Texas Tech football player Lou Breuer has never been forgotten: Part 2

On his wrist for no telling how many years, Tom Gunning wore a memorial bracelet. Whenever someone asked, it gave him a chance to talk about the name on the metal band, that of Lou Breuer, his long-ago buddy from Advanced Individual Training and Officer Candidate School.

Gunning stopped putting on the bracelet a few years ago for no particular reason, but when someone inquires about its whereabouts, it doesn't take long for him to find it.

Not that he needs a physical reminder.

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Memorial Day and June 20 make him emotional.

"I still think of him," Gunning said. "There isn't a day goes by I don't think about him. Every June, it starts leading up to the 20th and you kind of start getting it more and more. It's been 50 years and I understand the time, but he's the kind of guy you don't ever forget."

Gunning and Breuer were in the same battery, same training unit in Officer Candidate School. Sixteen weeks in, Gunning said, the military decided they were grooming too many junior lieutenants. U.S. President Richard Nixon and his staff were in the process of Vietnamization — bringing troops home and increasingly turning the war effort over to the government of South Vietnam.

"So we had a formation one day," Gunning said, "and they said, anybody that wants to drop out of OCS, you'll go back to an enlisted status called an E-5, we will guarantee you stateside assignment and nobody would go to Vietnam.

"At the time that happened, if I remember straight, there were 103 of us in my class," Gunning said, "and the next morning, we had six, of which Lou and I were part of the six. He was committed to flight school, and I was committed to stay and become an officer."

They became even tighter after that.

"I remember talking late one night about life," Gunning said. "No way he was going to drop out. He was committed to being a pilot. There was no way I was going to drop out. ... We talked about the guys that dropped. ... They know they're not going to get killed and all that. But neither one of us, it didn't cross our mind, you know? Both of us were committed."

The two men parted after graduation from Officer Candidate School, Gunning sent to Fort Hood and Breuer to Fort Walters.

Gunning was three months out of the military in June 1972 when he was reading the Houston Chronicle one Sunday morning and was dumbstruck by a headline: "Former Texas Tech gridder killed in Vietnam".

"Lou loved flying. That was his thing," Gunning said, "and if you read some of the comments by the people that knew him in Vietnam, he was quite the pilot, quite the hero. ... As far as a human being, he was one of the greatest men I ever knew. He just had that personality that everybody liked him."

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It's amazing sometimes how an airplane can feel like part of your arm, especially when a million tracers start screamin' up at you. You just move it around and the damn thing does what you want it to do. It's quite a feeling.

Bob Monette doesn't soften the description of the job he once had flying Cobra gunship and Huey helicopters in Vietnam.

"Our mission was find the bad guys, piss 'em off and then kill 'em," Monette said. "Sounds like a pretty bad job description, but that's what we did."

In 2019, Monette was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. The biography that accompanies his induction shows a slew of decorations, including the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars and 49 Air Medals.

Monette, an Ohio native who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama, served in Vietnam in 1969-70 and again in 1972-73. He came to the unit on which Breuer was serving in March 1972, and three months was long enough for the latter to make a lasting impression.

"I was fortunate enough to be able to fly with him a few times," Monette said, "and he was one hell of a pilot. He was one hell of a Cobra attack helicopter pilot."

The chopper pilots, working in groups known as hunter-killer teams, deployed at three levels: a small scout helicopter called a Loach flying low, a pair of Cobras circling above them and a Huey helicopter up top. Each chopper was responsible for protecting the one below him.

"We'd fly out to the area together at altitude," Cobra pilot Capt. Mike Bair said. "When we got to the area, the small helicopter, the loach, would begin scouting. They would go down quite literally to treetop level, searching for the enemy low enough and slow enough that they could even smell in the cockpit a concentration of human urine, cook fires, those sorts of things which you couldn't otherwise see because of the forest, the jungle canopies."

When the Loach operator radioed up what he observed, the front-seat pilot in the Cobra above would record the information and the location coordinates in grease pencil on the Plexiglas canopy. Upon return to base, that information would be sent along to higher command.

The scout helicopters frequently would take hostile fire — "Any time you find the enemy," Bair said, "they're not going to like it" — and would immediately drop a smoke grenade to serve as a target for the circling Cobra pilots to fire upon.

"You're flying and focused on an area, focused on the little bird," Monette said, "because our lead helicopter, lead cobra, his mission is to protect the little bird. So if the little bird said, 'Taking fire,' lead cobra immediately rolls in and shoots up the area. Then wing man, he rolls in right after lead and he covers the lead's break."

