On December 3rd, 1968. I was flying crew chief/door gunner with the 7th Squadron 1st Air Cavalry on a UH1-H troop-carrying helicopter called a Slick. Our mission was to pick up American soldiers who had been patrolling a thick tree line along a canal near the Cambodian border. It was early afternoon on a hot clear day. They had been out all day in the middle on nowhere frying in the blazing sun. The soldiers had moved eastward about 500 meters away from the canal into the tall elephant grass to be picked up.
This was not supposed to be a “hot” landing zone. We approached with four helicopters in formation and my helicopter was the second in line. As we approached the green smoke grenade the soldiers had use to mark their location, they laid flat on the ground. Not what I’d expect for a cold LZ.
The next moment our helicopters were fired upon from the tree line with a .51-caliber machine gun. All four helicopters took hits. The first round that struck my helicopter came through the left copilot’s windshield and exited the fuse panel located on the roof between the pilot and copilot’s seats.
The second bullet struck the side of the helicopter just above my head and a few inches to the right at about a 45-degree angle. A hole about the size of a quarter appeared above the door. The bullet ripped a large gouge two inches wide and two feet long across the roof just above my head. Gray insulation rained down on me. The round continued through the aircraft and exited out the other side.
The third round missed my right shoulder by a couple of inches, slammed into the base of the transmission mount, tearing a large hole in the mount. Small pieces of shrapnel penetrated my right shoulder, but I didn’t know it at the time. The bullet ricocheted through the wall on my left and exited through the side door that was locked back in the open position. It literally made a 90-degree turn around me.
All three hits sounded like grenades exploding inside my helicopter. The helicopter started to gain air speed but shook so badly that couldn’t gain altitude. We were limping sideways away from the tree line. I raked the tree line with my M-60 machine gun as my crippled bird hobbled away. I kept firing until we were so low that I was afraid I might shoot our troops on the ground.
The fourth helicopter, piloted by Warrant Officer, James Byrd, took a round between the fuel cell and the transmission. He pulled up and to the right.
Our pilot broadcast, “Mayday, Mayday, we’re going down!” I thought we were going to crash and possibly flip over. It was a hard landing, but the pilot kept us upright and we didn’t catch fire. James Byrd turned back and followed us down. He landed on the far side of our chopper away from the machine gun. Our crew abandoned our helicopter as fast as possible and scrambled into Byrd’s chopper as fast as we could. He took off without taking any more hits.
Once we were safely out of range, Major Rodrigues called for any available “fast movers” in the area. A Navy jet pilot came over the radio stating they had two jets in the area. They were briefed on the situation and given our coordinates. A couple of minutes later, they came streaking out of the northeast. The jet fighters did a flyby to access the situation. After spotting the smoke the infantry had popped to mark the LZ, the planes were instructed to bomb the tree line to the west of the smoke.
The jets then disappeared. A few seconds later, they reappeared coming in low and fast, one behind the other. As they flew past the ground troops, four silver canisters tumbled toward their target. The napalm took out three hundred feet of thick trees and brush in a huge ball of fire. The infantry reported a direct hit on the location of the .51 machine gun. No more gunfire came from that tree line.
The ground soldiers secured my helicopter until we could get another chopper to pick it up and take it back to base.
Since our birds were crippled, other slicks were called from Vinh Long to remove the ground troops after my helicopter was airlifted out. None of the soldiers on the ground were injured and all made it back to their base before dark.
I can’t remember who my pilot, copilot, or door gunner was on that flight. I remember that James Byrd and his crew chief, Jim Howard rescued me and it wouldn’t be the last time.
In December of 2000, my mother passed away. While cleaning out her house, I found a framed telegram from the Army dated December 5, 1968, notifying my mother that I had been shot down and had received minor wounds. I never knew she had received a telegram, why she would have kept it, or why she had it framed.
Years later I watched the movie; We Were Soldiers Once and Young. The scene was where the wives at Fort Benning were receiving telegrams notifying them that their husbands had been killed or wounded. It tore at my heart. I then realised how painful it must have been for my mother to have received that telegram. Because it was important to her, I kept the telegram to remind me of her, and a bad day in the Delta.