Charles Harrison, a Vietnam Veteran, talks about his beginnings with ROTC flight training, as well as the different helicopters he flew during the war.
CHARLES HARRISON: My name is Charles Edward Harrison.
SKIP AMASS: And you currently live where?
CHARLES HARRISON: I live at 5506 Crow’s Nest Drive, Sykesville, Maryland.
SKIP AMASS: And how long have you been a Carroll County resident?
CHARLES HARRISON: Oh, I think I’ve been here since– for 37 years.
SKIP AMASS: Oh, wonderful. And you were born and raised where?
CHARLES HARRISON: Baltimore County. A place, an old black enclave called Turner Station, in southeastern Baltimore County.
SKIP AMASS: That was a traditional black enclave, wasn’t it, for many years.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes. A viable place for employment then was Bethlehem Steel Company.
SKIP AMASS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Bethlehem Steel in its heyday was big, wasn’t it?
CHARLES HARRISON: Oh, jeez, yes. Yes.
SKIP AMASS: And tell us about your military service. How did you get into the military?
CHARLES HARRISON: Well, I was exposed to the military, not in high school. I was a Boy Scout, a Cub Scout, and came up through the ranks there. So I was inculcated into that spirit. When I was a student at Morgan State College you were mandated at that time to take two years ROTC to obtain a deferment.
SKIP AMASS: Right.
CHARLES HARRISON: So I had two years, and I enjoyed those two years. So during my sophomore year, we had the option of joining the advanced ROTC. The benefits there is that they paid you $50 a month.
SKIP AMASS: Wow.
CHARLES HARRISON: So that was a lot of funds for a struggling college student then.
SKIP AMASS: Right. And many people don’t realize how big ROTC was at one time in America, especially in land grant colleges and state universities.
CHARLES HARRISON: Oh, very much so. Some of the leading commanders– most people think we finished West Point and the other military academies, but a number came from the ROTC program.
SKIP AMASS: Exactly. I myself went to Western Maryland, College ROTC. And they had a lot of outstanding graduates who rose up through the ranks, even to the level of general.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes.
SKIP AMASS: And I think were you in the ROTC program at Morgan when Richard Dixon was there?
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes, I was in the program. But I had the opportunity to take ROTC flight training while I was in that program, which was excellent. So flying and learning how to fly an aircraft became, like, a portion of the regular coursework.
SKIP AMASS: Richard used to say he wasn’t smart enough for that. He just jumped out of the airplane.
I think he was in the paratroopers, or something like this.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes.
SKIP AMASS: And during your ROTC– after your ROTC training, you went into the Army.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes. I was commissioned as second lieutenant and went to infantry officers’ basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I tried join the airborne ranger program there. But at that time, they needed pilots. So they wouldn’t allow potential pilots to take that program. So from Fort Benning I went to Fort Walters, Texas, which is outside of Mineral Wells, Texas. And that was the primary phase of the rotary wing. But ironically, at that time I was a fixed wing pilot. And the typical military– well, we’ve got enough fixed wing pilots, so you’ll become a helicopter pilot.
SKIP AMASS: And you became a helicopter pilot.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes, I did.
SKIP AMASS: And then where did you serve as a helicopter pilot?
CHARLES HARRISON: Well, after Phase One, I went to Hunter Stewart Army Airfield for advanced training, and then I was sent to Vietnam. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go directly to Vietnam.
SKIP AMASS: Oh, wow.
CHARLES HARRISON: In Vietnam I originally flew what was called slicks. And that was the H model helicopters, the troop carriers. My first several days in country I received fire. And I landed the helicopter and looked at the tail rotor, the tail boom area, and I saw this small puncture going in, and I saw this hole coming out the other side. That was when I made up my mind, if I’m going to get shot at, I need to shoot back. So I made the transition into armed helicopters, which was the old B model helicopters that were converted regular troop carriers– converted to armed helicopters.
SKIP AMASS: Right. And then, so what was your time in Vietnam? How long did you spend?
CHARLES HARRISON: I spent exactly, almost to the day, one year.
SKIP AMASS: Wow. And any rough count on how many missions you flew?
CHARLES HARRISON: Every day we got up to fly. And I was the aircraft commander and commander of what was called Cougar Team. I flew for the 57th assault helicopter company and they were the folks transporting troops for combat assaults. And we provided the gun cover for them. We supported medevac missions. We would participate in what was called hunter-killer teams. And that’s where we would go into enemy-infested areas and try to locate and destroy the enemy. That involved having two armed helicopters that were flying high, and a Loach which would be flying very low, just above the treetops to locate the enemies and to draw fire. When they received fire, that’s when we would come down from above, and punch off rockets, and try to take out those enemy positions.
SKIP AMASS: It’s easy to describe, but it’s pretty terrifying to do, isn’t it?
CHARLES HARRISON: Well, at 20, 21 years old, it was exciting. And at 21, I was considered an old guy in Vietnam, because the basic troops, my pilots that actually flew for me and was part of my team, were 18, 19-year-olds that were drafted and had an opportunity to go to warrant officer candidates training to become pilots. So their sole mission and job was to fly. I had additional duties– supply officer, mess officer. As a commissioned officer, you had other duties aside from just flying.
SKIP AMASS: Other duties as assigned, right?
CHARLES HARRISON: As assigned. Correct, sir.
SKIP AMASS: Great old Army military phraseology which means, we’ll make you do any damn thing we want.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yeah, that’s so. That’s very much so.
SKIP AMASS: Did you ever lose a plane– your plane?
