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An Excerpt from Dear Mom I’m Alive

By Randolph P. Mains

Photos: Randy Mains & VHPA

On May 20 1969 I flew a routine mission that turned into a living nightmare. That's how combat flying is. It shifts from the mundane to the horrendous most often when you least expect it. This particular memory has become part of me. I have relived the mission hundreds of times in my mind. It is as clear to me now as if it had happened yesterday.
 
It was like a sauna in the cockpit. The sweat was dripping down my forehead in rivulets forming salty pools in the hollows created by the hard plastic bridge of my army issue sunglasses. My helmet felt like a green oven threatening to cook my skull and fry my brain. My green Nomex flight suit clung to my skin like a wet plastic bag. My back, the itchy fire-retardant material soaked through with perspiration, stuck to the green mesh of my armored seat. A small, half-smoked cigar hung from my mouth. I chewed aggressively at its wooden tip. I was flying at fifteen hundred feet, an altitude safe from small arms fire, toward our objective, an LZ one klick south of the DMZ.
 
Four marine reconnaissance team members sat impatiently on the hot, gray metal floor of the bumpy chopper going over the last minute checks of their weapons and equipment. Their young, serious faces were grotesquely painted with green and brown camouflage grease paint. You could tell the four men were hyped up and tightly strung like football players before a championship match. In a few minutes they would be dropped into the LZ and disappear into the jungle to stalk the elusive enemy. The remaining four members of the eight-man team were flying in the second Huey trailing a mile behind, commanded by Warrant Officer Bill Rickter.
 
With an airspeed of 110 knots the LZ came into view quickly. It loomed out of the thick mantle of twisted jungle a half mile ahead. It was one of those LZs blasted out of the triple-canopy jungle by a five-hundred-pound bomb dropped by a sky crane helicopter two weeks earlier.
 
I turned in my seat. "You guys ready?" I said over the intercom.
 
My crew chief pulled back the bolt of his pedestal-mounted M-60 machine gun and released it, driving a 7.62-mm round into the chamber with the heavy clank of metal slamming against metal. He raised a sweat-stained Nomex flying glove and gave the thumbs up sign. "Right behind you, sir."
 
"How about you, Garrett?"
 
The gunner also chambered a round. "Ready, sir."
 
I glanced at my copilot. He was an FNG lieutenant, straight out of flight school. This was his third mission in country. "You ready, O'Connor?"
 
"Ready.” He looked and sounded nervous.
 
"Relax, O'Connor. This should be a piece of cake," I said trying to put the man at ease. 
 
Through habit, as I had done hundreds of times in the seven months I had been flying in Vietnam, I swung the holstered .38 revolver to my groin as added protection and tucked it comfortably between my legs. In the same motion I adjusted the "chicken plate," a twenty-pound, acrylic, three-quarter-inch armored chest protector, under the two webbed shoulder straps of my seat harness. O'Connor watched me and quickly did the same.
 
I pressed the red trigger on the cyclic control stick and radioed to the second helicopter, "We're beginning our approach, Bill."
 
"Roger, Randy. We're a mile behind you."
 
Two heavily armed marine Echo-Model gunships circled five hundred feet above us ready to offer suppressive fire around the LZ's perimeter. They were armed with 2.75-inch rockets and miniguns capable of delivering three thousand rounds per minute. Two F-4 Phantom jets were on station circling at twenty-five thousand feet, loaded with napalm just in case. "We'll cover you, Blackwidow 25," one of the gunship pilots radioed. "Whenever you're ready you can begin your approach."
 
"Here we go," I said on the intercom to the crew and rolled the chopper into a hard right bank.
 
The green horizon appeared to turn ninety degrees against the blue sky strewn with white, puffy cumulus clouds. I added right pedal, kicking the aircraft out of trim, and lowered the collective pitch lever, causing the machine to descend at more than three thousand feet per minute. With both large cargo doors open on the side of the aircraft the wind howled through the chopper as it plummeted out of the sky. I guided the craft in a downward spiral.
 
A gunship dove past our falling Huey. Puffs of smoke trailed from its rocket pods as the 2.75-mm rockets ignited and snaked their way to the perimeter of the landing zone. They found their mark and exploded with great orange flashes, flinging moist red and brown dirt and green foliage high into the dank Southeast Asian air.
 
