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Defying death again on a nighttime Huey rescue mission

By Jim Eskildsen
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

It was October 5, 1968. My Huey crew and I had just finished a long hot day of hash-and-trash missions and we were now heading home to Phu Loi from Lai Khe. The setting sun was diffused into a big orange ball from the haze.

Then came a radio call from operations: “Bulldog 33, this Bulldog Ops. We have an emergency re-supply mission for you. Return to Lai Khe and meet the lieutenant at the Red Ball pad.”

We all understood what the mission was— deliver ammo and water, and stand a good chance of getting shot at. But the supplies were desperately needed by some poor grunts out in the jungle, in contact with Charlie and running out of bullets.

We returned to Lai Khe, where the supplies were quickly loaded and the lieutenant climbed in. We took off and headed west into the fading sunset. It was almost dark when we arrived on site. We went lights out, completely black, no landing lights, not even the instrument lights. It took three tries and their last smoke grenade, but I finally got over their position. They were in solid canopy jungle, no landing zone. We hovered and dropped the ammo and water down through the treetops.

It was then that the VC opened fire. I saw the AK-47 muzzle flashes from three locations and my gunner reported RPG fire. It was a good thing we went lights out. In the dark, Charlie was shooting at the sound of the Huey and missed.

My crew finished off-loading the ammo and water, and we returned to Lai Khe. As we shut down and checked the Huey for damage—counting our blessings that Charlie didn’t get us—a jeep pulled up on the road beside the Red Ball pad. They had another mission for us, if we were willing to take it. The guys we had just resupplied had two badly wounded soldiers. The medics thought they had a chance to keep them alive until morning if they had some whole blood and surgical instruments. It was now completely dark, and we knew Charlie was still out there. As the aircraft commander, I could have decided on my own to take the mission, but the risk would be immense, so I asked my crew. Without hesitation they all said yes.

We got the medical package, padded in a cardboard box, heavily wrapped in green Army duct tape and tied to a 100-foot rope. The biggest problem I anticipated would be finding the area where the ground troops were located. In the moonless night, the jungle canopy below was like an almost featureless black sea. The artillery back at Lai Khe, however, was now firing defensive concentrations in a full circle, 300 to 400 meters out from the friendly position. The bright flashes from exploding 155mm rounds were visible from miles away.

I asked Lai Khe artillery to leave me an opening in the ring. My plan was to circle around, low and slow, inside the horseshoe of exploding artillery shells, so that they would fly over our heads. Once I found the general location of the guys on the ground, who were under a mostly solid canopy of jungle, the signal beacon for me to pinpoint them would be the standard Army anglehead flashlight with the dark red lens. I was flying within a few hundred meters of exploding 155mm shells, using no landing lights, no instrument lights, nothing but the seat of my pants. What I was about to attempt was insane.

As I flew into this arena of chaos, with its random blinding flashes of light and mulekick shock waves, the thumps and bumps of debris from the explosions were hitting the top of the Huey like hailstones tapping on a car roof. As with the previous approach, it took three tries to get lucky and get over the troops’ exact location. My crew chief was trying to lower the package of live-saving blood through the trees, but the shock waves from the nearby artillery explosions kept knocking me off position and causing the package to swing wildly around. Despite our best efforts, it got stuck in a tree and my crew chief, the door gunner and the lieutenant, pulling with all their might, could not free it.

I radioed the ground troops, hoping they would somehow be able to reach the package from the ground. I instructed my crew chief to throw the rope out, pulled pitch and headed for the opening in the horseshoe of artillery fire, feeling very bad that we had failed. I was wishing that I had another chance. But as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

The guys on the ground radioed and asked if I had the package. I was confused, but then my crew chief came over the intercom to report that the end of the rope had somehow wrapped itself once around the heel of the skid and over itself like a halfhitch. There was only about a half-inch of the tip of the rope sticking out. Only half an inch of rope was keeping the lifesaving package from disappearing into the blackness below!

Before I could stop him, my crew chief was out on the skid working his way aft, while my door gunner held his belt. I circled carefully and, over the intercom, finally heard that they had retrieved the package intact.

With that miraculous second chance, I took a deep breath and re-entered the ring of fire. Again, blinded by flashes, buffeted by shock waves, I desperately searched for that little dim spot of red light under the jungle canopy. I thought I saw it and made my approach. Wrong place. I climbed back up, but quickly realized I was getting a little too high when the whoosh of an incoming artillery round passed close by. I bumped the pitch down and remarked on the intercom, “Damn, that was close.”

In a strange voice my door gunner said: “I saw it go by. It was so close I could have reached out and touched it. The back end was glowing red.”

Again I thought I saw a red blink and made an approach. But again, I came to a hover over the wrong spot. As I moved forward to get translational lift, a bright flash from the side momentarily lit up the area right in front of us. An entire tree, blasted out of the ground by artillery explosions, was hurtling back to earth. The rotor blades were chopping through some thinner branches, and then we felt the tree brush under the belly of the Huey as it fell into the darkness below.

Again I circled in the chaotic fire zone, anxiously trying to spot that little red dot. After our first try to lower the package through the treetops, the guys on the ground found another spot that had about a three-foot opening in the canopy. The downside was it meant getting about 100 meters closer to the artillery explosions.

I desperately wanted to help the men on the ground, but how much longer could we dodge artillery shells and trees in the dark? I was about to give up, when I finally saw what looked like a red searchlight in the blackness below. My crew chief guided my hover over the small hole in the jungle. He and the gunner were just starting to lower the package to the ground troops when, directly to the front, there came two bright flashes from artillery detonations about 150 meters away. I remember thinking, “Oh shit, this is going to be bad.”

Then something strange happened. It was as if I was in a dream, partly awake and partly asleep. The light from the flashes seemed to last a very long time. And when it faded, I could still see, as if a full moon had suddenly come out, making me think the artillery had fired some illumination rounds. I braced for the shock waves from the two nearby explosions, but they seemed to take a long time to reach us, and I easily corrected my hover. It felt as if I was riding over a gentle ocean swell.

I turned to look at my crew. My pilot Fred sat frozen with a very scared look on his face. My crew chief, the door gunner and the lieutenant looked like conjoined triplets huddled tightly together at the edge of the door, lowering the rope—but they seemed almost motionless. I hoped the package was not stuck again. There was another flash, but once again it took a long time until the shock wave arrived.

To me, the whole episode seemed to take 10 to 15 minutes. My crew and the lieutenant all said later that it was no more than 10 to 15 seconds, and that there had been no artillery illumination rounds.

My dreamlike trance was broken when the radio crackled on and the ground troops reported they had the package. I told my crew chief to throw the rope out, confirmed that it was clear, then pulled pitch and flew us out of the circle of fire, away from hell and toward safety.

I can still remember Fred’s words over the intercom: “Well, I have no idea how you did what you just did. If I’d been flying, we would have been dead six times. Every time you made an approach, I was praying my ass off that you could see the treetops. I never did. You’ve been doing some pretty fancy flying for a while, why don’t you let me take it now?”

I responded with, “Oh, good idea.”

As I released the controls to Fred, my hands began shaking, then my entire body started to shake and jerk. Tears filled my eyes. All of the suppressed emotions from the past 20 minutes flooded over me like a tidal wave. I stared at my trembling hands in disbelief. Just like Fred, I had no idea how I had just done what I did. I have to believe that somebody or something higher up was helping on this one.

 

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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