After reminiscing with Bill Rutledge about some of the things that happened to me while attached to HELICOPTER ATTACK (LIGHT) SQUADRON THREE, DET-1 in Vietnam, Bill suggested I write about them. I had always told my wife Tracy that I was going to write a book about my experiences on DETACHMENT-1, but I'm sure you all know how that is. I will give some background for the squadron to help readers to understand what we were all about. HAL-3 was the only armed UH-1B Navy Helicopter squadron to serve in Vietnam and was disestablished in March 1972. HAL-3 provided valuable gunship support for Navy and Army riverine operations in the Mekong Delta from 1967 until their demise in March 1972. During this time HAL-3 pioneered various tactics in support of patrol boats, SEAL operations and shore installations. The detachments operated away from, initially, Vung Tau and then Binh Thuy respectfully and were located at various bases in the Mekong Delta and from specially equipped Patrol Craft Tenders (AGP)(Former LSTs). The Detachments could be found operating from shore installations such as Solid Anchor, Nha Be, Vinh Long, Dong Tam, Chau Doc, Rach Gia and Song Ong Doc to list a few. Sea Float, located in the Cau Lon River, was a number of barges tied together and anchored in the middle of the river. A helo pad was located on the south end with a fuel barge next to it. One barge was for cooking and eating while others were for living and conducting the business of running a war.
I will start with my arrival on DET-1 to replace Bob Hunt, a First Class Mech that I knew from Vung Tau before he went to Det-1. Bob was wounded in an action on DET-1 and required a medevac to take him to the Third Surg Hospital in Binh Thuy and further transfer to CONUS.
I arrived at DET-1 while they were operating from the flight deck of LST's (Terrell County, Washue County, and Windham County). There was enough space for two helos but it was safer to land one at a time, shut down and lock the rotor blades fore and aft. We traded LST's every few weeks while operating in the Ca Mau Peninsula. We would get under way, meet at sea and move from one to the other. We could be found on the southern tip of South Vietnam, around Square Bay and the Cua Lon and Buy Hap rivers, close to old Nam Can.
Upon arriving on Det I met some of the gunners, Tom Olby, tall, blond, with a goatee that was barely visible. Christenson, small, brown hair with a mischievous grin. Fryburger, dark hair and made sure everyone knew he was from San Francisco. Kelly, dark hair, looked like someone's little brother. Jasmann, tall, and from the northwest, had a well-trimmed goatee. Valdez, dark hair, tall, and with a well trimmed goatee. Cocke, from Waycross, Ga. Dark hair, wore thick glasses and loved Jack Daniel's straight up. Anderson, a big teddy bear looking guy got along well with everyone. Pilots were LCDR Hartman, Det Officer In Charge. LCDR Habicht, replaced Hartman as Det Officer In Charge. LTJG Bud Barnes, a great guy who could get anything you needed when no one else could. LT Quarterman, second in command. LTJG shore, junior officer, easy to get along with. LTJG Saddler, ready willing and able for any thing anywhere anytime. LTJG Wright went along with rest of crew. LTJG Thomas, a take charge kind of guy. LTJG Chamberlain, hated muzzles flashes good shot. I know that I have not named all that were there so please forgive me; no one was left off intentionally.
First let me say I walked on eggshells the first few days because I had stepped into a position that Bob Hunt had held and to the crew he was the greatest POINC Det-1 had ever had. I saw that I had some mighty big boots to fill and the crew let me know in so many words that no one could take his place. I guess every det was the same, a new POINC was always compared to the one who had left, and even more so when the replacement was under the circumstance at Det-1 (wounded in action). I learned fast each of us fit within the det life in our own special way, and teamwork was the key. We had multiple talents. Tom Olby was good when it came to training people and he had the responsibility of training me on the left door. I could talk all day about what we did, but if I didn't give you a little information about the armament on the helos it would be a guessing game all the way through the stories, so here's a list of our weapons. We initially had M-60's on all doors but shortly after arriving on det we transitioned to a 50-Cal machine gun on the right door of one aircraft and a door mounted mini gun on the right door on the other aircraft. The two left doors continued to be covered by two gunners with hand held M-60 machine guns. We flew with fourteen 2.75 rockets and pylon mounted flex guns, two M-60's before switching to a mini gun, so you can see, we were armed for bear. Our personal weapons were M-16, M14, 30-cal carbine, M-79 grenade launcher, 45, 9mm and 38 cal side arms and grenades.
