by Stanley C. Marcieski, Dustoff 97
It was just a whisper over the TAC push, “This is ‘Two-zero Foxtrot’. There’s fifteen more of them coming up the trail toward you.” The whisper was strained taunt. It was sweaty and tight with fear as it rose up to us from the eastern ridgeline of the A Shau Valley. That whisper was all we needed to tell us that this mission was not going to be a piece of cake.
Even at 1700 feet above ground level the A Shau Valley was not a sight to inspire thoughts of comfort or welcome. The Valley had a haunting beauty that disguised mortal danger under brilliant green foliage. Like most of I Corps it too was pock marked from arc-light strikes and the impact of uncountable artillery rounds. Unlike the rest of I Corps, however, this Valley of Death had other scars that held a peculiar fascination for me as a pilot. The floor of this valley was littered with the remains of too many birds of war that found there a final resting place. These crumpled metal toys rested far away from most prying eyes in the AO. Those eyes that could see these toys did not want to be reminded of the frailty of the aircraft that they flew night and day through Southeast Asia’s skies.
It was, I imagined as I stared at it for the first time, the fabled elephant graveyard. Tarzan was right – the graveyard exists. The lost graveyard of elephants was there on the valley floor snug between the jungle-shrouded ridgelines. Unlike Tarzan in his movies, I knew these elephants did not struggle to this graveyard driven by some overpowering instinct to bare their metal bones to our eyes. What I knew for a fact was that the myth of invincible John Wayne killed these beasts.
Odd thoughts have a habit of racing across your brain when the pucker factor begins to climb. Some of those thoughts and sensory inputs sear into the brain and remain there, burned scar tissue. Scar tissue that refuses to heal even after two decades of trying. It’s like an old war movie I saw once with the singular difference that I had a bit part in the action. The slightest familiar odor or sound can bring those memories racing back.
A jog in the memory can make me hear the slap of the rotor blades and feel their thump vibrate my insides. My memory can hear three radios squawking and the crew all talking at once over my headset. I marvel now at how I could possibly understand them all and continue to function.
But it’s the odors that come haunting. In Vietnam I worked low in the air and my sense of smell was subjected to odors which it permanently cataloged The smell of burnt gunpowder or fireworks today can quickly make my pulse rise and transport me far away in place and time. Long rainy days invade my nostrils with the heavy wetness of the jungle perfumed with tropical blossoms mixed with rotting vegetation. The scent of garlic browning in oil takes me back to flying over Saigon where your nose was struck in alternate waves with the wonderful bouquet of flowers, the stench of garbage and frying garlic. A blast of black exhaust from a diesel engine brings to mind early morning preflight swathed in Joe-the-Shit Burner’s smoke created from burning human excrement in JP4 or diesel fuel. Movies of Vietnam portraying authentic looking grunts can flood my mind with the odor of their animal sweat mingled with the rot of the jungle clinging to them after days in the field. It can make me smell wounded grunts as they hop or are carried, pulled, hoisted or half thrown in deadly urgency aboard our Dust-off Huey. And I swear I can smell their blood too. It was a smell that came too often.
Some impressions I want to remember. Some I do not. But I have got them all, burned somewhere deep in my mind. And right there among them is that haunting whisper.Just a few days earlier my two roommates, Lt. J.D. Lawson and CW2 Bill Yancey and I had been transferred to the Air Ambulance Platoon, 326th Medical Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), from the 45th Medical Company in flush toilet-hot showers and nurses Long Binh. It was near the end of the Lom Son 719 incursion into Laos and close to my 24th birthday, a day that I have since considered I was lucky to see.
To reach Camp Eagle that day we hopped flights up the coast from Vung Tau where we had been enjoying a bogarted three day in-country R&R. That R&R we felt entitled to for having ferried a Huey from Long Binh to the 237th Medical Detachment at Phu Bai and as one last fling before joining the Screaming Eagles. Our route to Phu Bai followed the coastline the entire trip. The incredible beauty of nearly deserted wide white beaches sliding into water that graduated from pale blue-green to almost purple as it deepened captured us. It was a gorgeous sight that makes me believe to this day a tourist boom in Nam would rival any beach resort in the world. This ferry trip also gave us an opportunity to fly our baggage to and briefly inspect our new home.
Finding Phu Bai, the nearest oasis of civilization for the 101st, from the air was not a problem. However, we had some difficulty in locating or in believing that we had found Camp Eagle even when Phu Bai Approach said we were right over it. Baffled by not being able to find it, one of us replied to Approach that the only thing below us was a huge fire support base! “Welcome to Camp Eagle,” came the sarcastic reply.
