Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
We trotted over to the helicopter pad and reported to the Hatchet Platoon Sergeant, SFC Davis. Davis shook hands with us and put us with a group of six Yards.
"I need you two on the second bird so I'll have at least one American on each helicopter. "Shoe will be on the third, and Smithy will ride drag. As soon as you unass the chopper, move out twenty meters to the rear and take up a defensive positions from six to nine o'clock."
'Shoe' was Gary Shumate and 'Smithy' was TJ Smith; both were staff sergeants assigned to the Hatchet Company.
Willie Davis was a straight arrow NCO on his second tour at FOB-2. He'd run recon his first tour. Willie was also from Valdosta, although he seldom visited there anymore.
"Too many bigots down there," he explained to me over a beer at the club one night.
Remembering the turmoil the town went through when schools were desegregated, I couldn't argue with him about it.
The Recon first sergeant came out to the helicopter pad as we were watching a string of Hueys break through the clouds and swoop down in front of us. Surprisingly, Top had his web gear and his CAR-15. It was surprising to see him set to go with us, because as far as I knew, he was banned from going to the field because he had been put in for the Medal of Honor. The muckity-mucks down in Saigon didn't want a potential MOH war hero killed before he received his award. SFC Harland saw us gawking and shrugged.
"Down-graded to a DSC, so I'm a free man and that used to be my team," he explained.
Fred looked dubious, but didn't argue.
Six UH-I 'Huey' helicopters from Pleiku touched down in front of us as four Cobra gunships circled over head. The Hatchet platoon piled on the first four choppers and a SF medic named Mitchell and SFC Harland hopped onto one of the chase birds.
As soon as we boarded the Huey, the door gunner handed Fred a set of earphones with a boom mike so he could talk to the pilot and listen to radio traffic from the Covey flying support for Rick's team. Fred relayed the pertinent points to me, and none of the news was good.
Rick was in target area Juliet-Eleven, running a bomb damage assessment mission following a massive B-52 strike. Not fifteen minutes after inserting that morning, Rick found out the thousand tons of bombs the big lumbering bombers dropped didn't do anything but rearrange the jungle, because the NVA were snug in their tunnel complexes. They came out in great numbers, though, to greet Rick and the boys on RT Washington.
Now Rick and his team were in a world of hurt, hunkered down in a bomb crater with hundreds of NVA trying to encircle them. The team had two KIAs, every man on the team had been hit at least once, and they were running low on ammunition. The only thing keeping them from being overrun was a small break in the weather that allowed Covey to get close air support to them. The weather was forecast to close in again by mid afternoon, so we had less than two hours to get them out of there.
Forty minutes later, the helicopter formation dropped through a break in the clouds and sped along at treetop level. We popped up over a ridge and before us loomed an area about six klicks long and two wide, that was as cratered as the face of the moon. About two thirds of the way down the length of the devastation, and off to the west side of it, an A1E Sky Raider was making a bomb run. That was our target, as the pilots nosed down into the valley.
Covey reported only sporadic small arms fire around the two chopper LZ he'd picked out two hundred meters behind the beleaguered team, so the lead helicopter with Willie Davis on it and ours peeled off and dropped towards the LZ. The two Hueys flew in fast and flared at the last minute to minimize exposure to ground fire. We were about ten feet above the ground when a couple of 12.7MM Dushka machine guns opened up on us. Willie's bird suddenly dropped like a stone and flipped on its side, the rotor blades digging into the muddy ground. We were luckier, as our pilot reacted by pulling pitch and pouring on the power. As we lurched forward, Fred slapped my arm and jumped out. Like an idiot, I followed him.
The rain-soaked ground cushioned our impact, but the fifteen foot drop still jolted me. By the time I got to my feet, Fred was running towards the downed chopper. When we arrived at the crash, Willie and most of his boys had crawled out of the wreckage and were busy pulling out the pilots and other wounded. Tracer trails gave away the heavy machineguns' location, and a pair of Cobras was firing them up with their miniguns.
Although some of them were pretty beat up, everyone on Willie's ship survived the crash. We helped Willie get the air crew and two injured Yards into a bomb crater. Willie had things under control, so Fred pulled out his URC-10 survival radio and called Covey.
"Tell Pretty-boy that Pigpen and Opie are coming in on his six, and not to shoot us."
Covey rogered and told Fred to stand by. A minute later, his was back on the air.
"Pretty-boy said wilco and asked what took you so long?"
