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Lordstown veteran recalls heroism, good deeds of US troops in Vietnam Vietnam

By William K. Alcorn

Friday, November 6, 2009

By William K. Alcorn

The book chronicles the good in the American spirit during the Vietnam War.

LORDSTOWN — Jay Hays flew 1,000 combat assault and support hours in Vietnam with the 281st Assault Helicopter Co.

“I was there during the Tet Offensive. We didn’t shut down the engine for 72 hours. We flew day and night for three days,” he said.

But the mission Hays remembers best was not about killing. It was the rescue of 165 Montagnard villagers held captive for eight years by the Viet Cong. The Montagnard people were loyal to the U.S., Hays said.

The Viet Cong was a guerrilla force that fought the United States in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The rescue, during which no one on either side was killed, involved three excursions into the mountains of about 30 miles west of Nha Trang city in an area that became known as The Valley of the Tigers.

Hays, owner of Hays Enterprises and Hays Industrial Park in Lordstown, was crew chief of the lead helicopter, called Bandit Leader, of the mission, piloted by Capt. John Wehr. Hays was later promoted to Bandit platoon sergeant.

The Montagnard rescue, and many other positive stories about the Vietnam War, are chronicled in a book, “Privileges of War,” a first-hand account of the war written in 1969 by Thomas A. Ross soon after he returned to his home in Florida.

Ross was a lieutenant assigned to Operational “A” Team, Detachment A-502, with the 5th Special Forces Group in South Vietnam. He retired as a major.

Ross could not get the book published in 1969, and it sat on the shelf for 35 years. With the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, his wife, Amy, urged him to publish the book, which he did at his own expense.

Hays said his children gave him “Privileges of War” several years ago as a Father’s Day gift when it first came out. While reading it, he said he recognized many of the details, especially in part two of the book, which is about the rescue of the Montagnard civilians.

Though Hays’ name is not mentioned in the book, he found himself in a picture on page 276 with the rescued Montagnard families, and said he has identified nearly all the military personnel in the picture.

Hays contacted Ross and thanked him for writing a book about the war that he could let his wife and children read because it is not filled with vulgarity.

“I talked to him [Ross] about his reference to Bandit Leader, whom I identified at Capt. John Wehr and myself as crew chief. The phone went silent, then he said: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for you guys for 35 years.’”

Hays was drafted into the Army in November 1966, the year he graduated from Carrollton High School, and was discharged in November 1968, serving the second year in Vietnam.

He said he strongly identified with the stories in Ross’ book, having witnessed many acts of heroism and bravery and kindness during his 12-month tour in Vietnam.

“It talks about the good the U.S. troops did helping the Vietnamese people,” Hays said.

He said The Valley of the Tigers rescue mission began when a Montganard, Mang Quang, and two other men escaped after finding American fliers offering help. They spent days in the jungle avoiding Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army personnel, and finally found the A-502.

Mang Quang, through an interpreter, told Ross the Viet Cong had threatened to kill his family if he was gone for more than three days.

Ross quickly enlisted the help of the 281st and others to attempt to find and rescue the Montganards, who were housed in separate hamlets in the same general area.

In the first rescue attempt, Mang Quang’s family was not among those extracted. His family was found during the second rescue mission, but a third mission was mounted when it was determined that another 42 Montganards were still there.

On Aug. 10, American media went with the helicopters and recorded the third mission, which was first broadcast on Aug. 13 in a story by David Culhane, “From the Valley of the Tigers,” on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.”

Hays, who worked at the General Motors Lordstown Complex for 21 years, quit in 1994 to devote his full energies to his growing business, which is located on Bailey Road between the GM complex and Salt Springs Road.

Hays said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but that he only had a couple of bad nightmares and flash backs.

“PTSD manifested itself in me by my not wanting to talk about the war. When my kids wanted me to watch a movie about the Vietnam War, I’d say no, I’ve already lived it,” he said.

He said he started to come out of his shell with the formation of the 281st AHC Association in 2001.

“Today I can laugh about some of that stuff. Ten years ago, I couldn’t talk about any of it,” he said.

On Oct. 17, Hays, Ross and Wehr were reunited for the first time in 41 years at the dedication of a monument to the 281st Assault Helicopter Co. at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, N.C.

“It was very emotional because of all we had been through together,” Hays said.

Hays said he thinks the reasons he and his helicopter came out of 1,000 combat and support flying hours unscathed were a combination of invention and hard work and divine intervention.

He said he had a terrific door gunner with whom he devised a weapon that quadrupled their firepower.

“I’m telling you, the Lord was with me. My helicopter was never shot down, and never even took a hit,” he said. “I swear some of those rounds must have come in one door and gone out the one on the other side.”

Hays and his wife, Doris, have four children and three grandchildren.

When he came home from Vietnam, Hays said things were not good.

“I was denied paying cash for a motel room because I was military,” he said. “But today, I’m proud I had the opportunity to serve my country and to have served with the best of the best.”

VIETNAM VET

Author speaks

Thomas A. Ross of Atlanta, who wrote “Privileges of War,” a book about acts of patriotism and professionalism by American military personnel during the Vietnam War, speaks here Saturday.

Where: Veterans Day celebration and dinner program at the Scottish Rite Temple, 223 Wick Ave.

When: Dinner is a 6 p.m., and the program begins at 7 p.m.

Cost: All veterans are invited at no cost. Nonveterans and guests pay $10.

Reservations: Required. Call (330) 847-5177.