It did look like the biggest fire support base we had ever seen. Scattered over the red-yellow colored earth was an amazing sight. It was unlike the disorganized order of Long Binh where the roads were paved and the clubs; swimming pools and tennis courts provided easily identifiable landmarks. One very identifiable landmark nearby Camp Eagle that could be seen clearly only from the air was a huge peace symbol that some GI with a bulldozer carved into the earth outside of the compound. That sucker must have been at least big enough to fit perfectly inside of a football field. Camp Eagle gave one the impression that at one time the entire 101st Airborne Division had been loaded aboard a gigantic C-130, the tailgate had been dropped and the entire division had simply been dumped out and left to scatter among the hills outside of Hue-Phu Bai.
Since we were allotted seven days to accomplish the in-country ferry flight from Long Binh and had not yet signed in to the 101st, our plan was to drop off our worldly belongings at Eagle Dust-off, deliver the aircraft to Phu Bai Dust-off and beat feet for Vung Tau for a couple of days before signing in to the 326th Medical Battalion. Once we found Camp Eagle and introductions were made at the 326th head shed we delivered the aircraft to Phu Bai Dust-off and set out to follow our plan to the letter. At Phu Bai we caught a hop to Da Nang where we spent the night. We ate dinner that night at the real China Beach, which as a TV serial became pure Hollywood BS hardly resembling reality. The next day we caught a ride to Saigon on a C-130 jammed with about 130 ARVN’s who had been in action in Laos. Getting a hop to Vung Tau out of Saigon was no sweat and after three memorable days savoring the delights of Vung Tau we hopped our way on a variety of aircraft back to the virtual doorstep of Eagle Dust-off.
We signed in to our new unit, gathered our previously stored gear and were shown to our new quarters, a tin roofed, non-insulated typical hooch with mesh screens covering the walls from about the waist up. Due to this ventilated construction and the building’s proximity to the flight line, it filled with a certain amount of dust as each aircraft hovered in and out of Eagle Dust off’s flight line. Only time, ingenuity and lots of sweat was to improve what we were given as quarters. Even with the dust considered it was a hell of lot better than a poncho in the boonies.
As night came on we had barely started to settle into our new hooch when the Ops officer stuck his head in the door and said he needed a peter-pilot for a mission. Yancey was drinking a beer and JD, for what I believe was one of only two alcoholic drinks that JD had in Nam, was also sipping on a beer. That of course left only me to go fly into the night sky with strangers in a very unfamiliar and decidedly unfriendly night sky. Having a dumb attack or a surge of John Wayne fever I forgot the first rule of being a member of a military force in a combat zone or anywhere for that matter – never volunteer.
I had most recently been flying Dust-off across the fence into Cambodia from Tay Ninh to support the latest ARVN attempt to kick Chuck out of his sanctuary. Where, according to then President Nixon, there were no American troops on the ground in Cambodia at the time. Pitch-black Cambodia at night in bad weather with people shooting at you was not fun, but that episode in my tour is, in itself, another story. However, at this particular moment I felt I was an experienced combat pilot with enough nighttime to no longer sweat bullets over night approaches to the jungle. I had landed at night in hover holes without lights, guided, unbelievably, by Zippo lighters (I know, I thought those were BS stories in flight school too, but a lot of that BS became too true later, except for the ‘Black Syph’ I guess.), strobes and, on unfortunate occasions, muzzle flashes. I was nearly an AC in my old unit so I thought what could be so bad about a night mission in northern I Corps? Not to my credit I was rather ignorant of the fact that in my recent past the guy trying to waste us was generally VC, but now that guy was NVA. This guy no longer carried only an AK-47 or an SKS rifle. He carried an enhanced set of armament that could really make you see flaming green basketballs. Flaming green basketballs coming at you night or day was a sight that made you desperately long to be somewhere safe to see if you really did need a hammer to drive a pin up your seriously constricted nether region. Another fact that slipped by at that moment was that down south, because of the flat terrain, we infrequently pulled hoist missions while up north almost every mission was a hoist mission.
Hoist missions were dangerous under the best of conditions. During a hoist mission your helicopter was halted not above, but nestled in the treetops often well over 150 feet high as you tried to keep it rock steady to avoid hitting those trees with your main rotor or your tail rotor. You listened to your medic and crew chief on hot mike as they stood on the skids, fully exposed, giving you instructions. They told you where the jungle penetrator was at all times, how many feet right, left or up and down you had to move to avoid striking something. They told you how the grunts were doing with the wounded and when to break ground with the patient on the JP and when to leave. They also told you where the fire was coming from when the bad guys decided you were just too easy of a target to resist. After I became an AC I never required any crewmember to stand on the skids because of the danger involved, but they all did it anyway. Not smart maybe, but I will always admire the guys who did their job in the back of the aircraft as real life heroes. Hoist missions were always a little nerve racking, never more so than at night, with the grunts in contact and half the helicopters in RVN flying around your head as you tried to get the wounded out.