"When we're on short final for the LZ, open fire," I instructed the crew.
"Roger, sir," Taylor and Garrett answered in unison. The howl of the hurricane-force wind on their boom microphones nearly blanketed their replies.
 
"Watch the gauges, O'Connor, and stay close on the controls."
O'Connor didn't answer. His eyes were transfixed outside the chopper watching the jungle rush rapidly toward us.
 
"O'Connor?" I said again, glancing at him momentarily.
 
"Roger. I'll follow you through. What the !#@*%!!, they sure didn't teach us this type of approach in flight school."
 
"They should have." I banked the machine from a steep, tight right turn to a steep left turn. "It could save your life one day. Charlie looks up at us falling out of the sky like this and thinks we're out of control so he thinks why waste bullets on a helicopter that's going to crash anyway? Or if he does decide to shoot at us he'll have a hell of a time hitting us at this rate of descent. And all these unusual attitude changes make a nearly impossible target to hit."
 
The second gunship began its run on the LZ. I straightened the ship out and slowed the rate of descent for a normal approach fifty feet above the treetops. The small landing zone was encircled with trees ranging from seventy-five to one hundred feet high. The taller ones were up slope along the planned departure end of the ridge line. I picked my spot to land, not to the center of the zone, but slightly to the right of center where the exposed roots, twisted trees, and chunks of moist earth were less dense.
 
The perimeter, forty meters to the left of our aircraft, exploded at regular intervals from the impacting rockets from the gunships. The shock waves from the blasts rocked our descending helicopter as it made its way to the planned touchdown point.
 
I flew our ship over the tree line and began to descend into the gash carved out of the jungle that was the LZ. I gave the command to open fire. Taylor and Garrett sprayed the surrounding tree line with metallic defoliant to keep the enemy's head down if in fact the Vietcong were there.
 
The ratt-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat from the two M-60s filled the cockpit with their synchronous clatter. I planted the skids of the chopper in the soft soil. The four-man recon team leapt off like clockwork.
 
"We're clear!" Taylor yelled. "They're gone!"
 
"Coming up," I said.
 
With the weight of the four men, their weapons, ammunition, and supplies off-loaded the Huey climbed slowly but steadily until it cleared the hundred-foot jungle thirty-five meters to our front. Once clear of the trees, the gunner and crew chief stopped firing their weapons.
 
I pushed the cyclic stick forward accelerating the aircraft to sixty knots and began a maximum performance climb to fifteen hundred feet. The second helicopter began its approach behind us. O'Connor began breathing again.
"What'd I tell you O'Connor. Piece of cake, huh?"
 
The lieutenant managed a smile, a smile of relief.
 
"Receiving fire! Receiving fire!" came Bill's frantic cry over the radio, filling the crew's headsets. The radio transmission jolted my senses. I instinctively threw the aircraft into a quick I80-degree turn to view the LZ we'd just left.
 
"They're, breaking off the approach," the crew chief yelled.
 
I radioed, "You all right, Bill?"
 
"Everything looks all right, Randy. We took a few hits. The gauges look all right. It's hotter than a !#@*%!! hornet's nest down there. Charlie has your four men pinned down in the center of the LZ."
 
I lowered the collective pitch lever to begin a descent. "Taylor, Garrett."
"Yes, sir." 
 
"We're going in after them. Open fire when I give the order. We'll approach low level from the north, the way we came in. When we cross the tree line I'll give the command to start firing."
 
"Yes, sir."
 
"O'Connor, follow me closely on the controls and ...," I paused to look directly into the lieutenant's eyes to emphasize what I was about to say, ". . . if anything happens down there be prepared to take the controls and get us out. Do you understand?"
 
O'Connor's eyes got large. The color disappeared from his thin, sweaty face. "Yes, I understand."
 
I radioed the second chopper. "Bill?"
 
"Go ahead, Randy."
 
"We're on our way in to get those guys. Coordinate the gunships to cover the perimeter. I'll be approaching at treetop level from the north. Have the F-4s drop their sortie on the zone's eastern and western perimeters."
"Roger, Randy. Good luck."
 
I dove the chopper at 110 knots, leveling the ship at treetop level and flying in the direction of the LZ. The jungle below was now a green blur. "OK guys we're almost there. Hold your fire until I give the command."
 
"Roger, sir."
 
I pulled aft on the cyclic control stick, flaring the chopper. Its nose reared back to a thirty-degree attitude to kill the forward airspeed before we reached the tree line on the zone's northern perimeter. Suddenly we crossed over the naked opening in the trees. "Open fire now!"
 
