Untold Stories from Vietnam (2) “Chance Encounters “
Posted on April 1, 2010
Untold Stories from Vietnam (2)
” Chance Encounters “
a War Experience of Jay Fitch
(as told to, and written up by Francis Meyrick)
A decade and a bit after Vietnam, back in the eighties, I was flying single pilot over the Gulf of Mexico, ferrying oil rig workers to and from their various platforms. I often had the chance to chat with my front seat passengers. On one flight, an earnest young man climbed into the front passenger seat. He buckled himself in beside me, smiling shyly. I guessed he was about twenty.
Once we leveled off in cruise flight, we had a chance to chat on the one hour journey.
“My Dad flew helicopters in Vietnam “, he told me.
“Really “, I said, and my mind instantly transported me back to the green jungles, the distant, misty, foreboding mountains, covered in dense jungle growth. There was the incessant radio chatter. The routine, dull, almost boring missions. But always, there was the unexpected. The explosions of adrenaline…
I answered him quietly:
“I was there too. What unit was your Dad in? “
The answer, even after all those years, no, decades… touched a nerve, and sent my pulse rate up.
“He was an Air Force Search and Rescue pilot, and he flew SH53 Jolly Greens “, the young man said, proudly.
I sighed inside. And I marveled.
Oh my… the Green Giants…
My God. The quiet men who went through hell and back, with never a complaint. The men who flew their required 100 Air Force missions, saw many of their buddies die, and yet, incredibly, still kept coming back for more. I was only twenty years old back then, a raw kid. But what I saw, and what I learned about men, real men, I knew I would never forget. My face was probably devoid of much expression, but part of my memory was playing back ancient recordings, in full technicolor, with the echo of gunfire still vibrating down taut nerves. I saw them still, hovering low over the jungle, plucking downed airmen up through the stabbing canopy. Traveling vast distances at night, crossing deep into enemy terrain, in response to desperate calls for help.
Being shot up, crashing, burning…
And if they survived, they would go right back up again, the next day. I found myself still shaking my head quietly. Courage. Courage beyond words.
“You came from good stock then, son. They were terrific men. I can tell you a story about them, from my own personal experience… “
The cabin fell silent, while I gathered my thoughts, with just the rhythm of motion, the sound of turbine wheels and combustion, and the flickering of blades passing endlessly overhead. I wondered where to start.
It was a long story…
In another era, in an unreal black-green dimension, I had spent what seemed like a life time (compressed into thirteen months) flying Huey/UH1-E gunships for the US Marine Corps. We flew out of Marine Air Base, “Marble Mountain “, DaNang. I thought back to the tracers, the sight of my rockets impacting in the jungle, and the strange tearing sound of enemy AK rounds methodically chewing up my helicopter. Small arms fire sounded strangely like fireworks going off. An eerie, surreal crackle. The heavier caliber ‘crew-served’ weapons sounded more rhythmic and deadly.
At night, you saw only every fourth tracer round, like a stream of fire that disappeared as quickly as it started.
The small Viet Cong triple A anti aircraft teams were able to erect these guns in minutes, fire, disassemble, and disappear like ghosts into the night. And I heard the voices again, stressed out but calm, pleading over their field radios for our support. The enemy owned the night, and the Friendlies knew it. To some degree, we measured the degree of urgency by the tone in their voices. Occasionally, there was panic. Occasionally we heard grown men cry out in mortal terror. They were not separated from the enemy by altitude or the illusion of sanctuary of a flimsy helicopter airframe. They were often separated by only a few meters of blood stained mud from a highly dedicated and diabolically cunning enemy. A calculating opponent, who in his mind was fighting for his homeland. They weren’t card carrying Communists, in their mind they were patriots. Although small in stature, almost boyish, once confronted, the North Vietnamese regular soldier was a formidable opponent for the young Americans fresh off the American farm and football fields.
Haunting memories rolled over me, replaying endlessly like a video, and faces passed by, as if it were only yesterday. And I remembered, that one fateful day, unreal in its intensity, and unreal in one man’s quiet heroism. The call from the Direct Air Support Center asking us for urgent assistance. Some long range deep reconnaissance team was in serious trouble. They had been detected by the enemy they were sent to observe and report on along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Now they were under heavy enemy attack. They were calling for close air support, and emergency extraction. Without hesitation, my wing man and I swung onto the new heading. We established on the two-seven-zero radial from DaNang, with 50 miles to go. That would put us well within Laos. and well out of our usual (and sanctioned) ‘area of operation’ (AO).
