Answered Prayer, By Elvis Bray.
The muffled whine of the 1100 hp. turbine engine, the rush of wind through the open door and the distinct whop-whop-whop of the UH-1H Huey helicopter blades were the only sounds in the vast black emptiness of the Mekong Delta. A lifeless half-moon shined through scattered clouds high above. There was no radio traffic, no tracers and no flares in sight. An endless sea of elephant grass below spanned for miles in all directions like a calm gray sea, riddled with small canals like black snakes winding their way east out of Cambodia.
Two Killer Cobra gunships followed close behind us at 1200 feet, patiently waiting to wreak havoc on the enemy at a moment’s notice. Another thousand feet above and behind them, the command ship piloted by Major Albert Rodriguez kept a watchful eye. The 7th Armored Squadron of the 1st Air Cavalry Blackhawks was on the prowl and someone would probably die tonight.
I had no idea what month it was and couldn’t have cared less. They all ran
together, anyway, and were divided only by the wet and dry seasons. This was the beginning of the dry season. Just one of 365 days I would spend in Vietnam in 1968 during my first tour. But this was no typical day. It was a night mission, and the nights belonged to the Viet Cong.
I sat in the door gunner’s seat on the right side of my helicopter manning twin M60 machine guns. Mounted at my feet were two large metal ammo boxes containing 7.62 rounds. To my left sat a large cycloptic cluster of lights mounted to the floor of my helicopter. Ten one million candle watt landing lights had been configured into a four foot round disk pointing at a ninety degree angle from my helicopter.
The code name for our mission was “firefly.” I could just imagine an officer, probably a West Pointer, coming up with the idea, and some backwoods farm boy with his welder constructing the monstrosity in one of the hangers back in Vinh Long. It reminded me of the car dealerships using giant lights that crisscrossed the skies to advertise car sales. Back in Arizona, their sole purpose was to draw attention to the area. That wasn’t such a good idea in the Plain of Reeds. This was a free-fire zone and anything that moved got killed.
I didn’t know if the thing actually worked or not. I assumed they had tested the damned thing before mounting it.
The concept was simple enough: fly back and forth along the Cambodian border at low level, looking for sampans crossing into South Vietnam carrying supplies for the VC. Find the sampans, turn on the big light and blind the occupants. Spray them with machine gun fire until the Cobras could get a fix on their position. Turn off the light and peel away in the opposite direction, allowing the gunships time to complete their dive. Mini-guns would pour red fire from the sky at four thousand rounds per minute, followed by a swarm of rockets, destroying the supplies and Viet Cong transporting it.
It sounded pretty good during the pre-flight briefing. That is, everything except the part about leaving the other gunner at home. Major Rodriguez said it would be too dark for him to see anything on his side. How the hell did they know? This was an experimental mission and no one had actually flown one before.
I had plenty of time to re-evaluate the theory of the mission during the thirty minute flight to the free-fire zone. Normally, rounds fired from the ground at a flying object hit somewhere behind the target. However, if the enemy aimed at the bright light in the sky, I’d be sitting right behind it. Not a comforting thought.
I assumed we were flying north, but wasn’t sure. My eyelids were getting heavy and I was having a hard time staying awake. I’d already flown all day inserting South Vietnamese soldiers into and out of battle zones. I’d barely had enough time to refuel the helicopter, grab a bite to eat and get to the briefing before we lifted off the flight line at 10 p.m. As hard as it was to keep my eyes open, I kept them glued to the canals.
Major Rodriguez’s voice cracked over the radio. “Comanche 6 to Comanche 24.”
“Comanche 24,” the pilot answered.
“We’re approaching the end of the free-fire zone. Make a hundred and eighty degree turn to your left and head back south closer to the Cambodian border.”
Our new orders weren’t reassuring news. My helicopter had been hit three times by .51 caliber rounds near the border just a few weeks back. One round had entered the left front co-pilot’s window and took out the overhead fuse panel. The second round smashed just above my head, tearing a large hole in the roof of the helicopter. The third round missed my right shoulder by an inch, smashed into the base of the transmission mount, ricocheted around my body and out through the cargo door that was locked into the open position. All three hits sounded like grenades exploding inside my chopper and the thought of encountering more .51 rounds made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Another thirty minutes of flying along the border passed without incident. It appeared this was going to be an unproductive night for the Blackhawks. The mission had to end soon because we were getting low on fuel.
All of a sudden the big light came on and the helicopter banked hard to the right. I gripped the handles of the twin 60s, searching for targets. Just below me was a clearing that looked like a giant ant hole in the middle of the tall grass. Three people stood in the center of the clearing, next to a grass hut. They were huddled together, staring up at us. My finger tightened on the triggers as I aimed my weapons at them, but I held my fire. A man, woman and small child about five years old stood next to the straw shack.