Heartened that Rick was at least in good enough shape to make a joke, Fred and I jumped out of Davis' crater. Bent over at the waist and zigzagging like drunken sailors, we hauled ass towards Rick's position. Without the weight of my rucksack and fueled by fear and adrenalin, Bob Hayes couldn't have kept up with me as I sprinted. I dived over the lip of Rick's crater and two seconds later, Fred tumbled in after me. We were both still gasping for breath when we crawled over to where Rick, his one-two and two yards were crouching. The bodies of his one-one and three Yards were laid out on the floor of the crater behind them. Each crouching man had a couple of magazines stacked on the rim of the crater in front of them, and the one-two had two grenades.
Rick was in bad shape, he'd lost a lot of blood from a sucking chest wound and a shattered femur. He still managed a weak smile as he shook our hands. Fred and I had just finished redistributing our ammo among Rick and his men, when the NVA launched a furious platoon-sized assault. I guess the commies were making one last push to wipe out RT Washington before the air support drove them off. It was touch and go for a few minutes, but we managed to hold them off, and the A1s and Cobras finally pushed the bad guys back. When it was quiet in front of us, Fred and I started doing what we could for the wounded.
Every American running recon carried a bag of blood volume expander taped to the yoke of their web gear with OD green hundred-mile-an-hour tape. The Ringer Lactate bags had an IV set up with a fourteen gauge needle attached to it with surgical tubing. It was Ironic that just five weeks ago when Rick was still on the team, we had practice starting an IV on each other. Fred started the IV on Rick as I sealed off the entrance wound to his chest.
The remaining helicopters finally swooped in and inserted the rest of the Hatchet platoon and in minutes Willie Davis and his boys had set up a perimeter around Rick's last-stand crater. Mitch took over the Medic duties, while SFC Harland called in the second chase helicopter. The first chase ship had dropped off Doc Mitchell and Harland, then flew off with the downed crew and the other wounded from the crash.
The chase ship pilot sat his bird down on a flat spot twenty five meters away and we loaded RT Washington aboard it. Like the good one-zero he was, Rick refused to get on the bird until the rest of his team, including his dead, were aboard.
It was not until Rick was in the air that I noticed my side was throbbing and covered in blood. I guess a ricochet or a piece of shrapnel had laid open a four inch long gash in my side just below my last rib. Mitch slapped a pressure dressing on the furrow and told me he'd stitch me up back at the FOB dispensary. Forty-five minutes later, Mitch and Pokie sewed me up good as new with twenty tiny sutures that a plastic surgeon would have envied. Then they took me to the club for some liquid pain medication of the bourbon and Coke variety.
On the Thursday after Rick's Prairie Fire, we borrowed the messhall's deuce and a half and drove down to Pleiku to visit Rick. Rick was in for a long rehab because of his shattered femur, and was being medievaced the next day to the Dover Air Force Base Hospital, right near his family home in Delaware. Rick was flying high on the pain meds when we visited him, so he was by turn cheery and maudlin as we talked.
We finally drew a mission at the end of that week. It was a straight reconnoiter and surveillance job along a newly discovered truck road located in target area Hotel-Six, leading up to the border near the Special Forces camp and the artillery fire support base at Ben Het. Being in the field during the monsoons sucked, because we stayed wet all five days we were on the ground.
For the first time, we were in an AO where we could receive artillery support from the newly-installed 175MM heavy artillery battery at Ben Het. Those big guns had a range of about thirty-five kilometers, and were accurate to boot. Fred took advantage of that on our last night in the field, when he called in H&I (harass and interdict) fire on a convoy we heard moving on the road. It was cumbersome relaying our call for fire through Leghorn, but we managed. We were disappointed that we hadn't hit anything when we checked the next morning, but I'll bet those truck drivers shit a brick when they heard those one hundred and fifty pound projectiles exploding around them.
We opted not to stand down after Hotel-Six, because Fred extended his tour for the fourth time and was going on a thirty day leave starting July 15th. I was going to take my two week mid tour R&R starting the twentieth. Since our Bright Light rotation was scheduled for the end of July, Fred worked a swap with Crazy Joe Webber.
We Flew up to Dak To on Sunday morning, 30 June 1968. The late and short monsoon season was ending, and I was happy to see it go.
