DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
MIKE "CHOO CHOO" CANNIS
LTJG USN AND SEAWOLF 30
AND THEN MAJOR OF MARINES
A FELLA COULD GET KILLED AROUND HERE
WITHOUT EVEN TRYING
As if this combat stuff isn’t dangerous enough, Vietnam offered myriad ways to get killed without the enemy laying a glove on you. Some ways involved friendlies, like "friendly" Vietnamese, some involved your own friends, even your own det mates and squadron mates, and some involved other Americans whose names you never learned.
At the nearest local airstrip, which served as our favorite "watering hole" refuel/rearm runway after launching from our home-base YRBM, there was sited at the end of the runway, a small triangular "fort" typical of the numerous defensive installations sprinkled all over the populated areas of the Delta. The place was built of dirt berms topped with sandbags, surrounded by a moat, and by rings of concertina wire. It was manned by the local Ruff Puffs (Regional Forces/Popular Forces); units of home guards, who stood sentry, replenished ammunition and fuel at the strip when it was delivered to them, and maintained whatever barbed wire, punji stakes, or other perimeter defenses that existed at the strip. The fort offered a theoretical rallying point and haven for the nearby population in times of peril. At the approach of danger, the Ruff Puff’s job was to raise the alarm, man the walls, gather in the friendlies, and wait for the real soldiers to arrive and drive off the enemy. Most of these little places, those located in the more well-populated sections of the Delta, anyway, were peaceful little communities by the year 1970, a result of a relatively successful pacification program in the Delta.
We flew over this place whenever we departed the airstrip to the east. One night, as we climbed out, laboring under a full load of fuel and ammunition, in the kill zone and slow to boot, a tracer rose from the wall of the fort, rising straight up before our noses in a streak of red, disappearing overhead. It was disconcerting to say the least. Seeing tracer rise into the night was not unusual, but that one was close.
This was my first encounter with the recently growing phenomenon of non-flyers moving into the neighborhood of an airport, and then complaining about the noise. This guy was ahead of his time and a voice crying in the wilderness, what with him living in South Vietnam and not San Diego. For all I know, he escaped from the Democratic Peoples Repubic of Vietnam as one of the boat people and has set up an airport noise consulting firm near Miramar, although no one has taken fire at Miramar that I know of. Maybe they are, and the jet jocks don’t recognize muzzle flashes, since I’m pretty sure the local civilians don’t use tracers.
Taking fire in San Diego is not altogether improbable. I have the singular distinction, as far as I know, of having been hit by small arms fire twice while a student in the training command before I ever got anywhere close to a combat zone; once in a T-34 and once in a Huey. Both times verified by an instructor and squadron maintenance personnel. But that’s another story. . . . .
When we returned to the YRBM that night, we registered a complaint to the local province senior advisor (US), about the carelessness of the sentry at the fort. The province senior advisor is responsible for interfacing between the US and the Vietnamese, coordinating firing clearances, mission support and tasking, and resolving any conflicts. The complaint was forwarded to the province chief (Vietnamese). We thought no more about it.
Two nights later, as we flew over the fort again, a tracer rose from the fort, flashing up through our rotor arc right before our eyes. Close. We immediately switched up the province senior advisor, call sign Proper Jackpot Charlie.
"Proper Jackpot Charlie, Seawolf 98. We just had a repeat of the incident of two nights ago. Somebody in that outpost is amusing himself by taking potshots at us as we go by. I don’t know whether he’s trying to hit us or not, but the round was close again. Somebody’s going to get hurt if something isn’t done."
"Seawolf 98, this is Proper Jackpot Charlie, roger, wait, out." Eloquent, eloquent message. Roger, wait, out. Formal radio-telephone discipline and usage, and a noncommittal answer. Any sympathy for us? Any sign of support? Any hope that our position will be relayed with outrage, or at least indignity? Not in those cold cold words. Proper Jackpot Charlie sounded like some REMF ticket-punching politician afraid to jeopardize his future career. We continued with our mission. As we were returning to the YRBM, we were called back.
"Seawolf 98, this is Proper Jackpot Charlie. In reference to your last, the province chief authorizes me to inform you that the incident you reported, if true, must have been an accidental discharge. The incident is regrettable."
Suspicions confirmed, he’s a jerk.
"Is that it? That’s not the first time this has happened. This shit has got to cease!"
"Seawolf 98, this is Proper Jackpot Charlie, the report has been virtuald. That’s all we can do about it. Now I advise you to forget about it. No harm has been done. If the sentry fired at you, he probably didn’t realize his weapon was loaded, over."
"And I guess he probably didn’t realize it was pointed at us when he pulled the trigger either. Glad to hear the report has been filed. We’ll all sleep better tonight, Charlie."
"Seawolf 98, you will confine yourself to proper R-T procedures, this is Proper Jackpot Charlie, OUT."
Yeah, well we’ll keep ever before us our proper R-T procedures in the future, but first a switch to UHF Guard, the international military air distress frequency monitored by all. Key the mike, take a deep breath, and scream into the radio;
"I HATE THIS F---ING PLACE!"
From out of the ether, perhaps from an Army Caribou transport pilot or a tower operator at some nearby isolated field;
"Click-click..." Perhaps from an Air Force F-4 pilot orbiting over a FAC, or JEHOVAH, the big air controller in the sky, somewhere over Cambodia.
"Click-click..." Perhaps from another Seawolf, or a lonely radio watch on a patrol boat sitting ambush. "Click-click, click-click, click-click..." Lots of lonely people out there manning all manner of radio-equipped sites.
Several nights later, as we took off from the airstrip and climbed over the fort, another tracer rose to greet us. It missed close abeam. The lead Seawolf helicopter rolled right and turned to present its starboard door gun to the outpost. The trail helicopter wheeled sharply left and dove toward the outpost. On command, both helicopters opened fire simultaneously with their six-barreled 7.62mm mini-guns (rate of fire 4,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute, selectable by the gunner, one tracer every five rounds). In a period of three seconds, with a terrible ripping noise, 600 rounds of 7.62, including 125 bright red tracers descended in a full metal jacket deluge into the moat in front of the sentry’s post. The water erupted, white and boiling, and just as abruptly subsided, as the echo of the ripping noise faded, a last red ricochet whined into the jungle beyond, and the sudden mist drifted away. We turned away, climbed out, and proceeded on our flight in silence.
