Sometimes we hear Vietnam called the 10,000 day war
because, like the "Energizer Bunny", it seemed to go on...and on...
..and on. During that time literally millions of American soldiers
participated. More than 58,000 Americans died, 300,000 were wounded
and the war severely disabled more than 75,000 others. This is a story
of one day in that war and how it affected just a few of the many who
"Wake up, it's time to go
"Mr. Lohr, Sir, it's time to go fly."
Gradually, I became aware of the dark, the silence of the hooch and again the voice.
"Sir, are you awake?" "It's time to go fly."
Startled, I rotated on my cot to a sitting position as
the CQ pulled the chain that illuminated the bare 40 watt bulb hanging
from a lone wire. Regaining control of my breathing, my eyes carefully
checked the wood plank floor around my cot for "critters." I put my
feet on the floor and rubbed my eyes, my hair, then my eyes one more
time. Lost in the darkness across the small room, was a low groan
followed by a long throaty fart. A zippo lighter clicked, illuminating
a tired face with a butt hanging loosely between the lips. Off in the
distance, outside the hooch, was the crump, crump, crump of artillery
impacting in the distance.
Day 303 had officially begun.
Critters found in my clothing and bunk area and nailed to the wall
I reached for my boots, shaking them thoroughly to
dislodge any critters that might have taken refuge in them during the
night. I grabbed the issue, olive drab colored, cushioned soled, wool
socks that I wore, off and on, for 302 days now and inspected them at
arms length, looking for anything moving or unusual in color.
Satisfied, I shook them thoroughly and laid them on my cot as I
brushed the sand off the bottoms of my feet. I was hungry but also had
that familiar gurgling feeling in my gut that dictated that a stop on
the way to the mess hall was probably in order. Before I did battle
with the NVA and Fate today, I would have it out with "Ho Chi Minh's
Revenge" first. It was a common affliction, like a head cold in a
grade school. It struck at the most inopportune times.
My boots were now on with the tongues flopped out to
the front and laces dangling everywhere. Gradually, I stood up and
grabbed my Nomex shirt that was a part of the new two-piece
fire-retardant flight suit that we wore. Nomex would supposedly offer
some protection from fire for about two seconds after hitting the
ground. Cautiously, I sniffed at it. It felt damp as did everything
and smelled somewhere between a river water smell and mold. Shaking it
out, I dressed and glanced at the big 303 marked on the 30 of August
1969 on the calendar. I had marked each of the 365 days that I would
spend in Vietnam on the calendar to keep track of my tour of duty.
Next, I removed my wedding ring and placed it in the removable top
drawer of my foot locker. I always thought it was the safest place for
it to be when flying.
Fully dressed, I opened the tin and rocket box door of the hooch against the restraining force of the strip of tire inner-tube that normally held it shut. Carefully I let the door ease back to the closed position to not disturb those who were still having "pleasant dreams." I glanced left and right down the sandbagged trail in front of our tent hooches. The previous occupants paved the path with strips of solid steel planking that was normally used to make a runway for airplanes. Here, it provided a firm but sometimes slippery footing to get around the sandy Troop area.
Troop area with steel walkways and South China Sea in background
Warrant Officer Living Quarters before renovation
Warrant Officer Quarters After Renovation
A slight breeze was blowing from the sea to the east,
carrying the smells of JP-4 burned human waste and the smell of fresh,
virgin waste still in the manufacturing process. My nose led me to our
"pooper," a plywood affair about 3 feet high with a hole cut in the
top. Perched on this throne, as the sun pierced the horizon behind
him, was the King of the moment, Lt. Eddie Wittkamper, one of our OH-6
Pilots. Along the path leading up to the "pooper" were four other men,
queuing up for the opportunity. Looking at the crowd and weighing
priorities against time, I quickly decided to head to the mess hall
and take my chances with "Ho Chi Minh's revenge."
Sunrise over the ocean at Phan Thiet
The mess hall had its own fragrances and these were
mixed with the pungent odor drifting in from the East, where lay the
occupied "pooper" in the full glory of the morning sun rise. The
breakfast wasn't bad, undercooked bacon, imitation, watery eggs, over
toasted but now cold toast, lukewarm water with just a hint of Cocoa
in or near it.
After eating, I made a wind sprint to the "pooper" just
as the last Royalty departed. Barely in a nick of time, I sat, gazed
at the rising sun and relaxed.
