Lt. Col. John Powell: Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Now Leads Tours To Pacific Battlefields

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Photo: Military Historical Tours.

Interview conducted in 2006 for Recon Magazine.

Lt. Col. Powell flew Cobra gunships and light observation helicopters in Vietnam in 1968-1969 while serving in the First Cavalry Division’s 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cav Regiment.

We interviewed Powell, while he was Pacific and Asia Operations Coordinator for Alexandria, Va.-based Military Historical Tours (www.miltours.com), about in-country Asia and Pacific tours for Vietnam and WWII veterans and related topics.

Interviewer: What’s currently a hot tour for Military Historical Tours?”

Powell: “We are offering a Secret War Tour that visits some of the locations that the CIA and clandestine forces physically lived in and operated out of during the Vietnam War. These include sites in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Sites include Udon Air Base (Thailand), the Plaines des Jarres and other areas. It’s rustic country. We basically formed the tour during a reunion in January with retired Marine Maj. Gen. Larry Taylor (a former Air America pilot).”

Interviewer: How do these combat veterans react when they go back to old battlefields they once fought on?

Powell: “It is really special when you look at their ages (the World War II veterans) and they never talked about (combat) before. They have so many wonderful and remarkable stories. One of the folks taking one tour was a bomber crew-member who flew missions over Iwo Jima. One was a Big Band singer and another was a landing craft crew-member. You meet all types of people from all branches of the service. Many people are the sons and daughters of veterans.

“It can be an emotional experience. We took a woman on a tour who had lost her brother in Vietnam and another who lost her father. One of the areas we traveled to in Vietnam was where I flew a cover bird mission. Even the old Viet Cong have their own war stories to tell.”

Interviewer: How safe are these tours? Aren’t there still a lot of mines and other unexploded ordinance in Vietnam?

Powell: “Vietnam is safer than Washington, DC. There are no guns and it is a different pace of life. If people don’t go in the next five years, they will miss the way it used to be. There are major companies such as LG cell phones coming in and other big factories. There are major clothing and sports shoe companies setting up shop in Vietnam. In the Mekong Delta, there used to be miles and miles of rice paddies—now there are fish farms that raise catfish. The Vietnamese people don’t eat much catfish, but they export it to the United States. What used to be known as Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, has 6 million people. I would say about 70 percent of the people were born after the war.

“There is still unexploded ordinance on islands such as Peleliu. You can find grenades sometimes lying on the beach. In Vietnam, there is still a lot of ordinance around the Rock Pile. So much that we take a local (explosive ordinance) expert with us. In Laos, on the Plaines des Jarres, there are bouncing Betty mines still spread out. However, we are very careful on how we handle groups.”

Interviewer: Tell us how it was to work with R. Lee Ermey?

Powell: “He’s a hoot. He is very down to earth. We went to Guam with R. Lee Ermey and his producer Rob Lihani, who is a former Air Force officer and runs a great organization. R. Lee Ermey graciously signed about 700 books on our tour. He is involved in charities such as working with the young Marine programs.”

Interviewer: What are some of your favorite places to return to?

Powell: “Our tours to the Philippines are great because so much World War II history still exists there. At Saipan, the 4th Marines landed right on beach and you can still see tanks still in the water. In Saipan, vegetation has grown back, but the evidence of war is still there.

“Saipan was a tough battle. There are a lot of things to see in and around the harbor and in Tinian. We still have supply ships that are anchored there. In Guam, our B-52s rotate out of Anderson Air Force base. There are still bunkers, relics and jungle caves. Many are sealed up. During the war, we blew the entrances and there are still dead Japanese there.”

Interviewer: What new tours are on the horizon?

Powell: “We are planning a tour to Wake Island in December with a chartered plane … that will fly out of Guam. Though remote, both Wake and Midway, which we plan to do next June, have huge historic value.”

Interviewer: Military Historical Tours continues to operate tours to Pacific and now European battlefields. See www.miltours.com.

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