The Gunner’s Lot
by A. M. Leahy
During my brief experiences as port .30 cal. machine gunner in VMO-2’s UH-1Es, HMM-363’s UH-34s and starboard 50 cal. machine gunner in HMM-161’s CH-46s, several thoughts occurred to me during my 1967 and 1968 assignments to III MAF as a combat artist serving in I Corps.
As a Marine buck sergeant helicopter crew chief, naval aviator and Marine helicopter pilot prior to Vietnam, I served as a Major during the Vietnam war, the executive officer for the Marine Corps’ Combat Art program. After arriving in Vietnam, I went out with my M-14 to join ground Marines in Combined Action Program (CAP) units, then to Dong Ha, Khe Sanh and then on to Operation Medina, where I joined up with Charlie Co., 1/1, in the Hai Lang Forest, SSW of Quang Tri.
Afterwards, I joined up with several helicopter and fixed wing outfits. So as not to take up precious weight aboard a helicopter in order to accomplish my combat art duties, I decided to man a machine gun, thereby getting a really meaningful look at helicopter operations. What I didn’t realize was that my good old Marine Corps helo aircrew and pilot buddies (?) would often put me in the lead aircraft on several missions and operations!
I quickly learned that one doesn’t just sit there and pull a trigger. There was much more to the “gunner’s lot,” in actuality. You MUST become an integral part of that helicopter crew, or the whole thing doesn’t work. As a Huey gunner, I was responsible for twin fixed M-60s on the port side, and a whole 19 pod of 2.75 rockets, in addition to the flex M-60 on a swivel mount. Next to my feet were 250 round boxes of ammo, an M-79 grenade launcher and its peculiar ammo in addition to my trusted M-14.
My first firing mission during fall,1967, was in a VMO-2 gunship escorting medevac UH-34s. With my old friend, TSgt Alford as crew chief and starboard gunner, watching over me like a hawk, I passed my first test well, as a helo machine gunner. Shortly afterward, VMO-2 was assigned to Operation Essex, in Antenna Valley, SW of Da Nang. I flew in the lead UH-1E, which was loaded with Willy Peter 2.75 rockets to mark targets in a ville for the A-4s and F-4s to bomb and strafe.
Having the rockets leaving the pods right near my left knee was a thrill I’ll never forget. Especially when the hot caps, which burned off the rear of the rockets flew all over my nomex flight suit, burning neat little holes in it, and into the flesh of my legs as well! The next thing that happened startled me. I looked down at the 19 rocket pod, still more than half full. Four or five of the white colored rockets were creeping forward out of their tubes! I told the crew chief of my dilemma. He said: “Kick ’em back where they belong!” I told him I couldn’t reach them without taking off my safety belt and sitting on the stoop. He said: “So what? Do what you have to do!” So I hung half out in space with one foot on the skid and I kicked the offending rockets back where they belonged. I was scared as hell.
Since I cleaned my own gun after firing missions, one evening I was tightening my gas cylinder lock screw with a combination wrench which had a screwdriver feature on the box end. The wrench slipped and my hand slid along the handle. The screw driver appendage wiped out the webbing between my right thumb and forefinger, resulting in my getting six stitches at sickbay. To this day, whenever anyone asks me about the resulting scar, I tell them: “Vietnam, I’d rather not talk about it.”
I found out on another mission, how just about anything goes wrong at the worst possible time. We were returning to MMAF after completing a mission, when the gunship was diverted to the Hai Van pass. A truck convoy had been ambushed transiting the Pass and stalled, taking fire from up on the west slope. There was only one little area of trees up the slope and the enemy had to be using it for concealment. Our gunship commenced a shallow banked turn to the left in order to line up the machine guns and rockets for the attack.
While firing my M-60 until the UH-1E could line itself up to fire its other fixed machine guns and rockets, suddenly, my swivel gun jammed. But even worse, some of the brass and links had fallen into the chutes which fed the fixed machine guns! They jammed as well. No machine guns on the port side, as we were turning to port to line up the helo! I did the only thing I could, at the time. I grabbed my M-14; put the selector on full automatic and blasted away until the rockets left the pods!
CH-46s were standing down because of tail structure problems during fall, 1967. I decided to join up with HMM-363’s Red Lions as Operation Essex was still in full swing, and leading into the follow on Operation Foster. The guys in VMO-2 had given me a souvenir custom-made 100 round ammo box as a remembrance of my short time with their squadron. I didn’t realize why they gave me that gift when they heard I was headed for HMM-363’s UH-34s. I found out soon enough, however. The port gunner leans out of a small portal with his M-60. If you used a standard 250 round ammo box on your M-60, your field of fire was severely constricted because the big box would bump into the sides of the enclosure! When I opted to use the 100 round box, I had enormously more flexibility, however, it doesn’t take long to shoot up 100 rounds. It’s a bitch to have to reach down for another box of ammo in the middle of a recon insertion or extract!
