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 Khe Dispensary 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 distinguished visitor.

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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
  • 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

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 report)

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 nearly continuous.

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 excessive.

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 Holloway.

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 being overrun."

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 statement.

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 Johnson
WO1 Charles W. "Chuck" Johnson Flying Medevac 1965-66

WO1 Robert Hawkins
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 expendable.

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 in Vietnam!

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 lifeblood, literally!



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 dmz.dustoff@yahoo.com . You may also use PayPal. Phone or email Phil with any questions.

Terry A. McCarl
Historian, 15th Medical Battalion Association

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