Eagle Flight

 

War itself may be hell, but flying in a helicopter was always a thrilling experience for me.  And of all the helicopter flights we took, nothing equaled the Eagle flight for sheer excitement.  Like eagles swooping down on their prey from on high, a flight of nine choppers would drop suddenly upon suspected enemy positions, and we'd jump out to sweep the area before mounting up again to hit another target.

One morning, bright and early at 7:00 o'clock, we lined up in the meadow outside Keane.   After a short wait we heard the distant drumming of choppers.  Down they came - nine huge olive birds drifting to the ground in a whirlwind of dust and noise.  The engines slowed and the huge blades fell into a steady thwumping beat, seemingly impatient to be up and going again.

In a moment we were loaded, six or seven men to a chopper.  The engines roared into a deeper, faster rhythm, and our machine trembled as the blades clawed the air, trying to pull away from the ground.  The throbbing beat echoed through our bodies. For a moment we were one with the chopper, struggling to lift free of the earth, to climb into the cooler air above, to feel the rush of wind over our faces as the machine rose faster and higher.Huey

There is a fascination and a feeling of raw power in flying machines.  Hanging by the shaft of a single rotating blade, we could sit motionless thousands of feet above the hot brown fields stretched out beneath us.  The lives of earthbound beings were circumscribed by the green walls that surrounded them.  High above, our horizons stretched away into the hazy miles across the broad plain below, changing, moving, always new and different.  We were free of the dirt and the water, free of the slow plodding of their daily lives.  For a short time we were away from the war even as we were moving closer to it.

High above the ground we could see the shimmering reflections from rice paddies full of water, like a thousand geometric mirrors scattered across the surface.  The gentle haze blended colors into a pastel mosaic, with soft greens and browns and blues.   Meandering streams and rivers, and the broad Mekong, traced their curving arcs in cocoa lines across the plain below.  To the northwest, its bold black shape rising like some villain's fortress out of the distant haze, stood Nui Ba Den, the only mountain on the plains.  And the cool breeze aloft helped us forget, for a moment, the unyielding heat of the fields below.

While we floated serenely along, watching the scenery, gunships and Cobras were out hunting for game.  We stayed aloft until a likely target presented itself, and then our nine choppers dropped to a few hundred feet and came slowly to the ground as if to land.  Then, with a sound just like a normal liftoff, they picked up speed and raced away at treetop level, heading for another, less publicized rendezvous.

This was the fun part. Patches of forest flashed past, the tree tops just missing our fuselage.  Then there was a gap in the trees and the pilots dropped lower, no more than twenty feet from the ground.  On we raced.  Water buffalo, surprised by the sudden appearance of a flight of thundering warplanes, scattered in all directions in front of us.

Then, just ahead, smoke curled up from behind a thin belt of trees and bamboo.   Cobras were circling, firing rockets and cluster-rounds into the field beyond.

The Hueys dropped to the ground this side of the hedgerow.  We scrambled out, crouching, and sprinted out of the way of the departing choppers.  The two Cobras were still going at it, their miniguns blazing away.  Then one tilted forward and tore off in a new direction, and in a moment he was out of sight.  The other broke off the engagement and widened his pattern, making large circles over the area just ahead.   We formed into a single column, each man about five yards apart, and started toward the hedgerow.

This was the first time I'd been near fighting, and fear now began to take hold of me.   This seemed to be a natural ambush, with thick forest on both sides of us, and a wall of bamboo in front of us.  We were walking in an open field with grass about two feet high.  There was no cover to protect us from enemy fire.  As we moved closer to the trees ahead, my apprehension grew.  I quietly flicked my M-16 selector switch from safety to full automatic.  My eyes scanned back and forth, watching for the slightest sign of movement.  But fortunately my hunch, strong as it was, proved false.  We passed into the hedge unharmed, and emerged safely on the other side to see the results of the shooting.

