Night Rescue From a River Boat

David Freeman

Second day back from R&R and I drew First-up night. At least I wasn’t on the daytime shift. I wasn’t quite ready for Lai Khe standby and picking up wounded ARVNs in and around An Loc.

Because I’d been gone for two weeks, Captain Jackson, the 159th’s CO and an IP gave me a Stan ride during the afternoon. Fortunately, he had the foresight to throw in a little refresher training on hoist missions.

The crew gathered at the aircraft half an hour before I shift was to begin and we did the preflight and run up. Then we headed for the crew lounge to shoot some pool. Night times were pretty quiet since we’d move to Long Binh–nothing like the all night flying we’d been doing in the Delta, prior to the move.

I was comfortable with my crew. The Peter Pilot, David Smith was still a newby, but had a good head on his shoulders. Tom Pierce was the crew chief, and Mike Toomey the medic. Except for Smith, it was a crew I had flown with many times. We played a few games of eight ball, and Toomey decided he wanted to go to the ready room and get some sleep.

It was almost midnight and the rest of us were about ready to turn, when the phone rang. The three of us just looked at it, and slowly I picked it up. The RTO’s voice sounded a little excited. “Dustoff, sir,” he said.

Tom didn’t even wait for me to tell him to go get Toomey. Smith and I ran to aircraft. I untied the blades as he climbed in and strapped himself in. He was yelling “clear” and pulling the starter trigger as I climbed in the left seat.

The crew was with us before the rotor was in the green. Smith lifted off as I called Ops on Fox Mike. “Dustoff Ops, this 74, we’re off, what you got for us?”

“It’s a river boat, 74. Let me know when you’re ready to copy the coordinates.”

I pulled my plastic-covered map out of the leg pocket of my flight suit and fumbled around in the left sleeve pocket of my flight suit for a grease pencil. “Go Ahead.”

“Coordinates are xray-tango one-zero-four-four-zero-zero. It’s just south of Go Da Ha on the Vam Co Dong river.”

“Copy. What’s the contact?” I pointed to David to the northwest, and turned my attention back to getting the details of the mission. The lights of Saigon were bright off to our left. Visibility appeared good, but there was an overcast.

“Contact River Rat Three on thirty-eight, twenty-five.”


I moved the ICS selector up one setting and contacted the Air Force radar controller on UHF. “Paris Control, this is Dustoff 74, off Long Binh, headed for xray-tango-one-zero-four-four-zero-zero, squawking 1200.” I glanced quickly at the transponder and noticed we weren’t squawking anything. I moved the switch from ‘standby’ to ‘on’.

It took a minute before Paris came back. Meanwhile, I was looking for the FM frequency for the artillery advisory for Phu Loi. Before I found it, Paris advised me, ” Radar contact three clicks northwest of Long Binh. Looks like three-five-zero for three-five miles.”

“Roger,” I glanced at the RMI to make sure Smith was picking up the heading, then turned my attention back to getting us an artillery clearance.

There was no arty. I switched back to the Dustoff Ops frequency to see what else I could find out about the mission. The RTO was just full of good news. “They were disabled in an ambush, seven-four. When they called the mission in, they were still taking fire from one of the river banks. They’ve got two critically wounded.”

“Any chance for some guns?”

“Are you kidding?”

A few months earlier and we’d have had help from the Seawolves. There were Cobras at Bien Hoa—Blue Max. They were taking a beating, compliments of An Loc, Loc Ninh, and Tay Ninh, and weren’t putting up crews at night for the time being. There might be some Sabre guns available. I knew the RTO would be trying all his options. Meanwhile, we flew towards Go Da Ha, lights out at 2,000 feet, with no idea what to expect when we got there.

We passed north of Cu Chi and Trang Bang and I tried to pick up the river in the dim light. A little moon light would have been nice, but it wasn’t to be. Paddy told us we were getting close and needed to turn a little more to the north. David turned ten degrees to the right and I tuned to the tactical frequency we’d been given. Almost twenty-five minutes had passed since we’d left Long Binh.

“River Rat three, this is Dustoff seven-four.”

“Dustoff seven-four, this is River Rat three.” Was that a fifty cal I heard in the background?

“We’re about five minutes out. What’s your tactical situation?”

“Not good, Dustoff. We’re adrift and taking fire from the river bank. The engines got hit with an RPG. We’re taking water, and I’ve got four wounded, two critical, over.”

Not good, was right. They’re taking fire, they’re in the river, and we’ve got no guns. I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out.

“Can you mark your position for us?” I asked.

“Affirmative, Dustoff, but we’re still in the middle of the river. We’re trying to get downstream where we can get ashore, but we’ve been a little busy.”

I heard what came out of my mouth next, but didn’t believe I said it. “That’s okay, River Rat three. We can use the rescue hoist to get your wounded if we can locate your position.” Maybe it was because we had done some hoist training earlier in the day. It certainly wasn’t because I had a lot of experience with hoist missions. In fact, I’d never done a real one, except to sit and watch as a Peter Pilot. I’d never even seen one done at night. I heard noise behind me as Pierce and Toomey began to rig the hoist.

I still didn’t see the river, but suddenly I saw tracers ahead. Red ones, big red ones. There were green tracers coming from the opposite direction.

“We’ve got you in sight,” I told him. “Can you give us some lights for positioning?”

“We can give you our running lights,” he responded, “but you’ll be a sitting duck if you come up over us now.”

