War Stories 20
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The Ghost Writer
by John Zwalinski
The intense Central Highlands sun mercilessly beat down on the
corrugated metal roof of the long building that contained the dispensary's four
wards. Undoubtedly, the roof was creaking and
straining as the blistering heat of the sun expanded the metal. Inside,
we had to contend with an uncomfortable temperature that would
have been unbearable, were it not for the small measure of relief that
the noisy, oscillating floor fans provided. AFRVN was transmitting the
sounds of the 5th Dimension tune, Up, up, and away, my beautiful, my
beautiful balloon! I thought, yeah, wouldn't that be nice. Thai's
radio, tuned to the RVN station, announced the time. BEEP-BEEP-
BEEP! Hai gio! 1400.
We finished dispensing early afternoon
medications; and, admitted several patients that Bacsi Mang sent our
way. Shortly thereafter, Thai, Thua, and I were caught-up in an
amusing scene. In the intense light of day, a rat dared to make a rude
appearance, and we had it trapped between the medication closet and
the corner of the wall near the medics station. Now, I knew from the
tales that I heard as a kid, that the rats that populated grain elevators
were nasty. So nasty, in fact, that mean feral felines wanted no parts
of them. True, the current venue was not a grain elevator, but I knew
that this rodent, when cornered, could be aggressive and inflict a nasty
bite. I dismissed the idea, really, a brainless musing, of putting an M-
16 round through the beast. Instead, we chose to do shooting of a
different kind. Thua grabbed a can of insect spray, the generic olive
drab GI version of Raid, or whatever. This stuff, though, had a high
concentration of DDT. The spray seemed to be doing the job; because,
the rat was on its side, flailing away.
Predictably, our activity attracted
a curious entourage of onlookers. They were shouting in spirited, sing-
song Vietnamese. Thua interpreted, "What do you do? What do you
do?" The English equivalent sounded humdrum. I recognized one of
the kids with whom I always joked. So, I did a silly whistle through my
lower lip and teeth and hollered, "Hey! Hey!" The typical response
would be a playful barrage of Vietnamese profanities, with a unique,
and I thought, humorous imitation, "Hey! Hey!" But, this time I was
treated to the cute response, "Why chu see-peak wheet-wheet?" What
it was, was a question: " Why are you whistling?" Ah, wheet-wheet
means whistle. Sometimes, I would hear the variation, "Why chu
whittle?" I was so enmeshed in the festivities, that I took no note that
Sergeant Tung stepped into the ward. "Hey!", he called out.
Unwittingly, he signaled the crowd to didi the area. I snapped around,
and I could not help but be amused by his quizzical look. I swiped the
sweat away from my forehead, and waved, blowing off the nonsense
that puzzled him. "This? No sweat! We're tryin' to kill a rat.
It's trapped behind the medication closet."
Sergeant Tung, one of a
handful of ARVN interpreters who worked at the Villa during the hiatus
of Sergeant's Dai's and Sergeant Tinh's tenure, did not
bother to acknowledge my explanation. Obviously, he had something
important to discuss. "I want for you to help me with something." I
noted the papers he was holding and tapping on his free hand.
"Sure", I said, "I just hope I can." The papers that Tung held
consisted of a letter written by Mr. Mang and Tung's translation.
As I skimmed Tung's translation, I perked up. A glance at him told
me that he could not quite get a read on my widened eyes. "Is it
something wrong?" he asked, with a hint of anxiety. "No. No." I
patted him on the shoulder. "I see that Mr. Mang has written this letter
to General Tolson. That made me take note." I was not certain that
Tung exactly understood what I meant by, "take note". But, his
approving nod confirmed that he appreciated that I understood that
this letter bore a significant message. Mang expressed gratitude for
the Cav's assistance in maintaining the An Khe Dispensary. He
personalized the General's role through the embellishing
expression, "You well know the suffering of the Vietnamese people." Mang , the Civil Servant, had savoir faire. He recognized the need to
tap the power and authority of the Cav's CG. If Tolson believed
that his people played a significant role in the "hearts and minds"
mission, General Westmoreland's cause célèbre, the Dispensary would
continue to receive support through the 15th Medical Battalion's MEDCAP. It would, in raw parlance, "stay in business." I did not
think to question why Tung asked me to evaluate his translation. That
he did not approach one of the other GIs, was lost on me. "Tung", I
assured, "Your translation is very fine. I understand that Mr. Mang is
very grateful for the help the Cav gives to the hospital." "Ah", Tung
responded with a snappy nod. "Then, I can finish letter and give Mr.
