March 29th is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. It was established in 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon. This story pays tribute to one of my commanding officers and one of my helicopter crews, all veterans of the Vietnam War.
South Vietnam, May 1970. From my perch at 2,000 feet at the controls of the C & C Huey (Comand and Control) with my B Troop Commanding Officer Major Malcolm Banks (call sign Stogie six), I watched the little Scout helicopter (call sign Stogie one-four) zig-zag a few feet above the jungle canopy then twice circle a single point. His mate, a Cobra gunship (call sign Stogie three-two) of this Hunter/Killer team was circling above him at 800 feet.
For the past 20 minutes, Major Banks and I were listening in on their back-and-forth chatter as they flew a typical “search and destroy” mission in part of our Area of Operations (AO) that had suspected enemy activity. Then, suddenly, the Scout found a target:
“Stogie three-two this is One-four, we have enemy bunkers here big time,” the Scout pilot reported with a quick and urgent voice. “And my crew says he saw a man drop in a “spider hole” (tunnel opening). He put a grape (purple smoke grenade) on the bunkers.”
“Roger One-four, I see the smoke, I’m rolling in hot with rockets, stand aside.”
“Roger Three-two, moving off to the—–TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE!———–Mayday, Mayday—engine out—going down!”
B Troop 3rd/17th Calvary was part of the 1st Aviation Brigade located in III Corp of the Republic of South Vietnam. Located at Di’An in early 1970, the Troop had a self-contained search and destroy mission in the war. We were self-contained in the sense that, unlike assault helicopter units that moved and supplied infantry units throughout the battlefield, our Troop operated independently with its four platoons that included a Scout (OH-6), Gun (Cobra), Lift (Huey), and Rifle Platoon (Infantry soldiers carried by the Lift Platoon).
A typical day of search and destroy involved three Hunter/Killer teams (a Scout and a Cobra gunship), a “Lift” of three Hueys carrying an infantry rifle platoon of 18 to 21 men with 6 to 7 per aircraft, and a C & C Huey flown by the Troop Commanding Officer (CO) and his co-pilot (me) who managed all the activity. The three Hunter/Killer teams worked simultaneously within two or three square kilometers. When a target found by any one of the three Hunter/Killer teams needed troops on the ground, the three Lift aircraft would insert the Rifle Platoon as a quick reaction force for about 30 minutes to an hour. The CO’s C & C aircraft was crewed with a crew chief, and door gunner like all Hueys, but otherwise remained empty to serve as a pickup aircraft when and if another aircraft was shot down.
Combat action during May 1970 in our AO was fairly intense. It was called the Cambodian Incursion. In late April, just before I arrived in the country, President Richard Nixon directed U.S. Forces to cross the Vietnam/Cambodian border for the first time to destroy COSVN, the North Vietnamese Regional Headquarters, and to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia supplying the Viet Cong in the South. Our Troop operated along the border boundaries resembling a Dog’s Head and Parrot’s Beak. The North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong were well entrenched with defensive bunkers and heavy weapons.
“Stogie three-two (Cobra gunship) this is Stogie six (Major Banks the CO), we saw One-four go down; we are on the way to the crash site; keep suppressive fire on the bunkers,” Major Banks commanded.“Roger Six,” Three-two replied as he rolled in for another rocket run. “And we’ll get the Blues (Rifle Platoon) on the ground ASAP,” the CO added.
Still flying the C & C Huey, I made a rapid descent toward the crash site fully expecting Major Banks to say: “I have the controls”. Nope, the CO was busy on the radios ordering the Lift Platoon with its infantry to the crash site along with the other two Hunter/Killer teams. With the first break in radio transmissions, I keyed my intercom mic: “Lew get the jungle penetrator ready in case we need it; Darius heads up on your M60.”