During the last part of Operation Essex, we made numerous troop insertions with plenty of firing. We also took WIAs back to a field hospital, on many occasions. As a fully functioning crew member of a UH-34, I had to load KIAs into our chopper for the doleful trip back to the Da Nang air base. It was one of the most moving situations in my life, when we loaded several full body bags into our helo. We were so loaded, that I had the upper part of a body bag in my lap, as I manned my M-60, upon takeoff. I could feel the trooper’s head and upper torso, on my lap, still warm.
On Operation Foster, things in LtCol Frankie Allgood’s lead helicopter bordered on the line between very busy to downright frantic! For all I know, I might have shot through my own rotor arc at one point! ( Actually I did. The mechs back at MMAF recorded the bullet holes in the main rotor blades as “combat damage”). What’s it like to be an effective gunner, firing away on every troop insertion along the Song Thu Bon? You get a good idea after you’ve cut your knees, kneeling in the brass and links littering the floor of the helicopter.
As we were beginning to turn a 180 to land another load of troops, we took several rounds. One of the rounds hit our hydraulic lines, knocking out the control servos. Several other bullets (along with mine) hit our rotor blades; another round hit my gun enclosure. A small piece of the bullet or shrapnel hit me in the neck but didn’t penetrate, as the bullet buried itself in the ceiling near the main transmission.
Our UH-34 wobbled down to a forced landing somewhat away from the LZ. The crew chief checked the aircraft over quickly for evidence of fire. There was none. He then presented me with the bullet which had struck just a few inches from my head. He had dug it out of the ceiling. I sat down in my gunner’s seat to reflect on what had just happened. I realized that there was brass and links ALL OVER the floor of the cabin. I then realized that my butt was extremely uncomfortable. I got up and looked at the two pieces of heavy metal gunner’s armor on my seat, which I put there to protect my ass. A gunner’s thought of getting shot in the butt is real and caused me much concern!
HMM-363 drew the short straw to extract a recon team along a ridge in Elephant Valley, one afternoon. Major Gene Salter, HMM-363 Operations Officer, led the flight. I was his port gunner. Low clouds obscured the ridges which precluded any chance for fixed-wing cover. After a few firing passes in the area, we flew back to An Hoa to refuel and re-arm. While the crewchief put gasoline into the tanks, I trotted over to a mini-ammo dump at the other side of the matting, and told the NCO I needed some cans of 7.62 ammo. He said he couldn’t issue cans in broken lots, but only in crates, so I was out of luck. After I put on my dungaree cap, I informed him I’d take a crate of ammo since that was the case, which he was only too happy to provide a crate. I put it up on my shoulder, and began to hump it back to my helo. I quickly realized that it was no little chore to carry that ammo at a trot, along with my heavy body armor. I was breathless by the time I got back to the ship. I crawled into the cabin and lay on the floor exhausted as Maj Salter bolted into the air and headed back to Elephant Valley.
The situation where the pickup point was located was grim. Each time we approached the landing point, there was a tremendous volume of fire from up on the slope. Salter uttered a few of his well known expletives and headed right back into that shit sandwich, resolutely determined to get the guys out.
Salter lurched onto the site and put the starboard main landing gear on a knoll, hovering at altitude. I sensed the blades beginning to cone as he lost engine and rotor rpm during the frantic effort to get the guys on board. We were taking a breath-taking volume of fire. I had just ripped my 100 round ammo box off, and was replacing it with a 250 rounder when Salter lurched off the knoll and dove down the side of the ridge, desperately trying to pick up some airspeed and regain some “turns.” The other UH-34 and the Huey gun in our flight were making runs parallel to the ridge in a desperate attempt to provide covering rocket runs and machine gun fire which was successful. The recon troopers were really happy campers to have checked out of that situation.
During my second extended assignment to Vietnam in June of 1968, I flew with VMO-2’s OV-10As SW of Da Nang. Afterwards, I participated in an operation on the ground just south of the Da Nang airfield during August. VC infantry and sappers were attempting to cross a river at the Cam Le bridge and infiltrate the airfield. Grunting with an M-14 is another story!