I became Olby's pupil, and I was determined to be a top of the line gunner. Olby didn't talk much, but he let me know when I made a mistake. On a routine flight I picked out a target for practice. Before I leaned out of the helo I put my right knee against the pussy pole, a pole going from the cabin deck to the roof, mechanically locked in place. I also made sure my gunners belt was locked in the ring on the cabin deck, lowered my visor on my helmet and rotated my M-60 over grabbing the extra pistol grip clamped to the for arm grip with my left hand and place the butt plate on top of my shoulder and use my little finger for pulling the trigger. I lean forward with my weight against the pussy pole, barrel outside and even with the co-pilot. The pilot lines up and I squeeze the trigger. The recoil on my shoulder is steady, it reminds me of the sound of a locomotive smooth and even, every fifth round is a tracer that guides me to my target, the rounds are pulled from the ammo box up and over the feed tray and into the weapon. I smell the odor of gun powder as the rounds leave the end of the barrel, muzzle flashes light up the inside of the helo. I release the trigger and sit back on the jump seat and smile, it was exciting and really got my adrenaline up, the only clean area on my face is hidden behind my helmet visor. I slid my visor up and lit a cigarette, this was almost as good as sex. When Olby turned me loose, I was thoroughly trained as a delta killer. As gunners we were tested every time we flew, op rods broke, riffling disappeared from M-60 barrels, guns jammed or broke, cook offs were common in a hot fire fight and it wasn't uncommon to put two thousand rounds through an M-60 without stopping. I released my barrel from the weapon when the rifling wore out and over the side it went. It was a career hazard, the rounds would make all kind of gyrations and it was impossible to predict where they ended up. I cherished the ability to fire an M-60 free hand. It was one of the most satisfying achievements I have mastered. We had a need to be the best because our area of operation was the hottest spot in the Delta.
When leaving the deck of an LST with the temperature so hot I felt like I knew what hell must feel like. We would loose our air cushion when transitioning from the flight deck to water, as soon as we cleared the ship we sunk like a rock. More times than I like to talk about the skids would dip close to the water and salt-water spray would wet us and more than a few times a box of ammo would go over the side to keep us dry. We pulled our maintenance the same as any Navy Squadron, ails, pre-flights, and post flights. We also did some minor PM's and cleaned our weapons religiously, not wanting a disaster during fire fights. We normally flew with the same crew. Most of the gunners liked flying with certain pilots more than others. I would fly with all of the pilots at one time or another. I have to say my favorite's were Thomas and Chamberlain. Ask Marty Chamberlain about muzzle flashes. I would lean forward during a rocket run and my barrel was about 8 to 10 from Marty's head. Talk about jumpy, when I opened up he would almost come out of his seat. I'm not sure if people talk about it much but we would brass pilots from time to time, to get their attention by rotating the M-60 directing the ejected casings forward hitting pilots in the helmet, a few casings would eventually fall down in the flight suit causing discomfort by burning the skin. Anytime you saw a pilot with a towel wrapped around his neck and stuffed into his flight suit, you knew.
I will start out with some of the stories that I told Bill Rutledge about the other night. I am not going to put a date to each story because I can't remember the sequence well enough to be specific. I will say that to the best of my recollection the stories are fact and did occur while I was on Det-1. If some of you remember it different than I do, please correct me, I think I was the oldest POINC on Det-1 up to that point and should be allowed to make a few literary mistakes, Bill White came after me and I'm sure he was older. A few times Army aircrew on slicks were known to ask my gunners who the old man in the flight suit was, people just couldn't believe that Det-1 could add about twenty years to your looks but I was living proof. We won't talk about that now.