“Roger that, River Rat. How bad are your wounded?”

“Pretty bad, Dustoff. I’m not sure a couple of these guys are going to make it.”

“Let’s do our best to see that they do,” I told him. “Wait until you hear us approaching from over the river, then give us your running lights. We’ll come overhead with the hoist. Put the two most severely wounded on the jungle penetrator first and strap them on tight.”

“Roger, Dustoff, and thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” It was something my dad used to say when being thanked for helping someone.

This wasn’t going to be easy any way we tried it. Using the hoist and jungle penetrator required maintaining position directly over the pickup site. That was hard enough to do in the daytime over a stationary position. At night it would be extremely difficult due to the lack of visual references. The fact that the boat was drifting would make it even more difficult.

“I’ve got it,” I said, putting my hands on the controls.

“You’ve got it,” Smith said. I could almost hear him breathe a sigh of relief over the sound of the engine and rotors. Of course it was just my imagination.

As we flew up the river, the crew was preparing for the mission. Thank God, Pierce and Toomey knew more about what they were doing than I did. They had already switched their mikes to “hot mike” and were talking to me constantly. I was flying and looking outside, trying to keep my eyes accustomed to the dark and to locate visual references that I could relate to with my peripheral vision.

I could feel them in the back getting down on the floor. They were scanning the area below, had found the river and were guiding me up it toward the boat. He had turned on his running lights, which exposed him to more fire from the river bank. We were totally lights off outside the aircraft.

I told Smith what he had to do. It was his job to monitor the gauges and talk to me along with the crew. I flipped up the protective cover over the button that would allow me to cut the hoist cable in the event it became entangled. I could control the up and down of the hoist from a switch on the cyclic, but elected to let Tom do it from the pig tail control he had in the back, since he could see better than I could what was happening outside the aircraft.

“Dustoff, this is River Rat three. We hear you coming up the river near our position, but don’t see you.”

“Roger, three, we’ve got you in sight. Hold your position as best you can.”

We really didn’t need the lights to find them. Their position was obvious by the tracers coming and going in both directions. They were really pinned down so they couldn’t go to either bank until they got further downstream. Fortunately, the river was pretty wide at this point. I’d say it was fifty to sixty yards across, and the boat was closer to the bank opposite where the AK tracers were coming from. That would give us some relief.

I approached the boat slowly from the rear, trying to maintain about fifty feet above them. I knew from my training earlier in the day that if I got any lower the rotor wash would make it difficult to load the patients on the hoist. Any higher and the drift differential between the two craft would make it even more difficult. I was sweating, but too busy to wipe the sweat out of my eyes. I had slowed almost to a stop, but was behind the boat. I eased the cyclic forward just a little, then brought it back. I didn’t want to overshoot the boat and have to back up.

The crew continued their constant stream of instructions. “A little forward, sir. Right there, now. To your right. Stop. Hold it. Now forward, right there, hold it steady. Hoist going down, sir. Ten feet, twenty feet, twenty-five feet, forward, forward, hold it.” The raising and lowering of the hoist had to be done slowly to keep from burning up the motor.

It seemed to take forever. Meanwhile, the boat was moving and I was fighting the wind. “Forward. To your left. Down just a little. Hoist on the deck. Forward. Stop. One patient on. To your right, to your right. Second patient on. Bringing it up.”

The crew kept up their chatter. I was concentrating on the horizon, trying not to look at anything too close. The tendency to over-control was great. I had to work at holding the controls very still and making only very slight control movements when they were needed. Thinking about making a control input was almost all that was needed.

We had forgotten about the enemy firing at us. All of us had. We were too busy, and though tracers were flying past, none of them hit us. The crew was still talking. “Forty feet. Thirty feet. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Patients are on board, sir. Let’s go!”

I started climbing, glad to get out of there. I was ringing wet with sweat and a nervous wreck. The actual mission had taken less than five minutes, but it had seemed more like an hour to me. Toomey reported that both patients were still alive, and he went right to work on them. He told me we needed to get them to the hospital fast. I offered the controls to back to Smith and pointed him toward Long Binh.

“River Rat three, this is Dustoff seven-four. My medic tells me we need to get these guys to the hospital fast. Can the rest of your guys wait until we get back?”

“We can take care of the rest of these guys, Dustoff. You take care of those boys for us. They’re good men.”

“We’ll be back, River Rat. It’ll take us about an hour.”

We headed for the 24th Evac, alerting the hospital by radio that we were inbound. Thirty minutes later we had unloaded the two men and landed at Plantation to refuel. Then we headed back to the river.

When we arrived, we found that the patrol boat managed to bank on the opposite side of the river from its ambushers. They marked a clearing for us to land in and we picked up the remaining wounded men. We offered to take the entire crew in, but the skipper and his men wanted to stay with the boat. I didn’t envy them, but they said help was on its way.

We took the wounded men to the 24th Evac, then called it quits for the night. I was so tense when we landed back at Long Binh Dustoff that I just wanted to sit in the helicopter and unwind. That had been quite a mission. And it was my first mission since returning from R&R back in the States.

A quiet apology came from the back as we sat in the helicopter waiting for the rotor blades to coast to a stop. “Sorry, I didn’t call out the incoming back there, sir.” It was Toomey.

“Not a problem,” I told him. “We were all pretty busy.”

By David Freeman

Professional dedicated to training and equipping people to live safely in a dangerous world.

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