Those simple overlooked facts served to make that night one of the most memorable of my tour. Having committed myself, I gathered my gear; a helmet and my security blanket, a very large chicken plate that I had swiped from a Cobra revetment at Xuan Loc somewhat earlier in my tour. (If the owner of that chicken plate is reading this I hope you did not need that protection as much as I did. The original chicken plate issued to me at the 45th was an extra small and it rapidly shrank before my eyes as I sat in my first hot LZ. Later, when I spied that extra large chicken plate sitting all by its lonesome in a revetment my survival instincts took over and I merely did a one for one exchange.) Outside our hooch that night the Ops officer introduced me to CW2 Fred Behrens, who was to be the AC for the mission. Fred asked if I had a weapon. As I shook my head no he said ‘come on’ and we ran to his hooch that housed a small personal armory. He grabbed a holstered .45, tossed it to me and we hustled off to the flight line.
I asked what the mission was. Fred said he was not sure other than it was a hot hoist with multiple urgents. Translated that meant that there were wounded grunts in the LZ who would die shortly if we did not get them back to the 85th Evac in Phu Bai. It also meant that the bad guys who had just wounded them were still there and trying their best to finish the job. At that news my pucker factor started to climb.
Two days prior to my arrival at Camp Eagle, Jim Zwit, a 20 year old grunt with D Company 2/501st 101st, and 77 other grunts had been air lifted to a location southwest of Bastogne. Their mission, documented to be the last offensive mission by US ground forces in Vietnam, was first a search and attack mission with the additional mission of recovering a US KIA that Company A was unable to recover after a firefight on 12 April. Around 1800 hrs on the 15th, Company D began preparation for night defensive positions. The commander directed the first platoon leader, Lt. McKenzie, to search to the south with his platoon to assure that the area was secure.
McKenzie’s platoon dropped their rucks and moved out down the trail. They replaced Zwit’s third platoon as point element. At point were Jerry Sterns and Lt. McKenzie. Around 1848 hrs, the unit after action report reads, ‘the second platoon made contact with the enemy in the vicinity of YD581010. The enemy opened up with small arms fire when five or six individuals crossed the felled log.
Contact in this specific moment in the war was the death of Sterns and severe wounding of Lt. McKenzie when the small arms fire, RPGs and mortars started raining on the grunts. As happens in combat initially, confusion reigned. Far back in the column Jim Zwit heard the fire fight start. He heard the screams of the wounded plus Lt. McKenzie yelling for help. McKenzie was well respected by the men of the entire company and particularly by Zwit. Realizing nobody was going to his immediate aid and without a thought for his safety, Jim Zwit jumped up, dashed past his platoon and the second platoon toward the firing and Lt. McKenzie’s cries for help.
Reaching point under enemy fire Zwit dove to the ground near Sterns. He found Sterns had been killed in the first burst of gunfire. Zwit then rolled over and sprayed a clip from his M16 and tossed a couple grenades in the direction of the enemy fire. What had been a crescendo of battle noise just seconds before instantly became a dead silence. In that brief lull of only seconds, Jim reached Lt. McKenzie, heaved him over his right shoulder and began a beeline for the friendlies.
This race to friendly lines was halted by the bright flash of an explosion just off to his right side. The explosion blasted both Zwit and his human cargo into the air and off to the other side of the trail. The explosion killed McKenzie whose body, slung over Jim’s right shoulder, probably saved Zwit from instant death. The blast still ripped shards of shrapnel deep into Zwit’s exposed right side. Zwit lay on his back stunned and watched as tracers slashed in both directions above his face. He was caught between lines in the middle of deepening firefight.
Seventy-eight grunts of D company had stumbled into 1500 well-disciplined NVA regulars who were waiting in well prepared fortified positions. ‘Casualties began to mount as movement was hindered by the tangled masses of timbers that had been felled by previous artillery and air strikes.’ D Company was in a fight for its life.
Running after Fred on the way to the flight line, I noticed we had accumulated a small entourage that later blossomed into our crew for the mission. One of the group, Danny McFadden, was hobbling along on crutches because, as I later found out, of a stab wound in the leg. The wound was inflicted when he unexpectedly opened a door that was being used for knife throwing target practice by Specialist McGuigan. McGuigan, our self-proclaimed registered psychopath was also a medic, a most unusual medic since he carried a sawed-off M-60 machine gun strapped to his back. That night McFadden was also carried a machine-gun, a Thompson sub-machine-gun, which is a weapon that I had only seen previously in the movies. Pickens, the crew chief, and Flores, an OJT medic, rounded out our crew. Fred ran up to one aircraft, opened the door, grabbed the logbook, flipped it open, said it was red X’d and ran to another one. At the next Huey he did the same except for saying that this one was ‘OK’ and for me to get in and crank her up. “What about preflight?” I asked, knowing that nobody in his right mind ever flew an aircraft without a preflight. Fred yelled, ” We don’t have time!” I jumped in and cranked her up. Curse you John Wayne.
