Look, Up In The Sky. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s…….
by Roger Herman
It was 1965 and I was in flight training as a Marine helicopter pilot in Pensacola, Florida. When I began training in May of that year, I think that I might have heard the name Vietnam mentioned once or twice. I hadn’t really paid much attention to it. Fifteen months later, when I had completed training, I was on my way there. The war had escalated significantly during this period. As a result, helicopter pilots were needed “in-country” as soon as possible. In order to get us over there in the shortest amount of time after we got our wings, some of the additional training that was considered optional was deleted from the schedule. In my case, I never got to go on a stateside training mission in which the crewchief and gunner fired their M-60 machine guns from the belly of the H-34 helicopter that I was being trained in. This would prove to be significant.
I joined HMM-361 in January 1967 as the squadron was returning to Vietnam from a short stay in Okinawa. We were based out of the Marine helicopter facility called Marble Mountain. It was located on the beach just east of Da Nang. We immediately began flying medevac, re-supply, and troop insert/extract missions. Our main operations were to the south and west of Da Nang. After a couple of weeks of flying, I had a pretty good feel for the job and also felt comfortable with knowing the area. I had been lucky so far, and had not been shot at yet. The same couldn’t be said for a lot of my fellow squadron pilots. They were coming back from the same types of missions with lots of bullet holes in their aircraft, and some wild tales to tell. A lot of the guys were getting wounded also. A couple of more weeks went by and my good fortune continued. Not a shot was fired in anger at me. Days turned into weeks, I had now been in-country nearly two months and still had not been shot at. Everyone else was continuing to take fire on various flights. Now I was really starting to worry. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was being kidded in the squadron about my “virginity”. I just knew in the back of my mind, that the odds had to catch up with me some time soon. Everyone was saying that I was way overdue, and that when I took that first enemy fire, the “bad guys” were really going to lay it on me to make up for lost time. Now I was to the point where I just wanted to get shot at the first time so I could get it over with.
It was an overcast day and we were returning to Marble Mountain after another mission that went pretty smoothly. Normally we would fly above 1,500 feet to stay out of small arms range. This day, however, due to the bad weather, we had to fly low. We were only several hundred feet above the ground as we navigated north, paralleling Highway 1. We were about 10 miles south of the Da Nang area when it happened. Instantly my world, as I had known it, ended forever. From out of nowhere the deafening sounds of automatic weapons fire erupted all around me. They were the loudest noises I had ever heard. I came several inches out of my seat in total fear. I’m sure that I must have been yelling as loud as I could, but that it was being drowned out by the machine gun fire. I looked up to see that the windshield was covered with blood. Blood and what appeared to be body parts were everywhere. The additional sounds of emergency radio calls filled the earphones in my helmet. It was total chaos. I must have been hit pretty badly. I can remember thinking to myself, “So this is what it’s like to die. Oddly enough, I’m not in pain.” Several seconds later, but what seemed like an eternity, the situation began to settle down. I was still alive! So was the rest of the crew. After checking myself over, I realized that I wasn’t even hit. In fact no one was wounded! How could this be? What had happened? How could we have survived this intact? The answers started coming slowly as things continued to calm down and I started putting it all together.
The extremely loud machine gun fire I had heard was our own. The crewchief and gunner had opened up simultaneously with their M-60’s on enemy positions that they had spotted firing on us. They hadn’t forewarned us of it because there just wasn’t time. Having never heard our machine guns fire before, and expectantly waiting two months for what would be my first exposure to enemy fire, I had thought the loud automatic weapons noises were the VC guns shooting at us. Soon thereafter I would learn that you can usually smell the enemy fire first as it penetrates and burns the magnesium skin of the helicopter. You hardly ever hear it. There was no time to analyze the situation at that moment, however, and surmise that realistically I wouldn’t be able to hear the VC weapons firing from such a distance. And of course, how could you hear anything over the loud noise of our reciprocating 1820 engines anyway? So much for that portion of the mystery. But what about all that blood……. and those body parts? Well, as luck would have it, at the very moment our M-60’s started firing we had a direct, head-on, mid-air collision with a couple of seagulls! They were splattered all over the front of the windshield. Yes, there was lots of blood and internal body parts everywhere, but on closer examination much of it was in the form of crumpled wings and feathers as well.
I had learned a lot of lessons in a very short time on this one flight. We had taken several hits, but no serious damage had been done, except to my nerves. Our body count for the mission was two confirmed VC seagulls. Welcome to the war. The remainder of my tour consisted of many exciting adventures in the H-34. It was a durable helicopter that handled combat missions and bird strikes in stride. I’ve flown a lot of different aircraft in the years since, but none comes close to my affection for the Sikorsky UH-34D. Now that was a helicopter. There was never another mission quite like this one either. I haven’t looked at a seagull quite the same since 1967. Come to think of it, I’m not too fond of sudden loud noises either. But every time I catch a glimpse of a ’34……….. well that’s another story.