Viet Nam: The War That Wasn't...But Now Is
What does one think about in route to a combat zone? As I sat for hours on end in the stretch DC-8 jet airliner, my destination to Viet Nam was all too real. Until now Viet Nam had been only passively relative to my life. But now, reality was about to reveal itself. With nothing to do during the flight, I reached into my pocket for my New Testament. I memorized I Thessalonians 5:18. The verse was quite simple, "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." Little did I realize how much I would lean on this verse in months to come.
The DC-8 landed around 2:00 PM, and the hot Saigon breeze welcomed me to this new world. I stayed in Saigon two days waiting for my combat assignment. Operation Lam Son 719 was in full swing in the northern sector of South Viet Nam, and helicopter pilots were desperately needed. I was assigned to A Co., 101st Airborne Division, or better known as the Comencheros. I arrived at the "Hideout" at Camp Eagle around 10:00 PM in total darkness, was taken to my quarters, and I promptly fell asleep. Conditions were not good. There was no water to wash clothes, the food was bland, and C rations were an equal alternative. Rats lived under our hooches.
During my second day in the unit I took my proficiency check ride in the UH-1 Huey. I began flying missions the next morning. Army Regulations permitted only 50 flight hours per 30-day period, but the commander could waive this regulation to 90 hours. And the 90-hour regulation could be waived by the commanding general to 140 hours per 30-day period. The pilot shortage was critical, so all pilots were waived to the 140 limit. During my first twenty-one days in the unit, I flew 146 hours. I was on a mission during which I simply could not quit at the 140-hour mark, and I had to complete the mission by extending 6 hours. On these long missions, it was not uncommon to eat our C-ration meals in the cockpit as we flew. We typically departed the company area at sun up, and we returned late in the afternoon. We were fatigued and weary. Sometimes I fell asleep while the other pilot was flying, but twice I fell asleep while at the controls. Once while at the controls, I fell asleep and the aircraft went into a steep left spiral and the nose tucked. I woke up and regained control of the aircraft. I glanced at the other pilot to see why he hadn't taken control. He was asleep. He never knew what happened. Sometimes the door gunner or crew chief would fire one of the M-60 machineguns just to keep us awake.
There was no way to prepare for the realities of battle. During my first fire fight, the instrument panel became a blur. I couldn't focus. My eyelids were fluttering uncontrollably due to the tremendous shock waves from the projectiles passing just outside my door. First Thessalonians 5:18 came to my mind. I found strength in my special verse.
One day, just a few miles from the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ), I met a friend from college. I gave him a ride around the compound to cool off. Flying in the Huey with the doors open was very refreshing. He was an armored personnel carrier driver, and a few months later he was wounded in battle near the Rock Pile. He returned to the United States for recovery.
The DMZ was a weird place to be. Nothing appeared to move. There were neither birds nor animals present, and all the soldiers lived in bunkers underground. The wind didn't even seem to blow. The only movement was tanks, helicopters and bullets. When we landed to deliver mail and rations to these posts, their commander sent one soldier above ground to make the exchange. We never stayed more than 30 seconds. The rockets destined to blow us to pieces were already in the air by the time we touched down. Thirty seconds gave the soldier time to get back into his hole before impact. I never flew above an altitude of three feet on the DMZ. We flew as fast as the Huey would go. We flew in a zigzag manner to confuse the Viet Cong, and we used the vibration of the aircraft to judge our airspeed. One day, about twenty-five Viet Cong jumped out of the bush to blow us out of the sky. Since my altitude was only three feet I was able to dip behind a small slope to avoid contact. If I had been at twenty feet, I would not have had time to take cover. In a similar operation flying down a riverbed, I sensed that I had flown into something. I felt the impact, but I did not know what had happened. When we landed to refuel, we found a small tree hanging on the right skid.
One of the tasks of our artillery batteries was to detonate booby traps that the Viet Cong place in the landing zones to destroy our helicopters. The artillery was supposed to fire into the landing zone (LZ) five minutes before we landed. One day I was circling on the backside of a mountain to wait out the appointed time. Then I made my approach on schedule. But that day someone wasn't keeping time. The shells started coming in just as our Special Forces were jumping out of the aircraft. They dove back into the Huey, and I attempted to take off. Our little part of the world was blowing up all around us. A tree was falling right in front of me, and I had to abort the takeoff quickly to avoid impact. After the tree fell, we passed above it. Trees were falling all around us, but five minutes too late.
