April 1970 III Corps South Vietnam (Tan An AO) “First week in the field and first time to take fire”
During my first mission flying out of Tan An as a “First Up” pilot, I glanced over my shoulder as they were throwing a South Vietnamese casualty on board our aircraft. His arms and legs were tied to a long bamboo pole and reminded me of the old National Geographic photos of big game trophies being carried by porters on similar poles.
The South Vietnamese had, in addition to their Army troops, local and region forces which we nicknamed “Rough Puffs” (RF/PF’s = Regional Forces/Popular Forces). They were what we might consider as our National Guard with “hand me down” and dated equipment; hence bamboo poles versus liters. Transporting “Kilo’s” (KIA’s = Killed In Action) and “Whiskey’s (WIA’s = Wounded In Action) through waist deep water, swamps and jungles proved the bamboo pole to be quite an efficient transportation device.
The top of the KIA’s skull had been taken off by a large round, and as the body came to a halt, the brains exited the skull slid across the cabin floor. The 22 year old combat seasoned AC (Aircraft Commander) turned to me, reading my sickened facial expression and said, “Take it from me, you learn not to look back there....”. From then on, I did so only rarely, but the crew chiefs and medics lived with it daily. They truly were the unsung heroes of that war.
After that incident and about a week later, I experienced “taking fire” for the very first time. It was a night mission. Over one third of my 1,000 flight hours that year were at night. I was flying the aircraft and CW2 Rich Ziemba (AC) was in the left seat. As with all AC’s, when flying with green new pilots, Rich was apprehensive as to how I would react the first time we took fire. As we were approaching the LZ, several short but continuous bursts of red tracer rounds came streaming up at our aircraft. Note: With automatic weapons, every 5th round was a tracer round, meaning each tracer round was sandwiched between 4 other rounds coming up at you! We were blackened out (all lights out) but the enemy was following our sound and the tracers were coming in the direction off the nose of our helicopter. I had forgotten to turn off my NAV (navigational) radio in the excitement, and was hearing the Beatles on AFVN (Armed Forces Radio Vietnam) singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” while simultaneously banking our aircraft left, then right, then left again in an attempt to avoid the tracer rounds. I instantly burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all. Rich thought that I was “losing it” and started to grab the controls, but I told him to flip up (turn on) his NAV radio. He listened, as did the rest of the nervous crew, grinned and said, “I think you are going to be all right over here.”