War Stories 24

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the best sleep i never had
by baby huey

On about 20 Oct 70, I (Baby Huey) callsign Medevac 2 was in the middle of my Aircraft Commander checkride week with Hank Tuell (Okie) callsign Medevac 1 as the evaluator and a crew of Jim Ferguson (Fergie) crew chief, Dan Brady medic, and Don Tegethoff (Tiny T) the right-side M-60 machine gunner. It would turn out to be an eventful week with us going through three aircraft in seven days. Don't look at me and call me "magnet ass," there were four other soles on our aircraft. It easily could have been one of those other crewmembers since they were all gung-ho patient savers.

I had flown many times with members of this crew. I knew they were all professionals and took their jobs seriously, though sophomoric at times when relief from being on call all the time was needed.

Okie was known to handle the aircraft very well and was a mentor to many of the Peter Pilots (copilots). I remember being taught a technique where one could fly the helicopter at great speed and the kicking in the right pedal and have the helicopter stop almost instantaneously once the helicopter's broadside presented itself into the wind. It was a technique that probably overstressed the tail boom but was invaluable to me months later during a medevac mission. The only problem flying with Okie was that he always had a quid (ball of chewing tobacco) in his mouth. He would spit into a Coke can he kept on the helicopter's center console from time to time. I learned my lesson well flying with Okie. After gaining altitude and airspeed after an unusually hazardous medevac mission, I reached down to grab my can of Coke from the center console. As I tipped the Coke can up to my mouth, I remember for a split second wondering why the Coke was taking so long to enter my mouth. The cold, gelatinous, spit and tobacco sludge passed my lips and into my mouth. I thought I was going to throw up so violently my stomach would be ejected out of my mouth. From that day forward, I drank Sprite to distinguish my green can from Okie's red can of soda.

Fergie was a natural helicopter mechanic; he knew the aircraft inside and out. He was not overly boastful about his aircraft knowledge, but the other maintenance soldiers valued his opinion and direction. If Fergie told one the aircraft was ready to fly, you could bet no one would be able to find even the slightest discrepancy. And when not flying as crewchief for one's aircraft, he was a pleasure to be around on the ground. He was my fellow "chunker" buddy. We each had M-79 grenade launchers. The M-79 grenade launcher hurled a half-pound high-explosive projectile 300 yards and capable of punching through about two inches of steel and inflicting casualties to a radius of roughly 17 feet. We would periodically challenge each other to some competition, such as the first one to blow a tree up that falls to the ground would be the winner. It's amazing what a board soldier can think of doing for entertainment.

Dan Brady was one of those rare medical emergency personnel that was super calm under stress. Where other flight medics might overlook a hard-to-find bullet wound, Dan conducted a head-to-foot body exam of every patient and never missed an abrasion, laceration, avulsion, or punctuation wound. When other medics may find it difficult to "stick" a needle into a severely wounds soldier with lowered blood pressure, Dan could find a viable vein. He could start an IV even when the helicopter was jumping and shaking as it flew at max speed to the clearing station.

Brady, Ferguson and Tegethoff
Brady, Ferguson, and Tegethoff with bullet holes in windscreen

Though Dan was a good-sized flight medic, Tiny was always welcomed to help the flight medic load patients. Tiny was a big man and could easily handle his end of a litter load (and then some) that needed to be racked in the upper position on the litter stack. And woe be the bad guy that stepped out from behind a hiding place on T's side of the aircraft. Tiny was more than capable of sending machine gun bullets "downrange."

The crewmember that had the "most" to lose was Hank Tuell. Our unit had an unwritten policy that you could stop flying combat missions for the last thirty days of your tour in Vietnam. You had survived eleven months of combat, and why push your luck so close to going home. Instead, you would only be tasked with "ash and trash" missions. Ash and trash missions were considered safe and were missions such as flying the commander around, mail runs, personnel movement, medical supply runs, etc. But because of the loss of a few aircraft commanders, Okie was threatened he could only go home if he trained a copilot to replace him as aircraft command. And so, it was that Okie was conducting my aircraft commander checkride when he only had days before his scheduled departure from Vietnam. Yup, this mission and a couple of other hairy missions that week were going on when Okie was in Single Digit Midget, only days away from going home to the "World."

