Semi-REMF, Americal 69-70
Mess Hall Secret Weapon
It was a bright, hot noon in early autumn in Tam Key as our "slick" Bell Huey UH-1 helicopter eased over to the fuel dump by a large airstrip. The aircraft commander (AC), chief pilot, gently set the bird down on the perforated steel planking (PSP) on the pad and throttled back to an idle. He was very smooth, one of those rare pilots with a natural aptitude for handling all the complexity involved in flying this workhorse of Army helicopters. He was so good at it, he made it look simple. The door gunners hopped out of their small compartments in the sides of chopper just to the rear of the main passenger compartment and began the refueling process. The 1/1 Armored Cavalry squadron commander, a compact lieutenant colonel with short hair just beginning to gray on the sides stepped out into the heat waves radiating up off the PSP. I followed just behind him and we both stretched out being a little stiff from the morning spent riding in the command and control (Charlie Charlie) over "A" troop operating a few kilometers (klicks) to the south west of here. The helicopter was running low on fuel and since it was lunchtime the colonel had directed the pilots to Tam Ky to refuel and then hop over to the MACV advisors compound for a hot lunch. It was one of his favorite pit stops. As his artillery liaison officer, I didnít have much to say about it all and went along for the ride with my PRC-25, maps, and trusty M-16.
I had been in country long enough for my jungle fatigues to begin to fade as the only badge of longevity that my job allowed. We had been operating out of Chu Lai as the 23rd Americal Divisions primary "firefighters" for the past several months. This meant that whenever there was heavy contact or good intelligence that a large enemy force was in an area where the CAV could operate, we saddled up and drove hard to get there. In addition, we frequently had to attend briefings with the division commander, a two-star general. In such a lofty crowd, a lowly captain was required to be fairly "strakked away" or militarily presentable. Clean GI issue jungle fatigues with the sleeves neatly rolled up over the elbows, black jungle boots (shine not required), pistol belt with canteen and battle dressing, and a camouflage cloth-covered steel pot was the standard uniform of the day. In a very few minutes with sweat already blossoming on our uniforms, the refueling of the helicopter with the JP-4 fuel was complete. We hopped back aboard glad to be out of the sun as the pilot brought the blades up to lift-off speed. The smell of the kerosene-based fuel was overpowering as we eased out of the fuel dump and began the short hop over to the MACV compound. When we arrived, the AC and his co-pilot or "peter pilot" began throwing the myriad of switches to shut the bird down. The throaty whine of its turbine engines eased and the blades began to wind down to the noise of the transmission.
We began the walk across the large compound to the mess hall leaving the pilots and crew to finish securing their aircraft. As a rule, they kept to themselves in a fraternal way and rarely associated with us other than while in the helicopter. It must have been something they needed in order to deal with the pressure and strain of having so much and so many depending on their performance. We all instinctively recognized this and left them to their own devices without question. The mess hall was a solid looking air-conditioned building, which along with better than average chow was the main reason the colonel liked it here. The brief respite from the oppressive heat of the summer afternoons was something we all relished. As we entered the hall, I easily identified the smell of one of my favorite army meals, beans and wennies. The colonel groaned, he obviously wasnít a connoisseur of this particularly fine example of Army cuisine.
I was far from a picky eater, but even I had come to the conclusion that the Army mess halls could make just about anything barely edible. To my palate, the beans and wennies, spaghetti, and hamburgers were about the only thing they couldnít turn into a bland rubbery substance barely resembling food. As we headed for the chow line, I decided to load up on chow as I thought it was going to be a short afternoon. The troop hadnít even taken a single sniper round for 3 days. I was very hungry having overslept a little that morning and missing out on breakfast. I usually ate light on flying days not wanting to risk getting sick in the air. However, I had become confident that my stomach could stand up to just about anything I might encounter. At that point, I had weathered several tough flights under combat conditions and was confident that I would be okay if the going got rough again. I piled a heaping serving of the reddish BBQ flavored beans and large chunks of frankfurters on my plate and began shoveling it down. I even went back for another helping a little later, I had enjoyed it so much.
It seemed like the heat, humidity, and anti-malaria medications we took, usually left me with a small appetite. I had lost about 25 lbs. since arriving in country and was down to a gaunt 180lbs. As we walked out towards the chopper, I felt satiated for the first time in months. Overall, it was a good warm fuzzy feeling and I was already looking forward to a short afternoon of flying and then back to being a REMF. I could almost feel that cool shower from the spigot of a 50-gallon water drum in the small "shower tower" back in Chu Lai that evening. As the bird fired up and lifted off, my eyelids began to grow heavy as the hypnotic rhythm of the huge blades thumped us through the air towards the southwest. I was feeling strangely content and struggled to keep my eyelids open. I shook my head hard enough to hurt, which usually worked for me. I shouldnít have worried about it as a few minutes later I heard the colonel talking loudly into his mike over the helicopterís clattering. I looked over at him and knew instantly that something was up. By this time, I had learned to read his body language quite clearly. My adrenaline started to flow and I quickly became wide-awake and alert. The colonel yelled that the troop had flushed a good-sized unit of NVA carrying heavy weapons and were pursuing them through a heavily wooded area near a river.
