On April 25, 1967, while flying his Huey helicopter “Smiling Tiger 36” on a combat assault mission in Zone II Corps, near Qui Nhon, Vietnam, U.S. Army Captain Sam Prestipino felt a jolt that caused the gunship to start plunging earthward out of control.
“As soon as we lurched, one of the crew yelled, ‘We lost the tail rotor!” Pristipino recounted 51 years later, during an interview in his Helena home. “I don’t know if we took a hit, or what, but the tail rotor gearbox had disintegrated.”
The copter turned sideways, ripping off the aft pylon, which “caused a serious control problem.” Without a tail rotor, the copter was flying on the mast propeller alone and went into a steep, spiraling nose dive.
“I was pulling back on the stick with everything I had, but just couldn’t bring the nose up,” said Prestipino, who served as aircraft commander of the Smiling Tiger 36.
The gunship crash-landed so hard it broke the machine in half. But miraculously, all four crew members survived, with only the pilot sustaining a painful chest injury from falling on the stick on impact.
“How I walked away with a just a knock on the head, I’m not quite sure,” the spry 82-year old Master Army Aviator said. “I was grounded for a couple days, yes, but was flying again within the week. “Like we always said, anytime you can walk away, it’s a good landing.”
Prestipino went on to serve two combat tours of duty during the Vietnam War, with the 1st Cavalry from August 1966 to August 1967, and then with 101st Airborne from January 1969 to January 1970.
Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Prestipino amassed over 950 hours of combat flying time during his duty, garnering the Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill with minimizing the crash, the Air Medal with 25 Clusters (including the “V” device for heroism), two Bronze Stars and the Legion of Merit, among others.
Steel, drums and nuns
Prestipino's father, Sam Prestipino Sr., was born on the island of Sicily, and went to work for U.S. Steel in Johnston, Pennsylvania, at 14 years of age. He married a local gal, and spent 55 years with the company — most of it as an inventor with multiple patents — before retiring.
“I always told people that I was Mediterranean-Irish,” Sam laughed.
Prestipino attended Johnston Central Catholic High, where he served as a drum major for three years in the school’s marching band. The teachers were all nuns, and since they weren’t allowed to attend school activities because of their Catholic habit attire, Sam was assigned a leadership role during the band’s performances at sporting events.
After high school graduation, he enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He attended the state’s first Officer Candidate School, in the capitol city of Harrisburg.
Prestipino graduated OCS as a lieutenant, and was then accepted for active duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He took his basic course in armor in the early 1960s, many years before aviation became an Army branch 1981.
Prestipino entered flight school as an armor officer in 1965, at Fort Wolters, Texas, where he underwent primary helicopter training. He then went to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he learned to fly the Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters.
“When I graduated flight school from Ft. Rucker in July, 1966, everything was geared towards going to Vietnam … we all knew our next stop was the war,” he related.
Vietnam, taking hits 17 times, Hamburger Hill
Prestipino was assigned to D Gun Company, 229 Aviation Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (the Army’s initial Air Cavalry Division), at Landing Zone English, near Qui Nhon. Their Smiling Tiger logo was designed and copyrighted by the Disney Company.
The last part of his first tour took place at LZ Hammond, near Phan Thiet.
The B Model Hueys crew consisted of a pilot, aircraft commander, crew chief/door gunner and door gunner. There were two M60 machine guns, and two 2.75-inch rocket launchers, mounted on each side of the craft below the doors. Later on the machine guns were replaced by mini guns — which worked “a thousand times better” — and the M129 grenade launchers came into vogue on the bow of the gunship, shooting 40mm grenades.
The Smiling Tigers operations consisted of combat assault missions, search and clear missions for inserting and recovering troops, and providing cover for the Agent Orange spray planes.
During his time with the 1st Cavalry, Prestipino’s Hueys took hits on 17 different combat missions. Another close call occurred when the camp underwent a mortar attack, which started a fire that spread to the ammunition dump. The ensuing explosion spread flames that burned for three days afterwards.
Among the GI’s peaceful missions were serving Thanksgiving dinners of turkey and mashed potatoes to the locals and visiting a leper colony run by French nuns, where they provided the children food and clothing.
