Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jim White began his military career in the Marine Corps as a machine gunner and helicopter pilot in Vietnam. After earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first Marine to do so since World War II, he got the opportunity to transfer to the Army. His plan was to transfer, fly with them for a few years, and then transfer back to the Marine Corps as a commissioned officer. He liked the Army so much that he stayed there for the rest of his military career.
White earned the callsign “Sneaky White” after fleeing from military police through a minefield to get back on base.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, White explains why he went to prison, how he raised $350,000 from behind bars, and his connection to Shad Meshad, one of our previous guests.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in the first part of a two-part episode, we'll hear from Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jim White. White served in Vietnam in the Marine Corps before transferring to the Army to become a helicopter pilot, and was the first Marine to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross after World War II.
All right. My name is Jim White. Got discharged from the Army as a Chief Warrant Officer 2. I was a helicopter pilot, basically a 671 Charlie, which is a aviation maintenance officer, dual rated. Though I was dual rated, primarily, 99% of my flight time, was in helicopters. I happened to love helicopters and didn't really care about fixed wing.
So, starting my life. I was in college at Texas A&M in my third year and went home and got mad at my dad because he wouldn't buy me a new car. I came from a pretty affluent family and he wouldn't buy me a new car. So, I showed him I was going to join the military. The problem is I'm 4-F; I had polio as a kid and my legs were really messed up. And I also was born with a cleft palate, which was surgically pretty much repaired and they do a better job now. This was in the '40s.
Anyway, I tried with the Air Force, failed the physical. Tried with the Navy, failed the physical. Went to the Army recruiter and he already knew about my two failures and he ushered me out the door. My court of last resort was the Marine Corps. I went in and apparently it was the last day of the quarter and they had quarter... For the Marine Corps, they have a quota and he needed a warm body, and I was it. So, he told me what not to check on the box and whatever. And so I joined, and this was in 1960, the summer of '60. And from there, I went to bootcamp and became what they call a machine gunner, an 0331. And I did that for three and a half years, and then re-enlisted for aviation. I had a private FAA pilot's license even before I went in the military, so I wanted to go to aviation and specifically helicopters. And I went to school, and in 1963, late in the year, I was assigned to my first Marine Corps rotary wing squadron. It was H-34s and I worked on them and till 1966.
Now in that time I made a couple cruises, they call them cruises, and you go to the med. Made a med cruise. I went to couple cold weather trainings and all the way to Norway, and brutally cold. And then I made Dom Rep, the Dominican Republic Civil War, in the spring of '65. We were in the squadron at initially landed there before reinforcements could get in. And one of my jobs was to ferry out to Haiti, Port-au-Prince, the ambassador's family. And so when I got back from that cruise, there was some squadron next door and that was starting the train to go to Vietnam. And they were a CH-46A squadron. And I transferred into that squadron and stayed with them until we went to Vietnam in the fall of 1966.
What started my whole army career was that I was on a mission of putting in a recon team due west of a place called Núi Bà Đen. And we got the briefing to put this Marine recon team in. And in the briefing they said, "Look, we're going to land on this hill, and before we land, we'll go into a high hover." And my pilot was the XO, a guy named Major Corliss who retired out a Major General. And then the co-pilot was Captain Wayne Julian, and he retired out a Colonel. And so there was myself and Dave Langlois was in the aircraft with me. And they said, "Look, we're going to go into a high hover, and I want you to look outside. We're looking for wires or strings, run ropes across the LZ because there's several explosives. 100-pound bombs in there." The NVA would actually rig them up and you went in, if you hit the wire and you would then detonate the bomb and you'd destroy the aircraft. And this was usually you were about five, six feet off the ground when this happened.
