War Stories 3

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Those Cav MEDEVACS; They Just Won't Give Up
By PFC Nick Matuszeck

Phouc Vinh - Two wounded infantrymen, were finally pulled from the jungle near the Song Be Bridge recently, but not before two Medevac helicopters were shot down in the effort to get them out. Before being rescued, one wounded man, dropped by one of the birds before it crashed, spent an hour strapped to a semi-rigid litter listening to the enemy moving around his location.

The incident began when three wounded members of the 25th Infantry Division's 91-A element were being extracted from the jungle near the Song Be Bridge in Binh Duong Province. Before they could pull out, the intense enemy fire brought down the “DUSTOFF” bird supporting the 25th before they could be pulled out.

While 25th. Infantry Division Cobras circled high above, a Medevac bird from the 1st. Air Cavalry Division's 15th Medical Battalion answered the "Mayday" call from the stricken aircraft.

CW2 Joel Morris
CW2 Joel Morris

Warrant Officer Joel Morris, 'Medevac 26" Commander, rushed to the crash site and, communicating with ground units, found the crew of the downed bird had been rescued. However, there were still three critically wounded men on the ground who needed immediate evacuation. Morris briefed his crew on their individual responsibilities, then called the ground unit for approach instructions. As the bird came in low over the high jungle canopy and prepared to drop the semi-rigid litter by cable, muzzle flashes were spotted from enemy gun emplacements. The door gunners, SP5 Robert Valencia, and SP4 Daniel Weaver, opened hot and heavy with their machineguns to suppress the enemy fire. After quickly taking the craft out of range Morris and Warrant Officer Barry Brown, the Co-Pilot, came in for another approach from a different route. As the bird hovered over the jungle, SP4 Gregory Shafer, the Medic, and Crew Chief Jonathan Hodges lowered the hoisting cable and the litter through the treetops. But the enemy gunners soon zeroed in on the stationary chopper as the crew exposed itself while struggling to hoist the first injured man to safety.

Despite their efforts, however, the rescue had to be aborted as several burst of automatic weapons fire tore into the chopper's transmission. The patient below, strapped to the litter, was at a height of about five feet when the chopper crew was forced to cut him loose as they rapidly lost altitude. Pilot Morris barely got the bird to a small clearing where he crash-landed the aircraft. After a quickly called appeal over the radio for help, Morris and his crew abandoned the burning aircraft. Armed with two M-60 machineguns and their pistols, they prepared for the worst and set up a defensive perimeter around their burning ship.

Fortunately, a rescue aircraft reached them ahead of the enemy and they were soon on their way to safety. The commander of the second bird, Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Wickland, found himself faced with the same situation as the previous rescue pilot: the flight crew he'd intended to rescue was already out, but wounded men remained with the ground unit. To add almost unbearable urgency to the situation, the man who'd been dropped still hadn't been found. With the gunners pouring out suppressing fire, the extraction of the first patient went without a hitch as the crew exposed themselves to possible fire. A quick flight to Phouc Vinh to rush the wounded man to medical aid was followed by the successful search for the dropped litter patient.

Even though his chances for survival were thin, the crew of "MEDEVAC 18" refused to abandon him. Wickland was told by the ground unit that the first bird had carried the litter approximately 30 meters from the pickup site before dropping it. Assisted by an LOH, Wickland and his crew began an intensive search for the downed man and litter. Finally, the LOH crew spotted the wounded man waving from a nearly concealed spot in the brush. The Medevac bird dropped down near his location, crewmembers hanging out the doors onto the skids to spot the man's position. Fortunately, the bird was able to come low enough to allow Victor and SP4 Joe Kelly, the Medic, to jump to the ground, gather up the wounded man on the litter, and load him back into the bird for the life-saving flight to Phouc Vinh.

The patient later told of lying in the brush for an hour, unable to move and in pain, listening to the enemy moving in the brush around him. In an impact awards ceremony following the action, Brigadier General Jonathan R. Burton, Assistant Division Commander of the 1st. Cavalry Division Commended the courage of the crews of MEDEVAC 18 and 26. Every member of MEDEVAC 26-Morris, Brown, Valencia, Weaver, Shafer and Hodges received Distinguished Flying -Crosses. Aircraft Commander Wickland and Pilot Simpson of MEDEVAC 18 also received Distinguished Flying Crosses, while Kelly, Sparkman, and Victor each received air medals for Valor.

