In 1968, as President Nixon told Americans that the U.S. was not conducting operations in Cambodia, Army Warrant Officer 1 Robert Poast thought, “That’s funny. I just spent my entire day there.” At the time, Poast was a UH-1H Huey pilot in the 155th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Coryell in South Vietnam.
A native of Columbus, Poast joined the Ohio National Guard in 1964, took some classes, and then worked at a company building aircraft. In 1968, a friend enticed him to enroll at Brigham Young University, but the draft cut his studies short in September. While awaiting orders at Fort Ord, California, Poast, who had obtained his pilot’s license in Utah, applied for the Army’s flight program, and he was accepted.
After flight school, Poast reported to the 155th in March 1970, where his primary mission was to fly in and out of Cambodia carrying personnel who were conducting covert operations. He never knew what to expect at the extraction point, but he knew that he had to be quick because combatants could always hear the Hueys coming. During one mission, Poast landed in a clearing barely big enough for the aircraft and discovered 14 personnel for extraction. This was well above the aircraft’s lift capacity. Overloaded, it did not clear the trees on Poast’s first attempt. A second attempt failed, and they began taking enemy fire. On the third attempt, one of the blades struck a tree limb, and Poast thought, “This is how I’m going to die,” but amazingly, they still cleared the trees and then flew to safety.
This was not Poast’s only close call. One night, his mission was a distant extraction that required refueling on the way back. When he stopped at a refueling site, the fuel was marked “contaminated,” so he stopped at a second site to discover the same problem. There were no other refueling sites nearby, but another pilot delivered a 55-gallon drum of fuel to him. Heading back to the base, Poast’s low fuel light came on, indicating he had about 20 minutes of flight time left, but there was nowhere to land. Miraculously, he landed the Huey at the base 37 minutes later. On another of his 171 missions, he flew so close to two enemy machine gunners that he could see their faces, but somehow they missed the aircraft entirely.
WO1 Poast is quick to share his admiration and respect for the infantry and the hardships they encountered daily. Reflecting on his service, he said, “There’s nobody that you can be closer to than the guys that are fighting beside you” and that it was humbling to “know that those guys were willing to die for me.” He left Vietnam and the Army in March 1971. Among his awards are the Air Medal and a baby elephant, which was a gift from a village that his unit saved from the North Vietnamese Army.