Michelin Rubber Plantation
Michelin rubber plantation, close to Nui Ba Dinh
The Blackhawks were the best Assault Helicopter Company in South Vietnam, we flew hard every day, we flew 12 to 18 hour days, week after week, month after month. I don't know how the maintenance men kept the helicopters in the air with as little time as we gave them to work on them. Every man was your brother, we had a common goal, to survive, and it took everyone working together to do it. When it is your life on the line, it is very easy to focus.
This is a story about one combat assault, one day, in the dry season of 1967.
Are you awake, asks the orderly, I had heard him lift the tent flap, and knew he was coming. 0415, this is not morning, this is definitely night time. I swing my legs over the cot pull on my fatigues lace up my boots and try and wake up WO John Jordan. If I can get him started he will be just fine. I haul John to his feet, his big brown eyes look at me like in a trance, he blinks hard and shakes me off. John is started. I could lay down right now and sleep for a couple of days.
I find my chicken board and flack vest along with all the rest of the survival gear I fly with these days, the first time I was shot down with Capt. Rock Lungarella I had to borrow a gun to shoot at the VC coming out of the treeline. Never again, I have two automatic weapons and a grenade launcher, to go with my pistols and flair guns all strapped on. I am a shuffling arsenal.
I stick my head in the mess haul, but just the smell knocks me out of the door. Coffee, cigarettes, and body odor, mixed with pancakes and brown goo, under a bare light bulb in a tent, I could not take it.
Operations, is a tent by maintenance, I was at the briefing last night, I don't expect any new news, but, as usual they have some for me. I am flying trail, I hate to fly trail, the last helicopter in the flight, but they make up for it by giving me my favorite flying buddy to fly with, WO Stephen Hartman. The give and take of daily life. I sign for the code book and the survival radio and start the treck for my helicopter in the dark.
As I pass the revetments I can see the men getting the helicopters ready to go, mounting the M-60 machine guns, getting the smoke grenades hung and ready, and the endless maintenance.
My revetment looks like all the rest, but it hides our stash of parts and food, it is my shop in Tay Ninh.
My crew has been at work for several hours by now, and the helicopter looks great. I climb all over it and see for my self how she looks. I am impressed, these guys fly all day exposing them selves to the furry of combat and then work all night on the helicopter, I don't know how they do it, but they do every day.
SP4 Melvin Jansen, was my crew chief, fearless, and a great mechanic the perfect combo for combat. I never had to tell him where to shoot, he had eyes like an eagle and the reaction time of a top fuel driver. My gunner was SP4 James Holston, he wore what they called a monkey strap, and he would lean out in the slip stream and shoot under the helicopter, to cover us in the turns. My gunner could possibly be the best shot in the known world, and he had been a grunt for a long time before getting on a helicopter crew, bad to the bone, at home in the air or on the ground, I loved him.
We were all strapped in the helicopter and the Command and Control gives the signal to start engines and you could hear the whine of the starters and the roar of the turbine engines coming to life, and the smell, unburned jet fuel mixed with the exhaust coming from thirty helicopters at once is unforgettable.
The 187th Assault Helicopter Company hovers out and departs to the South, and form up in the air. I go last, I'm trail, the most dust and the most turbulence, I call the Commanding Officer Maj. Bauman on the company frequency, "Blackhawk six, trail" Blackhawk six growls back "trail this is six" I key my mike "Blackhawk flight off Tay Ninh 0530" Blackhawk six clicks his mike twice to indicate he understood my message. The Blackhawks are climbing out in the cool morning air, stagger wing right.
What an awesome sight, the slicks in tight formations, and the gunships prowling out in front, there is nothing like the view from trail.
Maj. Bauman is already on the ground at the pick up zone, we land in one long snake of a formation called trail, I call the flight down, and the gunships streak down the sides of the pickup zone and escort the C&C ship for his first look at the landing zone.
Just as the artillery lifts, Bauman at altitude, WO Bill Britt and his Rat Pack gunship buddies check out the landing zone, up close and personal. Things look quiet, and Bauman calls the slicks off the pickup zone for our morning insertion of troops. Just for good measure, Blackhawk Six pounds the landing zone with artillery one more time.
We can see the last of the artillery rounds hitting the landing zone from the flight. Helicopters with legs hanging out of them, brisling with guns and scared faces in a tight formation, we have no idea what will happen next. The Rat Pack comes in behind the last artillery round, prepping the tree line with miniguns and rockets. If Charlie is there, he is at least deaf.
We are on short final no tracers coming up, Maj. Bauman calls for suppression on the right side and all the M-60's open up at once. The gunships are shooting in front and along one side, a totally awesome display of accuracy and firepower, I call the flight down in the landing zone. The grunts leave in one big jump, and the helicopter swings from side to side two feet in the air. I can see lead pulling pitch and going over the trees turning to the right. We are not taking any fire as we call the flight off the landing zone, every one is up. Steve and I clear the trees and try to catch up with the rest of the flight, our flight path takes us right over a 12.7 mm crew served weapon, being hauled out of a tunnel right below us, we drop smoke and call Blackhawk Six, and rejoin the flight to pickup more troops.
