U. City dentist recalls his lifesaving service during Vietnam War

Eric Berla shows a piece of metal from a helicopter he flew with a hole from an AK-47 round during the Vietnam War. The bullet narrowly missed hitting him. 

Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

For several years, as Memorial Day approaches, I have wanted to write about my University City neighbor, Dr. Eric Berla, who flew medevac helicopters for the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, two very interesting and dangerous years in that long war.

Day in and day out for 12 months 45 years ago, Berla risked his life to rescue infantry guys like me from hot landing zones in the jungle and open areas, with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese rifle and rocket fire aimed at his UH-1H helicopter.

Those helicopters carried a crew of five and were lightly armed, with two M60 machine guns mounted at the side doors. They were mostly unable to defend themselves as they picked up wounded American fighting men and whisked them to field hospitals where surgeons could try to save their lives.

“We were the equivalent of litter bearers in World War II,” said Berla, a semiretired dentist who has steeped himself in Vietnam lore and researched the war extensively since he returned to the States, got out of the Army in May 1970 and enrolled in the same university, Rutgers, in his native New Jersey, where he flunked out two times.

Twice last week, I went to Berla’s house in the Parkview neighborhood near the Delmar Loop, where we talked for hours about being vets of the Vietnam War, he a born Jew and I a convert. We had so much in common, it was both eerie and comfortable. Instant rapport.

Combat vets usually don’t talk much about their war experiences except with other combat vets. With the Memorial Day weekend coming up, though, it seemed like an appropriate time for us to talk, with Berla telling one story after another as I rapidly took notes on a legal pad.

Every so often, as his memory revived images and stories, he’d leave and bring back another relic, such as an oval piece of metal from his helicopter that had been punctured by an AK-47 round that nearly shattered his left leg.

And then there was the only other Jewish guy in his flight school class who died during his first training flight in Vietnam. Berla learned he was dead when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and saw his name etched into the black granite.

Berla, who says he’s not particularly religious, nonetheless remembered with gratitude the High Holy Days in 1968, when about 1,500 Jews from all of the military units that were in Vietnam were flown to services at Cam Ranh Bay, a huge U.S. military base.

Did that make him feel especially Jewish?

“It was a day out of the field,” said Berla, who added that he “never felt any anti-Semitism in the military at all.”  This, from a guy whose informal call sign was “’Super Jew II.” He’d learned that another pilot ahead of him had claimed the handle “Super Jew.”

The medevac motto of his unit, part of the storied B Troop of the 1st Squadron of the 9th Regiment that was portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now,” was simply this: “That others may live.”

Born to be a patriot

During his tour as a medevac pilot, Berla helped save dozens of lives.

That he ended up flying helicopters in Vietnam is another fascinating story. After he flunked out of Rutgers the second time, he was drafted into the Army, where he qualified for helicopter flight school.

Why didn’t he do what so many young men did in those days? Flee to Canada or find a way to flunk the physical examination?

“I’m not a pacifist,” Berla said. “I’m a patriot. It was my time.”

After flight school, where he finished as a distinguished graduate, Berla arrived in South Vietnam and soon volunteered to be co-pilot to the commander of B Troop, 1st  of the 9th  of the 1st Cavalry Division.

His commander, a Major Gilmore, Berla said, was the model for Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, the cocky, swaggering 1st Cav gunship commander played by Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now.”

After a few weeks, Berla requested to be transferred to a medevac unit.

“I didn’t want to kill anyone,” he said. “I wanted no part of what Gilmore would do.”

He was shunned by the other officers in his unit and had to eat last in the chow line. He even had to report to the division commander, a two-star general, to explain that he simply didn’t want to kill anyone by operating a gunship.

Berla got his wish. And he almost lost his life when he was on a hoist mission, hovering 100 feet above the ground, trying to lift a sick dog and its handler into his “airplane.”

First up, though, in a jungle penetrator (a seat on a cable dropped to near the ground), was a chaplain, Father Black. Berla never learned his first name. The chaplain was merely trying to hitch a ride back to base camp.

It was Dec. 29, 1968, near the town of Quan Loi on Highway 13 about 75 miles north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

“We hated hoist missions,” Berla said. “Father Black starts up in the jungle penetrator, and we start to get hit from groundfire” from Vietnamese communist troops, even though the helicopter was clearly marked with red crosses.