We received training with the McQuire Rig to support special operations. The McQuire Rig was a special body harness to extract soldiers from dense jungle. A long rope was attached to the floor of the Huey, and a steel snap ring was attached to the other end. The soldier on the ground wore the special harness. Once the soldier hooked the steel snap ring to the rig, we would lift the soldier up through the trees. We had no means to pull them into the aircraft. Therefore, they had to hang one hundred feet below the aircraft for forty-five minutes until we could find a safe area to land. Many times they were almost unconscious due to fatigue and the cold weather in the mountains. They were unprotected from the elements during flight at 100 mph. We also wore the rig. This was our only escape if we were shot down. We would be rescued up through the trees through the aid of a sister aircraft. I practiced riding this rig once, and I was petrified.
War is always bad, but there are times when things get worse than bad. One morning I was the flight lead of a four aircraft formation. The destination was west, a long distance west. My only LZ was at the edge of a 40-foot bomb crater. I landed, dropped off my five Special Forces troops, and departed the LZ. Each of the other three aircraft landed in the exact spot where I had landed. Immediately after the last aircraft departed, our ground troops radioed to us that they were under heavy fire. They needed to be extracted immediately. I returned and landed at the very spot I was in just moments ago. I landed my helicopter on top of a wounded and dying Viet Cong soldier. He was in the only area to touch down, and I straddled him with the skids. The ground commander came to my side of the aircraft. He placed his hand on the cockpit window so that he could tell what I was doing with the aircraft. We never set the aircraft down fully so that we could take off quickly. He motioned for the other four to get on board. As the others ran for the aircraft, a Viet Cong stood up on the far side of the crater. He took aim at me with his AK-47. The ground commander saw him and took aim with his converted M-79 Grenade Launcher. The M-79 barrel was sawed off to 5 inches, and the stock was fashioned into a pistol grip. The grenade hit the Viet Cong in the chest, and his torso disappeared above his belt. It was an emotional event for me to watch another man die. For a moment, half of his body stood there. And then it slowly slumped to the right side. Again, First Thessalonians 5:18 came to me in a quiet way, "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." The other three helicopters met similar resistance, but we all got out. There were many Viet Cong, and the short battle was intense. It all happened very quickly. After we returned to Da Nang, the ground commander briefed me that I had landed in a booby trap set up for helicopters. However, I had landed 90 degrees to the trip wire. Since I had landed on that spot safely, the other three aircraft landed likewise. And all four of us landed again on the same spot for the extraction. Had we landed in a different direction, some of us would have died.
As an instrument flight instructor for our unit, my additional duty was to keep all of the pilots current on instrument flight procedures. Our major concern was unusual attitude recovery should a pilot suddenly find himself in the clouds at low altitude. As the instructor pilot, I placed the aircraft in an unusual attitude while the other pilot closed his eyes. He was wearing a hood on his flight helmet to limit his vision outside the cockpit. Upon my announcement, the pilot would open his eyes and recover the aircraft to level flight using only the reference of the flight instruments
One day while practicing unusual attitude recovery at 4,000 feet, an extra pilot sitting in the jump seat reached up and rolled off the throttle. This induced an additional emergency situation. The action by this extra pilot was totally unexpected and uncalled for. The rotor speed bled off rapidly, and I was unable to regain rotor RPM. The aircraft assigned to us that day was not to be used in combat due to a sticking throttle condition. It was to be used for training only. The rotor RPM was about 60% of normal, and we were losing altitude fast. After much struggle, I was able to free up the throttle. I regained power, and the rotor RPM came back to normal. It took about 500 feet to stop the rapid descent, and we fully recovered about 75 feet above the ground. The aircraft had a tremendous vibration, so we flew all the way back to the Hideout at 25 feet.
The chapel at Camp Eagle was located close to the Hideout, and I attended whenever I could. I was normally on a mission, so I hardly ever made it to the services. Our Navigator Bible study on Sunday evenings was easier for me to attend. It was very informal, and we could arrive about any time to join in. One Sunday evening after we landed for the day, I noticed that I was assigned the night standby mission in case an emergency mission was called up. When I returned to the Hideout, one of the other pilots told me that he saw my name on the roster. He knew that I went to the Bible study whenever I could, so he offered to take my place. At first I declined the offer, but he insisted saying that I could fill in for him some other night. Accepting his offer, I went to the Bible study. After I had been there for about 45 minutes, I heard the helicopter engine start. I knew it was the mission that I was to have flown. I debated in my mind if I should go back to the unit. But realizing that they already had been briefed for the mission, I remained at the chapel. About 9:00 PM I returned to my hooch and went to bed. I always tried to get as much sleep as possible. I never knew when I would be gone for hours on end. About 10:00 PM, one of the captains announced an officer's call in the operations bunker. The dim lighting inside the bunker cast weird shadows on the large classified map on the wall. The commander had already started the briefing, and he saw me enter the back of the room. He looked very surprised and wanted to know where I had been. I told him that the other pilot had changed places with me. But the other pilot had not changed the flight schedule, and the commander thought I was on the aircraft. I glanced at the operations flight schedule board, and the operations specialist was erasing my name along with the entire crew. A sister aircraft saw the Huey turn upside down and crash into the jungle. There was a large fireball, and the entire aircraft (except the engine) was consumed in the fire. Both pilots were consumed in the fire, and the other three crewmembers were thrown out and killed instantly. The aircraft was loaded with about 20 large magnesium flares (1,000,000 candle power each). This was the fuel that consumed the aircraft.
