By Felix Steele
When we were on the Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship of the line, I had a buddy who had ended up in the ship’s sickbay for some minor surgery or something, and since we had been roommates at Whiting Field in Milton, Florida during our basic flight training I went down to the sickbay to see him and ask if he needed anything from the healthy for his recovery. He asked for reading materials, like books and magazines, and so forth. I went to the wardroom and scored some magazines and some old “Stars and Stripes” newspapers for him to read and keep off the boredom of surgery recovery.
Later, when Wally had been returned to duty and another buddy of ours who’d been wounded slightly, he reminded me that Dick Basinger was in the same bunk in sick bay and maybe needed some reading material. So I put together some books and magazines for him and went down to the recovery bay for Dick to peruse. He was appreciative and enjoyed the magazines and newspapers which I had provided.
There was a wounded Marine in the bunk next to his who had some very serious injury. He was in a body cast over his chest and stomach and when I was there visiting my buddy the corpsmen were trying to move his position in the bunk for some reason. This movement was causing the Marine quite a lot of discomfort. He wasn’t screaming but he was definitely in some pain.
Later, when Dick had recovered from his wounds and was returned to duty, he and I were talking in the ready room of the Iwo Jima and discussing this wounded Marine’s situation in sick bay. Turns out he had some bad wound to his spine and the prognosis wasn’t good. The reason he was in the sick bay of the ship was that the surgeons had felt that he was too badly injured to risk sending him to a shore based hospital until he became more stabilized.
This led to the discussion of wounds and maiming, burning, lifelong disabilities and such. Dick and I knew that some of us were going to become casualties of the Viet Nam war and we concurred that we would much rather be killed with a bullet to the head or heart than have to suffer like the poor Marine with the spine injury in sick bay of the Iwo Jima. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to option to decide our demise. That would be up to the fates and circumstance. We got to see many maimed and crippled wounded Marines since we were in the medevac chopper business. It was not a pretty scene. It was especially bad for the crews who had to be in the cabin compartment with these poor souls, dead and dying Marines while we pilots got to be somewhat insulated from the scenes of carnage because our chopper had a flight deck above and out of sight of the cabin.
A couple of months later Dick got killed himself and his crew chief got killed also, near the DMZ while delivering some gasoline to the outpost near Con Thien. Copilot and gunner survived, but copilot had some bad face injuries, being blown out of the cockpit by the explosion of the mortar round that hit them.
According to the KIA incident report in the archives, the mortar round had hit in the cockpit on the pilots side and an eyewitness reported that the pilot and crew chief were killed instantly. The gunner was the only survivor without injuries.
When the first reports of this incident came in it was widely reported that he had been hit with an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade, launched from some NVA type aiming from the bushes. Other speculations were that the chopper was hit with artillery rounds, and that after the strike the chopper caught fire and the NVA kept pouring in rounds at the smoke.
I know that the best guess is the mortar rounds because the same thing happened to me just three days later—in virtually the same spot.
Me and Buzz Baez were the second chopper in a two plane medevac mission to evacuate wounded Marines from an LZ near a church where one of our crews had been shot down and had taken refuge in the church. We were to grab the wounded Marines and as many of our crews as we could carry and get back to the aid station with the wounded and our crews to the base.
Due to the constant enemy pressure to overtake the base the local unit commander had warned off the choppers for a couple of days until the Marines could stabilize the landing zone situation. Finally on the 15th of May we sent in a flight of two to retrieve the wounded and our crew who had been in the church for a few days.
I was wing on Tim O’Toole’s lead chopper and my copilot was Buzz Baez, who was from California. Conscious of what had happened to the last two birds we has sent in to this area I was concerned as I watched Tim land in the zone beside the church. Tim was one of our senior junior pilots and probably the best we had in the squadron. He got a load of medevacs, wounded Marines, and climbed out to altitude and signaled me to go in for a load.
I had landed in the space alongside the church, but like Tim’s chopper I was facing north in the ricepaddy, the church was on our left, and the H-34 only has a door for passengers on the starboard side so I picked up the chopper and did a one-eighty and landed much closer to the church maybe some fifty feet from where I first landed. I eased off on the collective, feeling that the crew chief and the gunnerwere going to be involved in getting the wounded on board. I looked out to my right and saw Mike Tripp holding up one of the wounded Marines. He was smiling at us and hoping to get out of this hell hole himself and back to a hot shower and a hot meal.