Not for long:
"Seawolf 98, this is Proper Jackpot Charlie. I have a report that your fire team attacked the Ruff Puff outpost. Just what the Hell is going on, over?"
"Uh, Proper Jackpot Charlie, this is 98, uh, tell the outpost that it was an accidental discharge. We didn’t realize our guns were loaded. The incident is regrettable, do you copy? Over."
We never had any accidental discharges from that outpost again. The sentry always thereafter made it a point to smile and wave vigorously whenever we flew by in daylight, his rifle leaning against the wall of the outpost, in prominent view, and significantly, several feet away.
If you ever run into Bob Turunen, you may recognize him. He’s the dead guy. He may not look it, although he’s pushing fifty, but he and I died together 25 years ago, one night in early 1971.
While I was still a newbie Seawolf on Det Nine of HA(L)-3, I was crewed with LTJG Bob Turunen, nicknamed "Trunnion" (for no good reason that I ever heard other than the fact that it is an aviation helicopter term and a near homonym for his last name). Whatever. It stuck with him, or he was stuck with it, ever since. Trunnion and I were flying trail position in a two-plane fire team led by the fire team leader (FTL), "Norris the Perpetual Newbie", on a dark and moonless night. Really. It WAS a dark and moonless night. And hazy.
Now the trail position in a two-plane fire team was a step up about 100 feet and astern about 1000 feet. From this position, in daytime, the trail was not overly occupied trying to maintain formation, was free to roam around a little back there, and can easily devote most of his time to scanning the fire team leader, the ground under him, and around them. The fire team leader, for his part, need not worry whether the trail aircraft would be in the way of any of his tactical maneuvers. The trail was in position to easily support any action the fire team leader chose to make with gunfire, or follow any attack, adding his rocket fire to the fire team leader’s. It was flexible and loose, the prerequisites for any viable combat tactical formation.
At night, tactical form was a little more challenging. A fire team had two options for holding a formation; tucked in at parade, or in tactical trail same as daytime. Since the same prerequisites still applied for tactical formations at night as in daylight, night tactical trail was the accepted tactical formation, although it was a little harder to maintain that tactical position at night. Parade kept you snugged safely together. It is a familiar position to any Navy pilot; no problem judging distance, relative rates, or getting "lost". But tactically, it left the fire team needing to change formation to execute almost any useful combat tactic, and it was a strain on the entire fire team, more so on the trail pilots than the leader, but a drain on him too, without question. It also removed three sets of eyes from the tactical scan where the eyes were the only sensors available. Finally, the telling argument; the trail aircraft in parade could not cover the leader which was the foundation of the fire team concept. It was NOT flexible and loose.
Parade was not really a valid option unless poor visibility prevailed. The problem came with the perception of "poor visibility". On a dark and moonless night you could see lights a long way off, but judging their distance was quite another thing. And the lighting left a little to be desired. Combat helicopters which fly in the small arms envelope do not like to advertise their exact position to an unseen enemy by being conspicuously lighted.
A Seawolf fire team’s lighting was configured like this; the lower anti-collision light was off, the upper anticollision light was taped so that it could only be seen from above or behind, and the navigation lights were off except the stern white light. Glowing formation panels were an innovation of the distant future.
So you had the one little white light and the partial red rotating anti-collision light to use for holding tactical formation on a dark night. The helicopter itself was black-green, unrelieved by color except for three small white tail numbers, maybe three inches high, up by the tail gear box on the fin, and by the word NAVY, also in white, and about five inches in height, on the tail boom. Neither of which were visible from tactical trail a thousand feet away.
It was not as tension filled and exhausting as a parade type of formation with its constant fine tuning and incessant cross referencing of various cues to judge distance and angle and relative motion. The trail kept formation by a combination of careful concentration by the pilot and mandatory radio calls by the leader. Any speed change, altitude change, or turn was to be called without fail.
Nobody in the peacetime helicopter community ever flew such formations and it certainly wasn’t taught in the training command. The nearest thing to it was the one night daisy chain grope from Whiting to the radio towers at Crestview under a full moon and severely clear conditions. How did we develop the skill? Just like all the other combat skills of the helicopter war in Vietnam, we worked up to it from the trail copilot seat, to the lead copilot seat, to the trail AHAC, to the FTL; positions of increasing complexity, responsibility, and skill.
Only in this situation, the trail copilot was positioned to work harder and under more responsibility for the safety of the fire team than the lead copilot, a reversal of the intended roles. The lead had his normal navigation duties. The trail, whose duties were to be in the learning seat for navigation (and everything else), was not normally occupied with safety of flight concern except for the normal copilot duties in that area. But in this environment, he should be exercising a critical responsibility of backing up the trail AHAC in position keeping in a potentially devastating environment; a helicopter midair is usually the least survivable of all aviation mishaps.
As I was saying, it was a dark and MOONLESS night... there I was... three feet to the left of Trunnion, going everywhere he was going, and getting there an instant before the two gunners faithfully riding behind us. There WE were, a thousand feet behind Norris the Newbie (and a hundred feet step up). It had been an uneventful patrol, and Trunnion had me getting the lay of the night landscape by trying to follow our movements over the clueless ground. All there was down there, a thousand feet below, was pinpricks of light scattered randomly, with a suggestion of lines of light, perhaps along a canal or road. Too dark to see fields, water reflection, brigades of VC marching down the roads, flotillas of VC sampams filing along the canals, and god knows what else there might be. I was lost, lost, lost, thinking I should not be, and smarting under the amused questions of my HAC, who was enjoying my initiation into night navigation over a trackless void.
Meanwhile, ahead of us, Norris the Newbie was getting a little slack; he was not holding heading and airspeed with the precision and consistency whose importance I was yet to learn. The hop was nearly complete, we were on the homeward leg (although you couldn’t prove it by me), and it was about two in the morning. When we got home, we would refuel and be back out to greet the predawn grey.