So, we were also told that when we landed, we'd put the ramp down, but nobody would leave the aircraft for 10, 15 seconds just to see if it was a trap. And so we were the first aircraft, then we had seven guys, recon guys, and the second aircraft had six, and they were behind us. And we went in and landed and put the ramp down. And then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. There was a NVA machine gun at about our 2:00 position, and you'd rake the aircraft two or three times. Everybody in the aircraft was shot, except myself. To this day, I don't know why, but I didn't get hit. And I unloaded... we have .50 cals. I unloaded all of .50 rounds of my .50 cal into the machine gun nest and raked the area right in front of it. I don't remember, I've tried to remember, but according to Wayne Julian, the copilot, he watched the rounds impact and killed three or four NVA, plus the one running toward the aircraft with what looked like a satchel charge. Anyway, one of the rounds...Like I say, everybody was hit in the aircraft, some were hit pretty seriously. Dave Langlois was shot in the back and legs. The Major Corliss was shot in the arm. Wayne Julian, the copilot, was shot, round went through both legs. And so we were pretty messed up.
But one round went through the number one engine fuel tank line and it severed the line perfectly you couldn't... And it was spraying fuel throughout the aircraft, and so this is not a good thing. This has haunted me. I had to climb over wounded guys, step on them, to get to this line, and I put my hand on it and it got enough fuel to get us where the Major Corliss could get us off the ground. And we went down the hill, just going down, picking up translational lift until we could get halfway flying. I had a scarf around and I tied my scarf as best I could around this fuel line and try to keep fuel from spraying any more into the aircraft column.
And then as I looked down on the ramp, I noticed there was one Marine laying there and he was shot in the head, he was dead. A redheaded kid, I'll never forget him. And he was laying there and his pack was smoldering. There was something going on there. It was smoldering. So, I cut the pack off and I threw it out.
Now, unbeknownst to us at this time, we lost all radio communications with the rounds we took. We had 37 rounds hit the aircraft, went through the helicopter 37 different times. We lost all communications, even internal ICS communications. I couldn't talk to the pilot, he couldn't talk to me. So, the second aircraft didn't know anything went wrong, and they went in and landed behind us, sat down and let their six recon men out, and then they took off behind us. Now, they were behind us and they never saw me cut the pack, they couldn't see me cut the pack off and throw it out the back. But before the pack impacted the ground, it blew up, and so they thought we were taking air burst from the NVA. We were right on the Laotian border.
Anyway, we went into Núi Bà Đen and literally had a hard landing land and immediately shut down. And when I put the ramp down, I was probably in a good four to six inches of fuel, just I was washing in JP. I put the ramp down and it went out. And then I started pulling out the wounded and finally got everybody out, cleared the aircraft.
Now, Núi Bà Đen was a 105 battery for ARVNs. There were no Americans there, no Americans. And they were standing around smoking. I had to shoo them off. Our second aircraft came in, they shut down and they realized what's going on. And so Major Corliss, he shot in arm, he said, "We've got to go back and get those guys." So, he got in the aircraft and kicked out the copilot. And I said to him, I had everybody out in the plane shut down, and I said, "I'll go with because I know where the enemy is." And he told me no. And as they got ready to lift off, I hopped in anyhow.
I went out there and we hovered, we didn't want to land, we hovered. And I pulled in each of the six recon men and through the side door. For that, I received a Distinguished Flying Cross, which, I was the first enlisted Marine to receive it since World War II. And it was a big thing, not for me so much, but for crew chiefs. If you're a helicopter crew chief, you get air metals. And in a hot zone, you get air metal maybe with a V for valor. But the pilot would get a Distinguished Flying Cross. And for me, getting the DFC, it meant that crew chiefs could get a DFC. And it really was a big morale booster that we're on equal terms with the pilots as far as the crew went.
And the general giving me the medal was a guy named Victor Krulak, "the Brute." And Victor Krulak was a three-star general, and when he presented me the medal, he said, "What do you want to do in the Marine Corps?" And I told him I wanted to be a pilot that I had by then a commercial fixed wing license. I wanted to be a pilot. And he said, "Are you married?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, you can't be a pilot." And I said, "Well, can I be a Flying Peon?"
