Tales of an Ugly Angel – The Purple Heart
by Gary Doss
September 14th, 1967, Phu Bai, RVN
We were up early that morning; the sun had yet to make its appearance for the day. I had already shaved, dressed and made my way down to the mess hall for some hot over cooked coffee, dry sausage and stale toast. I couldn’t stomach the powdered eggs that always looked so deceivingly delicious.
After breakfast, it was a trip to the armory to check out the M?60s and a couple of cans of belted 7.62 ammo. Then it was off to the flight line to prepare the old helicopter (YL ??) for another flight. While in the armory and on the flight line I kept bumping into my old buddy, Phil Jackson, who would be the gunner on one of the other planes in our flight. Although we had been buddies for a long time, you wouldn’t know it today. I guessed that he was still mad at me for the present I had picked up for him the other day at the Freedom Hill PX. I was sure we’d straighten it out before the day was over. With the guns in place and the pre?flight completed I was in the line shack sucking on another canteen cup of coffee.
The line shack was always a busy place, crews coming and going and signing off the aircraft yellow sheets and recording maintenance just completed. It was here that flight assignments were made according to the readiness of aircraft and crew. A crew chief and a gunner were teamed to each aircraft and were responsible for all maintenance. They had a through knowledge of the aircraft and whenever and wherever it flew, they went with it. I was the gunner on YL and Mike T?? was the crew chief
The night medevac crew had been busy during the darkness. Later they would have stories of their adventures to relate, now they only wanted the relief crew to take over so they could grab a few hours sleep before another mission.
The doors to the line shack would open and close as the pilots came in from mission briefings to select their aircraft from the ready list. After a review of the aircraft records, they would sign-in on the aircraft logbook. The names of the crew were already there.
We drew the CO, our new commanding officer, Lt. Col. Cline. Since the senior officer leads the troops, we’d be the first to touch down in any zone today. But today, I figured on another PX run and maybe a chance to visit the USO in Da Nang.
The first light was just enough to see the old bird sitting chocked behind the double stacked row of 55-gallon sand filled drums called the revetment. Her dark green skin had a low sheen, she was clean inside and out and ready to fly. The early light of dawn carried enough light to allow the pilots to do their visual walk around. Sometimes it was a kick the tires and light the fire look. Sometimes it was a more detailed inspection. It didn’t matter, the old bird was always in top shape, and the incessant leaks had been temporarily wiped away. Fuel tanks were topped off, fluids serviced, rotor head and tail rotor full of grease and wiped down. This was all routine maintenance after each flight. Our lives depended on this aircraft. If we were to go down, it would not be caused by a preventable mechanical problem.
The pilots climbed up to the cockpit, slid back the windows and crawled into their seats and buckled in. With a flip of the battery switch, the instrument panel came to life and the artificial horizon globe slowly rolled into the straight and level position. The checklist was read and the instruments were in order. All was ready. The APU was cranking out juice. On signal, the powerful starter was engaged and whined loudly as the massive pistons deep inside the engine began to rotate. The crew chief stood fire guard by the exhaust stack as the pilot turned the “Mag” switch to indicate both, closed the auxiliary air door on the huge air intake on the carburetor and pushed the throttle to idle detent. The engine belched smoke, caught hold, seemingly only on 5 or 6 cylinders, then all were engaged and she quickly reached idle speed.
“Looks good.” said Captain ??as he again scanned the instruments. “Okay, engage the rotor,” commanded the CO.
The rotor blades slowly began to move, then quickly picked up speed. The sudden application of torque to the rotor head always caused the helicopter to rock on the big rubber tires in front and strained to move the tail wheel that was locked into position. The droop stops flew out and we were ready. The bird rolled forward, taxiing into position for lift off.
Today’s mission was to insert recon teams into the jungle out near the Laotian border. This wasn’t a run to the PX. It was a free fire zone; either way. It was a three-bird flight and we would go in first!