Fergie, Baby Huey, and Dan Brady
Jim (Fergie) Ferguson, Ron (Baby Huey) Huether, Dan Brady


Hank Tuell
Hank (Okie) Tuell (Notice bullet hole in the windshield)

We worked from Fire Support Base (FSB) Mace on Chua Chan Mountain's bottom edge on the east side. The name of the mountain as it was mistakenly handed down from GI to GI was Nui Ba Ra. A Nui Ba Ra mountain looks like Chua Chan Mountain, but it's 68 miles north-northwest of FSB Mace. FSB Mace was forty miles east of Saigon and no longer used as an artillery outpost. It had become the home for C Company, 15th Medical Battalion, patient treatment facilities, soldier medics, medical equipment, and rats, lots of hungry pussy cat-sized rats.

The day before, we had taken enemy fire during a hoist mission, which damaged the aircraft. Fortunately, the injuries to the crewmembers were superficial. With no flyable aircraft, we were all looking for a couple of days of relaxation. But our maintenance officer was "so nice" as to bring us a replacement aircraft the same day.
We already had a long day of missions and being on alert playing Blackjack as the sun retreated into the humid jungle foliage. So, most of us were in our cots when a call came in to evacuate multiple injured soldiers. One soldier needed urgent evacuation. Urgent evacuation meant the patient should be picked up and delivered to a medical facility in less than an hour. That period became known as the Golden Hour. It could be shown there was a huge rise in survivability if treatment from a professional staff was administered before the end of that hour. The clock was ticking.

It was after midnight when we stepped out of our hooch and were enveloped in dense, grainy fog as thick as a crisp, white blanket of snow on Mount Everest. I went back into the hooch and called the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) and told him we were fogged in and unable to attempt the mission. The weather condition outside was what aviators call zero-zero. The bottom of the cloud layer (fog) was zero feet off the ground, and visibility was zero feet in front of you. It was a weather condition I relished taking off in later in my aviation career when I had thousands of flight hours. But now, I was six months after graduation from flight school.

I hoped to find how local the fog bank was, so I asked the RTO to question the unit to see if they were in a fog. A few minutes later, the RTO relayed a message our urgent patient would not survive the night. He also added that the unit said they "could see the stars at their location." I mistakenly thought the unit was telling me there was no fog at their location.

Okie and I huddled together and discussed how to go about attempting this mission or maybe canceling it. We discussed that maybe the fog could be localized, and if so, we might ground taxi our Medevac out to the dirt road running by our encampment. And from there, we may be able to continue ground taxing to the edge of the fog. Since the UH-1H helicopter doesn't have wheels, a ground taxi is conducted by getting the aircraft light on its skids and then slowly moving the helicopter, so the skids drag along the ground.

When we reached the perimeter concertina wire, we'd perform a fast "hop" over the wire and back down on the road. Concertina wire is named after the musical instrument, and its expanding and contracting bellows like an accordion. Unlike barbed wire with its pointed barbs at regular intervals, the concertina wire has sharp blades that can slice deep into one's flesh. Or, if the wire became entangled in our helicopter's skids, would cause our chopper to crash.

After reaching the road, we hoped to continue ground taxing east along the dirt road until we were out of the fog. Since the unit was in contact with the enemy, Blue Max cobra attack aircraft were also alerted to escort us and provide cover fire for our mission. Although the Blue Max cobra attack aircraft had already told us they would not be escorting us, Medevac was known for doing everything possible to complete a mission, no matter how hazardous the situation. The plan was a bit dicey, okay a lot dicey, but it just might work and possibly save a soldier's life. In Medevac, we made this kind of decision often.