The end of the monsoons meant an increase in activity at FOB 2, and we saw three teams off on missions that week. The end of the rainy season also meant that the Air Force was more active. More air activity meant more planes either crashing from mechanical problems or shot down by increasing effective NVA anti-aircraft fire. We launched twice after down pilots. One of those times, four of us rappelled into a site with an active emergency radio from an F-100 pilot who ejected when his engine flamed out. The pilot had a broken leg, so someone had to go get him. Fred, Bing, Bo and I were those someones.
We found the pilot after a thirty minute search and all of us left the area on the jungle penetrator of an air rescue Jolly Green Giant dispatched from Thailand.
We flew off one other time after another F-100 pilot, but this one's radio never came on and we couldn't locate the crash site. It was hard not to notice that those F-100s fell out of the sky with alarming regularity.
After our week at Dak To, we were the recon company chore boys for a week. We pulled every detail in the camp, from riding shotgun on the truck that took garbage to the dump, to fetching supplies from Pleiku for the messhall and club. It was on one of the club runs that I participated in hijacking a tractor-trailer load of liquor.
The genius behind the liquor heist was our club manager, Sergeant First Class Orville T. (Beer Belly) Pearson. Pearson was an SF commo man by training, but he was so good at procuring things outside of normal channels, that he always ended up in supply. Pearson was an expert conman and flimflam artist. Beer Belly's cons were so brazen, it was almost impossible not to fall for them.
I ended up participating in the liquor scam, because I had a license for a ten-ton tractor. Pearson first borrowed a tractor and a forty-foot flat bed trailer from a drinking buddy of his at the big 4th Infantry Division fire base (Fire Base Mary Lou) just down the road from FOB-2. I drove the truck and trailer back to the FOB, where Pearson stenciled new bumper numbers on both the truck and trailer.
The next morning, Fred and I were dressed in neatly-pressed jungle fatigues with 4th Infantry Division patches on them, and wearing baseball caps as we thundered down Highway 19 in the ten-ton, headed towards Pleiku. Beer Belly Pearson was in front of us in a borrowed radio jeep that also had new bumper numbers. Pokie Ramos, dress the same as Fred and me, was driving the jeep. As soon as we were out of sight from the FOB, Pearson pinned on the gold oak leaves of a major.
When we reached the sprawling Air Force base at Pleiku, Pearson led us straight to the joint services Class Six supply warehouses. Class Six supplies are health and comfort items. Liquor, beer and cigarettes are Class Six items. We pulled up to the gate of the razor wire-topped ten-foot chain link fence that surrounded the warehouses. Pearson jumped out of his jeep carrying a clip board, and looking as officious as only a major can. A minute later, the gate swung open and the gate guard waved us through. Pearson, a half-chewed cigar clinched in his jaw, returned the guard's snappy salute as if he were George Patton.
We parked in front of a big overhead door. Pearson flagged down a fork lift operator and handed him a counterfeit requisition form. The Private First Class on the fork took the form, saluted Pearson, and roared off. Half an hour later, Fred and I covered our load with a big piece of OD canvass and secured everything with cargo straps. On the trailer were six pallets of Budweiser, two pallets of Early Times Bourbon, one each of Smirnoff's Vodka and Johnny Walker Scotch, and the pièce de résistance, a pallet of Salem Menthol cigarettes ... the favorite smoke of Vietnamese women.
I was nervous as a hooker at a Baptist tent revival, and was itching to get out of there, so you can imagine my disbelief when Beer Belly Pearson stopped at the gate and started talking to the guard. The guard nodded and Pearson reached behind him and picked up an ammo can off the floor of the jeep. He opened the can and pulled a folded up North Vietnamese flag out of it. The flag was dirty, slightly ragged and covered in blood. The guard's eyes lit up and he reached for his wallet.
Fred gave a snort of laughter as the kid handed Pearson a wad of script. I looked at Fred inquisitively as I stirred the long shifter into first and eased off on the clutch.
"A mamasan in the ville makes those flags for Pearson by the dozen. He stomps them in the mud, pours chicken blood on them, and makes a killing selling them to REMFs (rear-echelon-mother-fuckers) as genuine combat souvenirs. Beer Belly is going to leave Vietnam a very rich man," Fred explained.
That night during a drunken celebration at the club, I was elected to the Recon Bar board of directors. The Recon Bar was a private operation outside of the normal military NCO Club System. As such, the only oversight it was subject to was from the board of directors. That was plenty enough though, because the board was composed of twenty or so veteran recon men, probably the most potentially dangerous group of people on the planet. To be on the board you had to have at least five missions across the fence, be on a recon team and be elected by your peers. To me, it was one hell of an honor.