Blackhawk Six sends his gun ships to the smoke coming up out of the trees. The troops start taking fire from the direction of the smoke. We have engaged the enemy.
The Rat Pack is throwing everything they have left at the smoke, no one could survive the mini-guns, four thousand rounds per minute, from four helicopters, plus rockets. The shooting on the ground stops. The sniper fire starts and one of the gun teams is relieved on station, by a fully armed and fueled fresh light fire team, with enough adrenaline pumping in their veins to light up Chicago.
The flight is down in the pickup zone, waiting for things to quiet down. The troops are listening to the company FM radio and are giving us an update on the fight. My crew breaks out the C-rats and my fishing pole.
There was standing water everywhere we went in Vietnam, and the water had fish in it, not large fish, but fish. The Vietnamese children would use small bugs and small hooks to catch small fish. I kept a full on micro fishing rig in my helicopter at all times for just this sort of break in the action. I also had just stocked up on ant grubs, my favorite bait.
In minutes I was landing strange little fish, and a crowd of children materialize out of the thin air to beg for the fish I was catching. Everywhere we went with our helicopters, the children would come and beg for food, or try to sell us something, my favorite was the pineapple, trimmed perfectly on a stick. I would never eat a fish one inch long, but the little Vietnamese children would dry them on a rock and take them home. I could catch twenty or thirty fish per hour, the fishing was always fast and fun. It took my mind off the fact that I was standing on a runway in Vietnam, fishing out of a drainage canal while ten grunts smoked and got ready for the fight to come.
Our platoon leader is standing out in the middle of the pickup zone swinging his arm over his head, automatically, the crew chief unties the main rotor and the pilot lights the fire, it is time for a hot landing zone, everyone and everything is coming up to speed, we load the troops, and I call the flight off the pickup zone to Blackhawk six, he acknowledges my transmission.
We have troops on the ground so no shooting going in, the Rat Pack slides along side as we make our approach to the landing zone, it gives me a warm feeling to have them along side, my big brother with a big stick in a bad mood, the south will rise again, its Bill Britt, I wave at him he waves back and smiles, I can see from here the big guy was spoiling for a fight.
We get our flight down in the landing zone, no problems. I call the flight in and out of the landing zone. We return to Tay Ninh for fuel and to rearm, then back to the pickup zone. There are no troops at the pickup zone, just a few to guard the runway. This meant that we were going to have to extract the grunts before nightfall. Still several hours away, so I find a nice sunny spot and go to sleep in the sun on the floor of my helicopter. With my crew chief and gunner keeping track of things, I sleep like a baby.
I can feel the starter engage and I am instantly awake, time to go to work. I strap on all my equipment, having learned that lesson earlier. The lesson is simple, if it is not strapped on, it will not go with you when you are shot down and leaving a burning helicopter. There is no time to even grab a gun when your clothing is starting to smolder from the fuel fire in the back.
We haul our first load of tired troops back to the base camp and are inbound for the last load when the VC hit the troops in the landing zone.
Blackhawk six has us circle south of the landing zone and brings in the Airforce. I have heard the Forward Air Controller or FAC on the radio all day, he brings in Canberra Bombers, B-57 I think, and they napalm the whole perimeter of the landing zone in four passes, and in jumps the Rat Pack. It is quiet again or as quiet as it gets. Blackhawk Six sends us in to extract the remaining troops.
Dust and smoke everywhere fires still burning all around I call the flight down in the landing zone, it looks and feels like we have just landed in Hell, or worse Vietnam, I have to hover around to find my load of troops. They scramble aboard and we pull pitch.
"Blackhawk six, trail", go ahead trail, "Blackhawk flight is up and my low drag of the pickup area was negative, over." We never leave anyone behind, Bauman clicks his mike twice, he is too busy to respond.
We take the troops home and then head for Tay Ninh. We arrive over the airfield in Tay Ninh 1500 feet in the air and Bauman calls for a 360 overhead approach with smoke, my favorite. First platoon on the left, with yellow smoke, Second platoon on the right with red smoke. We fly right over the middle of the airfield and Bauman calls the break, when it is our turn we break right or left depending on the platoon and free fall in a long 360 degree spiral ending at the fuel dump. It is beautiful, and I am trail with the best view of all. Beautiful tropical red sunset, helicopters spiraling left and right with smoke streaming from both sides, I loved being a Blackhawk.
The Rat Pack was already on the ground, they came right back to the base when the last of the troops were extracted. They had two UH-1C model gunship helicopters on the ready pad for the evening mortar watch. Fueled, armed, cocked, ready to rock and roll. They could be in the air in less than two minutes. When the VC would shoot at us, we would retaliate with everything we could throw at them. We wanted the VC to think of mortaring us as a suicide mission.