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Medevac Proves Invaluable Asset
1970 - Phuoc Vinh, RVN
By: Mark "Doc" Holiday

The cry of the hurt goes out and Medevac crews scramble. They care. Nearly five years ago, the 15th Medical Battalion, of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), became the first such Army unit with organic aviation. Since then, 15th Med has repeatedly proven its value: invaluable in terms of human suffering lessened and lives saved. In Vietnam, the rugged terrain has often made the air ambulance role difficult. The unavailability of a landing zone, in areas of dense jungle, necessitated the use of a hoist for bringing wounded men aboard the aircraft. The use of a hoist and jungle penetrator, or semi-rigid litter, has saved many lives. But the use of these pieces of vital equipment can be extremely hazardous.

semi-rigid-polless-litterThe Medevac helicopter, hovering above the jungle, is a stationary target for enemy gunners. In fact, the wounded man himself is an inviting target. A ground infantry unit is in contact with an enemy force. The Commander informs the Medevac Pilot that a hoist mission will be necessary, while the aircraft is still en route to the contact site. Smoke is popped and the helicopter crew drops a semi-rigid polless litter to the men below. The helicopter then circles the area as the wounded man is strapped into the device. When all is ready, on the ground, the helicopter hovers over the treetops. The ground troops put out an enormous amount of fire, to keep the enemy's heads down. The door gunner and crew chief opened up with their M-60s, as ugly green tracers scream past their ship.

The medic is moving quickly, lowering the hoist to the waiting men below. Then comes the always too slow ascent, as the electrical fishing reel hauls in its catch. When the wounded man finally reaches the helicopter, the men aboard swing the hoist inside the ship and pull the man to safety. As the pilot pulls his craft out of the hover and moves out fast, the medic is administering to the wounded Skytrooper. Within minutes, the wounded man is receiving the concentrated attention of a hospital staff. For the men of the Medevac crew, another job is done. A feeling of satisfaction and compassion is their reward.


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Snipers In Box Canyon

Medevac crewmembers are a different breed. They are a group of tenacious volunteers having one goal in life; to save lives no matter how dangerous the mission.

I’m Ron Huether, nicknamed Baby Huey and I’d like to introduce you to the dedicated crewmembers I had for the mission I’m about to describe. We were assigned to the Medevac Platoon, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division in III Corps area of Vietnam in the early 1970s. I was Aircraft Commander (AC) of a UH-1H helicopter ambulance and the other pilot was John Goldsmith (Goldie), a newbie. The first Guy in the Back (GIB) was flight medic Ken Flowers (Doc Nose), the kind of flight medic that can and will do anything to keep his patient alive. Next, in the left rear of the Huey helicopter was Jim Ferguson (Fergie) our crewchief who was responsible for maintaining the helicopter and manning an M-60 machine gun for patient protection of the left side of our air ambulance. Fergie was our most trusted crewchief; a completely dedicated aircraft mechanic. Opposite him, in the right rear of the helicopter, manning the other M-60 machine gun for right side protection of the medevac was Dave Cooper (Coop), one our “sure shot” gunners that could be trusted to protect our patients by keeping the bad guys at bay.

Box Canyon Mission Map

We were assigned to Landing Zone (LZ) Mace in the 1st Cavalry Division area 36 miles east of Bein Hoa and a short 28 miles inland from the East Sea. We were stationed here for a week, but if you were lucky you could talk the replacement crew out of coming and spend another week. It wasn’t that hard because Mace was our most dangerous AO (Area of Operation). We liked being at LZ Mace because there seemed to always be Soldiers “in the bush” getting wounded and needing our immediate assistance. We were “Medevac Junkies” - a special kind of adrenaline high derived from saving lives who would have perished in previous wars.