Mang sign and send to General Tolson?" "Um.." I hesitated. "Wait,
Tung " I tapped on the medics desk, "I have an idea. Let me read over
your text. I'll expand on what Mr. Mang has to say." "Expand?
What is this?" Tung peered at me through a squinty eye. "You have
told me.." "Sure", I reassured, "Your translation is very fine." "But", I
explained, "When I attended Penn State University, I was placed in
English 2, Expression Of Ideas. I did very well in that course. I just
think that you will like what I will write and Mr. Mang will like the good
job that you did. Besides, the General should be very pleased when he
reads the letter." "Then, that is very good." Tung nodded approvingly.
"You can do it."
Tung understood that I would remain in the
background; and, as far as anyone would know, the translated letter
would be his jewel. Surely, Mang would be so pleased that he would
utter the Vietnamese equivalent of, "I couldn't have said it better
myself!" My task was basic, really. I had to make certain that the text
did not project insincerities. Sugar coating of any sort would defeat Mang's intended objective: to keep the An
operating. The General would read: Sir, you have shown compassion
for the Vietnamese people who must daily wage a battle against the
ravages of suffering, sickness, and death. Your compassion is
expressed not only in words, but in your deeds and largesse. You
recognize that access to medical treatment plays a critical role in the
people's lives. You have made it possible for very materially poor
and sick people to be treated by the finest doctors and receive the
finest of medicines. So often, we have witnessed the joy of parents
when their child is rescued from certain death. And, the joy of
husbands and wives as their loved ones recover from sick bodies. How
can we possibly thank you? What price can we place on life and well
being? That was the text that I developed from the original, "You
well know the suffering of the Vietnamese people."
When the General
read the expanded statement, would he get the sense that Mang was
telling him that he understood the suffering of the Vietnamese people?
Well, that is exactly what I had in mind. Tung nodded with approval
as I reviewed the text. There was, however, one other important
detail. I suggested, "Tung, try to have this letter typed on official
stationery. That will really make a good impression. Maybe Mr. Mang can
help." Tung patted me on the back. And he beamed,
"Can do!" About a month later, Tung was assigned to
a line outfit; and, SGT Thinh succeeded him as the interpreter. I did not mention Mr. Mang's letter or Tung's translation. As for my role in this affair, it was
ephemeral; insignificant, really. So, I thought. But, soon after Tinh
became the interpreter, the An Khe Dispensary received a
AEROMEDICAL EVACUATION ASPECTS OF THE BATTLE OF IA DRANG VALLEY: 14-18 NOV 1965
by Terry A. McCarl, Historian, 15th Medical Battalion Association
With Input from:
Charles W. Johnson and Robert R. Hawkins, Jr.
The purpose of this story is to set the record straight on the
performance of Medevac (15th Medical BN, 1st Cavalry Division) during the
Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, 14-18 November 1965. Numerous
accounts of the battle refer to the effect that Medevac refused to go into
LZ X-Ray on November 14, 1965, to evacuate wounded. Such was not the case,
as discussed in this story.
In mid-November of 1965, Medevac was relatively new in Vietnam. Medevac
had been operating in Vietnam since September 1965 and had suffered one KIA,
CPT Charles F. Kane, Pilot on October 12, 1965. There were a total of 12
Medevac aircraft assigned to the Air Ambulance Platoon, HSC, 15th Med Bn,
with their main base being An Khe. During the battle in Ia Drang Valley,
which took place over approximately 30 days, from one to three Medevac ships
were located at Camp Holloway and other temporary locations such as Catecka
and LZ Falcon near Pleiku in support of operations in the Ia Drang Valley.