"Take that, Ho Chi Minh!"
Army field version of flushing the
Our mission that morning was a scouting mission to find
some enemy troops that the intelligence people believed had mortared
some of our nearby troops the night before.
Mortaring was something I could relate
to since I was Officer of the Guard when we last got mortared a week
or so ago. I was in the 30-foot high guard tower at 3:00 in the
morning, viewing the perimeter with a Starlight scope. The "scope," an
early version of today's night vision devices, was about 30 inches
long and was powered by batteries. It weighed about 8 pounds and
everything viewed with it was a different shade of green.
I was looking through the scope at the
flat, sparsely vegetated area to the West of our perimeter when a
bright flash erupted in the top part of the scope. This was
immediately followed by the hollow "thunk" of a mortar round leaving
the tube. I was on the horn to Ops before the first round impacted
outside the perimeter in front of me. Thunk, thunk, thunk! The NVA was
chunking the rounds out as fast as they could and they were "walking"
them right into the perimeter.
The siren in the center of the camp
wailed and the western perimeter opened up with small arms fire. To my
left our troops fired a CS Riot Gas canister in our defensive wire and
a huge cloud of grayish white gas drifted along the perimeter, just
under my perch in the tower.
Just then, off to my Northwest about
400 yards, an alert twin 40 mm "Duster" anti aircraft crew let loose
with about 15 to 20 high explosive rounds that landed right on target.
The NVA mortar men were dead before their last round impacted just in
front of the tower I occupied. They recovered their smashed mortar
tube and bodies a few hours later at daybreak.
Some unusual activity led the Military Intelligence
types to believe that the enemy had moved some new troops in from the
North and that this group was the one who mortared that unit. A new
radar that tracked the trajectories of mortar and artillery rounds
pretty much pinpointed the area.
The area for our "visit" was to the Northwest of Phan
Thiet about 10 miles in an area West of the railroad tracks but short
of the bases of the mountains that made up the area we called the
"Toilet Bowl." Looking at the map in Operations, the area seemed flat
and sparsely vegetated.
I grabbed my "Chicken Plate," or body armor, weapons,
canteens and other gear and almost took the flak jacket at the bottom
of the cot. We normally reserved Flak Jackets for really intimidating
missions where much shooting was probable. I normally threw it into
the "chin bubble" of the helicopter in front of the pedals. Armor
plating did not protect that area. Today I left it behind.
We were the C&C or command and control and recovery
bird today. My job was to orbit in my UH-1 at altitude, about 3,000
ft. There, I would follow the two OH-6 Scout Helicopters and the two
AH-1G Cobra gun ships on the map as they searched out the enemy.
As a part of the mission we carried a McGuire Rig on
the Huey. Designed by Special Forces Sergeant Major Charles McGuire
for quick personnel extractions from "dicy" tactical situations, it
consisted of a canvas seat or "bucket" and about 150 ft of nylon rope.
They fastened this rope to a metal wire rope hooked with multiple "D"
rings on the cargo tie down rings of the helicopter floor. A really
low tech solution to a high priority need, it would be invaluable for
pilot recovery if any of the Cobras or OH-6s were shot down. It would
safely even hold an unconscious pilot.
If we were the ones shot down, it was a long walk to
the nearest LZ.
Out at our helicopter, parked in the revetment, my crew
chief and door gunner worked to get everything ready. Their guns
looked immaculate, as did the UH-1. These soldiers spent all their
spare time taking care of their machinery and it showed. Everything
was near spotless and in order as could be in a war zone.
My copilot was new in country and we had flown together
for only a few hours. Nevertheless, he had made a favorable impression
and would do well once he got some time under his belt. I walked
around the helicopter and glanced at the rotor, tail rotor, cowlings
and doors. He did a good job of pre-flighting but four eyes were
always better than two.
After checking our weapons, maps and survival gear and
briefing the mission, we donned our "chicken plates" and strapped in.
