With more than 325 combat missions during the Vietnam War under his belt, it’d be natural to assume Bill Martin of Rio Rancho could have his demons to fight 50 years later.
Assume away, although Martin managed to dispel what had been 40 years of the same nightmare by becoming a Christian.
Religion had never meant much to Martin, who turns 88 in April, while he was growing up or in the Navy, for whom he flew helicopter gunships over the delta, protecting U.S. riverboats below and ferreting out Viet Cong. He was known as “Seawolf 7-6” — aka “The Pilot with a Magic Hat” — in 1967-68.
“We were their eyes,” Martin recalled, as he recently recounted myriad adventures before about three-dozen Meadowlark Senior Center members; the informative session was sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council. “We covered all the boats in that area.”
“That area” was deep in the Mekong Delta, about 60-70 miles south of Saigon.
Martin oversaw the set-up of the River Patrol headquarters, with six gunship detachments — two Huey choppers per detachment.
“I wanted my people to be airborne in three minutes, five to seven minutes at night,” he said, with his men responsible for a 30-mile segment of the river, which was more like a canal in size.
And it was one of his 500 total missions that begat his four-decade recurring nightmare: He was at the controls and his co-pilot engaged him in a cockpit battle, believing Martin was steering them into oblivion. Martin fended him off and, at the last second, opened fire with his rockets before peeling off and living to fight another day.
That episode was during the Tet Offensive, he recalled, when his chopper “had ten 30-calibers and six 50-calibers trained on me, diving at green tracers. Ours were orange. Within seconds of being in (their) range, I fired off two rockets.
“The chopper got shot up, but we didn’t get wounded,” he said. “We’d come back with bullet holes one in every eight flights — you don’t know what’s happening, but you get through it. I was there 16 months and never lost a crewman.
“The Hueys were real reliable; we patched ’em up with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans,” he joked.
His recurring nightmare began the way the flight with a cockpit scuffle had, and then all of a sudden, he realizes he is outside the chopper, watching it while controlling it — seeing it protected by a “white shroud,” with Viet Cong bullets bouncing off this weird shield.
“Right after I would pop off the rocket, I would wake up in a cold sweat.
“I had never read the Bible before,” he recalled, but somehow realized, “God saved me.”
So Martin became a Christian at the age of 79 one Easter Sunday at Calvary Chapel.
“Things have settled down a lot,” Martin said. “PTSD is not just an individual thing; it’s the whole (expleteive) family. … Like many returning vets, I had been drinking heavily. When I started doing things with the Humanities Council, I had a purpose.”
People at MSC and elsewhere know him from his appearances as Harry Houdini; youngsters know him also as a magician, “Swami Salami,” assisted by his wife Charlene.
Seeing the smiling faces of children enjoying his magic makes Martin smile, and reminds him of smiling youngsters observing his acts in Vietnam.
“South Vietnam people were real friendly,” Martin said, recalling enrolling in a two-week crash course to learn their language.
One of those appearances nearly cost him his life. He had his collapsible table, magician’s hat and various tricks stashed under his seat in the Huey.
After landing near a village, he “was in the middle of my magic show when a little girl came up and said, ‘You go; VC come’. I could see the fear in her eyes.
“I dumped all my stuff in the helicopter, got airborne,” he said. “I went back, and the VC and their weapons were there. They put a price on my head — I don’t know if it was a dollar-ninety-eight or what.”
Martin said he plans to write a book about his life, which will surely include a lot more than his 18-month stint in the jungle of Vietnam.
He’s likely the only resident in the City of Vision who in 1969 flew a plane across the Atlantic Ocean while blindfolded. And who else do you know who was all set to make an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show — until, Martin jokes, he was pre-empted by a kissing giraffe?
Martin invites other New Mexico veterans, bothered by PTSD or not, to join the Veterans & Patriots Performance Group, of which he is president. The group serves as a creative outlet for veterans, especially with PTSD or other disabilities, and puts on 60- to 90-minute variety shows for churches, veterans organizations and commercial venues.
Call Jim French at 350-9655 for more information.