Vietnam veterans are on the minds of many following the recent passing of Sen. John McCain, and for former Marine Captain Allyn Hinton, this event conjured up some unique memories.
“John McCain was flying A4s off an aircraft carrier doing bombing missions over North Vietnam when he was shot down, captured and a POW for five and a half years,” Hinton recalled on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “His father was the commander of all naval forces in the Pacific, and so he was quite a prize to the North Vietnamese …”
In a conversation between Hinton and STLPR reporter Mary Leonard, he shared stories of war and camaraderie amid his experience as a helicopter pilot from 1968 until 1980. Hinton served in Vietnam and again in Desert Storm when his reserve unit was called upon.
“They tried to use [McCain] as a bargaining chip,” Hinton said. “They offered to send him home early, and of course, he saw it as a propaganda thing, and he said, ‘No, I’ll go home in the order in which I was captured – I’m not going to desert my friends.’ And that right there tells me all I need to know about his character.”
Among Hinton’s recollections is a time when he was chatting with another former Marine, St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan. During their exchange, Hinton realized their paths had crossed many years prior when serving in Vietnam.
“We were there at the same time, but didn’t know it,” Hinton said.
While based at Marble Mountain in Vietnam, Hinton flew helicopters to support the people in combat at ground level. He disclosed the meaning of a phrase used among his fellow veterans: “pop-a-smoke.”
“When you’re out there supporting the guys on the ground, you give them a call on your FM radio and try to locate where they’re at, so a guy on the ground will give you directions if you ask him, ‘You see any helicopters in the area?,’ and he’ll probably come back and say, ‘Yeah you’re down here at my three-o-clock,’” Hinton explained. “So you look out your right window and you got a general idea of where he’s at, and then we’d ask them to pop a smoke grenade. You know, it’s just like a regular grenade except it doesn’t blow up. It’ll be either yellow, or red or green smoke would come out of it. And it was just a way for the air crew to locate the people on the ground we were supporting …”
Leonard made note that Hinton recalled his memories of war very nonchalantly, making it seem as though he was never afraid.
“I mean I knew what I signed up for,” Hinton said frankly. “By the time I got to Vietnam, I was 27 years old. It wasn’t like I was some young kid that just got drafted in and really didn’t wanna be there.”
Next week, many more war stories will be rehashed as the USMC/Combat Helicopter & Tiltrotor Association gathers for its biennial reunion, and the first in the St. Louis area.
“The only requirement to join is you had to serve in a Marine helicopter unit somewhere in a combat zone somewhere in the world, anytime, and remember,” Hinton said.
What: USMC/Combat Helicopter & Tiltrotor Association Pop-A-Smoke Reunion
When: Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018 through Friday, Sept. 7, 2018
Where: Sheraton Westport Chalet Hotel St. Louis (191 W. Port Plaza Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.