The pilots of these crews were:
- CPT Guy S. Kimzey (Deceased 1972)
flew with WO1 Joseph Holmes, Jr. (Deceased 2012)
- CW3 Billy B. Swatzell (Deceased 2015) flew with WO1 Robert Hawkins
- CW3 James D. O'Neil (Deceased 2002) flew with WO1 Charles W. "Chuck"
- Johnson and Hawkins are the only surviving pilots of that group. No
records exist as to who served as a medic or crew chief in these crews.
Ia Drang Valley Vicinity Map from the 1st Cav in Vietnam:
Anatomy of a Division by Shelby L. Stanton.
On November 14, 1965, the 1st BN of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under the
command of LTC Harold G. "Hal" Moore was moving from the Plei Me Special
Forces camp into LZ X-Ray. About 100 of the 450 soldiers in his BN were
delivered to the LZ by A Company, 229th AHB (Assault Helicopter Battalion).
The unit came under surprise attack by an enemy force of approximately 2000.
The enemy fire was so intense that LTC Moore, from time to time, closed
the LZ to all incoming aircraft. However, he had several serious problems.
His troops on LZ X-Ray had sustained numerous wounded and were also running
low on ammunition, water, and medical supplies. It was imperative to get
aircraft into and out of the LZ before they ran out of ammunition.
According to Johnson and Hawkins, none of the Medevac crews "refused" to
go into X-Ray at any time.
On November 14, 1965, Medevac was not requested to fly into LZ X-Ray
because of a very heavy enemy fire. In the After-Action Report on the Ia
Drang Valley Battle dated December 9, 1965, then COL Harold G. Moore stated,
"I did not call in Medevac helicopters too frequently because most of the
afternoon (of November 14, 1965), the LZ was under fire." (Click
for the full
In an email response to Johnson from Joe Galloway on January 17, 2003,
after Johnson questioned Galloway on the book where the comment was made
that Medevac refused to go into LZ X-Ray; Galloway responded, "The problem
was that the 1st Cav Div. had a policy that medevac birds could NOT go into
any LZ that had not been Green, no incoming, for five minutes unbroken. Try
to find one of them in the Ia Drang. It was policy, not cowardice. And the
Cav changed the policy after that first year."
At that time, Medevac helicopters did not have M-60 machine guns. Also,
Medevac crews were under instructions not to transport ammunition under the
rules of the Geneva Convention. There was also a policy that Medevac would
not fly into any LZ unless it were "green," defined as having not received
enemy fire for at least 5 minutes. Presumably, the 15th Medical Battalion
(BN) Commanding Officer (CO) at that time, LTC Jueri J. Svjagintsev
(Deceased-2005), made this policy. Enemy fire at LZ X-Ray that morning was
The "slicks" of A Company 229th AHB could legitimately carry ammunition,
as well as water, and medical supplies and could return with wounded. They
had M-60 machine guns, and their crews included a door gunner. The
supporting medical treatment facility, C Company, 15th Medical BN, was at
Camp Holloway near Pleiku, 36 miles, or 18 minutes by helicopter away from
X-Ray. Camp Holloway was also the source of ammunition, water, and medical
supplies. MAJ Bruce Crandall, CO of A Co., 229th AHB, and CPT Ed Freeman,
were willing to haul ammunition, water, and medical supplies into X-Ray and
haul wounded out, but the travel time between X-Ray and Holloway was
The plan was to stockpile ammunition, water, and medical supplies brought
from Camp Holloway to LZ Falcon. This placed supplies only five miles or
three to five minutes by helicopter from X-Ray. Thus, Crandall and Freeman
loaded ammunition, water, and medical supplies onto their slicks at Falcon,
flew into X-Ray, unloaded the cargo, loaded up the wounded, and flew back to
Falcon. Wounded were transferred to the three Medevac helicopters there at
Falcon, who then transported them to the C Co., 15th Med BN, Clearing
Station at Camp Holloway. Wounded needing advanced treatment were generally
subsequently taken by Caribou to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon.
