Upon graduation from flight school in 1967, I was assigned to the 17th assault helicopter company. Our mission included lifting infantrymen into the battle area (landing zones), evacuating wounded and killed in action soldiers to the rear of the battle area, resuppling infantry elements in contact with the enemy, and resupplying artillery batteries (fire support bases) with necessary personnel, equipment and supplies.
Below are a few war stories that took place in 1968 while flying combat missions in Vietnam:
I was aircraft commander of a helicopter in a flight of five helicopters. Our mission was to airlift an infantry battalion into rice paddies. On our first flight into the area, we began receiving fire from a tree line on the river some 250 meters from the LZ. The ground fire was extremely intense and I could hear the sound of enemy fire hitting the aircraft (a “thud” sound that was very familiar and distinct). My gunner came on the intercom and said one of the infantrymen would not jump out of the aircraft. I briefly turned to the rear and saw a rifleman holding a structural support so tight the gunner could not release his hold. While all this was going on, we continued to take hits in the aircraft. I could see enemy fire impact (splatter) the water in the rice paddies. One round entered the aircraft only a few inches above my head, ricocheted around the cockpit, and ended up by my feet. As we departed the LZ and continued our mission enroute to the pickup area for infantrymen, all thoughts were on the five additional sorties required to complete the mission.
I was on a solo (single aircraft) mission in resupply of a FSB (fire support base). On one of the sorties into the base, I received a call asking if I could take eight KIA (killed in action) bodies to the mortuary in the rear. This type of request was not unusual. We routinely took KIAs to the mortuary. We were waiting on the ground at flight idle when a soldier approached the aircraft with a poncho. The four corners were tied together with a string. He put the poncho in the cargo compartment and told us that parts of seven bodies were in the poncho. Then, two soldiers carried another KIA to the aircraft and laid him in the cargo bay. The KIA had a hole in his chest so large I could see day-light thru it. We were explained that the night before, a short round had exploded and killed eight US infantrymen. The FSB had run out of body bags.
On a fire support base resupply mission, we landed on the helipad and were at flight idle waiting for a FSB soldier as he approached the aircraft. The FSB had their TOC (tactical operations center) on a hilltop and their howitzers set up in nearby proximity. The size and shape of the useable FSB area and hilltop limited helipad access from the ground by FSB personnel. With rotor blades turning, the soldier, when approaching the aircraft, never lowered himself to avoid contact with the main rotor. It was as though everything was in slow motion……as he came off the hill towards us, we (the crew) anticipated the inevitable and tried to get his attention with hand signals, body actions, and voice commands. We watched as the main rotor decapitated him. On our return to base (Camp Eagle), my pilot said he could not continue to fly the remainder of the day and asked to be replaced. I called flight operations for a replacement pilot and we continued our mission.
We (myself and crew) were on a solo (single aircraft) mission when we began receiving enemy fire. In a matter of minutes, the engine and transmission instruments were in the red and we were losing power. At the time, we had sufficient altitude to make a mayday call, so I switched the uhf transmitter to guard and, knowing our position, was able to make two mayday calls on guard. This transmission went out twice before we were on the sandy beach some 50 meters from the South China Sea. There were no friendly forces in the immediate area and from the incoming enemy fire received before being shot down, I planned for the worst. I instructed the pilot and two gunners to take the M-60 machine guns and ammo boxes to the highest sand dune position off of our flank and set up fields of fire. This gave us coverage in a 180-degree arc.
I went up on the head of the aircraft and opened the cowling to see what damage had been done by the small arms fire. While on the head (main rotor area), I heard the “wizzing” sound of AK-47 rounds over my head and could see North Vietnamese working their way towards us and around sampans pulled up on the beach. The door gunners were engaged in a fire fight of their own with North Vietnamese that were disguised as “friendly farmers”. I jumped off the top of the helicopter, ran to the high sand dune (gunners') position, secured an M-16 with extra clips of ammo, and began to engage the North Vietnamese that were working their way around the sampans.
While this was going on, I noticed water explosions just offshore about 75 meters. The North Vietnamese were firing mortar rounds and finding their range to walk them in on us. Suddenly out of nowhere, with all the combat engagement taking place, a light fire team appeared overhead. I ran to the helicopter, put on my flight helmet, turned on the battery, turned on the radios, and transmitted on guard, “Light fire team on 090 degree radial off Phu Bai come up on guard.” One of our own company's gunship fire teams heard my mayday call and came to investigate. Their reply was, “We see the NVA mortar position that’s firing on you. We're rolling in hot. We’ll strafe the sampans to keep their heads down. We’ve contacted company operations and a rescue ship will be here to pick you up in 30 minutes." The battle continued until a rescue helicopter landed and we pulled the guns and crew off the sand dunes.
The first tour in Vietnam I logged 1,238 combat flight hours. After returning to base camp after a long day in the cockpit, it was appropriate to say “we had cheated death again”.
I corps (Camp Eagle)
101st Airborne Division (air assault)
Republic of South Vietnam
December 1967 - December 1968