No sooner had I glanced back at Buzz when all hell broke loose. Two mortar rounds went off in one-second sequence and had landed in the rice paddy where our chopper had been sitting just 20 seconds before. We decided this was time to vacate the premises and get out of Dodge while we had at least some of the wounded. I jerked up on the collective and coned the blades, lost rpm and guessed that the engine had failed. We sort of decided to shut down the chopper and get out and down to the ground because we were up in the air twelve feet. While trying to engage the rotor brake the collective lowered and the engine revved. Buzz said “Let’s get out of here.”
We hauled out of there with gasoline streaming out of the rear tank and I was afraid the tank would catch fire and we would go down in a ball of flames. We did make it back to Dong Ha and got a new chopper from one of the other crews and headed back to the area. This time we would land in unison and get the wounded and our crews all in one fell swoop if the NVA would cooperate. They were kind enough to relent and we got the mission completed. Took the dead and wounded to the LSA and our crews to base. Surprisingly not one of our crews who had spent a night or two at the church was injured.
Sadly, however two of our squadron were dead and one sorely injured who we would never see in the squadron again. Poor Dick Basinger’s wife who had a new baby would get the telegram which she and all the Marine’s wives dreaded.
As we were shutting down the engine on the medevac pad Mike and his gunner waved “thanks” to us and Mike still had his M-60 from his chopper wearing a grunt helmet which he had taken from one of the dead Marines.
Buzz and I went to the officer’s club for a stiff drink to congratulate ourselves on having survived the fate which had befallen the two previous crews in that area.
Buzz died last year, and I am in my 72nd year and almost an invalid from leg complaints, but I will never forget the brave men with whom I served in this squadron.
For some reason I have always remembered Dick Basinger most on Memorial Day. I think it’s because of his having shown me photos of his wife and infant son while we were on the Iwo. I remember his opinion of the sorely wounded Marine in the sickbay of the Iwo while he was recuperating from his own wounds. It wasalso our own hopes for not suffering for months and hoping to die quickly or survive unscathed.
I was never very emotional about my friends who died in the Viet Nam war, but the older I get the more nostalgic I have become.
Some few years back we had the traveling Viet Nam veteran’s wall come to our town for a weekend or so. I went to the display and learned how to look up the location of the guys I knew from a very nice lady who was an attendant at the wall. I got rubbings of Sergeant Link and Gary Shields who died with Bob Schena one day and some others and then started to look up more when I realized how many buddies I had who had died in the war. Before I could look up my flight instructors and two of my drill instructors I had to take a break from the endeavor because I found myself getting a tad emotional.
I really wanted to get a rubbing of Dick Basinger. He would be the one I would be most emotional about, but I never went back and I have seen the virtual wall on the Wall’s website where they say you can send in some money for someone to get a rubbing for you. Now I am content to muddle through the interminable Memorial Day weekends with my grief. Veteran’s Day is better. I always get taken out to lunch by my wife on that holiday.
After we returned from out overseas duty in Viet Nam, most of us had another two years to do in the service. I was stationed in New River Marine Corps Air Facility where I taught new flight school graduates how to fly the H-53 helicopter. Then these guys would be shipped off to the war and each time one of our former student pilots got killed we would get the message on the daily message board which came in over the telex wire. So many got churned up that I can’t remember them all, but one guy stuck in my craw. His name was Zuehlsdorf. I looked in my log book after I read of his passing so I could see when we had been in the air together. It was only once we had an instructional hop and I didn’t remember anything about it so it must have been uneventful. In other words he was a good student, but the most memorable thing about him was his ability to enjoy our humor. We could make these new recruits laugh at our crude humor because they had never encountered graveside humor before.
It was many years after all these events had taken place that I felt like I had done something that was somewhat memorable. Not that I had done anything great or fantastic, but that I had done something that was heroic as far as saving the lives of the wounded Marines who would have been dead sooner in the days before helicopters.