From this distance I sometimes wonder what over and above the bleeding and dying grunts had compelled me to climb into that bird and yell, “Clear! Coming Hot!!”
It does no good to wonder anymore. It is certainly evident that we who flew Dust-off had a very special mission in that war. It was a job that will probably never be duplicated because of all the diverse facets of that war and the new weaponry of today. We saved lives, which in any occupation is a noble pursuit, but in Nam, in a war I doubt if anyone considered it a particularly noble pursuit. It was pulling bleeding, torn apart hurting people out of the most unimaginable circumstances. ARVN’s, RFPF’s, civilians, the enemy, GI’s, pilots and even babies. We picked them all up – night and day, rain or shine. Sometimes the wounded evacuee, after being hauled safely on board, would, if able, hug the nearest crew member in a show of gratitude for being pulled out of a tight spot still breathing. At other times gratitude would be expressed in bars, on those rare occasions when you were not on duty and you could get to a bar. If the grunts discovered you flew Dust-off you could not pay for another drink. There were reasons beyond counting for flying Dust-off, but they all boiled down to a personal feeling that if it was me lying out there bleeding could I count on someone flying in to get my butt out. We did our damnedest, especially when it came to getting US troops out and to a hospital. Dust-off built a helluva reputation, some said at too great a cost to our own crews’ lives, for hanging it out and doing the job. I think not one of us will ever have a regret for what we did as Dust-off crews and most would probably do it again. That night though, none of us in the crew of Dust-off 913 were thinking about free drinks as I cranked 460 and backed her out of the revetment.
With the .45 covering my family jewels and Fred talking on the radios while pointing out directions to me, we were on our way into the night skies. Shortly after takeoff Fred tuned in to the tactical push and we heard the urgent mixed chatter between Dust-off 93, the C&C bird and the grunts on the ground. The grunts were in heavy contact. They reported 2 KIA’s and 20 WIA’s, several of whom were seriously wounded. From the rapidly closing distance you could see flare after flare being dropped on the site that was to be our LZ.
From his position on the trail Jim Zwit tried to slide on his back toward friendly lines. It was a useless effort because of the pain. Out of nowhere somebody crawled up and tried to bandage his wounds. It was SSG Kron, a slow talking slow moving buddy from Tennessee. Kron did his best to patch the wounds, but met with little success. While trying to pull Zwit to safety, a bullet slammed into Kron. Unable to pull Jim back and wounded, Kron crawled back to his lines.
Moments later someone else crawled to Zwit, grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to drag him back. It was Phil Brummett, a fellow platoon member who Jim hated and who hated Jim in return because of a run-in earlier in their tour of duty. Although in pain and shock Zwit remembers being surprised by Brummett of all people coming to his aid. Brummett’s attempted rescue was short lived. A mortar round landed near Jim’s legs wounding his left leg as its explosion tossed both him and Brummett. That explosion followed by another signaled to both men that death was certain if they did not move fast. From somewhere deep inside, Zwit found the strength to leap to his feet with Brummett at his side and run to the cover of the friendly lines. They both dived over a fallen log and hit the ground as bullets impacted into the other side of the log.
As we flew closer the LZ grew into a living nightmare vision in a glass bowl that was surrounded by darkness. Low hanging clouds and smoke from the flares being dropped eerily reflected the orange-white burning magnesium glare and the bright lights of explosions. Bursts of red and green tracers were piercing the night sky in stitches and erratic ricochets bounced in every direction. Silhouettes of blacked-out helicopters weaved in and out of this bizarre scene planted in the treetops of a hill not far from FSB Bastogne.
I flew us in close to the LZ then Fred transferred the controls from me, the peter-pilot in the next seat, who a few minutes before were total stranger. Now my job would be to talk to the guns, monitor the engine and trans instruments and stay ever so lightly on the controls. In any Dust-off LZ the pilot not actually flying was always light on the controls in order to immediately takeover if the other pilot took a round. If Fred got hit that night and lost consciousness, his instructions to me were to climb, fly north and call Phu Bai approach. Sounded simple, but in those surreal moments I just listened and never really considered that the area was a strange mountainous AO, it was night, I had never flown here before and to get a combat damaged aircraft out of this mess might not be that easy.
We were almost on top of the LZ now and we could see Dust-off 93 at a hover trying to complete a hoist as tracers continued to flash all around his Huey. He was having a difficult time and taking hits that forced him to break off. Dust-off 93 had one wounded on board as he was forced from the site. As we watched 93 began to depart the LZ. Then Fred slipped 460 down the hillside a little and quickly popped her back up to take 93′s vacated spot almost on 93′s tail. We were then at a stationary hover in the middle of the nightmare.
The crew in the back had flipped to ‘hot mike.’ They were now transmitting every breath and word plus the sound of the battle outside the aircraft. These sounds mingled with the staccato blasts of automatic weapons and explosions became the background music for this movie.