We supported operations from Sea Float (barges located in the middle of the Cua Lon River), SEAL ops, RVN troops (Ruff Puffs), Brown Water Navy operations, and anyone else that cried for help. We were stationed on Sea Float during the day and one particular day we were scrambled to support a swift boat that had come under fire and been hit by VC ground fire and rockets. When we arrived on the scene, the boat had beached with a hole in the side close to the bow. The damage was close to the water line and the boat was taking on water. It would have been with Davie Jones had the crew not taken decisive action and beached. Thank God they were close enough to beach on the opposite bank from the attack. We put a rocket strike and gun run in and returned to the boat and the trail helo flew cover while my crew landed to medevac the wounded. I don't know if I can do justice to the description of the area and the odor when talking about the landing site but I'll try. The smell was the first thing I noticed when descending. The odor that rushed up to meet me was overpowering, and at ground level the only comparison that I can make is an old mop bucket with dirty water after a week in the heat, the smell was overwhelming. The landing area had dense foliage on each side of the river with the only clear area being where the tide had gone out. The skids sunk into the slime and small pools of water formed around them. The muck would stick to everything that came in contact with it. My flight boots sunk up to the ankle, and as I helped load the wounded into my helo, I could feel the grip around my feet pulling at my boots with each step I took. The Boat Captain was a LTJG with American Sailors on board, the gunner on the front, a young man under twenty was dead from an explosion behind him, and another on the fantail was dead. We were trying to expedite getting the wounded in the helo and out as soon as possible and not knowing where Charlie may be would increase the tight cheek factor. We always assumed that they exited the area immediately after putting in a strike against us. Everyone knows what happens when you assume though, you could find yourself in more hell than you can deal with. The sailor that needed my space was shot in the stomach and the severity of his wound could not be ascertained because he refused to straighten his legs. He was more comfortable in the fetal position or possibly didn't want to know how bad it was. Finally, all the wounded were in the helo and ready to lift off. Well, you can guess how I felt, the helo loaded and no room for me. I guess you could say I sort of volunteered to stay behind until they could come back for me. I stood on the bank with about 100 rounds of ammo and an M-60 watching my crew leave me behind and with nothing but the dead sailors to keep me company. As I watched the helo's head down the river and out of sight I mumble to myself, "I can't believe I'm here alone, I must be crazy for volunteering." The first thing you learn in the Navy is don't volunteer for anything. Well, anyway you can bet my butt was tight, as I attempted to hide behind a small bush a short way back from the water line, not much luck, I felt like a short green flag just waving in the breeze that everyone could see. I don't think I have to tell you that I was wound as tight as a spring, trying to hide behind a small bush knowing that I was visible to anyone who might be in the area. My heart was beating a mile a minute and I could feel it pounding in my head. I just knew it would burst through my flight suit at any moment. That is when I started talking to myself, "how long have they been gone? When are they coming back? Damn, it seems like forever. The helo could have gone down for some mechanical problem. What if I had a smoke, could Charlie smell it?" You can imagine the feeling of relief when I heard the unmistakable sound of rotor blades. I also realized what joy to my ears that sound brought, along with fear that sound brought to Charlie.
When they got back to pick me up, the boat captain was with them and wanted to stay with his boat until it could be rescued, but that wasn't possible. It took some fast talking from my pilots to keep him in the helo. He was finally coached to stay in the helo, after lift off he sat on the cabin deck and we headed back to Sea Float. He was in shock and didn't want any assistance and refused to let me give him a shot of morphine. He kept saying over and over, "I want to keep my head clear." By the time we reached Sea Float he had calmed down somewhat, and someone else guided him to waiting medical personnel. As for me, I looked like a glob of mud and the smell stayed with me for days.
Life on Sea Float wasn't that bad after the first CO broke his leg and had to be medevaced out. He had to be the only officer in a combat zone in Southeast Asia that wanted us to wear the uniform of the day. I also seem to remember he didn't like Green tee shirts.
Sea Float was a place of very little privacy. I witnessed, for the first time in my life, a corpsman assisting a Vietnamese woman give birth to a healthy baby. That's something that I have no desire to witness again.
The food was great, they brought it in on an Army LST. I always wondered if the Army ate like that all the time, or if they just thought they were feeding us our last meal. I had never seen T-bone steaks that covered your whole tray (old Navy type metal tray). Some of you old Navy guys know what I'm talking about. The cook had a wood burning stove and made fresh homemade biscuits every morning. I also seem to remember homemade sweet rolls. Lobster and shrimp wasn't rare either. After each meal they had three 55 gallon drums with boiling water that we were required to dip our trays for cleaning after each meal.
One night we were sleeping over on Sea Float and after things settled down we had a few beers with the SEALs before bedtime. I think I'm correct in saying that LTJG McCamy was going to sleep in the top rack in the room we were assigned. I have never seen anything to compare with our accommodations. Our beds were stacked either five or six high and LTJG McCamy was just high enough to say he was sleeping in the top rack. Well you almost have to be part monkey to even get to the top bunk, so with a little effort and encouragement from all, he did finally make it to the top. Our room was made up of sheets of plywood four by eight around the bottom with screen around the top half, and we were able to scrounge up one floor fan that we pointed straight up. The mosquitoes were the size of birds and no mosquito nets were available, and they sounded like buzz bombers all night, along with concussion grenades every fifteen minutes. Who knew that LTJG McCamy would have to get up and take a leak in the middle of the night? I think we all woke up, after McCamy stepped from the top bunk directly into the big floor fan pointed toward heaven Needless to say, if he had not been a little high from suds it would probably have killed him. He only suffered a little damage to his pride and one hell of a messed up face.