Crandall and Freeman repeated this sequence of hauling ammunition, water,
and medical supplies from Falcon to X-Ray 22 and 14 times, respectively,
until about 2230 that night. They also returned with an estimated 70 wounded
from LZ X-Ray.
In an interview on November 11, 2005, at the observance of the 40th
anniversary of the Battle of IA Drang, MAJ Ed Freeman related that on every
single trip from Falcon to X-Ray, their aircraft were both loaded with all
the ammunition, water, and supplies they could cram into them.
The entire operation was highly efficient and effective in getting LTC
Moore's BN through the first day.
At some point during the evening of November 14, 1965, enemy fire
conditions at LZ X-Ray moderated, and Medevac was able to land there and
evacuate wounded to Camp Holloway.
On a CBS News Special that aired on November 30, 1965, Captain Guy Kimsey
was interviewed by Morely Safer on the evening of November 14, 1965, after
completing a harrowing Medevac mission into and out of X-Ray earlier that
evening. Furthermore, on subsequent days, November 15-17, Medevac performed
numerous aeromedical evacuations from LZ's X-Ray, Albany, and Columbus to C
Co., 15th Medical BN at Camp Holloway. During the entire period of 14-17
November 1965, those three Medevac crews were flying almost continuously,
carrying wounded from Falcon to Holloway, or directly from X-Ray to
Records of the flights by Medevac during the period from 14-17 November
1965 were not retained, but Chuck Johnson has the letters he sent to his
parents while he served in Vietnam. He states, "I wrote a letter home on
November 19, 1965, from Pleiku and said that I had flown 7 hours at night,
flying wounded out of LZ Albany where the Cav was in a major firefight with
many wounded and KIA's. My birthday is November 18, and I will never forget
the night of November 17 into the morning of the 18th as a hell of a way to
spend a birthday. Normally, they would shut down the artillery when we went
into a hot LZ but not at Albany; it was the only thing keeping them from
A total of 258 wounded were evacuated from LZ's X-Ray, Albany, and
Columbus from 14-18 November 1965. Approximately 70 were evacuated from
X-Ray by Crandall and Freeman. A total of 237 were KIA, and four were MIA.
For their incredibly courageous actions on November 14, 1965, CPT Ed
Freeman and MAJ Bruce Crandall were awarded the Medal of Honor on July 16,
2001, and February 26, 2007, respectively.
The citation for Freeman's MOH contained the wording, "After medical
evacuation helicopters refused to fly into the area due to intense enemy
fire, Captain Freeman flew 14 separate rescue missions, providing
life-saving evacuation of an estimated 30 seriously wounded soldiers – some
of whom would not have survived had he not acted." This sentence and
variations thereof were repeated in numerous references.
Crandall's and Freeman's actions on November 14, 1965, showed extreme
bravery and deserving of the Medal of Honor. However, to say that Medevac
refused to fly into LZ X-Ray on November 14, 1965, is not a correct
As a point of interest: In mid-January of 1966, all Medevac helicopters
got M-60 machine guns and a door gunner assigned to all Medevac crews. At
about the same time, the "Green LZ" policy was discontinued.
WO1 Charles W. "Chuck" Johnson Flying Medevac 1965-66
WO1 Robert R. "Bob" Hawkins on USNS Upshur on a trip to Vietnam 1965
Phil Marshall's Note:
I believe that Terry McCarl's research is spot-on; in the early days, the
44th Medical Brigade, which commanded all Dustoff units, and the 15th
Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, could not afford to lose aircraft
and crews, so their Commanding Officers put restrictions on their use and
exposure. As the war went on, more aircraft and crews became more plentiful
and, therefore, more expendable. Yes, helicopters and crews, more
As a Dustoff (Medevac) Huey pilot, I have always taken immense pride in
the fact that we were always there for our brothers on the ground. In a
previous book, I even quoted an anonymous Marine…" I knew you'd come!" And I
know that I am speaking for all the pilots and "guys in the back" that we
flew as medevac aircrew. We didn't hesitate and called off the mission
because it might get a little (a lot?) risky. Even at night (40% of our
rescue missions were at night) or in inclement weather, we even risked the
aircraft and crew for wounded enemy soldiers. However, we might be a little
reluctant to take a considerable risk for a wounded enemy. Point being, we
did not refuse missions for our guys!