The medic started the JP down while constantly informing us of the JP’s progress. “The JP’s on the way down 10-20 -… two feet to the right…40 -20 from the ground… almost there…it’s on the ground.” For a split second it seemed the bad guys did not know we had arrived, then, “We’re taking fire at six- thirty!” “Taking fire at nine!” “Taking fire at eleven!”
‘At 1910hrs, the enemy commenced firing 60mm mortars on friendly positions. Rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire and the enemy also employed satchel charges. Most of the casualties were the result of mortar fire tree bursts. The machine gun fire was employed in well-controlled bursts and was used primarily against medevac ships when they attempted an extraction. The volume of fire that was directed against the medevac ships made evacuation of casualties extremely difficult.’ Company D /501st unit after action report.
McFadden, sitting in the hellhole was screaming, “I can see them running on the ground shooting at us!!” and blasting away with the Thompson. Pickens was clearing the bird and firing his weapon. The medic was guiding the hoist. All three crewmembers in the back were reporting fire and I could see tracers blazing over the nose of our Huey. Fred, amid the pandemonium, was keeping the bird as steady as possible.
I tried to remain calm but could not remember the call sign of the Cobra gun ships that were covering us. When we started taking fire I simply called them “guns” and gave them the contact in clock headings off our nose. As the reports of fire came in from the back of the bird, I quickly covered most of the clock and told the guns we were targeted from 360, which, as it turned out was fact. The Cobras opened up tossing in rockets as they skimmed and circled us in the flare light.
Expecting at any second to see the engine gauges start unwinding, indicating that something vital had been hit; my eyes were everywhere – in and out of the cockpit. “He’s on the JP, break ground. Comin’ up…ten feet… twenty… “
I kept thinking why was it taking so long? It was almost as if time had slowed and everything was moving in slow motion. We could not leave until we had the patient close enough to the helicopter to at least have him clear the treetops when we left the LZ. To just sit there and wait while you were silhouetted against the flares as the target of opportunity for the bad guys was not easy, but it sure was an adrenaline rush. There was too much noise and commotion to tell how may hits we were taking.
“Twenty feet from the bird…ten feet. Got him! GO! GO! GO!” Fred grabbed an arm full of collective and nosed 460 over as I called out max power and radioed to the guns our departure heading. In an instant we bolted out of there and were on the way to Phu Bai with a grunt that had a gunshot wound through the chest. It was not Jim Zwit.
Once out of any hot LZ after a pickup it was always the same. The break in tension was an explosion of relief for the crew. Clear of danger we all jabbered loudly about what we had just survived. It was amazing how, despite the fact that after flying into LZ’s in one of the noisiest machines know to warfare, unless taking fire we would all whisper in hushed voices over the intercom during the extraction as if talking in even a normal voice would alert the bad guys to our presence in their AO. Then after departing the LZ and in the relative safety of the air our voices would raise a dozen decibel levels because Chuck could not hear us now.
The flight to the 85th Evac was uneventful, but it provided me with an opportunity to see more of the AO. Our patient was unloaded at the hospital pad then we repositioned to POL to refuel and check for combat damage. Inspection revealed that one round had entered a little too close to the 42-degree gearbox. Fortunately it did not cause any serious damage. The left side as well as the underside of the bird had tiny pockmarks covering large areas. It was as if they were trying to bring us down with a shotgun.
Since 460 appeared to be in one flyable piece we had a quick vote about going back out to the hilltop to make another attempt at pulling out wounded. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and before I knew it we were again communicating in hushed voices as we closed for a second time on that boiling man made thundercloud on the hill.
On the ground Jim Zwit waited his turn to be hoisted out of the nightmare. His best friend, Bob Hein of 2/501, helped drag Jim to further safety. Jim recalls Hein kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re going to be all right.’ Jim was real thirsty and asked, ‘Get me some water.’ Hein went to get it and never came back. A rocket propelled grenade caught Bob Hein in the back.
The second trip into the site was more of the same only more violent as we started taking fire the instant the aircraft dropped into position. It was a wilder ride with the volume cranked up to the max. How we got that JP to the ground through that fire and the grunts managed to strap their wounded buddy on is a tribute to the bird, her crew and the grunts – with more than a good measure of luck thrown in.
This time it was Jim Zwit’s turn to take a helicopter ride. Helping Zwit onto the swaying jungle penetrator was Bob Gervaci. Gervaci said it was a something of a relief when the Dust-off birds came in because the NVA then directed all their fire at the hovering helicopters. His eyes followed Zwit ascend on the cable toward our aircraft and he watched in fascination as a cone of green tracers seemed to envelope our bird.
Again, at the height of this tension, slow motion seemed to envelop everything as my eyes burned into the gauges and my whole being willed them not to move. I could swear there were things floating through the cockpit, but before I had a chance to think about that the aircraft bolted nose down and forward. The force of the forward movement and the natural tendency for a pilot to keep his eyes on the horizon jerked my head up. I was not looking up at the greenhouse window; I was looking through the greenhouse window level with the horizon. What I saw froze in my memory as my mind screamed that I was about to die.