CHARLES HARRISON: No, not really– receiving fire, but there was always somebody there. We flew in teams, and we flew, particularly, about 10 feet off the tops of the trees. Limited the exposure for us, as we flew from point A to point B. Whereas the slicks, the troop carriers, were high enough to avoid enemy fire. As we progressed in Vietnam, though, the enemy got very good at learning how to lead the helicopter in their fire show. They would shoot in advance of the helicopter, and the helicopter would fly into it. It’s almost like shooting trap or a dove or bird hunting.
SKIP AMASS: Yeah. That same technique was developed during the Second World War, where the German anti-aircraft fire was fired ahead of the B-17 bombers–
CHARLES HARRISON: That’s correct.
SKIP AMASS: –flack, and they flew into it. They didn’t actually shoot at the plane.
CHARLES HARRISON: That’s correct. So they got very good. But when an aircraft went down, there was always somebody to pick you up. They always said remain with the aircraft. But me being the logical thinker that I am, I’m thinking, well, if the enemy saw where my aircraft went down, they’re headed that way also.
SKIP AMASS: Right.
CHARLES HARRISON: So it’s a matter of who gets to you first.
SKIP AMASS: Right. Well, fortunately, that didn’t happen to you.
CHARLES HARRISON: No, I was very fortunate.
SKIP AMASS: And you came home to us, which was a real blessing.
CHARLES HARRISON: Well, I assumed, going into the situation, that I would be shot. It’s just the extent of the wound that I was concerned with. Because pilots had armor plating around them, so the vulnerable areas were your head, and your legs, and your feet. So I assumed that we would get shot and I didn’t want to come back limping or without a limb. We did lose several pilots during my stay in Vietnam.
SKIP AMASS: Right. It’s always a tragedy to lose anyone regardless of rank or position, and so forth. I served in the Korean War in a MASH outfit and so we had lots of casualties come through. And it’s a real tragedy when you’d lose some, because there’s a loved one somewhere–
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes.
SKIP AMASS: –that’s going to hurt very badly as a result of it. Now how long did you continue to stay in the service?
CHARLES HARRISON: Well, after Vietnam, I was a captain at that point– captain over three, due for a second tour of Vietnam. So I received orders to go to the infantry officers’ school back at Fort Benning as an instructor. I didn’t want to do that. My basic background is education. I’m a teacher by profession. So I hand-carried my orders back to OPO infantry branch and asked for a reassignment. They reassigned me to Fort Meade, Maryland. And I was acting commander of First Army Support Element out of Fort Meade, and they had about 475 troops. So I commanded that unit until– which was, I guess, about a year and a half, two years. And it was from there I went into the FBI and stayed there for 28 years.
SKIP AMASS: Wonderful. And you were an FBI agent then.
CHARLES HARRISON: I was a Supervisory Special– well, you start as an agent, but I progressed through the ranks. FBI inspector, and assistant inspector, and then as Supervisory Special Agent. So I managed the Presidential Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force for the Mid-Atlantic Region, here out of Baltimore. So I supervised drugs and narcotics cases from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk. A lot of the Maryland State Police officers that were working on the task forces were sworn in and deputized, and they came under my purview to ensure that they were working appropriate-level drug cases.
SKIP AMASS: Well, that’s very good. So eventually you retired as a federal employee.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes, I did. I went, after the inspectors and staff, to State Department as a special advisor for the Assistant Secretary of State for international narcotics and organized crime, Bob Gelbard. I wrote and set up the US policy for organized crime and drug cases that went outside of the US. ILEA, which was the law enforcement academy that was set up in Budapest, I controlled the funding for that, and getting appropriate instructors to establish a plurocracy in the former states of the Soviet Union. I called them the “ikistans”– Turkmenistan, Tajikistan. I left there and went to the agency to assist in setting up their international organized crime program. And so I stayed, working for the CIA in international organized crime until I retired.
SKIP AMASS: Well, it sounds like you’ve had a very wonderful career, starting with the ROTC program at Morgan State.
CHARLES HARRISON: Best program that I could imagine. I would recommend any parent to try to encourage their male children, and females nowadays, to participate in that program. It gets you away from home. It teaches you responsibility. It teaches you leadership skills. The program just does wonders for young men to make them men.
SKIP AMASS: I totally agree with you. We have a couple junior ROTC programs, as you probably know, at high schools here in Carroll County. And I always say that it’s a good program for young men to get involved with. Of course, they have young women among– you have today, and go on to ROTC. I wish it was as strong as it used to be when I was going through college in the early ’50s, and so forth. But we’ve got to mention one other thing. Somewhere along this line of your history there, you wound up meeting somebody named Virginia.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes. Virginia– I met her on a train going to work. She worked for the FBI also, in Washington, DC. And I was transferred back from Philadelphia to the Washington, DC area. So I met her commuting to Washington. And we dated and eventually married, and I have two kids and three grandkids. And she’s currently a member of the Carroll County school board– a very active lady in the community.
SKIP AMASS: As were you. You were at one time serving as an Orphans’ Court judge.
CHARLES HARRISON: Yes. I served two years as the appointed Orphans’ Court judge, where I tried to bring some organizational skills to that capacity. And with the FBI, I’m accustomed to reviewing cases and conducting interviews of people over the 28 years. So I brought that to the table, and how to conduct a thorough interview, how to listen and respond to questions, and get to the root of the issues. So I really enjoyed my two years there.
I was also one of the ethics commissioners for Carroll County under Dick Simmons after I retired. So after retiring from the FBI, I attempted to become more and more involved in the community here, in what’s going on in Carroll County here.
SKIP AMASS: Well, Charles, we certainly thank you for your magnificent contributions in the ROTC, in Vietnam as an active duty military participant, and certainly as a resident of Carroll County, and all that you and your wife and your family have brought to Carroll County.
You’re a great example of a veteran, and what a veteran can contribute to our county. Thank you very much.
CHARLES HARRISON: Thank you, Skip. I appreciate the opportunity.