Now, Flying Peons in the Marine Corps and also the Navy, but specifically in Marine Corps, were enlisted pilots. And they were, in general, left over from World War II and a few from Korea. They were flying sergeants. In fact, my Sergeant Major at one time was command pilot, even though he was an enlisted man, and he had flown in World War II and Korea and subsequently got pushed into helicopters because I guess they didn't think he had the right stuff to fly jets.
Anyway, I said, "I want to be a Flying Peon." And the general sort of snickered. And he said, "We're not making those anymore and we're trying to get rid of them. But I can transfer you to the Army and they'll take you and you can fly for them." And I said, "Good, I'll do that." And the reason I wanted to do that, my game plan was, I'll go in the Army, fly with them for a couple years, then transfer back into Marine Corps as a commissioned officer and fly for the Corps, because that was my end game to be a marine aviator.
The problem was that I got in the Army and I loved it. I went through jump school, ranger school. Which, back then ranger school was three weeks. It's not the intensive training they have now. Went through jungle expert school and really loved the army. And I went on and went overseas in the summer of 1969, I went back to Nam and flew. And the first unit I flew for was in the DMZ and I was flying little Loaches, OH-6 little small aircraft, for the artillery unit there. I was also the maintenance officer, which it was very small unit, 12 aircraft, so I could wear both hats. But primarily, I flew. I had great NCOs, and they took care of most of the maintenance duties except for test flights and what have you and paperwork. So, I got to fly in the DMZ, which I was very familiar with because I had flown there with the Marines, including the Battle of Khe Sanh. I was at Khe Sanh with H&M 262 and until I got transferred out of the Marine Corps into the Army.
And then, when I was in the Army, I flew in the DMZ. And what I did when I got to the unit, they had no scout aircraft and it was an artillery unit. And we were right on the DMZ at a place called Đông Hà, which is literally three, three and half miles from north Vietnam. And that was in the DMZ, which was highly area of infiltration from the North Vietnamese. Plus, they'd put rockets and fire them from that area. It was almost like a neutral area for them. And we were not allowed to cross the DMZ in that unit, we were not allowed to cross.
So, what I did was I talked to the CO, Colonel Cartwright, into letting me put a couple mini guns on the Loaches and then doing a morning and evening VR, low level, without any guns support, just two Loaches. We'd go out there, OH-6s, and we'd look and we were primarily looking for rockets and where they would fire it at the base. But, at the same time, if we caught any NVA in the open, we had artillery at our disposal, we were an artillery unit. And so on three different occasions, I went out there and got shot up pretty bad. In the first one, it wasn't that bad, but I took three or four hits and barely went back into, quote, "safe" territory before I could land. My crew chief got some shrapnel, and that was it.
And then in November we received... This was November of '69, we received the very first, OH-58 Bell JetRangers in Vietnam, our unit did. So I immediately put two aircraft, I set up for mini guns on that. And one morning, I went out there, I'm flying and the operations officer major wanted to come with me, and I really didn't want him. I didn't want the weight, was the big thing. Helicopters, it's always about weight and I didn't want the extra 100 and 200 pounds of weight. I just wanted to go out with my crew chief behind me and as much ammo as we could carry.
But anyway, he got in the aircraft and I tried to talk him into going into high aircraft and he couldn't spot, but he wanted the low aircraft. So, we went out and we flew around and we were in North Vietnam, actually. I used to violate, go across the river, the Bến Hải River and go across and look for enemy activity. And when you're at 10, 15 feet above the ground, I can actually follow a blood trail. If you got somebody, you can follow them. This is true if true scouting.
And so I was out there and we had a pretty successful mission. We fired a bunch of artillery and we were coming back and just before we left North Vietnam, there was a small ridge line. And I went over that ridge line probably at five, seven feet, just skimming it, nap-of-the-earth. Unbeknownst to me at the time on the backside of the ridge line, which was the south side, because we were flying south, the NVA had a machine gun nest. And when I went over it, he raked us pretty bad. My crew chief got shot. He actually fell out of the aircraft, but he was on a cord, a monkey cord, that kept him from... He just hung down, even though I was doing about 40 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour. I was doing a good 50 knots. So, we were flying along and he fell out, it blew out the windshield going over my head, going out, blew out that. And I took several rounds in the instrument panel. And I ended up with 14 rounds in the aircraft. The guy in the left seat, the major, he had his M16 on his lap and that fell out, the map fell out, and he was yelling and screaming he was going to die. Which, he wasn't an aviator, he wasn't used to this and I can understand his shock.