Norris let a drop of a couple of knots go uncorrected and unreported (no point in advertising your own sloppiness, eh?) and he was in an imperceptible turn to the right. The decrease in speed was the result of a little nose creep which also let his bird "float" a little, up a few feet per minute. Nothing that would even be noticed by him for a couple of minutes of tired scanning.
Trunnion was also feeling the fatigue. Not tired enough to recognize it as a concern, just tired enough to slow down. Radios and ICS silent, no visual attractions, a little fixation on the white light, a loss of depth perception, always shakey anyway in night tactical form. Silently fighting off the auto-kinesis, he was keeping the leader off his nose, which resulted in a rate of closure of about 300 feet per minute when combining the speed difference and cutting the corner on the turn. I was head down with my nose either in the map trying to read it under the red grimes pinlight, or out the door looking down into the stygian blackness hoping for a clue.
"Tom, I think you’d better take over for a while, I’m think I’m getting a whiff of vertigo," was Trunnion’s first venture that all was not well. I looked up from the map and over at him, then back at the instrument panel, to start picking up my scan while reaching for the controls.
We were about to die. There was no way out.
It was ugly. Four dead in our helicopter, and four in the lead helicopter; the usual and inevitable result of two helicopters experiencing a midair. Two piles of junk aluminum falling without rotors or tail booms into the muck below without even time for a mayday call to punctuate the tragedy. This was the only conclusion I could imagine. It had to happen. There was neither room nor time to avoid the collision....
I don’t know how we missed; we couldn’t miss. The Guardian Angel must have done it, or more likely, given the situation as I saw it, we crashed and died, and God hit the Master Clear button because we were such good guys. I did reach for the controls to shove the stick to the left and bottom the collective, but I knew it was too late. Did it anyway. Might as well; it was too wet to plow. We tipped left and slid down in a sickening skid, since my feet weren’t yet on the rudders. The ball flew out, the nose yawed back and forth. I was now desperately trying to focus my eyes, which were caged, on the gages. I had a death grip on the controls and my feet finally shot out to the rudders where they met resistance from the lock Trunnion’s feet now had on them.
"I got it! I got it"! Oh shit. "Back me up"! Oh shit. Oh shit. "Call the altitude, the ALTITUDE!, feet off the rudders!" Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.
Grimly I locked on to the VGI. Bring the nose to the horizon, flick to the VSI, level the wings, keep cool, ball in the center, check altitude, get a grip, ease the collective up, but not too much. Try not to crush the cyclic control with your grip.
"Four hundred feet, Tom. Yaw left. Still descending... three fifty." Trunnion sounded calm. We more or less cooperated in leveling the helo, bottoming out and establishing a balanced flight slow climb wings level. Lucky for us the whole damned Delta is flat as a table with nothing but trees sticking up.
It was very quiet in the back.
"How in the hell did we get boresighted on Norris? Hell, we were about to hit him from the side! That stupid sonofabitch turned without telling us!" I was starting to shake and tremble and needed to vent. I looked over at Trunnion, who was looking at the gages.
"You all right Bob?"
"I’m still screwed up, but I’m starting to come around. Geez that was close. But don’t be so quick to put the whole blame on the Newbie. Our crew coordination stunk, and I didn’t ‘fess up soon enough. We were all to blame. We got lucky this time."
It took us a while to rejoin with Norris the Newbie. He didn’t even miss us for a while there. Never even had a clue how close we came. I have no idea what his gunners were looking at but they never saw us either. Boy would they have been surprised.
1. Get on instruments.
2. Believe the instrument indications.
3. Make the instruments read correctly by controlling the aircraft.
4. Minimize head movements.
5. Fly straight and level to allow the sensations to dissipate. (Not always an option)
6. Seek help if severe disorientation persists.
7. Transfer control until disorientation is overcome.
8. Egress. (Oh well, it’s written with jet jocks in mind)
That NATOPS Instrument Flight Manual is a pretty good manual. It’s about staying alive. Especially Part II, chapters 6 through 11. Full of good stuff that we all got taught once somewhere along the way. But it’s good to crack those old books now and then. They have something to say to YOU.
I don’t get to see ole Trunnion much any more, but every time we meet, we smile at each other, share a big bear hug, and have a drink when we can. It’s always good to see him. He still is a sight for sore eyes. Looks good for a dead guy.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Tom Phillips, 750 hours, 560 combat missions, 363 days in country (minus that unforgetable week in Honolulu on R&R). Commissioned two years and 3 months. Winged one year and three months. Going home after a complete tour and orders to an HS squadron. Two squadron tours back to back! Can life be any better? Combat is over for a while. Seasoned and salty. A returning veteran, going home to cheers and allocades... well not exactly... it’s 1971 and the war is winding down. We’re turning over to the Vietnamese and preparing to Di Di (run away). The home public is not giving allocades this year, not for returning warriors, no matter how successful.
Last mission a day flight; piece of cake. No hostile fire, just an uneventful patrol and dumping a load of rockets, .50 cal, and 7.62 into a suspicious, and probably hostile, mangrove swamp. A little H&I. Diverted to Binh Thuy to pick up a det mate working his way back to old det Nine from who knows where. Gave a lift to a couple of Det Two Seawolves also working their way out to Nha Be, home of Det Two.
We’ve pulled into the fuel pit at Nha Be, and are tanking up. The rotors are turning, as per SOP for HA(L)-3. Red Elder, RCA cowboy, fifty gunner, and the first crewman, is manning the gravity fueling hose on the port side of the fuselage behind the cargo door and just below the view screen into the engine compartment cowling. The other crewman is at the fire bottle, a purple-K cart on big wheels over against the revetment wall. The det Two guys have walked off with waved thanks, and LTJG Tom Cleverdon, our det pilot passenger is leaning against my door post outside the right side of the helo. Terry Tomlinson, my copilot, and a very fresh-caught newbie, is in the left seat. Everything is cool. Twenty minute from the LST, and the end of my last flight in country. I’m looking down and to the left at the fuel gage. Home free.
"Rifle shot!" ventures the brain. "Sounded real close. How odd." I immediately look up and right to scan the horizon.
My windscreen is in flames.
My door posts are in flames (the door is not installed).
My chinbubble is dripping fire.
My greenhouse overhead canopy is also on fire.
My WORLD is on fire.