Something had exploded close behind and below us. The force of the explosion thrust the tail of 460 upward and caused such a nose down attitude that Fred had no choice but to pull pitch in an attempt to recover control or crash. 460 was headed out of its hover at a high rate of speed without a second to warn anybody.
As the aircraft blasted up and forward the sight that greeted my bulging eyeballs through the greenhouse window was a blacked-out Cobra charging out of the smoke, fog and low hanging clouds directly at us from the left. We were about to have a mid-air collision with that Cobra and it flashed in my brain that there was no way we were going to avoid tangling our blades with his skids. Seemingly only feet apart, I braced for the imminent impact. It never came.
To this day I will never know why we missed that Cobra and plunged into the clouds escaping the pickup site once more, but we did. On that trip we brought out with us another wounded grunt (Jim Zwit) who, dangling twenty feet below the aircraft, had a wild ride through the treetops and gunfire. He picked up a few branches and bruises before the crew hauled him aboard. His injuries from ploughing through treetops at our speed were minor compared to the holes in his chest. The crew of Dust-off 913 delivered him safely to the 85th Evac and I believe his only comment was, “Why’d you drag me through the trees?” Poor guy did have leaves and branches stuck in him. Less than two weeks later two blacked – out Cobras had a mid-air over T-Hawk and all four pilots died.
Having been more than lucky so far and with the Huey having no serious combat damage we decided to go back and give it another try. The third time was the charm because the ground fire was so intense and conditions so bad it was impossible to make further extractions and C&C canceled further ops until first light. Four Eagle Dust-off birds, including us, received combat damage and one pilot was wounded at that site. We each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for our work that night. (The battalion awards officer said later that we, the crew of 913, had been put in for the Silver Star, but it had been downgraded by Bn HQ because we should not have flown red X’d 460) When General Tarply, the division commander, presented the DFC’s he explained why things had been so hot that night. We were extracting wounded on top of an NVA regiment’s underground bunker complex. The 101st had been looking for that regiment during the previous six weeks. D Company found them and lost eight KIA and 14 WIA. . Tarply presented my DFC, moved to the next guy in formation then came back to me. While passing a coin to me he said, ‘I forgot your Brave Eagle coin. This and ten…no, fifty cents will buy you a cup of coffee in the ‘World.’
During the next ten days Fred and I pulled duty together a couple of times. I gained a great deal of respect for Fred’s abilities as a pilot while I learned more about the AO. On the tenth day I was pulling duty with CW2 Rich Di Boye. Late in the day we were alerted for a mission that was somewhat garbled in content when it was passed to us. The mission request was to pickup a wounded crew chief. A wounded crew chief on the ground was rather odd. It had to mean that the crew chief was either wounded and left on the ground, had fallen out of his aircraft, his aircraft had crashed or all three. The coordinates indicated the location was on the edge of the A Shau Valley. We saddled up and headed for the Valley.
After clearing with arty we tuned in to the TAC push. That was when we heard the whisper. “This is ‘Two-zero Foxtrot’. There’s fifteen more of them coming up the trail toward you.” The sound of that whisper was so very different that an immediate change took place in the crew. We became serious in a heartbeat. I for one was wishing we had not popped off the front doors because I did not like the idea of being a more visible target in a hot LZ.
It was evident that the situation on the ground was deadly. C&C and guns were on their way to provide support and we circled some distance away waiting for our clearance to go in. Per 101st Division orders Dust-off was required to have gun coverage for all hoist and in-contact missions. They were definitely in contact and the voice on the ground told us there was no way we could come in yet.
It was not a pleasant wait because we had a ringside seat to a situation where GI’s were in desperate trouble. We were ready and willing to help but were not permitted to go in. Circling we watched the show and the drama develop with the Cobras rolling in hot on the area. We continued to wait for clearance to go in. After a period of time it was evident that with our fuel burning up we would not be able to remain on station for much longer. Somehow, I do not recall whether we called for another Dust-off, or if C&C did, but Fred Behrens appeared on the scene and relieved us to go refuel.
While we were refueling Fred received clearance to go in and pick up wounded. Covered by the Cobras and without a recognized shot being fired at him by the bad guys, 913 flew in, picked up wounded and left the LZ without taking a round. We passed him on the way back to the pickup site as he was taking his patients to the 85th Evac.
Arriving back on site we were again put on hold and began to circle out of the way as the Cobras and a Canberra bomber worked the area over. While we refueled one of the units from Division attempted an insertion. Two of their aircraft were hit and the lift diverted from the ridgeline LZ to the valley floor. The grunts inserted there and began moving toward the ridge several clicks to the northeast.