Anyway, we went in and we barely, and I mean barely, went back to 18 surge and I landed at 18th surge on the pad. I had no radios, so I went in and landed. And my call sign was a Sneaky White, Sneaky White. And everybody knew me. And when I landed, fuel was pouring out of the aircraft and I shut down right away. I had a hysterical major on next to me. And then I was worried about my crew chief, that's all. I wasn't really worried about him. He was laying on the ground. And so then after that I got a Silver Star for that, and that was a big thing.
So, after that, I went to fly Cobras. Now, flying Cobras were Special Forces in Laos from MACV-SOG in Lao and North Vietnam. Technically, we weren't there. So, technically, you didn't get any awards, but we did, they did. They just put your location as deep in enemy-held territory in South Vietnam, though the truth was, and in either case, and you were in South Vietnam. All our missions were in Laos and North Vietnam. And these were about going in and taking fire to prevent the switch, the Hueys, that were getting the troops in or pulling them out, extracts, were using the hot ones. They called them Prairie Fire missions.
A lot of times the gunfire from the ground and AA fire was just horrific for these Hueys. Those kids would fly... And they were kids, they were 19, 20 years old. I was an old man. They would fly in and to pick up these recon men. And on one occasion, I went in and actually I ran out of rockets, we ran out of rockets. So, I just literally hovered in between an active machine gun and a Huey while he picked up the troops. And then we took the hits. And then our job is to protect the Huey. And I just went in and I was bait. I did a very slow roll in front, let them shoot at me while they get the recon team.
So, you get warrants like that, but the truth is, and I've said this and I'm quoting somebody else, but the best reward I ever got was landing after a mission and opening up the Cobra window, door, and when you open it up, have a recon man jump out of his SWCC and come running over to you and climb up and kiss you. And that was it, you saved his bacon and he loved you to death. And that was the best reward.
I got medals, like everybody else. But the big thing is a lot of guys, their bravery wasn't noted or the paperwork got lost, and this was a problem. Because a lot of guys, so many, did such heroic things and there's basically no record. And I'm very cautious about my awards because I just did my job, that's it. It could have been anybody doing it.
One of my platoon leaders, both when I was flying in the DMZ with the artillery unit and flying Cobras, was a guy named Jim Mitski, Captain Mitski. Jim Mitski was probably one of the two bravest men I ever met. The other one was Rick Freeman, Sweet Griffin. And these guys, unbelievable brave men. And many a time, and I mean this, many, many a time in Laos or North Vietnam, I saw them do acts of bravery that they got no credit for. And when I say credit, no recognition for it, it was just doing their job. And for all of us, especially that flew for SOG, doing our job, just being able to rescue somebody or help them out with our gunfire, rockets and mini guns and .40 millimeter, just to save them, that's right... and they come back and they buy you a beer and they come out with beer and give you a beer, and that says it all. That's all I needed.
And to this day when I go to Special Operations reunion and when you go there, when they see you are a Cobra pilot, "Let me buy you a beer because I owe you."That's recognition. That's all I needed.
Well, I was up in the DMZ and one night it was raining real bad, so it had to be in the monsoon season. And it was raining and we were finding these little OH-6s. We had a couple OH-23Gs, the Gs weren't for guns. But anyway, they were the last remnants of the Korean War. When we were flying up there, and I had this maintenance tech named Pfeffer, Sergeant Pfeffer, a weird guy in his own way. Never married, the Army, was his lifeblood. And he had been in the Luftwaffe at 14 years old in World War II. So, he'd been an old guy. And after the war, he befriended some Americans, they took care of him, fed him, and he came to America, joined the military. And he knew more about helicopters than anybody I ever met. And he had a good mind. He didn't have to look stuff up. He'd tell me this is the tolerance and if you go check it, he was right.