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According to the Naval Helicopter Association Historical Society, Bell built 1,116 AH-1Gs for the U.S. Army between 1967 and 1973, and the Cobras chalked up over a million operational hours in Vietnam.

Described in a 2021 story as "lightning-fast, heavily armed and lethal," the Cobra had a narrow fuselage, about 3 feet wide for the co-pilot/gunner positioned slightly forward and below the pilot.

"That was a fun helicopter to fly, the Cobra gunship," Bair said. "It was unique at the time. It was the first purpose-specific helicopter gunship ever designed and built and put into service, and it was very effective in engaging the enemy."

The hunter-killer teams would fly multiple missions a day, returning to a staging area to rearm and refuel, then heading back out to do it again.

In the spring of '72, Breuer and men like him were doing it in one of the most dangerous places imaginable. The North Vietnamese launched the massive Easter Offensive on three fronts at the end of March 1972, trying to capture as much territory in South Vietnam as possible.

In the III Corps Tactical Zone, North Vietnamese overran Loc Nihn in early April and advanced along Highway 13 toward the capital of Binh Long Province at An Loc. At least three divisions with more than 10,000 troops apiece massed outside An Loc. The battle of An Loc lasted from April 13 to July 20.

Since 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon's administration had gradually withdrawn American combat troops in a strategy known as Vietnamization — putting more and more responsibility on South Vietnamese ground troops to defend their country.

U.S. troops, from a high of more than 500,000 in Vietnam in 1969, had dwindled to well below 100,000 by 1972.

"It felt like you were some of the last guys in the place," said Bruce Shearer, a Huey door gunner and crew chief.

Jonesy was leading, and I was covering him. He dove in shooting for these guys, and he broke. Seven .51s opened up on him. It was dark by now. Tree line just started glittering. You wouldn't believe it. It wasn't quite dark, really. It was about, oh, twilight. So I rolled in on them, trying to take some of the fire off him, and the (expletive) thing swung over onto me. Missed. (Chuckles) Luck. Again. Luck again. 

The waning manpower wasn't the only concern among helicopter pilots. The surface-to-air missile known as the SAM-7, developed in 1959, had been first deployed in 1968.

"They were new to the Vietnam conflict; let's put it that way," Bob Monette said. "I don't know how long the SA-7 had been around, but it was new to us. We had what we thought was pretty much air superiority, and the worst thing we had to deal with mostly was the .51-caliber machine gun."

Asked how many SAM-7s American chopper pilots had encountered by the time Breuer was shot down, Monette said, "At that point, not too many. That was June 20, so not very many that we had seen launched. Maybe eight to 10. And then, after that, my God. Hell, one time I had three of them launched at me at the same time, so that was kind of tricky."

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This was long before the Internet, Monette pointed out. There was no Wikipedia. No Google search. Military intelligence personnel must have been wracking their brains, Monette said, trying to find out about the missiles.

"We really had very limited intel on what the SA-7 was, how it acted, how to defeat it, what it was going after," Monette said. "We thought it was going after the heat plume out the back of the engine. But we also then realized it goes to contrast. So if you have a 'clear, blue and 22' (perfect flying conditions) day, it would go after the contrast just of the helicopter itself. The intel was very, very limited."

Co-pilot/gunner Dave Townsend, a 26-year-old from Oneonta, New York, died with Breuer when their Cobra went down.

Monette knew both. The first time he broke down and cried over Breuer's death, he said, was when he met Breuer's parents.

"The problem was we never really had time to grieve over anybody," Monette said, "because the next day they made me an aircraft commander, just because they needed somebody. So that day, because of Lou's death, I was now the back seater (pilot) and not the front seater (co-pilot), and that's a heck of a way to make aircraft commander.

"But he was an unbelievable guy, and I am really sorry that I didn't get to know him better and he didn't make it all the way through the tour alive. Now we get together as a group, our F-9 Cav guys — we try to do it at least once a year — and he would have been a great addition to us old guys sitting around telling war stories."

From left, Robert Frank, Robert Monette, Bruce Shearer and South Bend native John DesLauriers pose for photos in Little Rock, Ark., on April 18, 2017. All four men were awarded the Silver Star for their service in Vietnam. Photo provided
From left, Robert Frank, Robert Monette, Bruce Shearer and South Bend native John DesLauriers pose for photos in Little Rock, Ark., on April 18, 2017. All four men were awarded the Silver Star for their service in Vietnam. Photo provided

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Texas Tech football player Lou Breuer has never been forgotten: Part 2