By Bill Collier
Hovering over a battle at night
29 August 1966, early evening.
12 miles Northwest of Dong Ha, Quang Tri Provence,
In support of Operation “Prairie.”
Aviation is, “Hours and hours of boredom interrupted on occasion by a few seconds of sheer terror!”
About 20:00 hours, well after dark in the tropics, we were called out on an emergency medical evacuation (medevac) at Mutter Ridge. There had been a hell of a battle going on this hillside for weeks, as the 4th Marines were slogging their way up a hill, trying to take the high ground away from the enemy. In this ferocious battle there were many Marine casualties. Our squadron helicopters had been out there numerous times over the previous few days re-supplying the unit and rescuing dozens of wounded Marines. After going through the usual trio of telephone calls, we launched out on a perilous mission.
We co-pilots clambered up the sides of our Sikorsky H-34’s, slid into our co-pilot’s seats and fired up the powerful Wright 1525 horse power, nine cylinder radial engines. The two pilots or Helicopter Aircraft Commanders (HACs) arrived from the detailed briefing, climbed in and took command. We blasted off into the black night sky. I was flying co-pilot for a senior first lieutenant. He had flown out to Mutter Ridge many times in the few days prior. He knew where we were going, he knew what to do and he knew well how to do it. I felt confident being with him and that he would take care of me.
He did; much better than I ever could have imagined.
As we departed Dong Ha, we radioed “Landshark Charlie,” the disembodied voice in the ethers in charge of artillery in our area. At our request Landshark took the precaution of shutting down the outgoing artillery from near our base to the contested area. We would notify him upon our return to base so outgoing artillery could resume firing.
On the way out to the landing zone (LZ), there were no city lights to brighten our way, no villages with fires burning to help us discern terrain. No street or highway lights, no car lights. The moon was just past full but had not yet risen. Once airborne, we navigated our way by using our TACAN navigation radio. (This radio displayed on a flight instrument gauges how far away we were from our home base and what compass radial we were on relative to home base.)
We flew the twelve miles, west by northwest, out to the Mutter Ridge area and made radio contact with the grunts on the ground. Once we got near the LZ it was obvious where we were to land, as hundreds of tracers lighted up the area of the battle, and the occasional flash of a grenade or mortar explosion added to the fireworks. This LZ was hot, very hot.
I was a nugget, a brand new gold-bar second lieutenant. I was a newbie, a combat virgin, along for the ride. I had not yet been into a hot landing zone. I had not yet been out to Mutter Ridge. I had not yet done a high-hover hoist pick-up, and this was my very first night combat flight in Vietnam. My main job was to watch the instruments when the lieutenant was busy hovering, to prevent his overboosting (too much power) or overspeeding (too many revs) the engine.
We verified that they had a very seriously wounded Marine who needed to be rescued right away, or he might die. This was truly an emergency medevac. At times, talking to the radio operator grunt on the ground, gunfire in the background and his heavy, labored breathing told us things were less than cozy on the ground around him. This situation was most challenging. The problem presented to us was: fly down to the battle, establish a stable hover over ninety-foot tall trees, hold that hover for around 5 minutes while lowering the rescue basket down through the trees to the Marines so they could load their wounded man. Then we had to retrieve the basket with the Marine in it. We must do all of this in near-total darkness.
It was going to be a very long 5 minutes. We spiraled carefully down to establish a hover above the landing zone. On the way down I extinguished all external lights to make us invisible to the enemy on the ground. Once we were in a stable but precarious hover, the crew chief began operating the hydraulic hoist, unreeling the cable to lower the litter basket down to the Marines.
With our engine at nearly full power, I hoped the horrific roar of our engine was causing the enemy to hunker down in fear. I hoped they thought we would shoot back if they shot at us, as we truly could have. The crew chief and gunner each had an M-60 machine gun and were ready and able to return fire. Of course if the crew did return fire, our tracers would light us up as a bright target for the enemy. Also, the crew chief was really too busy at the moment running the hoist to be shooting his M-60.
It was extremely difficult for the lieutenant to maintain a hover in the dark over these ninety-foot tall trees. The only ground reference he had to relate to was the geometric plane created by sparkling tracers, red for the Marines, green for the enemy, whizzing across the battlefield, back and forth underneath us. But the terrain, our only plane of reference, was tilted at a 30 to 45 degree from level.
Normally, hovering a helicopter is a simple matter for any helicopter pilot with just a wee bit of experience. I remember well my first few attempts at hovering in the final stages of Navy flight school. I had recently finished the final portion of airplane training and earned my Navy gold wings by landing my T-28C “Trojan” fighter-bomber on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. LEXINGTON, Then I advanced to helicopter training at Ellyson Field, north of Pensacola.
My first few attempts at hovering were absolute frustration. I was all over the four sides of a mile square field, bobbing up and down like a yo-yo. My instructor, Naval Lieutenant Bickum, let me go wild for a few moments until I was nearly out of control, then he calmly took over control of the machine, effortlessly put it back in the middle of the large field, and let me start again. After three or four attempts, I was able to keep the small Bell H-13 (Whirleybird) inside the limits of the mile square field. By then, I was completely exhausted and drenched with sweat. I learned quickly after that with lots of practice.