My mind raced 100 mph as I tried to think it through. Could I have saved the flight since I was the instrument flight instructor? Would I have let the flight deteriorate that far? Would the other pilots forever condemn me? I had many internal questions unanswered. On the way back to my quarters, I heard a voice from someone standing in a dark shadow. He was calling me in a loud whisper. I walked over to him and he stated that he knew that God had protected me. He further told me not to worry about the other pilots, and of course, that was exactly what I was worrying about. None of the other pilots ever showed any negativism toward me. When I got back to my quarters, there was another pilot sitting on the rocket box. He was weeping bitterly, and I had a difficult time calming him. When he could talk, I recognized who he was. He asked me to pray with him. We went into my hooch and read the Bible and prayed for about 45 minutes.
The door gunner on the aircraft that night had been assigned to the unit the same week that I was assigned. We became friends, and we flew together often. He had gotten married about three weeks before coming to Viet Nam, and he would often share his letters to his wife with me. Our friendship was that close. His father owned several airplanes and a small flight business in Virginia. We talked often of going back to fly together. One night we were in Da Nang and bunked together in a small building. About 2:00 AM, a firefight started. We had no weapons. We were disoriented, and we could not distinguish the friendly fire from the enemy fire. When we visited other units such as this, we were required to turn in our weapons. At the Hideout we slept with our M-16s, .38 Caliber pistols and gas masks. But we were visitors here. With nothing else to do but wait it out, we huddled in a corner with a bunk for a shield. His body would later be found about twenty-five feet from the aircraft wreckage. I often think of him.
Once a month I was assigned officer guard duty for the night. I was normally in charge of eight bunkers spaced fifty feet apart on the perimeter fence. At my command during any hour I chose, I could have as much old ammunition fired up as we desired. This got rid of our old ammunition, and it kept the Viet Cong guessing as to when we were going to fire. The enlisted soldiers in the bunkers looked forward to this time as it gave them an out to release their frustrations. One night, I didn't allow them to fire. We had plenty of M-60 machine gun, M-16 and M-79 grenade rounds to fire. The troops were rather upset with me that I didn't let them fire. And I had no idea why I had them hold their fire. It was unheard of not to fire any rounds all night, but I still held to a no-fire decision. The sun was now rising over the hill, and it was time to return to our unit. As we were preparing to leave, a squad of twelve American soldiers came out of hiding about three hundred feet on the other side of the fence. They had set up an ambush in our sector, and they would all have been killed had we fired as normal. One grenade round would have killed most of them, and we had boxes of the stuff. My guys were overjoyed that we had not fired, and they wondered how I knew not to fire. But I didn't know. My headquarters had failed to brief me the night before that an ambush had been planted in my sector.
Late one night a Huey crashed into a lagoon, and the crew perished. The weather was very bad. As the instrument instructor, I was given the mission to fly to Da Nang to pick up a Navy SEAL team. They would use their SCUBA gear to dive for the crew. I flew as copilot with a more experienced instrument flight examiner. It was raining when we prepared the aircraft, and we were soaked to the skin. Per our briefing, I would be on the flight controls while the examiner would manage the radios and navigate. The overcast ceiling was fifteen feet, and our rotor was in the clouds as I hovered for takeoff. We were immediately engulfed in the clouds after takeoff. About two minutes into the flight, air traffic control lost us from their radar screen due to the rain. After five minutes into the flight we lost our navigation radio signal. At this point we had no idea where we were, and nobody on the ground could track us.
Then we lost voice communications. The intense lightning rendered all radio signals useless. We turned east to fly to the ocean to make a descent. Not knowing where we were, we planed to fly for forty minutes and hope for the best. My assigned flight altitude was 7,500 feet. Suddenly I entered a thunderstorm. During the entire flight we were not able to see through the windshield, so we had no idea what was ahead. I was in the updraft, and I reduced power to level off at 7,500 feet. As I approached 7,500 feet, I reduced power totally. At this power setting I should have been descending. Instead, I was still climbing around 1,500 feet per minute.
