Thanksgiving 1967
by
Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
Blackhawk 54

Stories

 

Here is a story I wrote some time ago. The 2/22 was the unit that was hit and Frenchy Gibeault put me in touch with them. I have been on their net for quite a while. They love helicopter pilots and are great guys.

 

 

My eyes fly open, something is wrong, I dont hear any artillery. I have been asleep for what seems to be a long time, it is daylight outside. My army cot is too small for my large body, and not very comfortable, I listen, and take inventory of the situation.

I dont hear any helicopters. Then it dawns on me, today is Thanksgiving, we are having a stand down. The US Army is giving the troops a break and we are not fighting today. No early morning combat assaults, no artillery shooting up the country side, no nothing. After all it is nearly 0600 and I am still in bed. I think I have seen every sun rise since I got to Vietnam seven months ago, out of the front window of my UH-1.

It is nice to wake up unhurried, with no orderly standing over you at 0400 insisting that you put your pants and boots on before he will leave to wake up the next person on his list. I know for a fact that I threatened to kill each an every one of the orderlies at one point or another, early in the morning, in the dark.

I make my morning trip to the latrine, always an experience to try to forget. Five seats, well, five holes drilled in plywood. Set over five steel drums with diesel fuel in them. When they get about half full the dinks, drag them down wind and burn the contents, causing a huge plume of black smoke that rises over Tay Ninh and can be seen for miles. I promise myself a clean flush toilet forever, if I get out of this place alive. I choke on the nausea and open the door. Good there is an empty seat. I drop my pants and join the conversation already in progress.

Our local expert Jim Conde, had spent several years with the special forces in Vietnam, before going to flight school. Jim spoke Vietnamese and was rarely suprised. We all listened to him while he lit a Pall Mall and laughed, "fucking dinks won't hit until late" he said, "could be a quiet day of hauling turkey and mashed potatoes." That was all I needed to hear from the rumor mill, beautiful day, no hostile action, smiling faces where ever we land.

My platoon gets assigned to the 25th infantry in Cu Chi. I wanted to stay close to home and work for the Special Forces, but I get the mechanized infantry. These are the guys that drive the armored personnel carriers or APC's and tanks and the twin forty they call Duster. They are for all the world a bunch of kids driving diesel land cruisers, going where ever they wanted. They had so much fire power they could blow the shit out of anything that got in the way, they were the antique ground pounders left over, in the helicopter era. At night they would circle the tracks, and from the air it looked like a wagon train fighting the Indians in the old west. They were great guys, and tough as hell.

The mess hall starts several days ahead, and by noon on thanksgiving the amount of food produced is staggering. They bring it to the staging areas in trucks. The stainless steel containers are bright and shiny and the food in them is hot and good. We fill our helicopter with as much as it will lift and head out for the unit in the field.

We fly all day, first the food and the cooks go out to the unit, then, all the empty containers and cooks come back to Cu Chi. We fly for seven hours and haul tons of turkey and all the trimmings, it is a happy time for everyone.

I take on one last fuel load from the POL dump, we are the last helicopter to depart. I climb on course and check in with the radar people, "Paris Radar, Blackhawk 54 over," Paris comes on the air and sounds like God talking very clearly in your head. "Blackhawk 54 turn left heading 270 we have a medevac for you." The turkey would have to wait, we were back to the life and death business we were used to.

Paris had given us a heading and a ground frequency and I recognized it at once as our mechanized unit we had be flying for all day. I called the ground commander and told him I was inbound fast as I could make the helicopter fly, he told me there was no action now, it was a rocket attack and then they withdrew under heavy fire, 10 enemy KIA's so far, but one of his APC's had been hit badly and he need us now.

I made my approach to the smoking APC in the dark, and went to flight idle as soon as I got on the ground, no one was coming with the wounded, I was fighting the fear every pilot feels on the ground. Where were they? I send my gunner over to the APC. He runs back and starts to give me the shutdown command, right behind him was the commander of the unit, he walked over and said "the area is secure, I cant get the guys out of the APC, shut down your helicopter and come and help."

I did a lot of medevac work, and carried a box of Morphine surrets under my seat. I grabbed them and left the security of my helicopter.

I turned on my flashlight and stuck my head in the APC, out of the dark six pairs of eyes looked back at me. The RPG rocket that had hit them had ignited a white phosphorus grenade on the floor, the men had been laying in nylon bunks on the sides of the machine. They were all now fused together by the explosion, men and machine all melted together. Three men on one side three men on the other. Melted faces, terror in bloodshot eyes, and the smell of burning flesh mixed with phosphorus and diesel fuel punctuates my dreams still.

I handed over some of the morphine to the medic, and he and I started pumping it in them as fast as we could find a place to put a needle.

I walked back to my helicopter and shut it down. I would wait as long as it took to get them out.

Within an hour they had all died, and the grizzly work of getting them out had begun. Each man in a new unmarked black body bag. I lined them up in my helicopter, and gently flew them to the graves registration in Saigon.

I pull pitch at the graves registration pad and start up and up and up. Get me away from the death, I have the smell of burned dead men all over me and all over my helicopter. I keep climbing. Soon it is cold and the crew slides the doors closed. No one says a word. I call Paris, and keep going up. Fifteen thousand feet, need oxygen to go higher. It is cold and the air is thin and brittle. I am at home in the air, and I start to feel better. Everything is in the proper perspective, we are alive, and way up here, all the death and bullshit is down there, they can't touch me.

Jim Morrison is singing riders on the storm in my headset, I feel the hypoxia creeping up. I can see the lights from Tay Ninh and I start my decent. I shoot my approach right to my revetment and put the thrashing machine away.

It is midnight, I did not get any turkey, well, not enough turkey, I did manage to sample most of the day. I walk to the back of my tent and take off all of my clothes grab a towel and off to the showers.

I scrub a layer of Vietnam off and the cold water takes up most of my attention. Only four hours and the insanity will start again. I feel very tired and in need of sleep.

I lay in the dark of my tent listening to John Jordan snore, I close my eyes and all I can see are the six men looking back at me. I used my entire supply of morphine on them, I would have to get busy and scrounge up some more from Doc Warden. I tried my hardest and I gave it my best effort, I can sleep on that.

1997 Wayne R. "Crash" Coe

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