by Gene Salter
It’s another of those incidents that sticks in your mind no matter how long you live. It frightens you so much that when it’s over you lock it away in a closet of your memory so that no one, not even you, remember what happened. Or, maybe, you don’t want others to know just how frightened you were. Anyway, the emergency extract of a recon team from the side of a mountain during the Viet Nam war, is one of those experiences that is hard for me to forget. The memory of it was thrown back at me when I saw my helicopter in Mike Leahy’s painting called VIETNAM: HOT RECON TEAM EXTRACT.
Although this happened many years ago it still frightens me. I do admit that war is exciting and makes the adrenaline flow. Don’t get me wrong, I do not like war nor do I want to see it again– or for my children to see anymore war or for my childrens’ children to see war–but it does make you appreciate being alive. During the war the fear and excitement forces you to develop a narrow mindset. You need to develop a narrow mindset to survive war. My mindset consisted of taking off in a helicopter, flying to the “zone,” picking up the wounded Marine/recon team, stopping off at the hospital/recon team HQ and returning to the airfield. Then, a cold beer when the day is completed. Take off, pick up, drop off, cold beer. That seemed to be the extent of my whole world. Anything else was a stinking panic, a frightening nightmare with sweating, bleeding , bullets, enemy, and the smell of death surrounding me. It was better to keep a narrow mindset.
During 1967, Mike Leahy was a Marine Corps Reserve Major who had been recalled to active duty as a combat artist. According to Mike’s journal, November 11th was one of those days he had elected to fly with me as the port machine gunner on an H-34 helicopter. I was the operations officer for HMM-363, stationed at Marble Mountain Air Facility (just out of Da Nang, South Vietnam). Mike and I had known each other for years, as helicopter pilots at New River, NC, and at Quantico, VA, where we both had been selected as helicopter pilots for the President of the United States. In ‘Nam, Mike went along to observe how we did our jobs, and to record it in the form of drawings and paintings after the flights. He said he felt confident of getting back safe and sound when he flew a mission with me.
My flight log shows I flew two missions that day (every pilot has his own personal record of each flight he has ever flown, well, almost all of them). And I remember that day because of the screw ups, the “frictions of war” as Clausewitz calls it. The flight schedule had to be rearranged; other people who had flown the night before, or were on “stand by” the prior night and should be resting were pressed into the schedule as replacements for those of us who had a “priority mission.” We had to fly some stateside-style colonels around the area so they could “observe.” We didn’t have a real VIP helo in the squadron so I grabbed what was available, had the crewchief set up the regular canvas and aluminum frame seats, and took off for the “”VIP area orientation.” I left my assistant operations officer, Capt Joe Clark, with instructions to give me a call on the squadron radio net if we received any more unscheduled missions or a greater than usual number of medevacs. Joe, who had flown the night before and should have been resting, knew that I’d dump the VIPs in a “New York second” if there was any build up in the medevac load.
The weather was beautiful (pilots call it “CAVU” i.e., Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited.) The blue of the South China Sea was on my left as I lifted off from the Air Facility and headed south toward the huge Marble Mountains, standing like sentinels on the flat beach area just south of the Air Facility. It was a good VIP sightseeing and picture taking area. We flew on down to Hoi An (quaint Viet Nam native village good for more pictures). On the trip down you could see the mountains off to the west. They were a light green near the tops and a darker green as your eyes followed the line down the side of the mountain to where it finally touched the flatlands and the rice paddies, villages, and roads. The mountains looked like the tourist photos that might have been touched up for commercial purposes. They were that beautiful, and scenic to the eye of the uninitiated, but the hostility and death was there for the unwary. Without a war, the area around Da Nang truly is a lovely sight.
As we were making a big circle around Hoi An we received a message from Joe Clark that a 2nd Division recon team was in a “shit sandwich” and needed an emergency extract. I told the crewchief to pass the word to our VIPs that we had to cut the tour short and return to MMAF to make ready for an emergency mission (Should make good cocktail hour conversation when they get back to the States). I immediately called for ground transportation for the VIPs and then on the separate FM radio net I instructed the squadron to refuel and prepare another chopper for the recon team extract (that meant to get rid of any seats or other superfluous gear onboard and refuel the chopper with a combat minimum fuel load– front tank only).
