It was getting late, almost dark, when the H-21 pilot gently moved the nose gear of his helicopter against the hill in front. The rear landing gear was still in the air. To evacuate the 12 injured men from the steep mountain side, he had to hover nose down low enough that they could enter through the side door, about 20 feet behind the cockpit. The H-21’s tandem rotors made the maneuver extremely difficult. If the tail rotor fell below the horizontal, it would strike the trees below. The front rotor was a few yards from the side of the hill and the weather was critical as the Viet Cong were just above the top of the hill. As soon as the troops were on board, the pilot took off and transported the injured men to Da Nang. The pilot during this daring and dangerous operation was CWO Joe Mikel of Opp, Alabama. His courageous actions on June 13, 1962 earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first such award given to a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.
Joseph Malone Mikel was born on November 22, 1935 in Gantt, Alabama. Her parents were Charlie and Lena Meredith Mikel. They had another son, Fred. Joe attended Weed School until fifth grade before transferring to Brantley High School where he graduated in 1953. He and Sara Evelyn Jones were married in August of the same year. He held several odd jobs before joining the military in 1954. Joe said he was motivated to join the military because of the service of his uncles in World War II, Malone Cliff Meredith, James O. Meredith and Buford Meredith.
Joe was sent for basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. After basic training, he was trained as a military policeman and sent to Crailsheim, Germany. While in Germany, his sergeant convinced him to apply for the Aviation Warrant Officer training program. After a few years Joe returned to the United States and was posted to Fort Benning, Georgia. While there, he learned that he had been selected for the Aviation Warrant Officer program. He was sent to Fort Wolters, Texas, where he completed primary helicopter training and received his warrant officer. After that he was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama for advanced helicopter training and learned to fly the H-21 Shawnee.
After completing his training at Fort Rucker in early 1962, Joe was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas for a few years. Joe and Sara now had three children, Ricky born in 1955, Jay born in 1959 and Becky [Riggs] born 1960. After Fort Riley, Joe was sent to Hickam Field, Hawaii and assigned to 81st Transport company. He was still flying the H-21 which was often referred to as the flying banana because of its strange shape. After hearing about his new assignment, he recalls: “I thought it would be sun, beaches and fun. My boy, was I wrong. Joe and the family had just visited the film set where Elvis Presley filmed “Hawaii Blue” when he received TDY [temporary duty assignment] orders in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Joe was assigned to 93e Transport company based in Soc Trang. At that time, the army’s green berets were acting as advisers to the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] and the American public knew very little about our role there. The work of 93e was to supply various outposts of ARVN troops from their base in Soc Trang. The 93e took the name “The Tigers of Soc Trang” after someone introduced them to a 15 month old Bengal tiger. They were known as “The Tigers of Soc Trang” after.
Most of the missions carried out by the 93e consisted of two helicopters flying together for security purposes. On the morning of June 13, 1962, WO Joe Mikel’s helicopter was one of two helicopters that were part of a troop insertion mission in a hot area of the Ashau Valley near the border of Laos. The Ashau Valley is a narrow strip of land, west of the northern city of Hue. It is bordered by mountains on both sides and was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route in northern Vietnam. On this mission, an army captain piloted the other helicopter and was the flight commander. Their flight took place in the late afternoon.
After disembarking their troops, the two planes exited the LZ [landing zone] when they have received a distress call. The troops they had just landed were under heavy mortar fire and were killing people. The captain immediately backed up his helicopter for a rescue when he lost his tachometer, leaving it unable to hover. WO Mikel volunteered to take his place and walked up a hill near the wounded soldiers. This action, already described, earned Joe Mikel the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first such prize awarded to a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
CWO Joe Mikel’s Distinguished Service Cross was presented by the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Earle G. Wheeler. Presenting the award, Wheeler said: “It takes special courage to do what you do here every day. It’s a dirty little war – not like anything we’ve faced in Normandy or Inchon, Korea. I want you to know that your parents back home admire you for it.
Joe Mikel returned to 81st Transport Company returned to Hawaii after three months on TDY in Vietnam. Shortly after joining the 81st, they were ordered to leave for Vietnam. On Joe’s second trip to Vietnam, his company helped establish Camp Holloway military base in Pleiku. Joe recalled some of their missions, “With the H-21, we were limited in the load we could carry. We could carry 12 soldiers, fully armed, but we had to adjust our fuel load from a full tank. When we transported a howitzer, we took it apart and transported the cannon in a sling, separate from the carriage, which was carried by another helicopter. At the end of this tour, Joe was assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
At Fort Sill, Joe discovered the new tandem rotor helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook. He spent the next three years training pilots to fly the CH-47A. After piloting the H-21, Joe recalled that, “Driving the CH-47 was like driving a new Cadillac after driving a Model “A”.“
In 1967, Joe was assigned to 147e Transportation Company and sent to Vietnam for its third tour. Their base was located at Vung Tao on the south coast of Vietnam, and the Joe’s Company stayed in a former French complex for about three months. Meanwhile, the new organization 1st Cavalry division [Air Mobile] was brought in and Joe was transferred to Company B, 228e Battalion. At the end of this tour, he returned to the United States and posted to Fort Rucker.
Back at Fort Rucker, CWO3 Mikel trained student helicopter pilots for just over a year. The military was considering sending him back to Vietnam, but according to Joe, they offered him a chance to switch to fixed-wing planes like “an offering of peace”. Joe agreed and was sent to Fort Stewart, Ga., Where he learned to fly the OH-1 Birddog. After that he switched to twin engine U-21 Ute, the military version of Beechcraft King Air.
In 1970 Joe was promoted to CWO4 and sent back to Vietnam for his fourth tour. This time, he would fly the U-21, configured for electronic surveillance.
His surveillance company was stationed in Phu Bai near Hue. Joe recalled their missions, “We flew near the North Vietnamese border. We were carrying a lot of electronic equipment used to intercept enemy signals. We also had linguists who could interpret what we were picking up. Joe’s last tour of Vietnam lasted six or seven months before he was called home with a family emergency. Her 15-year-old son Ricky had been admitted to hospital in critical condition. The Red Cross had Joe brought home. After Ricky recovered, Joe was posted as an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker.
Joe Mikel retired from the military in 1974 after 22 years of service. In addition to the DFC, he had received the European Theater Medal, the Medal of Good Conduct, the Air Medal and the Senior Army Aviator Medal.
He sold small engine parts for about a year before going to work for Opp Micolas Mills. He retired after working 26 years. Joe Mikel is a lively 85-year-old man living in Opp, Alabama, has his own garden and still mows his own grass.
The author would like to thank Joe and his son, Jay, for providing his service information.