Facing Our Fears
One afternoon, while staging out of Lai Khe, I was called to a briefing held at the command tent of General Hollinsworth, the two star general who was in charge of the Air Cavalry operations in the area. He put his arm around my shoulder and walked with me out to where our helicopter was parked.
"Son," he said, "there are 53 wounded men that we know of in An Loc. Some of them have been there as long as two weeks. This evening about sunset, we're going to go in there and get them out. I want you and your crew to go in there with us."
"Yes, sir. That's our job," I replied.
"I knew you'd feel that way," he said. "It's going to take several aircraft to get them all. Sabre Six will be leading the mission. He'll take five slicks, a pair of Cobras and you. That's all we can spare for this operation. Be ready to break ground at 17:30. It's going to be a rough mission. No one has been in there successfully for the last two weeks."
"Yes, sir, we'll be ready," I assured him. I looked at my watch. It was not quite two o'clock-1400 hours. Three and a half hours to wait.
I knew the mission would be rough. One of our own crews flying a white elephant had been shot down on the outskirts of An Loc a couple of weeks earlier. A slick had picked up the crew, but when we went back to try to recover the aircraft, the NVA had set up a 51 caliber machine gun inside it. We couldn't get near it, so we gave its location to the FAC working the area. He vectored in a couple of Phantoms to blow it away. All that was left was the floor pan and the skids.
War confronts you with a variety of emotions-excitement, loneliness, and fear are at the top of the list. Today, the chief emotion I faced was fear. Most of our missions were fast and furious and were over before we had time to even think about being afraid. We would get back from flying missions and tell our war stories to everybody, then try to forget them. Today was different. General Holloway told me about the mission at 1400. Ten minutes later, I told my crew about it. The rest of the afternoon we sat in the hot sun at Lai Khe airfield with nothing to do but think about the mission we were going on at sundown.
An Loc was enemy territory. The North Vietnamese had taken it several weeks earlier and they had kept it. The city was occupied with tanks, big guns, and SAMs and the NVA didn't intend to give it up. Every recent mission that had been attempted into that area had been met with heavy resistance and had been turned back.
What was remarkable about my fear that afternoon was that other times I had surprised myself by not being afraid. I already knew my response to being shot at. It made me mad and made me want to shoot back, but it didn't terrify me. I had seen tracers coming right at us, then miraculously miss us. It seemed at times like we had a giant invisible shield around the aircraft. I felt protected and had a sense of destiny. I honestly believed I was going home alive.
None of this did anything to help defuse the fear I felt that afternoon. I didn't understand it, but I felt it. The rest of the crew seemed to feel it, too. What we were being asked to do seemed impossible. Yet, it needed doing.
The afternoon seemed an eternity. At 1700, the mission commander called us together for a briefing. He went over the route we would take into the city and the different route we would take back out. He showed us on the map where the pickup point was and pointed out all of the known enemy gun locations. There were 51 caliber machine guns and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns in abundance.
We discussed the altitudes we would fly. We would stay high initially, then drop down to the deck as we approached An Loc to avoid SAMs. We copied down the frequencies we would be using for coordinating the mission. It was decided that the slicks would pick up the wounded. Our job would be to pick up the crew of any slick or gunship that went down. We didn't like the fact that the slicks would be making the medevacs. They didn't have medics on board and we did. Besides, it was our mission and we knew how to do it. They knew how to make combat assaults. But, it wasn't our decision to make and we could see the logic in having us as a back up. Besides, if the slick drivers made the medevacs they would probably be put in for some medals. We wouldn't.
I asked if we were going to have Phantoms or Sandies on station to provide close air support. The commander told us he had considered it, but felt it would be too dangerous with the number of people on the ground. The wounded people were all holed up in an isolated bunker complex that was on the edge of town. Apparently, the NVA didn't know they were there, or they would have already killed them or taken them as prisoners.
After the briefing we went to our helicopters and started our engines. All eight aircraft formed up on the runway, then we were airborne. The lead aircraft began climbing to get above some cloud layers. We were going to attempt to throw the enemy off by climbing high, then dropping down to treetop level for the last couple of parameters.
We would be approaching An Loc from the southwest. After making the pickup, we would depart low-level to the southeast. The mission was timed carefully to occur during the last few minutes of daylight.
Something was wrong. We flew along at 5,000 feet for fifteen minutes. Eight helicopters, heading north, and not a single SAM or anti-aircraft gun had been fired at us. We figured maybe they were saving it all for when we touched down in An Loc.
Approaching the city, we dropped down to the deck and flew up the corridor that was marked on our maps. There was no sign of enemy activity. As we approached An Loc, we were anticipating all hell breaking loose. The North Vietnamese were firmly entrenched in what was left of the city, and had to have known we were coming The slicks touched down and began loading the wounded. Not a shot was fired at any of them. The Cobras circled overhead. We orbited a few hundred yards south of the city.
The wounded were loaded, the slicks took off, and we all headed back down our escape route. Still no shots were fired. The whole mission went without one hint of the enemy ever seeing us. It was either that, or they recognized it as a mercy mission and decided to honor it as such for some unknown and uncharacteristic reason. Maybe they just didn't want the added burden of caring for fifty-three wounded POWs.