November 4, 1971 was a busy night for the 57th Medical Detachment, otherwise known as “Delta Dustoff.” 1Lt. Steve Hamman was the first-up Aircraft Commander. Though he had a seasoned crew in back, he was saddled with me as Peter Pilot. I had barely a month in country and had been on the duty roster only a couple of weeks. When we walked into Operations after an early dinner and saw the mission board, we knew it was going to be a long night. The three VNAF crews had been humping all day and still the mission board was full. Charlie had been busy in the Delta.
Steve copied down the mission coordinates while I went out to preflight. When he came out to the aircraft, I was just climbing down from the top of the Huey, having completed a visual inspection of the main rotor system. The medic was busy securing the litters and checking his medical supplies, while the crew chief made his own inspection of the aircraft and logs. The Huey had just been through a periodic inspection that afternoon.
“We’ll get some action tonight,” Steve said as he hung his M-16 on the back of his armor-plated seat and zipped up his survival vest. “All of the missions were called in as secure. Odds are, at least half of them will be hot.”
Even as a newby, I knew what he meant. It was just one of those nuances of war the Dustoff crews had learned to live with. If a mission was called in hot, that meant the troops were engaged with the enemy, or as we called it, “in contact.” Army regulations required that we have gun cover whenever the troops were in contact. Gun cover was supplied by Cobras from Vinh Long or Can Tho, or the Navy Seawolves in their Mike Model Hueys. There were no more Charlie Model gunships in the Delta by this time.
A ground commander in contact knew that it took time to coordinate the gun cover between units. The gunships may be committed to another mission, or, as in this case, when the mission was at night, gun crews weren’t normally available without at least an hour’s notice. If you really needed gun cover under these circumstances, by the time you got it, it would be too late. If the ground commander was concerned about his troops and needed to get them out in a hurry, calling the mission in as secure was the only way to insure a rapid response from the medevac unit.
If the AO really was secure and the patient wounds weren’t that critical, it was a different story. The ground commander would figure “We’ve got time. We might as well let Dustoff get some gun cover, just in case.” So, the hot missions were often secure and the secure missions were often hot, and that’s just the way it was.
We loaded the aircraft with our personal weapons before strapping in. These weapons were a varied assortment, according to personal preference. All the crew weapons we carried were off books. Our assigned weapons were stored in the arms room, where they stayed. There was too much paperwork involved if an assigned weapon was lost or stolen.
I had an M-2 carbine, an M-16 taken off a dead ARVN, and a .38 Special Smith &amp; Wesson that had been given to me by one of the AC’s that had DEROSED. Steve Hamman flew with an M-79 grenade launcher and a .45 caliber “grease gun” (a machine gun that might have been used by a gangster in a different life), in addition to his “off books” M-16. The medic and crew chief each carried an AK-47 and an M-79.
Our first mission was near Vung Nem. It was an area that had been quiet for a while, but during the last few days the VC had been ambushing local ARVN patrols and raiding the villages.
As we approached the coordinates we had been given, we contacted the ground unit on the radio. The American advisor with the ARVN patrol advised that they had been ambushed a few minutes earlier. They were currently pursuing their attackers, who had fled to the south. He advised us to approach from the north to avoid enemy contact. He indicated he was receiving and returning sporadic small arms from the south.
The ARVNs were in a tree line bordering a small field. One of the ARVNs stepped out of the trees holding a battery-operated strobe light. I was at the controls; Steve was working the radio. We approached from the north, and landed in the field, just short of the strobe light. Soldiers ran out of the trees carrying five wounded ARVN soldiers and helped load them on the helicopter.
Less than 30 seconds after we touched down, the crew chief called, “Let’s go.” The medic was already bending over one of the patients, trying to seal a sucking chest wound.
I picked up the helicopter, backed it away from the trees, and made a 180 degree turn about the mast. Dipping the nose, I raced low-level across the field, picking up speed. Well before reaching the trees on the other side of the field, I pulled back on the cyclic and we zoomed into the air. A few shots were fired at us from beyond the trees, but nothing really close.
We dropped the patients off at the Vietnamese clinic in My Tho, then departed with enough fuel for another mission.
Paddy Control vectored us to a site just north of Vinh Long. The RTO with the ground unit advised they were in the midst of a firefight, and had three critically wounded requiring immediate evacuation. He told us he would build us a small fire to identify the landing site, which was on the north side of a small canal that ran east and west. Immediately we saw two small fires along the canal. No tracers were visible at this time, indicating a lull in the fighting.
Steve was flying now. I was working the radios. “I’ve got two small fires, Red Dog,” I radioed. “Which are you?”
“We’ve got to be the one nearest you, Dustoff. It sounds like you’re right on top of us.”
We weren’t on top of either fire, but it probably seemed that way to him. A Huey can be awfully loud, especially at night when you can’t see it. By this time Steve had descended to about 200 feet and was flying slowly along the canal. We were totally dark, with all outside lights off. Steve indicated he didn’t feel too good about the situation. I didn’t either.
“Ask him if he’s the east fire or the west fire,” Steve told me. I relayed the question.
“I don’t see another fire, Dustoff, but if you’ve got two, we should be the one to the east,” Red Dog replied.
We were almost on top of that east fire and Steve lowered the collective. The whole crew was uneasy, and we expressed as much to each other. Something just didn’t feel right. Steve told me to hit the landing light. As soon as I did, all hell broke loose. Our windshield filled with green tracers, red tracers, and orange tracers. It looked like a fireworks display. Miraculously they all converged at a point twenty or thirty yards in front of us. My immediate thought was that it was like we had a giant invisible shield in front of us.
I turned off the landing light and Steve altered his approach to land at the other fire. He keyed the mike switch on his cyclic and calmly advised, “No, Red Dog, you’re the west fire.”
We made the pickup and departed to the north without taking any more fire. We left the three patients from that pickup at Vinh Long, landing at the river helipad, where an ambulance met us. We then went to Dong Tam to refuel.
The refueling was done “hot” since Dong Tam, once a sprawling American base, was now left with only a few ARVNs to defend it.
We made several more pickups as the night progressed, including some civilians from a little village. The VC had come through and shot up the place, including women and children. We took these casualties to the My Tho hospital. When we stumbled into breakfast around 7:00 a.m., we were one tired crew. We had flown eleven sorties during nine and a half hours of flight. The total patient count for the night was thirty-seven. All survived.