Dusk was just turning to darkness when I spotted the CH-46 that would be my ride off the Rockpile, a jagged, 800-foot pile of earth jutting out of the ground along the northern edge of Camp Carroll. Recon Marines used the Rockpile as an observation post and as a relay station for radio messages between Dong Ha and Camp Vandegrift. For the previous month and a half in the fall of 1968, I had been the Rockpile radio operator, and now I was leaving.
Duty on the Rockpile was light compared to my previous assignment. Soon after arriving in Vietnam in February 1968, I had learned that my specialty as a teletype operator wasn’t going to be needed much.
With my communications background and working knowledge of infantry battalions, the Marine Corps decided that I would make a great radio operator. From Da Nang, I went to Phu Bai, then Quang Tri and finally to Dong Ha, where I was reassigned from the 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines to the 3rd Shore Party Battalion.
Much like teletype operators, it turned out there wasn’t much use for a shore party battalion in Vietnam, at least as it was originally intended. The Corps wasn’t making amphibious landings and moving stuff inland off beaches as it had in World War II. So the 3rd Shore Party Battalion was reconfigured for service as a support battalion at a logistical support area (LSA) near Dong Ha.
I was put to work in helicopter resupply. Choppers would fly in from Quang Tri and other places to drop off or pick up passengers, or hook up to loads of water, food and ammunition for the field. My job was to communicate with the pilots via radio, help them find their loads, hook up and get going. The LSA was the size of three football fields and was hopping with activity because of the Tet Offensive. It wasn’t unusual for me to be working simultaneously with a dozen helicopters. The job was essentially 24/7 and I often found myself still working at 2 a.m., getting helicopters hooked up to emergency resupplies or loads missed during the day, knowing that at 5 a.m. the routine would start all over again.
Our LSA was within range of the enemy north of the DMZ, so we also had to contend with rockets that frequently sailed into our compound, blowing huge craters in the ground. By the summer of 1968, because of the operations taking place around the area, our ammunition dump had become overstocked. One day, the VC managed to shoot a couple of white phosphorus rockets into the dump. Stuff began cooking off, and within minutes the place was erupting with ear-splitting explosions that sent out shock waves and rippled the tin roofs of our buildings.
In the midst of this melee, I crawled up into my radio tower and retrieved my radio equipment before heading for a bunker. When the explosions finally stopped and some measure of order was restored, I headed back to my tower—but it was gone! For the next few weeks, without a tower, I worked out of a jeep, which was no picnic.
Finally, the pace, the hours and the stress of my situation wore me down to the point that I requested, and received, a temporary change of duty. That’s how I ended up on the Rockpile.
When I got there, I was so burned out that I mostly became a hermit. For a week, I didn’t even talk to the recon Marines stationed there. All I did was work the radio when necessary and make improvements to my hooch, which was hanging over a cliff. Soon, however, I relaxed and got to know the guys working at that outpost.
I also began reading the Bible. Earlier, a Marine who’d served on the Rockpile had brought a Bible with him. When he rotated out, he left it there with instructions that anyone could write whatever he wanted on the blank pages in the back. The last man off the Rockpile was to take the book with him and send it to the Marine who’d left it. Years later, back in the States, the Bible would come to mean a lot more to me. At that time, though, I didn’t think of it as God’s word. All I knew was that when I read it, I felt at peace.
After six weeks, it was time for me to get back to the LSA. As I stood at the landing pad atop the Rockpile waiting for the CH-46 that would bring in my replacement and take me “home,” I had mixed feelings. The Rockpile was quiet compared to the LSA—just the respite I’d needed. But the LSA was what I knew best, and I was anxious to get back. Besides, I’d heard the Seabees had built a new tower while I was gone. Supposedly, this one had Plexiglas windows to keep dust from blowing in the radio operator’s face when helicopters landed and took off.
If weather conditions were calm, pilots often touched the rear wheels of their helicopters on the Rockpile’s landing pad and dropped a ramp so people and cargo could be loaded more easily. But if the winds were blowing, everything had to come and go by a cable dropped through the “hellhole” in the belly of the chopper while it hovered off the ground. Wouldn’t you know just before my helicopter arrived, the winds picked up considerably.
