Christmas Eve, '67

By Team Greyhive


Veterans Day is a time for celebration, reflection and honoring those who have served our country, and those currently serving our great nation. Jim Moriarty is a Marine Corps Veteran who served multiple tours in Vietnam. He owns a successful law firm in Houston, TX and has the unfortunate title of “Gold Star Father”. His son, Jimmy Moriarty was killed on 4 November 2016 in Jafr, Jordan alongside two other 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers, Matt Lewellen and Kevin McEnroe. Jimmy was undeniably a phenomenal Green Beret and an even better human. This is a testament to the family that brought him into this world and raised him to fight for our nation’s strategic objectives. To become a Green Beret and earn the respect of our nation’s finest warfighters is one very few can accomplish. Jimmy Moriarty did that, and to understand what made him special you need to understand the man who raised him.

First hand account from Marine Corps Sergeant Jim Moriarty, the “Black Ace of VMO-2”, a UH-1E door gunner and later crew chief.

I served three tours of duty in Vietnam, from 1966 through 1968. Initially, I was an electronics technician assigned to an A-4 squadron. I was bored with working on radios six days per week. I explained to my gunny that I had not joined the Marines to work on radios. I wanted a chance to shoot at indigenous personnel. The gunny replied that if I wanted to be a door gunner, I needed to serve my 13 months then extend my tour of duty. Then and only then could I be transferred to helicopters. On our one day a week off, I would volunteer as a door gunner on U.S Army helicopters. The 196th had moved into Chu Lai in early 1967. They had Army aviation units assigned to support them. I flew with them on a number of missions. Following my first 13-month tour of duty I extended for 6 months. And gunny was right--I was promptly assigned to VMO-2, a UH-1E gunship squadron based at Marble Mountain. My first move was to track down the most senior crew chief, Charlie “Mad Dog” Maddocks, and demand to be assigned to his aircraft and no other. Soon, I did my qualifications to fly as a door gunner. USMC helicopters are flown with the co-pilot on the left side and, as the door gunner, that is the side I was stationed on with my internal M-60. I was ready to go to war. Charlie had already survived several incidents of being shot down, including when flying in support of SOG missions in Laos. Apparently, he did not enjoy these events. He explained to me that if he allowed me to fly with him, and if I froze up on the gun, he would kill me. To this day, I do not believe he was speaking metaphorically. He would soon come to regret his “encouragement” of my aggressive shooting in combat. As Christmas approached, the entire war came to a brief stop for the Christmas “truce.” During the pause we maintained standby crews in case of any emergencies. “Mad Dog” and I volunteered to serve as part of a standby crew. I had already spent my first Christmas in Vietnam, but now I was not fixing broken radios. We were not on standby for long. On December 24, 1967, a VC sniper wounded a Marine near Tam Ky, which is about 15 miles south of Marble Mountain. A UH-34 medevac launched with two Huey gunships as gun cover. Charlie and I were crewing the lead gunship. The three ships headed to the LZ to pick up the wounded Marine. Given that the zone was not hot, the pilot allowed the copilot to fly the mission. Consequently, we would be taking left turns coming off of any gun runs. The UH-34 went in and made the pickup. Meanwhile, our pilot thought it was ‘chicken shit’ that the VC did not honor Christmas, nor obey the Christmas truce, so he suggested to the copilot that we hose down the tree line where the sniper had hidden. We made several low-level gun runs to either kill the sniper, or at least ruin his day. Each time we completed our firing run, the copilot would break to the left, and I would open fire with my M-60 to cover the break. After the third firing pass we headed back to Marble Mountain while the medevac bird took the wounded to Charlie Med. As we were flying back I noticed—or rather felt—the helicopter making strange motions. Something was clearly amiss. When we arrived at the re-fueling pit, Charlie and I got out to refuel the aircraft. That was when we both noticed holes in the aft pylon. A lot of holes. In fact, it looked like we had been hit with an RPG. Or maybe even a grenade. I’ve been asked many times what it was like to take fire in a helicopter. The closest approximation would be to place a large metal trashcan over your head, and then have someone hit it as hard as they can with a baseball bat. That is what it is like to take a round. A single round. Whatever we had taken, it was a hell of a lot more than a round. I wondered if the VC had started shooting with suppressors, but even that would result in a “kerpow” and we simply had not heard or felt any “kerpows”. Strange. We taxied back to the squadron area and soon enough, folks started coming out of the hanger to view the damage. Everyone came out. No one had ever seen that kind of damage and had the aircraft fly back on its own. It was like showing a Paris Hilton video. Everyone was pretty impressed. There were holes all over the aft pylon and as the main rotors came to a stop, they too were full of holes. As were the tail rotors. These were all ragged shrapnel holes and not bullet holes. Someone asked if we had taken a grenade or maybe some other type of explosion. We were all standing around feeling dumb and as I stood there I became progressively more nervous. Eventually a major leaned his hand on my external gun mount and then he yanked away his hand as it cut him. The major looked at the left hand gun mount more closely and then asked, “Did someone fire this M-60?” I slowly raised my hand. I did it the way you do when you are being called on by the teacher and both of you know you do not know the answer. I said, “Yes sir, I fired a couple hundred rounds as we pulled out of our gun runs.” We then realized that a considerable number of those 200 or so 7.62MM rounds had been fired through the inch steel external gun mount, literally shredding it. My internal gun mount was little more than a 1 inch steel pipe with a tit welded on it to make sure the gun could not free swivel. The little tit broke off and that sucker would do a 360 if you let it. My covering fire during the breaks had shot the external gun/rocket pod mount all to shit. And, what is worse, the steel from the pod became shrapnel further propelled by the rotors. It was this shrapnel that then blew holes in the helicopter. Lots of holes. This bird wouldn’t fly again until the main rotor blades, the aft pylon and tail rotors were replaced and all the remaining holes patched. I don’t know who was more pissed off, Charlie- because I made him look bad--or the skipper. Now Charlie has nursed a grudge simply because I earned two single mission Air Medals on my first day in combat with him, in part for making gun runs with a pistol. He only got one single mission Air Medal. He is still pissed off about that to this very day. The Sergeant Major took me aside and informed me that the skipper was really pissed off, as this was his personal helicopter. What is more, I was grounded and that I should meet with the Colonel at which time I was to apologize and volunteer to pay for the helicopter. I was only making around $350 a month, and quickly calculated that it would take me most of my lifetime to pay for the damage. It also pissed me off that the officers crashed aircraft all the time and no one ever suggested that they would have to pay for the damage. It ended up that I didn’t have to pay for the damages, but I did become the only Marine I ever heard of who shot down his own helicopter. Soon after I got out of the Corps I got my pilot’s license, flying gliders, fixed wing and later helicopters. I restored a UH-34, like the one we were flying gun cover for on that fateful Christmas Eve. On one memorable day, 35 years later, at a small out of the way airport in Mississippi, I was a taxiing my UH-34 and ran into a telephone pole with the rotor blades. I shed parts for about 500 meters. I was told, “That’s two. Three more aircraft destroyed and you become an Ace.”

Article By Team Greyhive
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Great narrative. Had the pleasure of sitting with Jim and him telling the story in person. Phenomenal human being.