SemiREMF Stories, Americal 69-70
Acting Door Gunner.
It was late summer on the inland coastal plains to the north of Tam Ky. The rice had been harvested and the fields were all dry and dusty. The area was sparsely populated and criss-crossed with many wooded rivers and streams. Up until a few months ago, this area had been the area of operations (AO) for the 1/1 Armored Cavalry of the Americal Division. Since that time, the "First of the First" had taken up residence in the Division headquarters of Chu Lai, a huge coastal Army base in the Southern I Corp of RSVN. I Corp was the northern most military area of South Vietnam. Just to the north of us was the operational area of the 3rd Marines headquartered out of a large base at Da Nang. We had a cavalry troop operating about 5 klicks south of the large river, which was the operational boundary between the Marine and the Americal area of operations (AO). The land still showed the some of the scars of the many heavy tracked vehicles that used to operate in this region as well as being heavily peppered with craters of all sizes. We were back tearing up the countryside again based on intelligence information that there was a large NVA unit in the area. It was very hot on the ground with the temperature rising well into the 100s in the early afternoons.
In the command and control (Charlie Charlie) Bell Huey helicopter flying at about 1500 ft, it was refreshingly cool from the air streaming in through the open doors. I had recently been promoted to captain and was working as the CAV's artillery liaison officer. I had been doing this job for several months and was relatively experienced and confident having been in country about 6 months. It was late morning and we had just spent the morning coordinating with the troops in the field. The squadron commander had satisfied himself that the young lieutenant running the troop had things under control and was doing a thorough job of "search and destroy". I had spent sometime with my butter bar (2nd Lt.) forward observer (FO) and had made sure that he had a good handle on his location. Also, that he and his men had every thing they needed. Since it was nearing lunchtime and the bird needed fuel, the colonel decided that we should fly over to Tam Ky to refuel and get a hot lunch at the MACV advisor's compound there. We had just flown up above the danger zone of small arms fire, about 1000 ft., and were headed east. At the time I was expecting the bird to start turning south towards Tam Ky, we turned north instead. I looked over at the colonel and he yelled that the pilot had picked up a lot of movement along the river to our north and we were going over to check it out.
I moved out of my web seat to the floor and scooted over to the back of the aircraft commander's (AC) seat and the edge of the open doorway there. I also slid my PRC-25 radio along the floor with me in case I needed to call in some artillery. I quickly looked over my map to verify our location after I got situated. As I looked up from my map, the colonel was pointed out the door and I could see a good-sized herd of cattle moving across a large river crossing there. Surprisingly, I didn't see as many people as you might have expected to see with such a large herd. As we flew over the cattle, we finally saw 2 or 3 men herding the cattle and they didn't even look at us as we flew by at elevation. Everything about the scene below looked innocent other than the fact that one rarely saw large herds anywhere in Vietnam but something about it just didn't feel right. The colonel directed the pilot to make a low pass over the river crossing. The pilot flew on past the crossing at elevation a few klicks and then dropped rapidly down to about a 100 ft and began to fly back up the river. Usually helicopter pilots increased their speed to about 100 knots or more when flying at this altitude to minimize exposure time to small arms fire from any fixed ground location. This pilot was either inexperienced or more comfortable with the situation than I was. He kept our airspeed quite low apparently in order to take a real good look.
As we came into view of the cattle crossing and the men on the ground saw us, they began to run towards the wooded areas on either side of the river-crossing. Again, this wasn't all that unusual, but it just felt wrong to me so I chambered a round on my M-16, shifted my body around so that I could cover a wider area, stuck the barrel out the door, and flipped off the safety. Just about the time we flew over the cattle in the crossing, I picked out a figure in the trees in a matching dark green shirt and pants. Before it registered that this was an NVA uniform, he reached over to a tree he was standing next too and picked up a weapon, which I swear was an M-14 and swung it around to bear on us. It looked like he was pointing it right at my nose and he seemed so close that I could almost reach out touch him. My body finally responded to the scream in my mind and I yanked my trigger and about the same time he fired on us. When I let loose, the pilot right behind me must have pulled a whole handful of pitch because the bird leaped up about 10 ft in the air. I couldn't keep my weapon on target but held the trigger down until the bolt locked back on the empty magazine anyway. By that time, we had cleared the area and the pilot was yelling something unintelligible over the noise of the helicopter.