I eased out of the web seats and onto the floor of the helicopter and scooted to my battle station just behind the pilotís seat. We had descended to about 1000 ft by the time I had gotten situated and looked out the door. Off in the distance I could just make out a line of ACAVs moving along the riverbed. They looked like some strange mechanical OD bugs moving along in a line from that distance. As we got nearer, I could see and hear the lead tracks firing through the trees on the riverbanks. The "old man" yelled that they had lost the enemy as they fled along the river and were trying to flush them out with the heavy firing. As we took up an orbit overhead, a few hundred meters up the riverbed, I thought I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. On the next orbit over that spot, the pilot began to shout and pointed out his window. We all then clearly saw the flashes of about a dozen people in black pajamas running down the river bed through the thick trees which grew along and over the small ravine of the river which was about 6 or 8 feet deep. The old man must have directed the pilot to make a run because the slick dived steeply and leveled off at about 100 ft and flew down the river at a high rate of speed. As we passed over the running people, the door gunner on our side opened up. I quickly locked and loaded my M-16, switched off the safety and fired a few short bursts as we streaked by them as well.
When we passed over them, we all got a good look at what they were carrying. It looked to be 3 or 4 anti-aircraft machine guns that were disassembled for transport. This must have given the pilot a strong sense of purpose because after we had cleared the area by several hundred meters, he pulled the nose of the bird up hard. We went up so sharply up that I began to slide towards the colonel seated on the other side of the passenger compartment. I was forced to take one hand off my rifle and used it to hang on to the doorframe for dear life. Just as I began to wonder if we were going to go over in a loop, which I had been told a helicopter couldnít do, the pilot pivoted the bird around in a hard left hand turn so that the nose was now pointed almost straight down. As we began to accelerate back down towards the river he leveled off and we came screaming back up the river in the opposite direction. The door gunner again opened up as we came by the people in black and I emptied the rest of my magazine at them through the trees as well. At the end of this pass, the pilot repeated his violent "about face" maneuver and we flew back down the river for another pass. I struggled to get the empty magazine out of my weapon and a fresh one in and made it just in time to get off one short burst through the trees.
By this time, I knew what to expect at the other end of our pass and grabbed the door as the pilot pulled his violent but effective manuever. The colonel was shouting on his radio and trying to get the tracks to move up while we tried to slow down the running anti-aircraft squad. After about the 3rd or 4th pass the effects of the carnival like ride and my large lunch began to tell on me. I could feel that growing queasiness down in the pit of my stomach each time we pulled up to just shy of the aircraftís stall point and then nosed hard back down. I began swallowing hard and gritting my teeth trying to keep my lunch down. I soon realized it was a loosing battle and scooted along the floor to the other side of the slick. When we were straightened out, I pulled off my helmet and filled it almost completely with a foul smelling load of the partially digested beans and wennies. I briefly considered throwing the helmet and all out the door but decided it wasnít such a good idea in a firefight for some reason. Since I had my weapon in one hand and the helmet in the other and the pilot was heading for his next loop de loop, I knew I needed to do something fast. I set my weapon down on the seats, grabbed hold of them and leaned out the door as far as I dared. I tried to get the helmet as low as I could before I dumped my "secret weapon" out the door, just as we passed over the running enemy below. The airspeed pulled my foul concoction down and back and it sprayed over the skids and underside of the tail boom. As I pulled my head back in I could hear the door gunner on that side cursing me.
I felt so much better I didnít care other than feeling a little sheepish about it all. I now looked at the helmet and realized there was no way I was going to put it back on. I quickly stuffed it under the seats and grabbed hold as the nose of the bird came up. After we had again leveled off and were headed for another pass, I grabbed my weapon and scooted back over to my spot and tried to get my bearings. As I began to collect myself, carefully making sure I didnít look at anyone else, I saw that the group of people still running was about half the size as when we had first saw them. Also, the CAV troop had almost caught up to where a few were still struggling gamely to keep their precious weaponry from being captured. I was able to get a full magazine off before the struggling men went behind some heavy tree cover on that pass. On our next pass, I realized that there was one less man in the group this time and it dawned on me that every time they went into heavy cover, one man was peeling off and staying behind under cover as the main group continued up the river. This way, when the CAV ran by them chasing the dwindling main group, those left behind evaded off in the opposite direction. We were slowly losing them, a neat trick. Unfortunately, for the remaining fleeing men, the foliage along the river was beginning to thin out as they went down the river. Also, the ravine had deepened to 8 or 10 feet at this point. Just when they decided it was time to try and get out of the river and head off into a perpendicular tree line, the CAV arrived at the lip of the bank. The men struggling to get up the riverbank realized they were cornered and threw down their weapons and raised their hands.
We had captured five men, two of them lightly wounded by the door gunner and the majority of two crew-served anti-aircraft light machine guns. I told the colonel of the men peeling off and he sent about half the troop back up the river looking for the other men and the remaining weapons but they didnít find anything. My respect for the resourcefulness and bravery of our enemy grew with almost every encounter. Towards the end of my tour, I felt a lot more respect for them than I did our South Vietnamese allies. I looked over the aircraft when we landed and even though the crew chief gave me some understandably dirty looks, I decided it wasnít that bad of a mess. I took my helmet down to the river and got it rinsed out enough to where I could wear it again.
As you might imagine, the story quickly spread and the cavalry officers ribbed me steadily and heartily for several weeks about High-Angle Hellís "Secret Weapon". One even claimed that attacking the enemy with vomit was surely against the Geneva Convention and that he felt obligated to turn me in for such cruel and unusual tactics unless I bought another round. Over the next weeks, I bought plenty of beer just to get them to lay off me. I did manage somehow to remain philosophical about it, but made it a point never again to have a large meal on a flying day. Once was enough for me, I never wanted to have to deal with that again. I later learned that it was the tradition in the aviation companies that when you threw up in a bird you were supposed to buy the crew chief a case of beer. I was unaware of that and so I am still indebted to those guys. If anyone from that crew sees this, just send me an email and I will gladly pay up on this long-standing delinquent debt. I assure you I wholeheartedly apologize for the terrible thing I did to your helicopter that day especially whoever had to clean it up. Sorry guys, I still owe ya a case give me a call.Back