One day, we were flying to the west of Square Bay, and put a strike in after receiving fire. Leaning out and forward on the left side, I was firing as fast as I could. In all the excitement, I noticed enemy rounds coming at us and they looked to be the size baseballs. I had always been told, if you could see the rounds, they would look like tin cans. When we pulled out of the strike we experienced one hell of a one to one vibration (rotor blades not in same flight plane). In fact, it was severe enough that we couldn't take a chance landing on Sea Float or the LST. Close by was an Army outpost with a PSP landing strip we had visited many times before, so we were familiar with the landing area. After lining up for an approach we went in just fast enough to make a safe landing. Although it was a little hairy, it hadn't been possible to hover and make a normal landing. We sort of slid into the PSP, or you could call it a run on landing. After shutting down and inspecting the rotor head, I discovered that a main rotor pitch change link was bent after being struck by ground fire from Charley. That is one time I was happy to have solid ground under my feet. A radio call to Binh Thuy was all it took to get a new pitch change link on it's way to us. In keeping with Navy maintenance practice, the squadron would also send approval for me to buy out the maintenance as a quality assurance representative. We had a thing about helicopter safety at all times.
We all made light of it after we were safe on the ground, but if the truth were known, we all were shaken up a little. It seemed like forever before the squadron helo arrived with the new part. When replacing a pitch change link it is impossible to get it correct on installation. A couple of steps are required to get it right. First, you must mark each rotor blade on the tip with a different color grease pencil, black and red worked great. Then the pilot would turn (start) the helicopter up. When he reached 100% rotor RPM, he would give a nod and I would push something soft into the blades until the object is struck by the blade tips. Normally you would have a flag (metal pole with two pieces of pipe welded to it. One at the top and another about three feet down, it would look like a pipe wrench, and then a piece of canvas tied between the pipes with masking tape on the end facing the helo). That would be the correct way to do it, but in the field the only thing I had was a cardboard container that an M-60 gun barrel came in. I decided that it would work, so I used it. The blades were out of track about two and one half inches. Normally it takes two or three adjustments (lengthen or shorten) to bring the color on color but all I can say is God was with us. One adjustment and we were in track and ready to do a hot rearm and put in more strikes.
On one occasion, we were flying over a defoliated area south of Sea Float and saw some ammunition boxes stacked up in the middle of nowhere on a fair size junk set up on blocks. On closer inspection, the boxes looked like rocket and ammo boxes. After much discussion, and inspecting the object of our interest, we put in quite a bit of fire with no apparent effect so we went back to Sea Float and picked up one of the SEALs and a satchel charge. LCDR Habicht was the pilot that day. I flew with him more times than not. It was decided that we would come in at a high hover (80-90 ft) and lower the satchel charge among all of the ammunition boxes. I think it was decided that nine pounds of C4 would do the job with a 30-minute delay. Well, before you could say shit we were on our way. We had the explosive expert with us, and I knew that was better than me lighting the fuse and lowering the package with a line. It wasn't easy for Mr Habicht trying to hover and us watch for snipers while the SEAL ignited the charge in the helo and lowered it to its final destination. After it was in place, we were all interested in how large an explosion it would be. When we were in our second circle a thought hit me like a ton of bricks, you know one of the "Oh Shit!" type of situations. We were only about 500 feet above the jungle floor making tight circles around out trophy below, and if the explosion went off as expected, it would blow us out of the sky. I keyed my ICS button and sort of made a statement Mr. Habicht, "don't you think we should, maybe, get a little altitude, when this thing goes off it could ruin our whole day?" No sooner said than we were on our way to greater height. I think we were somewhere above 2000 feet when we leveled off. I can tell you this for sure, at that altitude I could have used a pea coat, it was that cold. Well, it was close to 30-minutes until we witnessed the explosion. I'm not sure if it was the altitude or if it just wasn't as big a bang as I expected, but I can say, we made kindling out of all those wooden ammunition boxes and junk.
There was a SEAL operation planned and our fire team was to supply the air support. The SEALs were going to be inserted by an Army slick to retrieve a VC district chief. We had been up late the night before, playing cards in the SEAL compartment on Sea Float, and we were all somewhat tired but ready to go. The plan was to land the slick on a dike line maybe fifty meters away from the hooch but the slick pilot thought he had a better idea, he wanted to land right on the hooch with the seals deplaning from both sides of the helo.