I was heartily cursing the door gunner on our side for failing to fire and slapping another magazine into my weapon. The colonel yelled at me that the door gunner had been hit. I shut up as that seemed a reasonable excuse for not firing. I looked over at the wounded gunner in his small niche in side of the helicopter just behind where the colonel sat. He was hunched over holding at his foot and grimacing in obvious pain. I realized he had been hit in the foot and decided that maybe it wasn't such a good excuse, after all nothing was wrong with his trigger finger. The colonel was talking on his radio contacting the troop about 5 klicks away and ordering them to saddle up and get over to the river. We then turned towards Tam Ky to dust off the door gunner. The door gunner tapped the colonel on the shoulder and asked him to get out of the way. He then released his safety strap and swung around the outside of the bird on a post between the colonel's seat and his, into the main passenger compartment with us. This as we flew along at about 90 knots, 1000 ft in the air, and on one good foot. As I looked at him in amazement, he hopped to the seat next to me and sat down heavily. He pulled off his flight helmet and gingerly lifted his wounded foot. I could see a hole right through the heel of his boot and winced in sympathy as I realized that it had probably had shattered his heel bone.
He started to unlace the boot and I reached over and touched him on the shoulder. As he looked over, I yelled at him it was probably better to leave the boot on and if anything tighten the laces. He thought for a moment and said that he wanted to get the boot off and get a combat dressing on it. I didn't argue as I knew he really wanted to see how badly the foot was damaged. He finished loosening the laces and started to tug on the boot but was unable to get it off due to the increasing pain. He finally decided I was right and asked me if I would put a dressing on his boot for him. Blood was beginning to flow out the holes in the boot. I bent over and re-tightened his boot laces ignoring his grunts of pain and wrapped a battle dressing around the outside of the boot covering the leaking bullet holes. A little while later, we landed at a field hospital in Tam Ky and the medics there helped the door gunner into the hospital.
The pilots eased the bird over near the refueling dump, shut down the helicopter, and along with the remaining door gunner began to inspect the helicopter. They were also counting the extra ventilation holes our little friend in the green suit had put in the tail boom. They decided that the bird was flyable but that they needed to go back to their company to pick up another door gunner. The other door gunner began moving his gun and ammo to the AC side of the bird as he had just got an instant promotion to crew chief. He asked if I would give him a hand. These particular gunners had removed the standard fixed mount and instead had the M-60s hung on a strap from the roof. Instead of the standard handles and butterfly trigger on the rear of the gun, they had installed the infantry style pistol grip and trigger and had removed the rear stock so that the buffer mechanism was exposed. They must have felt this gave them a better range of coverage and made it easier to handle. I helped the door gunner move the absent gunners large mini-gun ammo can and M-60 to the now empty side.
As we were shuffling the ammo and M-60s, I noticed an ammo can with a bullet hole through it on the floor of the wounded door gunner's compartment. I had also noticed an M-79 grenade launcher hanging on a strap in the wounded door gunner's compartment. Out of curiosity, I popped open the can and in it were 40mm grenades lined up in neat rows. A bullet had entered the can on one end, traveled the length of the can down between two rows of grenades, and neatly exited the other end of the can. M-79 grenades needed to travel a few meters beyond the end of the barrel after firing before they became fully armed, so they probably wouldn't have gone off if hit. Never the less, I felt that we had been real lucky to come out of it with only one of us hit in the foot. The pilot's action in bouncing the aircraft up had made the incoming rounds go low and to the rear, even if it had spoiled my aim. I decided to forgive him for flying too low and slow during our pass over the crossing, although the wounded door gunner might have felt differently.
The pilots fired up the Huey and taxied over to the fuel dump to fill our fuel tanks. As we were moving along, the colonel began talking on his radio excitedly. He had heard on the tactical channels that the troop had arrived at the river crossing and immediately gotten into a heavy firefight. As we filled up on fuel, the colonel began put to pressure on pilots to forego the trip back to Chu Lai for another door gunner. When they began hedging as it was unsafe, I saw an interesting job opportunity and volunteered to man the M-60 on the "peter pilot" side. The pilots looked at me with the obvious question about my abilities with an M-60 on their faces. Just as I prepared to give forth with a raft of BS about my non-existent M-60 experience, the AC grinned and said," what the hell, lets go for it".
I decided that I needed to be in the main compartment and so got the door gunner to help me wrestle the missing door gunner's ammo can into the main compartment. We positioned it in the middle of the right hand doorway and I set the M-60 on top of it. That way I would also be able to communicate with the colonel and move over to his side of the bird in case arty fire was needed. I wasn't about to get in the business of swinging outside the door while we were flying along like the wounded door gunner had done. I sat down on the floor behind the can and popped up the loading gate on the weapon. It was clean as a whistle having not been fired yet. I worked the bolt a couple of times to get the feel of it and see that every thing appeared to function properly. I made sure the weapon safety was on and reached into the can and found the end of the long, long belt of ammo lying in there. It had been made by linking many 100 round belts together and then carefully laying and folding them back and forth across the bottom of the can. I pulled the end of this belt up over the small olive drab (OD) C-ration can that the gunner had wired to the left side of the gun just under the feed gate to smooth the feeding of the super ammo belt. I laid the first round into place and snapped shut the top cover. I then looked around to see why we hadn't moved yet and realized that the AC had been watching me. He nodded at me as if to say, "okay, at least you know how to load it" and I nodded back that I was ready to go.