After arriving in the Troop, fresh out of flight school, I flew as a Huey co-pilot with the Lift Platoon for several weeks. New guys (newbies) flew from the right seat as co-pilots for three to four months with experienced Aircraft Commanders (ACs) who flew from the left seat. When judged as competent and voted on by all the ACs in the platoon, a co-pilot became an AC. In some cases, a co-pilot was never promoted to AC regardless of his time in the country or hours in the aircraft because he never adequately developed the skill and judgment to fly difficult combat missions on his own.
After three weeks in the unit, I met and knew most of the pilots and some of the enlisted crew. I might have met the old CO once, but didn’t remember him; he hadn’t much of a presence. No matter, because after a couple of weeks after my arrival there was a change-of-command ceremony and we now had a new CO by the name of Major Malcolm Banks, an Armor officer who arrived from a tour in Germany.
Perhaps because there was little to do at the end of the day but drink beer (rusty cans of Carling Black Label) and write letters home, we pilots hung together and gossiped a lot. But three days after Major Banks took command of the Troop, we still knew very little about him. The fact that he was a black officer was a curiosity as there were very few in the aviation officer ranks during that time. What we really wondered was what kind of leader he would be and if he would be joining us in the daily fight on the battlefield, something that our departing CO did little of.
Toward the end of one of our beer-drinking gossip sessions on the deck of our hooch (living quarters), Captain Brent Wallace, our Lift Platoon leader arrived and plopped himself down in an empty chair and asked for a “rusty can.”
“Well, guys,” Wallace apprized, as he took a deep draught from his beer, “I just came from the platoon leaders meeting with the new CO; it looks like he will be flying C & C with us tomorrow. He is a man of few words so I can’t tell much about him, but he is professional and seems eager to learn about our operations. Now finish your beer and get some rest; I have a feeling it will be a long day tomorrow. Oh, by the way, Lt. Burger, Major Banks asked that you be his co-pilot until further notice.”
All eyes turned from Captain Wallace to me. The ACs, most of whom were chief warrant officers, were grinning and thinking that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. I was an RLO (Real Live Officer) after all, a term not meant to be complementary. The new guys, also mostly warrant officers, had a look of relief on their faces, happy that it was me and not them. All of us new guys wanted to fly as much as possible and become ACs as soon as possible. Our departing CO did very little flying so his co-pilot mostly sat around and was stuck with silly duty like training officer and supervising the hooch maids.
“Why me! ” I protested. “I’ve never met the man and he hasn’t met me; besides, I’m one of the newest guys in the Troop.”
“I don’t know,” Wallace replied grinning, as he seemed to be enjoying my woe. “Maybe he picked you because you are an RLO. In any case, check with Flight Ops in the morning to see which aircraft you will be flying, do a pre-flight, and be ready to crank at 0700. Major Banks will meet you at the aircraft”
Now all the warrant officers were snickering in their beer. I don’t think any of them had anything against me personally, but most warrants had a chip on their shoulders about RLO pilots. According to the Army, commissioned officers were “tactically trained” for command, and warrant officers were “technically trained” for specific complex duties such as flying aircraft. Many warrant officers never accepted that RLOs could fly as well as warrants and resented being led into battle by commissioned officers who were pilots like themselves. They had a point. Many RLOs entered flight training at an advanced age of 25 to 35 (past their prime), while most warrants were 19 to 22 years old when entering flight school. Many RLOs had fewer flight hours given other responsibilities while warrant officers could concentrate solely on their flying skills. I graduated college, completed basic, advanced, and officer candidate training in the combat arms Artillery Branch, and was 23 when I entered flight school. I consistently performed near the top of my flight class. I felt I needn’t take guff from anyone relative to my flying skills, but I needed to prove it in this new combat environment. But how to do that as the CO’s pilot, Stogie 6A? I was not happy.