Through the wall of flames, I see the heels and elbows of Cleverdon going the other way at respectable speed, and I see the crewman at the fire bottle following suit.
"Oh SHIT! I’m DEAD!"
"Not now!" says the brain. "Not on the last flight not in broad daylight it isn’t fair after all the night missions the fire fights the raids the SEAL team inserts extracts not after 560 missions not on the LAST ONE! Not in the F_ _ _ING FUEL pit in broad daylight after so many hairy nights fer CRISSAKES! NO! And not FIRE! Dread! NOT FIRE!" shreiked the indignant brain which was shutting down as a rational organ.
Surrounded by fire, I bolt. Straps flying. Out the door, I run head down as fast as those skuffed grey boots can carry me. Helmet plug luckily separating at the end of its extension instead of clotheslining me. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Running in a dream, right up to the wall of the revetment, expecting the blast to engulf me at any instant. Slow motion running for all my straining. The very atmosphere too thick for me, slowing me down as I claw my way to cover, knowing the fire ball is going to get me.
At the revetment, I must make a decision. Which way to go? Around? Over? I turn and look. Tom Cleverdon is pulling the purple-K cart towards the helo, which has not blown up. In fact, only the pilot area seems to be on fire. The copilot’s side is clear of flames, and clear of the copilot as well, who is at a respectful distance away over beyond the helo on the other side. Oh, and a spot on the port side aft, by the gravity fuel port. Red Elder is advancing on that area, fire bottle in hand. I look around the revetment and grab a portable fire bottle and run under the slowing blades to help. The fire is soon smothered as the blades coast down.
According to reliable witnesses, I had beat my copilot out of the helo by a wide margin, even with the "lengthy" philosophical soliloqy I had had concerning the injustice of it all. I looked in the cockpit. All the switches were in their proper places for a normal shutdown. All of them. "Who did that?" I wondered.
"Hey Terry, you fool, did you shut down the bird? You should have just run for it."
"Tom, I did run for it. There was nothing to do anyway, you did it all." said Terry.
"Yeah right. Everybody says I beat you out of there."
"You did, and you still shut it down." There was no other explanation. I had gone into automatic and done the entire shutdown checklist, not just the fire checklist. After all, I did the regular checklist several times a day without benefit of a PCL, and I didn’t practice that fire emergency very often. Not often enough, clearly. Training took over. Kicked into automatic.
What had happened?
While Red was fueling, he saw a spark, inside the screen of the engine cowling, in amongst the insulation of some electrical wirting on the engine. Quickly realizing that he needed to cease fueling instantly, get the fuel nozzle away from that flame, and get the cap on the fuel port. He let go the nozzle squeeze grip (like those in any civilian gas stations all around the land of round-eyed women), and pulled the fuel nozzle from the fueling port. Unfortunately, these were old nozzles which had seen better days, as so much of our equipment had over there (nothing but the best for our boys in the service, especially in a combat zone, eh?). The frame had a bend in it, and the nozzle failed to shut off properly. So when Red pulled it out, the fuel was still spewing and it sent a glob over the back of the helicopter, landing on my wind screen and door posts, and igniting in a loud and sharp explosion. A fireball also caught on the port side engine compartment. It all lit off together. Two localized areas which were on their way to burning themselves out, when everybody comverged to smother the fire. We did more actual damage with that highly corrosive purple-K all over the airframe, than the fire did. Other than the burned insulation, only the paint was damaged, although how my seat cushion avoided damage or stain is a mystery.
The last day in Vietnam was uneventful, as was the last flight out. But the shooting war wasn’t quite over for me. All the way across the pond, several guys held forth about their exploits and combat time. Others of us were quiet about such subjects. When we reached Travis AFB, and had gotten our baggage, we were all outside the terminal waiting for a bus to take us to San Francisco International and flights home. An Air Force guy walked up behind us with a cartridge-fired rivet gun to affix a metal sign to the concrete pillar there. When he fired it, several guys, including myself hit the deck reflexively. The big mouth guys from the flight didn’t blink. The quiet ones were in the gutter with me, looking a little pissed, sheepish, and relieved all at the same time. It was clear to all assembled, who had seen and heard action, and who had not. One round expended, no casualties. A nice end to the shooting, but no end to the war. Not for a long time.
We craved football. Decided to get up a game and play on a hard sand flat a couple of miles from where the YRBM-21 was anchored. Set it up and went for it. Having a great game on a beautiful day, beer flowing. While huddled up, we noticed an LCM-8, "Mike boat" approaching our little field with the crew waving and yelling. Couldn’t hear what they were saying over the unmuffled noise of the big diesel as they roared up and beached. The ramp stayed up as we all watched the newcomers. Maybe they wanted to play?
"Freeze where you are fellas!" shouted one of the sailors from the boat. "We’re Seabees from the Tan Chau LSB. We’re scheduled to sweep this area for mines tomorrow!"
What did he say? Knees weak. Looking around. Feeling a little light headed. Around us, footprint tracks crisscrossed the area in a seemingly dense pattern.
"You’re kidding, right?"
"Nope. The VN Army mined this area after observing it being used by boat traffic at night coming down the river from Cambodia. Somebody decided to clear the mines since there has been no activity since the river boats moved in. Before someone got hurt by accident. Wait right where you are and we’ll go get our gear and get you out of there."
We decide to wait.
We stood in our tracks looking over at the beer piled nearby miles away. Suddenly the sun was very hot, the breeze ceased, and the game ceased to be an attraction. It took those guys forever to get back. Meanwhile we felt like staked goats as we imagined VC creeping up on our terribly exposed group. Funny, the possibility of VC being around didn’t seem to be even a remote threat as long as we were free to move.
Imagine the hometown headlines; local boy killed in Vietnam running buttonhook pattern. Or local high school star has his leg blown off catching game-winning touchdown pass in intramural football game. - Tan An province, South Vietnam. "Good morning Vietnam! Navy team blitzed by VN Army defense in Cambodian border football game." Or: NFL studies methods to liven up playoff games in upcoming season.
Once we got out of there it was funny. Very funny.
SCRAMBLE SEAWOLVES! SCRAMBLE SEAWOLVES!
Battery on, fuel switch on, look up to see the deck crew manning the fire bottle, and Orem holding the blade tip. Take a deep breath to slow the gasping and get enough air to shout.
