Unexpected Mission Ranger Rescue
Early in my tour, maybe Oct/Nov, I was
talking with a Blue Ghost day crew that was on Ready Alert to support troops
in contact. Often these duties were boring and you just talked or read to
pass the time. One of the gunners had a need to answer nature’s call and I
told him I would cover for him until his return. What could happen in ten
to fifteen minutes? Within a few minutes, however, we were told to
scramble, Rangers were in contact. We ran from the Ready Room and our boots
clattered on the metal grates as we headed towards the helicopter pad. As
we ran past the Arms Room I yelled for my 1911 Colt semi-auto pistol. The
soldier grabbed my weapon in its shoulder holster and thrust it into my
hand. As I ran the short distance to the UH-1D Huey, I put the holster on
and fastened it into place. I loaded it and cycled a 230 grain full metal
jacket round into the barrel and secured the weapon into the holster. The
whine of the starter accompanied my actions as each man made his
preparations to conduct this mission. Troops were in contact [with the
enemy] and they needed our help and support.
There were many preparations on our two
Hueys and four pilots and four gunners put the tools of war into motion.
The engines roared their high pitched jet noise, the rotor blades began to
rotate and beat the humid air with their distinctive sound. Gunners loaded
their M-60 machine guns by lifting the feed tray cover, cocking the bolt,
safety on and placing the first round of the machine gun belt on the feed
tray in front of the bolt and then securing the feed tray cover. I tilted
the gun barrel down and forced the barrel into its retaining clip. The
helicopters rose into a hover and turned into a westerly heading. As the
helicopter moved forward and accelerated, it entered transitional lift and
dropped slightly then began to climb out. We remained low and flew at the
aircraft’s maximum speed of 130 knots (approximately 150 miles per hour.)
We crossed the wire into Indian territory and flew over rice paddies, dikes
and thatched huts. We intercepted a river and turned south. The wind
whipped in the open crew compartment and the pilot in command cleared us to
test fire our weapons. I was glad to get to test fire the machine gun,
since it was not my own. There are six parts that can be installed
improperly and the weapon will malfunction. The weapon was mounted on a
pedestal and had the standard 550 round air assault can with flexible feed
belt. We called this setup a suicide can, because it tended to jam. I
squeezed the triggers on the butterfly grips as we flew forty feet over the
brown water. The weapon recoiled on the mount and I fired a fifteen round
burst. Tracers streaked out and geysers of water leaped 8-10 feet in the
air as the rounds stitched a pattern across the water. I fired again with
the same results. I felt better about the weapon at least.
Over the radio we could hear the sounds
of small arms fire and the heavy breathing of the radio operator as the
Rangers ran and fought their way to the clearing in the horseshoe shaped
bend in the river. The pilots flew and navigated while we looked for any
signs of movement and listened to the situation develop on the radio: “….Two
hundred meters brrrrp LZ bam bam enemy in pursuit.” Suddenly
we climbed above treetop level and banked almost 80 degrees left. I could
hear small arms fire below. Through the trees I saw running figures.
Americans in camouflage and Viet Cong in black PJs—no time to fire—and then
they were gone from sight. We overflew the chosen LZ and spiraled down as
we approached and landed towards the trees. We were #2 ship and there was
only room for two ships. We stayed in a hover and turned 180 degrees. Now
I was in the lead bird and facing the side where our troops and the enemy
We didn’t have long to wait. Cobra gun
ships arrived on station and circled, waiting for their turn to engage. I
saw movement to my front! I must be correct as I identify my targets.
Range is short to the trees, less than forty meters. I must also wait for
the friendlies to be clear before I fire. More movement….it’s our guys;
they’re leap-frogging. Several run by one Ranger. He fires, then he moves
toward us. Another has stopped and fires full auto into the trees as the
last man passes. At least one Ranger is wounded enough to require
assistance from two others as they make their way to us. The enemy troops
rushed out of the tree line and we opened fire. Unfortunately my M-60 only
fired six rounds and stopped. At this point, the enemy fire was increasing
and rounds were cracking and popping as they passed around us and struck the
helicopter and the ground. The popping rounds sounded like a popcorn
popper. Crack crack crack, as the supersonic projectiles flew by. I
pulled the charging handle to the rear so the bolt could pick up another
round crack crack. I squeezed the trigger. Blam….only one
round. Pop pop crack brrrrp came the reply. The Rangers were also
firing and hot brass was flying, spinning, bouncing off surfaces or people.
I pulled the handle to the rear once more….Snap the link broke! I
watched in slow motion as the ammo slid down into the assault can. It would
take minutes to rethread and reload to clear the problem. I didn’t have
minutes; I might not have fractions of a second before hot lead might slam
into my chest and hurl me against the bulkhead of the transmission.
BOOM!! An enemy grenade detonated twenty feet away and some fragment
pierces my trigger finger on my right hand, but I did not feel it at the
time. I can see enemy troops firing wildly on full automatic. I grab my
Colt 1911 and pick out an enemy soldier, with an AK-47, firing at us. I
disengaged the safety and took careful aim, one-handed, and gently pressed
the trigger to the rear. Bam! The Colt recoils in my hand and an
empty casing is ejected. The enemy soldier turned slightly and pitches to
the ground. As we began to move the fire continued unabated. I noticed
movement to my right and above. I looked in time to see two AH-1F Cobra gun
ships firing 2.75” HE (High Explosive) rockets into the tree line we were
leaving behind. Trees and bodies were hurling through the air from the
blast of the warheads explosions.
Tensions were still running high amongst
the adrenaline-charged Rangers. I noticed blood on the floor, which I
thought had come from one of the wounded Rangers. I reached for a rag to
wipe it up. I saw blood on my right hand. Closer inspection revealed a
small hole was present in my trigger finger. It passed completely through.
I wrapped the rag around my finger and applied pressure to stop the
As we proceeded back to the base (Chu
Lai) we remained at a low altitude, perhaps as low as three hundred feet.
When we flew over a few small settlements, two of the Rangers would shoot
short bursts of CAR-15 fire at the hooches. Each time I made them stop and
admonished them. “Don’t do that! Stop firing!” At the same time I knew
that they were still just keyed-up from their narrow escape. We flew to the
Ranger pad and dropped the Rangers off, except for the injured that were
dropped off at the hospital.
We returned to our helicopter pad and
shut down. When the Pilot in Command saw that I was injured, he asked if I
wanted to be put in for a Purple Heart. I said no, I would probably be hurt
more severely in the future and that would cover it. That was an
understatement I thought. Even though I had resigned myself to die fighting
in Viet Nam, it was the real deal. That was for sure.
Life expectancy for a helicopter
door-gunner was eleven seconds in combat I was just getting started on my
tour. The chances of completing it were not very promising. Oh well, c’est
la vie, c’est la guerre. No guts no glory. It was early yet. I went to
the chow hall and got some lunch. These events all transpired before noon.
I flew my regular mission that night.