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|This is another installment of a
defining day in my life, and probably the life of many
others involved in the activities of the day. Of all that
started out that day, only one ship returned home with
its original crew, they had to be blessed and they were
truly brave. You will need to read the other two
installments to completely understand this one.
As I said before, we came in low level and flared just after clearing the tree line, Rat6 and his gun escort had been prepping the LZ prior to us and continued to hit them while we were in the LZ, although he warned us they were running low on ammo, so hurry...
As soon as we flared we started taking small arms fire. You could feel it hit the ship, I swear if you hit a UH-1 with a BB gun, you could feel it, every single round. Eshelman was flying and I was following on the controls, SOP for a hot LZ. He shouted at Peniska (the gunner, on his side) that there was enemy running around on the left of the aircraft. I took a look out the left cargo door (I said I was green) and could see people in uniforms and with packs running from the tree line. Peniska was firing his M-60 with one hand and his M-16 with the other (TINS, I swear to God)and you could see them going down, I don't know if it was from being hit or just to find cover. I couldn't see Mineart (he was behind me), but I am sure he was doing the same, as he later confirmed. I could see troops in a ditch on the right firing at us and the splashes of bullets hitting around them, but I decided not to look anymore, it was too unnerving. Besides things were getting busy in the cockpit.
Once we touched down, I radioed the grunts to load the wounded, a Sgt. jumped on the skid by my window to tell me one crewmember was dead and they were loading the wounded, I yelled for him to hurry. All this time Eshelman was saying "tell me when we're loaded and I will go", he could only hear me and the crew on intercom. He had been directing fire and letting us know what was going on and what to expect as we went in and sat there, he was cool and calm, at least from outward appearance and in comparison to me, I was yelling at everybody, I didn't even need a radio to be heard. The crew just kept firing, the amount of fire and noise was tremendous. In front of us there was a sniper in a tree, I kept pointing to him in hopes the infantry would see him and fire, but they didn't understand. I saw him fire twice, but apparently he was a bad sniper because we didn't take any rounds in the cockpit, or he was shooting at the grunts.
In the short time we had been on final and in the LZ I had gotten my eyes and ears full! Seen enemy troops running and firing at us, seen them go down, seen two extremely brave gunners sitting in a totally open area engage enemy gunners in one-on-one duels and win. From that day on I would have great respect for the gunners and these two Sp4 Mineart and Sp4 Peniska in particular. Eshelman's calm and focus on mission was also very impressive, it was completely opposite of my energised and emotionally charged antics. I was yelling instructions to the grunts, over the radio, to the crew, you name it I was telling everybody who to shoot, who to load, and to hurry up about it... don't believe any of them heard or understood me. When we were loaded, I gave Eshelman the thumbs up.
As we pulled pitch we again came under intense fire. The fire had a slack period while we were on the ground. The grass was pretty tall and the gunners were laying down some good suppression, along with the gunships, so 'charlie' was keeping his head down. But as we departed, he had another opportunity to nail us. We had to make a steep exit rather that a tuck your nose and go due to the proximity of some tall trees. As we left the LZ area we came under fire by the .51 cal that had already claimed 2 or 3 aircraft during the day and he nailed us. Not a bad hit, one through the rotor blade. It made the aircraft vibrate so bad, it was difficult to control, so Eshelman put it down in the first secure area we could find, just outside an RF camp.
Another ship came in and evacuated the wounded. We stuck around and got the radios out, packed up our stuff, and examined the ship. I had a camera and have the pictures of 829 with all the bullet holes. One picture in particular tells a story. There are three closely place rounds right behind where Mineart's head should have been. They look as if someone fired them on the range. The grouping could be covered by a coffee cup. The best we could figure during the time on the ground the ammo belt to Mineart's gun broke and he bent over to link them back together. That's when the three rounds must have hit. There where holes in the partition behind both pilots, around both gunners, and the area aft of the gunners where the doors slide back, they were riddled. So most of the fire was aft of the cockpit, a common occurrence, 'charlie' had trouble understanding the concept of 'leading' an aircraft. The supports holding the seats up were hit, the transmission was hit, the skids were hit, so there was a lot of bullets whizzing through the cargo area, the enemy gunners were definitely trying to stop Mineart and Peniska. Not many in the tail boom, so it was pretty concentrated fire. None of us were hit, we were happy and joking and kidding around, too young and stupid to realize what we had been through and how lucky we were.
Another BH aircraft picked us up and dropped us at Chu Chi. Then we were picked up by Blackjack 6 (BG Seneff) and flown to Tay Ninh. Aircraft 829 was later recovered and sling loaded to Tay Ninh. Her and I were to have more history. She was in maintenance for over 6 weeks. Completely rebuilt from the skids and cabin up. I have a picture of her stripped except for skids and cabin compartment. Then when I made A/C 6 weeks later, she was assigned to me as my bird. She was a strong aircraft and I was always able to take extra troops, a reason I got to fly trail a lot. Unfortunately, I let her strength give me TOO much confidence and I crashed her on Nui Ba Den with a severely overloaded cargo of cokes and beer. That's another story for later.
A couple of days later we had an impact awards ceremony. BG Seneff was there to present on the spot awards for the actions on August 7. Impact awards are usually presented at a lower level that the recommended award. You are given an impact award and recommended for a higher award, that has to go through channels. Eshelman was recommended for the DSC, the second highest award and given an impact award of SS. I got a Bronze Star with V, eventually upgraded to DFC, as did the other crewmembers. I never heard if Eshelman's DSC got approved, I hope so, he deserved it. There was even Medal of Honor talk for a short time.
I learned a lot for that experience. I started to model Eshelman's behavior in hot situations. Forget the emotion, control it, be calm, take it by the numbers. Your emotions can get you killed, its not just fear, excitement and anger can get you too. I lived it for the rest of that tour and the next, and it got me into and out of some really bad places. I learned to appreciate and value the guys in the back. I never took them into a bad place without asking them first. We didn't always agree, but they were always ready to do the right thing. I helped them with the bird at the end of the day, cleaned a few guns too. But mostly I learned that I may not be brave, but I had courage, I could overcome my fears and emotions and at least control them for a period of time and do the right thing. When it was over I could be afraid again or just go get drunk or whatever, but when things were tough, I could do my job, and do it well.
I went through 9 more months, 2 Purple Hearts and finally evacuated due to wounds in May 1968. I was shot down a couple of times, once by a single round, never did I take the amount of fire and hits of August 7. 2 engine failures, 2 major accidents, 4 minor accidents... not bad for a 10 month tour... and as I said, I thought this was normal...
Well now I'm a much older and wiser guy, ha, my wife would argue the wiser part, especially after 2 heart attacks. I know I could go back into that LZ if I had to, but I would do a lot of negotiating first. My life is much more valuable to me now than then and my immorality is not quite as clear as it was then.
© Tommy Martin
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