The last few weeks have been quite trying around the fish camp. Remodeling, broken computer, shitty weather, and a lack of fishing just to name a few of the stressors.
January has not been without some redeeming value, Rock Lungarella has been spending some time around here when Judy invites him up for dinner.
Rock was the first man I flew with in Viet Nam. I was nineteen and Rock was a twenty nine year old Airborne Ranger Infantry Captain with a chest full of medals and a laugh that could be heard across the club even at happy hour.
Rock had the reputation for being fearless in the air or on the ground and after several hundred hours of being his Peter Pilot I can tell you he is absolutely fearless period.
But like all warriors Rock has his soft side and this story is about the care and respect given our own fallen warriors.
0400, O-dark-thirty, the tent flap on the GP medium parts and in steps Captain Lungarella and in a loud voice he asks "Where is Coe ?" I was right in front of him on my cot.
"I am right here sir." My weak sleepy answer seemed good enough for now.
"Major Bauman gave you to me for the next few weeks to get some in-country experience" Rock growled, "I want to be in the air in ten minutes. I will be waiting for you on the pad in front of operations."
I haven't been in Viet Nam for a week yet and it already seems to me like an endless series of early cranks and late dinners. Getting dressed in the dark is no sweat. I have speed laces in my boots and hit the JP-4 powered four hole crapper and still made the operations pad before Capt. Lungarella.
I could hear a UH-1 crank up out in the revetments as I scurried along towards the operations pad, it was the only one cranking up, I knew it was my ride for the day. I had my flack vest, chicken board, 45 caliber crotch protector, camera and helmet, I was ready to fly. Rock made a sideways flair onto the operations pad, I jumped in my seat and the gunner buttoned me in.
"Tay Ninh Tower Blackhawk Six Niner on the Blackhawk operations pad for take off to the north over." "Six Niner Tay Ninh Tower we have no traffic and no north firing artillery, you are clear to take off to the north good day." Double click from Rock and we were pulling pitch. I watched as the lights of the compound faded and the inky predawn darkness covered everything from our view but the dim red glow of the instruments.
"Bad mission today."
Rock was speaking to no one in particular, just keying his mike and
talking to his crew. "We have to fly bodies to Graves
Registration today. I do not know how many, but I do know it will be
several loads. This is the aftermath of the big fight they have been
having north of Cu Chi. I am sure Major Bauman hates me and must not
like you very well either." Rock laughed and we flew on our
It was a long flight up and we started hearing our own Rat Pack guns on the company frequency.
"Rat One Eight, Blackhawk Six Niner, over." Our first contact. "Go ahead Six Niner." "We are inbound looking for a load to go to Graves Registration, is it still hot down there, over?" "Six Niner the LZ is cold, we are just mopping up after last nights attack. Call Manchu on their Fox Mike." CW2 Art Cline overhead with his fire team would assure a quiet Landing Zone.
The sun was still behind the horizon but the predawn bright sky made everything glow on the ground. We circled the Landing Zone and called the ground frequency to get them to pop smoke so we would know where to land.
We could all see the bright yellow smoke plume coming up from the landing zone in the still morning air. Rock brought the helicopter down right in front of the smoke grenade making a light yellow wind storm, blowing the poncho liners off the row of dead bodies. In The dim light with all the yellow smoke swirling around, the gray faces, some contorted in death were only a few feet away from my perch in the Huey. I could not stop looking at them. The taste of cordite in my mouth from the smoke grenade made it all like a dream with all my senses running wild, some of the dead looked like they were just sleeping others were more a collection of parts than a body.
The supply line with the body bags had not made it here to the battle zone, so with stretchers made from tree limbs and poncho liners they loaded our aircraft. Rock was out of his seat and busy supervising the loading of our dead soldiers. Rock made sure they were shoulder to shoulder, wrapped tightly in their ponchos. When the floor was covered with bodies Rock put one more on the seat. When they tried to load more Rock would not let them.
Stone faced Rock climbed in and buckled up, I started adding throttle to the dash eleven engine and in seconds we were ready to go.
Rock picked up to a hover and then started our takeoff right over the top of the dug in troops. The grunts could see our load they all knew what we were hauling. They were mostly face up into the rotor wash watching their dead being taken on the first leg to home. Some waved and in the middle of hell hauling bodies a young trooper flashes me the peace sign in a hundred knot dusty rotor wash.
Even at one hundred knots the smell of the bodies that had been laying in the tropical heat for who knows how long started to make us all sick. Rock had the gunner and crew chief come forward and hold on to the seatbacks for the ride to Graves Registration.
The Army had put graves registration next to a soccer field. We landed right in front of the front door and Rock jumped out to supervise the unloading of the dead.
The sun was now fully in the sky the tropical heat was breath taking. The men at graves registration would unload each body onto a stainless gurney and then wheel it into the large refer box that was being used as a receiving area.
Things were not going fast enough for Rock and after they had taken about half of the bodies we had on board no one came out, there seemed to be a break in the action. Rock grabbed a stainless gurney and with the aid of his crew loaded it and then loaded two more. With Rock in the lead each of the crew men pushed his loaded cart up the ramp and thru the door.
I was sitting in the helicopter at flight idle. I watched my crew disappear into the Graves Registration double doors and they were gone for some time. The doors flew open and Rock and the rest of the crew ran down the ramp and jumped on the helicopter and I hovered forward to the water trailer so we could rinse out the helicopter, our crew chief got the water pump motor started and we hosed off the floor and the seats.
We had more bodies to haul and so as soon as we could we were off looking for fuel then back to the landing zone to get the rest of the dead.
Each time we would land to the smoke and Rock would jump out and make sure every body was wrapped tightly and placed shoulder to shoulder in the aircraft.
We flew in complete silence. Rock never let me touch the controls.
It was early in the afternoon when we were finally finished hauling bodies. We all helped clean the helicopter and she was wet inside with water running out the back door when Rock picked her up and headed home.
Rock flew in silence about half way home, then he keyed his mike and started talking about the day "it was a good thing you never went into Graves Registration, I have never seen anything like it in my life, Black men in aprons and bodies everywhere, the cold fog of the refrigerator cold air blowing the smell of death around so you could see it. I hope I never ever have to go back there again as long as I live." Both crewmen started to talk at once. Just the descriptions over the intercom made the hair on my neck stand at attention. I was glad to have been stuck in the helicopter.
I flew way too many trips to Graves Registration in my tour of duty, but I was never ever curious enough to look inside.
Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
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