Flying With VNAF
Ron Ihler, the new Operations Officer, summoned me into his office. "Well, Freeman," he said. "You're a new aircraft commander. Guess what you get to do tonight."
I was Third-Up on the duty roster. Normally, Third-Up didn't do anything but ash & trash, and they didn't do those at night. "I don't know. What do I get to do tonight?"
"Fly with the VNAF." Was that a smirk on his face? I couldn't tell. I knew some of the older ACs had flown with the VNAF Dustoff crews before I got to Binh Thuy, but they hadn't been doing it lately.
"What do you mean, 'fly with the VNAF'?" I wanted to know.
"You get to fly right seat with one of their ACs," Ron explained. "Supposedly, we're pulling out of here in a few weeks, and Group wants us to make sure those guys can handle their own missions at night."
"I didn't think was a question about whether they could. I thought was a question of whether they would." I didn't know the politics behind the decisions, but I did know that we flew medevac missions night after night, while the VNAF Dustoff ships sat on the ramp. Ninety-nine point ninety-nine per cent of our patients were Vietnamese.
"Look, I don't know what's going on any more than you do, but I know I've got to put a pilot with the First Up VNAF crew tonight and you're it. The rest of us have already had our turn in the barrel."
"Okay," I said. "Where do I go? What time?"
"You meet Lieutenant Phouc on the west side of the runway at nineteen hundred hours."
I knew Phouc. I'd heard he had about eight thousand hours and was an excellent pilot, though a little weak on radio and traffic pattern procedures. We joked about it. "We come, we go," seemed to be the extent of VNAF communications with the tower.
Nineteen hundred hours military time was seven p.m. warrant officer time. When my new Sieko indicated it was time, I crossed the runway and waited for the VNAF ship to arrive. He was about an hour late. When he landed, his right seat was occupied by a grinning crew chief, who jumped out and held the door open for me to get in. Phuc did not shut down. I'd have to depend on his preflight. It was a VNAF-owned Huey. I wondered about their maintenance. I wondered if they even preflighted.
We took off and headed north. Except for the "we go now" call to Navy Binh Thuy tower, all the radio conversations were in Vietnamese. Needless to say, I was more than a little uncomfortable half an hour later when we began circling over a firefight a few klicks east of Dong Tam. Judging from the tracers flying back and forth on the ground, and the abundance of high-pitched, and obviously excited radio transmissions, none of which I understood, there was quite a battle going on down there. I didn't have a clue what Phouc was going to do, and he was so busy on the radio, I couldn't break in to ask him.
I noticed him checking the gauges and stretching out a downwind leg like he was going to land. I didn't like what I saw. Finally, Phouc took a break from the radio and looked over at me. In the dim, red glow of the cockpit lighting, I could swear he was grinning from ear to ear. I was determined not to let him know how uneasy I felt.
"What's going on?" I asked him.
"It's my cousin down there," he replied. "He's begging me to come down."
That I could understand. My own cousin had been a door gunner in Vietnam a couple of years earlier. If he had been in trouble and if I had been around then, I'd have gone to get him, firefight or not. "Let's go get him," I said, trying not to let him hear any signs of fear in my voice. With a purpose, I guessed going into the midst of that firefight wouldn't be so bad. At least we'd be going after someone that mattered to someone in our crew.
"Oh, no, no, no, no," Phouc said, laughing. "That's not the deal. My cousin is VC. He wants us to come down there so he can B-40 us." A B-40 was a rocket. It did bad things to helicopters.
I had been around Vietnamese people enough to know that I didn't understand them. They would pass up a chance to save a wounded soldier if it was the least bit risky, but wouldn't hesitate to pick up a KIA, regardless of the risks. I didn't know if Phouc was going to take the challenge or not. He seemed to be having too good a time to suit me.
"So, what are we going to do?" I asked him.
"Don't worry," Phouc replied. "I told him to wait. We will be down in a couple of minutes. I didn't tell him we've got Cobras coming. We're going to blow him away before he blows us away."
Obviously, Phouc was enjoying himself. I began to relax. It sounded like he had a pretty good plan. But where did he get Cobras at night? I'd never been able to do that. I wondered if VNAF had Cobras. If they did, I had never heard about it.
The situation reminded me of kids playing war. Only these guys had real weapons, and they were playing for keeps. "Can't shoot through bushes," and "I got you," "No, you didn't" rules wouldn't work. I wondered if there were wounded down there, or if Phouc was just playing games with his cousin. Not that I could do anything about it. Phouc was commander of the aircraft, and I was his Peter Pilot, even if I was supposed to be teaching him the techniques we used for locating suitable PZs at night.
We pulled a little away from the action and waited for the Cobras. Phouc had me turn on the rotating beacon (first thing I'd gotten to do all night) so the Cobras could spot us when they arrived. We didn't have to wait long before a couple of Outlaws showed up and hailed us on our frequency. They were Americans. I recognized the call signs. They had covered me before on daylight missions, but they didn't like to fly at night. They were pretty vocal about it, too.
