“So Others May Live”
By Elvis Bray
At the sound of a buzzer, we laced up our boots and hit the floor running. We had slept in our clothes as we did every night when on stand-by. The pilot, Warrant Officer Scott Davison, was already cranking the engine before I got the blades untied. The co-pilot, Lt. Joe Costello, cleared departure with the Camp Betty control tower as Davison lifted the UH-1H medevac helicopter out of the revetment. We rotated ninety-degrees from a hover and lifted into the night sky.
The lights of Phan Thiet were to our left. To our right, the endless darkness of the South China Sea. U.S. Navy ships patrolled the Vietnamese coastline but it was too dark to see them.
The dispatcher advised a mortar had struck a Vietnamese couple’s home and both Papa-san and Mamma-san had received multiple shrapnel wounds. Our mission was to evacuate them to the hospital. Just another routine mission.
The extraction went smoothly. The patients’ wounds didn’t appear life threatening. As soon as we were airborne, the medic bandaged the wounds and started IV’s to help prevent shock. He leaned back, checked his watch, and turned off the light.
“Thirty minutes to the hospital, twenty minutes back to Camp Betty and five minutes to refuel. We’ll probably be asleep by 2 o’clock.”
“Yeah right. And if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle,” I answered.
He rolled his eyes and lay back against the bulkhead. The radio crackled to life with another call. I smiled and the medic flipped me off. A South Vietnamese soldier had apparently shot himself in the foot. The pilot advised we’d pick him up on the way to the hospital.
The small outpost where we were to pick up the wounded solider sat on the outskirts of Phan Thiet. It wasn’t under attack and was not supposed to be a hot landing zone. Just another routine mission.
We weren’t familiar with the compound and had never landed there before. At approximately one hundred feet, Davison turned on the landing light for a few seconds to locate the landing pad. Then he killed the light. I slid my door open to watch for radio antennas, trees, wires or anything else that might want to kill us. The medic did the same on the other side.
Ten feet above the ground, a loud explosion left us weightless. The pilot unwillingly relented control of the helicopter to gravity as we plummeted to earth. One moment, we were flying, the next I lay face down in the dirt. My ears rang, my chest hurt and the air had left my lungs.
Disoriented, I stumbled to my feet in total darkness franticly searching for my M-16. It wasn’t behind the seat where I’d left it. I heard the dull thud of mortars being propelled from their tubes and machine gun fire close by. I had to seek cover.
Davison’s door was still closed. Fearing he may have been killed or wounded, I reached for his door handle. The door flew open and he sailed past me, landing face first in the dirt that I previously occupied. Scrambling to his feet, he followed me around the front of the helicopter. The co-pilot’s seat was empty. I didn’t know where he, or the medic was.
I ran towards a small rock wall about thirty yards away next to several building. Just as I started to jump the wall, a flare lit up the area. The wall had two strands of razor wire running along the top. I was moving too fast to stop and didn’t know if I could clear the wires while wearing my forty-pound armor plated vest. I hurdled the wires and my momentum carried me down a walkway between two rows of barracks. I plowed into several Vietnamese soldiers as they exited their barracks packing M-1carbines.
They hadn’t expected to encounter a tall American wearing a helicopter helmet. For a moment, I thought they were going to shoot me. I apologized profusely hoping they understood. I followed the Vietnamese soldiers back the way I had come and stopped at the wall. The soldiers kept running. My flight crew was using the wall as cover. I flopped down next to the medic attempting to catch my breath.
“Did . . .did . . .did you see those wires?”
“Yeah,” he answered as he peeked over the wall.
“Did you clear it?”
“Hell no. We went through the gate.”
“Gate. What gate?”
He pointed to his left. There was an opening in the wall about six feet from where I had jumped it. We hunkered down listening to the battle raging around. The helicopter’s engine screamed in the background. I didn’t bother un-holstering my .38 caliber revolver knowing it was useless. A flare popped right above us and we all jumped. The whole area lit up like a shopping mall parking lot.
“Hey, we forgot our patients,” yelled the medic. Mamma-san and Papa-san were still in their litters, IV’s intact. We made a mad dash.
Davison flipped the switches shutting off the fuel from the dying bird. It moaned to a halt. Black smoked pored out the back of the engine and floated towards heaven. I hated seeing my helicopter succumb to such an untimely death, but was glad it hadn’t taken any of us with it.