"Chicken plates" were not meals ordered at a restaurant but a "torso formed" slab of "lightweight" armor plate weighing about 20 lbs. It was covered with a ceramic and nylon ballistic resistant buffer material to absorb the blows of small arms bullets. This "plate" was held inside a canvas vest slipped over the head and fastened around the torso with Velcro straps. The pilots wore the front plate only, since they sat in an armored seat, while the door gunner and crew chief often wore both front and back plates. Chicken plates were a mixed bag. They could save your life by turning an AK-47 round or break your legs or neck in a high "G" crash. A .51 Cal bullet would go right through both the Chicken Plate and the armored seat like a hot knife through butter, however. In spite of that, we ALWAYS wore them.
Classmate Paul Christainsen of Class 68-25, with "Chicken Plate". Each of us lost one of our roomates from Fort Wolters to the war, Jeff Borr and Ken Clough.
The Crew chief rotated the main rotor blade to the
90-degree position and showed us the tie down device to ensure us that
they had indeed removed it from the blade
"Clear?" I shouted!
"Clear!", came the response.
We quickly went through the pre-flight checks and I
started the engine. Our crew chief and door gunner poked into access
panels to check for fire and fuel leaks and finding none, they slid
the pilots and copilots side seat armor plating forward and shut and
latched the cockpit doors. Quickly, they scurried aboard and plugged
into the interphone system and announced:
"Ok, guys, I replied. Coming up and to the rear, clear
us back out."
I slowly increased pitch and the helicopter got light
on the skids. The left, aft heel of the skid was the last part to
Their responses were quick and crisp.
"Clear left and rear!"
"Clear right and rear!"
I hovered backwards out of the revetment, unable to see
anything to my rear. I focused on the revetment wall to the front of
the helicopter to gauge my movements. The crew in the rear verbally
guided us out of the hazardous revetment area.
When clear of the revetment, I performed the first
flight of the day checks, and sat on a sand dune awaiting the two
Cobras and OH-6s. It was very hot and humid already and the rotor wash
stirred up by the blades felt good.
Finally, the two OH-6 helicopters, flown by those brave
and crazy scout pilots Lt. (Fast Eddie) Wittkamper and WO-1 Homer
Click were ready as were the AH-1G Cobras'. John "Uni-Ball" Vassar and
Alex Matau flew lead. John Butcho and Rich Matticola flew on his wing.
After getting clearance from the tower at nearby Phan Thiet airfield
and coordinating with the artillery people, we were ready to take off.
Artillery coordination was imperative to avoid being shot down by our
own "friendly" artillery.
The Cobras took off first, followed by the OH-6's. As
the blowing sand of their departures began to settle, I pulled a
little pitch, lowered the nose and we quivered through translational
lift and the dust cloud. We were on our way.
Little did I know, as our helicopter crossed our barbed
wire perimeter, that in about 45 minutes, Fast Eddie would be shot
down and near death and an upwards of a dozen or more enemy troops
would have seen their last sunrise on this earth.
I climbed for altitude immediately while the OH-6's and
Cobras stayed lower. We flew to the Northwest of the large town of
Phan Thiet and I warned the lower OH-6s and Cobras about the half
dozen kites that were already out. The Vietnamese kids made enormous
"box" kites and flew them many hundreds of feet in the air. The stiff
ocean breeze made kite-flying a natural pastime for kids in this area
and we would often just fly by the kite without hitting it.
I followed our little group on the map as we made our
way to our place of intended business. Finally my Huey reached 3,500
feet and I leveled off and began a wide orbit. The other helicopters
below were now approaching the designated area that we were to search.
From my altitude, the area seemed uninhabited and
almost barren. Large, brownish, open areas contained scattered bushes
and small trees. Large green clumps of tall trees, infested with
bamboo and dense brush dotted the flat terrain One was about 60 acres
in size. This was the target.
The first pass through the area was at high speed by
the OH-6's, one covering the other. They made the pass in this manner
to be able to catch glimpses of the ground but to still present a
fast-moving target if the enemy decided to shoot. The OH-6's were
playing the "Shoot at me game." The Cobras, circled like hungry sharks
a thousand feet above them. The two OH-6s were the bait, the Cobras
Having drawn no fire on the initial pass, the two OH-6
helicopters came back for a lower, slower pass. On this pass, Fast
Eddie's gunner Sp4 Mike Cook, spotted some signs of human habitation
and reconnoitered by fire. This simply meant that he fired his M-60
machine gun to make any hiding NVA soldier think that he had been seen
and return fire, revealing his position. The NVA was not biting, or
maybe they weren't there, as no one fired back. As the helicopters
made smaller and smaller circles over the area, Eddie was reporting
what he was seeing.
