What was the most dangerous combat job in Vietnam? Perhaps
everyone thought theirs was the most dangerous. But certainly the job of helicopter
pilot must have been near the top of the list.
Whenever choppers got close to the ground - coming in for a drop or taking off again,
providing fire support for ground troops, picking up wounded soldiers under fire, or just
bringing in supplies - there was always the danger of ground fire. It took only one
bullet in the right spot to bring a chopper down. And it took only one bullet coming
through the front window to kill the pilot flying the chopper. Yes, theirs was a
dangerous job. We on the ground could get closer to the protecting earth beneath us,
but the pilots were sitting ducks. Yet, again and again, we saw pilots willing to
risk their own lives by coming in, under fire, to save the lives of others.
I met one such pilot near the end of a long day of helibornes. We had already
made several drops that day and were now heading towards another target. Below, two
Cobras wheeled and circled above a village at the edge of a forested area. Silent,
thin white puffs of exploding rockets were visible above the hootches. We landed in
the open rice fields in front of the village. Quickly we jumped out and formed our
lines while the Hueys just as quickly departed. Soon all was quiet on the ground
except for the beating rotors of the Cobras as they scouted ahead of us.
We marched slowly toward the village in two lines. We passed the first hootches
and we continued deeper into the enclosure beneath the cover of tall trees. We saw
no villagers. No bodies littered the ground. There was nothing to indicate the
village was inhabited. We split into squad-sized groups to search each of the hootches. But the inhabitants had obviously fled in
anticipation of our arrival.
All around us we could see the physical effects of the recent attack. A sapling
beside me bristled like a porcupine with steel quills. They were fleshettes,
two-inch long miniature arrows, with four tiny fins at the rear. The Cobras fired
anti-personnel rockets filled with hundreds of these projectiles. Like a shotgun
blast, the explosive charge sent fleshettes racing forward in all directions.
Our search lasted only fifteen minutes. We filed back out of the wooded area into
the open fields and formed into seven-man pickup groups. My group was last in line -
we would board the ninth chopper.
Soon the flight arrived. The nine choppers descended one after another like giant
green dragonflies advancing toward us, their huge, oversized wings beating the air.
They dropped to the ground, whipping up a blizzard of dust and grass particles.
As soon as we boarded, the engine roared to life and we started up, following the eight
ahead of us. As the line of choppers cleared the ground we could see that the lead
chopper was still sitting there! Its rotor was idling slowly. GIs were limping
and running from it, toward the cover of a low rice dike nearby. Something was
As the other seven choppers climbed away over the trees of the village, our chopper
banked sharply to the right. Our pilot was going back in! With the throttle
wide open, we made a wide circle and came in fast, skimming the ground. With a
sudden forward braking movement, the chopper came to a hover and dropped beside the GIs on
the ground. At the same moment, the first chopper roared to life, its blades
spinning faster and faster, and lifted clear of the ground and away.
As we landed we got our first good look at the men near the dike. Each was
wounded. The men were busy putting bandages on one another.
Several rose immediately and ran for the safety of our chopper. We climbed
out to help carry the rest. We moved quickly - we wanted to get out of the area as
fast as possible. A feeling of being the only ones left behind filled my mind.
In a moment all fourteen of us were aboard. Just as the last man climbed in, two
Cobras emerged from behind the line of trees, wheeled around in a sweeping loop, and
charged the village with their automatic grenade launchers firing away. A chain of
explosions rocked the village as rapid-fire grenades pounded one after another into the
houses and trees.
Now came the moment of truth. Could we get airborne? Once at Keene we were
short one chopper and the sergeant wanted to load nine men on several of the Hueys.
When one pilot tried to lift off, his engine groaned, and the normal pounding of the
exhaust changed to a deep rumble. Slowly the craft strained to climb into the air,
but the entire hull began to vibrate with the effort. Hardly four feet off the
ground, the pilot shook his head and dropped to the earth again. The answer was no.
We were not going aloft with more than seven men! The extra men had to return
to the base.
Now, fourteen of us were crammed into the bay. The wounded sat propped upright,
for there was no room on the floor to lie down. Counting the two door gunners, the
pilot and co-pilot, we had eighteen in all, or nearly two tons of weight. Without a
moment's hesitation the pilot opened the throttle all the way, and set the rotor in
motion. With a throaty roar the engine groaned, the blade clawed at the air, and we
slowly climbed forward and away, leaving the two Cobras to cover our retreat.
Our ascent was agonizingly slow. The chopper struggled to climb higher as we
picked up forward momentum. Faster and faster, we headed toward the hospital in Cu
Chi. It was clear we were never going to get more than a hundred feet off the
ground. We just barely cleared the tops of trees as we passed one patch of forest
after another. We passed open paddies, with farmers turning the soil behind their
water buffaloes. The roar of the chopper preceded us, and put a fear and a panic
into the big black animals. In field after field, the buffaloes scattered like quail
before us, running in all directions as we hurried on. I pitied the poor farmers,
who probably spent the rest of the day rounding them up.
Cu Chi came in sight, a huge city-like encampment, more than a mile wide. The
Division hospital sat near the center, with a Medevac chopper pad next to the emergency
room. We flew in low over the rooftops, coming almost close enough to reach out and
touch them. Finally we landed at the chopper pad. Orderlies and doctors rushed
to our chopper to lift the wounded onto rolling litters. They were quickly wheeled
inside for treatment.
There on the pad next to us sat the first chopper. The Plexiglas window on the
pilot's side was almost gone, shattered by the force of an explosion. Blood covered
the pilot's seat, which had been driven back into the bay area.
It was easy to guess now what had happened at the pickup site. A Chicom
rocket-propelled grenade had hit the pilot's front window. It easily penetrated the
Plexiglas and exploded inside, instantly killing the pilot. The blast and shrapnel
continued on in an expanding cone, wounding or killing each of the soldiers in the bay and
the two door-gunners in the rear. The co-pilot was also wounded, but managed to fly
the damaged craft back to the hospital to try to save his ship's crew.
There is no question in my mind that our pilot deserved a medal! With complete
disregard for his own life, he immediately circled back to try to help the injured men.
The other seven ships flew off and did not return. The pilot already knew the
first ship was hit, and that he was setting his ship up to be the next target. If I
had been one of those left behind, I think I'd have kissed the pilot who returned to save
my skin! And lifting off with all that extra weight - that took courage. We
might have crashed to the ground, the engine unable to support the weight.
Yes, the job of helicopter pilot was a dangerous one, as the crew of the first chopper
learned the hard way. But the men flying those machines were equal to the challenge.
As they proved again and again, they had the courage to fly in the face of danger.
Many of us would never have returned alive without them.