The sun rose on Nui Ba Ra (White Virgin Mountain) to start another Monday, 8 February 1971 under the sign of Aquarius. The US president was Richard Nixon and the people in US were listening to One Bad Apple by The Osmonds. We were awakened early for an urgent medevac to evacuate several critically wounded Soldiers from a platoon-size unit a short distance away. The NVA had a small unit with several snipers that had pinned down a US platoon in a small DEROS Medevac mascot.box canyon. As we scrambled for this urgent mission, I peeked over my shoulder to see if DEROS, our dog mascot was joining us. DEROS had the uncanny ability to know if we were leaving on a “cold” or “hot” mission. If DEROS jumped onboard we never seemed to be shot at or see any kind of enemy action. Conversely, when DEROS stayed in the hooch, we “always” took enemy fire bringing back an aircraft with multiple holes in it. This morning DEROS was frozen in the doorway of the Medevac hooch – not an encouraging site.

As Aircraft Commander, I went to the commo shack and received a mission briefing about the number of wounded, urgency of the wounded, enemy situation, friendly situation, location, radio frequency for the friendlies, and the callsign of the unit. Meanwhile Goldie was getting the aircraft up and running, Fergie and Coop were loading their M-60 machine guns, and Doc Nose was reading medical equipment for quicker access. For this mission, we were going to be joined by two Blue Max AH-1 Cobra attack aircraft.

Flanked by two AH-1 Cobra attack aircraft, we flew about 10 minutes southeast to the small box canyon 15 miles northwest of the coastal town of Ham Tan. We arrived on station and started preparing for a mission requiring the rescue hoist since there was no place we could land that was near the unit. We had arrived so quickly that the firefight was still ongoing. Hoist missions were common in this AO but extremely dangerous since we would have to remain at a stationary hover just about the jungle canopy making our helicopter ambulance and huge, highly visible, and loud target. The enemy had become quite adept at wounding our ground troops and then preparing a trap for the inevitable arrival of a helicopter ambulance. In this case, they literally “owned” the high ground.

We arrived on station and started preparing for a mission requiring the rescue hoist since there was no place we could land that was near the unit. We had arrived so quickly that the firefight was still ongoing. Hoist missions were extremely dangerous since we would have to remain at a stationary hover just about the jungle canopy making our helicopter ambulance and huge, highly visible, and loud target. The enemy had become quite adept at wounding our ground troops and then preparing a trap for the inevitable arrival of a helicopter ambulance. In this case they literally “owned” the high ground.

Medevac 2 hoist location.The platoon we had been called to help had stumbled across NVA soldiers of the NVA 33rd Regiment of the 3rd Division guarding an NVA headquarters and were pinned down and fighting for their lives. Every time a Soldier on the ground keyed the microphone on his radio all you could hear was gunfire and yelling in the background.

The 33rd Regiment was formed in 1965, and was deployed to South Vietnam in 1966. The regiment quickly gained a reputation for its ferocity and its ability to operate in difficult terrain. The 33rd Regiment was involved in a number of major battles during the war, The Regiment was disbanded after the war, but its legacy continues to this day. It is remembered as one of the most effective and dangerous NVA units of the war.

Circling in a Light Observation helicopter (LOH) about a thousand feet above the ground unit was LTC Bacon. Thought new to Vietname, he wanted to coordinate the mission and available assets ranging from nearby ground forces, artillery, attack helicopters, resupply helicopters, and medical evacuation helicopters. The LtC Bacon radioed us it was too dangerous to attempt a hoist mission and we were ordered to keep circling the area south of where the firefight was being conducted. Meanwhile the two Blue Max attack helicopters were trying to suppress enemy fire by making low passes and firing their mini-guns. After quite a lengthy delay our aircraft began running low on fuel, so I radioed LTC Bacon we were departing the scene and returning to LZ Mace to hot refuel. Hot refueling allowed us to land and take on fuel without shutting off the Huey’s turbine engine.

Back at LZ Mace I kept the helicopter’s engine running and all systems working as I waited for Fergie to quickly refuel our Medevac helicopter. While we were on the ground the crewmembers loaded additional ammunition and soon, we were returning to the firefight while monitoring the current situation over the radio.

When we arrived on station for the second time the unit on the ground was still in contact with the enemy and the number of causalities had increased. My whole crew was thinking the same thing I was, that this is going to be one of those bad missions where we really work for our combat pay. After dozens of missions, some good and some bad, you just get a feeling about the situation and how dangerous the mission may possibly be.