Lt. Costello, and the medic pulled Mama-san out of the helicopter and ran. I unhooked Papa-san’s IV bag and placed it on his chest. Mr. Davison and I unhooked and lowered the stretcher from the upper rack. Mr. Davison took one end and I grabbed the other. We sprinted behind the wall and sat the old man down. I attached his IV bag to the top wire above the wall and checked to make sure it was still secured.
“You all right, Poppa-san?” I asked. His black-toothed smile told me he was.
Mr. Davis located a radio and informed Camp Betty that we had been shot down and requested assistance.
Peeking over the wall, I survey the damage. Any crash you walk away from is considered a good crash. Even though I’d fallen out of the chopper and had run like hell, I still considered we’d made a good landing. The main body squatted nose up in the center of the landing zone. Some of the windows were broken out and several shrapnel holes were visible along the sides. The transmission lay fifty yards on the other side of the helicopter. What was left of the main rotor blades were sixty yards on our side. The tail-boom had been cut off and lay tilted a few feet behind the main body. Half of the tail rotor was missing. Small pieces of rotor-blade were scattered everywhere. It was a miracle we had all survived yet, everyone appeared uninjured.
The whop, whop, whop of rotor blades announced the arrival of the helicopter gunships. A few moments after their arrival, several rockets streaked out of the darkness followed by a long wavy line of red fire. The mini-gun sounded like a bullfrog in the distance. Several loud explosions followed as the rockets located their targets. Several more bursts of red fire streaked out of the heavens. Suddenly everything became quiet, except the sound of the unseen helicopters.
A flare ship landed between our downed helicopter and us. Grabbing the stretchers, we made a mad dash. We slid Mama-san and Papa-san in first and then followed. We had to sit on top of four-foot long flares. No one complained. The gun ships circled high above providing protection as we lifted off. Fifteen minutes later, we were unloading our wounded at the field hospital at Camp Betty.
Another medevac ship arrived from Phan Rang Air Force Base to relieve us. Mr. Davison jumped in the helicopter to make another extraction. It didn’t make sense. I thought he would have had enough excitement for one night.
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep, I went to the field hospital and poured myself a cup of coffee. Parking my ass on a wood counter to watch the doctor patch up his new patients. The clock on the wall told me it was 4 a.m.
After the doctor finished, a couple of nurses wheeled Mama-san and Papa-san away. The doctor poured himself a cup of coffee. His eyes were red and he looked exhausted. “You all right?” he asked.
“Sounds like you guys took quite a beating out there tonight.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I lost my helicopter.”
He took a sip of coffee. “Anyone killed?”
“Nope. Not that I’m aware of.”
“Where’s the pilot?”
“We got another call after we got back and he took it. I didn’t hear where they were going.”
He took a deep breath, yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I might as well stay up and wait for them.”
We sat in silence for another two cups. When I got up to leave, the doctor said, “Wait a minute. What’s that on your back?”
I looked over my shoulder. “What?”
He walked over and pulled on my shirt. Blood had glued it to my skin. It stung as he pulled the shirt away. “Take it off,” he said.
I hadn’t realized I had been injured. “It ain’t nothing, Doc.”
“Off,” he demanded. “You don’t want to get an infection.”
I un-buttoned my shirt and took it off.
“Not bad. Go sit on the table.” He poured alcohol on some gauze. “This might hurt a little. Let me know if you want me to numb it.”
It stung for a moment and then felt cold. He removed a couple of small pieces of shrapnel from my back no bigger than a BB. He put Band-Aids on them.
“You want me to write that up? You’ll get a purple heart.”
“No thanks, Doc. I’ve already got one.” I put my shirt back on and left.
The next morning, another helicopter arrived from our headquarters to transport the medic and me back to our home base at Phan Rang. Our avionics man, Jerry Schmidt, was flown to the crash site to remove the radios and gauges from my downed chopper. Mr. Davison set it on fire and cremated it where it sat. Eleven days later, my second tour ended and I left Vietnam for last time.
I was proud to have served with the dedicated professionals from the 247th Medical Detachment that risked their lives every day; “So Others May Live.”
Elvis Bray is a retired police officer from Arizona who write books, poems and short stories as a hobby.