The lieutenant was having great difficulty holding a stable hover. Trying to hover over the sloping ground caused him to repeatedly tilt the helicopter away from the vertical, causing us to drift away from the Marines. If we drifted too far in a northerly direction, we might drift into trees on the upslope, infested with the enemy. We also might drag the basket through the trees, endangering the wounded Marine now in it, and even perhaps entangling our cable in the tree tops. The mission was in jeopardy, as were we. To make things even more interesting, occasionally an errant burst of tracers would rise vertically, some of them passing uncomfortably close to us. We knew each visible tracer bullet represented 4-5 bullets.
There was only one solution. The lieutenant asked me, “Bill, do you know where the hover/flood light switch is?” My first thought was that there was no way he was going to ask me to turn on those lights. To do so meant certain, instant death for the whole crew! So I answered him with a simple: “Yes, sir.” A millisecond later I realized, Omygod! He is going to have me flip that switch! When those lights come on, we will be the biggest and brightest target in all of Vietnam. We are hovering over who-knows-how-many hundreds or thousands of NVA (North Vietnamese Army troops). We are going to be so shot full of holes that we will explode into a ball of fire!
Then the Lieutenant said to me, (…and this is no shit!) “When I tell you, turn on those lights.”
I placed my fingers on the toggle switch on the overhead panel. I knew I was done for, but what could I do? Refuse an order? I was a Marine, “Death before dishonor” was our creed. I was duty bound to do what my pilot in command told me to do, even if it meant my immediate, fiery death. This is it! I am going to die in this war, right here, right now! I only hoped that I would get shot and die quickly, and not bounce down through the tall trees in the thrashing and crashing, flopping and chopping, slicing and dicing, whirling ball of exploding, flame-spewing helicopter as it tumbled down through the trees, to be burned to death, most painfully and slowly!
He told me to turn on the lights. Without argument or discussion, I dutifully toggled that switch.
Now I die!
The results were amazing. Absolute silence! Every single man on the ground, Marine and enemy combatant alike, must have thought he was the most exposed fellow on the planet. Each one, feeling that he was going to be the next soldier to be shot, threw himself into the nearest foxhole or into the shadow of the nearest tree. The battle completely ceased for at least 90 seconds while we hovered there, fully lighted up like a light standard at a Friday night high school football game. It seemed like forever.
Nothing happened. Nothing! We never once got shot at! Why the enemy soldiers on the ground did not roll over on their backs and give us full salvos of hundreds of 7.62 mm. AK-47 bullets, I will never know. I would not have been surprised to have a Marine shoot at us, to protect himself and his fellow Marines from our floodlights. (But then, the Marines knew one of their own was being rescued.)
The crew chief finished hoisting up the wounded Marine and pulled him into the helicopter. When the lieutenant could see that the victim was clear of the trees, he told me to switch off the lights. With great relief I did so, amazed to be still alive and not a crispy critter in a heap of steaming, smoking rubble on the hillside.
We delivered the wounded Marine to Delta Med, the field hospital. We never got any feedback on these missions. We never knew if the marines we rescued lived or died, unless one died on board. This did happen on board my aircraft at least once.
I, the new guy on the block, a brand new gold bar “nugget” second lieutenant, combat virgin, had no idea what a courageous and heroic thing the Lieutenant just accomplished. I thought that this was an every-day routine kind of thing, something that these more experienced guys did all the time. I knew I would soon be expected to do similar work. I wondered if I was up to it.
In my own time, in my own way, I was.
It was only decades later that I realized what a tremendously brave and wondrous thing the Lieutenant did that night over Mutter Ridge, how courageous he had been. He put his life (and mine, and the crew’s) on the line to rescue a fellow Marine. If I’d had any idea at the time, I would have written him up for a medal. This mission was worthy of at least a Silver Star, if not the big one, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I feel his heroism was equal to Admiral Mitcher turning on the lights of his aircraft carrier to recover his planes at the end of the battle of Midway in World War II. He risked torpedo attack by Japanese submarines, but in doing so he recovered his experienced pilots and their aircraft. The pilots were vital to the outcome of World War II.
This rescue was such a traumatic event for me that I blanked it out of my memory until recently. The lieutenant’s name isn’t listed in my aviator’s logbook. I must access some unit records somewhere, to find out who he was. If I learn who he was, I may yet write him up for that medal. But at the same time, our attitude was: “We were not here to get medals; we‘re here to rescue wounded Marines.” As Master Gunnery Sergeant Massey (one of my drill sergeants in the earliest stage of flight school) would have growled, “Don’t thank me. I’m just doing my job.”
From archives I have been able to find, here is the Command Chronology* entry for this exciting event:
“29 August, 1966. ………One medevac was particularly noteworthy, as it necessitated a 90 foot hover at 1,000 feet of altitude and a basket pick up of a U. S. wounded. This was completed with- out incident.”*
This is somewhat of an understatement!
*Texas Tech, “HMM-161 Command Chronology, 29 August, 1966.” Document No. 1201079199
During August of 1966, squadron HMM-161 flew 1,264.3 hours, carried 5,011 passengers, hauled 221 tons of cargo, and hauled 227 medevacs out of the field. We changed 14 engines this month. I personally flew 51.2 hours.
*Texas Tech archives, Command Chronology HMM-161, 8 August, 1966
Bill Collier, email@example.com