A Day at Phuc Hoa Island

David Freeman

One of our rare treats was the monthly Medcap to Phuc Hoa Island. Phuc Hoa was a beautiful place, actually closer to Thailand than to Vietnam. If belonged to the Vietnamese, however, and was the home of a large POW camp. Most of the POWs there were Viet Cong, but some were from the regular North Vietnamese Army. The cadre of the camp had an active indoctrination program, where they tried to turn the sentiments of the prisoners to the South Vietnamese cause. In many cases they were successful.

The purpose of the monthly trip to Phuc Hoa was to take a couple of doctors, a dentist, and a nurse to the POW camp so they could treat the prisoners. For the Dustoff crews it was as much of a vacation as the occasional trips to Vung Tau. Though on opposite coasts, both places were beautiful, with peaceful beaches and a serenity that made it easy to forget the war for a while.

There was a separate roster for the Phuc Hoa trip so that everybody, both pilots and crewmembers, would get a chance to go. On the day it was my turn, Steve Hamman was the AC. He had been before, so knew the ropes. We drew our “Mae West” inflatable life vests from supply and went over ditching procedures with our crew and passengers.

There was considerable speculation about the information that was in the Huey’s dash-10 about ditching at sea. Some of the experiences reported by flight crews that had actually done it contradicted information that was in the manual. We discussed all the options and decided that if we were going down, we would jettison the doors as discussed in the manual, but instead of trying to keep the aircraft upright, we would roll it to the right in order to get the blades to stop turning and to have some degree of control over what the transmission and mast assembly would do when they hit the water. We made sure our passengers knew what was expected of them and how they should exit the aircraft.

We flew out to Rach Gia (pronounced “Rock Jaw”) and refueled prior to heading out over the open sea. Once before I had flown off this coast line to evacuate a patient from a destroyer that was a few miles out at sea. This time the over-water portion of our flight would last about forty-five minutes.

The sea was beautiful below us, but haze made the horizon difficult to discern. That was something the Navy pilots had warned us about. The lack of a distinguishable horizon made it imperative that we rely upon our instruments while cross the ocean. Just a few weeks earlier, we had all been saddened by the loss of one of our favorite Black Pony pilots, Brad Hawkins. Brad had been out over the South China Sea in his OV-10, doing aerobatics. While some of his buddies looked on, he had spun into the sea. Since he was an excellent and experienced pilot, they could only speculate that he had lost his bearings in relation to the horizon and had not realized how low he had gotten.

Today I was doing the flying. As we headed out of Rach Gia, I found myself thinking about Brad. He had been a family man, with three kids and a beautiful wife. He was always showing their pictures around the Officers’ Club. Brad had flown a lot of close air support missions and had come through them unharmed. The day he died, he was just playing around. It was his last week in-country.

The Black Pony pilots were special to us. They flew beside us when things got hot and laid down good covering fire when we needed it. Never did one of them pull up when the mission was too hot. They also knew that if they went down, a Dustoff crew wouldn’t hesitate to pick them up. We traded rides from time to time. They all wanted stick time in helicopters, and we all wanted some back seat time in their hot little turboprops. They wouldn’t ever let one of us get by without an attempt to impress us with their aerobatic skills. I didn’t have the stomach for it, so I passed on the Black Pony rides. If there was a guy I would have ridden with, it would have been Brad Hawkins.

As the flight droned on, I carried on my mental musings. The flight across the sea seemed to take forever. There was nothing to look at but blue-blue sky, blue sea, and not much to distinguish between the two. We couldn’t even listen to the Armed Forces Radio Network on the ADF, because it was tuned to and NDB on the island. Steve was quiet, as were the guys in back. The two doctors, the dentist, and the nurse all appeared to be asleep. I found myself starting to nod off, but when I looked over at Steve, his eyes were closed, also. I decided I had better pay attention, so concentrated on fine-tuning my instrument flying skills.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Phuc Hoa island appeared ahead. Once we saw it on the horizon, we seemed to be there in no time. We dropped the medical team off at the prison headquarters, then flew over to the beach on the east side of the island.

The sand was as white as any I’ve seen. We parked the Huey in the shade of a couple of palm trees, then took off our flight suits and went swimming in the ocean. After a while we spread some litters out on the sand and basked in the warm sunshine. There was just enough breeze to make it feel like we were in paradise.

We spent the day there-swimming, sunbathing, walking along the beach, in general, just relaxing from the pressures of combat flying. When we got hungry, we ate our favorite snacks from the case of C-rations that was in the helicopter. The day went by slowly, but when it was time to pick up the medical team and head for home, we weren’t ready to go. We dressed in slow motion, before finally climbing into the Huey and firing it up. As we left the island, the sun was setting at the end of a very peaceful day.

By David Freeman

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

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