Five unlikely passengers add a surprising twist to a mundane chopper flight.
I was prepared for another routine trip to Dak Pek to deliver the monthly payroll sheets and funds for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group troops. Routine meant that I would jump on a Huey to fly to the camp, deliver the money to Lieutenant Jerry Alexander and return. For this early December 1969 trip, I carried a briefcase stuffed with a million Vietnamese piastres—about $100,000 U.S. dollars at the official exchange rate. I also carried a .45 pistol, my M-16 and extra ammo, just in case. The trips were usually uneventful, and I had no reason to think that this one would be different.
I was supposed to be the only passenger that day, and as I approached the bird on the helipad, there was no one, other than the crew, around. Looking inside the Huey’s open doorway, I was shocked to see—and smell—five potbellied pigs, their legs securely trussed, lying on the chopper’s floor. These were not the cute, miniature potbellies, but large, stinky and obviously unhappy animals, each weighing much more than I did. There were four females and one male, and they took up the entire cabin floor. Somewhat astonished at the scene, I asked the pilot, who was standing beside me, “What’s going on?”
“These pigs are riding with you to Dak Pek,”he replied nonchalantly.“Something to do with improving the breeding stock. That’s all I know. Get in, we need to go.”
As I gingerly stepped around the pigs, trying to reach the seat that spanned the back of the cabin, they snorted and bleated their displeasure. I secured my seat belt, and having nowhere else to rest my feet, placed them on the rib cage of the boar, who was lying on his side. He glared at me with one eye.
The pilot started the engine and as it came to full rpms, the pigs, clearly irritated by the noise, began raising their volume levels and thrashing about. At takeoff, the porcine cargo added defecation and urination to their complaints. Fortunately, flying with both doors open, the odor was somewhat dissipated.
I suspect that had we flown directly to Dak Pek, the rest of the flight might have gone smoothly, but for some reason I wasn’t privy to, we were diverted to Dak To.
Level flight seemed to calm the porkers, but landings and takeoffs made them nervous. On approach to Dak To, the pigs’ agitation increased dramatically. They seemed to settle down when we landed, but soon, when faced with taking off for Dak Pek, they began another frenzy of urination and defecation.
While cruising, I noticed that the boar, the most agitated and the largest passenger, seemed to be loosing his restraints.All four feet had been bound in twine, but his struggles were beginning to free one of them. Since he was right in front of me, and I was the closest human he could take his frustrations out on if he did get free, I decided that I could hinder his efforts by sitting on his head. I did not think this action through, however.
My maneuver only angered the pig, which proceeded to intensify his struggle, quickly working his left front foot free. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the crew chief chuckling as he described the scene to the pilot. The aircraft commander then turned in his seat, surveyed the scene, handed me a .38 and shouted,“Shoot him!”
I was in a quandary. All the hydraulic lines ran through the floor of the ship. What if the bullet went through the potbellied pig and severed a line?
I waved off the commander and yelled, “I’m OK!” He just shrugged and went back to piloting the craft.
We were passing over Dak Seang, about 30 minutes out of Dak Pek, and I felt confident that I could control the situation for that length of time. But just then, the boar worked his other front leg free and attempted to stand up—with me still sitting on his head. Luckily for me, the helicopter’s aluminum floor was very slippery, especially with the runny deposits made by the pigs, so the boar had a difficult time trying to rise.
The pig, however, was now bucking in such a way that we were inching toward the open doorway.
I started considering exactly what I had done, and the very possible repercussions. If the pig got to the door, there was a real good chance that it could throw us both out of the chopper. Even though I now had no doubt that this was in fact a Viet Cong pig, I reasoned that I would get no medal for perishing because of his actions. And just how would they describe my death to my wife, Cookie, and my family?
As the pig and I continued our slow creep toward the doorway, with the crew chief staring at us in awe, I reached out and grabbed the center post that supported the roof, and held on for dear life. Now I had some leverage to apply to the pig’s head and keep it on the floor, but for how long?
After what seemed an eternity, I felt the rotor pitch change and knew we were preparing to land at Dak Pek. Once again the pigs squealed excitedly, and voluminously expelled their displeasure. Just as the chopper touched down and I relaxed my hold, the boar leaped out the doorway and fled down the runway, his rear legs still tied, never to be seen again by me. I managed to reach my briefcase and M-16, without soiling my uniform too badly, and turned to greet the awaiting Lieutenant Alexander, who appeared to be highly amused at the scene.
“Thanks for bringing my pigs out,” the lieutenant said. “I hope you all had a pleasant flight.” I don’t recall my retort, but I handed him the briefcase and had him sign for it, without counting the contents. He could sense that I was not happy.
I was getting back in the Huey when the pilot, a warrant officer, turned to me and asked: “Who’s going to clean my chopper?” Since I, a lowly first lieutenant, was the highest-ranking person in the group, I quickly snapped:“Not me! Get your crew chief to do it.”
The floor of the chopper was indescribably foul. The pilot, obviously a very astute person, told me to get off the chopper, and as I stood watching, lifted off, only to land a few hundred yards away—in the middle of the swiftly flowing Dak Poko River. The water reached about three inches above the floor of the chopper and in just a few minutes had washed it out. The pilot hopped back to pick me up, and we headed home.
That turned out to be my closest brush with death during my tour: nearly killed by a Viet Cong pig. I later learned from Lieutenant Alexander that the renegade swine was captured shortly after I departed and placed in a beautiful new pigsty that he had built for them. Several months later, a 122mm rocket made a direct hit on the sty, and the pigs left this world. I suspect the Viet Cong had no idea they had killed some of their own.
Odon L. Bacque Jr. served with Special Forces in Kontum Province and is currently writing a memoir of his service.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.