"We have a good trail through the bamboo that looks
like it has recent activity."
I was beginning to get a little nervous as I stared
intently at his little OH-6 while it ferreted ever more deeply into
that area. All our OH-6 helicopters had the tops of their tail booms
and horizontal stabilizers painted white. This allowed for excellent
contrast against the green vegetation and easy following from above.
The little OH-6s were now sniffing around this piece of bamboo
infested jungle area like a pair of bird dogs that had the scent.
My crew chief and door gunner complained that they were
getting cold in the open area of their gunner positions in the rear.
They asked if we could close the cargo doors. I slowed the airspeed
back to 60 knots and they slid the doors shut and secured them.
After several more orbits, it was warmer in the cockpit
area and I started to sweat. I loosened the Velcro on the retaining
straps of my "chicken plate" or body armor and pushed the heavy armor
plate forward against the shoulder harness straps and away from my
chest. I applied a little right pedal to allow the outside slipstream
to flow through the left cockpit window momentarily. The outside air
swirled between my wet chest and the chicken plate providing a
pleasant blast of coolness.
I changed the position of my holstered .38 caliber
pistol slightly. It was swung around and nestled between my legs,
affording at least some protection to potential future generations.
Getting comfortable, I again looked at Fast Eddie, more than three
thousand feet below.
Eddie transmitted his intentions:
"This area below me looks hot. We are going to drop
some Willie Pete and see what we can stir up."
WP, or "Willie Pete" was slang for
White Phosphorus. An insidious device, it explodes scattering bits and
pieces of burning phosphorus in about a 25-meter radius. Once burning,
nothing would put out Willie Pete. It would even burn under water. The
only way to keep it from killing you was to dig the particles out of
your flesh before it burned completely through. It was good at setting
off secondary explosions from stored enemy munitions too.
The trail meandered through the bamboo and trees for
some distance. Sp4 Cook dropped several WP grenades along the trail as
Eddie hovered above the trees. Thin wisps of white smoke drifted
through the tops of the vegetation as we all waited for a reaction.
Eddie had backed off and was looking at a different area farther to
the southwest. After a short unproductive period there, he maneuvered
his helicopter back to the trail area and snooped around some more.
They had decided to drop another grenade before moving on. It was a
Peering down through the bamboo, Eddie spotted
something that looked like a hat on the trail and turned hard right to
keep it in sight. Unfortunately the hat wasn't on the trail, but it
was on the head of an NVA soldier. Too late, Eddie saw him and his
I was in a left-hand orbit, my eyes glued to Eddie's
helicopter. Suddenly, it corkscrewed violently to the right twice and
disappeared immediately into the tall trees and bamboo.
Eddie felt as if the NVA soldier had wrenched the
helicopter out of his hands with a giant fist. The shooting and crash
filled the next few seconds with white-hot pain, blurred trees and the
screaming noise of the helicopter engine over-speeding as the trees
ripped off the rotor blades. Finally all motion stopped.
The helicopter had come to rest about three feet off
the ground in the dense bamboo. Mike was pulling at Eddies' seat belt
and shoulder harness and began dragging him from the cockpit. Aware of
the still running engine screaming in his ears, Eddie pulled the
emergency fuel shut-off as Mike pulled his body from the cockpit. Both
Eddie and Mike lay flat on the ground and listened as the engine spun
down. Eddie was entering a state of semi-consciousness but Mike Cook
was uninjured, alert and ready to fire with the .45 Caliber "Grease
Gun" that he always carried just for this purpose.
WO-1 Click, in the other OH-6 helicopter, shouted on
the radio what we all knew.
"Eddie's down, Eddie's been shot down!" "We have dinks
In the background, we could hear the blasts of his
gunner's M-60 firing at the enemy as he shouted to us.
I slapped my Chicken Plate hard against my chest and
tightened the Velcro straps and shoulder harness. My crew chief
muttered; "Shit!", then after a short pause "Shit!" again.
We called back to our Operations and passed the word
about Eddie and requested another Cobra gun team and the "Blues," our
Overhead, the surviving OH-6 now moved away from the
area as John Vassar's Cobra dove toward the target. Alex Matau, new in
country, was on the twin 40 MM guns in the chin turret of Vassar's
Cobra. He laid a circle of exploding grenades 360 degrees around the
crash site, then moved back into orbit to give Click's OH-6 time to
check out the situation.
