“Low Level Hell” is the true story of a Loach helicopter pilot, Hugh Mills Jr., who would fly along enemy trails below the tree line and report back signs of the enemy during the Vietnam War. The Loach scouting helicopter gained its nickname from the acronym LOH, which stands for OH-6 Light Observation Helicopter.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Ken Snyder, a former Loach pilot who lives in Federal Way, at a dinner party. We started talking about how he and his wife like to get out and do some shooting. My ears really perked up as soon as he mentioned his experience as a Loach pilot.
Mills started conducting his missions much more aggressively than the established policy of just observing and reporting signs of the enemy. To my surprise, Ken had taken over command of the Scout Platoon from Hugh Mills upon completion of Mills’ second tour in 1972. Ken told me:
“My tour with C/16 Cav was after the My Lai massacre and the rules of engagement were somewhat restrictive. I know this is going to sound crazy, but the things you do when you’re young! We would aggressively pursue the enemy and expose ourselves deliberately in order to draw their fire. Once they made that mistake, then their a– was ours! … I’ve observed several LOH pilots fire their pistols at the bad guys while flying with their left hand.”
Ken is now a supervisor in the Seattle Flight Standards District Office. Ken and Judith invited my wife and I to their home for dinner. Like many combat vets, he is friendly but not apt to talk too much about his war experiences. So the big surprise was when I started looking at the books on the coffee tables in his home — books like “SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam.”
I asked Ken why he had so many books about the legendary Special Operations Group (code named Studies and Operations Group to make it seem like a liaison to academia). It turns out that, before he flew helicopters, Ken already had served his country in Vietnam as a “One Zero” team lead for a SOG Recon Unit. He and two other Americans worked with a group of about five Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam who hated the South Vietnamese as much as they hated the North Vietnamese.
Ken grew up in Rockport, Wash., near Sedro-Woolley. He joined the Green Berets and arrived in Vietnam just as Military Assistance Command Vietnam began to take over certain covert programs from the CIA. The mission involved inserting teams like Ken’s into Laos and later Cambodia in such a way as to maintain deniability. Even their cigarettes had to be Asian in order to maintain the legal fiction that they were not operating within the U.S. chain of command.
We have a new generation of warriors now that are returning from combat with similarly legendary reputations. They keep us safer today because of Ken’s experience and the learning curve experienced within groups like SOG — learning now incorporated into the standard doctrine of fighting asymmetrical warfare all over the world.
It took a lot of bloodshed to make it possible for me to sit at home and read about the jungles of Vietnam, write about the Second Amendment and hold forth on sundry other topics.
Many are convinced that Vietnam wasn’t worth the cost. The Vietnamese people who experienced the oppression of Communism know otherwise.
The next time you are at a barbecue expressing your opinion or just talking about your last vacation, think about all the men and women who fought and even died for our freedom.