Under the Geneva Convention’s rules of warfare, medical evacuation helicopters were supposed to be off-limits for hostile enemy action. Berla said the Communist troops often tried to shoot down medevac helicopters.

“I feel this huge whack on my left leg,” said Berla, who was the aircraft commander. “It knocks out our commo [communications], so I couldn’t talk to the crew. I don’t know if my leg is going to work. The controls in a helicopter are all interrelated.”

Berla’s trying to control the aircraft. He doesn’t know how badly he’s been hit, although he doesn’t doubt that he was.

He has to gesture to his co-pilot to his right. And he has to stay absolutely calm. As it turned out, the bullet missed his leg but punched a hole in his flight suit. He still has that piece of metal from the helicopter where the AK-47 round entered.

“The whole aspect of being an aircraft commander is to keep everybody calm,” he said, adding that if he panicked and started yelling, the other four men in the crew could lose it, too.

“I used to wiggle my toes inside my boots when I was nervous so nobody else could see it,” he said.

“We got Father Black into the airplane,” Berla continued. “We had to pry his hands off the ring on the jungle penetrator.”

They never got the sick dog and his handler.

‘An old lefty Zionist’

No one was hurt on that mission, but Berla found out that he could be very cool under fire – literally. Today says his wife, Bev, he is the same way. Berla likes to say that the stickier the situation, the cooler he becomes. He’s had his moments with sudden rages, and he’s applied for a disability from the Department of Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He’s still waiting.

“If the s—hits the fan, I’m the guy you want next to you,” Berla said. “I’ll keep my feet on the ground no matter what.”

Bev added: “You don’t live your life in fear of dying.”

Berla and I agreed that surviving combat and scary situations often does that to people.

Today, Berla lives in a comfortable two-story house in Parkview, where he and his wife reared two children: a son, Bertram, and a daughter, Rachel. He and Bev moved to St. Louis, where he studied dentistry at Washington University. His practice in the Metro East is down to three days a week.

You’d never know that Berla is a vet because that’s not how he identifies himself. He doesn’t wear his combat experience, much less his cool courage under fire, on his sleeve.

Yet his stories about combat rescue missions are as compelling as any. His medals tell his story as a warrant officer piloting a rescue helicopter into — and out of — very dangerous areas. They include the Combat Medical Badge (of which he’s most proud), the Distinguished Flying Cross, his pilot’s wings, the Bronze Star, 21 Air Medals for combat and combat support missions, and the Army Commendation Medal, plus an expert badge for marksmanship he earned with a rifle.

The Berlas are longtime members of Central Reform Congregation, where Bev, a retired teacher who founded the Gifted Resource Council, teaches Hebrew.

Berla remains the inquisitive, soul-searching Jew who first lived in Kibbutz Revivim in the Israeli Negev in 1962.

I suggested that he might well have been the only Jewish helicopter pilot who lived on a kibbutz before going to Vietnam. He even returned to Kibbutz Revivim while on a month’s leave after extending his tour in Vietnam for six months.

“I was trying to come to terms with my Jewish roots,” Berla said. “I couldn’t understand the Jews during the Holocaust who went to the death camps without a fight.”

On the kibbutz, where most of the men had been members of Palmach, the paramilitary Jewish force during the British mandate period, Berla saw that “every young man was good with a weapon.”

He saw Jews who could protect themselves and their families and friends.

And he discovered something else: He was attracted to the traditional Zionist ideals of creating a Jewish State that lives in harmony with its Arab neighbors. He calls himself “an old lefty Zionist.”

“There I was, a world away, on a socialist collective farm,” Berla said. “Social status was conferred by being a good worker. That experience changed my life. My values were completely changed by that experience.”

He continues to learn and improve his Hebrew. Several times when we talked last week, he lapsed into Hebrew, leaving me far behind until he translated.

We sat on a comfortable couch in his back sunroom, where he could watch the hummingbird feeder he had just filled with sweetened water. Occasionally, he’d say, “There’s a hummer,” as a bird hovered and took in the liquid sustenance he had provided.

Now that’s an interesting observation. When you hear the word “hummer” these days, most people think of those heavy military vehicles or their civilian equivalents that guzzle fuel and became popular during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Berla’s talking about a little bird that weighs, maybe, 4 grams.

That’s quite a change for a guy who used to fly helicopters into enemy fire and risk his own life to save others.