In my opinion there was no planning on the pilot's part, sometimes you leave your brains at home when you need them the most. If any of you know anything at all about weight and balance you could appreciate what I am about to describe to you. The Army slick pilot made an approach and lightly put his skids on the hooch. As soon as he touched the roof, seals were coming out of the plane so fast that the pilot, due to weight loss, lost control of the helo and drooped the collective and applied aft cyclic. There was a palm tree behind the helo and after over correcting, the tail rotor came in contact with the palm tree causing the helo to spin and flip upside down on the hooch. Doc Wolf was the last SEAL to leave the helo, and he was within the arc of the main rotor blades and the blades decapitated him. We were flying counterclockwise so everything was in my view. I wanted to shut my eyes but they were riveted on the scene unfolding below. When the helo finally came to rest the area looked like a tornado had struck with black smoke rising from the tangled mess. The slick crew hit the ground running and escaped to a tree line behind the scene. A small child emerged from the destruction and ran in the opposite direction. I could not believe what I had just witnessed. It was as if it was in slow motion, a nightmare, and how I wished that I had magical powers and could have reached out and touched it and prevented it from happening. What I had just witnessed was slowly sinking in. I was awakened from my dream and brought back to reality by the sound of voices on the radio. The SEAL team had retrieved Wolf and was moving him to a LZ for us to come in and pick him up. I happened to be in the crew that retrieved Wolf. The trail ship flew cover as we descended into the scene below. Wolf was tied hand and foot with a pole slid on the inside as if he were a trophy. The pole was between to teammates. Wolf was brought out to the helo and placed on the cabin deck in front of me. We lifted off leaving the remaining SEALs to their job.
When we reached altitude I viewed the body of the man I had been playing cards with the night before. He was a huge person, the type everyone knew their daughters would be safe with. I said a prayer for him his family and friends, and was lost in my thoughts for the remainder of the flight back to Sea Float.
"Scramble" "Scramble" the Helos!" A tango boat has been hit by claymores! We lifted off to intersect the canal to the east. The message was one wounded and he needs a medevac. It's a VN sailor with a head wound. It had taken us a couple of minutes to load up and lift off for the trip to the north, but we were there in five minutes and ready to do battle with anyone in the area. A canal in Vietnam can be a few feet wide to many feet wide. Every day, there were psy ops missions from Sea Float. I never could figure it out. We were trying to talk Charlie into getting religion by sending boats down the canals at high tide with loud speakers shouting "Chi Hoi" and telling him all would be forgiven if he surrendered. Then the boats would come out at low tide. Charlie didn't have to be smart, he just used our weapons against us and he could set his watch by our movements. Charlie set claymores up on the top of the bank along the canal and when the boat went by BOOM! It didn't take all that much intelligence, I just couldn't believe that we do this day in and day out. Someone should have gotten a clue. Shortly it was time to go down. LTJG Thomas made an approach down the canal and popped up and we fired our rockets on both sides of the canal with door guns blazing away. My M-60 sounded like a drum roll as rounds were pulled out of the ammo box up over the feed tray and splashed on the side of the bank. Then up collective, we turn to approach the Tango Boat. The rotor wash swirled the reeds and grasses like chopped salad down and away from the boat. Some of the trees were not moving and the rotor blades were chopping off sections as we set down with one skid on the bow. Two sailors moved up to the landing deck with the wounded man and passed him up to me. God, he feels like dead weight, limp as can be. "Brookshire" you gotta help me. When he reaches my side, together we pull the man in. He had a horrifying, frightened look in his eyes, as if he were in a dream world and everything was bad. Oh God, please don't let him die on me. The skid came off the boat, the nose dipped over and the tail boom kicked up as we moved forward seeking transitional lift. Up we went with the rotor blades cutting slices of air from the hot humid air. I force my attention to the man in front of me. He started choking, and gray matter was flowing from a wound in the top of his head. The fluid moves with the pitch of the helo along the cabin deck, forward if the nose is tilted over, to the left if in a turn and so on. It's as if it has a mind of its own. It moves toward the co-pilot's seat, I threw a rag over it, stopping the motion. I moved to him and grabbed his uniform and rolled him over on his side and the choking sound ceased. The nausea attack is over and now we could sit back and take it easy as we headed back to Sea Float. The landing was routine, medical help was waiting and they transferred the CIA to an Army slick. It lifted off and headed to a VN hospital in Ca Mau. The main rotor blades looked good, no damage. Our luck is in the + column. I say to myself, I can't believe Americans are in charge of planning the boat ops here. They gotta know that at low tide the boats are in the most vulnerable and dangerous situations possible.
