Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show
by Maj Todd Copley & Lt Col Rick Lester
700th Airlift Squadron
1/20/2009 - Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga -- Editor's note: The 700th Airlift Squadron hosts Air Warrior Briefings each Unit Traing Assembly where a guest speaker is invited to talk about aviation history.
Neil Diamond's 1969 tune, "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show' may not register with today's age group, but for the Vietnam generation and Lt. Col (Ret) Rick Lester, the words and melody were a "direct hit." Flying UH-1C Huey gun ships, then CWO2 Lester was on his 2nd tour in Vietnam. Assigned to the "JOKERS" in the 48th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), his gun platoon's mission was to protect the Huey's transporting the infantry into battle and provide security for their base camp.
The 48th AHC's base camp was located adjacent to a mountain pennisula, just west of highway 1 near the village of Ninh Hoa. The mountain, which the troops called "Big Charlie" was the high ground where the VC and NVA had been launching early morning mortar and rocket attacks into their compound. The Jokers would respond to the attacks, but since the enemy forces could observe the launch, they would cease fire and move back to cover. The Jokers were frustrated that they were forced to be "reactionary" in response to the attacks on their base.
The 48th AHC deployed Rick Lester and his Joker fire team to support the 155th AHC on a six-day operation near the Cambodian border. The team released late in the evening, but Lester decided they would delay their departure until early mornng hours the next day in the hopes of arriving back at their base camp, around the time the mortar and rocket attacks had been occuring. As the team neared their base camp, they climbed to ten thousand feet and flew south of the peninsula. Once abreast of the eastern most portion of the peninsula, Lester and his trail aircraft entered auto rotation and began a quiet "gliding" left turn around the back of "Big Charlie" and there on the beach they saw a group of sampans and medium sized boats being unloaded by NVA soldiers.
The shrieking sound of inbound Joker rokets caught the enemy by surprise as Lester fired a pair of rockets with seventeen pound, high explosive warheads into the largest boat. The impact triggered a long and violent series of secondary explosions encompassing all the boats and personnel on the beach! The explosions continued as ammunition blown into the air , onto the beach, and out to sea detonated like a fireworks display. As Lester fired his second pair of rockets into the cluster of debris his crew chief shouted over the intercom, "Sir, check out the sounds!" Lester was directing his trail aircraft into the attack as his crew chief shouted again telling him to listen to Armed Forces Radio Network which was tuned in on the ADF radio and simultaneously flipped up the switch so Lester could hear. It was Neil Diamond singing "Brother Loves Traveling Salvation Show!" "That's you sir, Brother Love!" His crew chief shouted and then added, "Thats what we should name our 'bird, "Brother Loves Traveling Salvation Show!" "Hey, its your aircraft!" Lester responded and, later that evening the crew chief and door gunner came to Lester's "hootch" carrying the avionics compartment door with the freshly painted name just below the Joker face standard to all the plattons aircraft.
That door was brought home by Lester's brother, Jim who served with the USAF in Nam, but spent much time with the Jokers on his days off. The door was a gift from his crew and unit commander. Lester cherishes the keepsake as a reminder of all the hero's with whom he was so lucky to serve. He was taken this door to many of his unit's reunions and proudly acquires signatures from fellow 48th AHC crewmembers, family members of those who were lost or missing, as well as Eric Burdon, Adrian Cronauer, LTC Hal Moore and joe Galloway.
Fast Forward 38 years from Lester's last tour in Vietnam, and you'll find a Neil Diamond concert coming to the Gwinnett Arena. Mr.Diamond had graciously donated 200 tickets to the 94th Airlift Wing two days before his concert. Explaining to PA that this would be a "Telling Story" they ensured that Rick and I would receive 4 tickets for the show. I put a bug in Rick's ear about the tickets and how it would be a great idea if Neil Diamond could sign the back of the Huey's nose door. Working his magic, Rick received the phone call at 3 PM the day of the concert. "Be here by 4 PM and Mr.Diamond will see you." Nothing he only had one hour to make it from Douglasville to the Gwinnett Center in a driving rainstorm, Rick made mention to the publicist that, "I'm not flying a Huey you know." Hanging up and making the trek provided no problem for this aviator. Rick got his door signed and enjoyed a 22 song set which didn't originally include one song special to Lester. The light's went down and then came back up for the encore: Neil Diamond had added a song, saving the best for last for a Vietnam Era Helicopter pilot.
Singing the Lyrics:
"Pack up the babies, Grab the old ladies, Everyone goes, Everyone knows, Brother Love's Show, Amen"
Rick "Joker 94" Lester