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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 would emerge.


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 bleeding.


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.

Russ Carmean

Nighthawk 1970-71


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