At the crash site, Mike Cook was spread-eagle on the
ground, hyper-alert, as he listened for any sign of the enemy.
Suddenly, the jungle all around him and Eddie erupted in dozens of
grenade explosions, then silence. Off in the distance he could hear
but not see our helicopters flying overhead.
WO-1 Click hovered back over the area trying to see if
the crew members were still alive. We had no radio contact with Eddie
as their helicopter radios were shot full of holes. The crash had
somehow damaged Eddie's survival radio so that the range was only
several feet. Only Click in the other OH-6 could now hear their
emergency radio transmissions. Quickly, we learned from Click that
both crew members were still alive but that Eddie was very badly hurt
and couldn't move.
Overhead, the shark-like Cobras continued circling,
ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.
Once we heard how badly Eddie was hurt we knew we were
going to have to try to get him out by using the McGuire rig. I turned
to look at Mike and our crew in the back of the cabin. They saw my
glance and all gave me a thumbs up. Without a word being said, we all
knew that we were not leaving these few acres of South Vietnam without
Eddie and Mike.
The crew chief and gunner were slipping into their
"monkey harnesses" and getting everything set up. These harnesses,
hooked to the floor with about 10 feet of strap, would prevent them
from falling all the way to the ground if they should slip and fall
out as they were working with the McGuire rig.
"Leave the doors closed while you get everything
ready," I shouted. We can open them as we get lower"
I had visions of my crew falling out of the helicopter in the excitement of preparation.
We announced that we were ready and for the Cobra's to
give us some room in the descent. As we were spiraling out of the sky,
suddenly all hell broke loose again. A crowd of NVA decided to run for
it but they ran in the wrong direction, they ran into the open. They
were about 200 yards to the Northeast of Eddie, in an area of sparser
vegetation and were spotted by one of the Cobra's pilots.
"Clear out!" "Clear out!" I'm rolling in hot!" "NVA 200
meters to the Northeast of Eddie!" John Vassar's transmission had a
real sense of urgency to it as if he were ready to pull the trigger
Click's OH-6 scurried over to the southwest of the
crash site, away from the impending slaughter.
I watched spellbound, as the Cobras slid into a steep
dive toward the NVA, one helicopter far behind the other. There was a
flash of bright yellow as the first Cobra fired two rockets, followed
immediately by two more. Awestruck, my eyes followed the rockets as
they streaked faster than the speed of sound toward the running NVA
soldiers on the ground. There was a light pinkish puff of smoke as
their warheads detonated above the enemy troops.
These were Flechettes or "Nails" as we
called them. Each warhead contained thousands of little nail looking
devices that had "feathers" pressed into the rear end of the metal.
They were very sharp and the rocket warhead containing them exploded
more than a hundred feet in the air, showering everything with
thousands of hypersonic little "arrows."
NVA went down as if a rug were pulled from under them. As the first
Cobra pulled up and left, the second Cobra covered his break from
target with a 3 second burst from the twin miniguns in the chin
turret. I watched as the turret, belching long yellow flames, turned
to stay on target as the second Cobra broke away to the right. The
first Cobra was already able to cover his wingman's break if
It was a superb sky ballet by professional performers.
It was as deadly as it was beautiful and it was over in seconds. There
was no more movement on the ground.
We were rapidly descending now and the Cobras moved
away while the lone OH-6 checked out the havoc wreaked by the "Ballet
of Death"of the Cobras.
At 1,500 ft, I slowed to 60 knots and had the crew
slide open the cargo area doors. The crew chief was now flat on the
floor ready to lower the rig. The door gunner was on his gun ready to
"Mike, get on the controls with me and abandon the
approach if they hit me and you think it's necessary." I looked over
to Mike to make sure he was on the controls. He was, and he looked
scared, like a deer caught in the headlight of an onrushing
locomotive. I wondered if I looked as scared to him. I was, times two.