"Coming HOT!" Rotate the engine collective motorcycle-type throttle up on the lip, and hit the starter switch under the collective. Orem holds the blade tip against the increasing pull of the winding up engine for a long as he can. As the blade pulls him up on one foot trying to hold it back, he lets go and moves into the rotor arc, ducking the other blade which swipes by him. AE-3 Barry Solomon is already sitting on his ammo can, M-60 in his lap, helmet on. The engine accelerates quickly, and with it, the blades. No hot start. Stabilizing nicely. Run the throttle up into governing. I look over at Dick Strand, who is strapped in and has just finished pulling his helmet on. He starts flipping the few switches which aren’t already preset on from when we did the alert checklist upon taking the duty this morning. Generators on, radios on. . .
"O. K., Tom, I’ve got it." he says calmly. I cinch down my loose helmet, reach over my shoulders for the LPA harness hanging over the seat back. Pull the u-shaped upper pocket forward around my neck, and snap each side to the D-rings sewn on my flight suit chest. Reach down and snap the two lower waist pockets together through the straps sewn on my flight suit stomach. No SV-2. Back over my shoulders for the seat harness, fit the ends together, run the male end of the lap belt buckle through the metal harness ends, into the other side of the lap belt, lock it down, two quick pulls to cinch it tight.
"Ready." I said to Dick. Seat position and rudder pedals already adjusted from this morning.
"Ready aft." comes the call from Orem, before Dick even needs to ask. Dick nods at me, I look over at the other helo and give them a thumbs up. The pilot of the other helo, the FTL, nods and lifts into a low hover, skid heels about a foot off the deck, and backs slowly, stopping when the skid heels reach the edge of the flight deck. Ever so slowly, the helo moves forward, gaining speed glacially. Over the side she goes, the nose drops as the cabin goes over the edge, lifting the tail boom clear of the deck edge. The helicopter dives from sight as we get light on the skids ourselves.
"Coming Up." says Dick as the helicopter starts to rotate, lifting the front of the starboard skid off the deck, then the port front, then the helicopter peels itself off the deck and into a very low hover.
"Ninety-nine point five N-gee. No sweat."
We back up to the aft flight deck edge as the other helo had done, pause and start forward. Over the side we go at maybe twenty knots, more like fifteen. Dick smoothly pushes the nose over, feeds a little right rudder, "feels" the tail clearing the deck edge, and LOWERS the collective. We dive for the water. As the water comes up, Dick levels the nose and pulls collective. The rotor rpm droops down to ninety-two and holds. We level off at three or four feet and accelerate slowly, nose level, waiting for the bird to start flying. Finally translational lift comes with a little kick, and the hovering portion of the takeoff is complete.
We are approaching 60 knots and are able to begin a climb. Good thing because the river bank is fast approaching. We aim for a space between two of the numerous huts which line the dike.
As we flash by, kids run and wave at us, and I can see Solomon waving back, before leaning back in and starting to strap in. He lifts his M-60 from his lap and pins it to the pintel post, carefully arranges the ammunition belt, and grins at me.
"Another nice takeoff Mr. Strand. No need to jump today." says Solomon.
"Yeah right. You’ll never have to jump with me on the controls, Sol.
"Yessir, it’s been pretty good lately. All the new pilots are pretty smooth sticks."
"Not like Mr. Norris, Boss," Orem chimes in, not able to resist the opportunity to let the O-in-C know what he thinks of the flying skills of LTJG "Norris the Perpetual Newbie." "We never know with him. He’s scary in the daytime."
"Well it won’t be long before the monsoon, Orem. Then it’ll cool off a little and these launches won’t be so hairy."
"I don’t know Sir. I think they’ll always be hairy with Mr. Norris, if you don’t mind me saying sir."
"O.K. message received. Lock and load." Keying the radio, LCDR Strand calls, "In trail Nine-two."
"Roger. Nine-six, there’s a mayday from an army bird about six klicks east of here. Copied by the boat. No idea what the problem is." He passed the reported coordinates.
I reach up to the overhead circuit breaker panel and push in the weapons circuit breakers, arming the guns and rockets. The various weapons armament safety switches are already in the armed position, again, being done this morning during the original preflight for the day, requiring only the circuit breakers in to put power on the systems. They are all marked with white paint and have washers hanging down from each for ease of location, attached with safety wire. The armament system for the UH-1B is so convoluted, that the circuit breaker have become the armament system "master arm" switch. The UH-1B was never intended to be anything but a "slick" troop carrying helo. As the stretch version of the Huey, the "Delta and Hotel" models came into service, the smaller "Bravos" began to be converted into gunships because of the chronic shortage of Cobras. The boxes to control the various systems was numerous, they were scattered around the cockpit, and it was generally a disorganized mess. Hence the circuit breakers.
The gunners jack rounds into the chamber of their guns, don their chicken plates and settle into their scan of the ground. I pull the seat side armor plate forward into position, and take the controls while Dick does the same with his seat.
Focus on the mission. Get in the game. The excitement of the scramble behind me, I break out the map, plot the coordinates of the mayday, and start looking around for landmarks. Day scrambles would soon become routine. Night ones never would. As trail aircraft copilot, my obligation to the fire team was to learn enough to move up to the lead bird. the lead ship copilot was responsible for navigation. So it was my job to get familiar with the AO and learn the fine art of low level air navigation.
My obligation to the bird was a little different. Operate the flex-mounted mini-gun using the remote infinity sight mounted to the overhead in front of me, and which swung down on the end of a dentist drill type arrangement. Also operate the hand-held M-79 grenade launcher should the situation call for additional HE, or some CS. The grenade rounds were in an ammo can under my seat. Also relieve the pilot at the controls when things were quiet.
We soon arrived at the coordinates of interest. As we approached, we could see a Huey sitting in a rice paddy right side up. Always an encouraging sign when you are responding to a mayday. We circled the downed bird at low altitude, guns ready, and spiraled out from the center scanning the clumps of bushes, and the tree lines which framed the rice paddy, while the FTL, "Seawolf Nine-five," talked to the Army crew.
"We have a transmission chip light illuminated." reported the Army.
