months on the Kitty Hawk and then it was back to California. Some of the pilots went for more training, then I was deployed to the Ticonderoga. I’d been there about six months when a guy came to our squadron and told us about the Seawolves, and it sounded interesting. I put in for a transfer, and four days later I got papers for Vietnam.”
    But, before going to Vietnam,  Cummings was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for four weeks of door gunner school. This was a position originated during the Vietnam War, when helicopters were first used in combat in large numbers.
    He said that his group had two helicopters and eight pilots. The helicopter was armed with seven rockets and seven mini guns on each side of the aircraft, plus armed gunners stationed in the open cabin doors.
    “We flew with the door open, we never shut the door,” Cummings said. “I wore a monkey belt to keep from falling out the door. We got shot at probably every day we flew.”
    Operating in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam, the  helicopters flew a standard two patrols each day, but Cummings said they were also scrambled in support of SEALS and Special Operations.
    He has great respect and admiration for those who found on the ground in South Vietnam.
    “I don’t know how the SEALS and the Special Forces did it,” he said. “We saw bad enough, but not what they did. They were on the ground and we supported them, and they loved us to death.”
    The men of HAL-3 earned that affection.
    Page 2 of 2 - In all, HAL-3 flew over 130,000 hours of combat and logistical support, as well as 1,530 medical evacuations, and inflicted several thousand casualties on enemy forces. It earned six Presidential Unit Citations, seven Navy Unit Commendations, one Meritorious Unit Commendation and a Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Commendation.
    Cummings personally earned a National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal Korean, Vietnam Service Medal with one silver and one bronze star, Korean Defense Service Medal, Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon with one bronze star, Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Meritorious Unit Citation Gallantry Cross Medal color with palm and Republic of Vietnam Unit Citation (civil actions medal first class color with palm).
    After serving three tours of duty in Vietnam, Cummings was honorably discharged on Sept. 5, 1970.
    “Ten days later, on Sept. 15, one of my best buddies and the best pilot I ever flew with were killed,” he said.
    Cummings and the others returning were not hailed as heroes.
    “We never got our parades,” he said. “We were spit on and called baby killers. For a long time a lot of the guys never talked about Vietnam.”
    HAL-3 was disestablished in March 1972 in South Vietnam, but that’s not the end of its story.
    “Now we have reunions every two years, and we find more and more guys every year,” Cummings said. “We went to a reunion in September at Portland, Ore., and the next one will be in 2014 in Dallas.”
    There’s also a new squadron, Sea Combat Squadron 84, who call themselves the Red Wolves.
    “They’re doing their deal  in Iraq,” he said. “They come to all our reunions and they make the new guys learn the history of the Seawolves.”
    Now Vietnam veterans are getting some respect and appreciation for their service.
    Cummings believes the public attitude started changing at the time of Desert Storm, and he’s glad, not only for himself and his buddies, but for those now serving in the war against terror.
    “I’m so glad to see the ones serving today get the appreciation they deserve,” Cummings said. “I’m proud of every one of them who serves.”
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