Captain Clark relayed to me, on the squadron freq, the position of the recon team taking small arms fire from a pursuing enemy. I told him to arrange for a couple of Huey gunships to accompany me in my attempt to extract our Marines. Our Marines, recon teams, troopers – we had lots of impersonal, generic names for some very young, individuals, men who saw their duty as “just doing the job.”
I’m sitting here thinking about the time one of the recon teams were required to stay on patrol for a couple of extra days and I had to resupply them. One case of “C “s (rations) and a five gallon can of water. Enough for six men for one afternoon, night, and next morning while they quietly watched an empty valley for any possible enemy movement. I decided to add a case of canned beer to their rations (very illegal).
After locating them on the back side of their lookout position, I approached from the side away from any possible enemy observation and the crewchief lowered the “C” rations, beer and water via the rescue hoist because there was no place to land. As they saw the two cases of “rations” being lowered, their radio man came on the FM with an angry “We said one case of ” C “s! We don’t want to have to haul an extra case of —– hello, That’s OK.” We picked them up the next day and when we let them off at the recon compound near Da Nang, they ran out with a big smile and gave us a big thumbs up.
Then, there was the morning we had one of those “Oh-Dark-Thirty ” briefings and a FNG (F—— New Guy) briefer asked if we wanted the area “prepped” prior to inserting the recon team into its initial position. To “prep” a position means to prepare the position either by dropping bombs, napalm, or rockets from the air or firing into the position with artillery, or both. When attempting a clandestine insertion, drawing attention to the exact location of your insertion is the last thing you want either as the pilot flying the helicopter or the five or six individuals who make up the reconnaissance team. (We looked at each other– we being the aircrew and the recon team.)
Then I spoke up, “Yeah, we want you to nuke the area! ”
“Let’s keep this on a professional scale”, thebriefing officer told me.
“I’m being professional, AND, as serious as I can”, I answered him.
“Nuke it! Nuke it!” broke out from everyone at the briefing.
“No nuke, no prep,”, said the briefer. I told the FNG where to get off, and we got up and walked out.
Yeah, I knew those young men on that mountain top, and they knew me. I always liked to know the people I was working with, and I wanted them to know me. Hadn’t General Morgan familiarized himself to his recruits the night prior to the “Battle of Cowpens”? Didn’t Rommel visit with the troops before he sent them into combat? (Not that I expected to become a General, but, you leam from the winners.) I always felt that if the busy Generals could find time to visit with the troops, I didn’t see why a Marine Major couldn’t work in a short visit with the men who trusted him to take them into combat and get them out if the going got too tough.
I was the pilot they worked with, the one who came for them in an emergency or after a patrol or when they needed a medevac bird. I knew them when they were wearing camouflage utilities and “make up” on their faces. I recognized them in their dress uniforms. And, I remember the day they invited me to their compound and presented me with the big red, white and blue banner that read “F— COMMUNISM.” In smaller print it read “For additional copies, contact the Daughters of the American Revolution.” (I’ve still got that banner. It’s on the wall of my workshop. My wife still won’t let me bring it into the house). Yeah, I knew that team, or most of them. And I was going to do everything in my power to get them back safely.
The recon team must train together and work together. It’s after they have worked together for a while – on missions – that they become a team. They leam who is the best planner, the best weapons mechanic, the strongest, etc. Any weakness must be discovered. Once they have worked together, committed to each other and to their tasks, they leam to depend on each other. They have shared the risks, the hardships and dangers as a team. They have learned to depend on each other, and accept the shortcomings and failures of each individual. They know they must depend on each other as a team, and the team is more important than any error one or the other might commit. Bad habits must be corrected, pride and jealously must be shoved aside. Each accomplishment is a shared team achievement.
I dropped off the VIPs (What the hell, they were just doing their job). They told the crew chief ‘thanks’ and gave me a “thumbs up” as I taxied toward the squadron parking area. I left the helicopter and let the copilot shut it down and l shifted to the new chopper waiting for me. And here comes big Mike Leahy, my gunner, all six foot two and too many pounds of him.
A different copilot, a different crewchief , me and Mike. With the rotors turning, we began to taxi out for takeoff while we radioed the tower and the Huey gunships, as I was strapping in. Then we were airborne into a CAVU sky. Thank goodness for small favors.
I see this on paper and I know you ask why I had to be theone to go on this mission? Why couldn’t I have assigned it to one of the other squadron pilots? Was I so egotistical that I thought I was the only one who could carry out this mission? At the moment it was a decision based on knowledge of the other required missions being flown by the squadron, the availability of the helicopters in an “up” flying status, and my familiarity with the recon team and the area they were working in. I was the most experienced combat pilot available and was flying the least essential mission. It was one of those decisions all too frequent in combat, that had to be made at that very moment and I made it.
On the way to the “hot zone” the recon team was operating in, I contacted them for a head count; an estimate of the number of enemy pursuing them; and the direction they were traveling. All of this information was necessary for me to plan my extraction of the team. I knew they were “humping’ it’ when I didn’t get an immediate response to my call. (I didn’t like to be bothered with radio calls when I was trying to evade the enemy either). I continued toward the area when a second H-34 joined on me. I could see that I was going to need all of the help I could get on this mission. If everything works out when you make these snap decisions, they are called “bold” decisions. If everything winds up in a mess, it was a “stupid” decision. Sort of like the old saying about victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. I had made the decision and now I had to live with it.
We needed more than one chopper, for if something happened to me, he would be able to finish the mission. About then the recon team came up on FM with the information that I had requested, namely “eight men,” “a hell-of-a-lot,” and “away.” I suggested that “away” was not a direction I could home in on. Then I spotted them – or rather I spotted the automatic weapons fire of the enemy and from their position I could ascertain the probable direction of the recon team.
I turned the chopper so that we could cross behind our own troops and in front of the enemy. We began firing our machine guns at an aggressive enemy in pursuit of the exhausted recon team. There was no place in the immediate area to land my helicopter and expect to make an extraction. However, the helicopter covering fire gave our recon Marines time to get a little further away and it kept the enemy troops from concentrating their firepower on us – so long as we could keep them pinned down. I made a pass on the enemy with the machine guns clattering and the crewchief’s M-79 grenade launcher “thump-thumping”. Then the second H-34 followed with his arsenal, then the Huey hit them a good lick with machine guns and rockets. And like the radioman said, there was a “hell-of-a-lot of ’em.”
It was very obvious that we would have to hold up the enemy troops for a much longer period of time if we were going to be able to allow the recon team to get far enough away from the enemy so we could pick them up without getting the hell shout out of all of us. They were more or less following a path along the crest of a hilltop (mountain?). (Why in hell do Marines always travel along the crest of a mountain?) I know you can see to either side of the mountain, but so can “they” see you from either side “they” are on.
In this case, it was easier (and faster) traveling for the recon team. There was tall grass, scrub brush, and uneven footing on either side of the path. But, there was no place to land a helicopter without being shot out of this world and into the next. So, I had to look for a suitable extract location.
I remembered seeing a place a couple of clicks ahead, where I could hover aways down the side of the mountain without being exposed to any direct enemy fire. If the team could reach that spot, it would be a snap picking them up. Any enemy fire would be over the top of the helicopter because I would be part-ways down the side of the mountain and they couldn’t see me – I hoped! But- we would need refueling and additional ammo to hold out ’til the recon team could “hump it” that far.
I directed the Huey gunship to stay on station while the other H-34 and I dropped down the side of the mountain to the small airfield at An Hoa to refuel (the Huey had a full load while we carried only the front tank full). I relayed to the recon team what we intended to do so they wouldn’t think we were abandoning them.
When we received an acknowledgment from the recon team leader we cut away from the firefight and left it to the Huey gunship to stall the enemy pursuers while the two H-34s refueled and, hopefully, found some additional ammo. (The Huey had ten times the firepower of the H-34. It carried six machine guns and a covey of rockets. The H-34 was configured as a troop transport/medevac ship with two 7.62 M-60 machine guns for self defense. The M-79 grenade launcher was something the crewchief had “picked up” in his travels). The Huey was able to slow down the pursuers by making feint dives in one direction and immediately turning to shoot in another direction.
I dropped down to the An Hoa emergency airfield. The other H-34 followed. Lucky for us no one else was refueling so we had the pumps to ourselves. As I pulled up near the refueling hose, I saw the crewchief jump out of the helicopter and remove the cap on the forward fuel cell. At the same time I saw big Mike leave the cabin. I knew he had gone to the supply tent setup nearby for a couple of cans of 7.62 ammo as I watched him disappear out of my sight. It wasn’t ’til later that I discovered he was hassled trying to obtain ammo. Picture this, I’m refueled and pull up my helicopter so that the second H-34 can refuel at the single hose and nozzle emergency fuel stop. And across the blacktop trots Mike in flight suit, flack vest, side arm, and a whole case of ammo. I won’t say he was running. Maybe he wasn’t trotting. Maybe when you have a too-heavy case of ammo in your arms it’s called “humping it”. The crewchief jumped out, gave him a hand with his load, and we were on our way. Mike had slimmed down some. He would sweat off a few more pounds before we returned to Marble Mountain that day.
Not ’til that afternoon at An Hoa’s outlying airfield did I realize how I desperately wanted to climb back up to that mountain top to get to some Marines who needed me. We launched and I immediately contacted the recon team leader. They were running out of mountain top. They didn’t have that much more room to maneuver in before they came to our agreed on pickup point. The other H-34 joined the Huey gunship in harassing the enemy and pinning them down, or at least, slowing them down.
“Recon team leader, this is the Red Lion. Do you copy?” I called on the recon team’s radio net. “I’ve got you, Red Lion,” he came back. “Keep going in the same direction you are headed now”, I said, “you will find a path leading down the side of the mountain. I’ll be waiting.” “We are moving out!” he screamed back at me.
We circled the area once, made a pass at the NVA enemy troops and sprayed them with as much 7.62 as we could and made a run for our rendezvous point to take aboard our Marine recon team. I found a slight projection from the side of the mountain where I could rest my right main landing wheel while I hovered. It was low enough on the side of the mountain where the enemy couldn’t get a good shot at me from the crest of the mountain while I loaded the recon team. The mountain sloped just enough so that no one was in danger of being decapitated by the rotor blades (if they ducked down) as they approached the helicopter.
It appeared I was in the ideal spot to extract a recon team from a “hot zone”. All I had to do was hover there while the recon team scrambled down the slight distance, protected from enemy fire, and let the Huey gunships and the H-34 “hold them off at the pass.” Wouldn’t you know somebody would find a way to mess it up!
The enemy pursuers didn’t stay on the path running along the crest of the mountain. (All the plans of mice and …, frictions of war,… etc.) They saw that the part of mountain that our recon team was on had played out. They left the crest for the tall grass and scrub on either side of the mountain to out-flank the recon team and to get a better shot at them and the helicopter.
“They’re taking to the tall grass!” I heard the gunship pilot yell.
It was my first indication of the enemy’s intention to outflank me and it contributed considerably to the “pucker factor” I was now operating under. Then I saw the first of the recon team slide over the crest and dive for the cabin door. And I heard the “ping” of the first bullet to hit the tail section of the helicopter.
“Somebody’s got me in their sights,” I told the two Huey gunships trying to protect me. We wouldn’t be much good to the recon team if I was hit and tumbled down the side of the mountain losing a helicopter and a helicopter crew.
Then I heard a rocket explode behind me. “I got him!” shouted the Huey driver.
“Can’t you guys move any faster?” I demanded of the recon team as two more Marines ducked the rotor blades and headed for the “safety” of the helicopter.
“One man is carrying a case of “C”s”, the radio came back.
“Drop them and get your asses in here!” I was somewhat vexed.
“Can’t. The enemy will get them.”
“If they are that important to you”, I said, “Why don’t you stay there and guard them while the rest of us get the hell out of here!”
They opted to go with me.