Scout Platoon 1972
( click to enlarge)
"Not such a bad day, 7 December 1972."
F Troop, 8th Cavalry, Republic of South Vietnam
Some of the players:
Pilot in Command / Mission commander, unknown.
CW2 John Williamson, Lead Cobra pilot
CW2 Duane Shirley, Cobra pilot
Lead LOH, OH-6A tail number #209
Trail LOH, OH-6A, 1LT Crawley, current scout platoon leader (an FNG, he
On the afternoon/night of December 6, 1972 the city of Saigon was hit with 122mm Rockets fired from the West of the city. I understand that this is the first time that had happened in a number of years. The powers in charge were not happy with this development. We were in the process of bombing North Vietnam to bring them back to the peace talks at the time and to have the capital of South Vietnam attacked was not well received. F Troop 8th Cavalry, stationed at Lassiter Field, Bien Hoa was given the mission to find the launch sites and to look for other threats to the city.
On the morning of 7 December a Red Team took off. At that time our Red Teams were composed of five helicopters crewed by 12 troop members. There was a UH-1H, Command and Control with a Mission Commander/Pilot in Charge, Pilot, Crew Chief and Gunner and somewhere along the line we picked up an Officer from the South Vietnamese Army to give us clearances. Then there were two AH-1 Cobra Gun ships with Pilot and co pilot-gunner. Leading it all (following instructions from the mission commander) were the two OH-6A’s, known as lead and trail. Each OH-6 was crewed with a pilot and a crew chief-gunner.
Well off we went, just another day in the moving office. I think we climbed to altitude, 1500 feet or so and went around the north west side of Saigon. I believe we landed at Tan An to pick up the South Vietnamese Officer. From that point on I was scouting, never getting more that a few feet off the ground or above the trees. I went where I was told and for the most part I had no idea where I was. The UH-1 was up there about 1500′ and the Cobra’s orbiting over me at around 1000′. My trail was just following me around much like I did while learning what it was like to be a scout.
The morning was pretty uneventful. I found an area that certainly looked as if it had been recently occupied. There were burn marks indicating launch sites, some boxes and jugs lying around and lots of trails. We had the Cobra’s fire the area up with rockets and some nails. Cruised by again but still no activity. We checked out a few more places, still nothing. Now it was time for refuel and a little lunch on the strip at Tan An. In route we got up to altitude and I got in formation with one of the Cobras so I could take some pictures of them and they got a couple of me. I couldn’t realize what the picture they took of my aircraft would mean to me later.
Quick refuel and shut down for a C ration lunch and cokes from a vendor at the fence line. I remember a large pond next to the taxi way and we decided to see if there were any fish. In went a couple of concussion grenades and up popped a fish or two. Since we couldn’t do anything with the fish, we stopped blowing them up. It was time to go back to work anyway.
Off we go again, Scouts in the lead again, Cobras as the big bad brother and being guided by the loving hand of the Command and Control aircraft. More of the same old stuff, tree lines, trails, rice patties but no signs of life or of the bad guys. And then I say something to the effect, "Well hell, there’s that area over there that we were at this morning, lets check it out again, I know I saw something there." The C&C agreed so off we went. I zipped over to the area and passed over the spot I had observed that morning. It looked different, something had moved. Could have been from the firing earlier but who knew, we needed to check it out more closely. I swung by again, yes things were different, I need another look, a little slower and closer this time.
Out I go and to come back in for another pass. Just as I began to nose up to decelerate, I hear a radio call from the Trail LOH, "I think we took fire that last time." Now that is not what you want to hear at that exact moment. My mind is now in overdrive, I had been shot at before, and I knew what taking fire was like. I knew or I thought I knew the difference between "I think we are taking fire" and "we are taking fire!" All this and more in just a split second, at the same time I am almost coming to a high hover, this is not good. I begin to key the mike button; I already know what I am going to say, "What do you mean, you think?" I am adding a little collective and putting in forward cyclic, need to get out of here and find out what is going on, after all the trail pilot is still a new guy, first time I have flown with him.
The next 2 seconds went by in an absolute flash and in slow motion in the minds eye. You can see what is going on but can’t do anything about it. I know I pulled a handful of collective and stuck my tail way in the air, gotta get out of here, noise, trees, spinning, more noise, grinding, medal breaking and crunching, dead stop, unusual attitude and silence. I am in my seat, the helicopter is sitting, no lying on its right side. There are trees in front of me, the wet ground is at my right hand in the doorway, I am still strapped in and everything has gotten real real quiet. No radio,
The tail boom is pulled away and I see a head wearing a flight helmet silhouetted against the sky, it is Sp4 Russell and I almost shot him. My senses are still not working, I can’t hear anything, smell anything of feel anything, and I just have the desire to get out. My gunner reaches his hand in and pulls me up to the left side of the bird; we both slide off to the front and land in the muck.
