by Walker A. Jones 1970-71
There I was, an experienced Scout pilot by the summer of ‘70. I’d arrived in late April, drafted, naïve and immature. Other boys with peach fuzz, teenagers-on-typewriters, had sent me to the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment in Phouc Vinh. Charlie Troop. I wrote the folks of the luck I had, not having to fly the Hueys we’d watched shot down on TV, but rather a small observation chopper that “only needed one door gunner”. I was to just observe the war. I have the letter. What luck thereafter, to have survived all that war-watching. I was still an FNG back in early May, riding left seat with Frazier as we raced from Cambodia to discover Whiddon’s burning little one door gunner helicopter, adding to the continuing fiasco. After days like those, the hot Vietnam evenings were spent in the O-Club, or in a dim hootch-corner, relieving the stress with your own click of guys, witnessing the stories of the day and those before my time, mostly boasts. We were survivors, hiding the fear with bravado. Strung together, those nights could become a diary of the daily trudge of our uncommon young experiences then.
Out of the blue on a mid-summer day, the Navy sailed into Papa Vic on an S2 Seasprite. Affixed starboard was the anti-submarine Magnetic Anomaly Detector. They would fly lowish over a designated map grid, deploying their torpedo-like thingy on a cable to get a “reading”: an arms cache so highly desired by all. But us take-it-to-the-enemy alpha-warriors didn’t like this high-tech crap. Convoy cover was the worst, but this just seemed like another fruitless concoction, like people-sniffers and silent ghost planes aleady had this mission hanged by the cojones. It was a new “Golf Foxtrot”, the C Troop phonetic for wasted missions, the war-wide “Romeo Foxtrot”. We had elevated the rat to a goat, retaining the war-soldiers’ beloved Foxtrot.
Unwashed in aircraft technology, we were secretly intimidated by the Navy’s deep blue, shiny high-class ship, what with it’s electric trim tabs and refined fuel needs. And us unrefined Cav Guys of course derided the Navy’s presumed cush mission; air conditioning and steaks and what have you. No nightly rockets and mortars like us. I was the last Scout to have a turn on this unlikely interservice ride. My day began cruising in lazy circles with the high bird Cobra, bored from the get-go, listening to rock and roll on the ADF, not looking forward to a wasted day of no results. And no revenge. We were way east of our usual AO, low hills with heavy cover. The Air Force had clearly ignored this place. Sure enough, their MAD gear soon had a “reading” and they threw out a smoke. Notified, I tossed out my cigarette and started my drop-like-a-brick twirl to the deck below. Scudding over unexpectantly to the smoke plume, I was just starting to look down when I heard the shot. Didn’t feel anything though, which was good. I’d been hit by one shot before of course; going low and slow tempts them. But you get to know when a bullet hits your bird; usually there are more than one. My gunner-crew chief was new, though it was really his bird. But I was supposed to be the teacher that day, so that he didn’t hear the shot, or didn’t feel the hit, didn’t bother me.
But I must’ve had an odd feeling, as for some reason I decided to pull pitch and get some altitude, though I don’t remember why. I didn’t realize it then, but an experienced pilot can sense something wrong, without needing flashing lights and earbuzzing warnings. Or a dashboard blasted to hell. Very soon, the aircraft started to vibrate, and it got worse in a hurry. A white, acrid smoke quickly had me IFR in the cockpit, though a little left pedal swooshed it away in the doorless Loach. I radioed my High Bird desperately asking to confirm that I was on fire. I didn’t know if I should gain or lose altitude. My hootch mate, Wyatt, sitting front seat Cobra above us, answered in his Kentucky drawl that he ‘don’t see no smoke’. In my own Mississippi drawl I cussed out loud, as if anyone could hear in what was now a schrieking, metallical grinding racket of terror, vibrating the bonemarrow. I asked for a vector and steered west toward an unseen opening. Scouts weren’t given maps, as they tended to provide them to the enemy when they crashed.
Suddenly, with a loud “pop” and a violent jerk, the helicopter went from maelstrom to dead silent calm. What the Foxtrot, over? Then the console started flashing and sirens buzzed in my helmet. Something still was not well with my war-watching helicopter. I had never experienced this before, as usually we just were simply shot down, or quickly plopped into a nearby clearing, with no time for conscious decisions. But I was now a Cav Scout with altitude. Then I noticed the dreaded “splitting needles”. Holy crap. I vividly remember looking down at my left hand holding the collective, and the voice that told me: “push it down”. It was the voice of my flight instructor (thank you). I remember subconsciously trying to pick out a “soft looking spot” in the mosaic of green now rushing up too fast. I didn’t think to call “going down”, as I guess it was obvious; surely they saw my trailing smoke by now. Anyhow, I’d switched off my battery.
I was lucky. The little bird flared itself over the jungletop, pulled pitch at the tips of the trees like taught, and then we fell, straight down, flopping through greenery, tensing up for the impact that never seemed to come, like falling through a hole in the earth.