"What? A transmission CHIP LIGHT? What secondaries?
"Yeah. Secondaries. Any corresponding transmission oil pressure or temperature caution light? Any gauge indications? Low oil pressure or high temperature?"
"You mean to tell me you put your bird down in a rice paddy in the middle of nowhere for a blankety-blank CHIP LIGHT? What are you crazy, or do you have a death wish? Do you know where the heck you are? This is a free fire zone!" (In a free fire zone, you are authorized to shoot on sight any person discovered. Everybody in there is BAD.)
"Well, I don’t know about you Navy, but our Dash Ten (the Army version of NATOPS) requires a precautionary landing as soon as possible for a transmission chip light."
"Yeah, well, so does ours, but it doesn’t tell us to do it into a forest fire. You only needed to go another ten clicks to friendly bases."
While this light professional banter was being exchanged, we were on final for a landing adjacent to the Army bird. It was the dry season. In the upper Delta, that meant that some areas were actually dry land. The local farmers have traditionally burned the dead plants in their dried up rice paddies to fertilize the ground with the ash. This fertilizing technique had just recently been completed all across the "fruited plain", even here in a rice paddy in bad guy country.
As the helo settled through translational lift and neared a hover, we were engulfed in a sudden maelstorm of ash. The sky blackened as ash swirled out from the downwash, up in the air to be recycled through the rotor system in a grey-black vortex. At first it blew out ahead and away. As we slowed further, it started to rapidly close in, filling the cabin, our mouthes, nostrils, eyes, and who knows what. Total IFR! Both inside the helicopter and out. Dick lowered the nose and pulled pitch. He pulled enough power to transition to a climb, without drooping the rotor rpm below the point of divergence, the point of no return. Up we went, spitting and coughing. How we avoided the ground, or going divergent is still a mystery to me. I couldn’t even see! Much less see the gauges! I don’t think I could have done it, but Dick Strand, a Lieutenant Commander, who grew up in HS in the early sixties, had a LOT of flight hours, and there is no way to underestimate the value of large quantities of flight time, low over the water at night (quality time, not empty time). He might not have enough hours in country to be an FTL, but as the det O-in-C, he was still the senior pilot on the det in flight experience. He had to have done that waveoff by feel alone. We climbed into VMC conditions as the last of the ash swirled around us and left the cabin, most of it anyway.
"Nine Six, are you all right?" came a concerned query from the Fire Team Leader.
"Ah, yeah.... Just ate a double shot of ash and twigs, but we’re O.K." replied my new hero. "We’ll bring it around and shoot a no-hover. Should have done that the first time. Won’t be no problem."
I looked over at him, and he looked back and grinned his crooked grin. Around we went and he flew a perfect pass right to the unprepared surface of that dried up rice paddy. Really not a problem. It was flat. It had no hidden stumps or any other big obstacles. No sweat. Except we still ate ash. It swirled inside and out, just not as bad because we went to flat pitch real fast.
We were starboard side to the army bird. Orem jumped out and ran over to it while Solomon and I scanned the tree line fringing the paddy. I had pulled out the M-79 and loaded a round of buckshot; it wasn’t that far to those trees. Seawolf Nine Two circled overhead. Oren came back quickly and climbed in.
"Loose wire to the cannon plug Mr. Strand. They’re up."
"Seawolves, Army 51324, your gunner says we are up..... uh, how does he know that?"
"He’s a mech, Army. Our gunners are also maintainers in the various rates. I have an electrician on board as well if you want a double check, but right now, I recommend we get the hell outta here and talk about it someplace more friendly. We can’t stay in this area all morning without attracting some unwanted attention. Let’s get into the air. I’ll lead you out and Nine-two will sweep cover as we climb out. Ready?
"Roger that. Watch out for the ash. It was pretty bad when we auto’ed into here."
I looked at Dick. My eyes asked the question; did he say he auto’ed to the deck with a transmission problem? Dick screwed up his mouth and shook his head.
"Thanks for the advice, Where were you on our first approach?" No answer.
"Want to make the takeoff, Tom?" asked Dick in a matter-of-fact voice.
"Sure, if you think it’s O.K." I replied with exaggerated calmness, stowing the M-79 beside the seat, and getting on the controls. My palms instantly broke a sweat, and my heart gave me a few heartier than average thumps to enrich the brain. "I’ve got it."
"You got it. Just go straight outta here without hovering."
Routine takeoff. Ate some minor quantities of Ash, but was able to see most of the climbout, especially the critical part. We leveled off in trail of Nine Two and the Army bird.
"Nice takeoff, Mr. P." said Petty Officer Solomon.
"Real smooth, Sir." added Orem. I grinned over at my O-in-C, Dick Strand. He stopped brushing away ash, long enough to flick a casual thumbs up. My hero for life.
Not without loss. Every Seawolf knew about the two Det Six birds at Dong Tam which had been wiped out trying to scramble for base defense during a VC assault; how they had both been shot down by mortar fire trying to make that "Nantucket Sleigh Ride" down the runway with a full load of fuel and ammo.
Cease fire or no cease fire, we were patrolling and loaded for bear. We were running a daylight sweep of the Cambodian border up in the Plain of Reeds. Pretty open country, largely drowned meadows, with little clumps of bushes and trees at seemingly random spots. Uninhabited. There were rice farmers trying to make a go of it along the major canals farther to the south, the ones which were regularly patrolled by riverine boats. But nobody up here on the border.
I’m lead ship copilot for LTJG Mitch Brown who is working me out at navigating the wilds of the border. It’s an all-jaygee fire team, with Skip Soper and Steve Hanvey in the trail bird. The navigating is getting tough because Mitch is flying at about 20 feet and 90 knots, staying low, going around the clumps of trees instead of over them. Skip is covering at the same altitude and about three hundred yards astern, weaving to cover us as we slalom through the trees. This is not flat hatting for the fun of it, although it’s a kick. At this altitude, amongst the trees and bushes, flying into the wind as we are doing, we can sneak up on folks. That’s right, I said sneak up on them. Proven fact. I had seen many a farmer looking the other way when we jumped a tree line and roared past them. And new as I was, I had already seen the dead VC greased off a too-long paddy dike in a too-open paddy they had the misfortune to be crossing when we snuck up on them. We flew low level into the wind by design. Between the wind and the muffling effect of the trees, it was hard to hear the helicopters coming. When the noise did build up, the rebounding of the sudden noise off the surrounding trees, made quick determination of direction diffucult to do. It was common to burst over a tree line and catch farmers, friendly patrols, and hostile VC looking the wrong way and frozen in their tracks like deer in headlights.