At 0600 I entered our Flight Ops building. “Hey Lt. Burger, good morning. I see that you are flying with our new CO today,” said Specialist Five Pete Harrington, the Flight Ops assistant. Pete was way smart beyond his enlisted rank and high school education. He had been Flight Ops assistant for seven or eight months. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse of everything going on in the Troop. “You’ll be flying Huey 365, the CO’s bird. As per Major Banks’ request, the aircraft has been equipped with additional UHF radios to communicate with the Air Force FAC (forward air controller) and a second FM for ground control. I think you already met Lew Carroll the crew chief. Lew already stopped by and should be on the flight line by now. Darius Jones will be your M60 door gunner. Major Banks spent a lot of time in here yesterday getting briefed by the platoon leaders. He doesn’t seem to say much, but I got the impression he is planning on flying a fair amount. I don’t know how much time you will get on the controls but you should at least get a lot of time in the cockpit. Good luck.“
There it was, Huey 365, down at the end of the flight line. “Hey Lew, how’s it going? Remember me, I flew right seat in your Huey a few days ago,” I said as I reached Lew’s aircraft. “Yes sir, I remember. And I remember your argument with Mr. Whitlock, the AC in the left seat. I agree with you that Bob Dylan was a far better songwriter and musician than Dave Van Ronk,” Lew said with a grin. When flying to and from the battlefield, chatter among the flight crew can cover a myriad of topics.
I hadn’t been in the unit long enough to know much about Lew Carroll, but I was already liking him. Not only because he, too, was a Bob Dylan fan, but because he had a reputation as an excellent crew chief with a deliberate, no-nonsense approach both on and off the job. He was tall, physically strong, articulate, had a respectful military bearing, and seemed comfortable with who he was.
“OK, so how do you feel about the new CO commandeering your aircraft for the C & C bird? I asked. “OK by me,” Lew replied. “Flying circles at 2,000 feet means less chance that I will be patching bullet holes in my Huey, not to mention less risk to my own ass. I know a lot of guys like their M60s, but I really don’t get off shooting up the tree line every time we insert the Blues (rifle platoon). Darius might be disappointed, but he can switch out with the other door gunners if he wants. By the way, where is Darius? I woke him on my way out here.”
With Lew at my side, I commenced a pre-flight inspection of the Huey. I was curious about this young man. “Hey Lew, is your name Lewis with a “w” or Louis with a “u”? I’m asking because there was a famous English poet by the name of Lewis Carroll, Lewis with a “w”. Have you heard of him?” I asked.
“Funny you should ask. Yeah, my Mom teaches English literature at Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY, where I grew up. She thought it would be cool to have her son named after a famous poet. She married my Dad with the surname, Carroll, so now I am Lewis with a “w.” Lew went on: “One day during my first year of junior college before I got drafted, I thought I would study my namesake. Unfortunately, the poet’s most famous work is “Jabberwocky” which contains made-up words and makes no sense at all. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with him as my Mom. In any case, I can’t believe you recognized the name—that’s crazy.”
“Atten–chun!” Lew shouted and drew a sharp salute. I was standing on the tail stinger of the Huey inspecting the tail rotor pitch-change links when Major Banks appeared. I dropped to the ground and saluted. Major Banks returned our salutes and told us to stand at ease. “I’m Major Banks and you are Lt. Burger and specialist Carroll,” he announced as though he were assigning us our names. “Is this aircraft ready to fly?” “Yes sir,” Lew and I replied in unison. “Except we are waiting for the door gunner,” Lew added, just as Specialist Darius Jones came around the aircraft and mounted his M60 on the post on the right side of the Huey.
“Hey, what-up—“ Darius’ voice trailed off as he noticed the glare on the face of Major Banks. “Come over here soldier —-get your feet together and stand straight!” Banks commanded in a firm but exasperated voice. Flustered, Darius executed a feeble salute and stood straight. “From now on you’ll be on the flight line an hour before takeoff helping the crew chief prepare the aircraft. If you can’t manage that, you can hump in the bush with the rifle platoon. Dat what-up,” he added sarcastically with effect, as only one black to another could. “And, Lt. Burger, I’ll have a word with you at the end of the day,” he added, as he glanced my way. “Now let’s get this bird in the air.”
