Yankee Papa Extract – A Grunt’s Perspective
by Mick Carey
I remember now a cold, foggy morning northwest of Khe Sanh. I was the team leader of a five man recon insert. We were to penetrate north and west to get intel on suspected improvements to Ho Chi Minh trail that would allow heavy truck and tracked vehicle traffic. We were also supposed to check on some new seismograph detectors that were not sending back signals. Part of the patrol orders were to avoid contact, although G-2 (Intelligence section) advised us that they did not have any indication of any enemy troops in any strength in the area. The insert went smoothly on the first day.
Just about sunset we walked right up to the perimeter of an NVA regimental size base camp, complete with field hospital and more NVA troopers than I had ever imagined could be in one place. How we got so close without detection remains a mystery to me to this day…pure dumb luck. We knew we had hit on something VERY big and I made the decision to mark the coordinates on my map and stay put, in place, until near dawn, then bug back out to our extract LZ as fast as we could. Getting away from the camp was a lot different than getting in… the bad guys weren’t just sitting around sunning themselves; they had very aggressive patrol activity going on. We shot a straight azimuth for the extract LZ and “dee dee’d” outta there!
Four of my people were carrying M-14s with about twelve mags each and I was toting a shotgun. We were in NO position to slug it out, even briefly, with the number of NVA troops in the area. We made contact almost immediately on our way back; it was virtually unavoidable. We were moving as fast and as quietly as we could, but they were like hornets with their nest stirred up. Thinking back, it is easy for me to understand just how concerned they were that anyone who saw what we saw not be able to call it in. They were all over us and a running fire fight commenced. My radio operator got on the emergency freq and broke radio silence and started yelling for any air in the vicinity. A flight of Army “slicks” with Cobra escorts advised us that they were about 30 clicks to our south, but that they could not come down to the deck because of the fog. We kept yelling on the radio about the shit that we were in, running our butts off, trying to avoid running smack into the NVA and at the same time I was trying to get the camp coordinates out over the air in case we didn’t make it to the LZ. The NVA were so close we could hear them shouting orders. They were busting beau coup caps in our general direction and finally, the inevitable happened … we adjusted our direction southwest and ran right into about a platoon size NVA patrol.
I think they might have been more surprised than we were because we literally ran right through them with everybody on full auto. Three of my people took hits but kept going. My RTO took a grazing hit across his forehead that literally removed both of his eyebrows and he was blinded. Two of us took him by the arms and we kept going. I started yelling into the headset … can’t even remember anything I was saying, but someone up there heard me.
I heard a very southern-accented voice telling me to try for the LZ, that they would try to get into it too. I didn’t even ask who they were … didn’t give a shit, either! Whoever he was, he was American, and I needed some more Americans around me real bad!
We broke through the triple canopy and there was a ridge line about 50 meters directly in front of us. We were doing everything we could to get to the ridge, when out of the fog I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life. It was a big, green, ugly, beautiful UH-34 with the word MARINES on it, coming into a hover with his right wheel just touching the ridge line. Another ’34 was sweeping to our immediate rear and the door gunner was burning out a barrel with continuous M-60 machine gun fire.
We pushed everyone on board and I was last to get on. When I turned to dump my remaining five rounds, I saw about 50 NVA hell-bent for us and that chopper. Just a solid line of muzzle flashes. I dove in the door just as the pilot literally dropped the bird off the ridge to his left to get out of their kill zone as fast as possible. It felt like a roller coaster nightmare, but it sure felt good!! The door gunner took a grazing neck wound and somehow broke his arm. That `ol ’34 had a bunch of holes in it and made a lot of very un-helicopter noises all the way back. I gave the copilot my marked up map and he was calling in arty and air before we even got half way home.
I never had the chance to meet or thank that crew. Five grunts owe them their lives, and we may never know how many lives were saved by hitting that area with arty and air before the Ninth Marines moved in on the ground. I seem to recall that part of his call sign was “Yankee Papa”. I found out later that the flight of two that came in for us were on a routine re-supply when they copied our transmission to the Army but couldn’t reach us on the radio. They dumped their loads and came in for us. The pilot didn’t even see the ridge until the door gunner told him he was about 50 feet from it!! AND, they had no gun escorts!!
I still get very emotional when I think about the courage those Marine aircrews displayed on that cold, foggy day so long ago. I cry to myself when I think about the love of one Marine for another and the sacrifice those men were willing to make for five very scared, about to die grunts. I can’t really find the words to express how I truly feel about those men that day. That kind of stuff only happens to Marines!! It was too foggy for the Army guys and that was it for us…we would have died. DAMN! But those insane, brave, Marine “airdales” came right into the shit and hauled us out … Thank you from the bottom of my heart! I keep remembering and I keep crying, but that’s okay, because it is a grateful, cleansing crying. We were restricted and cheated … NEVER DEFEATED!