Agent Orange

Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
Blackhawk 54



As a new Aircraft Commander with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company some of the jobs assigned to me were somewhat less than desirable, in fact they were down right lousy.  I wish I had known then the full ramifications of some of these missions, it was not life and death it was even more convoluted.

Agent Orange

"Coe, you and Hartman are flying the Air Force tomorrow, meet them at the base of the Tay Ninh tower at 0700," the deep calm voice of my platoon leader Captain Billie Presson giving out the missions for the next day to the assembled lift platoon.   "The Air Force is sending over one of their specialists to see how effective the herbicide spraying is in the triple canopy jungle North of here. Remember you two, low and slow is deadly.  Show him what he wants but watch yourselves out there." Captain Presson was handing out the rest of the ash and trash missions, I was glad to not be going on a combat assault tomorrow.  0700 takeoff, I would get some extra sleep in the morning something that had been in short supply around the company for the last few weeks.

Warrant Officer Steven Hartman was my favorite peter pilot, he knew the Area of Operation or AO like the back of his hand and could fly like he was born in a helicopter.  We discussed the upcoming mission on our way back to my tent to listen to a new Gabor Zaebo tape my brother had sent me for my reel to reel tape player.  Steve had flown this mission before and with a wave of his hand pronounced tomorrows mission "a piece of cake."

The Air Force had converted several C-123's into spray planes and would fly in four ship formations low level over the jungle pumping out Agent Orange mixed with something to make it stick to vegetation.  The C-123's would form up in a stagger wing formation and spray huge amounts of chemical on the jungle, leaving dark brown stripes with smaller green stripes where they had not sprayed, giving the appearance of something huge painting the forest brown with broad strokes and missing a few spots.

Steve and I walked from operations to the revetment containing our helicopter and I noticed there was a crew spraying diesel fuel mixed with some sort of herbicide around all the open areas.  The combination of heavy rain and serious sunshine was the perfect environment for vegetative growth, and the army did not mow, they sprayed.  The smell coming from the newly sprayed ground made the tip of my tongue numb.

When we got to the helicopter my Crew Chief was wiping down the aircraft complaining about the over spray from the spray crew getting all over the aircraft, it was hard enough to keep it clean with all the dust.  It was just what he did not need, more work.

After a preflight we untied the UH-1D, and at 0655 we called the tower to ask for permission to hover over and pick up our passengers at the small ramp at the base of the tower.

The Air Force Lieutenant was easy to spot in this land of Army fatigues and we hovered up next to him and set down.

Our Air Force Officer had a map sectioned off in grids, he pointed at the area he wanted to look at and ask if it would be possible to make some low level passes so he could get an up close and personal look.  Low level, Steve and I looked at each other and smiled, we loved low level. Down in the trees going like a bat out of hell, Steve was right, this mission was a piece of cake.

The Air Force Officer plugged in his head set as we lifted off of Tay Ninh and ask if we would call Paris Radar and ask were his spray planes were.

I keyed my mike, "Paris Radar Blackhawk 54 over" and got the booming voice back "good morning Blackhawk 54 this is Paris Radar.  " "Ah, Paris we have a spray mission this morning and our passenger is looking for his flight of C-123's over.   " "Blackhawk 54 your flight of four C-123's has departed Bien Hoa at 07 over."  I looked back at the Lieutenant and he gave me thumbs up and then asks me to tune to an UHF frequency to try and contact the newly departed flight. "Ranch Hand 16, Blackhawk 54 over."  The exquisite clear side tone of the
Air Force radios came back immediately with the very clear voice of the pilot.  I put the Air Force El Tee on the radio and they had a little chat about how long it would take to get to our location.  He then turned to me and asks how long it
would take to get to the road marking the center of the spray area he had outlined earlier.   I pointed out the windscreen at the crack in the jungle marking were the road was running under the trees.  You could just make out the road under the canopy. "I would like to look at that area before and after spraying, would you please take me on a low level pass of that road before the spray planes get here?"