We were assigned a frequency, and on this we proceeded to make contact with other inbound aircraft. It was critical to collect information as quickly as possible, and have everybody listening in. Soon we had a Jolly Green following along behind. After thirty five minutes, we arrived in the area, and I established contact with the squad leader on the ground. He sounded laid back, even though I could hear screaming in the back ground, intense gun fire, and RPG’s exploding. He told me they were fourteen strong, up in the mountains, on the northern edge of a so-called landing zone. It was nothing more than a woodcutter’s plot. An area where the trees had been crudely harvested, but where the stumps where still three to four foot high. In terms of size, it was really small. Perhaps a hundred yards wide and a hundred and fifty yards long. There was a steep cliff drop off to the east, but the Viet Cong were on the southern and western sides. My heart skipped a beat. That sounded ominous. It meant the Friendlies did not control the landing area, but were merely precariously positioned on one edge of it. That did not bode well for the Jolly Green. With the tree stumps in the way, a landing was impossible. The heavy, slow bird would have to try and come to a hover, and let the ramp down. With the Viet Cong gunners well within range… It was a recipe for a deluge of gunfire. One well aimed RPG could bring the ship down, and kill everybody. I knew the pilot on the Jolly Green was listening intently, but there was never a murmur of protest. He was preparing to leave the safety of two thousand feet altitude, and go down to a hover in a small clearing, under a guaranteed hail of murderous fire…
When I asked the squad leader where he wanted me to lay down suppressive fire, he told me up to thirty meters from his position.
“They are that close then? ” I asked.
“Yeah “, was the laconic reply, “they are all around us. “
I knew the Jolly Green was listening to all this as well, silently, with never a comment. The risks were obvious.
The Viet Cong, through long experience, had learned that the closer they crept to the Americans, the less likely they were to get bombed or strafed by air support. We simply could not ‘walk’ our bullets in that close.
“Pop a smoke! “
I was asking for smoke, and the Friendlies released Green smoke.
Instantly, and eerily, on the western side of the clearing, just inside the tree line, Red smoke billowed up. Followed seconds later, by Yellow smoke from the southern tree line. My mouth went dry.
The Viet Cong were indeed there….
They were patiently waiting, and trying to mislead us and cause confusion. They often collected smoke containers from downed aircraft, as well as the radios. They had English speaking soldiers, who often listened to our broadcasts. It was possible that even now, they were listening to me. I caught myself hesitating.
I had flown many uneventful extraction missions. They sometimes became almost boring.
But this one…
This one wasn’t going to be…
The team leader confirmed his Green smoke.
One quick orbit,and now it was time to roll in from 1,000 AGL. Decision time.
I pulled the nose up, slowing the aircraft ‘on the perch’. Then I performed a wing-over pedal turn to get on target as quickly as possible. The whole world watched us come down, rapidly accelerating to redline airspeed.
I proceeded down to 500 feet with my wing man, coming out of the sun, like the old Western gunslingers, and we unloaded on the red and yellow flares as best we could with our 9 shot rocket pods, and our four M60’s. My two door gunners were going at it hammer and tongs, teeth gritted, empty shell casings tumbling down over Vietnam.
And hailstones of lead…
I could see the 7.62 ammo ripping up the tree canopy. There was no real way of knowing how much damage we were inflicting on the unseen enemy below. We just wanted them to duck and run. Stay down. For precious seconds. Often enough the trees were that thick, that the enemy could hunker down behind them, and escape damage from direct fire. Only a lucky ricochet would get them. All we could do was hose the jungle with lead, and hope for the best. We cris-crossed the landing area, and then it was the Jolly Green’s turn…
I pulled up, peeled around, and pulled in beneath and behind him. I watched him start his approach. He never hesitated, despite knowing full well the likely hot reception awaiting him. Coming around in a tight climbing turn, my wing man and I were now coming up fast below and behind the Jolly Green, laying down a withering fire. The rounds were traveling underneath him for a while, and the intent was that we would swing out and be on either side of him, delivering suppressive fire until the very last minute. It wasn’t always effective, and we all knew it. So did the Jolly Green. But there was also a morale factor, it was the best support we could give him.
He was down to about a twenty foot hover, settling into the smoke filled clearing. With luck, in the precious few seconds available, the ramp would be dropped, and the recon team would sprint over and on board. If they failed to reach the bird, they were dead. And they knew it. Everybody knew it. I could only imagine the feelings of the desperate men on the ground, watching with baited breath as the big, lumbering giant settled towards them. I was pulling up, looking down and back, and then I saw him commence a go around. The big ship lifted off ponderously, and seemed to be shaking and rocking. The calm, unruffled voice of the pilot came up on frequency.
“Ah, gentlemen, we are going to have to get out of here… “
That was it. No explanation. I was nearly out of ammunition, and getting low on fuel.
