Veterans Day, November 11, 2020. My first thoughts are on those Vietnam veterans who, after 50 years, still have lingering physical and emotional difficulties. Then I think about soldiers, some of whom I knew personally, the ones who jumped from my helicopter almost daily into god-awful places in pursuit of a determined enemy hell-bent on killing them. I think of them because they put their lives on the line in dramatic fashion and often gave it, the ultimate sacrifice. It was personal for me only because I watched them bravely “jump” from our helicopters. As long as my luck held and my aircraft was not shot down, I could fly out and away and never touch the wet, steamy jungle full of leeches, booby traps, and bullets from enemy rifles. My luck held. Except for survivor’s guilt, I returned unscathed.
A couple of years ago I posted a blog motivated by a story by one of those soldiers who jumped. Below, as a Veterans Day remembrance, is a slightly revised repost of my blog story from 2018. Maybe you missed it the first time.
During 2018, the New York Times ran newsletters to honor the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. They included eyewitness accounts, rare photos, and historical insights. Bill Lord, a retired television news executive of WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., served as an infantry sergeant for C Company, 4th/47 Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. Bill wrote a short piece reflecting on the 50+ helicopter assaults he made as an infantryman in Vietnam. Following is an excerpt from his story:
“Occasionally there was light resistance. A few times there was a good deal of shooting. And since you never really knew if and when the shooting would start, we all developed our own little formula for when, under fire, we would decide to jump out of the helicopter. Foremost was altitude. If you jumped from too high you could break your legs. The forward speed of the chopper was something to take into account as well. The landing area might be water, mud or dry land. All were factors. You wanted out of that chopper in the worst way because the chopper was the target. The pilots did not have the luxury of jumping out.”
His last statement, “—pilots did not have the luxury of jumping out”, brought back a memory: As a pilot, I always felt it was a luxury to NOT have to jump!
Quick, true story: As the flight platoon leader (1LT) of a three-ship assault to a small, wet landing area (LZ) surrounded by forest, my three aircraft with their M60 machine guns softening the tree line came to a hover with skids dipping into the grass and water but with no contact with the ground. During the dry season, these small, grassy openings in the jungle made ideal landing areas. But during the rainy season, these grassy depressions were water-filled and the so-called elephant grass was tall making it hard to judge the depth of the water, which could be inches or feet. This one had to be two to three feet deep because the belly of my helicopter was just touching the surface of the water. As my main rotor created a vortex of spray around the aircraft, I radioed a warning to the pilots of the other two aircraft as they were touching down behind me. “Come to a hover and hold your troops; the water may be too deep.”
My mind was racing. Should I send the order to the 18 infantrymen to jump, or should I abort this assault? All of this was happening within a span of about 4 seconds. By now I had made dozens of insertions into similar areas and trusted my judgment; this one should be no more than waist-deep. I radioed back to my sister ships: “It’s a go; JUMP.”
The six grunts, including their platoon leader, were sitting on the floor of my aircraft, three at each door, with their legs in the water and their boots on the skids of the helicopter. When my crew chief relayed the command, they jumped in unison, splashed—and disappeared—the weight of their packs, ammo, and rifles pulling them underwater!
About four excruciatingly-long seconds went by, and during the fifth, I knew with certainty that I had drowned 18 soldiers!
Then, as if a miracle, three heads bobbed up out of the water on each side of the helicopter. With the water at chin level and their rifles now over their heads, they struggled through the submerged elephant grass toward the tree line. With each step, they rose further from the water’s surface.
As Bill Lord noted in his story, the grunts would normally jump just before the chopper touched down, then we would immediately “pull pitch” (rapidly ascend) and boogie out of the LZ hopefully before we became a target. This time, with a wet torrent pulling through my main rotor and splashing my windscreen like a hard rain, I remained at a hover over the water for many seconds that seemed like long minutes while the troops made their way to the tree line and dry land.
His face was painted dark camouflage, so I didn’t recognize the last man out of the water until he turned with a “thumbs up.” 1LT Freeman, the infantry platoon leader, then waved as if to say no hard feelings for nearly drowning him and his men. I pulled pitch and departed the LZ along with my other two aircraft. A bit shaken, I asked my co-pilot to take the controls. I pushed back in my seat and stared out the open side window and watched the deep jungle glide by beneath me. I thought: “Damn, I’m glad I’m the pilot and not the one jumping into that mess.“
I didn’t know Bill Lord; he was in Vietnam a year before I, and he was in a different part of the country. But I did know Lt Freeman and many of his soldiers who were part of our unit, B Troop 3rd/17th Air Cavalry. I always felt that “the ones who jumped” were the “real deal” during this fraught exercise called the Vietnam War.
Two hours after we inserted our infantry soldiers and after they completed their reconnaissance of enemy bunkers, we retrieved them from a much drier LZ about ¾ mile from where we had inserted them. They climbed aboard still wet, but not soggy, and immediately began their ritual of finding and popping the inch-long, fresh-water leeches inevitably attached to any exposed parts of their bodies. Just as I lifted off from the landing zone, blood squirted all the way forward to my instrument panel as one of the troops popped an engorged leech attached to his neck. I turned around and saw a wry smile on Freeman’s face. He gave me a bloody thumbs up. I smiled back; we were all alive and well for one more day (yes, we were always counting ).
My helicopter cleared the top of the tree line. This time my thoughts were mostly confined to the cold beer I knew was awaiting my return to the airfield. I say mostly, because each time I flew out of a jungle LZ, I always thanked God that I wasn’t among “the ones who jumped.” My admiration for the ones who did was boundless.
Read Bill Lord’s account HERE.