One day we had been on a training flight, LCDR Hartman was showing LT Sand berg our area of operation and it was time to return to the LST. As we approached the LST, LT Sand berg was in control of the helicopter and the approach wasn't bad. All of a sudden, LCDR Hartman said, "I've got it!" and grabbed the controls. We began to pitch and bounce around all over the place but Sand berg wasn't going to give up the controls that easily and he replied, "No! I've got it." All the time we are getting closer and closer to the ship. I had two men in front of me, one scared all the time and the other scared of the first one's abilities to fly. Needless to say, I wasn't comfortable with the situation and on top of that my spare M-60 had bounced out of the spares rack, hit the cabin deck, and with one hop went over the side never to be seen again. We finally got steel deck below the skids. I recently saw Bud Barnes at the reunion and asked if he was familiar with this incident and he said he had witnessed it. I asked Bud who had landed the helo and he replied, "both of them." There were a lot of questions about the weapon that went over the side. The navy was a stickler for paper work, and I referred all questions related to it to the officers.
Actually, at times life on the LST's wasn't bad. One of the ships did have an XO that we use to find hiding above our living space trying to catch us doing something illegal, like drinking maybe.
When we came in off missions, we could always get a cup of coffee in the mess. Hot showers in fresh water were not always available. If you ever had to take a salt-water shower you would swear off forever, but sometimes fresh water was a commodity. The crew aboard ship treated us well and it was like we were an extension of them when we went out on missions. They were always there to assist in hot re-arms and refueling.
Now I will tell you about a firefight that required many hot turn-arounds (re-arm and re-fuel). On one of the strikes my M-60 jammed and the barrel was red hot. I had to make sure to keep the business end pointed out away from the helo. A gun in the shape mine was in could cook off at any moment. I keep the barrel in the wind hoping it would cool off, and I broke the ammo loose so there wasn't more than a couple of rounds still hooked up to the feed tray. We were receiving heavy ground fire so I threw caution to the wind and opened my feed tray, and wouldn't you know it, the moment I raised it the dam thing cooked off. I heard Brookshire scream I'm hit! I'm hit! And I felt a warm flow of liquid flowing down my arm. My flight suit was acting as a blotter and was soon soaked with blood. I immediately cleared the jam, got my weapon in working order and checked Brookshire. He felt a hit in his foot, but after further scrutiny I saw a small piece of brass lying next to his boot. I couldn't help busting out laughing and told him the cooked off brass hit his flight boot. He sure looked relieved, and we completed our mission without further incident. When we arrived back at Sea Float, I went to see the corpsman about my arm. I pulled my flight suit down around my waist, and finally looked at my arm. The whole arm down to my wrist was soaked in blood. The corpsman took a look and asked how it happened? I explained I had a cook off during a firefight, and he said no Purple Heart. I said I just want it cleaned up so I can see how bad it is. Well, it just looked as if someone sprinkled pepper all over my arm. He wiped a salve all over my arm and gave me the rest. For years after that I was picking gunpowder out of my arm. I think I may have teased Brookshire a few times after that but I couldn't help it, you really had to see his face after thinking he had been hit.
One night we were staying the night on Sea Float and as usual the SEAL team and us were having a few beers, and they got to tell us about a boat they had. I'm not sure if it was Posey or not, but they said they had a SEAL boat made out of concrete. I was just far enough gone that my mind had a hard time grasping what I had just been told. I said you must be kidding and was told in so many words that they never kid. Nothing else would do but to take a ride right then. We all staggered and stumbled to the mooring place of this truly special boat, and climbed aboard. Can you picture this? A bunch of drunken SEALs and gunners going full speed up the Cua Lon River when you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. There was a canal north of Sea Float that cut through between the rivers to the left and I believe we made it that far. The night air coming off the water was cool and half way sobered us up. The driver of the magnificent boat suggested we return to Sea Float. You know how it is, we all wanted to go back but it would be a sign of weakness. At that time we thought we were tough and could kick ass any time anywhere. Not one of us wanted to suggest going back but cooler heads took over and that ended our night excursion with the SEALs. We made it back to Sea Float sometime around bedtime and went to sleep just knowing we were the toughest mothers in the Delta.