This was all new to me. Yes, I should have checked on Darius before the CO arrived instead of yakking with Lew about trivia, but it was usually the AC’s responsibility to get his crew together and ready for the mission. I was just a newbie co-pilot trying to learn the ropes. Now, 10 minutes after meeting my new CO, he suggested I could expect an ass-chewing at the end of the day and would let me think about it for the next 10 hours.
All strapped in, the blades untied, Lew gave a thumbs up: “All clear.” I had the start-up checklist open on my knee. Major Banks stared straight ahead in the left seat and held up his right thumb. I assumed he meant for me to start the engine. The start-up procedure was normally shared with the pilots to ensure the 30 or so steps were done properly and none were missed, especially with newbie pilots, but it appeared I was on my own. Fortunately, I had spent a lot of time memorizing the procedure so I rarely needed to refer to the list on my knee. After I flipped the battery on, I called out the remainder of the list over the intercom as I performed each function and asked for clearance one more time before I hit the start switch. “Clear Left, clear right,” came the responses from Lew and Darius. I heard the thump of ignition in the turbine and the 48-foot, two-bladed rotor above me began turning.
While I brought the engine up to full RPM, Major Banks called Fight OPs: “Stogie Ops, this is Stogie six, I am launching, over.” “Roger Stogie six, I will advise the teams, over.” I recognized Pete’s voice. Again staring straight ahead, Major Banks motioned forward with his right hand. This took me totally by surprise given we had never flown together. I had only hovered the aircraft out from between the 8-foot-tall revetments twice before. It required some skill to bring it to a hover while keeping the tail straight behind. Tail rotor contact with the revetment would be catastrophic. Mindful that the aircraft was empty and would come up quickly, I brought it lightly on its skids then added just enough collective pitch to break ground contact. With just one little wobble, I kept the Huey at a one-foot hover and moved forward until I heard Lew say, “tail clear, well done.”
This first day flying with Major Banks proved to be relatively short and uneventful. The Hunter/Killer teams had no contact with the enemy, and the Rifle Platoon, inserted just once, encountered no one in several abandoned bunkers. We logged six hours of flight time. I flew the entire time. The ass chewing I was expecting after that first day flying with the Major thankfully didn’t amount to much. It was really just a few words about what he expected of me, pretty much having the aircraft and crew ready to go at the assigned time and place.
I had now been flying with Major Banks in the C & C Huey for two weeks. We flew every day for 6 to 10 hours each day. Not once during those two weeks had he touched the controls and flown the aircraft. At one point, I couldn’t help but glance at his chest: Sure enough, he wore the Aviator Wings with a star to boot, meaning he was a Senior Aviator.
My fellow aviators in the Lift Platoon noticed all the flight time I was logging and stopped making fun of me for being the CO’s co-pilot. And even though I had only been in the country for a short time, it was long enough to observe and understand our Troop battle tactics. On several occasions during the chaos of activity with multiple radios lit up, I answered questions directed to the CO from our guys when Major Banks was tied up on other radios with Battalion Ops or the Air Force FAC.
Now we had a Loach shot down with two of our guys, condition unknown, in the jungle; he would surely take the controls and fly the Huey as we tried to pick up the downed crew if we could get to them, and if they were alive and able.
“Stogie Six, this is Three-two, I’m out of rockets, Stogie Three-five arrived and is now rolling in on the bunkers. Lift Platoon is half a klick to the south on the way. That’s Crofts (Chief Warrant Officer) and his crew chief Meadows that went down in the Loach.” The CO double-clicked his radio transmitter button in acknowledgment.
Before his engine failed due to the enemy fire, the Scout bird “Stogie One-four” had gotten some distance away from where he had taken fire, which was somewhat comforting as I came to hover over the crash site. “I see’um through the trees,” Darius yelled. “The Loach is in pieces,” he added. Lew chimed in: “Yeah, one guy is lying down and one is standing and waving,” Lew said.”It’s hard to tell who’s who from this distance, but it looks like Sergeant Meadows is standing.” “Back up and come a little to your left and I can drop the jungle penetrator through an opening—-I hope our rope is long enough.”