Another field lay before us covered with dry, brown grass.  Old rice dikes lay buried beneath weeds and grass.  We stretched out into a long line and slowly moved across the field, searching for bodies.  Halfway across we found three enemy soldiers, dead.  They had been caught in the open when the Cobras appeared.   These were the first bodies I'd seen.  There were to be many more.   Somehow they didn't look like Communists or Viet Cong, or even enemies.  They were just people.  I still knew that in a firefight, it was them or us.  But it wasn't quite what I had expected . . .

All three wore the traditional pajama uniform typical of soldier and peasant alike.   One had a green Chinese-Communist style cap with a small red star on the front.   He was probably their leader.  He also wore a US Army web belt, to which were attached two American fragmentation grenades and an old World War II style pineapple grenade.  A Chicom AK assault rifle with attached bayonet lay on the ground beside him.  One of the other men carried an old bolt-action rifle and a sling of ammunition.  The third carried an RPG - a rocket-propelled grenade launcher - with several rocket rounds in his back pack.

The remaining Cobra was now hovering near the edge of the tree line - we weren't done yet.  We left the bodies and moved on.  Thirty yards from the edge of the woods we found two VC sitting on the ground, their hands on their heads.  They had decided to surrender and were simply waiting for us to arrive.

We searched the prisoners, and then took shelter in the shade of the nearby trees to wait.  Soon a lone Huey appeared over the trees and settled gently onto the field.   Three men in camouflage uniforms disembarked and moved toward us.  One was a captain, another was obviously Vietnamese - an interrogation team.  For ten or fifteen minutes they talked quietly with the two prisoners, and then the captain came over to tell our commanding officer that at least half a dozen more men were hiding in the woods, including an officer and the local VC chieftain.  We spread out in small groups to search the woods

As we searched we came across mud hootches with small courtyards cut in the forest.  At the far side a small Vietnamese man approached us with his arms in the air.  We motioned him forward with the peculiar, palm downward "shoo-shoo" motion used by the Vietnamese to signal "come here".   After a short interrogation, the Captain ordered us to surround a nearby clump of trees.  He called out in Vietnamese, and three more men emerged with their hands up.   They had had their fill of those terrible fighting birds in the sky.  They brought out several more grenades and two AK assault rifles.  Now, only the leaders were still hiding in the area we had just searched.  Back into the brush we went.

Thirty minutes of determined searching yielded nothing.  We looked up into each tree.  We searched every bush.  We poked for hidden tunnel entrances and concealed pits.  Finally we reached the mud huts again.  We pushed our rifles into the thatch roofs to see if anyone was hidden there.  Then one man moved a crude wooden table in the corner of a single-room hut.  A thin, woven mat lay on the floor, and as the GI lifted the mat, he saw a trap door hidden in the dirt floor.   We took covering positions as the door was carefully raised.  It was halfway open when two pistol shots rang out from below.  The door dropped like a hot potato and the man flung himself back just in time.

We set the hootch on fire...We decided to let the interpreters handle negotiations.  After a brief shouting match with the enemy hidden in the concealed chamber, the door slowly lifted, a gun was thrown up onto the floor, and a Vietnamese in uniform climbed out.  A uniform was something we didn't often see.  This was the lieutenant we were looking for.

We didn't find the VC chieftain.  He either escaped unnoticed, or concealed himself in an even more clever fashion.  To discourage the use of the area by other enemy units, we were ordered to burn the thatched roofs and destroy what we could of the buildings and crops around them.  Soon the roofs were blazing and the area was covered with a cloud of smoke.

And after all that work it was only ten in the morning.  Still plenty of daylight left for several more Eagle flights before heading home.  We moved out to the open fields and formed up, and soon we were on our way to another area, and another sweep.   The Cobras had been busy while we searched the woods.  They had another hot area lined up, and more VC casualties and suspects, waiting just for us.

 

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Eagle Flight:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Bottom photo Copyright 1995 George Aimone
Last modified: March 02, 1995