I never remembered hitting, but when I came to, I was staring at bamboo in my lap and liquid dripping off my face. JP4! And worst of all, the sounds of grenades that had been strung by the Gunner on a wire behind me, jerked loose by the violent impact, their crackly spuming telling me of the impending immolation in the spilled fuel and homemade bombs. “Get the Foxtrot out!” I remember screaming in panic. I lept out the door but was foolishly restrained by my harness. Unhooking, I dived again only to splat myself headfirst into a foot-deep streambed under the jungle canopy that enclosed us. Creekwater, again on my face, and hissing smoke grenades behind me, forming rainbows of colors in the slanting slits of sunlight piercing the crashdust.
We’d plummeted 150 feet, bobbling down a bamboo funnel through a deep jungle ravine, the OH-6A incredibly landing “on its feet” smack in the middle of a hidden streambed. The jungle “just swallered ya’ll up” Wyatt later said. We’d somehow missed the big trees that cause the usual Loach conflagration. As the Hughes Tool Company had promised, the rotors folded up, the tail boom broke away, the skids splayed out on final impact, and my seat had collapsed as advertised. Still don’t know how the hell we’d fallen all that way without flipping over. Maybe we had. And thank you Mr. Hughes and Co. for the overrunning clutch that allowed us to become a free-spinning metal parachute after the transmission seized. At least as far as the treetops.
Out of the bird now and glancing around, scared, I saw that we were in some sort of dark tunnel coursing through the dense jungle, formed by the creek, the steep sides thickly lined with huge bamboo stalks and covered over at the top by the arms of giant trees. I had my Gunner take his M-60 and slosh up to the nearest bend, and the Observer to go the other way. I figured the gooks would have to use the creek as a highway if they were to get to us — a fear that I’d previously decided would never happen. I tried my 2-way emergency hand-held to no avail as the sweet noise of unseen helicopters were swarming somewhere above us, shooting rockets and stuff that killed any attempt to send or receive. The old joke that Scouts marked their position by their burning Loach didn’t hold water here, and I was glad. I weakly shot some pen flares that my shaking fingers had extracted from my survival vest, but they couldn’t penetrate the foliage above. But I had my .38 cal., which I swung menacingly at the shadows. Yee ha. I then proceeded to shoot up the place with a half clip of 35mm.
Finally realizing we’d crashed a good ways from One-Shot-Charlie and his comrades, and that the Blues could never get to us this deep, I called my guys back and told them to start trying to make it up the steep ravine through the dense dark bamboo so we could show that we were alive and be rescued. Just as we started to pick our way up, a surreal voice from heaven came down to us: “Stop! Stay where you are! We will get you out!” Totally freaked, I looked up to see a helicopter’s bottom, rotor wash parting the vegetation high above us. It was the Foxtrot Seasprite! It must have a damned electronic megaphone. Sumbitch! Holy Moly! It took me some time to grasp what was happening.
Well, they let down their rescue hoist cable, and one by one we were reeled up like wet puppies to the high-tech mothership, each of us soaked with creekwater, sweat and piss.
In the Charlie Troop club that night I was subjected to the expected barbs of fellow competitors — I mean Scout pilots. “Was it a ‘prang’ or a ‘ditch’?” demanded Chuck Frazier, self-appointed judge and jury. I was feeling terribly guilty, and they meant to preserve it. I still didn’t know why we’d gone down. But that was the way we learned to forget. That we escaped unscathed meant torment. A death or serious wound would have provided deference for the rest of the tour. So I was lucky to be taking the crap. The tail rotor chain bracelet was my most cherished award, wherever it is now.
I couldn’t friggin move my sore body for a couple of days. But someone kept coming by my hootch to plead with me to write the Navy pilots up for hero medals. I blew a fuse. Told them to Foxtrot off. We went out every day knowing that our thankless mission might get us killed. At night, we sat in the club, never breaching the juju talk of people we’d lost. Why should the Golf Foxtrot Navy guys get medals? We don’t need no medals! We did this every damned day. Screw them and the hoddy-toddy helicopter they sailed in on.
Well, those fun times are long ago; we all went on to different lives, burying those days that now seem like a dream. But the club nights could never erase the memories of Whiddon, McKiddy and Skaggs in my first May, much less all the ones that followed. VHPA records told me the names of my crewmembers that summer day. But Wilkes is dead and I can’t find Mitchell. I have tried my best to locate some history about that Army-Navy game that put us in a water-plunge in the center of red-dusty III Corps. I guess Operation Barnacle had some success. I hope that someone else can find those Navy folks; they should get their medals. I’ll pin them on myself. Besides, I find that being back again in the presence of the guys and family from those days brings an unexpected, unspoken comfort. That may be the real legacy we all took home from that dance.
Walker A. Jones