Recon teams; I always thought they had to be a little crazy. No, a lot crazy. Think about it, a small force, ten to fifteen men, lightly armed, behind enemy lines, cold camps, and the nearest reinforcement miles away. No doubt about it, they were nuts. The only thing worse was a sniper team, silent, skillful and deadly. Of course, they never thought we were exceptionally intelligent either. We flew into zones behind a fuselage you could pierce with a ballpoint pen, always a target, no place to hide, sitting over the top of hundreds of gallons of 115/145 avgas. When we would drop them into no-mans land, we were both happy to part company.
The day hadn’t been all that bad. We’d completed three recon insertions and now were headed home to complete an early day. It was about that time that things began to unravel.
Pinned down and engaged in a vicious firefight were the remaining members of a reconnaissance team. The unthinkable had happened to them …discovery by a much larger and more heavily armed force. They were dead and dying. Those still alive were hoping and praying for salvation. They needed us to get their more seriously wounded out so they could get down to the business of fighting. Uncertain of their exact position, they began to describe landmarks they had passed along the trail. The colonel told them to pop smoke.
My mind was racing out of control. I could see the yellow smoke from the grenade lingering in the tree line just up ahead. The smoke served both to mark the zone and to display the wind direction. A lone Huey flitted around the sky like a mad bumblebee that had just lost its nest. He was our close air support. He was quick and agile and loaded hot. We were slow and clumsy in comparison. He headed directly for the ridgeline where the VC were entrenched. He let fly a barrage of 3.5 rockets and quad M60’s screaming red tracers and white-hot lead. The smell of war drifted into the crew compartment, as the smoke from spent rounds was carried in on the wind. We were next. We’d do the rescue, first positioning and then hovering above the treetops where the cable of life would slowly spin off the hoist drum to the ground, far below. Normally, we would spin off several feet of cable and hold it like a lasso to release in the zone. This would save precious seconds in the killing zone. Seconds held life and death between their ticks. “Is the basket ready?” the pilot called down. “The wingman has it, sir.” said Michael T, the crew chief. That changed the situation considerably. With me going down, we would start from scratch.
The roar of the engine in the compartment just in front of the crew chief was deafening. The Wasp radial 1820 throbbed as it transferred power to the rotor head as the pilot adjusted the power on the collective stick and manipulated the cyclic to position the aircraft into the approach. In a rolling sway the helicopter responded as the rotary wings slapped and popped at the air pushing it forever downward to sustain flight while dropping to tree top level. Without the basket and straps, I would have to be lowered down on the cable hooked to a waist belt with the horse collar harness for the wounded man. With it, I would assist him on the return trip into the safety of the helo’. “Gary, get ready, you’re going down. When you have the medevac in harness, signal. I’ll bring you up.” “Michael T “tried to sound upbeat but his eyes revealed the truth. We were all a team and we depended upon each other. Our lives were in each other’s hands.
Kneeling in front of the cargo door, I swallowed hard trying to keep my heart out of my throat. The treetops were a sea of green as they swirled below in the wash of the rotors as we lined up on our pickup. I had to fight off the panic that wanted to take control. I was yet to see my 21st birthday and now it looked like I wouldn’t. I knew that the odds of surviving the slow decent into the kill zone were next to nil! Then there was the little matter of the ride back up! That is, if the helo could even sustain flight under such an assault of enemy firepower.
Placing the waist belt around me and latching it onto the hoist cable, preparations were complete. It would be over seventy feet to the ground through a shower of enemy lead. I withdrew my .38 from its holster and quickly glanced at the cylinder, full. I took little comfort in knowing the six rounds were there and waiting to be unleashed. “This must be what the ducks in shooting galleries at a carnival feel like,” I thought momentarily. In my heart, I knew this would be it, the end. Good bye, Phu Bai! I may make it down, but I would never return, at least, not complete in body, mind, and spirit. Adrenaline was flowing through my veins like a river, the blood pressure on my inner ears was about to be released. On the ground, death had already paid several visits and I knew he was coming again …this time, for me!