Major Rodriguez came over the radio demanding a status report.
“Comanche 6, what do you have?”
“Looks like a peasant farmer, his wife and kid down there, sir.”
“Are they armed?”
“Not that we can see.”
We continued to circle, slowing all the time. The family below turned in a circle facing us as we circled them, obviously blinded by our light. The man held his wife close to him with one arm and pulled the child’s head tight against his body with the other as the boy hugged his legs. After two complete turns, the family stopped following our movement and stood still, awaiting their fate. As the helicopter slowed, the circles became tighter and tighter as we lowered towards the family.
“What the hell are they doing living in a free-fire zone?” grumbled Major Rodriguez, as if talking to himself.
“I don’t know, sir,” said the pilot. “What would you have us do?”
My heart sank as I recalled the words from the pre-flight briefing. “This is a free fire-zone, men. Anything that moves gets killed.”
I’m not particularly religious. At least, not until incoming rounds start pounding holes in my helicopter or the mortars start exploding around my barracks during the middle of the night. Then my faith in God renews itself and I pray my life be spared. Now, I prayed for the family below me. “God, please help them.”
“Can you see inside the hooch?” the Major asked.
“Not from this height, sir.”
“Drop down and see if you can see anything. We’ll cover you.”
The helicopter slowed to little more than a hover about thirty feet above the ground. The wind from the rotor blades smashed the tall grass flat and the family wobbled in its wake. I felt any moment the hut would be blown away, but somehow it held. At this height and speed, we were just as much a sitting duck as the family below us. I just knew some asshole in black pajamas would jump up from the tall grass any second and open fire on us. I missed the door-gunner who would have normally protected our backside. Whose dumbass idea was it to leave him behind?
When we passed the front of the grass hut, the bright light shined inside, casting eerie shadows along the walls. I moved my guns from the family towards the hut, ready to obliterate anything threatening. Dirt floors, a few pots and pans and what appeared to be a small bed sat in the very back.
“See anything, Bray?” asked the pilot.
“Appears to be empty, sir. No enemy or weapons visible.”
“They appear to be alone, sir,” the pilot reported. He increased our speed slightly and gained a little altitude. “What are our orders, sir?”
The next few minutes were the longest moments of my life. Time crept slower than it did when the .51 caliber rounds had created havoc on my helpless bird a few weeks prior. As I held the 60s on my potential victims, I prayed. Please, God, don’t let them make me kill these people. Over and over I prayed, more sincerely than I had ever prayed for my own life. The wait seemed endless.
Tears streamed down the boy and woman’s cheeks. I hoped they were also praying. Keeping pressure on the triggers, I decided if I was ordered to kill them, I would make it as quick as possible to keep them from suffering. I wished I hadn’t volunteer for this mission. I wished I was sound asleep under my mosquito net back at Vinh Long. My heart pounded and my head throbbed.
It seemed like an eternity before Major Rodriguez broke the silence. “All right, men. We’ve marked this position. We’ll bring some troops in tomorrow and find out what they’re doing out here. Let’s head back to base.”
“Comanche 24, roger that,” answered the pilot.
The big light went dark as we rose into the night sky. I watched the family fade from sight, placed the big guns down into the rest position and sat back against the wall. I wiped the sweat from my face and hands and took several deep breaths. I closed my eyes and thanked God that I hadn’t been ordered to kill the family I believed was just trying to survive one more day in that stinking cesspool. I felt chilled and realized I was shaking uncontrollably.
That was forty-six years ago; I was only twenty years old at the time. I’ve thought about many of the missions I flew while serving in Vietnam, but the one I recall more than any other is the one that hot muggy night in the middle of a free-fire zone when nothing really happened. I sleep well, thanks partly to a decision made a long time ago by Major Albert Rodriguez. I recalled that mission while attending his funeral a couple of years ago.
I’m much older and wiser now. Today, I’d refuse an order to kill seemingly innocent civilians. But at the time, I wouldn’t have hesitated. I was a solider then, and good soldiers don’t question orders; they follow them.
Thank God for answered prayers.
Elvis Bray was an E-5 door gunner on a slick (UH-H) with the 7th of the 1st Cav. in Vinh Long for seven months and flew left seat with in a Loach with the Scots for three months (May 68 May 69) He extended to the 247th Medical Detachment for another year (June 69 to June 70) flying Dustoff in the Central Highlands. He discharged after the war and spent over 35 years in law enforcement before retiring Jan. 4th, 2013. He now enjoys riding horses, camping, hunting and writing.