Don Enloe wanted a military role where he would get to interact with a lot of people. As a helicopter pilot, he worked with all kinds, from mechanics to the president of the United States.
Enloe, now 73, has a room in his Lake Anna home where he maintains cherished souvenirs from his years in the Marine Corps, including a model copter from the Vietnam War and two “whitecaps,” the informal term for the aircraft Enloe once flew to and from the White House.
While an airplane pilot in Vietnam on a bombing run would have limited contact with soldiers in other capacities, as a helicopter pilot Enloe worked closely with “the grunts and the officers” to plan missions, he recalled.
“I preferred that personal relationship with my customers,” he said.
Enloe’s job was to carry supplies from the main American bases in Vietnam to outlying “fire bases” near combat zones. The supplies, whether food, water or ammunition, were placed in nets attached to the underside of the helicopter. Enloe became expert at landing and taking off in a spiral pattern to minimize the risk from the enemy’s guns.
A native of the Kansas City area, Enloe chose to be a Marine, rather than join another military branch. He did so because he knew if he got on the track to become a commissioned officer, he could enjoy the perks, such as comfortable housing, after just 10 weeks of training. The actual term of officer candidates’ school was 10 months, followed by 14 months in flight school.
In 1968, after training with a squadron at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, Enloe headed for a place the Americans called Marble Mountain, near the city of Da Nang, in central Vietnam. He did a one-year tour there.
“It took me 24 hours to figure out this was not going to end well,” he said of the war. “I was told we had these enclaves we stayed in, but ‘Charlie’ lived out there.”
The informal term refers to the Viet Cong, who were the Communist fighters. The Americans failed to gain meaningful support among the population, Enloe said.
Unlike in World War II, when the Allied and German militaries fought with comparable forces, in Vietnam the U.S. faced an insurgent army that would conduct “hit and run” operations, often at night. In addition to the uneven nature of combat, Enloe recalls mismanagement, including missions controlled directly from the White House.
After his tour of duty in Vietnam, Enloe served in various roles, including, at one point, as a maintenance officer on Marine One, the helicopter used to carry the president. That gave him credibility when the opportunity arose to be executive officer on HMX-1, as Marine One is technically named.