I attempted numerous times to get permission to conduct the rescue of the critically wounded, but the LTC Bacon ordered us to continue circling south of the contact area. Knowing that for every minute that passed, the survival rate of our critically wounded patients decreased, we kept circling, hoping that at any minute, we’d be allowed to attempt the extraction of the wounded. We normally just arrive over the patient location, conduct a quick aerial reconnaissance, formulate a plan for approach and departure, and go for it. Damn. the torpedoes! Having to wait and wait was unnerving; not the way we usually operated. Our gunner, Coop, remembers Doc Nose giving him a plastic bag to pee in once or twice because we were circling for such a protracted time.

OH-6 Little BirdAt some point the LTC Bacon came up with a plan to attempt to “burn out” the snipers by having the pilot hover above each sniper and drop white phosphorus (Willy Pete) grenades on the sniper's location. Willy Pete is extremely dangerous and deadly since it can burn straight through metal in no time and through human skin and extremities in seconds. Even when LTC Bacon was warned that he was hovering over the friendlies, he dropped the WP grenade, it bounced off the nearly impenetrable jungle canopy landing on the pinned down US troops. This resulted in numerous Soldiers with white phosphorus burning through their skin and as they stood up screaming, the snipers were killing them one at a time.

It was particularly dangerous for any Soldier who managed to crawl over to the radio and help coordinate the mission. Periodically one of the Soldiers would make it to the radio for a brief call for help. It seemed anyone making it to the radio didn’t stay alive very long, which only added to the confusion in conducting a safe hoist rescue of the wounded. But when there was a radio call, all you could hear in the background were the Soldiers sprayed with Willy Pete screaming as if they were on fire. The memory of those screams still haunts me.

Though LTC Bacon ordered us not to go in, our mantra was “to save a life.” I keyed the intercom and asked the crew what they thought about disregarding the Colonel’s order and try to conduct the mission and hopefully save some lives. It was unanimous; everyone wanted to conduct the mission and try a rescue using the rescue hoist.

Goldie contacted the ground troops and had them pop smoke and I coordinated with the attack aircraft letting them know the avenue of approach I would use. One Cobra attack aircraft started doing low orbits above us providing mini-gun support and the other Cobra stayed in a higher orbit allowing him to use his 2.5-inch folding fin rockets.

In preparation for the hoist mission the whole crew went up “hot mike”, allowing us all to communicate over the intercom without having to key our microphone switches. I flew to where the largest concentration of smoke was drifting up from the jungle canopy and began hovering above the jungle while the crewmembers looked for the Soldiers on the ground. After a long couple of minutes, we finally spotted the Soldiers, and I brought the helicopter to a stationary hover high above the ground unit. Doc Nose threw down a semi-ridged polless litter, which would allow the unit members to strap a wounded SCombat damage to Medevac 2oldier in and we’d hoist the patient up to the aircraft in a vertical orientation - head first. We couldn’t use, nor did we have available, the rescue basket seen in many helicopter rescues that hoists a litter patient in a horizontal orientation because the jungle canopy in the 1st Cavalry Division’s area of operation was often triple canopy and too dense.

We immediately started taking gunfire from the NVA soldiers, mostly from our right side, with shrapnel from the bullets and aircraft skin hitting Coop in the face and hands. Ferguson and Cooper were shooting their M-60's as fast as they could, but it seemed to no avail. Being in this small box canyon, with high ground on three sides, made us an easy target for the snipers and other members of the enemy unit.

Combat damage to Medevac 2.A second attempt at hoisting the wounded Soldiers ended the same way as before. We took such a volume of gunfire and bullet hits to the aircraft that I was forced to fly our Medevac aircraft away from the contact area to a nearby fire support base (FSB) to check our aircraft for damage.

We were fortunate and although our aircraft had taken several hits, Fergie didn’t think they were too serious. So, we loaded back up and returned to attempt the extraction and rescue of the wounded. We no sooner got over the friendly unit’s location than we started taking heavy gunfire again. This time the NVA soldiers were sure we’d have to return to the same location and had positioned themselves to do the most damage to us and our aircraft.

