White Elephants

David Freeman

Back in the States there was a move on to gain support for the military. One of the ways this was accomplished was through a program called MAST (Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic). MAST was a pilot program being tried in San Antonio and a few other places around the country. In this program, Army medevac helicopters were being used to transport critically injured accident victims. This was done at no charge to the public, because it provided training opportunities for the medevac crews.

The medevac helicopters at Fort Sam Houston, and at Fort Rucker were painted white with red crosses on the front and both sides. We had red crosses on the nose and doors of our helicopters, also, but the helicopters were olive drab, just like everyone else’s. The red crosses were supposed to identify our aircraft as medical evacuation helicopters to the enemy so they wouldn’t shoot at us. Since the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had no regard for the Articles of War signed as part of the Geneva Accord, the only effect our red crosses had was to give them targets to aim at.

The brass decided that the reason our medevac helicopters were continually being shot up was because they weren’t easily identified as medevac choppers. Since we had white helicopters performing medical evacuation missions in the US of A, we ought to have white helicopters in Vietnam, too. That way they would be more easily recognizable as medevac helicopters, and maybe they wouldn’t shoot at us so much.

The idea didn’t have much appeal to those of us who had to fly the things. As far as we were concerned it would just make us better targets. We had no say about it, however, and in early January, 1972, we got word to fly one of our green birds up to Danang and exchange it for a freshly painted white one. Rick Slade, the Maintenance Officer, was going to make the trip and I got the opportunity to go along with him.

We left Navy Binh Thuy on January 9th for the northern part of the country. We wanted to make it a sight-seeing trip up through the mountains, having heard there was some beautiful country northeast of Saigon.

We made our first fuel stop at Long Binh, then headed up toward the mountain town of Dalat, which we had heard was a beautiful French resort town. Halfway up one of the mountain passes just southeast of Dalat, we had to turn around because of weather. Clouds obscured the mountaintops and were so low we couldn’t get through any of the passes that would take us to Dalat. Disappointed, we turned back south and headed up the coast to Nha Trang, where we spent the night at nearby Lane Army Airfield.

Lane had a good Officers’ Club with a live band. After enjoying them for a while, I went to bed. During the night there was a lot of artillery firing, but I was so tired I slept through most of it. The next morning I learned that some of the noise from the previous night had been from incoming rockets, one of which had hit the Officers’ Mess. Scout teams were heading out to the surrounding mountains to try to locate the source of the incoming rounds.

We left and headed up the coast with a stop at LZ English for fuel. Flying up the coast, it was easy to forget that we were in a war-torn country. The scenery was beautiful and there was no sign of war along the coast. All in all, it was a pleasant trip and a welcome diversion. We flew over the deserted Cam Ranh Bay airfield with its 12,000 foot concrete runways. Flying low level down one of the runways, it was hard to imagine that what was once a flourishing military base was now totally deserted.

We arrived at Danang and located our “White Elephant,” which was what our new white birds were beginning to be called. Ray Cech, one of my buddies from flight school was the Operations Officer at Danang Dustoff. He invited me to spend the night with him, an offer which I gladly accepted.

We were unable to leave the following day because the newly-painted helicopter was not quite ready. Ray had an instrument training flight scheduled for that night and I went along, riding in one of the jump seats. It was a welcome opportunity so see some more of the country.

We flew up to the Hue-Phu Bai area during the daylight and came back after dark. Much of the area we flew over was dotted with bomb craters from B-52 strikes. I took a lot of pictures of the sandy craters, plus some night photos of the airfields at Hue and Danang.

On the thirteenth of January we headed home with another stop at Nha Trang for the night. This time, all of the artillery was outgoing. We stopped in Long Binh for fuel and to show off our white helicopter. The only reason we didn’t get a lot of ribbing about it was that they knew it was just a matter of time before they got their own.

By David Freeman

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

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