“If you take fire, don’t return it, we have friendlies on the ground, they will respond” said the voice inside my helmet. Michael reached for his mike button and replied, “Roger that.”
“Oh God! How did I ever get into this mess?” I cried out within myself and looked earnestly into the overcast heavens. A battle between self and soul raged inside. I knew I had been trained for such a time as this. This was my job. But, I had never done it like this before. This was real! In my distress I cried out to God. “God, be with me, help me to do my job.” was my prayer. A peace immediately filled my body. We were headed in.
I had made my commitment; the inner battle was over. My cry had indeed been heard even though I did not deserve or was worthy of such a response. The fear was gone. It was replaced by a perfect peace, a peace that surpassed any understanding. I was ready for whatever lay ahead.
“What happened? I ask Mike. I had been oblivious to our change in heading, concentrating only on the task ahead.
“We lost radio contact with the guys on the ground. Had to wave off. YL-42 is going in our place.” Mike replied.
Unhooking the harness, and taking my seat behind my gun, I was not sure what exactly had happened. Below, on the stage of life, the play was being acted out as I sat watching from the balcony, out of harms way. I had heard, or read, or hoped, that “He always provides an exit when there is none.” I silently pondered this thing to my self.
As we formed up for a second approach, it suddenly occurred to me who the crew of YL-42 were. “Oh God no! Jackson is the gunner on that bird,” I felt my inner self-cry. Jackson and I had become close. He was my best friend, perhaps my only confidant. We had first met in school at Memphis. Now he’s going in where I was meant to go, only minutes earlier-and we still hadn’t straightened out the little problem we had had only a day or two earlier.
It had all started when I had lucked into a PX run to Freedom Hill. While strolling around, admiring all of the starched and polished rear echelon pogues, I had stumbled into the uniform shop at the big PX. I just happened to look down at the ribbon counter and there on display was the, “Purple Heart,” 15 cents. It was then that I thought of Jackson and what a joke I could pull on him. I bought it.
When we returned to Ky Ha late that evening, Phil was up on the transmission deck of YL-42, wiping, servicing, and greasing. Standing on the ground just beyond the cabin door and holding a brown paper bag, I began to tell Jackson of my days’ adventure. I told him of my trip to the PX and how I had found something that he would need and how I had purchased it for him. He graciously thanked me. So I pulled it from the sack and in one easy motion, tossed it to him.
He recognized it immediately. It barely touched his hands. He dropped it like a hot rock. He cut loose with a string of profanity that I didn’t think he was capable of. He told me in no uncertain terms that he would not need that and if anyone would it would be me! I didn’t know he was so superstitious. He also told me never to buy anything for him again. Suddenly, this event jumped into my mind’s eye and I wondered if this had been an omen.
Yankee Lima 42 was beginning the approach, into the wind and dropping low, using the trees for a shield. A few more yards and she’d be over the zone.
The Huey gun ship was making another pass, another two rockets flew out of their nest trailing smoke and heading for the ridge. The gun ship was right behind the smoke trails, with machine guns booming in a continuous burst. The pilot tugged on the collective and swung the cyclic left while depressing the tail rotor peddle. This resulted in a hard up and a half roll to the south. In another few seconds, he’d be in position to release another of his stingers.
“This is Yankee Lima 42, we’re taking heavy small arms fire.”
YL-42 was in position, over the zone. There it would stay, as if fixed in place, until the mission was complete, at all cost. There were Marines down there and they needed help. Orm Hall eased the basket out the door and it dropped rapidly until it reached the end of the slack reeled out by the crew chief to saving those few seconds of exposure in the killing zone. Then a slow and steady decent, a slight hesitation, then down again until the basket disappeared into the foliage.
The old UH-34D seemed to shudder as she came under assault. Puffs of smoke appeared from her sides and then quickly dispersed in the wash of the rotor blades. She was locked in position over the zone …the mission wasn’t complete.
