Scramble Seawolves! Part 8

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

This is the continuation of a story begun in "Scramble Seawolves!" part 7. The preceding half of this story should be reviewed before reading this one because this concluding part is not written to stand alone. For a more detailed description of tactics, equipment, and concepts of operations for HA(L) - 3, the NAVY's only attack helicopter squadron, you might read the several "Scramble Seawolves!" articles which have preceded this one. A brief synopsis of the first half follows.

A light helicopter fire team of HA(L) - 3, Det Nine had been conducting a training strike under the command of Lt "Max Prudence", a newly designated Fire Team Leader, designated despite the reservations of the officers required to provide the recommendation for this qualification. The trail aircraft commander was LTJG Steve Hanvey. The flight had found itself landing on a coastal beach in unfriendly territory after a series of unfortunate decision resulting in the fire team running dangerously low on fuel and unable to reach a friendly post or airfield before fuel exhaustion. They quickly came under hostile fire from several directions, which increased in intensity until the position became untenable. They had overflown a sandbar, about 400 yards to seaward, and exposed during low tide, in order to land at their present location.

With the helicopters now under direct fire from down the beach in two directions, it was time to get the hell out of there. The distant sand bar was starting to look real good. Max and Steve would run to the helicopters and start engines while the others covered them. As soon as the rotors were turning, everyone would sprint to the helicopters and jump in. As soon as all were aboard, they would launch and fly out to the sand bar and land before they ran out of fuel. Max and Steve took off running through the deep sand, possibly thinking of the sand pit portion of the obstacle course back at Pansacola. Did the designers of that sadistic pit foresee naval aviators in this type of predicament? But this Vietnam version of the O-course had the added feature of small arms fire snapping at them. Again the sensation of slow motion. Trying to get up speed while running in flight boots in deep sand. Hollywood zig-zagging was clearly a useless idea. Just pump those legs and grit those teeth. Fifty yards in the open.........

Both men got to the helicopters unscathed, jumped in and hit the starters. No time for helmets, no time for straps. As the blades began to turn, the stampede was on, with everybody running for the birds, including the VC, who assaulted across the rice paddy dikes against no opposition when the sound of the jet engines made it clear that the Americans were bugging out. VC were also running out on to the beach down the coast across the cursed creek mouth. Two gunners slowed to spray at them and change their minds about exposing themselves on the beach. A tall geyser fountained from the rice paddy beyond the berm, as the mortar crew tried to find the range. That convinced the last gunners that it was time to stop shooting and run like hell across the sandy O-course for the howling birds.

As the last body heaved into the back, Max took off, making an immediate right turn to streak for the sand bar. Steve lifted right behind, thirty feet altitude, twenty degrees nose down in a steep right turn, a gunner firing out the port door. No one strapped in. No one with helmets on.... Gunners leaning out trying to return fire.... The hit was apparently right in the flight controls. No engine wind-down, no loss of Nr, no loss of hydraulics, just sudden and helpless absence of response to the flight controls. No chance to even shout a warning, even if anyone could have heard him without ICS, over the scream of jet engine, and the staccato of the door gunner's machine gun. They hit nose down, wing down, at about forty knots, in chest-deep water about 150 yards from the beach. Everyone departed the helicopter. The absence of cargo doors benefitted the flying exit of two of the gunners. The third, ADJ-2 Elliott doesn't remember how he got out. The absence of pilot doors (we often flew without either pilot or cargo doors) made no difference in the departure of the two pilots. They went right through the windscreens.

Steve bobbed to the surface, looked around to count heads and found all four others on the surface. The other helicopter continued out to the sand bar, running on fumes and unable to turn to help. It flamed out on touchdown at the sand bar. No possibility of help. The VC were now lining the beach firing offhand at the men in the water. Rounds were splashing all over the place. Their only chance was to get out to the sandbar. Everybody started swimming for the open sea. Everybody but Petty Officer Elliott, who was wading in to the beach, head in hands, streaming blood from his face. He was clearly stunned, disoriented, and had no idea that anybody was even shooting at him. Steve went after him! In the face of a dozen or more VC shooters, Ltjg Steve Hanvey swam/waded/staggered after Eliott. Again the agony of some all-pervading restricting force grabbing at his legs and torso as he tried to overtake Eliott. Slow motion again. The VC were shooting at everybody, perhaps more at the more distant men, who were closer to getting away, if you call swimming out to sea in an ocean brimming with sea snakes getting away. Maybe they didn't bother to run into the water to capture the two men because they thought that they were coming in to surrender. They could capture them at their leisure after target practice was over. Maybe they were enjoying the helpless plight of their enemy. Who knows. In any case, Steve got to Eliott, grabbed him, spun him around and started dragging him back out to sea. Elliott fought Steve's effort to drag him to safety!