Over went the nose and we started down like a free falling safe.  There was just enough room between the trees to get the rotor disk between and Steve and I blasted down the road going North like a rocket, popping up to miss errant branches, and sometimes going sideways to get through tight areas.  It was a white-knuckle ride for the El Tee, I don't know how much he saw, he was so busy holding on.

After flying several miles of the road the El Tee got on the radio to his spray planes and gave them their final instructions. 

What a magnificent sight, four C-123's in stagger wing right making a low level pass down the road, first on one side, then on the other.  The spray swirling in the trees, the rotor from the wing tips making small horizontal tornadoes out of the white spray and then disappearing into the trees.

We made one more low level pass down the road.  Everything was wet and the spray hung in the air like a fine mist in the morning.  The smell was overpowering. At first I was nauseated, then my stomach cramps  up, my eyes were watering and my tongue went completely numb.  I could not take the chemical exposure and after only a short time low level I cyclic climbed out of the mist up into the cooler cleaner air that my whole system was craving.

The C-123's went back to Bien Hoa for another load and we refueled.  The process of spraying the jungle went on all day, and late in the afternoon I left the El Tee at the base of the Tay Ninh tower and one of the C-123's landed and picked him up.

I scrubbed and scrubbed in the freezing cold shower but no matter how hard I tried I could not get the smell of the agent orange off of my body.  I must have gotten completely saturated today.

I had not given the spray mission a second thought until Major Bauman uncovered a map of the up coming combat assault, and there was the road running north that had just been sprayed, the site of our new Landing Zone. We picked up our 25th Infantry troops in Cu Chi and formed up in the air stagger wing right for the trip north.

It was a long trip to the landing zone.  Major Bauman came on the radio as the brown stripes in the jungle started to get larger and larger, "Blackhawks, visors down, harness locked, suppression both sides going in, lets form up in trail." With that radio transmission Bauman started the free fall decent into the landing zone.

I was busy trying to not run over the chalk ahead of me and keep my spacing for the landing.  As we came in over the skeletons of the huge trees that just a few days earlier had been so lush and green that the road was just visible.  Now it looked as if everything was dead and lifeless. The dust mingled with the fallen leaves wiped out our visibility as we neared the ground.  My crew chief and gunner were working out with their M-60's and the Grunts were ready for a fight.  I could not see a thing in front of me as we came to a hover momentarily and then to the ground. The Grunts had jumped out when we were still in the air rocking the ship from side to side.  Now they were squatted down pointing out ready to charge the skeleton tree line.

It was almost surrealistic with the red dust and brown leaves in the rotor wash of twenty helicopters.  The probing line of tracers coming from each of the helicopter gunners cutting through the dust and ricocheting at every angle imaginable.  Instead of a usual green tree line we were looking at trunks and branches.  Not a green leaf anywhere on anything.

We did all the shooting going in and coming out.  The Viet Cong did not fire a shot at us. The Rat Pack
Gun ships had seen no movement and held their fire.  The Grunts moved through the skeleton forest finding abandoned Viet Cong bunkers and living quarters for hundreds of men, deserted after losing the protective cover of the green leaves.

The Grunts blew the fortifications and living quarters and by early afternoon we were called in for the pick up.

The pickup went off without a hitch, not even one shot fired in anger.  It was if the Viet Cong did not want the denuded forest and was not willing to fight for it.

The trip back to Tay Ninh was punctuated with Bauman chewing ass for sloppy formation flying and the 360 overhead with smoke that was beautiful to behold and exhilarating to fly.

That night over cards, the topic was the spraying of the forest to knock off all the leaves, one of the pilots wanted to pave the entire country and put a traffic signal on Nuhi Ba Dinh.  We all felt it was safer to be able to see clear to the ground and not give the Viet Cong a place to hide from our formidable gun ships.

Thirty years later in an Agent Orange clinic in San Francisco, I would learn that the birth defects on two of my four of my sons were caused by my Agent Orange exposure in Viet Nam.  Up until that time I had thought the exposure was harmless.  Just like the Army had repeatedly told us.

Wayne R. "Crash" Coe  "Blackhawk 54"
187th Assault Helicopter Company 67-8


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