Len Kauffman liked flying but hated being shot at. In Vietnam, it was tough to avoid it.
While Vietnam veteran Len Kauffman wouldn’t call his 1968 U.S. Army tour in Vietnam enjoyable, he formed special bonds with his fellow soldiers that will last his lifetime.
Raised on a farm about 3 miles west of Lebanon, Kauffman attended Oregon State University before joining its ROTC program.
“Most of my ROTC buddies back then went to Vietnam, and we have kind of a kinship that’s quite precious now,” he said, adding that the bond was formed between himself and fellow pilots, crew chiefs, gunners and maintenance guys.
The 24-year Tualatin resident compared his experience to the 2001 “Band of Brothers ” television miniseries.”
“‘Band of Brothers’ pretty much defines how we felt as a family,” he said. “We lived together. We ate together. We flew together. We died together. You know, it was a really close-knit family. That was quite, quite meaningful, I think, to all of us.”
Last Memorial Day, Kauffman was the honored veteran at the annual Memorial Day observance sponsored by the Tualatin chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, held at Winona Cemetery. He talked about that bonding experience there as well.
Trained to fly helicopters at Fort Wolters in Texas and Fort Rucker in Alabama, Kauffman said he felt he was quite well prepared by the time he made it to flight school. That included preparing him and other pilots for the jungles of Vietnam by spending the last couple weeks of the flight training school at Fort Rucker, living in the woods with his fellow pilots, flying like they were on actual missions.
Kauffman would end up stationed in Duc Pho, Vietnam, flying in the 174th Assault Helicopter Company.
“I flew the Huey, the UH-1 Huey,” he said. “The Huey was a real workhorse. It’s a single rotor with a tail rotor and was used for all the combat assaults and extractions and medevac and gunships, and just on and on.”
While the UH-1 wasn’t extremely fast, it was a “good lifting machine,” Kauffman recalled.
Kauffman loved helicopters, but he didn’t like being shot at. Missions sometimes started as non-hostile, then quickly turned into hostile ones.
“I had my co-pilot hit one time, and my gunner was hit one time,” said Kauffman. “Luckily, I was never hit, even though a bullet came close one time.”
At times, Kauffman would fly night missions, dropping flares to light the ground so people below could see what was happening.
“We did search and rescue for whatever — downed helicopters at night — I was dropping flares to find them,” he said.
By the time Kauffman’s tour of duty was complete, he had logged 1,100 hours of flight time, flying anywhere from eight to 14 hours in a typical day.
When Kauffman returned from Vietnam in January 1969, he returned to Fort Wolters as a basic flight training instructor, training students who would soon be in Vietnam. He later joined the Oregon Army National Guard and flew Hueys there for another year.
In December of this year, he will celebrate 50 years as a pilot.
Kauffman also returned to Oregon State University to study for a master’s degree in education. He remembers some anti-war protests at the time, recalling how some of the students there were picking on the ROTC students, something that “really made me angry.”
He went on to serve as a wrestling coach at Oregon State and taught for 14 years at Portland State University before flying for American Airlines for 14 years.
Kauffman was a longtime member of the West Coast Ravens, an Oregon club that flies Oregon RV aircraft built from kits. He recently retired from the club.
“I just didn’t want to do it too long and make mistakes, but I did it for, I don’t know, 15, 16 years,” said Kauffman. “You buy the kit, and I had mine flying in 5 Â½ years.”
Editor’s note: This story appears in 2022 Salute to Veterans, a special publication in print and online by Pamplin Media Group to celebrate the stories of veterans.
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