The Piasecki H-21 "Shawnee" Troop Carrier

A Piasecki H-21 "Shawnee" troop carrier over South Vietnam in 1963. With its aft fuselage positioned at an upward angle to ensure that the rotors wouldn't strike each other, the Shawnee was rightfully nicknamed "The Flying Banana".

In October of 1961, General Maxwell Taylor arrived in Saigon as the head of a mission dispatched by President John F. Kennedy to examine the feasibility of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. In Saigon, Taylor proposed a new partnership between the United States and South Vietnam that, among other things, would include the introduction of American helicopter and light aircraft squadrons.

On December 11, the first fruits of the Taylor mission arrived in Saigon aboard the USS Core, a former World War II auxiliary aircraft carrier. The Core was carrying 32 H-21 Shawnee twin-rotor helicopters with their pilots and crews, numbering about 400 men. The helicopters, which would be flown and serviced by United States troops, were the first direct U.S. military support for South Vietnam.

How the H-21 Shawnee Was Used in Vietnam

The big, twin-rotor Piasecki H-21 Shawnee quickly became the troop carrier in South Vietnamese heliborne operations. When South Vietnamese division commanders scheduled a strike, ten Vietnamese soldiers, with their battle equipment, were allotted to each aircraft. So, the total load in the H-21 was 14 personnel, including the crew.

The four-man U.S. Army crew consisted of a pilot, the co-pilot to his left, the crew chief, who sat up close to the pilot and was the gunner firing the .30 caliber machine gun out the ride side-door. The fourth crewman could be termed the "left door man". He supervised the movement of Vietnamese troops in and out of the aircraft, and during flight as well as on arrival at the landing zone. He was ready with an automatic weapon at the left side-door.

So, the H-21 Shawnee's only emplaced weapon was one .30 caliber machine gun. However, whatever armament the troop carrier had was of secondary importance. The real and ample protectors of the H-21s in flight, or at the landing zone, were turbojet armed helicopters: The Bell UH-1A and its successor, the UH-1B. They flew as armed escorts for the airborne troop transport, just as naval destroyers acted as armed escorts for seaborne troop carriers.

Both the UH-1A and the UH-1B had an American Army crew of four, plus a Vietnamese observer whose duty was to distinguish between South Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops on the ground. By this point in time, Americans were no longer forbidden to fire unless fired on. Still, the preferred tactic was to keep the Viet Cong under constant surveillance, and when threatened with attack, to overwhelm them with devastating bursts of retaliatory fire.