The last time before Wednesday that Army helicopter pilots James P. Hughes and Gary Moore saw each other was in the jungles as the Vietnam War raged around them.
It was 1967 and Hughes was Moore’s platoon leader.
The men flew together as co-pilots briefly. One manned the rockets and the other manned the sight and guns. They were members of B Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“These guys were like family,” Moore said. “We helped each other out and really took care of each other.”
After years of trying to contact Hughes, Moore finally tracked him down and the two men reconnected Wednesday in Hughes’ Dalton home. Hughes, originally from Macon, moved to Dalton with his wife Jo in 2001. Moore, now a resident of Roswell with his wife Nancy, is originally from Texas.
“I looked for him for three to four years before I finally found him,” Moore said. “There are a lot of Hugheses. I was on the VHPA (Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association) website when I recognized his call sign, Bugle Red. I knew that was him. It changed to Saber later. I knew that was the guy.”
The two were co-pilots for about two-and-a-half months, but for Moore’s one-year tour, Hughes was his platoon leader.
“We flew a lot of missions together,” Moore said. “We had a good personality match. We got along well and had fun.”
“And we all came back safely,” Hughes added, which is surprising when you find out he had been shot down three times in enemy territory.
Hughes kind of shrugged when he was asked about being shot down. Each time, a rescue helicopter came quickly.
“Whatever time you’re down is a long time when you are shot down in enemy territory,” he said. “You needed to change your britches sometimes.”
Moore was never shot down, but flew some helicopters that had been badly damaged. He also had to fly back to base with injured crew members. As he landed one time, he ran out of gas.
The platoon was assigned to armed reconnaissance.
“You are trying to get someone to shoot at you so you can shoot back,” Moore said.
Oftentimes the pilots tried to find creative ways of flushing people out of their cover in the jungles. Hughes came up with the idea to attach a siren to his helicopter. The enemy — the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong — didn’t know what the sound was and would come out of hiding to check it out, leaving them uncovered.
He said the idea came from “somewhere around the kidney area.”
“All it takes is one that goes right by here,” Hughes said as he gestured a bullet coming within inches of his face. Hughes was hit once with a bullet that knocked him out. His chest guard prevented serious injury.
“The first time someone shoots at you, it changes your outlook on life,” Moore said. “As college students you never had anyone do anything bad to you. You never had someone try to kill you. You have a totally different outlook.
“You go into offense mode,” he said.
“You become aggressive,” Hughes added.
Moore said he will never forget the sound of an AK-47 assault rifle.
“It makes a clacking sound,” he said. “To this day, I can tell you if I hear an AK-47. All bad guys carry an AK-47.”
The men saw great atrocities in Vietnam. Their unit was stationed in several different places during the war. In some areas they saw families with bullet holes in them. They saw hungry orphans, and often helped feed them. They saw two generations of the same family hanged for their faith in God. They saw bodies ripped open.
“When you’re scared to death you do a lot of strange things,” Hughes said. “You do it to survive.”
Moore said it wasn’t until later that he realized some of the things that he actually experienced and saw.
“He was very good,” Moore said of Hughes as a platoon leader. “He treated people well, very fair.”
After two men were killed, Moore told Hughes he needed to take a few days off.
“He said to see the doctor and take as many days as he says I needed,” Moore said. “I took a few days off and then went back to flying.”
Hughes believes “without a shadow of a doubt” American troops should have been involved in Vietnam.
“Not many people are willing to be shot at,” he said. “I don’t say that for glory, but when you see a family laying there with bullet holes ... it stays with you. It makes it a lot easier to do stuff.”
Both men say the media at the time did not report things accurately or fairly, which led to many Americans not supporting the war or the men fighting it.
“There are many things our press didn’t report,” Moore said. “I had a reporter with me once ... and the only thing I recognized as truth was the town name. Vietnam terrorized a village. We never reported on that. But I saw it.”
Still, the men say they enjoyed their time in Vietnam and even had some fun.
“You had to joke about it,” Moore said. “If you get too serious, it gets to you.”
The men on base often pulled pranks on one another, such as the time Moore was nailed into an outhouse.
“They were like 16-year-olds,” said Hughes, who as a career Army pilot was several years older than many of the men who served under him.
Hughes served two tours in Vietnam. Moore served one.
When they returned home, the men were ridiculed. Moore was called a “baby killer” and some of the men he was with were spit on.
“I didn’t start that war,” Moore said. “I was ordered over there.”
They said that’s not how people treat them now.
Moore gave Hughes a hat that proudly displays he is a Vietnam veteran.
“He gets the most recognition wearing that hat,” Nancy Moore said.
Her husband told Hughes, “People come up to me and say thank you for your service. I want you to get that recognition, too.”
The men talked about the thanks they have received in recent years. They talked about people they served with, missions and the deaths they saw.
“He was the best partner I ever had,” Hughes said. “It doesn’t seem like it has been that many years to me.”
Hughes had gone into the Army after graduating from Mercer University where he had been through ROTC. He entered the Army as a second lieutenant and retired after 20 years as a major. Moore entered flight school after college because he had “an urge to fly. I loved flying.” He was deployed to Vietnam straight out of flight school. He then went to work at Ross Perot’s company, Electronic Data Systems, until he retired in 2000. He then worked for Home Depot until he retired from there in 2009.
After Hughes left the Army, he became a preacher in the Methodist church for 28 years.
“I was scared from the day I stepped off the aircraft (in Vietnam),” he said. “I said, ‘Lord, whatever happens, take care of me.’”