The 1968 Vietnam monsoon season had come to an end. From high in the air, the Plain of Reeds looked like an endless field of wheat swaying back and forth like gentle waves, half submerged in water. Hundreds of white cranes flew below our helicopter in no particular direction. High above large dark storm clouds from an earlier tropical rain slid eastward. The temperature was dropping as darkness approached. It would be a damp, dark, moonless night.
A Green Beret sergeant sat in the open doorway of the UH-1H Huey helicopter with his feet resting outside on the skids. Behind him sat seven small Vietnamese soldiers. None looked to be over twenty years old. The sergeant had personally recruited and trained them. They were his men, and they would follow him to hell and back. That is exactly where we were taking them… deep in the Delta of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border.
The Plain of Reeds had been designated a free-fire zone, and anything that moved got killed, no questions asked. The only creators that ventured here were snakes, birds, leeches, millions of mosquitoes, and the Viet Cong.
The Communists had used these canals to transport supplies from Cambodia into Vietnam for many years. But tonight, the VC would have unexpected company.
The Vietnamese soldiers wore the tiger-striped uniforms and red berets. They carried M-2 carbines, including their American leader. The Vietnamese looked tiny compared to the big, black Green Beret. He weighed twice as much as any of them. His bulging muscles strained the seams of his uniform.
We dropped to fifty feet and slowed down. Several times we hovered over the reeds for a few moments, then flew on. This was to disguise the location where we would insert these men. We repeated the maneuver over a large area to confuse prying eyes.
The sun had just slid below the horizon when the big sergeant pointed to an area next to a large canal, indicating where he wanted to be inserted. I spoke into the intercom, directing the pilot to hover next to the canal. Their fearless leader yelled something to his men in Vietnamese and they slid closer to the open doors of our helicopter.
Thinking the water was only about two feet deep, he stepped off the skid, then disappeared below the water. His men scrambled to the side of the helicopter, yelling in Vietnamese, their eyes filled with fear.
I disconnected my harness and stepped out onto the skid to see if I could find him. He came out of the water spitting and sputtering. He grabbed the skid with his left hand. Several Vietnamese grabbed his arm and held on tight. The Green Beret calmly handed his rifle to one of them. He had a big smile on his face.
I asked the pilot if he would lower the helicopter, but by the time he had, the sergeant was already abroad. His beret floated to the surface nearby. One of his men reached out and grabbed it. The sergeant asked the pilot to fly west along the canal so he could find another location.
I didn’t like going west because the Cambodian border was west. Bad things happened when you got too close to the border.
If the near-drowning bothered the Green Beret, you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He studied his map, searching for something. I thought it was useless because there were no landmarks pinpointing our current position.
Suddenly, the Vietnamese soldiers started talking all at the same time while pointing out of the other side of the helicopter. The door gunner came over the intercom stating there was dry land on his side. The pilot swung the chopper around. Below us was an area of about thirty yards wide and forty yards long that wasn’t covered by water. The highest point was only a few inches above the water line, but it was dry. The sergeant pointed down, indicating he wanted us to put them on that mound. The pilot brought the bird to a hover over the elephant grass about three feet above the ground. A moment later, all eight men stood on the mound with smiles on their faces.
After seeing what had happened to their leader earlier, they were lucky not to be soaked all night. I would have hated spending the night in this hellhole.
I slid a case of C-rations from under my seat to the men. If they had to be cold and eaten alive by mosquitoes, at least they wouldn’t go hungry. The huge Green Beret gave me a thumbs-up. I hoped this wasn’t their last meal.
They were emptying their backpacks, preparing to set up an ambush as we lifted into the sky. We touched down several more times within a mile or so to confuse anyone watching, then lifted into the fading light toward Vinh Long.
On the ride back, I wondered about the men we had just deployed. I admired the courage it took to put themselves in harm’s way so many miles from anyone that could assist them in an emergency. They were on their own, depending on each other for survival.
I thought about the heroic spiel the Green Berets had given us during basic training while attempting to recruit men for the Special Forces. They had tempted me. Now, I was glad I had chosen aviation. I never considered myself a coward by any means, but I had to wonder if I had the mettle it took to be in Special Forces. I admired them, but I didn’t envy them. A hot meal and a soft, warm bunk awaited me at Vinh Long.
The next morning, we lifted off before daylight and headed back to pick up the men we had dropped off the night before. We received a report that they had made contact with the Viet Cong during the night and needed two helicopters to transport them and their captured weapons back to their base.
When we arrived, the men were wading in and out of the canal, dragging cases of ammo, AK-47 rifles, and explosives onto their tiny island. They had quite a cache of arms piled up at one end, including two small outboard motors. The VC used the motors to push the long wooden boats, called sampans, for transporting personal and supplies. The South Vietnamese soldiers had pulled one sampan up on shore. It was full of holes. Two others were sunk in the canal.
At the far end of the island lay seven naked bodies lined up on the ground like a stringer of fish. At first, I thought they were Caucasian because they were so white. But upon closer examination, I could tell they were Asian because of their facial expressions, eyes wide open, staring up at me. No blood was apparent. Numerous wounds caused by explosives and bullet holes riddled their bodies.
It took a few moments for my mind to register what I was looking at. These men had been killed in the ambush during the night and had spent hours lying in the water. They had bled out, causing them to look waxy white. The Vietnamese soldiers recovered their bodies this morning and stripped them of anything useful to the enemy.
Our wingman landed in the middle of the island between the bodies and the cache of munitions. The Green Beret and his men loaded the chopper full of recovered items. I felt good knowing these weapons would never make it into the hands of the enemy and be used to kill Americans.
As soon as our wingman lifted off with the weapons, we landed in his spot. The troops and their fearless leader climbed abroad. The Green Beret gave me a thumbs-up indicating they were ready to go.
The seven ghostly Viet Cong bodies remained lying in the hot sun, attracting flies as we flew away. The big sergeant had no intention of taking them with us, or he would have asked for a third helicopter.
As soon as we were airborne, the Green Beret started opening C-rations with his GI-issued P-38 can opener. He handed them to his smiling men. Their faces, necks, and arms were covered with welts from hundreds of mosquitos that fed on them during the night. The sight made me itch. I hoped they had been taking their malaria pills. The sergeant had been in the canal recovering supplies with his men. He was just as wet now as he was when we dropped him off.
The last can he opened was a muffin. He started to bite into it and noticed me watching him. He stopped, smiled, and offered me the muffin. I shook my head. I thought this simple act of kindness from a man who had successfully set an ambush and killed seven men only hours before showed his true character. He was willing to kill the enemy at a moment’s notice, without hesitation, yet had compassion for all men he considered his friends.
I wondered where men like this came from. I felt humbled. I knew he was much more of a man than I was.
We worked with him a few more times that year. He was a true professional and a fearless warrior. I don’t know if he survived the war or not. I wish I knew his name. I’d sure like to shake his hand today and tell his grandchildren what a brave warrior he was.
He was only one of many unsung heroes of the Vietnam War I had the privilege of serving with.