"Dustoff, this is Outlaw 22. ID us a target and let's get this show on the road."
Phouc turned to his Texas-Alabama vocabulary for this part of his mission. He identified targets for the Cobras by the muzzle flashes of the weapons being fired on the ground. The lead Cobra pilot allowed as how it would be pretty hard to fire that close to the friendlies, since he and his wingman weren't allowed to go below a thousand feet at night.
A thousand feet?! I didn't have any sympathy for them at all. I flew eight to ten hours a night and seldom got above a thousand feet.
With Phouc guiding them, the Cobras went in and let go one salvo each, then Phouc set us up to make the pickup. The Cobras hung up high, assuring us that if there was any sign of firing at us, they would neutralize it. I figured if Phouc's cousin was still down there with his B-40, it would be all over before the Cobras could react. I hunkered down in my seat and adjusted my chicken plate, as if it would offer any protection against a B-40 rocket.
As Phouc lowered the collective and started bleeding off airspeed, I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of tracers headed our way. My hands were near the controls, ready to take over at a moment's notice. There was still some small arms fire on the ground, but it was becoming sporadic. A small fire marked our landing spot.
I wanted the controls, wanted to be in control of my own destiny, but it was Phouc's aircraft and he didn't offer them to me. There was no doubt that he was a better, more experienced pilot than I was, but dying while flying co-pilot to a Vietnamese national was not among the headlines I had imagined describing my death.
We made it to the ground without getting blown out of the sky, even when I turned on the landing light, a dead give away of our position. As we touched down, a light flared off to our right and a loud "whoosh" seemed to take all the oxygen out of the air. My side of the aircraft looked like the fourth of July. It was as bright as day, destroying any semblance of night vision. I saw one Cobra, then another swoop past and begin a steep climb. They'd obviously gone below a thousand feet. It looked like they were coming back around for another pass.
"What happened?" I asked Phouc.
"I think they got my cousin," he said, matter-of-factly.
I heard the Outlaw pilots congratulating each other on the radio for what they'd done. "I don't think you'll have any more trouble with B-40s, Dustoff," Outlaw 22 told us. "We'll wait until you guys get out of that hole down there before we head for home."
"Roger, roger," Phouc answered them. "We're coming out now. Thanks." I realized there had been activity in the back of the aircraft and looked over my shoulder to see that the medic and crew chief had managed to fill the cabin with wounded ARVNs while all the action was going on.
"Don't mention it," Outlaw 22 said.
"You've got it," Phouc said to me, sounding every bit like a Texan.
I grasped the controls, surprised I was finally getting to fly, and trying to get my eyes to adjust to the darkness again. "I've got it," I said, and pulled pitch.
The Cobras waited until we were above a thousand feet, then departed for Vinh Long, while we headed towards My Tho with our seven patients. One of them would be lucky to make it.
There's an interesting side note to this story. Months later, after the 57th had moved to Long Binh, I was flying coverage in the Delta and landed one day at the Can Tho soccer field to drop off a couple of patients. A Vietnamese officer came out to the helicopter and asked us to shut down. He indicated there was a patient in the hospital who wanted to talk to us. Since it was a Vietnamese hospital, I was a little surprised, but curious. We shut down and followed him inside.
There, lying an a bed in the middle of a ward that was packed with patients, was Lieutenant Phouc. His eyes brightened up when he saw me. "Freeman! Am I glad to see you."
"What's happening, Phouc?"
"It's these crazy Vietnamese doctors. They want to take off my leg."
"Really?" The thought of that happening made me queasy. "Why?" I asked him.
"They're Vietnamese," he replied. "That's all they know how to do." This was from a Vietnamese national. I wasn't sure where Phouc was headed, but he was up to something.
"Freeman," he pleaded. "Take me with you to Saigon, to an American hospital, where they can save my leg."
"I don't know about Saigon," I told him, "but maybe I can get you in the 24th Evac at Long Binh." The Third Surgical Hospital, the MASH hospital that had been at Navy Binh Thuy was gone by then. "I'll have to make some calls."
"Take me with you, now," Phouc begged. "If you leave me here, it might be too late."
I didn't know where to start with the red tape, bug figured if we took Phouc to the 24th Evac, they would take care of him. I figured wrong. Since we weren't scheduled to return to Long Binh for a few days, I couldn't take Phouc right then, anyway. We went over to Can Tho Airfield and I got on the land line to Long Binh. Three hours later I had an answer. The 24th Evac couldn't take him, but an American doctor there had expressed an interest in coming to Can Tho to see what he could do.
Arrangements were made, and as far as I know, the American doctor did make it to Can Tho to perform surgery on Lieutenant Phouc's leg. I hope he was able to save it.
Update May 1997:
I have recently learned that a former VNAF Dustoff pilot, Trang Van Phouc, is in the United States and living in the San Jose, California area. At one time he had an e-mail account and was in contact with some of the American helicopter pilots that communicate through the Internet. If anyone knows Trang Van Phouc and can put me in touch with him or him in touch with me, it would be interesting to know if this is the same man.