Deros at Mace
Deros at FSB Mace

We had a mascot in our hooch, a feminine looking dog named Deros. Her name was a play on the acronym DEROS, which stood for Date of Estimated Return from Overseas – the date you were due to leave Vietnam. Deros would accompany us on missions and saved more than one life by licking a wounded soldier and keeping him awake until we arrive at the clearing station. A clearing station is a small medical facility with a physician. After a while, some of us noticed Deros only jumping on board when it was a "cold" mission. A "cold" mission generally meant the soldier was injured without contact with the enemy. Typically, cold missions were broken legs, sprained ankles, accidental stabbing, etc. But when the mission was a "hot" mission, meaning the ground unit was in contact with the enemy, Deros would stay back in the hooch. How she could discern cold missions from hot missions was a doggie mystery—a good question for Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. So even if we were told the mission was cold, we'd look to see if Deros wanted to go on the mission. If she didn't, and she was phenomenally accurate, sure enough, the bad guys would be shooting at us as we conducted the rescue.

UH1 dashboard
Huey dashboard

It was then that Okie made the one crucial decision that made the difference between crashing our Medevac with death or injury to all of us or completing the mission without incident. The aircraft commander's customary position in a helicopter was the left seat. Since I was being evaluated to become an aircraft commander, I was being evaluated in the left seat. The pilot (copilot) "always" occupied the right seat. But the instrument panel's right side has many more and larger gauges indicating orientation (left, right, up, and down) and gauges for altitude and the rate of climb or descent. Since I had gone through instrument training while in flight school and Okie hadn't, he told me to climb into the right seat. I now had all the instruments I might need for flying in the clouds, or fog as it was. That one decision turned out to be a lifesaver for our crew.

We boarded the helicopter, and everyone took their position for what was going to be a hair-raising mission. A casual look around confirmed we were going to have trouble because Deros stayed in our hooch. Okie got the helicopter light on the skids and slowly turned it, so we were facing north. Then he began dragging the helicopter's skids along the dirt toward where we thought the concertina wire was located. Since we could only see a yard or two in front of us at best, we were all worried about possibly snagging commo wire strung across the road when we hopped over the concertina wire. If the wire wrapped around the control tubes, we would be unable to control the helicopter. We didn't even want to entertain what would happen next.

After several minutes, we finally reached the dirt road, and Okie turned our helicopter east-southeast as he continued ground taxing. We hadn't gone but another fifty feet down the dirt road when the helicopter hit a bump. We bounced (probably) a couple of feet in the air, and we could no longer see the road or anything around us. Though the stars were out, it was pitch black like when one takes a cavern tour, and the guide turns off the cavern lights. We were in an impenetrable fog, and it was slightly after midnight and very dark.

Vietnam fog.
Vietnam fog

The next series of events probably took less than a minute, but it was sheer terror. I remember looking through the Plexiglas chin bubble located at my feet and not seeing the road or anything else. Then briefly, ever so briefly, I saw what appeared like grass possibly on the road's edge passing quickly in a forward direction. I remember thinking, in nanoseconds, if the grass looked as if it was moving forward, that meant we were traveling backward! We were about to crash.
I yelled for Okie to climb at the same time, Okie yelled, "You've got the aircraft, climb!" and transferred the controls to me. I immediately took the controls and shifted my gaze to the dashboard instruments while initiating an instrument take-off (ITO) climb. And, poof, at less than one hundred feet of altitude, we were out of the fog. We had arrived at the most serene, tranquil, pitch-black darkness only dimly lit by the distant twinkling stars. Other than five significantly long exhalations, the crew didn't say a single word. Our whole area of operation (AO) was blanketed with the most beautiful contiguous fog layer, with the only thing protruding from the fog being the surrounding mountains and ridgelines. Not another ground navigational aid, town or aircraft could be seen. Thankfully, Okie had put me in the right seat and prayed I knew how to keep the helicopter upright in the clouds.