My replacement slipped down through the hellhole on the cable hoist without incident. By the time he got out of the harness, however, the winds were gusting so much that the pilot radioed he would have to circle around before picking me up. When he came in again, I quickly slipped the harness over my head and under my arms, but barely had time to grab my rifle and bag of gear before the helicopter jerked and I flew off the Rockpile as if I’d been shot from a catapult.
The violent snatch wasn’t a total surprise. Pilots wanted to make a fast getaway to avoid any possibility of the man on the cable being smashed against the rocks. Still, it made me catch my breath, and, for a few seconds, I was trailing almost horizontally behind the helicopter as it pulled away from the Rockpile.
The pilot soon slowed down, and I swung into a more-or-less vertical position under the helicopter. It was now nearly dark and there was nothing between me and the ground but 1,000 feet of empty space. I didn’t think about this, focusing instead on getting up through the hellhole and safely into the helicopter. I felt the cable move as the crew began hoisting me up. It wouldn’t be long now.
All at once, the cable stopped. Then, suddenly, I dropped back down about five feet before stopping again. What was this all about? I looked up at the hellhole, hoping for a signal from the crew chief, but it was too dark to see him. The cable started hoisting me again—and then the same thing happened! I dropped back to where I was before. This time I stayed there.
By now, I’d been hanging on the cable for several minutes. My helmet had blown off and it was dark. Something was wrong up there, I figured—probably a jammed winch. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but I was very concerned and wanted desperately to get off that wire. “If this thing comes near Mother Earth,” I thought, “I’m getting off!” I glanced at the firebases underneath us in the vicinity of the Rockpile. Why didn’t they take me to one of those? In five minutes, I could be on the ground. Instead, we kept circling the Rockpile as the crew tried to bring me aboard.
Finally, after about 15 minutes, the pilot decided the best thing to do was to set me back on the Rockpile, so he flew up and over the big hill with me dangling underneath. Our flight path took us through where the recon Marines had set up their antennas, and I was low enough that my body snapped one of the guy wires as we passed. At this point, the pilot seemed really anxious to get me down. He descended rapidly, not at the landing pad, but at a rocky area nearby. When I was within a few feet of the ground, I lifted my arms and slid through the harness, crashing onto the rocks below. A second later, the harness and a length of cable—its end frayed—fell on top of me! Talk about puzzling. The only thing I could figure was that the crew had cut the cable to make sure I was disconnected.
After checking me over, my buddies on the Rockpile radioed up that I was OK. The helicopter flew off, and I spent the rest of that night training my replacement. The next day, another helicopter arrived to pick me up. This time, though, I insisted the pilot touch down and drop the ramp, which he did. And when he did, I zoomed aboard. I wasn’t taking any more chances with helicopters!
One day about a month later, after I’d returned to the LSA, fog temporarily halted all helicopter loading operations, so I wandered down to the landing area to talk to some of the crew members. One helicopter in particular caught my eye. It had a new hoist mounted on the outside that let the crew load and unload through the side door, instead of the hellhole.
“That’s a nifty outfit,” I said to the crew chief. I then began to recount to him my bad experience coming off the Rockpile.
As I told him my story, a look of amazement came over the chief. “You’re kidding me!” he said. “I was the crew chief on that helicopter. I motioned that we couldn’t pick you up, but you already had the harness on. The wind gusted, and we jerked you off there, which messed up the cable. The thing broke and started whipping through the pulleys. I was wearing gloves and managed to catch the cable and get a couple of wraps around my hand before it went through the last pulley. All the time you were hanging up there, two other guys and I were trying to haul you in—but we just couldn’t do it!” It was then that I became afraid.
Probably no man has ever heard the words “thank you” uttered to him as much as that crew chief on that particular day. Nearly dropping 1,000 feet without a parachute was one of the closest calls I had during my year in Vietnam. But, thanks to the good Lord and a crew chief who wouldn’t let go, that wild ride off the Rockpile didn’t end in tragedy for me.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.