We always flew with the "Force Trim"
on. The controls of a Huey were hydraulically assisted and as such had
no real "feel" like a fixed wing airplane. The cyclic was normally
like a wet noodle and would actually "fall" over to one side or the
other if you let go. To give some micro seconds of stability if the
pilot flying was shot, we turned on and always flew with Force Trim
Forced Trim consisted of springs and
magnetic brakes that provided stability to the cyclic stick. To
release the magnetic brakes and Force Trim one had to push a red
button on the top of the cyclic control with his right thumb. As long
as one held the button in, Force Trim was off. Take your thumb off the
button ( as in being shot ) and the Forced Trim was instantly on,
providing stability to the cyclic control stick. For hovering and
maneuvering, one had to hold the button down all the time to get the
sensitivity required. This made for a sore thumb sometimes. On hot
approaches, we always had both pilots on the controls also. One was
flying and the other was backing him up so that he could assume
control if the flying pilot was hit.
I could just barely see the "hole" and broken branches
in the top of the vegetation where Eddie had gone in. I came to a
hover left of the highest trees and away from the crash site. I wanted
to make sure we had enough power to hover out of ground effect.
Finally, we climbed and stabilized at a 150-foot hover.
I shouted over the intercom: "Guide me right and shoot
anybody with an RPG first!"
I was very
respectful of the Soviet RPG or
Rocket Propelled Grenade. Made for anti tank use,
they were devastating against slow or stationary helicopters. I had
one fired at me near Kontum in May 1969. It was close to dark and I
was flying supplies into one of our Armored Cav Troops.
They already had their APC and Tanks
arranged in a circle, like in those western movies when the wagon
master circled the wagons as the Indians attacked. In front of each
vehicle where it faced outward toward the enemy, were several layers
of "screens" of chain link fence supported by dark-green engineer
stakes. This was to prematurely disintegrate the RPG before it could
smash up against the armor plate of the vehicle and put its shaped
charge to maximum effectiveness.
As we were on a 300-meter final
approach that evening, in a left turn, an NVA soldier couldn't resist
taking a shot at us as we inadvertently flew over his camouflaged
position. The RPG, fired from our right, passed just left of the tail
boom and went through the rotor disc, missing all blades and doing no
damage. The ship behind us, flown by John Deegan saw other NVA
soldiers that were sneaking up on the Cav Troopers. We were very lucky
that day. The RPG gunner was not. Our door gunner had seen the RPG
fire in the evening shadows and hosed down the spot with his M-60
We landed, kicked out the supplies,
boxes of 7.62, M-16 ammo and .50 cal. We told the commander that the
NVA was sizing him up and prepare for the attack that we knew was
coming. We then hauled butt. The Armor unit was attacked minutes after
that with mortars and RPGs. As we flew back to Pleiku for fuel, we
could look back and see red and green tracers ricochet into the air.
As we neared Pleiku, I thought long and
hard about these brave men. These soldiers found themselves 10,000
miles from a homeland where mostly indifference or outright hostility
marked their plight. They were in the dark, in a life and death
struggle, and they had only each other to depend on. Eventually, a
Huey flare ship and the "Pink Panthers" Cobra gunships would arrive
overhead to help. Still, they lost several men during the night.
Now my crew and I faced the prospect once again of
being a sitting duck for any NVA soldier wanting to put a notch on his
RPG launching tube.
The crew guided me right over the crash site, which I
never directly saw. I hovered there, a hundred plus feet off the
ground, like a hummingbird sipping nectar. The smaller tree branches
were whipping back and forth in our rotor wash and I had to use a
lower thick trunk of a tree as a reference point to tell how steady my
Inside, I was sweating up a storm and my gut started to
gurgle. Perhaps a touch of "Ho Chi Minh's revenge" or more likely, a
dose of severe fear.
"Great, all I need to do now is crap my pants...hang
on", I thought to myself. The phrase "Scared Shitless"and different
images of "trouser chili" spun through my mind.
The crew chief was having a problem getting the rig
down through all the tree branches to the ground where Mike Cook could
get a hold of it.
He shouted "Damn!" and "Shit"several times on the hot mike intercom, as if he could curse the rig into descending through the trees. Maybe it worked because he then shouted.. "Great, he's got it"! "He's got it"!
My Huey is fairly clear just to the right of "UH-1" printing. Click's OH-6 is just to the left (10:00 o'clock position) of the "O" in OH-6. This photo was taken with an Instamatic camera by Rich Matticola, flying front seat in John Butcho's Cobra.
