John Hosford (Hos), Miguel “Mike” Melendez (Mex) and I served together on HA(L)-3 Detachment 1 at Nam Can, Republic of Vietnam – a U S Navy firebase known as “Solid Anchor” in 1971. During those days, we flew a years’ worth of missions together and worked closely on the aircraft and other detachment duties. I was a young officer and John and Mike were young enlisted, but I like to think that we all have a lot in common. John and I were probably the most junior and most definitely quietest two on the detachment. Mike and John both taught me a lot about the aircraft and its weapons systems. I have a lot of respect for both of them. They are exceptional instructors, expert gunners, fine mechanics and solid friends you could always count on. I knew I wanted to be on their team.
We were on a two aircraft, light fire team mission south of our firebase. We were in the trail bird of an armed patrol and I was in the left seat up front with Mike and John in the gunners seats behind me. They ran the door mounted M-60s as well as their M-60 free guns. It was a simple patrol – we used to refer to as “trolling” – like fishing. A recommended “avoid zone” was about 100 feet to 2,500 feet above the ground that had a much higher probability of drawing small arms ground fire.
We flew at roughly 1,000 feet altitude, right in the dead middle of the no fly altitude block. We did that intentionally to draw ground fire to help identify the enemy. We did not know it but enemy forces had moved a large .51 caliber anti-aircraft gun in place and had it all set up. Much more than small arms, it was a big gun and our adversary hauled it all the way in there from who knows where – just for us.
In the course of our mission, our fire team flew into the trap and came under intense enemy anti-aircraft fire. In an instant, our bird received a concentrated hail storm burst of .51 cal anti-aircraft fire that passed right through our already battle scarred Huey helicopter, from the right side of the gunship, completely through and out the left side. There were parts flying all over! A couple seconds later we heard the gun going off as bullets are so fast they easily outrun their own sound.
As combat veterans know, engagements of this nature are extremely fast, full rush, high speed, adrenaline pumping “fight or flight” epochs in your life. Unlike movie portrayals, bullets are unimaginably fast and big bullets like that rarely stop. They merely pass through whatever is in their path leaving an arrow straight trail of twisted and splintered destruction behind.
Most of them did that, however a few were armor piercing incendiary rounds that blow up when they touch something, spreading a highly concentrated, intensely burning cloud of inferno like material designed to “light off” anything combustible that it contacts. As those clouds evaporated and the smoke began to clear, our gunners took the initiative and immediately returned defensive fire as we turned hard to the suspected source.
Enemy fire continued to chew away at us; we were pitted gun for gun against an entrenched opponent that was very effectively “on target”. However, the target end of a highly destructive, all or nothing engagement is just not the best place to be at any time in your life. Mex and Hos spotted our target and they hit it with their free guns. As we swung around to face the enemy, in John Wayne fashion, they hung precariously out the back doors and continued to pour in the rounds.
Our team quickly transitioned from a defensive move to an offensive attack directed squarely at the suspected enemy position. The fire team reassembled with our bird in trail position and we flew into the teeth of the enemy fire – right down the pipe! Every gun worked perfectly, as our crew had made sure of it. We counted on them. We made two fast gun passes spending 28 rockets and all the gun ammunition we carried. With each gun run, we continued our spiral down to tree top level.
Now spent and wounded, we reached the treetops and turned to home base to “hot” rearm, refuel and jump back into the fight. It was a quiet but exhilarating high speed, low-level sinuous flight path “between the trees” back home. It was probably not the smartest thing to do with an injured gunship.
We landed at Solid Anchor where ground crews immediately swarmed over us like busy ants. Hurriedly, the pit crew began hot refueling…wisdom prevailed. Too much leaking out of the bird, too many new holes to check out. Dejectedly, we shut down our precious ride and ended the mission.
We began to take stock of the visible aircraft damage and realized Hos, Mex and I received most of it. Hos was burned but, like our aircraft, Mex and I were leaking from shrapnel wounds. Also Hos had one of his M-60 gun barrels hit “dead on” with an armor piercing anti-aircraft round. In fact, the round had remained lodged in the solid steel gun barrel and gas piston as it hung in the rack on the back of my seat. We had corralled and “captured” one of those big ol’ bullets! A rarity indeed!
Standing there looking at the dripping remains of our beloved Huey, John handed me the bullet. As casually as southern farmers discussing the weather, Hos said, “Fell out of the gun barrel”.
“Thanks” I replied, rolling that heavy piece of ugly case hardened steel in my hand, “Big bullet. Wud’a cut me in half if it missed your gun. God’s good.”
“Yeah” said Hos, “almost didn’t take that barrel …piston sticks …need to soak it in the vat.”
Mex calmly said “Wanna’ Coke?” (All soft drinks are a Coke to a southerner).
We all walked away together again. We were blessed!