We worried about how high would we ascend in the torrential rain? Would the engine flame out due to water ingestion? Then the crew chief reported that there was smoke in the back of the aircraft. He tried to identify the source, but there was no odor. This is the point in a flight that one remembers that takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. Then the crew chief identified the smoke as moisture coming from his flight suit. There was no smoke at all! It was only the water vapor coming from our wet flight suits.
Suddenly we broke out of the storm into an area between cloud layers, which was shaped like a lateral funnel. We were at the big end, and the little end extended to the ground right to the runway at Da Nang. We were now at 9,500 feet and about fifty miles out. We still had neither communications with the ground nor any navigation capabilities. As I flew down the funnel to the small end, the clear area closed off behind us. We flew visually the remainder of the flight. When we landed we could not see back up the funnel from where we had just come. We later discovered that we were the only aircraft to fly in the northern sector of South Viet Nam that day. We quickly picked up the SEAL team and received our briefing. We then flew to the accident site by flying five feet above the beach. The beach offered an immediate emergency landing area if necessary, and the accident site was near the ocean. They all felt more comfortable close to the ocean.
While returning to Camp Eagle another day, we received an immediate change in mission to rescue one Special Forces soldier pinned down on a mountaintop. We were about ten miles from his location. I was flying copilot that day with a captain who didn't have much flight time. I switched frequency to contact the soldier. He was speaking in a low whisper so that the Viet Cong could not hear him. He stated that they were all around him and that this would be his last transmission. He did not want to give away his concealment in the high grass that surrounded him. The Viet Cong were only about twenty-five feet from him.
I saw his signal mirror reflection about seven miles out. As we neared his location, the captain became very nervous. And then I realized that this was his first real combat mission. He instructed me to light a cigarette and give it to him. I replied that I was a pilot fully capable of flying the aircraft; he could light his own cigarette if he so desired. He refused and ordered me to light it again. I again refused. At this point he just let go of the controls and grabbed his cigarette. I took control of the aircraft. He attempted to put the cigarette in his mouth, but missed. He was very nervous by this time. On his second attempt, he stuck the cigarette in his nose. The Huey was vibrating quite a bit, and he had difficulty finding his mouth. He was very frustrated at this point. He finally lit it and quieted down considerably. But I wasn't about to let him have the aircraft controls back.
I planned to circle clockwise around the mountaintop since I was in the right seat. This would permit me to survey the situation much better. I saw our soldier and several of the Viet Cong around him. I attempted to hover close to the soldier, but I couldn't get close enough to pick him up. Then I saw one of the Viet Cong aiming his AK-47 at me. He was about thirty-five feet away. Since he was further up the mountain, my crew chief could not fire at him. The crew chief would have to shoot above and through the rotor blades, and that certainly would not be prudent. I hovered as low as I could, but I still could not get low enough. The crew chief threw out a flexible fifteen-foot cable ladder for him, but he still couldn't reach it. I hovered lower until the rotor blades were just inches above the trunk of a tree stump. An earlier artillery round had blown off the tree. There were several craters on the mountaintop. At this point I hovered to the right until the rotor blades were kicking up dirt and brush. I couldn't plow into the mountain any further, but he was able to grasp the ladder. He attached his McQuire Rig, and we departed with him hanging below the aircraft. We found a safe place to land and got him inside the Huey. The Viet Cong never fired a shot, and my captain never saw him. If the captain had seen the Viet Cong, I would have had more problems in the cockpit.
Having completed a routine mission one day, I was returning to the Hideout. Upon landing, my commander informed me that he had another mission for us. I was to fly to Camp Evans, our most northern outpost at that time. There were no longer any friendly units between Camp Evans and the DMZ. I was to stay overnight and return the next day. My mission was to support the commander of Camp Evans. But once on station, the commander kept me for eight days. None of my flight crew took any personal belongings since it was to be a simple overnight mission. After we arrived at Camp Evans, we found an underground bunker to call home. It was filled with rats. All of the garrison troops assigned to Camp Evans had been evacuated very quickly, and we used what they left behind. The generators were gone, but the food in one of the refrigerators was still good. There were even steaks in one of the mess halls. We enjoyed them. In another mess hall we found three gallons of ice cream. Three gallons of ice cream for four soldiers is considerable, especially when it starts to melt in hot weather. We gorged ourselves until we couldn't move.