I was looking at the tree tops being whipped around by
my rotor wash and was getting frustrated about how slow everything
seemed to be going. Although we had only been hovering there for less
than 2 minutes, I felt as if it were long enough for a platoon of RPG
gunners to walk all the way down from Hanoi, draw lots for rights to
the first shot, and take up firing positions. We were very vulnerable
and once we had Eddie in the rig, we would be like a stork with one
foot embedded in concrete, no matter what happened or what the NVA
shot at us.
The surviving OH-6 circled us like an angry hornet,
daring anything or anyone to move. It was comforting but the OH-6's
vulnerabilities had just been demonstrated so I still felt like a
Thanksgiving Turkey with its neck stretched over a chopping block.
My right thumb started to ache slightly from holding in the red Forced Trim button. I glanced at Mike in the right seat. He was dividing his attention between the ground and the engine instruments. His feet and hands were on the controls, very lightly following my inputs and ready to fly if necessary.
I just "knew" that we would feel the impact of AK-47
rounds or the devastation of a RPG blast any second now.
Just then, I caught movement from 12:00 o' clock, low,
through the whipping branches of the trees. Some lower brush moved,
exposing an NVA soldier crawling out of what appeared to be a a hole
in the ground. As he cleared the hole he picked up his AK-47 and
looked up at us. My heart stopped and I could not speak. I do remember
feeling relieved that all he had was an AK-47 rifle though and no RPG
Grenade launcher. Our eyes locked for a split second and then he was
gone from view. Perhaps he was more scared than I. Maybe he thought
that if he shot down the Huey, he would die in the crash also. Maybe
he just had enough. The whole event took less time than to tell about
it. He could have popped all us with one magazine. Luck was still with
As I was pondering these incredible events, the crew
announced that Eddie was finally hooked up and ready. Very slowly, I
increased pitch and hovered higher while my copilot called out the
torque and the crew chief gave us directions.
"Go up 5 feet...stop...now go right a little...ok start
At one point, we had to stop and go back down when
Eddie became entangled in the trees. I had horrible visions of me
using 1,100 horsepower of the Lycoming engine to pull Eddies' head off
if he got hung up and I wasn't careful. Eddie couldn't help us at all
as he was just about totally unconscious by this time.
The last image that Mike Cook had of Eddie was his boot
soles disappearing up into the mass of branches while drops of his
blood splashed down the sides of the bamboo tree trunks.
We had a plan ready. We would hover with Eddie dangling
at the end of our rig's 150 foot rope to the nearest area clear enough
to set down and put him inside the cabin. WO-1 Click, in the remaining
OH-6 was clearing the area and the Cobras were ready to slug it out
with anyone who showed their face. Mike Cook was racing through the
jungle on foot toward another smaller clear area where the other OH-6
would eventually pick him up and carry him to safety.
The landing area presented itself and in minutes, Eddie
was in the cabin. At a safe altitude, the crew closed the cabin doors.
The race was on. It was a race I had run many times. Our whole crew
was determined to win this one.
As we gained altitude, I worked up enough courage to
look back in the cabin at Eddie. He looked terrible, like a bloody
road kill along side an interstate highway. The crew was working over
him trying to stop the bleeding. He has taken several hits, shattering
his left knee and ripping open his upper left thigh. His chicken plate
was shattered by several hits as was his ballistic flight helmet. He
was covered with blood, dirt and bamboo leaves. As the crew would get
one leak closed off with a pressure dressing, he would sprout another.
His dirty face was grayish blue, and he seemed to be unconscious. He
didn't look like he was going to make it. I was going as fast as we
could get that Huey to go without the rotor blades flying off and
finally we could see the town of Phan Thiet coming into view.
We landed to a mob of medical personal who snatched
Eddie and literally shot him into the waiting ambulance. There was
nothing more we could do there so we headed over to the hot refuel POL
point to top off our fuel, check for battle damage and get our orders
for our next mission.
As I went to Operations to get my mission briefing, I
heard the crew chief tell the door gunner he was getting some water to
wash off Eddies' blood from the helicopter floor.
"You know how fresh blood spooks the grunts when they
get in", was his comment.
Already, flies were feasting on the coagulating lumps
The first question I had when I walked into Operations
was answered before I could ask it.
"Eddie is going to make it!" "I just got the word from
the Medics". "We need you to go back and help extract the Blues, we
had some 192nd guys help take them out but they are
committed somewhere else now." "Is your aircraft OK?"