We dead reckon navigated between easily recognizable landmarks at low level. When the land was really trackless, we would pop up together now and then to get bearings on more distant landmarks, and then drop back down to the deck, where it was safe. Sometimes, only the lead would stay low and the trail would fly an offset at safe altitude, guiding him along from place to place conducting recon by fire. The area was usually a free fire zone. If friendlies were patrolling, we would have their op area charted and be a little prudent in what we shot up. Could usually get them on radio as we worked their area. They would be quick to let us know their posit when we were prowling, both to prevent us from shooting them by mistake and to make it easier for us to scramble to their support when they got into a fire fight. In a free fire zone, anyone else out there was not friendly. See someone? Shoot them.
But not today. Today was Tet. No free fire zone. We had patrolled out from the YRBM at altitude several klicks south of the border to a good downwind position for a run up the canal ditch which marked the border. Because it was SOP never to follow a landmark like a canal for long, Skip was high cover and was vectoring us out from the canal and back again at intervals. (If you flew along roads, canals, etc regularly, somebody was going to set up shop with a .50-cal trap or some other unpleasantness and bag you). It happened to the army birds regularly.
"Something up ahead Nine-four, come right for the trees at your one-thirty. Looks like people beyond the trees at the canal" called Skip, who was Seawolf Nine-Three, Mitch being Nine-four, and yours truly being Nine-eight, a number I hoped to get to use on the radio some day, when I made AHAC, and later FTL (Attack Helicopter Aircraft Commander, Fire Team Leader, respectively).
"O.K. troops, look alive." said Mitch needlessly. We had been weapons hot since we lifted off, and nobody doped off running low level even during a ceas fire. Not when a target might appear in seconds and the faster gun would win. We were usually the faster guns. I dropped the map and unlimbered the flex mini-gun sight. It looked like a dentist’s swing arm drill witha black box housing an infinity sight reticle at the drill end, a pistol grip on the bottom of the box and trigger and dead man switch on the pistol grip. Mitch and I looked ahead, while the gunners swung their guns forward from their seats in the doors. If somebody opened up on us from right ahead, we could reply with 4,000 rounds per minute of my pylon mounted, remotely-fired flex-gun, 4,000 rounds per minute of the starboard door gunner’s door mounted hand-fired and aimed flex-mini-gun, and 600 rounds per minute of the left door gunner’s M-60 for insult. 8,600 rounds per minute of suppression, not to mention Skips’ support fire. The trees were coming up fast, and Mitch swept past them to the left, rolling right in a thirty degree bank, leveling out at Skip’s call.
"Remember, we’re weapons tight unless fired upon." warned Mitch. We couldn’t shoot because of the cease fire.
Suddenly ahead of us was a group of NVA, lots of them. They were the deer in the headlights. We flew over them holding fire. They did not fire either. Mitch quickly put the nearest patch of brush and trees between us and them before they had a chance to change their minds, like a grouse being flushed from the Mountain Laurel back in Virginia. WE weren’t gonna hang around down there waiting for them to open up. He extended and climbed out beyond effective small arms range, about 800 yards beyond them.
Skip had rolled in as Mitch cleared the first patch of trees and broke off when we zipped around the second one.
"Coming left" called Mitch as we started our climb, and Skip swooped into trail as we circled the NVA. The ones on the Vietnam side, about 20, had dropped their weapons and were standing still. The ones on the Cambodian side, about 30, were running for cover in the brush, and the ones in the canal, about 10, were climbing up the Cambodian side as fast as their little sandals would take them. We were not allowed to shoot into Cambodia without prior permission.
Skip was already on the radio, calling the Province Senior Advisor, an American officer assigned as the liaison with the Province Chief, a Vietnamese, who could clear us to fire.
"Dragon Romeo, this is Seawolf Nine-three, we’ve got 60 NVA crossing the Rach Co Co from Cambodia into Vietnam at coordinates Whiskey Tango six two three one four one. Request immediate weapons free, they’re getting away, over!"
"Ah, Seawolf Nine-three, this is Dragon Romeo, negative, we have a cease fire, or haven’t you heard, over."
"Dragon Romeo, they are the ones violating the cease fire! Right now! They’re armed, carrying supplies, and crossing the border into Vietnam from the Cambodia side at this time. We’ve caught them with their pants down! Request immediate weapons free, over!"
"Negative, Seawolves. You can NOT fire unless fired upon, do you copy, Over?"
"No fire unless fired upon, Roger, Out." Skip switched to the Det tactical freq. "Jesus! Hear that Nine-four?"
"Yeah, copy." replied Mitch. "What do ya want to do?"
"Let’s grease’em all, Mr. B" interjected one of the gunners. "Right on!" added the other. My feelings exactly, I thought.
"Well we better do something soon, Nine-four, they’re getting away. Look at those (carnal relations with female parent) scurry for the brush!
"Any chance they’ll go brain dead and take a shot at us?
"Not without provocation," said Skip.
"I think I’ll give them some. Cover me." We turned in and dove for the deck turning to run up the canal between the banks, headed right at the last of the NVA frantically splashing across the canal by now. I looked over at Mitch, wondering if this was the thing to do. He had been hammering me with the philosophy that we did not indulge in fair fights except as a last resort.
"Do NOT, repeat, do NOT fire unless fired upon." Mitch said to us as we swooped down building speed. Mitch buzzed then so low they submerged in the canal to keep from being hit by the skids.
"Yeeee Hah! Look at those (male offspring of unmarried parents) run!" yelled a gunner. But no one shot at us. We were disappointed. (Later we decided we weren’t all THAT disappointed. If they had opened up, we could have been in a dicey situation, although those NVA would have been fools indeed had they opened fire on a light attack helicopter fire team in broad daylight in such open country. Even if they had knocked us down, Skip, from his covering perch at 1000 feet, would have slaughtered them. Only in the movies do trained aerial gunners miss targets out in the open in broad daylight. The only survivors would have been those who crawled in some hole under the brush and pulled the earth in behind them before the shooting had started.)