At one point, Coop had just leaned forward from his normal seated position manning the right M-60 machine gun when a bullet whizzed behind his head and struck Doc Nose in the shoulder area of his armor protective vest (Chicken plate). After spinning him around the bullet continued and instantly struck me in the back of my flight helmet. As Aircraft Commander (AC) I was flying the helicopter so when the bullet entered my flight helmet it flung me forward on the flight controls and the aircraft nosed down diving toward the trees. At the same time, and this is all in nanoseconds, Coop and Doc Nose were shouting into the intercom that they were hit. Goldie. our poor newbie pilot, thought two crewmembers in the back were wounded and his AC had been hit in the head so he immediately got on the flight controls and kept the helicopter from nosing into the tree tops. He then flew us to the same nearby FSB.

Huey and Fergie look at hole in rotor blade of Medevac 2.At about this time a sister Medevac helicopter, flown by WO1 Gregg Simpson (Simp) was en route to LZ Mace on an "ash and trash" mission delivering cargo to LZ Mace. He had been monitoring our mission and hung around in case he was needed. I began briefing him, over the radio, about the mission, our personal and aircraft situation and that we were planning to trying the rescue again.

Upon landing at the FSB, Fergie jumped from his seat on the left side to the ground for a check of his aircraft. It seemed airworthy even to him even though the aircraft had additional bullet holes. We loaded up again and as Goldie brought the helicopter to a hover, Coop noticed Soldiers on the ground frantically waving their arms and pointing to the engine area of our aircraft. Coop got on the intercom and told me that he thought something might be wrong. So, Goldie landed the bird back on the ground. Fergie jumped out and found a severed fuel line and that the engine was spraying raw JP-4 jet fuel over the aircraft only inches away from the Combat damage of Medevac 2hot exhaust cowl. Goldie immediately shut the engine off and we vacated the helicopter in what can only be described as a "very brisk manner." That was all for this bird; she was toast.

I radioed Simp that our aircraft wasn’t airworthy and that he’d have to take over the mission and attempt a hoist of the wounded. Simp's aircraft wasn't equipped to conduct a medevac since it didn't have a medic, medical equipment, or even a door gunner. But dedicated as they were, Doc Nose and Coop insisted on trying to complete what they had started so they loaded their gear on Simp's bird and were off to give it another try. Doc Nose turned to Coop and said, “Third times a charm” and Coop said, “Yes but for who - them or us?”

On arriving over the hoist site Simp's aircraft immediately began receiving a barrage of gunfire. Simp departed the site and insisted the ground unit move northwest away from the NVA and toward the opening of the canyon. By carefully landing his aircraft in a small open area, Simp was able to load four or five wounded Soldiers.Goldie and Doc Nose look at combat damage to Medevac 2

Fortunately, on his way out to provide backup for us, Simp had radioed the next closest helicopter ambulance unit to send a backup aircraft for his crew and aircraft. Shortly, an aircraft flown by 1LT Tom Lacy, assigned to the 45th Medical Company in Long Binh, arrived at the FSB for a briefing on the mission and enemy situation.

This time was better, the NVA soldiers had already departed and the crew was able to complete the medevac mission. More than half the platoon had been killed by the enemy and almost all of the remaining platoon members were casualties. It was a long, harrowing day for everyone involved.

Doc Nose and bullet hole.When we got back to LZ Mace, I examined my helmet only to find a bullet that had pierced the outer Fiberglas layer and stopped in the Styrofoam inner layer without breaking the skin of my skull. Though I was jubilant about surviving a bullet to the head with “my name on it”, I wasn’t overly happy about the situation I was in since I had completely disregarded the lawful orders of LTC Bacon who was the ranking officer at the scene. And sure enough, in short order, I was summonsed to a command bunker to “chat” with LTC Bacon. You know how it goes, “Yes sir, yes sir…never again sir.” After all, what was he going to do – send me to Vietnam? To my surprise, and relief, LTC Bacon praised my crew and thanked me for trying so earnestly to evacuate his unit members. He ended his brief remarks by mentioning something about putting my crew in for commendations.

Sure enough a few days later, at sunrise, I had to have the whole crew standing at attention as the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division arrived in a jeep for a short ceremony to pin medals on our chest. It turns out the Colonel really had submitted awards for the whole crew. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize the brave extra efforts of Doc Nose and Coop and awarded them commendations that were inferior for the bravery they exhibited. Ahh… but that leads to yet another story for another time about how Doc Nose told the general to shove it.

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