Don Harbough was a new arrival on Det-1 and I scheduled him to fly the next day on a routine flight. We assembled on the flight deck that morning and pulled a preflight, armed the rockets and strapped in for lift off. The engine whirled and made a high pitch squeal as the throttle was increased. The rotor brake was released and the slow whirl of the blades gained speed until 100% rotor RPM was reached. We slowly lifted off the deck and the cyclic was pushed forward and over the side we went. As always, the water rushed towards us then slowly as transitional lift takes hold up we go. Damn, the water gets closer and closer each time we take off. The patrol is routine with nothing stirring or moving. We landed on Sea Float and waited around all morning before it was decided to head back to the LST. Lifting off Sea Float we headed back by way of the Buy Hap River. If we were going to draw ground fire, this is the way to go. What the hell was wrong today? We couldn't draw fire from anyone. " pilot, crew." "go ahead crew." "Harbough is on his first flight and needs training on the M-60." "Ok, pick a target, how about the rocket box to the left over there in Square Bay?" "Ok, here we go. I'll turn to put it off the left door." "Ok, Harbough. Let me know when your ready." "Ready." "Open up and kill the rocket boxes." "God damn!" "What the hell is happening?" A body just flopped out of the rocket box and is doing the chicken. "Pilot crew." "Go ahead." "There's a whole bunch of people coming up out of the mud!" I looked at the assembly of Vietnamese standing in the mud with their hands sticking straight up as if reaching for something just out of there range. Men, women, and children there number around fifteen, the youngest approximately three years old. "Munster Seawolf 14." "Go ahead Seawolf 14." "Munster, we have a bunch of people in the mud on the northern end of Square Bay, please advise." "Seawolf 14, can you pick up the people and transport them to Sea Float?" "Roger that Munster." "Ok boys and girls, let's pick them up." When coming to a hover over the mud and water, the rotor blades acted as a prop swirling the water out away and up to be pulled back through the rotor blades in a vicious cycle. There was trembling and fear in the eyes of the people we were approaching to pull into the helo's. It required two trips to get them all, the youngest was a three year old girl holding on to me as we lifted off. I look at her face covered with mud and tears with her body jerking with each breath she takes. Tears well up in my eyes as I reach for her and see her cringe in front of me, there is nothing I can say or do that she would understand that would ease the total fright she was feeling. As we landed on Sea Float, there was no change in the her from the time we picked her up. I was wondering who or how the girl in the rocket box may be kin to the little girl. The girl who had hidden in the rocket box was a sixteen years old. She had selected the worst place to hide on this day. The villagers had been digging for shell fish and hearing the helos coming, they hid in the mud except for the young girl that climbed into the rocket box, not knowing this would be her coffin. I could not help but fell remorse at the end of that day.
There was an Army pilot that came down and flew with us in one of the little Loach helicopter, made by the Hughs Aircraft Company. He drew fire like nothing else. He flew low level taking fire, dropped a smoke and in we go, rockets, M-60's, 50-Cal, and mini guns blasting away. We yaw when the 50-Cal is fired due to the kick and the mini gun slows us up, but we use anything we can to put a dent in Charlie. That day was a beautiful and sunny with few clouds and perfect weather for rocket runs. I thought it would be just like any other day but boy was I wrong. Flying at about eight hundred feet above the forest we watched for anything out of the ordinary. Our Army buddy was at treetop level buzzing from one spot to another like a bumble bee, all of a sudden a smoke goes off and the word comes in on the radio "Receiving fire!" "Receiving fire!" We watched as he moved out of the way and we lined up to go in. The lead aircraft was first, with the trail ship covering us. A lot has to happen before a strike; rocket sights come down, armament switch turned on, check airspeed and zoom in on the smoke. All of these things happen automatically. Going in with everything blazing away, the airspeed was reading 120 knots when we pulled out and broke left. As we came around we opened up with door guns covering the trail ship. They pulled out and came around and we lined up for another run. We repeated the same thing but broke right. If it were really a hot zone, the option to salvo the rockets is always open. If you decide to salvo your ride comes to a dead stop for a second or two, and could really hurt if Charlie has your range. The best speed for a rocket run is about eighty knots, but it's hard to maintain the correct air speed when receiving fire. Hell, who has time to watch air speed?
We got word that the Army pilot sustained numerous hits in his tail boom and landed on the LST, so our trail ship departed for Sea Float and we headed for the LST. I checked out the helo once we were on deck and discovered lots of holes through it, some close to the tail rotor drive shaft. It's not safe to fly without changing the tail boom. My OINC asked if I could change it and I said I could. A call was made to the Army for a new tail boom, and we were in receipt of it before long and the process began. Disconnecting all hardware and removing the tail boom was simple but putting the new one on took a little time. We were short a potentiometer for adjusting the tension for the tail rotor control cable. I made an adjustment by feel but needed to do a calibrated tension check before the helo was ready to fly. Binh Thuy flew a potentiometer out to us and a quick check showed that I only missed it by five pounds. Not bad for a guess. The next morning we were ready for a repeat performance.