Nothing like meal time in Tay Ninh. It kept us alive, it came out of a can, but tonight we were having a barbecue with the doctors and nurses from the hospital right next door. Someone, I think it was WO Jim Conte that procured the frozen steaks, grilled meat and potatoes and all the beer you cold drink.
Infidelity, Alcoholism, and Venereal disease, howl the drunk pilots, the credo of the sky. The card games, movies, and hangar flying going on in the club. I am home.
I hear a helicopter fly over the tents on a short cut to the hospital helipad. Only Dustoff took the direct route. This almost always means trouble. I run to the pad as the Dustoff pilot unloads several wounded 25th infantry grunts. I stick my head in the cockpit and yell, what's up. A tired stressed out pilot yells back "they are getting the shit kicked out of them just south of the city, we will need help to get them all out." I run for operations, and check in with the officer of the day, he sends for my crew, I run and get my gear, I am only minutes behind the gunships I can hear cranking on the mortar watch pad.
Single ship night time medevac, a sure producer of adrenaline. All the radios are on, and we listen to the ground commander directing the gun ships. It looks like the gun ships are squirting red water from a hose. There are so many tracer rounds in the air at once. Very quickly things quiet down on the ground. The Rat Pack fire team leader calls for dustoff, and dustoff makes his high speed approach. I can see him hovering down in the hole in the trees as I fly over the LZ. The dustoff pilot says that he could not land because of the stumps sticking up, and the trees on the ground, so he could not load more than five or six, and he was pulling pitch. The Rat Pack let loose with another squirt of mini-gun to keep Charlie's head down. It was my turn.
I came in low level, fast or hot as we used to say. Terminating in a hover over the hole in the trees, and started letting down, using my crew to clear me around obstacles. The grunts had used explosives to clear the landing zone, and there were logs and stumps everywhere, and it was dark and smoky, I had my lights off and I was sweating bullets. Out of the smoky black came men carrying their wounded. They climbed up on the fallen trees and passed up the wounded men to my waiting crew, reaching down, who then pulled them into the hovering helicopter. I took as many men as I had horsepower to lift. Hovering in the dark with tree branches blowing around in the rotor wash, trying to keep the tail rotor from touching the trees, while fighting vertigo, I was using all my skills.
Now the race was on, could I get this load of wounded to the hospital, and not have any of them die? I fly the helicopter as fast as it will go directly to the hospital pad. The bleeding men and the 120 knot wind coming in the open doors blow the blood everywhere, it is all over me and all over my windshield.
The medics swarm the helicopter on the pad and gently remove the wounded men. My crew is cleaning up the mess in the back, I am cleaning the windshield, and we are off for another load.
I check in with the gun team inbound, and go directly to the landing zone, they only have a few more wounded, and they are lifted up to us. I can not believe the conditions the men are fighting in. I am scared stiff hovering over the fallen trees in the ere dark. The crew chief says "I gotem all " and I call the Rat Pack "coming up" and even over the noise of the helicopter, I can hear the roar of the mini guns as I clear the tops of the trees, I am out and unscrached, now the race.
We deliver our wounded and refuel, then put the helicopter in the revetment. It will be a long night for my crew, they will have to get the water truck and flush all the blood from the aircraft. Then wipe everything down and do the daily maintenance the aircraft.
It is a long walk back to my tent by way of operations to give them back the survival radio and code book.
Every night the same drill, I break down and clean all of my weapons and sharpen all three of the knives I carry. I reload my survival vest and the guns. Now everything is ready, loaded, cocked, and locked. I am so dirty and oily that the next stop is the shower.
Dressed in a towel and flip-flops it is a short walk to the showers. It is late and the showers are empty, I crank the valve to wide open and the cold water shocks my warm skin, here I am in the tropics covered with goose bumps, I am adding hot water to my list of things to not live without, right behind a porcelain flush toilet.
My cold skin starts to warm up on the walk back, I don't know how they do it, freezing cold water in the tropics, not to drink, to bath in.
There are six pilots living in the tent together, each with a footlocker, cot, and fan. I have a stereo, and chair with a lamp. All the comforts of home. It is getting late and I missed the briefing, but it is easy to fly chalk three. I can see one of my tent mates has written down the frequency's for tomorrow's combat assault and the coordinates of the landing zone, and there on top was a letter from my dad. I got a letter from my dad every day. I would read the letter and think about home, if I closed my eyes I could see my family and shut out the war. I would have to be flying a helicopter in less than four hours.
©1997 Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
All photographs or written matter contained within this site are the property of the individuals who graciously submitted them for your pleasure. No picture or writing contained within this site may be reproduced in whole or in part for any reasons without the express permission of its owner.
© 1997 2001 WMH