Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio was among the most colorful characters of the Vietnam War. His three tours to Vietnam included death-defying scouting missions piloting his Hughes OH-6 light observation helicopter (or Loach) as well as gunship runs inside his AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.
Cozzalio was also involved in nine aircraft mishaps; he was shot down six times and suffered three hard landings. The maverick pilot was known for his fast-and-low flying style. However, the most enduring aspect of his legacy may be his habit of entering the cockpit dressed in an eyebrow-raising 1860s cavalry uniform.
Notably, he once captured a prisoner with his saber. This extraordinary feat occurred in September 1968, only five months into Cozzalio’s first tour in Vietnam.
In the front of a Loach helicopter, Cozzalio scanned the long, narrow waterways the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong often used to transport weapons and supplies. During this scouting mission west of Tan An in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, Cozzalio noticed a military-aged male with a weapon running beside the canal. Piloting his helicopter, Cozzalio followed the man and watched as he threw his weapon aside and jumped into the water.
“Rolling his aircraft’s throttle to flight idle, Ace removes his flight helmet, dons his white Stetson, and climbs out of his Loach,” Rex Gooch writes in the book Ace: The Story of Lt. Col Ace Cozzalio. “Reaching inside the doorframe, he retrieves his Civil War-era cavalry saber and attaches it to the left side of his gun belt.”
Cozzalio landed the helicopter so that his M60 door gunner could provide covering fire while Cozzalio waded into the muddy canal. The pilot poked around with his sword in search of the concealed man. When he felt something solid, he stirred the object with his sword until he felt it move. A man emerged from the water.
“He had a reed in his hand and used the reed to breathe while lying on the bottom of the canal,” Cozzalio told Gooch.
Cozzalio marched his prisoner back to the helicopter and instructed the Vietnamese man to hold on tight to the skid. Before liftoff, Cozzalio hit the prisoner in the chest, knocking him off the helicopter and onto the ground. The action demonstrated to his prisoner that Cozzalio could easily push him off if he tried anything stupid.
He escorted the prisoner on his helicopter back to Dong Tam to hand him off to US Army soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division Military Intelligence group for interrogation.
When asked why he chose to take a prisoner, Cozzalio answered: “Yeah, just to keep things interesting. […] Scouts could earn beer and soda credits by catching Dinks. If you recall, sodas and beer cost us twenty or twenty-five cents, real expensive. Whoever captured the most prisoners never had to buy anything at our little lounge for the month.”
Remarkably, it wouldn’t be the last time Cozzalio took a prisoner and forced the poor combatant to ride on the skids back to base.
“We got pretty good at capturing prisoners,” Cozzalio recalled.