It started out like any other day. We made our rounds and movement was spotted in a defoliated area that had one green tree next to a canal. Mr. Habicht was the AHAC and while trying to take a closer look we pulled up into a high hover and leaned out to see what we can make out. Staring down I was looking straight into the muzzle of a rifle pointed directly at us. I saw smoke come out of the end and screamed "Receiving fire!" "God damn! Lets get the hell out of here." The helo tilted over, nose down and we moved away at a startling slow speed and gradually increased to a respectable speed. Both door guns kept time as we moved away. It was time to get our thoughts right and reward Charlie with a private showing of what we are capable of. Coming around and lining up to put in a strike, it was decided to use guns and save the rockets. I would not want to be in front of a huey when coming in guns firing. As I opened up, about thirty rounds went through my M-60 before jamming. "Left door down!" "left door down!" Mr. Habicht broke right and Christenson opened up on the VC that are visible. One is looking down as his guts spilled out into his hands. Then he looked up at us and fell over into the mud next to the canal. The only other VC was dead up under the tree. It was time to go back and re-load the ammo; we wouldn't want to get caught short. Landing on the LST was uneventful. After shutting down we start our post flight and discover bullet holes up under the main gearbox in the main "I" beam that the main gearbox is attached to. I couldn't find any other damage but this put us down. A call went into Binh Thuy for an airlift. The airlift helo arrived and lowered straps to hook up to the main rotor hub then lowered a cable to attach the straps to. The force of the wind created by this monster of a helicopter made it difficult to hold on and complete the hook up. Finally, it was done. I jumped off to the deck as the crewman directed the pilot while lifting our gunship off the deck of the LST.
On October 22, 1969 we were on a mission to destroy enemy structures. Piccolo was flying the 50-Cal machine gun on right door and Perez was sitting on the ammo cans on the deck in the middle as a new trainee on the 50-Cal. I was flying left door as always with no desire ever to fly right door. I guess it has something to do with being right handed, or I don't know. When I kiss a girl, it feels right for her to be on my left side. Mack Thomas was the pilot and Marty Chamberlain was co-pilot. We arrived at our destination and immediately started dropping concussion grenades from both doors. The fuse was supposed to be seven seconds. On the first pass I heard a scream and turned to the right. All I remember is a white out and being thrown out of the left door. Somehow, I found myself holding the pussy pole in my right hand and my M-60 in my left hand with my left foot on the pylon and my right foot on the skid (God, I love that gunner belt!) In the process of everything, the pussy pole came loose in my hand when the explosion expanded the cabin and I rammed it through the green house window on my way out the door. The green house window is located above the co-pilots head. The first thing I remembered seeing was the ground passing below me as if in slow motion, but getting closer all the time. I slowly slid the pussy pole on the cabin deck between the co-pilots seat and door post and under my gunner seat. I pulled myself back into the helicopter and could hear Piccolo screaming as he lay on his back in the middle of the cabin. Mack Thomas was leaning forward in the pilot's seat as we continued to descend at an alarming rate. I grabbed Mr. Thomas and pulled back on his flight suit. As he came back in the seat, he pulled back on the cyclic and up on the collective. We leveled off and tried to talk to each other, the ICS was inoperative. All of this happened in a matter of seconds. It was time to check Piccolo out. His right hand was gone above the wrist and he had a fragmentation wound on his right thigh. I finally realized that Perez was in the helicopter and after getting a knife from Marty Chamberlain, I cut my ICS cord to use as a tourniquet for Piccolo's arm. Perez helped me with the first aid treatment by working on the right leg. In the back of my mind I kept hearing these little voices saying "remember to keep checking the tourniquet." I got a morphine syrette from Marty Chamberlain and injected Piccolo and that little voice in the back of my head came back "use his blood to put an M on his forehead." After everything was completed, tourniquet tight, morphine injected, and an M placed on his forehead, I looked at Piccolo and could see he was in excruciating pain. All I could do was reassure him that he would be alright.
Our other gunship had made contact with a medevac and we met in Ca Mau to transfer Piccolo for the Third Surg Hospital in Binh Thuy. This was the first medevac that I had ever seen that didn't have something to transfer patients. We used the poncho that we used to cover our weapons during rainy season to move Piccolo to the medevac. It was at this time that Perez told me he had a hole in his back. Talk about bad luck, Perez went along with Piccolo in the medevac. Mr. Thomas, Mr. Chamberlain and I waited for the Army to get there so we could hook up our helo to be air lifted to Binh Thuy.
About two weeks after this incident, we received a letter from Piccolo that he had written with his left hand telling us that he had two hands now, one with a hook and one that was real.
I will try to remember some other stories to add later on. When doing this it sure brought back lots of memories.