So, one night it was raining real bad and I said, "Sergeant Pfeffer," I said, "let's go down to Đông Hà," which was about a half-mile away. "And let's go down to have a few beers and go to a house of ill repute." Now, we go to the gate and it's raining sideways and the guy don't want to let us out. It was dark. And he said, "No, we're expecting trouble. You can't go." And I got my Jeep with a little trailer on it and I said, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'm the Colonel's pilot and his plane needs a new engine. I've got to go to Cửa Việt to get it so he can fly in the morning. So, you call the Colonel and tell him why I can't go." Well, this poor guy in the rain said, "Let me get the Lieutenant." The Second Lieutenant comes over after about 10, 15 minutes and we're sitting in the Jeep, wetter the dogs. And I explained it to him, I said, "You call Colonel Cartwright and tell him that he can't have his airplane for tomorrow because you don't want to let us go get it." So, he relented, his Second lieutenant, he opened the gate and we drove out and we headed up to Đông Hà.
Now the problem was, or the good thing was, that he was a smart guy. He waited for maybe 20 minutes and then called Cửa Việt to see if we made it, and of course we didn't because we stopped up the road at a house of ill repute and we were in there. And all of a sudden I was in the back room and I heard Mama-san yelling, "MPs! MPs!" And so like good guy I am, I bailed out. I went out the window and I started walking back to Đông Hà. It was lit up, the base's lit up and the lights, floodlights, shining out in the mist. So, I just walked, sloshed through the rice patties and all that by myself. All I had was a .38. And so as I got near the base, I took my flight jacket, which has an international orange on the inside, and I took it off and started waving it and telling the guys on the burn, the line, not to shoot. I said, "I'm a GI. Don't shoot, don't shoot!" And finally I went in, climbed through the concertina wire, took a while to get through that. And finally went up to the room, machine gun nest, and told the guys, two kids in there. I said, "Hey, don't say anything to anybody, but I'm not going to buy any drugs or anything, but I'll bring you a bottle of booze." So, I went up to the hooch, got a bottle of booze, gave it to them, and then went to sleep.
The next morning, I went into the mess and Colonel Cartwright was sitting there and there was a chair next to him opened. And he said, "Mr. White, come here and sit with me." And I said, "Oh, just I'm in trouble now." So, he never said a word, never said a word. So, we flew all that day. I talked to Sergeant Pfeffer and the MPs took him back. He never gave up who the officer was. He just said... but he was restricted.
And that next night, I'm in the O club and Colonel Cartwright walks in. Now, Colonel Cartwright did not drink, smoke or swear, no profanity, no smoking, didn't drink. All he ever drank, the couple times I ever saw him in the officer's club, he drank Fresca. And I used to tell him, "Colonel, Fresca's, no good for you. You need to drink scotch. The Fresca will rule your inside." And he laughed over it. Anyway, he walked in, rang the bell, got a... "I want attention, and Mr. White, come here." So, I walked up to him and he had my hat in his hand. Now, it had the wings on it, but it wasn't embroidered with my name on the back, but it had my wings on it. He said, "Mr. White, I believe this is your hat."
Now, I'm an officer and a gentleman and I can't lie, but in my flight suit, I had another hat. So, I pulled out the other hat and I said, "Sir, that may be my hat. It may be, because I've lost a hat. But it may be, but I do have a hat." And he said, "Mr. White, I'm going to call you Sneaky from now on." And so I said, "Okay, why? Why are you calling me Sneaky?" And he said, "Running away from the MPs, you walked through a minefield to get onto the base." And he said, "You'll never do that again because I'm not going to write your family and tell them what a stupid idiot you were. Do you understand me?" And by then, my heels were locked and I said, "Yes sir."