"What the Hell are you doing?" yelled Steve, "I'm trying to get you outta here!"

"I can't swim, I can't swim!"

"Are you wounded? Are you hurt?"

"No! I can't swim!"

"You're shitting me! Just relax, quit flailing around and stay low. We'll get outta here."

Steve grabbed the front of Elloitt's flight suit and started dragging him out to sea, the drag method quickly progressing to a more low provirtual cross chest carry as the water got up to their torsos. Cringing from the ricochets near their faces and the snapping of the overs. It should only be a matter of seconds before the VC would wade into the ocean and capture them... or just shoot them.

But before they could do either, a single Seawolf from Det Six, piloted by Ltjg Mike Reid arrived on the scene. Hearing the calls of Seawolf 92 as he landed on the sandbar, Mike spotted the crashed Seawolf helicopter, saw the men in the water and the men on the beach. Without even an orientation pass, he rolled directly in on the VC on the beach, into the teeth of their collective fire, which had immediately shifted to his lone helicopter as the VC made for the cover of the berm. Mike fired all 14 of his rockets in one pass. Ripple fire. A snap decision to get their heads down, rearrange their priorities, and lighten his helicopter by their combined weight. He would need that lift capacity because he turned to pick up the helpless men in the water without hesitation. Door guns blazing, he reefed the helicopter into a tight turn over the smoking beach, and brought it into a hover amidst the swimming men.

Holding a low hover with his skids actually in the ocean in order to give the men in the water a way to climb into his helicopter, Mike concentrated on maintaining a steady position, port side to the beach, amidst a swirling cloud of salt spray and red tracers, while the men were pulled aboard. They converged on the helicopter from both sides, three from seaward and two, Hanvey and the injured Eliott, from shoreward. The VC who survived the rocket attack maintained a continuous fire on the helicopter. The port side door gunner returned the fire while pulling the survivors into the howling helicopter. As each man was dragged in, the additional weight began to tell on the CG of the helicopter. All the people piling in were forward of the CG of the helicopter, and the weight was beginning to make fore and aft controllability a problem for Mike.

Mike shouted out his problems with aft stick authority as the helicopter began to creep forward, unable to be kept in a steady hover. The starboard gunner alertly shoved the Det Nine people up against the aft bulkhead as they were pulled aboard, gave them the hand signal to stay put, and went back to tossing out ammunition, spare M-60's, rifles, and anything else not tied down, until the next man waded up to the helo. Trouble was, it was impossible to tell them the problem with the CG with all the helicopter noise and gunfire.

With all aboard, Mike staggered his overloaded helicopter out of the hover. With the engines at topping and the Nr drooping, he also experienced his moments of slow motion agony. The helicopter had to be gently slid into forward flight ever so slowly, or it would have settled into the sea for lack of power. Another nightmare of unendurable length as tracers flew all around and mortar shells blossomed in dirty geysers in the shallow water. Fortunately, the mortar crew was still in the dark as to the location of the helicopter invisible to them from the tree line on the other side of the rice paddies beyond the berm. The race was on and the helo was the turtle. The question was whether the small arms fire would hit something vital, or the mortar would get lucky, before the the overloaded Bravo could get away.

It was looking good, though. The mortars were clueless, and the small arms hits were missing all the vital stuff. With the helicopter beginning to pick up a little speed, but not yet in translational lift, one of the drenched men could contain his excitement no longer. He stepped forward to slap Mike on the back and give his thanks. Over went the nose, back went the stick against the stops, and down went the helicopter, accelerating towards the water, only a half dozen feet away. With single digit seconds before nine men would be swimming around in yet more wreckage, five of them for the second time that hour, the gunner reached out, got a hand full of Nomex and unceremoniously slammed the man back into the crowd against the aft bulkhead, landing on him. The bird leveled off and staggered along, dragging skid heels across the water. Catch a skid toe and it would be all over.

Mike nursed his straining helicopter out to the sand bar, where the survivors were offloaded. As soon as they were out of the helicopter, he took off to renew the attack on the now-fleeing VC. The Det Six Seawolf caught some of them in the rice paddies as they neared the safety of the trees. They were slaughtered there, caught in the open in broad daylight.

They paid the price for staying too long. They stayed too long because they were such incredibly lousy shots. None of the U.S. personnel in this encounter were hit by any VC weapons, including Hanvey and Eliott. Everyone in Steve's helicopter was injured as a result of the crash after being shot down, and each received a Purple Heart, but miraculously, no one was hit directly. Thank God, none of our guys were killed. It was a miracle. Combat is so fickle. We actually got numerous confirmed kills out of the fiasco, and subsequent sweeps uncovered quantities of weapons, supplies, and other contraband in the local area, an area which had previously been ignored in patrol activity because it had been so peaceful. No more VC were encountered; the surviving VC had pulled out after the fight.