We lifted out of Tam Ky and headed back towards the northwest where the troop was in a heavy fight. When we were clear of Tam Ky, I chambered a round in the M-60 and once again checked to make sure the safety was on. While we were on route, I could hear the colonel loudly cursing in the mike of his flight helmet. He yelled that we had to dust-off some CAV casualties as a couple of men had been badly burned. When we arrived on station, I could see the ACAVs strung out along south side of the river for about 100 meters to the north of the river crossing. The river had tall stands of thick reeds and elephant grass on the south side and trees on the north side of the river. The troop had popped a yellow smoke where they wanted us to land. For reasons that escaped me, they were directing us to land between themselves and the river. They said that the LZ was "cold" as they hadn't received any fire for a few minutes. When they had first arrived at the river crossing from the west, they had taken heavy small arms and an unusually heavy amount of RPG fire, maybe 20 rounds. Somehow, in spite of the heavy fire, no one was hit. The wounded men were from a green headquarters troop 106mm recoilless rifle track that was used to fill in for tanks during the monsoon season. They were out in the field during the dry season to get some on-the-job training (OJT) and had fired so many rounds the barrel had gotten red hot. In the heat of the battle, one of the team, in a flash of brilliance, had decided to dump a bucket of cleaning solvent on the barrel to "cool it down". The resultant flash fire had scorched the entire 3-man team.
As we began a decent into the LZ, I realized that a squad of men could easily be hiding in the tall grass and reeds next to the river. I decided I was going to ruffle their feathers and maybe ruin their day if they were. When we were within about 100 meters of the set down, I opened up and began working the M-60 rounds all through the thick grass stand along the river. I heard the peter pilot yell at me as I was just behind him, "what are you shooting at". I ignored him but heard the AC calmly say, "he's just putting out some cover fire". I thought, "ya, thatís what I'm doing", but actually more than anything else, I just couldn't resist firing the weapon while I had the chance. After about 100 rounds and as we had set down on the ground, I ceased fire. The colonel yelled over asking if I had I seen anything, and I yelled back," No sir, I just didn't like the look of our LZ or the tall grass and was just laying down some cover fire". When he turned back to his radio, I looked over at the AC who was watching me and winked at him and he smiled back as if he could read my mind.
In the mean time, three troopers with an almost slapstick looking combination fiery red faces and arms sans any facial hair whatsoever gingerly climbed on the bird and sat on the floor. They sat very stiffly holding their arms out to side to keep them from touching their bodies to try and ease the pain of their burns. I knew that it must hurt but it took all my willpower to keep from laughing out loud. I couldn't help but think how ironic it was that that their burns were probably a painful and long lasting reflection of the embarrassment they must be feeling at how they got that way. As we lifted off, I turned away towards the door and began busily concentrating on and fiddling with the M-60 in order to keep a straight face during the flight. I managed to make it back to the field hospital, largely by virtue just not looking at burned troopers.
After the troopers had walked into the field hospital on their own power, we lifted off and headed back towards the field once more. The cavalry had not pursued the enemy across the river, as it was the 3rd Marine AO and procedure was you never to crossed operational boundaries without permission from AO owner. The marines had proved hard to get a hold of and to add insult to injury were taking their sweet time about Okaying our incursion into their AO. As you might imagine the squadron commander was in a rather foul mood and not happy with our marine brethren for dragging their heels, sure the enemy was slipping away. We all gave him plenty of room when he was in one of these moods. I busied myself with a discussion with my FO about nothing important just to stay out of his way.
Suddenly, we heard incoming rounds began to fall a few hundred meters on the other side of the river. The CAV opened fire briefly but when they realized nothing was hitting on our side of the river stopped firing. I thought the rounds sounded awfully familiar and just about the time I realized they were 105 arty rounds, so did the colonel. He shouted," Nisse, get that god damned arty fire stopped now". I grabbed my radio and contacted my liaison section and told them some arty unit was firing near us and I wanted a complete check fire in our AO. The rounds continued to impact but were staying on the north side of the river. When my liaison team responded a few moments later that no one was firing, I realized that it must be the marines. I told my liaison section to get try and get a hold of the marines and get them to check fire anything within a grid square of our location. I yelled over at the colonel that it wasn't the army and must be the marines. He cursed the "damn jarheads" and got on the radio through his channels to try and get them shut that way. A few minutes later, the 105 rounds stopped falling.
It seemed a small team of marine advisors in a village a couple of klicks north of the river had heard our fire fight and decided to throw a few rounds of 105 into the fray. Since they fired on their side of the river, they didn't clear the fires with us. It was a good thing we hadn't pursued the enemy or we might have had a serious friendly fire incident. I decided that there was a serious flaw in our arty clearance system along the boundaries of AOs and I changed our internal procedures as a result. I required that we clear all fires requested within a klick of a boundary with the guys on the other side. We hadn't had any real serious casualties but it sure had been one of those days.Back