Again our crew made circles in the sky as we watched the action and waited for our cue to try a rescue attempt. To make matters worse as night began to settle, a billowing black cotton wall preceded by lightening was moving from the south rolling up the A Shau directly for us. With fuel again running low it did not take long for us to realize that if we were to make the rescue attempt it would have to be now. Once that storm hit any hopes of getting in would be gone.
We contacted C&C and with only minutes to spare before the monster storm hit, he agreed to allow us to make the attempt. About that time Fred came back up on the net and was telling us that the LZ was small and very sloped. We would only be able to put down one skid. Then he said, ‘I’ve been in once already. I know the way so I’ll go ahead on in.’ Di boye agreed and Fred headed for the LZ in the rapidly deteriorating weather.
A couple of minutes passed and we heard nothing from Fred. I tried calling on our internal fox mike with no success. Then we heard Fred on the guard radio frequency, ‘We crashed in the LZ, but we are all right.’ In truth this crew of 913 was far from all right. As Fred touched down in the LZ the aircraft came under heavy fire. The crew chief was killed instantly by a round through the head, Fred was shot in the ankle and the Huey took an RPG in the compression section. The aircraft was dead in the LZ. Seconds later all hell broke loose as the storm hit scattering all the aircraft that had come to support this mission.
The storm was bad enough. Coupled with the chance of having a mid-air with another aircraft as we punched into the clouds made the situation even more life threatening for all of us. We lost the chance to rescue Fred and his crew that night.
As our aircraft went into the clouds we climbed and headed due north. North because in that part of Vietnam the country bends in such a direction that a northerly heading will take you out to the coast and not across the DMZ. Without the doors on it became very cold and wet as we climbed. This Huey was equipped with a non-operational transponder, a non-operational VOR and an operational ADF. In other words we were pretty much on our own as far as getting back to Mother Earth in safety. Eventually, with our fuel getting very low and not able to be painted on radar by approach control, one of the crew saw what looked like a large fire down below. With few options to choose we spiraled down toward the fire. The twenty-minute fuel light was burning as we came out of the clouds just shy of the DMZ. Low-leveling to a refueling point we were thankful for our luck but very concerned about the crew of Dust-off 913.
Jumping over power lines through the fog and rain down Highway One we arrived back at Eagle Dust-off. We debriefed at ops and tried to find out what was going on back in the A Shau. They had very little information.
As the next day wore on Dust-off 913′s situation became grim. The only good news was that Madison, the peter pilot, somehow escaped. Apparently he and a Ranger were told to make a break for it when the Cobras rolled in hot. They took the chance and Madison made it into the arms of the troops fighting their way up the hill to the LZ. The Ranger with Madison was killed during the attempt.
We never saw Madison again. The information passed on to us was that the remaining members of the 913′s crew were badly wounded. Then later, through the grapevine, the word came down that both Fred and the medic were dead.
The next day, Sunday, found me on third-up duty, this time with CW2 Bill Whittiker. About midday we were buzzed for a mission. As I cranked up Whittiker phoned ops for the mission information. When Bill gave me the co-ordinates I recognized them as being the site where Dust-off 913 had been shot down.
The weather was clear and bright, not at all like my most recent visit to the A Shau. Arriving on station was like plunging into the middle of a flying circus. C&C orbited on station directing the show with Cobras, slicks and fast movers and the ground pounders under his control. We were briefed and gave the supporting guns our intended route in and out. Whittiker had the controls as we dropped out of the sky making a beeline for the LZ. To keep the bad guys occupied we had Cobras laying down rockets on our sides. A Phantom was dropping heavy ordinance just on the backside of the LZ and the grunts actually in the LZ had formed a perimeter and were laying down a constant stream of fire outward as we touched down.
True to Fred’s assessment, we could put only one skid down. Sitting there in that Huey my insides bounced and shook from the concussions of the explosions. Fred’s aircraft lay in the LZ riddled with holes. The thought flashed through my brain that I needed to take a picture of all this. My little instamatic camera (I had not yet been to Hong Kong!) was sitting on the radio console well within easy reach. About the same instant another thought crossed my brain just as fast. If I were to take my hands off the controls Whittiker just might take a round and we would then become the second pile of junk in the LZ.
In seconds my eyes sucked in the scene and for some reason I happened to glance down through the chin bubble. To my shock I saw Fred’s grimy dust covered face through the curved Plexiglas! I thought, “Good God we’ve landed on Fred’s body!’ Next thing I knew his eyes opened and he broke out in a big grin!
I yelled over the intercom for the crew to drag Fred out of there and get him on board. Somehow with the help of the grunts they flung Fred and the other wounded on board. When the crew chief gave us the ‘Go,’ Whittiker pulled pitch, kicked a pedal and nosed the Huey over and dived into the Valley leaving the sounds of battle behind us.