At this point instinct and hopefully training takes over. I know I am hurt but I don’t know what happened. I just can’t feel my legs and they are not moving. I am sitting on them as they are tucked up under me. I pull my flight helmet off and then my chicken plate, they are weighing me down. Sp4 Russell is firing his 45 back toward the rear of the aircraft and I realize we need to get out of there. I look around and pick a direction hopefully away from where we think the bad guys might be. Now I can begin to hear. There are helicopters and guns going and going, explosions on the ground behind the crashed aircraft. We picked the right way to go, the Cobra’s were shooting up the area we were in. Now we need to get out of there. Problem is I can’t move very well. I can pull myself with my arms or push myself kind of like bouncing on my butt, but my legs won’t work. No pain, they just won’t work. We move further from the aircraft and I see that Russell has stopped firing and has thrown his gun down. I get his attention and give him my 45. He promptly empties the clip and throws it down. That bothers me a little because I have more clips of ammo but we still have other things to worry about.
As I continued to bounce along our chosen route we see the command and control Huey coming in for a landing in an area some distance from us. We start moving toward the Huey, but I am not making good progress, I can see the right side crewman waving, urging us on, but I can’t do any better. Russell is helping me now but we are not moving very fast, I am pretty much dead weight. I see the gunner and crew chief getting out of the Huey and running to us, they grab me under both arms and drag me to the aircraft, hoisting me onboard and pushing me to the center. As I am being loaded I can lookup and see CPT McCord, right side of the Huey, with his arm extended out his window firing his 38cal pistol. I think it passed through my mind then that that was not a good thing. Another thing I saw an remember very clearly was the South Vietnamese Officer cringe and pull away from me as they were putting me on the helicopter, he did not offer any assistance at all.
There I am now, in a little ball in the back of the Huey and now I begin to feel pain. I guess the way the brain worked was as long as I was at risk or had something to take care of, I didn’t have time for pain, but now, it was time to hurt. I think I passed out a little at that point. I remember landing at 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, being loaded on a stretcher put in an ambulance, taken out again and into a hospital emergency room. Sp4 Russell was with me all the while; he wouldn’t let anybody touch me until there was someone there to help. A couple of days later I dictated a Silver Star recommendation to the Group Commander from my hospital bed; I think Russell received the Bronze Star with V device. The two Huey crewmen were recognized with Air Medals with V device.
Thankfully Sp4 Russell was unhurt, just a bump on the head from bouncing around in the back as I crashed us into the ground. Me, shot in both thighs from the bottom and out the top on the right leg; bullet in the left leg. I still don’t know if we took fire on the earlier pass, but it turned out that I came to a near hover directly over the bad guys hole and he let go on full automatic, zipping me from stem to stern. I damn near crash landed on top of him.
At the time or even now years later, you could look at this event as if I had had a bad day and in a shortsighted way so did I. Slowly it dawned on me that I was OK. In retrospect it wasn’t such a bad day after all. I could have been killed, I wasn’t. I could have gotten my gunner killed, he wasn’t. No one involved in the rescue were killed or injured. And I thank God for that. I could have been much more seriously injured, paralyzed, lost a limb but none of that happened. I had a bad event followed by immediate blessings. The wounds were not that bad, if you are going to get shot, I did it the best way. Nothing too serious was hit. No arteries, I didn’t bleed to death. No bones hit, no big nerves, just meat. The doctors removed some stuff from my right leg, a torn up bullet and pieces of helicopter but they left the bullet in my left leg. I could stand after about a three days but I couldn’t walk. The Army had me medi-vaced back to the United States.
That was some trip, but not for this story. I made it to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, closest hospital to my parents home (Toledo, Oh). There I went through rehab and got my legs straightened out and began walking again. Not a fun time, real punishment for breaking Uncle Sam’s perfectly good helicopter. When I got to Wright Patterson Air Force Base Hospital, nobody cared about Vietnam. No one ever asked what happened. Same thing happened later at Ft. Knox, Medical Holding Detachment. By then the truce had been signed, the war was over. Everybody was a Vietnam vet; you were just another one. I recovered enough for the Army to want me back so in March 1973 the flight surgeon cleared me to fly again and the Army sent me to Ft. Campbell to be a ground pounder, an Infantry Platoon Leader. They said it would be good for my career.
It was in 1976 while I was in Germany, when I had my final operation on my leg to remove some more stuff. It was then that I was able to put my Vietnam wounds behind me. Always have a little weakness in my right leg and I walk a little funny, but then I always did; now I have an excuse.
Again, it could have been a horrible day for me and for others. It did not turn out that way. Everyone involved were heroes in my book. They preformed their jobs in a magnificent manner. I was the only one hurt and I recovered. No second-guessing necessary, they can all take pride in performing their duty and move on with their lives. There were other days where we witnessed terror and lost our friends. We need to remember our comrades and celebrate December 7, 1972 as a great day, it was for me.
No bad memories on my part. And every day since, even the bad ones have been a blessing. Though I do have to remind myself of that every so often.
For a picture of the scene taken the day after see page 60, "Modern Military
Thank you for reading my story.