by Richard Denne
***Flashback to first day in my Gun Ship****
“Climb aboard, trooper. You must be our new gunner replacement. I’m Captain Robinson, better known as DEADEYE. This is my co-pilot, LT. MENUEZ, and that’s our crew chief, BRAD.”
Over the roar of the engine, I yelled my name and asked DEADEYE why they had a gunship pick me up. DEADEYE smiled and said, “By the looks of those combat badges on your chest and that Screaming Buzzard patch o you shoulder, you must be familiar with our M-60’s; right?”
I saw then the 7.62 ammo trailing from a box on the floor under an M-60 machine gun. Every other round was a tracer; bullets treated with a chemical that allowed one to see them to their target. I looked at DEADEYE and said, “With tracers I’m second to none, sir.”
“Glad to hear that,” he answered, “and on my ship we’re all informal. Got it?”
I nodded in the affirmative and we reached across to the middle of the ship to shake hands. As our hands touched in a greeting, none of us dreamed then that we would duplicate that special moment as a farewell gesture in one of three helicopter crashes we would survive during our tour in the Nam.
We had been flying in the Central Highlands 30 miles west of the Vietnamese city of Ban Me Thout. We were air support for a huge firefight going on below near the Cambodian border. There were nine gun-ships in total and we had set up a daisy-chain formation, each ship flying in line firing their weapons, circling around and around, laying down an awesome firepower encircling the combat grunts that were getting hammered by the hardcore North Vietnamese Army.
After we had completed a couple of runs, DEADEYE radioed our wing commander and asked permission to head back to Ban Me Thout. Our fuel gauge was either malfunctioning or we ate up more fuel than anyone else. Our commander answered. “Don’t be absurd. Keep the fire support on target.” Orders being orders, we made another run, and I as I was laying down my rounds, I felt all powerful as my tracers tore into the battleground below, and I watched in an adrenalin haze as my bullets hit their marks. The death in the killing fields had a strange, dream like quality, and I remember feeling no remorse as I watched the warriors I was killing from my perch on high fall like ducks over a pond. I have had much more intense feelings about having to shoot elephants the VC used for transportation. It is said that man is the only animal who knows he is going to someday die. Animals live in the here and now and have no capacity for reason. How could they even began to understand what we were doing to them, or why, for their perception is their only reality, and I was taking that reality away. Being as large as they were, they made easy targets. It was a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching task. I was taking on a “warriors” heart, and became indifferent to the plight of the human animal.
DEADEYE was on the radio again reporting that we were out of fuel and he doubted we had enough to make it back to the nearest airfield. The wing commander came back and repeated, “Negative! 073. Those poor bastards below are running low on gas themselves. They need all the firepower we can give them. Make one more round, and then break off. Do you read? Over.”
This was shear lunacy.
“Roger that. This is 073. Out.”
We made a left and followed the Daisy Chain, readying us for our final run. As we were approaching the target, we could see the tracers of the North Vietnamese Army’s 50 calibers zipping at us in what seemed like slow motion. We were flying into a wall of bullets the size of Magic Marker pens. Anyone of those rounds could easily tear right through our engine and send us smashing to the ground. It was an eerie feeling, like watching World War II films of B-17’s flying through flak.
Terrifying though it was, it was also exhilarating and better than risking our butts on the ground, or for that matter, flying on those damned slicks. Gun-ships were far more maneuverable and much faster than slicks, which flew in straight lines and always vulnerable on landings and takeoffs. In addition, they had only a few thousand rounds to give them protection, while we had six M-60’s with 8800 rounds for them, plus BRAD and I had 2200 rounds and 14 rockets for backup. In spite of our fuel predicament, because of our arsenal we carried, we were still young and foolish enough to feel invincible.
We pulled our last run and flew out of the daisy-chain and began to gain altitude for the flight back to the airfield, which was 20 miles to the east of us. When we reached 3000 feet, we could see our destination on the horizon. Suddenly there was a terrific thud on the underside of our chopper. “OH, my God. We’ve been hit,” DEADEYE yelled.
As we looked at the fuel gauge it sank to zero. Whether the round that hit us had torn through our fuel line or we were simply out of fuel didn’t matter; we were going down.
The only sound now was of the air rushing by us at 80 knots. DEADEYE calmly said into the mike, “This is 073. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! We’re going down.” More silence. Then we heard Ban Me Thout and our commander affirm the transmission, telling us they had a fix on us and were on the way. Immediately we had to make assessments. We were still in control of the ship and we could land without any fuel by way of autorotation, a method of using gravity and the rotation of our blades, which were still functioning, to glide the ship down to approximately 50 feet above the ground where the pilot would change the pitch of the blades to make a safe, albeit hard, landing. It would work if the area we landed on was flat; however, below us was a forest of 80 foot trees and we were heading straight down in a 3000-foot freefall.
DEADEYE spoke. “Okay, men. Throw everything out that’s not tied down. Now!”
