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Viviano, Joseph L.

Duty. Service. Honor. Those are the military principles that retired Air Force Maj. Joseph Viviano hopes to leave with the cadets of the Alabama wing of the Civil Air Patrol, Redstone Composite Squadron as one of their chapter mentors. Along with those, he also hopes to leave with them a love of flying that is never outlived. That’s what drove Viviano to choose Air Force as his career. In the mid-1950s, he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol at his high school in Louisiana. He then went on to college at Louisiana State University, where he served as the Air Force ROTC cadet commander and then was named a distinguished Air Force ROTC graduate. “I was always interested in the military,” Viviano said. “And, I always loved flying.” That love took him to Randolph Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, where he learned to fly a fixed wing aircraft, then on to helicopter training at Stead Air Force Base, Reno, Nevada. He was then assigned to provide helicopter support flying the UH-1 Huey for the missile wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. And then Southeast Asia called. “I expected to go over there. But not quite as quick as it happened,” Viviano said. “Nearly everyone in my flight class served in the theater.” First, there was a three-month temporary assignment flying Hueys in Thailand and Vietnam. This was essentially the first USAF special operations counterinsurgency and civic action mission. After only a couple of weeks in Thailand, the unit was ordered to join the 20th Helicopter Squadron (later renamed the 20th Special Operations Squadron at Nha Trang Air Base on the South China Sea coast). Viviano returned to Vietnam to complete his one year requirement from May 1968 to April 1969. His unit was assigned to fly Hueys on clandestine missions with the 20th in Cambodia. The UH-1 Huey helicopters, known as the Green Hornets, inserted and extracted Special Forces long range reconnaissance patrol teams (LRRPs), provided cover for such operations, conducted psychological warfare, and conducted other support roles for covert operations during the so-called Secret War in Cambodia. “We flew missions on the western side of South Vietnam and lived with the SF members we supported,” he said. “We ran LRRP missions into Cambodia to do intelligence gathering of the numbers of the North Vietnam Army infiltrating into South Vietnam. There was a lot of action going on to keep our teams on the trails.” “We would take six to eight man teams over the Cambodia border and drop them off, and then go back and get them out. The teams were made up of Special Forces and indigenous soldiers. We would take a slick (a Huey configured to carry troops) and two Huey gunships armed with miniguns and rockets and drop them off, and then we would sit at the closest Special Forces camp and wait until it was time to get them. I flew gunships. We could be in the air in a minute and be there to get them in five minutes.” The Hueys were known for their ability to dash in and out of firefights. “Every time our slicks made a landing, there could be a face-to-face shoot out with the enemy. In the gunships, we could stay right on top of the trees and fire out both sides of the bird,” Viviano said. “The slicks could be put in some of the most difficult little openings. If we couldn’t land, we had rope ladders and long ropes with loops for the team members to sit in while the helicopter lifted them out of the trees.” During his assignment with the Special Forces, Viviano earned, among other medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, which qualified him for his induction into the Madison County Hall of Heroes. The first one he earned on August 23, 1968, when he flew as copilot on a gunship helping protect a Special Forces camp near the Cambodian border that was partially overrun by a large NVA force. The camp was located on two hills and the small one was taken by the enemy. “The North Vietnamese took the little hill the first night in a horrendous battle where we lost a couple of Army helicopters,” he said. The next morning, Viviano and his crew and a second gunship interdicted the enemy with miniguns and rockets. “There were so many of the enemy down there. They were entrenched in little tiny holes. Even at altitude, it sounded like a popcorn machine going off,” he recalled. “They were all around the camp. My bird ran out of ammo and rockets and bird number two had only have 500 rounds left. We were heading back when an F-100 pilot ejected over the camp. So, we turned back and hovered over the area where he was being rescued. We were pretty light because we didn’t have any ammo. Then, all hell broke loose. People were running all over the place. There was gunfire everywhere.” “Special Forces members in an ambulance and jeep from the main camp had come to rescue the fighter pilot and we all met, along with the enemy, at the same spot”. But Viviano was able to see the downed pilot running with the group from the camp for the vehicles. At about that time, the second helicopter got hit, and both then exited the area. “We helped by hovering and drawing a lot of ground fire. But that’s as close as we could get,” he said. His second medal was earned on Sept. 2, 1968, when he repeatedly flew his helicopter gunship through enemy ground fire deep within enemy territory to relieve a seven-man LRRP team that was on the verge of being overrun. His attack disorganized the enemy forces enough to allow the rescue of the patrol. There were many such scenarios that occurred during the 711 combat missions that Viviano completed. “Fifty percent of the time we went in because our Special Forces friends would get compromised or seen, and they’d have to get out. The other 50 percent of the time it was a hot mission with our team surrounded by the enemy,” he said. “We were the only resources that could be called in to protect the team.” Viviano’s unit was highly decorated for their years of service. It received two outstanding Air Force unit awards and two presidential unit citations. Members in the unit – made up of up to 65 pilots and 23 helicopters – received such individual awards as a Medal of Honor, six Air Force Crosses and numerous Silver Stars. “A lot of guys deserved more than they got,” Viviano said. “For years, what we did there was classified. It was an exceptional unit, but it was not well known. It was the only Air Force unit flying combat helicopters in Vietnam, other than the rescue helicopters. It’s was a great honor to be a member of this unit.”