During the next six days, I flew several local missions for this commander. But the most complex mission was about to happen. I would be the flight lead of a formation of one hundred-sixty aircraft. This operation would be the last big push of the war near the DMZ. During this mission my sole passenger was the Camp Evans commander. He would command and control the operation. The loose trail flight formation was over twenty miles long, and I had never experienced anything like that. My logbook will record this flight to be my last direct combat mission.
On the eighth day at Camp Evans, the Colonel and Command Sergeant Major exited the command bunker and walked to the flagpole. There were now only six of us Americans at Camp Evans. I saw that the Command Sergeant Major had a tape recorder and was preparing for some sort of ceremony. Not knowing what was about to happen, I gathered my crew next to the aircraft. We were about fifty feet from the flagpole. When he began to play the Star Spangled Banner, the Colonel lowered the Stars and Stripes. The two of them furled the flag and walked over to the helicopter. The commander said, "Let's go Mac." No one had ever called me "Mac", but I assumed he was referring to me. None of the six of us had dry eyes. It was an extreme emotional event; we had just closed Camp Evans. All points north of us had already been closed. We flew the Colonel to his destination, refueled the aircraft and flew back to the Hideout at Camp Eagle. We had been gone for 8 days.
On final approach to the Hideout, we could see that something had changed. When we were about one mile out we realized that our area was vacated. Upon landing we shut down the engine, and we all stood spellbound. The operations bunker was empty, the mess hall was empty and the helicopter maintenance area was cleared out. All of the helicopters were gone except for two that were unflyable. None of us uttered a word. We were stunned. The crew followed me into the operations bunker, and we walked quietly. Once inside the bunker, we noticed that everything was gone. The classified map, the radios, the office; all was cleaned out. On a crude table hewn from a log were several pieces of paper. A rock sat on top as a paperweight. The top piece was fluttering in the breeze. I removed the rock and read the note, "Mr. McConkey, I hope you find this. These are your orders for you and your crew to report to your next unit." We stood in shock. Our unit had left Viet Nam and returned to the United States without letting us know. We felt rejected.
I told the crew to go to their quarters and gather their belongings. All was still in place as we had left it eight days earlier. We loaded everything in the aircraft and headed for our next assignment. I reported to the new unit for all of us. When I reported, the operations officer stated, "Sure, we can use another pilot." I replied, "Well, I brought my own copilot, crew chief and door gunner, too." He was surprised. "Anything else I need to know?" he asked. I responded in the affirmative, "Well, I brought my own Huey. Do you want it?" He was rather taken back at that.
We settled into the new unit. About three weeks later, the unit administrator posted an order stating that anyone with less than ninety days remaining on his tour would be sent back to the United States. I had ninety-two days to go. So I missed my chance to return to the US by two days. But three days later, while walking past the same office, a voice rang out, "Hey, aren't you McConkey? Your name is on the list to go home." I informed him that I had missed it by two days. But he enlightened me that the order had just been amended and redated by three days. It was still a ninety-day order, but now I had only eighty-nine days to go. I made the list by one day. I was going home! I only had two hours to get ready to catch a flight to Da Nang on a CH-47.
The stretch DC-8 departed Da Nang early the next morning. As I walked to the aircraft to board, I realized just how tired and fatigued I was. All of us passengers were exhausted. As the DC-8 departed, no one made a sound. We all departed with many memories: the hurt, the pain, lost friends. My best memory was that First Thessalonians 5:18 never failed me. All eyes were now pressed to the small windows until we were out of sight of the mainland. How ironic that we wanted to get a last glimpse...to remember the war...that we so desperately wanted to forget.
The Viet Nam war was never officially declared. It was the war...that wasn't. For those of us who were there, the war that wasn't still lives within us. Little do we realize how the war that wasn't, is firmly etched in our souls. In a sense, the future is not ours. It belongs to the war that wasn't. The war that wasn't, has a mysterious effect on every decision we make. For those of us who participated, the war...that wasn't...now is. We are Viet Nam veterans.
Are you a present day casualty of this internal war that now is? Do you continue to be wounded and held prisoner by what you experienced over there? Is your happiness and joy short term?
Your mission in Viet Nam was to fight to preserve peace and liberty. You served your country well. You did your best in the war...that wasn't. But you have not completed the mission until you experience this peace yourself. Your duty is to complete the mission...and win...the war that now is.
Warrant Officer Chuck McConkey served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam during 1971-72 earning the Bronze Star Medal and 18 Air Medals. In 2007 he underwent a 7-week inpatient hospitalization due to PTSD in the Cincinnati VA Hospital in a cognitive program. In 2013 he completed the VA PTSD Peer Specialist training. After completing 39 years of Active/Reserve Army service, he is now retired and living in Florida. He is a member of American Legion Florida Post 23.