I keyed the mike: “Roger, and Hostage Red is just about out of ammo and juice, so we will be right behind you. “
There was nothing more we could do for the beleagered men on the ground. I could imagine their feelings, at watching the three helicopters depart the area. There was just nothing more I could do. However, there were ‘fast movers’ inbound, A1-Spad fixed wingers, frequently flown by the plucky South Vietnamese Air Force Pilots. They were a few minutes out, and I could only hope and pray they could assist the next helicopters already enroute. Our turn had come and gone, and now we were heading away from fourteen men, trapped on a cliff top, desperate, with the enemy crawling mere yards away, closing in…
We formed up just behind the Jolly Green, knowing that only a serious problem would have caused this crew to have abandoned their rescue mission. The Jolly Greens were famous for their unselfish perseverance. What ever it was, it was serious, but he never declared an emergency. We just flew along quietly, our thoughts with the desperate men fighting almost hand-to-hand for their lives back on the ground.
After a few minutes or so, I keyed up and asked him quietly what the problem was.
“Well “, he said. He sounded thoughtful, but unconcerned at the same time. He was matter of fact.
“We took a whole bunch of hits back there, and my crew chief tells me they sieved the fuel tank. We have at least six inches of Jet A sloshing around in the belly. We’re just choking on fumes here, waiting for a spark… “
I remember marveling at his steady voice. He was nursing along a machine that had become a massive flying bomb. A flying coffin. It could be going up in a gigantic ball of flame any second. Yet here he was, chugging along, having a relaxed, casual conversation with another brother aviator. Nothing in his voice betrayed emotion.
Or a fear of dying any second.
I, for my part, helplessly hung in there with him, close, providing an escort for some kind of moral support. Our closeness was not merely one of a formation in the sky. It wasn’t just that I would be able to call in his position if he went down. Or pick up possible crash survivors. It was also a deep caring. He knew we were there, that we cared, and that we were urging him on home, with all our might. But I also knew he was almost certainly a goner. It was as if I was flying alongside dead men. It wouldn’t take much. A spark could come from many sources, and all it was going to take was just one. That was a huge aircraft, and six or seven inches of fuel sloshing around the belly, was more than enough for an awesome fire ball. With very likely zero survivors.
He was headed for DaNang, the only place he could hope to reach on his remaining, and rapidly dwindling usable fuel. It was getting dark now. We didn’t talk much anymore, but we shadowed him, an intimate, unseen bond between fellow aviators. We rode with him, into the twilight, right down to the runway threshold, and only then did we part company. We climbed back up into the dark sky, mentally marveling at the skill and composure of our brother in arms. We returned to our base, and we never did hear if the recon team, twelve Americans and several local Montaignards, made it out or not.
I told the young man that story, as best I could. I know there was feeling in my voice. Feeling… a small echo perhaps, from a past encounter with a brave man I never saw or heard of again. I never knew his name. I only heard his voice, and saw his actions. A brave man, who did his duty as he saw it. Yes, I told that young man the story as best I could. When I was finished, I glanced at him. To my surprise, I noticed he had gone ashen. When he spoke, there was both awe and incredulity in his voice.
“Sir, I know that story… I heard it from my Dad, when I was just a twelve year old boy.
He was flying that Jolly Green…
It was my Dad you were speaking with. And he told me of the two gunships, that quietly flew all the way back with him. That never left his side. Until he landed on the runway at DaNang. And he told me how much it meant to him, that incredible support, and he told me of that brief conversation he had with you.
Sir, that was my Dad…I can’t believe we are in the same helicopter here now… ”
I had a lump in my throat. I still get one, when I think back to the emotional intensity of those days. When we cared about each other, more deeply and closely, than I can begin to describe to people today. You can call it brotherly love, or whatever you like. But we were willing to die for each other. Few men today, stomping down civvy street, dissatisfied with their lives, and dissatisfied with their country, can ever hope to come within reach of even remotely understanding that bond. We were comrades. We were brothers. In our own way, we loved our country, and we would have died for that stranded recon team, and all those that followed in their boot prints…
I miss those days, not for the horror, the death and destruction, the waste, the futility, the pointlessness, and the suffering. I miss those days for that strange bond we developed. That strange nobility and unselfishness, that lifts men up. So many good men died there, and some still lie there, and they are almost forgotten by most Americans today.
I think of them a lot. And I think of the young twenty year old raw kids today, fighting yet a different war, on a different battlefield. In thirty or forty years from now, will those that fall also be almost forgotten by the fickle American public?
Yes, I feel some bitterness. A sense of betrayal almost. And doubt. Doubt regarding the massive military industrial complex. The lobbyists, whose patrons own that complex, and who profit obscenely from Unending War. Doubt about the so-called liberal media, that consists, with few exceptions, of talking heads who never seriously studied History. And never tasted War up close and personal. Doubt regarding the unending series of non-defensive wars, that our glib talking, camera hugging, narcissistic, pretty boy politicians get us into.
Wildly applauded by those who will never watch from a muddy hole in the ground, through dirt and blood shot eyes, with the enemy crawling ever closer, and your mortally wounded comrades screaming in agony, a terrible sight.
Three helicopters in the sky, departing the scene, growing smaller and smaller….
a War Experience of Jay Fitch
(as told to and written up by Francis Meyrick)
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 14, 2014, 10:01 am