Fifty years of memories are not always accurate. Shoot, 50 seconds after
different people see the same car accident, memories differ! Can I say with
100% accuracy that no Aircraft Commander ever refused a rescue mission? No,
of course not. But one would be very hard-pressed to find that instance,
VERY hard pressed.
In my opinion, why did we rarely, rarely, rarely refuse a mission? IF I
had refused a mission, then the ground unit would have called someone else.
That crew may have completed the mission, which would make me look like a
coward or, at the very least, my ability to be an Aircraft Commander would
come into question. Or, if that "replacement crew" had been shot down and
perhaps all killed, then that would be on my conscience for the rest of my
life, that they died taking MY mission.
All of us that flew Dustoff and Medevac were volunteers, or at least we
volunteered for Flight School and accepted our assignments. Anyone could
have quit at any time. I would guess that only about 1% quit if that. So why
would we continue to fly those high-risk missions, knowing that we were over
three times more likely to be a casualty?
Again, in my opinion, we all got an incredible rush from doing it,
knowing that we were saving lives and easing suffering. Even the "cheating
death" sometimes gave us a rush. It would put a smile on my face, knowing I
got away with it again. Adrenaline highs that we would never again
experience anything close. But most of all, for me, doing something that was
so extraordinary, so incredible that only a very few could ever experience,
I knew when my last rescue mission was flown that I could never come close
to all those feelings again. It's hard to describe, but one of two things
would happen in the aircraft when we had those particularly "scary" missions
where we cheated death.
While the patients were on board, and we were on the way to the hospital,
sometimes as fast as possible, it was still all business. The unnecessary
talk was limited so that the medic and crew chief could care for the
wounded. More than once I heard the medic say "Could you slow it down a
little bit, I'm trying to pop an IV" as the vibrating helicopter smoothed
out with the slower speed. "OK, got it!" and we eased the Huey back to the
maximum speed of 124 knots.
But once the patients were delivered and we were on the way to refuel, it
was either complete silence as we were in our thoughts or it was something
like, "Oh, man, can you believe we did that?" Or I was scared s%$tless
dragging those guys in here!" Or perhaps, "I hope we never have to do that
again!" "You should have seen the look on your face!" with laughter all
around. As the reader, you get the idea.
Flying those incredible Huey helicopters was part of that rush. Imagine
giving a 19, 20 or 21-year-old kid a new Corvette; eventually, he is going
to push the limits of it and find out just what it can do. That was us, and
we were that young! Knowing that I can tell you that flying 100 or so hours
every month, we pilots became one with the aircraft. I have documented
elsewhere that it got to the point of merely thinking about what I wanted
that helicopter to do, and it would do it. Our hands and feet became part of
the machine; we became integral parts of those helicopters, all of us pilots
We also became inseparable parts of the missions, and we did not want to
let down the guys on the ground who were depending on us. We were their
This story is "Mission 2" in Phil Marshall's book; Helicopter Rescues
Vietnam, Volume XII. This story is the twelfth 15th Medical Battalion
Medevac mission included in Phil's 14 books. Mission 1 in that book
generally contains a negative view of Medevac, and Mission 3 generally
contains a positive view of Medevac. Helicopter Rescues Vietnam, Volume XII,
and Phil's other 13 books as well, may be purchased by going to Amazon.com
and searching for "Helicopter Rescues Vietnam Vol. XII."
If you desire a copy signed by the author with a written dedication, any
of Phil's 14 books may be purchased directly from him for $20.00 each, which
includes sales tax, postage, and handling. Send cash or check (payable to
Phil Marshall) for $20.00 per book with instructions on what book(s) you
want to order and where to send the book(s) and what, if anything, you would
like in the dedication. His address is 1063 Cardinal Dr., Enon, OH 45323,
the phone number is 937-371-3643, and the email is
firstname.lastname@example.org . You may
also use PayPal. Phone or email Phil with any questions.
Terry A. McCarl
Historian, 15th Medical Battalion Association
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