"They didn’t go for it, Nine-three. What now?"
There were enough of them deep in the brush by now for us to be unsure of a clean sweep, so we didn’t have to think all that hard about the advisability of greasing them all and claiming they had opened up on us.
"RTB, Nine-four. Even if we can get cleared hot, it’ll be too late. They’re almost gone as it is."
Now there was an ethical dilemma. They were breaking the cease fire. They would surely cross back into Vietnam as soon as the sun set or maybe at a later date. We would probably have to face them again some day under conditions more of their choosing. I know it crossed my mind, and it occurred to Mitch as well, for we talked about it later after the patrol. We understood that we did not have the official aurhority to take the law into our own hands and punish them for violating the cease fire. Did we have the moral authority to grease them now and seek forgiveness later, when we knew we could not get permission before they got away? It was reasonable to believe that further insistence would have caused the request to fire to get high enough for someone to give permission. Could we rationalize that? Would the very senior officer in the chain of command who would give us permission condone our presumption of his permission, or would he crucify us?
We concluded that, should such a golden opportunity ever arise again, we would take prompt action and blow those guys away. But none of us would see another cease fire while we were there. I wonder if we could have done it, for we were loaded down with ideals, and a sense of ethics and fair play which would get in the way on other occasions too. Oh well, I can sleep without remorse, not having broken "the rules", but I’ll always wonder who later may have died and need not have, because we were too honorable to play by their rules that day.
We turned for home, and climbed out into the setting sun, already planning to return as soon as we could refuel and get clearance to fire should we catch them again. Strangely, there was no sign of them anywhere when we returned.
One favorite method was to make a low level run past the area along the creek or canal and shoot M-79 grenade launcher 40mm rounds of CS into the area to smoke them out. Now CS, chemical smoke, is industrial strength riot control tear gas. Military Industrial Strength. After all, we weren’t dealing with a bunch of flower children student protesters at Berkeley. This stuff would bring tears (vomit, mucus, and who knows what) to a marble statue. No problem shooting the grenade launcher because we flew with the pilot doors removed to save weight, and to give us a field of fire for a variety of hand held weapons used by the pilots. When the CS went off in an area, it would hug the ground, penetrate the bunkers and flush the enemy. Then we would "grease" them.
How bad was this stuff? I found out one fine day as we made a pass at about ten feet above the canal so we could see under the canopy of the trees covering a little group of huts near the bank. I was in the left seat because it was my day to be there even though I was the FTL. As we flashed by the opening in the trees and bushes, I pointed the shotgun-like M-79 out the copilot’s door, aimed across the chest, with the stock held sideways. The muzzle velocity of the M-79 was so slow, that you could watch the round fly along with you and finally drop to the ground, like throwing something sideways out of a speeding car. You had to lead the target area a lot, when flying perpendicular to it at over 100 knots.
I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. Dud. Not unknown, although not as common as duds in .50 cal ammo. No problem, break down the breech loading M-79, pull out the round, toss it conveniently out the door into the canal, reload and get ready for another pass. Repeated passes were not advisable, but a second pass if nothing was fired on the first was considered acceptable risk.
When I flipped the lever and broke open the breech, there was an audible "pop" and the casing flew out the breech, past the pilot’s head, and out the pilot’s door. My eyes immediately teared up and I was blinded. My nose evacuated, my throat convulsed, and I started to gag. Through my panic I could hear the whop of the rotors, the scream of the engine, and feel the lurch and yaw of the helicopter as the pilot jerked in a handfull of collective and pulled back on the stick. We yawed because the pilot couldn’t see the ball for his tears. He wasn’t exactly caressing the flight controls either. I could hear machine gun fire. Not ours. Somebody else.
The strong stench of vomit hit me from behind and I immediately added my breakfast to the offering from the crew. I threw the grenade launcher out the door and fumbled for the flight controls to help my copilot, gave that up to give attention to my burning, stinging eyes. A quick wipe got me vision in one eye and I grabbed for the controls.
"You got it! You got it!" yelled my copilot.
"I got it! I got it!" I gagged back between wrenching dry heaves.
"What the hell happened?" yelled a crewman.
"Back me up! back me up!" I yelled. Squinting, I could see that we were up above the trees, altitude unknown since I couldn’t focus on the gauges. Wind was whipping in my door so I stepped on the rudder in that direction. Eyes were clearing. But the fresh smell of vomit hit me again. More dry heaves. "God!"
"Four hundred feet and climbing, N-R at 96 per cent. Forty knots. Oh God! (Ralf, Gag) Whew, Gasp... O.K. we’re O.K. What happened?"
"I think the CS misfired. When I opened the breech. Everybody O.K. back there?"
"We’ll live, Sir, but what a mess! Looks like the club after the last farewell party." Man, I’m not feeling so pretty good, Daddy. I’ve got to go potty."
"Yeah, smells like it too. I think the gas is gone, but the puke is potent!" My eyes were finally clearing. I looked over at my copilot and laughed. He had vomit dribble on his chin and down his front. His cheeks were streaked and wet, and he was wiping his chest with a flight glove, which he then threw out the door. He looked over at me and laughed back in relief and release, his mouth forming the mask of tragedy rather than mirth.
I climbed out of the kill zone, as my wing man called.
"Nine Eight, Nine Three, what’d you see down there? Man you popped out of that canal like a cork. Recommend you either climb or get on the deck before somebody opens up on you in the kill zone, over."
"Roger, coming up. Join on me. We’re RTB."
"What about the target? We opened up when you bolted. Did you take fire? I didn’t see any muzzle flashes."
"I’ll tell you when we’re RTB, Nine Three."
"Wow it stinks back here, Mr. P." observed one gunner unnecessarily.
"Yeah but not as much as those ripe body bags we had to haul last month." added the other gunner.
Not as much as ripe body bags, for sure. But considering the last few moments, it’s good to smell vomit when you think back on it. Good to smell the vomit. Jeez, will we ever run out of new and original ways to try to kill ourselves? Can’t we just leave that to the VC?
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips