San Antonio, Texas
Story contributed by Linda Alaniz and David Lopez from an oral interview with Rene Guerra and used with permission.
I was born January 7, 1947 in the predominately Hispanic Westside of San Antonio and attended Edgewood ISD schools. I joined the US Army in February 1970 at the age of 22 and served for the next 27 years. I retired from the US Army as a Sergeant Major (GSM) on Sept. 30, 1996.
My first tour in Vietnam began on Dec. 1970 with the 17th Air Cavalry, 1st Aviation Brigade as an Infantry rifleman. In 1972, I volunteered for a second tour when I was asked whether I wanted to be a helicopter door gunner (picture submitted). I had no idea what I was getting into. After I saw the small space where a door gunner sat, I realized why they needed this short and skinny ( 5’6”- 130lbs) Mexican.
I was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, 1st Aviation Brigade, in Anson, Binh Dinh Province (picture submitted). I was part of a team that consisted of the helicopter pilot, radio-operator and 2 door gunners. I was one of the gunners (picture submitted). We would fly mainly supplies (water, c-rations) but a few times even much needed bullets to various landing zones and bases for combat ground forces. We would routinely receive enemy fire to prevent us from dropping the supplies that were needed but we mostly succeeded.
In April 26, 1972 we were doing a routine resupply mission in a very mountainous area and our chopper received a “mayday” call. We were the closest so we responded to the call. When we arrived, we could see a shot down Medi-Vac chopper that had been trying to carry out wounded soldiers from the area. My chopper landed next to the downed medi-vac and I was on the side facing it. We started receiving enemy fire and both of us gunners started shooting back. My pilot told me to wait a minute to see if anyone from the downed aircraft would make an attempt to run to my chopper. No one did, so I took it upon myself and jumped off and ran to the downed chopper.
I opened the pilot door and I saw 2 pilots trapped behind the twisted bullet proof plate. I saw the t-pin and pulled it. I was then able to pull back the plate and get to the pilots. They were wounded but alive. I took out one pilot and heaved him over my shoulder and ran back to my chopper and laid him on the floor. Now we are getting more intense enemy fire so my radio operator took over my M-60 machine gun and started shooting to give me cover on my right side. The other gunner had my left side. I ran back to the medi-vac and pulled the second pilot out and again heaved him over my shoulder and ran back to the chopper. At that time two of our US cobra gunships came in from opposite directions and they helped us suppress the enemy gun fire with their rockets and mini guns while I ran back to look for others on the plane. I went to the open belly of the chopper and I saw 5 soldiers lying on the floor. Three were seriously wounded and two others looked like they wer e already casualties. I ran back and forth five more times to my chopper.
As I carried each person to my helicopter, I could hear the “ping” of the enemy rounds striking my chopper and on the downed aircraft. Some bullets hit very close to my chopper’s gas cap that could have easily exploded and ended it for all of us but it didn’t. This rescue only took a few minutes, but it seemed to go on forever especially when we trying to get out of the area under extremely intense fire. We took the wounded soldiers to Qui Nhon, a field hospital.
For this mission I was awarded the Air Medal with Valor. (picture submitted of me receiving this medal) “This whole experience really hit me after it was over”, said Guerra. “I was really scared after the recovery. I had no idea how I had the strength to carry the heavy weight of the men. Some were even carrying gear. Even today, sometimes I have bad dreams and can’t sleep but it’s finally getting better now–42 years later. I still think about the men I rescued and wonder if any of them made it home. I would like to know if some did and hopefully by contributing this story to the Texas Capital Vietnam Veterans Monument Project I can hear from someone that did get home. I guess God wanted me to be there to save these soldiers. That was my purpose during that time in my life,” Guerra reflected.
On an earlier search and rescue (SAR) mission on April 2, 1972, during the Easter TET offensive, my chopper rescued American Advisors from the 173rd Airborne Rangers that were on a helicopter that had crashed on Hwy 1 of the An Khe Highway in An Khe Pass near the fire base at Pleiku and were being overrun by tanks of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). “All were alive and about 10 American Advisors and South Vietnamese soldiers ran to our chopper. Due to the heavy load on our chopper, we weren’t able to lift off, so some had to get off. That was hard. I still remember and I have regrets about that,” Guerra added softly as he looked away.
These (SAR) missions went on everyday in the month of April 1972. For my entire second one year tour as a gunner in Vietnam, I received 5 Air Medals with Valor.
Fourteen years later, when I was stationed in Korea with the 8th Army, I received the Silver Star for the SAR mission when I assisted in rescuing 7 soldiers from the downed Medi-Vac. I was unaware at the time that the commander had nominated me. Brigadier General Harold awarded me with the Silver Star in 1986.
In 1995, Master Sergeant Rene Guerra was the highest decorated Hispanic U.S soldier living in San Antonio, TX. He was recognized at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX and given a plaque for this distinction.
“Even though I am going through some health issues now, God has blessed me with a wonderful wife and three children. My children all got college educated and have became very successful in their lives. My eldest son is an EMS/Paramedic/SWAT Team member of the San Antonio Fire/Police Depts., my daughter works in Human Resources with Goldberg Companies, and my youngest is with the FBI and is now a manager. I am so proud of them,” Guerra beamed.
Writer’s side note: in 1997 Rene A Guerra Jr., then a Corporal in the Marine Corps, received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving a 9 year -old girl and her father from a burning vehicle in a serious accident near Gila Bend, Arizona. Without regard for his own safety, he took immediate action and cut the seat belt from the young girl and took her to safety and returned to get her father, who was seriously injured with a broken collarbone. Guerra Jr. was able to cut him free from the seat belt as the flames surrounded them and he took him to safety. Unfortunately, by this time flames had consumed the vehicle making the final rescue of the mother impossible.
These acts of heroism by both father and son, 25 years apart, prove to me that action under fire can be passed on genetically. It is just not coincidence.