At this point, the CO was communicating with Captain Wallace, flight lead of the Lift Platoon as they were landing to insert the infantry platoon near the bunkers. I held the Huey steady a few feet above the treetops as Lew lowered the rig. The jungle penetrator was not a fancy rescue winch. Rather it was simply a bullet-shaped weight with three metal flaps that folded open from its base which could be sat upon. It was tied to a 100-foot rope with the other end of the rope tied to the deck of the Huey.
“It’s barely long enough,” Lew shouted. “Come a little lower into the treetops; the tail rotor is clear. They are both standing now and Meadows is tying Mr. Crofts to the rig with his belt and getting on himself. Crofts must be hurt but conscious because he was standing———- Meadows is now waving up; they are ready——- bring it up,” Lew commanded.
I quickly glanced at Major Banks in the left seat. He was staring straight ahead clearly leaving the task of pulling this wounded crew out of the jungle to me. That would require hovering higher and higher until they were free of the treetops. “Back just a little,” Lew yelled. “To the left some,” Darius warned. “Stop! Meadows is pushing off a tree limb,” Lew cautioned. “Almost clear,” Darius offered. “They are out,” Lew yelled.
The two wounded crew were now dangling more than 150 feet above the ground and 100 feet below my aircraft as I accelerated and gained a bit more altitude to keep from dragging my living sling load through the treetops. Just as I wondered where I was heading, Stogie Three-two keyed his mic: “Stogie six take a heading of 130 and look for an old roadbed in about half a kilometer.” Major Banks double-clicked his mic. Although Stogie three-two was out of ammo, he continued circling overhead while we extracted his Scout buddies from the jungle. Now he was in front, leading us to the old roadbed where I could lower our wounded and pull them aboard the Huey. In the meantime, the Rifle Platoon attacked the bunkers and took two Viet Cong prisoners. They then moved to the downed Loach, removed the radios, guns, and ammo then headed back to the LZ for pick up.
“Another 10 feet,” Lew directed, as I lowered the hurt aviators to the ground. I sat the Huey down next to Crofts and Meadows. Lew unplugged his intercom cable and jumped out to assist the bruised and broken aviators into the Huey while Darius retrieved the jungle penetrator. As they boarded the aircraft, I could see that Crofts was bleeding profusely from a broken nose and cuts on his face. He was clearly in shock. Meadows was limping but managed to pull himself onto the deck of the aircraft. I turned and watched Lew secure Crofts to the bench seat. I met Crofts’s eyes as he looked forward toward the cockpit. In spite of his injuries, he managed a weak hand wave and grin that was more of a grimace. I had heard that the OH-6 Loach was the most survivable aircraft in our fleet. When shot down over trees, with little opportunity to autorotate completely to the ground, the tail boom, skids, and rotors shear off and the rest of the fuselage rolls into a ball allowing the pilots to at least survive if not walk away. I pulled pitch and pushed the Huey to 100 knots on the way to the medical unit near our home base. Ten days later, both Crofts and Meadows were back flying combat missions with some protest from our Batallion Flight Surgeon.
Now beginning my third month in Vietnam I was still Major Banks’ co-pilot while remaining a member of the Lift Platoon. I was logging twice the number of flight hours as my Lift buddies because Major Banks flew virtually every day, but, remarkably, never touched the controls—I was still doing all the flying. We had a lot of slack time in the cockpit, but he never initiated a non-mission conversation or asked a question outside of the task at hand. I was bold enough to ask him a few questions about himself. I learned that he was from Atlanta and got a full-ride football scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC where he was commissioned an Army Officer through its ROTC program. Only years later did I learn that Howard University is the most prestigious historically Black university in the country. But that’s about it. His short answers to my questions didn’t encourage me to ask further, and he never asked any of me. One of the rare times he directed a comment to me personally was to scold me for being “unshaven,” although I shaved every night in the shower because it was easier than in the morning. I noticed that the warrant officers could get away with mustaches and hair on their ears, but he had higher expectations of his RLO co-pilot.