The weather was absolutely “blue bird” upon my arrival at PROVMAG-39, during September of 1968, By then, the CH-46s had re-proven themselves as the primary transport workhorses for the HMM squadrons, in-country. An old friend from my pilot days, LtCol “Tiny” Niesen, welcomed me aboard HMM-161, and ushered me into Hut #1 for my stay. I brought along a half gallon of Jack Daniels with me, to try to trade it off for a souvenir SKS communist rifle. When I produced the bourbon in Hut #1 for trade, the pilots said with one voice: “We don’t have any SKS. Where do you think you’re going with the Jack Daniels?” Well, so much for my big trading plans. (A month later, back at Da Nang, a beautiful SKS was delivered by my Quang Tri buddies to my quarters. Reputedly, it belonged to the top Quang Tri VC province chief Bui Thu who was ambushed by an ARVN patrol).
Maj Jim Bolton and Lt Bob Odom took me out on a flight to check me out on firing the potent .50 cal. aircraft machine gun. We made a few passes near the east base of a distinctive mountain called “Razorback,” which was a little east of the Rockpile, out along Rte 9. I quickly learned how to direct the fire of a mix of special purpose .50 cal. rounds. It included tracers, ball, incendiary and armor-piercing rounds. In forward flight, perpendicular to the aircraft’s heading, if the starboard gunner trailed the target by aiming 6 inches behind it, the arcing rounds would virtually always find their mark. Incidental to checking me out on the .50, we had to complete an admin mission by picking up some troops at the base of the Rockpile. We landed with our other flight aircraft, piloted by Capt Buck Herron and Lt John Glenn. We sat there uncomfortably in the LZ, and waited almost too long for the troops to board the helos.
KER-WUMP- – -KER-WUMP! We were under mortar attack! One of the rounds landed between our 46 and the one behind us, spraying our craft with shrapnel. Maj Bolton immediately took off, engines and transmissions screaming as we clawed our way out of the area. Looking to my left, I saw that our crew chief, Cpl Beasley was hit in the upper left arm and was bleeding profusely. The port gunner, Cpl Aardema frantically tried to staunch the blood flow, with little success, because Beasley was trying to stand up and inspect the aircraft for serious damage. At that point, I pulled rank on Beasley and ordered him to stay put. I would check the aircraft over myself, for damage and leaks. Having done that, I lay down on the rear cargo ramp for the rest of the flight home, observing the engine and rear transmission areas the whole time.
On another occasion, Maj Bolton came up to me in the HMM-161 operations shack early one evening and told me that he had to swap an aircraft with another out in the field somewhere near Camp Carroll. It seems that the Search and Rescue helicopter had made an approach for landing, and someone in a tank with a big searchlight over the main gun, had turned on the searchlight to “aid” the pilot in his approach to landing. What he did was to BLIND the pilot who as a result made a hard landing; slightly damaging the SAR helo. Bolton said that if I went along, I could enjoy a breathtaking view of Dong Ha at night. Like a fool, I picked up my .50 and climbed aboard the waiting CH-46.
As we approached the Camp Carroll area, a call for an emergency medevac came in, from the infamous Mutter’s Ridge area west of the Rockpile. We were the only helo airborne and in the area, so we were “it.” We barreled westward to Mutter’s with a stripped CH-46, which had only a “hoss collar” aboard, for any rescue purposes. When we arrived in the Mutter’s Ridge area, the mountainous hills looked like a monstrous, roiled sea, frozen in place. A C-130 circled far overhead, but positioned behind us, dropping high powered flares, to illuminate the rescue area.
Bolton hovered over some dense canopy trees in a half hour long drama, trying to successfully bring up a few emergency cases, using only the hoss collar. Our two crewmen worked feverishly over the hell-hole, desperately trying to get the injured Marines aboard. I felt helpless, because I couldn’t leave my gun for an instant to aid them. We were definitely in perilous country, and if I saw one flash of gunfire, it was my duty to return it instantly to keep us from sustaining serious damage. To complicate matters, the damned green running light under my gun barrel made my gun barrel look like a phosphorescent green popsicle, almost blinding me as it affected my night vision. Then it happened.
As one of the crew went down on the hoss collar to bring up the injured men, the flares from the C-130 died. What Maj Bolton used for a horizon to steady the hover of the CH-46 completely escapes me to this day. He maintained a successful hover in the pitch darkness until the medevacs were brought successfully aboard by the undaunted crewmen. It was the “hairiest’ flight of my life. What made it so frustrating perhaps, was that I was not at the controls, but hovering over my .50 cal., which was equally as intense a feeling. On our way back to an aid station, I could see one of the crewmen stripping down to his skivvies in order to wrap his flight suit around one of the chilled medevac cases.
As LtCol Niesen remarked upon our return to the flight line that evening, as I wearily toted my .50 back to the armory: “No one said it was going to be easy!”