I have two lovely daughters. It has been a joy to watch them grow and enjoy their success as adults and parents. The younger, Julie, sent me a photo of The Wall, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, where she and her own daughter, Helen, were visiting over the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is an American holiday honoring the men and women who died in our country’s wars. What better place than The Wall to spend a few minutes reflecting on those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us and our country. Because the etched names of the KIA (killed in action) are above, below, and almost as far as one can see, left, and right, to stand at the base of The Wall is overwhelming.
Daughters at The Wall; it conjured an old memory.
South Vietnam, late 1970: “This is really a beautiful country,” my co-pilot, Wyatt, said softly as we flew from Bien Hoa back toward our unit currently operating in War Zone D at the base of the Central Highlands near the boundary of II and III Corps. We had just completed Wyatt’s 90-day standardization check ride in one of our unit’s spare Hueys. Actually, it was the CO’s Huey; he wasn’t flying today. He told me not to “break it.” As the Huey instructor pilot for the unit, it was my prerogative to choose a paved runway to practice touch-down autorotations and other emergency procedures while conducting the check ride. I’d drop the crew chief and door gunner off at the airstrip before the check ride so they could enjoy visiting the PX and get a cold drink, with ice if they were lucky. And they would stock up with goodies to bring back to their buddies in the “bush.”
Wyatt was right, this really was a beautiful country. The foothills of the Lang Bian mountain range were flowing in front of us. The landscape was mostly rolling bright green jungle interspersed with fast-moving streams and occasional stream-side clearings.
There was one anomaly: It was a barely-visible old scar on the landscape that was an abandoned, primitive, high voltage powerline built by the French to provide hydropower from Da Lat to Saigon. I could see its snake-like track as we flew over; it kind of gave me the creeps. The powerline was never completed and never went into service after the French were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Abandoned now for almost 20 years, the recovering jungle nearly obscured the original track but the old cables still hung, menacingly, just above the tree tops.
Fifteen minutes from the Troop staging area, still at 1,500 feet on a sunny day with white puffy clouds, I was daydreaming within the comforting whop-whop of the Huey’s main rotor. I had almost forgotten about our Troop’s pursuit of the enemy below. Suddenly a call from Flight Ops came over the radio: “All Stogie aircraft, be on the lookout for Stogie one-three. He’s just been reported missing by his teammate.”
Stogie one-three, that would be my friend Lt. Ted Holdcroft. Ted was married with kids and a couple of years older than most Scout pilots, most of whom were Warrant Officers. In the makeshift officer’s club at our base in Phu Loi, we would often sit together with a beer and tell stories while many of the other pilots were engaged in high-stakes poker games at the other end of the room. Our stories were about home, about growing up in the country, how we ended up as Army aviators, about our families—a lot about our families. He told me how he married his high school sweetheart shortly after they graduated and about his two young daughters.
“Hey Jim,” Ted would ask, “have I shown you my picture of my daughters?” as he unbuttoned the flap of his right front shirt pocket. The left pocket contained pencils, a flashlight, and notes he used for the job, but the right pocket was reserved for his ever-present photo. I had seen this photo several times, but I feigned uncertainty: “Well, maybe not; show me,” I said.
“My wife gave me this photo the day I left for Vietnam; I told her I would carry it with me every day. That’s Abigail on the left, the tall one; she’s four years old. Her birthday was just last Tuesday. The little one on the right is Annabelle, she’s two and a half. ” “Those are lovely old-fashioned names,” I said. “Were the girls named after anyone in particular?” “Yeah, they’re the names of my wife and my grandmother.” Ted stared at the photo for a long time; his eyes glistened. “Abigail means ‘Father’s Joy’ and Annabelle means ‘Loveable,‘ he added with palpable emotion. The meaning of the names was new information for me. I again studied the pixie faces of these pretty, pony-tailed, brown-haired girls. I wasn’t married, I had no daughters. But I hoped I would, and I hoped I would love them as much as Ted loved his.
I passed the well-worn photo back to Ted. As he re-buttoned his shirt pocket I asked: “Why are you a Scout pilot, Ted?” He looked toward me with a vacant expression, wondering why I asked the question. He took a moment to answer. “The Troop needed a couple of Scout pilots when I arrived, and I was already 58 rated (OH-58 Observation Helicopter) so I said OK—just trying to help the Troop.” I didn’t let on why I asked, but I was worried about him. Ted wasn’t a 21-year-old, full-of-piss-and-vinegar Warrant Officer typical of Scout pilots. He was an “old man” like me, almost 25, and he had a wife and kids. I didn’t know the KIA rate at the time, I only had a gut feeling that turned out to be pretty accurate. Approximately 2,700,000 American men and women served in Vietnam; 1 in 45 was KIA. For helicopter pilots, the KIA rate was 1 in 18. For Scout pilots, surviving the year was like playing Russian roulette.
“We broke for fuel about 15 minutes ago,” Stogie three-one’s voice was heard on the Troop frequency. “He was behind me. When I approached the fuel bladders he wasn’t there. After I “gas up” I will retrace the way I came in.” The other two Hunter/Killer teams broke from their search and destroy missions and began searching for Stogie one-three, but it was a big, deep jungle.
“Do you know the crew chief who was flying with him Lew?” I asked my crew chief. “Yeah, it was Tommy Rossi,” Lew answered. That would be Tommaso Rossi, a tall, dark-complected kid from the Chicago Italian neighborhood. Tommy had tight curly hair that was always too long. According to Ted, Tommy could fly quite well for a crew chief. The Scouts often flew with one rated pilot and the crew chief beside them in the front seats. The pilots usually gave their crew chiefs lots of “stick time” going to and from the war zone so they could do a life-saving controlled crash in the event the pilot was incapacitated. They were also smart on the radios when needed, but no one had heard from either Ted or Tommy. This was odd; a Scout doesn’t just disappear without a warning, a shout, or a mayday call.