I stopped wondering why Major Banks never took the controls of the aircraft and just enjoyed the fact that my flying skills were improving via long days and a variety of missions. It didn’t occur to me that he was purposely giving me as much flight experience as possible because in several weeks he would send me to in-country instructor pilot school to become the Huey standardization pilot for the Troop. On days when he didn’t fly, I flew with the Lift Platoon and got experience flying in formation and doing troop insertions. But then one day Major Banks nearly jerked the controls out of my hands with the words “GOT IT.”
TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE! Canopy shattered—-Front seat (co-pilot) hit—-no oil pressure—-Mayday, going down! That was Stogie three-two, CW2 Matt Curran, the gunship pilot. He was part of the Hunter/Killer team when Stogie one-four, Crofts and Meadows, went down in the trees several weeks before. Curran had excellent flying and shooting skills, but his braggadocio and sense of invincibility could be a bit much. His front seat co-pilot was Lt. James Beam, a new Cobra pilot who arrived in the Troop shortly after I did. Curran had just initiated a gun run on a suspected enemy 51 caliber emplacement but the enemy shot first. “Roger three-two ol’ buddy, got you in sight and got you covered,” said his teammate Stogie one-four. The damaged Cobra autorotated and landed hard against an abandoned ricefield dike. There was no further radio transmission from the pilots.
Enemy 51 caliber machine gun emplacements were called Cobra killers with good reason. Our Hunter/Killer teams were not supposed to engage them if it could be avoided. But hubris can get the best of some pilots when flying the Army’s meanest gunship with amazing amounts of ordinance and killing power. This would be a gun run to regret.
At the time, Major Banks and I were flying C&C above one of the other Hunter/Killer teams about a half kilometer away. “Stogie one-four this is Six. I’m two minutes away. Is Three-two out of range of enemy fire?” “Roger Six, he is on the opposite side of the patch of woods from the target.” “Roger One-four, we have you in sight, wait and we will assist.”
Crofts had just landed his Loach next to the damaged Cobra when I was on short final. With all the excitement I misjudged and was too steep and too hot on my approach to the two aircraft. At the instant I knew I couldn’t land and had to go around I heard “GOT IT” and felt the controls jerk out of my hands. I didn’t let go entirely but lightly followed the control movements as Major Banks unloaded the cushion of air under the flared rotor with oscillations of the cyclic stick which made the Huey descend rapidly just next to the Cobra. I had two seconds to be amazed by that maneuver and the man who performed it when Lew unstrapped, unplugged and jumped toward the downed Cobra.
“Darius, stay and keep your M60 on the tree line,” I yelled in my keyed mic. Major Banks was on the UHF radio calling up the Air Force FAC. Crofts and Meadows were pulling Curran, screaming with back pain and with a lacerated face, from the back seat of the Cobra. He had damaged one or more vertebrae during the hard landing and cut his face on broken plexiglass. Lew unstrapped Lt. Beam, the lifeless and bleeding co-pilot, pulled him from the aircraft and carried him to our Huey. Beam was killed instantly by a 51 caliber round that had shattered the top-right edge of his chest plate and went through his upper body. Lew laid Beam gently on the floor of the Huey as though he were still alive and careful not to hurt him further. With bloody hands, he opened the helmet face shield of the young pilot and gently pulled down his eyelids to cover his open eyes.
I knew Lt. James Beam before we came to Vietnam. He was ahead of my flight class at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah Georgia but was in the Cobra transition class while I was finishing Huey training. I ran into him in the Officer’s Club from time to time. He was from a Quaker community in Eastern Ohio. He insisted on being called James instead of Jim and told me that his mother had no knowledge of the famous bourbon from Kentucky when she gave him the name of one of Jesus’ apostles. “She had twelve to choose from,” James said. “Just my luck, I guess.” By chance, James and I ended up in the same unit in Vietnam.