Later, I found out that it had taken two days to
finally get all the bleeding stopped so Eddie could be shipped out to
a higher echelon of care and then to Japan.
I can't much remember where all we flew after that.
There was the normal resupply stuff, some troop extractions, one under
fire and with a pair of F-4s providing close gun support with their 20
mm cannons, the first and only time I received that kind of close fire
support. My total flying time for that day was 6.8 hours.
When I got back, it was late and the sun was low in the western sky. We made our approach to the revetment area from over the ocean, always keeping close enough to autorotate to the beach, if we needed to. Just off shore, rafts of huge tan jelly fish about 10 feet in diameter floated near the surface. Groups of poisonous sea snakes dotted the clear areas between the jelly fish. The large form of a shark prowled just outside the breakers. Even the ocean here seemed hostile.
Ocean between Phan Thiet and Phan Rang
Quickly, we hovered into the revetment and after a two
minute engine cool down, I closed the throttle and slowly the rotor
blades coasted to a stop. Already, the crewchief and door gunner were
putting the helicopter to bed. The sounds of empty brass 7.62MM
cartridge cases bouncing off the PSP matting on the floor of the
revetment filled the air as the door gunner swept out the bottom of
the helicopter. The crew chief was on roof of the cabin, removing the
engine filter-separator and inspecting the rotor system. A grease gun
and rag, lay on the roof next to his feet.
After looking over my ship, I left to turn in my after
action reports to operations. Along the way, I noticed Eddie's ship
sitting on the sand. It had been sling loaded back from the jungle and
sat forlornly off to the side of those aircraft that were still
flyable. The rotor blades were broken off and the crash crumpled one
skid. The airframe was mostly intact.
Carefully, I examined it.
Flies were still after the dried blood that was everywhere in the cockpit. I counted seven bullet holes in the right side of the cockpit area where Eddie had been sitting. I couldn't help but mentally put myself in that right seat and imagine what Eddie had gone through that day.
Remains of Eddie's Helicopter
That "day" already seemed like a million years ago and
it wasn't even over yet.
I sat by a bunker and watched for awhile as one of our M-48 Tank crews loaded ammo for the night defense of the perimeter. Two dozen helicopter mechanics, cooks and a pilot ( the Officer of the Guard) walked by. Attired in dirty flak jackets and steel pot helmets they carried M-16 rifles, M-60 machine guns and cans of ammo toward the defensive bunkers. Having worked all day doing their regular duties, they now would search the perimeter throughout the darkness and listen for that one almost inaudible sound that could result in disaster for the majority of the Troop that would be sleeping nearby. My life and others would be in their hands tonight.
M-48 Tank Crew prepares for the night. View from defensive bunker at Phan Thiet.
Finally, after I was sufficiently wound down, I
wandered back toward the hooch. A Huey flare ship in front of the
hooch was starting up and getting ready to leave. I hurried to make it
inside the hooch before he pulled pitch and sprayed me with sand.
Inside, I brushed off the pile of sand that had blown
in on my cot during the day. I sat down and took off my boots and hung
my OD Cushioned Soled socks across their tops. I opened my foot locker
and placed my wedding ring on my finger and thought about writing
home. The thought quickly passed since I was so tired and my eyes had
trouble staying in focus in the dim light.
As I lay stretched out on the cot, my eyes caught the
big number 303 on the 30th of August 1969 on the calendar
on the wall. I got up, and with great relief, drew a thick "X" through
Once again, I lay down on the bunk and closed my eyes.
In a few short hours, day 304 would knock at my door with the
greeting..."Sir! Are you awake? It's time to go fly."
Lt. Edward Wittkamper spent two years in hospitals back in the United States. He was medically retired from the Army as a Captain with full benefits. His left leg is fused at the knee and he walks, for short periods, with the aid of a cane. He lives in San Diego CA and works in the travel industry. There is not a day that goes by that he is not reminded of the events of day 303.
Rich Matticola is rumored to fly MD-80's for US Airways on the East coast.
Mike Cook is still after the bad guys. He is a homicide detective in a large midwest city.
Specialist 4 Class Mike Cook, Eddies gunner and Rich Matticola, Cobra Pilot
Fred Lohr age 22, shortly
after the events of day 303.
Copyright İFred Lohr 1997