I pressed my intercom button: “Wyatt, I have the controls,” I said. The other two Hunter/Killer teams were searching for Stogie one-three in the war zone assuming he got shot down after he and his Cobra mate broke for fuel. The old abandoned power line lay between our area of operation in the War Zone and the fuel depot. I had a hunch. I floored the collective pitch and made a 180-degree turn; the Huey dropped like a rock toward the power line. I leveled out and slowed to 60 knots just above and to the side of the lines. I keyed my mic: “It’s a long shot guys, but watch closely under the powerlines for any sign of an aircraft. Wyatt, keep track of our location on the map.”
The heavy power cables were distracting; I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I imagined a line would snake up, grab my rotor and pull us down into a maze of wires, like a fly in a spider’s web. I couldn’t help wondering what a mess it would make of a helicopter. These old powerlines seemed more ominous than the ever-present danger of the enemy who could now hit our slow, low-flying Huey.
“There’s a small wisp of smoke just ahead,” Wyatt said. “It could be an enemy campfire, but unlikely this time of day,” I cautioned. “I’ll move off the lines a bit and speed up.” We had flown several miles of line with no sign of our guys. Now we had a bit of smoke ahead. It had to be a campfire or, God forbid, our downed aircraft. My heart sank at the prospect.
Flying at tree-top level to avoid small arms fire, we passed a tiny clearing under the lines. “It’s an aircraft!” Lew shouted. “Or at least the tail boom of an aircraft,” he added. I did a quick 180 and made another pass at speed. No one shot at us. “Someone is laying next to the tail boom,” Wyatt said from his vantage point on the right side of the aircraft. “But except for the tail boom, the rest of the aircraft is a black cinder.”
I pulled back on the cyclic stick and pulled collective pitch to get well above the power lines and circled the downed aircraft. I keyed the Troop frequency: “All Stogies, this is Stogie two-four, I think I located our missing aircraft. Flight Ops, we need the blues (rifle platoon), gunship cover, and the Batallion safety and recovery teams on site ASAP. Stand by for coordinates. Be advised, it looks like he hit the old powerlines.”
My brain was telling me that it was 95% sure that this was my friend Ted and Tommy’s aircraft, so the safe and logical thing to do was wait for the lift platoon with the infantry and help direct them into what appeared to be a one ship LZ under the wires next to the burned up OH-58. But 5% uncertainty overrode my better judgment. I had to know for certain.
“Get on your M60s guys, we are going to land and confirm the identity of the aircraft and crew,” I commanded. I heard multiple confirmation clicks of the mics. Now I was focused; I had lost all concern for the wires except for knowing I had to fly under them to land next to the downed aircraft; I wanted to be convinced that this was NOT Ted and Tommy’s aircraft—maybe it was from another unit operating in the area.
I approached the downed aircraft perpendicular to the wires. There was enough room to land right next to the burned helicopter. Just before touching down, I noticed a flight helmet in the short grass about 50 feet at the rear of the aircraft. That seemed odd. How could one’s helmet come off in a crash unless the chin strap was not fastened? “Lew, I’m going to touch down right next to the man on the ground; see who it is.”
“It’s a body with no head,” Lew said matter of factly as he unstrapped his seat belt and pulled his long intercom cord with him. “Check the name tag on his shirt,” I demanded. “It’s him,” Lew called back. I was in denial. “See what’s in his right front shirt pocket,” I yelled. Lew paused, wondering why I made that request, but he followed the command and then held up a photo. I couldn’t make out the images from my vantage point in the seat of the Huey, but finally, my brain clicked into reality mode. “Put the photo back in his pocket and find Tommy,” I said. Lew unhooked his intercom cord and went around the still-smoking cinder of the OH-58 and immediately returned. “There is a body in the aircraft but it is unrecognizable,” Lew said after he reconnected his mic cord. “OK, let’s get out of here before the VC get here,” I said. “The rifle platoon should be here any minute to secure the site.“
I never saw the official accident report, but at the time I surmised that Ted hit the wire at a high rate of speed, a speed that was usual when returning for fuel. The wire must have caught the aircraft right at the windshield, ripped the pilot from the seat, and tossed the aircraft to the ground in one, catastrophic second.
It was never advisable to get too friendly with your flight crew or the other pilots because you never knew how long they would be around to be your friend. When I flew back out from under the wires it was the last time I would ever hear a word about Ted or Tommy. Like a used-up piece of Army equipment, what remained of them would be shipped back to the States along with their personal effects and, within days, another pilot and crew chief would take their place. As for the rest of us, we would be giving the powerlines a wide berth on the way out to the War Zone the next day and do business, as usual, helping kill the enemy and creating orphans and daughters without fathers. The enemy has children too.
Orphans that were protected at the U. S. fire support base from where we staged and refueled during our daily operations. Their parents, Vietnamese soldiers and civilian villagers, were killed in battle or as “collateral damage.”
Fifty years have passed. “Father’s Joy” and “Lovable” would be just past middle age by now and maybe have their own daughters. They would have hardly known their father, but I’m sure their mother, Ted’s high school sweetheart, shared his memory and perhaps the story of the photo which she probably still has and treasures.
Of the 58,324 names etched on The Wall, 9,107 died from accidents of all sorts including a helicopter flying into a high voltage wire. It doesn’t matter how they died; it was war. Other than killing young soldiers, another thing war is especially good at is creating orphans, daughters without fathers, and granddaughters without grandfathers. And they will live it forever because only the dead have seen the end of the war.
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