Immediately our training returned, and we were on our way to the pick-up location. We flew east following a road that periodically peeked out at us from the fog bank when we were directly over it. Then we followed another road northwest putting us in the general area of our patient evacuation.

While contacting the ground unit to check the patient's status and the enemy situation, we were ordered by the unit's battalion commander to land on a small hilltop for a situational awareness briefing. Upon landing on this hilltop, we were informed the unit's location was somewhere in the fog below. Further, we were briefed that the American soldiers had earlier been establishing their night perimeter when they had accidentally bumped into an enemy unit setting out their night defenses. Both sides retreated into the fog-clogged night. In the commotion, the American unit had dispersed in all directions leaving most of their rucksacks and ammunition. Suddenly, the mission became more critical because if the enemy found out most of our soldiers only had their rifles but no additional ammunition, our soldiers may be slaughtered one by one as they ran out of bullets.

When we landed on the hilltop, soldiers started arriving at our helicopter with boxes of ammunition, grenades, and sundry supplies needed to assist the unit from getting overrun. Since Okie had not yet blessed me with being an aircraft commander (thank God), he jumped from the left seat. He walked quickly to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to confer with the battalion commander. The guys in the back (GIBs) stopped the soldiers from loading the ammunition on our aircraft because, technically, medical personnel and Medevac aircraft are neutral in a conflict. It's a strange situation, not realized by many folks. Our Medevac and its crew were technically neutral in an armed conflict. Our only job was to save lives, any life on either side of a conflict. So, yes, there were times that we evacuated Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army soldiers that had been wounded. The only difference in care given was that a wounded American soldier received medical treatment before an enemy soldier. We're not supposed to assist either side except for medical evacuation and medical supplies.

After an agonizing few minutes waiting in the dark, Okie returned and told us to let the soldiers load the ammunition. It was a moment where following the rules would save one soldier while the remaining platoon may be slaughtered. Or does one allow for our soldiers' resupply and potentially snatch all the platoon members from the hands of death? It was decided we'd break the rule and ask for forgiveness later.

After our aircraft was loaded, we left the hilltop for another fun-filled thirty minutes. You see, as the straggler soldiers worked on finding each other and establish some semblance of a fighting force, they didn't know their location. Our helicopter had an FM radio with a homer capability that would point a needle in a gauge toward the transmitting radio. That's the good news, but the less than good news is that once the gauge indicated you were in the vicinity of the transmitting radio's location, it was approximate since the FM homer was notoriously inaccurate. And we could only see anything on the ground when we were directly over it.

Okie started flying a grid pattern and going back and forth. The unit on the ground would radio us telling us if the helicopter's noise was sounding closer or further away. Eventually, we were told we were directly over the unit. Sure enough, we could look down through the fog layer and see the soldiers in a small opening in the jungle.

My job was to adjust artillery onto the enemy soldiers' suspected location. Okie was flying the helicopter, and the GIBs were overseeing the dropping of the supplies and hoisting up the patient. First, the GIBs threw down a semi-rigid poleless litter so the platoon members could begin wrapping the patient in the poleless litter. The semi-rigid poleless litter is a canvas backboard with sewn-in wooden slats and a large ring on the end. By strapping the patient into the poleless litter and clipping the hook from the aircraft's hoist to the ring, we were able to winch a patient vertically. This allowed the patient to come up through a small opening in the jungle canopy with minimal contact with the tree limbs.

Semi-ridged Polless Litter
Semi-ridged Poleless Litter

After the poleless litter was dropped, the guys on the ground were warned to stand clear of where it landed because the next things falling would be their supplies and ammunition. Then the GIBs started pushing out the supplies. Okie continued maintaining a stationary hover just above the jungle canopy as the last of the ammo was dropped from the helicopter. Then Dan Brady ran the hoist cable down to retrieve the critical patient up to our Medevac's safety.