Within seconds we had jettisoned our boxed ammo and any other equipment that might become airborne within the ship and strike us as we smacked the ground. We also had the absurd notion that if the aircraft was lighter, it might not hit the ground so hard and it wouldn’t hurt as much. Sort of, as if jumping up and down in a free-falling elevator in hopes that, you will be in the air at the moment of impact. A goofy idea, but it gave us something to do.
Then something happened that I can’t really explain properly. We looked at one another and reached into the middle of the ship and shook hands. We were accepting our fate. DEADEYE said, “We’re going down boys. It’s been an honor serving with you. If we’re going to buy the farm, better this way than like those poor bastards in the infantry.”
How true, I thought. I had faced death many times in infantry combat situations; however, this time; I surrendered my fate with a calm resolution. It’s been said that when one faces death, his life flashes by him as if he was watching a movie; however, for me it would have been a rerun. Instead of turning in, my mind drifted off in another direction. As I looked at the vista below me, I couldn’t help thinking how truly beautiful this country was. From the air, it sometimes reminded me of California. I guess I wanted to have my last daydream be about dying at home rather than so very far away.
As I watched the earth rush towards me, I saw a clearing in the forest. DEADEYE must have seen it too. Because before I could open my mouth, he yelled, “Look! We might make it to that clear spot. Get ready, boys we’re going to hit. If anybody survives, good luck. Sorry about that.”
We needed a good 80 feet to clear our rotor blades from hitting the trees, which would cause our craft to break apart and crash, and that’s all we got. We slammed into the ground so hard the rotor blades smashed into the earth and disintegrated, spraying a huge wall of sand and dust straight upward, completely engulfing our ship. For a moment the only sound was of sand falling around us. Then someone asked, “Anybody alive?” WE were!
DEADEYE spoke, “Let’s make a run for it before she blows.”
In one motion we picked our collective selves up, jumped from the chopper and ran the eighty feet to the tree line, which surrounded what was left of our ship. I looked back at it and only then realized what had happened. Within seconds our flying fortress had been reduced to a half-million dollars worth of scrap metal. This went a little beyond denting the bumper on my mom’s car. The laughable thought that I had been grounded for far less more than once skittered through my mind and was gone.
We celebrated our escape from this latest brush with death by jumping up and down and yelling, “We made it! Eat shit Charlie!” while hugging each other and engaging in a round of back-slapping and other merrymaking activities designed to discharge our terror and keep us from bawling like babies.
For me, combat intuition kicked in at this point. Holy mother of Christ I thought. Charlie has to know we’re here! We had to get away from the chopper and find a place to dig in for an attack. We were not in a good situation since, although it had seemed wise at the time, throwing most of our ammo from the ship as it descended had dispersed it throughout the jungle, and we were left with only our small arms. I carried a Colt .45 automatic and a .45 caliber grease gun and a few concussion grenades, but I only had a few clips of ammo on me.
There was a rice paddy to our north, and we knew Charlie was coming from the west. The rice field was the place to be. DEADEYE snapped, “DENNE you’re a grunt. GRUNT!” Pistols in hand, I led as we made tracks due north to the edge of the tree line next to the open area of the rice paddies. We knew we should be worried. To the VC, a helicopter and its crew is a prized possession, and we heard the horror stories about what happens to chopper crews if they’re caught, and I don’t mean being taken POW. I mean if we are captured, we’d be castrated and our balls would be stuffed into our mouths, which would then be sewn shut. No sooner had this thought been realized when we heard the bastards coming for us at a dead run through the trees. We had to prepare for their assault. We circled the wagons. This was it. We we’re again facing certain death up close and personal, the second time within minutes of each other. We quickly counted our rounds, each of us saving one for himself in the event all else failed. Better dead than red. And I mean that in more ways than one. We all knew not to fire blindly; with our limited cache of ammo every bullet would count.
Sure as shit the enemy came charging right towards us from about 300 feet away. We started firing cautiously. Their rounds were hitting all around us. It was pure chaos. Short burst of gunfire punctuated by dead silence, then more gunfire. After a time, for some unknown reason all sound stopped completely for a few seconds with the exception of the leaves in the breeze. Then out of nowhere came the sweet sound of a U. S. F-4C Phantom jet fighter. It was flying literally at treetop level. The pilot was so close we could look him in the eyes. He was wearing a cowboy hat and he gave us a thumbs up sign, as if to say don’t worry; we have it under control. Unfucking believable.
In a mere moment all Hell broke loose again on our eastern flank as more jets arrived and blasted the area to perdition. Napalm sprayed over the very area at which we had been firing, The VC who hadn’t already fled when the first jet came on the scene now scattered for safety. As we boarded a rescue chopper, we watched as a huge flying sky crane swooped towards the earth and hovered over our downed aircraft while riggers attached cables to it; then the crane flew off with it like it was a toy. It hadn’t taken the air tow truck more than fifteen minutes to accomplish what they had set out to do. What an awesome sight it was. As we were ferried behind the crane back to safety, we watched the forest burning below us. The four of us looked at one another, reached out and shook hands.
Now I was flying back to safety in some rear area airfield to catch my ride home. The long nightmare was over. Or so I thought. How could I have known that when I got back to America, it wouldn’t be there?