“Both crewmen are hit,” the pilot screamed over his radio. The mission continued. My heart sank.
The basket appeared from the trees, and was on its way up and into the crew compartment. It was a somber flight to the hospital at Phu Bai. Our small, lightly armed rescue force was no match for the well-entrenched foe. The Recon team was still on the ground and still dying.
“This is Clip Clop medevac coming in with wounded.” ETA, twenty minutes. Notify Chu Lai to send the Phantoms with some HE and Hot Jelly. Muster the Sparrow Hawk team for a reactionary strike!” The flight leader barked over the radio to headquarters.
At the hospital, Yankee Lima 42 taxied to a halt. The medical team quickly removed the wounded. The stretchers were just entering the building as Yankee Lima 42 taxied across the field to the squadron area. With a quick motion of the pilot’s arm, two more crewmen climbed on board and took their positions in the now blood soaked belly of the bird. Then they too were off to ferry the much-needed re-enforcements into the battle.
The strike force was assembled and ready to board when we set down at the end of the field. Seven or eight Marines in combat dress were about all the old birds would lift on a hot day and it was always a hot day. We would need several choppers and a second trip to the LZ in order to insert enough troops to affect a rescue.
Soon we touched down in flights of four in the meadow at the base of the hill delivering our cargo of grunts. We couldn’t hear the scream of F4 Phantoms over the pounding drone of the 1820 recip and the popping whirl of our rotor blades but we knew they were there, as they made run after run. The grunts would sweep the area in a horseshoe formation going up the hill on both sides defending from a flank attack while other units would move through the woods and re?enforce the decimated recon team. This action would force the VC to retreat or spill out of the open end of the shoe and the jets would send them to visit their ancestors.
The sky was filling with smoke and debris, fueled by several fires that burned along the ridge. The first strike was precise, hammering the hilltop with bombs and incendiaries. The results were immediate. The VC tried to disengage and disappear in to the jungle but it was too late for many. The ambush was broken. The tables were turned. Abandoning their positions, the VC began to flee.
Finally, it was over, another long, hot day. I couldn’t help but think of Jackson as we flew steadily back to the strip at Phu Bai. After touchdown on the runway, we taxied to the fuel pits to top off the tanks. The old 34’s were always thirsty after a flight. You never knew what might transpire between the twilight of the evening and first light. Full tanks are always best.
Then, head to the revetments, chock the wheels, check the droop stops, and shut down the engine. As the pilots and the crew chief headed for the line shack to complete the yellow sheets, my work was only beginning. I had to check the fluids, grease and wipe the rotor head, change a zerk fitting, wipe the transmission deck, get more grease, squirt the tail rotor and check the engine. Add oil. Complete any repairs and sign off the yellow sheet. Wipe down the outer skin, store the gear in the belly, service the APU, collect the 60’s and head for the armory to clean and check in the guns.
Only then did I get over to view YL-42. Over 60 rounds had hit her. The blood shed in battle was obvious. The positions of the bullet holes and the placement of the crew left little hope that anyone could survive such an onslaught. Jackson and Hall were gone …or so it would appear. Both were indeed wounded. Orm Hall was hit in the right arm as he lowered the rescue basket but continued the mission using the fixed hoist switch just above the cabin door. At one point he glanced toward, Jackson. Phil had just had one round bounce off his back and one off his chest, one off his seat and one off his knife and, finally, a stinger ripped him under his arm. He wasn’t happy. Returning his gaze to the basket, Hall spotted a fresh hole where his head had been. The basket was retrieved and the mission finished.
Later that evening Phil Jackson and I were reunited along the flight line. He wasn’t mad at me anymore. I didn’t see Hall again until the Ugly Angel dedication of YL-37, 32 years later. I still have Jackson’s Purple Heart …he still doesn’t want it.
HMM 362 1967
Copyright UAMF, 2001