Ah yes you say, brother, you Medevac guys have some unforgettable missions. But alas, we still needed to fly another thirty miles to the nearest treatment facility. A patient would typically be flown from the point of injury to our clearing station (aid station with a doctor). But we couldn't see our clearing station at FSB Mace through the fog and darkness.

I contacted Queen Tonic, the callsign for the medical regulator in our area. The medical regulator's function is to make sure the patient is flown directly to the medical treatment facility best able to give the care required. The destination may or may not be the one nearest the site of injury. The decision as to the proper destination hospital was based on several factors. The distance was less important than time; the objective was to reduce the time between injury and definitive treatment to the minimum. Information based on the preliminary in-flight evaluation of the injury, the patient's condition, knowledge of existing surgical backlogs, and the over-all casualty situation were other considerations. The medical regulator would inform the receiving hospital by radio of our estimated arrival time, the nature of the casualty, and any special reception arrangements. Thus, the receiving hospital would have everything ready to receive our patient and begin definitive surgical care.

We started flying south at about 1500 feet over the most beautiful carpet of fog as Brady worked diligently trying to save the patient. Upfront Okie and I were hoping for a break in the fog so we could land and our patient could receive more definitive care. We initially called Air Force GCI (Ground Control Interception) callsign Paris Control at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon for some radar navigational assistance. We had so few visual cues because of the fog, and we knew their radars also monitored all aircraft's flight positions within their range. In mild weather, we used Paris Control to give us a direct heading to our patient's location. In harsh weather, they did advisory radar flight following for guys like us. After receiving a vector to our patient, we'd radio them as we were about to conduct our combat approach. If we got shot down, at least Paris Control had a "blip" of our last known location. They were also tasked with several other responsibilities, such as providing aid in the event of an inflight emergency. We considered the possibility of not finding a suitable landing place before fuel exhaustion an emergency.

We probably got ahold of some nineteen-year-old airman who had been sound asleep and asked for radar vectors to the large airbase at Bien Hoa. Usually, the radar operator would have us do a couple of turns on his command to identify our aircraft positively. As it turned out, we were the only aircraft aloft, so positive identification was easy – the only blip on the radar screen was us. All the other aircraft had remained on the ground due to the thick fog.

Fortunately, all the worrying about how to descend through the fog was for naught. As we arrived close to Bien Hoa, we could see the runway lights through the fog and made an uneventful descent and landing.

Queen Tonic, the medical regulator, had coordinated for an ambulance to meet us at the airfield and take our patient to one of Long Binh's hospitals. With the patient in the care of the hospital folks, it was time to decide on staying at Bien Hoa or attempt to return to our AO. It was an easy decision as we never wanted to leave our AO without Medevac support. We departed Bien Hoa and climbed about the fog with the hopes we'd be lucky and find a "sucker hole" close to FSB Mace so we could descend and land. As it turned out, the "lucky Gods" had gone to sleep, and it was going to be near impossible to make a safe descent through the fog layer at night. But there was a "sucker hole" above the town of Xuan Loc. With over half our fuel depleted, we elected to land on an unused soccer field and spend the night there.

Here we were, in the middle of "bad guy" territory, with only our personal weapons and two aircraft weapons to defend against attack. We had made it back to just five miles short of FSB Mace. But one final decision had to be made. Does one attempt to catch a few winks of much-needed sleep laying on a litter with no mosquito net to ward off the gigantic local mosquitos, or does one pull a heavy thick wool Army blanket over your body, thwarting the mosquitos and suffer the heat, which is still torrid even after the sun goes down? You guessed it, neither decision was favorable, and so we suffered for a few hours until the sun came up and burned off the fog.
It was just another day or night as it was, in the life of a Medevac crew hell-bent on saving lives. Thinking back over the mission and how tired we were, it was the best sleep I never had.

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