Somebody in the back said, ‘Fred said he just wants a Coke!’ He was wounded in quite a few places, but was alive after crawling around for almost three days on the ground with no food or water. He had been the target of several of the NVA and was too often on the wrong end of US ordinance being hurled toward the LZ.
We dropped Fred at the 85th Evac in Phu Bai and that was the last I heard about him, other than rumors that he had lost a leg and possibly other body parts. One of the other patients we pulled out of there that day was Fred’s medic who, sadly, did not survive his wounds after his struggle on the ground.
There were eight more months for me in Nam and somewhere, somehow it got to the point that I knew if I lived through this tour it would be my personal miracle. Nam was like that. After being there awhile and being subjected to the experience of flying Dust-off, it seemed as if no other world had ever existed. The nightmare conviction developed that I had always been in Vietnam and that I had always been flying Dust-off. I had never been anywhere else. The ‘World’ was a totally foreign land that you read about in Stars & Stripes or magazines. You never lived there, but someday maybe you would visit. With those feelings, along about September, I submitted paperwork for an extension based on the promise of a Contact IP course. When we lost 460 with Tony Luc and his entire crew one very ugly night, a friend talked me out of extending and I pulled my paperwork. Eventually I went back to the ‘World.’
I found with a shock that the ‘World’ was a foreign land and I didn’t know anybody and they sure as hell didn’t know me. That is maybe except for one old guy, a WW II vet who somehow could see or feel my confusion at a welcome home party. What we talked about I cannot remember, but he knew what I felt. What was to celebrate? There were still guys crawling through the paddies and jungle…humping the boonies. They were still getting shot, still stepping on mines, still walking into to booby traps that blew them to hell. They were OD’ing in the field, getting stung by bees, breaking arms and legs in falls and I was no longer there to get them out of their mess and back to safety. I was good at flying Dust-off and I left them there to get out of their mess somehow or die. So how could these people yuck it up and swill booze while talking about a place that was in another universe and people I could save were dying. All I wanted to do was go back to Nam and do my job.
Colonel Don Retzlaff at MSC aviation assignments finally got tired of my calls requesting to go back and asked, “Tell me the truth. Did you leave a wife or a kid back there?” No, but I guess I did leave family there. I never did go back.
I harbored guilt over the years and blamed myself for not going in to get Fred that night even though I knew we simply could not have found that LZ once that storm hit. And we were lucky to get out of that weather ourselves. Nobody else could get in there for two days until Whittiker and I made it that Sunday, so I should know better. I also cannot help thinking that if Fred had not volunteered to go back in that it would have been us instead of his crew who died and bled in that LZ.
Almost twenty years later, after my military retirement and while living in Northern Virginia, I received a copy of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) newsletter. A notice in the letters section got my eye. It was an announcement about a reunion of the Air Amb Platoon of the 326th Med. The letter was signed – ‘Fred Behrens.’ I was a little stunned but called information for the town in Virginia indicated as the address of the sender.
I dialed the number not really knowing what to expect. It did seem to me that after being badly wounded in a war that our country was trying to forget, Fred might just be one very bitter SOB. He was not and is not.
We talked for two hours and I learned more about the mission he and I shared my first night with Eagle Dust-off. I knew I was very lucky to have survived Vietnam and I discovered later how lucky we were to have survived that particular mission. An RPG round caused the explosion that virtually blew our aircraft out of the LZ that night. Bob Gervaci, who helped Jim Zwit onto the JP the night of his rescue, said an RPG flashed up and glanced off of the bottom of our aircraft. Gervaci says today that that round glanced off of one of our skids. The RPG is a point detonating round. That round had to just glance off the skid a split second before exploding. As so often happens in war and other tragedies a fraction of an inch or a second in time meant the difference between life and death. It made such a difference that night not just for me, but a lot of people.
When we dropped Jim Zwit off at the 85th Evac the Doc’s there did not expect him to live. They pumped 25 units of blood into him. Eighteen months and 20 operations later Jim left the hospitals. Today he is a former Chicago policeman turned private investigator with four children.
In nearly 700 hours of logged combat flight I may have rescued as many as 700 people, probably more than three times that number. My memories can picture a lot of them. The situations that brought us together were not all dramatic and combat did not fill each of my 366 days in Vietnam. Those days had ample shares of boredom punctuated with blood red excitement, a lot of laughter and a good measure of sadness, friendships that were real alongside the unreality of the totality and madness of the war in Vietnam. I suppose we acted on whatever helped to forget and hide the underlying but not overwhelming fear. Today if certain odors evoke memories and I hear the whisper now and then it simply tells me what I felt long ago…flying Dust-off was a very special mission.
Stan, thank you for your contribution to my blog site! If not for pilots like you, many more of us may not have survived. Thank you for your service! Welcome Home Brother! God Bless!
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the Vietnam War – subscribe to this blog and get each new post delivered to your email or feed reader. Click on the title at the top of this page to be redirected to my main page – a directory on the right side lists similar articles and points of interest.