Prestipino returned stateside after his tour and became an instructor pilot at Ft. Wolters for 18 months. He was then sent to Hunter Army Airfield to become a Cobra instructor pilot.
Next came another tour in Vietnam, flying AH-1G Cobras with the 101st Airborne Air Mobile Division. Prestipino was assigned to I Corp’s Camp Eagle, close to the DMZ near Da Nang.
On May 10, 1969, he flew the lead Cobra in the attack on Hamburger Hill. Major Prestipino’s crew spent four hours in the air that day.
“After taking hits 17 different times my first tour flying Hueys, we did not take one single hit my entire second tour,” he said. “Because the Cobra, which was the precursor to the Apache, was so much faster, at 200 knots.”
Germany, Montana and a gal from Clyde Park
After his second go-round in Vietnam, Prestipino underwent an armor officer advanced course. The guest speaker for the graduating class was General William Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
“Westmoreland told us, ‘I love you like brothers, but we have too many helicopter pilots, and you must obtain a degree,” Prestipino said.
So he took a couple of preparatory college courses at the University of Kentucky, before attaining a BA in English-writing and graduating cum laude at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I also minored in conversational Italian, and requested Vicenza, Italy, but they sent me to a tank outfit in Nuremburg, Germany,” Prestipino said. “I hated tanks.”
Next came a flying job, at the Army Aviation Facility in Helena.
“I said ‘Where the hell’s that?’” he asked, when first learned of the assignment. “They said ‘Oh, it’s up north. There’s a lot of hunting and fishing up there.’”
From 1976-79, Prestipino served as the aviation adviser to the Montana Army National Guard.
During this time, Sam was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and he also met Margale Westbrook, from Clyde Park. After Sam and Margale were married, he was sent back to Germany, for a “four-year honeymoon in Heidelberg, Germany.”
When Prestipino retired in 1984 after 25 years of active duty, he was rated in 12 different aircraft models, and had logged 2,000 hours of flight — half of those in combat.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 5 Sam Prestipinos, but no Purple Heart
After his retirement from the military, Prestipino spent 13 years with the Montana Department of Transportation.
He has stayed busy throughout the years, first building a log home on their second property at Flesher Acres, and now serving as coordinator of seminarian support for the Knights of Columbus, while making time to work out three times a week at the Green Meadow Country Club’s fitness facility.
Sam and Margale also spent many hours helping her family with the Westbrook ranch near Clyde Park, before she contracted multiple sclerosis in the late 1990s. They were both devout Pittsburgh Steelers fans as well, and one of the couple's highlights was seeing a Steelers game together.
“Margale had been a cheerleader at Clyde Park, and she understood the game as well as a lot of guys,” explained Sam. “My niece was dating one of Baltimore’s cornerbacks, so we flew out to Pittsburgh for a game against the Ravens.
“Because my wife was in a wheelchair, we ended up on the second deck right above the Steelers’ bench. I sat in a bar stool right behind her, the noise was deafening, and Pittsburgh won.”
Margale, who Sam described as “a marvelous human being,” died in 2014, which was a painful loss for the tough warrior.
A family man as well as a soldier, Prestipino has two sons, Sam and David, who both live on the East Coast, and daughter Cris Bisson of Helena. Among the many jewels in his home is a photo of the five Sam Prestipinos; his late father (inserted in the corner), himself, his son, his grandson and his great-grandson.
An event he seldom misses is the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association’s annual reunion, where he gets a chance to rendezvous with some of his classmates from flight school. The banquet is held in different locations, consisting of 3,000 participants in one gathering, and displaying two helicopters on stage (one on each side).
Last March, Prestipino — who carries the memories of being singled out because of his medals and spit on by protesters when he returned from the war — was invited to be the keynote speaker for the “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” event.
“Welcome home,” he concluded his speech at the state Capitol. “I’ve heard that more today than when I came home from Vietnam.”
Regarding his multiple decorations of valor, Prestipino, said he’s “very proud of what I earned. One thing I don’t have — which no one ever really wants, anyway — is a Purple Heart.
“But my machines took a few hits,” he said with a grin.
Curt Synness, a U.S. Navy veteran, can be reached at 594-2878 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR.