I never knew for sure if I made a difference in Vietnam for my fellow Marines or their families. I did know that WE helicopter crews as a whole had an important mission and that the only reason we existed was to support the Grunts as they fought through the most miserable conditions on earth to accomplish theirs.
On my journey in the last five years to make sense of my memories, to have them somewhere other than bad dreams and cold sweats, I have tried to put some of them on paper. I was actually looking for some paperwork on an Army Commendation Medal that the 3 Star CG of the 101st Airborne Division pinned on me one day at Vandergrift Combat Base, when I received my file from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and discovered some letters of recommendation written by pilots. Now my fellow crew chiefs out there can understand my surprise. I never knew, and all these years I thought the only thing pilots could write were yellow sheet gripes to keep me working all night till the mess hall was closed and the showers shut down and it was time for the next day’s mission. In the statements there were references to call signs of the units from this day of too much medevac and I felt I needed to find out just what ground units were “Heritage 81” and “Jawbreaker E3” at that zone we were into so many times that day where the desperate look on those Marines needing our help has been burned into my brain.
This is what I remember and have found out to be factual for the day I spent with what turned out to be a perfect crew for the Chatterbox Medevac Package of 25March69 from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 out of Quang Tri.
In the cockpit were Lt. James C. O’Connor Jr. and his co-pilot Lt. Wagner. In the cabin, myself, Dale Riley – crew chief with Mike Griffith and Bill Wassinger as my gunners, and, of course, HMI “Doc” John Hillhouse.
Some facts from the After Action Report: We left Quang Tri at 0845 and returned 1850 (10 hours and 5 minutes) with a total flight time of 7.7 hours. Touching down in zones 10 times, expending 1000 .50 cal and 600 M-16 5.56 mm rounds, conducting 20 sorties on 10 tasks and, our reason for being there, 12 emergency – 6 priority – 8 routine or KIA brought on board that day. Along with delivering 1 ton of ammo and water on one of our return trips into a zone I will describe shortly. But those are just the numbers. Let me tell you what those men did that long, hot, dry hellish day.
We started off with a call of several emergency medevacs from “Heritage 81” (which I believe to be E/2/3) in heavy contact with the enemy and supported by 2 UH-1E ( Huey) gunships from VMO-6. One of the gunships sustained several hits and had to return to Quang Tri. As the one remaining covered our approach, it quickly became apparent that the LZ was too small for our CH-46 SeaKnight helicopter. The only way I saw was to back-in up a gully and get the aft gear down. Lt. O’Connor did not hesitate and spun us around and followed my directions precisely as I checked out the clearance on both sides of the aircraft as quickly as I could with help from my gunners and with very smooth and steady handling by the pilot. We got the wounded on board and slowly pulled out of the zone as all hell broke loose and my gunners and the gunship opened up on the enemy muzzle flashes. I emptied out several M-16 magazines myself as it seemed to take forever to climb enough to swing away over the ridge and gain speed. Doc Hillhouse never looked up as he got to work on some very badly wounded Marines and once we hit altitude he directed myself and the gunners as what to do to help stop the bleeding and help the men as the pilots squeezed every knot of speed out of the aircraft. This was just the beginning.
On a personal note, I cannot put into words what a horrible experience flying medevac can be. Stretched out or crumpled up before you were these young, strong, straight U.S. Marines. Bloody, torn, butchered flesh, with extremities missing or dangling, attached but not. The deck of the helicopter is coated with a non-skid material to protect you from slipping on the ever present oil and grease but it did not work against blood. There never seemed to be enough water to wash it away and I found bringing in a sandbag or two back at base to use as a sweeping agent worked best, as disgusting as it was.
We were then tasked into a zone on Dong Ha Mountain where “Jawbreaker E3” (Echo Co/2nd BN/9th Marine Regiment) just received a mortar attack as they reached the top after setting out from Khe Gia bridge the night before. They climbed the mountain under the cover of darkness. The company commander, Lt. James Glenn Upchurch, was killed in that attack and 5 Marines were wounded. It would be the start of a battle that had us into their zone at least four times.
As a crew chief my job was to check clearances around the aircraft and I was constantly hanging half out the port or starboard hatches. A lot of days you really felt for the grunts that you saw down in the swirling dust or sticky mud. This day instead of lowering their heads to avoid our rotor wash or flashing the usual V sign, they were shaking their canteens and making a drinking motion as we came in. I grabbed what canteens I could and tossed them to the ground. I always had probably eight or ten canteens scattered throughout the cabin. I closely guarded the metal ones for making c-rat coffee in the engine compartments, but these guys needed them badly and I only wished that I had more.
Our port gunner, Mike Griffith, was answering the fire from the tree line to the north as I got the wounded Marines and their KIA Lt. onboard. Till we lifted out Mike had gone through close to 200 rounds. It was apparent how the brutal heat of that zone with no cover at all was taking its toll. Lt. O’Connor could see it also from the cockpit and he radioed Vandy to get a load of water and ammo together for us after we dropped the casualties at Charlie Med. This was very unusual for a medevac mission but he knew we were going back in for more. After unloading at the med pad, we hit the fuel dump. I sent one gunner out for more .50 ammo and the other for loaded canteens as I fueled the aircraft. We then air taxied over to the supply pad and I hooked up to a cargo sling loaded with 5 gallon cans of water and ammo.
We proceeded back to Dong Ha Mountain and into the zone. I remember it as a small grass-covered, narrow ridge with the men of Echo, 2nd BN, 9th Marines on both sides as the top was a killing zone. As my attention was down through the hell hole talking the pilot in, I hear our 50’s going off in bursts. I settled the load down, released the cargo hook and keyed my mike with “hook clear.” As I was getting up I thought we were hit and on fire as I was blinded by big flashes of flame; it was the port .50 with a burned out barrel. Lt. O’Connor had to execute a go round after we dropped the sling load as the fire was intense and there wasn’t room until the grunts cleared the cargo.
I cleared us to the starboard and then as I was getting up from closing the hell hole hatch, I panicked as I realized Mike Griffith was pulling his burnt .50 from the mounts and I said “No, we are going back in.” But he and Bill Wassinger were a real team and just switched out the starboard gun to the port mount and we never missed a beat.
The forward air control and the Marine who took command on the ground were on the radio urging more .50 fire as it was spot-on and the enemy fire was ceased from that tree line. The acting company commander, 1st Lt. Jay Standish, was standing up exposed outside the port gun directing our fire as we touched down and loaded more wounded and guys prostrate and in real trouble with heat stroke. The day continued and the After Action Report tells the story with the zones listed and casualties counted etc. for my crew of ET-14.
Our wingmen that day in ET-15, crewed by pilots David and Trigalet with crew Nelson, Matlock and Boersma, flew also with a corpsman, Doc Westervelt. Unusual, but this was the day for unusual, they worked in perfect sync with us and carried out 20 sorties on 14 tasks carrying 17 casualties and 14 replacements to those magnificent Marines of “Hell in a Helmet” E/2/9 on Dong Ha Hell.
I never knew the outfits back then. It’s just as well as E/2/9 was my brother’s unit and finding this out now is very emotional for me. He was often on my mind over there, especially on medevacs as I tried my best to help some other family avoid that damn telegram that devastated mine on 13Sep66 with the news that their son PFC Neil E Riley was killed in Vietnam.
Having the opportunity today to contact several of those Marines on the ground that day and hear that they remember it as intensely as I still do, I now know that we did make a difference for those Marines on the ground. I also know too well the price, not only my own friends with HMM-262 , but all the helicopter crews paid to make that difference as the memories of them are with me today and will be to the day I die.
This day of 25Mar69 that I remember just kept going and turned into night medevac package with Lt. Barton, Lt. Mix, Doc Cavanagh, my gun team of Griffith and Wassinger. Twenty-nine more wounded to load onboard from missions to Jawbreaker F and a nerve-wracking one to LZ Argonne as an AC47 Spooky gunship prevented an overrun with the most impressive firepower I have ever seen on my darkest, scariest night. I can’t say it was the first time I was scared in Vietnam but unlike the other times that just happened and you were in the moment, here we were watching this scene from hell knowing that we would soon descend into the inferno ourselves.
But that’s another story …
Semper Fidelis my Brothers.
Sgt. Dale A. Riley 66-70