This sad mishap, for it was really an accident, although it went into the books as a combat loss, wouldn't have had the catastrophic consequences it had, losing an aircraft, and injuring five men, were it not for some really bad luck to have landed in the midst of what must have been the local VC reserve unit's monthly weekend drill session or something. But the mishap chain of events is there, as in any mishap, peacetime or combat. The VC didn't cause the loss of the bird, they just ensured it. They were the final link.

And I was a prior link. It wouldn't have happened had I not rationalized away my better judgement in order to avoid the uncomfortable position of potentially damaging a fellow officer's career image. I was looking for a way out of facing up to my convictions that day in the O-in-C's stateroom and I found it all too easily. You might say that I had no good cause to withhold the recommendation, and perhaps that is so, and that I couldn't prevent the inevitable, and maybe that is also true, and that it wasn't my fault (the battle cry of the present generation, it seems). Had I somehow prevented Max from making FTL, and the mishap had never happened, I would probably have experienced guilt for a while over potentially screwing up a career by an apparently cruel and heartless decision. Balance that probable guilt against only a possibility of getting caught up by events after ignoring my inner doubts, it looks like a good bet. But not really a good bet compared to maybe living a lifetime with the guilt of getting someone killed for lack of moral courage.

He was a good peacetime pilot. He had all the traits that would allow a stateside, peacetime squadron commander to sleep well at night when the squadron was night flying. He was prepared for all the anticipated situations. He was not able to cope with the unanticipated twists of the chaos called combat. In retrospect, the problem was that he was not a combat leader. That unsettling feeling both Ian and I had, came from a concern that he did not have the certain aggressiveness, or decisiveness, or something else that's still hard to explain in words, which is vital to leadership in combat.

Some people are just not cut out for combat, although every fleet qual we give is a qualification for potential combat. Are all our HAC's evaluated for their potential in a combat situation? It's easy to rationalize away any doubts today, there is no combat happening. But we may all be someday called to a harsh accounting by sudden combat thrust upon us in this modern world with very little warning, and combat is merciless, even more merciless than aviation itself. In aviation, we like to believe that, with prudence, and strong programs to rein the possible overconfidence derived from good training, and with forceful leadership by example to curb the immortality of youth, we, the Navy, are in charge of our destinies in the air and virtually eliminate the uncertainties of the flying part of our profession. We believe we are the dominant key to the accident rate. This is largely true. But in combat we are no longer the prime arbiters of our destiny, there are other major factors beyond our programs, our prudence, and even our leadership examples, which influence outcomes.

Are you ignoring those inner voices for fear of damaging a good peacetime officer's career potential? I did once, and it is a decision I will always regret, although I could have had much greater regrets, but for the whimsy of the god of war, who, incredibly, spared our side one hot day in the surf of South Vietnam.

It was while packing my seabag to go out to join my Det that I discovered the first casualties of my tour in-country. My orders to HA(L)-3 were accompanied by a helpful letter from some nameless samaritan which advised me about what uniforms to bring and other folksy tidbits of useless, but, I'm sure, well-meaning advice. In retrospect, it's clear that the author, whoever he was, had never served here. As per the letter, I had brought along a set of tropical whites, long, one each. Pulling stuff out of my seabag to repack for the trip home, I discovered that my white shoes were completely covered with a bounteous culture of thick green mold, inside and out, and that my white uniform was blackened with a second fungus quite different from the one which had made two green fur balls from what were once my shoes. This one, the starched cotton-dwelling variety, was mottled grey and black, and not quite so uniform in distribution as the white buck-dwelling variety. But it was flourishing and had destroyed the uniform. The letter did advise me that I would not be needing my sword while in Vietnam, even though I would be at war. Lucky for me and my sword, I didn't take it over with me. Based on close observation of the prolific flora of that damp country, I'm convinced that there existed somewhere in that fecund Delta a spore which would feast on Solingen Steel.

DEROS is an Acronym found in all orders to Vietnam, meaning Date of Estimated Return from OverSeas, which became the popular shorthand acronym for the number of days remaining in-country.

Consider the following ceremonial conversation, instructive in the use of the word DEROS, invariably conducted between a "shorttimer" (one near the end of one's tour), and a "newbie" (one who is to be pitied),

"What's your DEROS Newbie?" asks the Shorttimer.

"Thirty-sixty and a wakeup." (Or three-hundred sixty-four, or insert any number of days remaining greater than yours)

"You poor *#@&$. If I had that many days, I'd (choose one, depending on mood):

a. slash my wrists,

b. drink Nuc Muong from the jug,

c. jump on a grenade,

d. dive out of my helicopter from a 1000 feet,

e. drink from a rice paddy, etc. etc."


Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips

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