Lew keyed his intercom mic: “All clear.” I pulled pitch and headed toward Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport and the Third Field Hospital at a speed that shook the two-bladed Huey while worrying that the vibration could further hurt our injured pilot. Major Banks confirmed the coordinates of the gun emplacement with Crofts and Meadows and put them in contact with the Air Force FAC who quickly had an F-100D Jet with napalm on the 51 caliber machine gun emplacement.
Through the noise of the rotor and through my tight helmet I could hear Curran scream in pain while Lew did his best to comfort him. Major Banks called ahead with arrangements for our wounded and KIA. Not certain of the most direct heading to the hospital, I asked Major Banks to tune the ADF radio (Automatic Direction Finder) to American Forces Vietnam Network (volume off) which gave me a b-line heading on my RMI (Radio Magnetic Indicator) toward the hospital. I only wished I could push this Huey faster.
After departing the Third Field Hospital, knowing that our injured and dead were in the best hands possible, Lew keyed the intercom: “Major Banks, LT Burger, can we stop at the sandbar on the way back? Have you been there?” “No, but OK with me,” Major Banks replied. “I’ve heard of it, but not been there, show us the way Lew,” I said. I knew what he wanted to do. “Just ahead on the Song Sai Gon River below us around the next bend you will see the sand bar,” Lew instructed. “On the edge, the water is about six inches deep and the sand is firm; land with one skid in the water.”
Lew had obviously been here before, but I touched down carefully and tested the firmness of the sand—- no worries. Lew pulled an Army issue collapsible canvas bucket from behind his seat, jumped in the water, and began tossing buckets full on the deck of the Huey. He also tried to rinse the blood from his flight shirt to no avail. He tossed Darius a brush and together they scrubbed the now mostly coagulated blood that covered the floor of the aircraft. I idled the Huey and watched the reddish-brown water float downriver toward Saigon and our dead pilot. James wasn’t married, but he had a mother and father just like all of us. Except his folks were pacifists yet patriots who supported their son’s desire to serve his country. They would be notified within 24 hours.
As we departed the river for home base, I glanced back and saw Lew wiping his shirt with a towel and remembered how gently he had carried and laid the obviously dead young pilot on the deck of his Huey. He told me months ago that he was happy that his Huey was being used for C & C because he didn’t particularly enjoy shooting his M60. But clearly, it wasn’t for lack of courage, which he had in spades. He told me he neither liked his namesake, the English poet, nor the poet’s most famous poem Jabberwocky. However hard to interpret, the poem is about a boy who risks his life and musters up the courage to eradicate evil from the world. Not a bad fit for Lew in my opinion. I will tell him.
It was a day of extreme sadness with the death and injury of our Stogie pilots, especially James, a young innocent who never touched a drop of Jim Beam, despite his name. It was a day of enlightenment to discover that Major Banks could fly when he had to and had expert control of his aircraft. It was a day for me to be humbled, realizing I had a lot to learn about flying, the consequences of war, and the fragility of human life. It was a day to admire Lew’s courage and Darius’ resilience under adversity. And it was a day to hope that the lives lost during this day, both friend and foe, throughout this beautiful country would prove to have some meaning.
It was twenty minutes flight time to home base. Our collective mood was funereal and somber. The ADF radio was still tuned to the American Forces Vietnam Network. I took a chance, not knowing how Major Banks would react, and turned up the volume. It was Bob Dylan singing Blowin’ in the Wind. I glanced at Major Banks who stared straight ahead, stoic as ever with his mind who knows where, but probably on the death of one of his pilots and his command accountability, something I had yet to experience. I glanced back at Lew who turned toward me with a slight, tired grin as he recognized the tune. I turned all the way to the right and back: Darius was robotically holding on to his M60 with both hands but staring at the floor of the aircraft.
I relaxed in my seat and held the Huey at a comfortable 80 knots. The late afternoon sun was pouring in the left side of the aircraft. Embedded in the sound of the two-bladed rotor was Dylan’s nasal voice: “———-and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows that too many people have died?”
I am Major Banks’ co-pilot. Let’s see what tomorrow brings?
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