Anyway, the name Sneaky White came out of that. The unit changed their call side because of some issues, they changed it to the Sneaky Whites and we were known as the Sneaky White. I was known as the one and only original Sneaky White. And then when I go into Quảng Trị to refuel, I'd call the tower, "This is Double White coming in for refuel."
I had a good, good reputation. My name Sneaky White. They had call sign was well-known. In fact, years ago when I was in prison, I got a letter from a guy, he said he was at a reunion of helicopter pilots and a guy in the bar was looking for Sneaky White. "Anybody know who Sneaky White is?" And this one guy knew I was in prison and he said, "I know him, but give me your address and if he'll contact you, he'll contact you. He doesn't come to reunions." So, he sent me the address.
Anyway, I wrote to this guy and he's in Alaska. And I wrote to him and I said, "Yeah, I'm Sneaky White. And what's your call sign?" And his call sign was Thunder 33. And he wrote me back and he said, "I owe you my life. I used to tell my kids when they were growing up that you saved my life, you, Sneaky White." And he said, "I went to the reunion and I didn't know your first name. I didn't even know your last name was White." He said, "All I knew was your call sign, Sneaky White. That's it." And he said, "But I didn't know who you were and I just want to thank you."
Now, this is years later, he and I are still in contact two or three times a week. Now, physically I've never met the man face to face, never. But that bond from Vietnam and a couple times flying cover for him when he was in A Sầu Valley getting shot up, we have a bond. It's an unbelievable thing. You can have a medal for doing whatever. That doesn't mean anything. When you have somebody that appreciates you, what you did and is thankful, then that's everything. And I was lucky that in my whole combat career, which I got almost five years, I was lucky that my name, my call sign, was respected. And I'm glad for that.
Now, an added story to this, because years ago, I was flying from Florida in a Lockheed Lodestar, two-engine plane, from Florida and I was ferrying it to California. And I stopped in Albany, Georgia to spend the night and I was going to have the plane washed. And so I was on short final at the airfield at Albany. And the soon as I hit the ground and turned off and went to ground control, the tower operator said, "Did you fly in Vietnam?" And I said, "Yes, I did." And the tower operator said, "You're Sneaky White. And I said, "I am. How do you know that?" And he said, "You have a distinct voice. I'll never forget it." I was a Quảng Trị tower operator. When you re-armed and refueled for a whole year, I listened to your voice.
And so that night I told him I was spending the night. He had a little barbecue for me and then he took me back to the motel. And the next morning when I was leaving, as I cranked up and I called the tower for ground to taxi out to runway the towers, instead of returning my thing as November, whatever the tail number was, he said, "Sneaky White, you're cleared to the numbers and hold for takeoff." And then, so when he finally said, "You're cleared to take off," as I took off and I turned to the west, I announced, "This is Sneaky White. I'll be QSY to the west for the last time." And it was the last time I used my call sign flying. But it's small world. But he heard my voice and he knew my voice. I have a distinct voice, I guess, because of the issues that I have with my cleft palate.
Well, the big thing is that we are a very small community, less than 7% of the population. And no matter how much education you have, formal, only we know what the others could have experienced or have experienced. So, we need to help each other out. That's the key. That's what I do. And if I help a vent out, then that's it, that's the brotherhood or now sisterhood. And it's all about, we're very small populations, less than 7%. We're dying off quick, especially in the Nam vets right now. And I think if all of us would reach out and help a vet... And here's the big thing, and this goes to the non-vets, people that aren't veterans, if they'll just sit and listen, not ask questions, nothing, just sit and listen to the stories. It is history. But it's also a way a vet can release some of the tensions, some of the anxiety, some of his thoughts, he can release them. Most vets keep it hidden and this causes problems down the road.
With that, there's plenty of help out there. Reach out if you need help, reach out. There's National Veterans Foundation. There's a lot of groups out there that will help you. And all you've got to do is ask. Don't be ashamed to ask no matter what the issue is.
That was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jim White. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, White explains why he went to prison, how he raised $350,000 from behind bars, and his connection to Shad Meshad, one of our previous guests.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
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