We descended into the zone. The helicopter's machine guns rattled. Hot shell casings flew from the breaches, bouncing off of everything in the chopper-the floor, the back of my helmet, our armored seats-while Taylor and Garrett sprayed the landing zone with bullets in an effort to keep the enemy's head down.
 
I maneuvered the craft, descending below the high surrounding jungle tree line. In the zone lay three Vietcong soldiers dressed in black pajamas, now drenched in their own warm blood that oozed freely from fresh wounds.
Dirt kicked up by the bullets fired from the tree line flew in the air around the four pinned men. I could see them below, lying on their stomachs facing the cardinal points of the compass. They fired into the jungle with everything they had. O'Connor hovered over the controls as I guided the chopper into the cavernous LZ.
 
The scene turned into a flaming holocaust. The first napalm bomb dropped by an F-4 exploded sixty yards away along the western perimeter, shaking the craft with a sudden jolt. The heat wave and blast from the explosion swept across our hovering helicopter-like the searing blast from a jet's exhaust. The noise from the gunfire was deafening. The hot, acrid smell of napalm mixed with the expended gunpowder, smoke, and thick Vietnam heat was nearly suffocating. I landed where we had dropped the men. They were now pinned down thirty yards away.
 
The first two recon team members sprang up off their bellies, jumped to their feet, and ran backwards towards us, reloading and continuing to fire their weapons at the faceless enemy. I could hear bullets occasionally hitting the ship. I watched the engine instruments intently, my hands vice-tight on the controls.
 
First one, then a second man scampered aboard the chopper. Sweat rolled down my forehead and my sunglasses, immediately leaving wiggly streaks of dried salt on the glass. The third and fourth man jumped up and ran backward toward us. The third man stumbled on an exposed tree root and nearly fell.
 
For God's sake hurry up, I screamed to myself. The scene unfolded around us in slow motion, surreal, confused, distorted. Rockets fired from the gunships overhead hammered the perimeter with bone-jarring tremors that shook the craft with each blast. "WHUMP! WHUMP!" The rockets exploded in pairs followed by falling debris of soil, foliage, flesh and bone.
 
The last two men threw themselves on board. "Get the !#@*%!! out of here!" the team leader screamed from the back. His shrill voice carried over the sound of gunfire.
 
I pulled up on the collective pitch lever. The helicopter rose from the ground, climbing slowly through the smoke, stench, and heat. The two F-4 Phantom jets streaked by low level on either side of the landing zone at three hundred knots within seconds of each other. Like two silver bullets, they dropped their remaining sortie of napalm. The two simultaneous explosions that followed caused a deafening explosion of heat and light that shook the helicopter as it slowly made its ascent to clear the tall trees to our front. I could tell the aircraft was heavy. Maybe too heavy. The helicopter strained for altitude. Twenty feet, thirty feet, fifty feet, she rose slowly. We'd refueled in Quang Tri prior to the mission and had topped up to twelve hundred pounds of fuel. The approach into the LZ takes less power than a vertical take off out of the same landing zone. Without the four men the Huey had no power problems, but with the added weight she was severely limited.
 
The four soldiers continued to fire their automatic weapons from the chopper's open doors into the flaming LZ. Taylor and Garrett continued firing, the barrels of their M-60s now glowing red hot.
 
Her ascent was slowing. Sixty-five feet, seventy feet she clawed, shook, and struggled for altitude. The turbine engine strained and whined trying to develop enough shaft horsepower to pull the weight of the heavily laden craft vertically over the hundred-foot trees. All the power instruments were well into their red lines. The aircraft stopped climbing twenty-five feet below the tree tops unable to ascend one foot more.
 
Is this how I'm going to die? I thought in horror. Hovering here like a tin duck in a shooting gallery ready to be picked off by the enemy seventy-five feet below?
 
O'Connor began to panic. "!#@*%!!, let's get the !#@*%!! out of here."
"Not enough power!" I yelled.
 
I pulled in more collective and the rotor RPM began to decay spilling lift. The ship began to sink back down into the LZ. Back into the holocaust below.
 
Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! the dreaded low rotor RPM audio warning rang loudly through the pilots headsets. I fought for control, fought to maintain altitude. One of the machine guns stopped firing.
 
"My gun's jammed, sir," Taylor said frantically. "I, I . . . I can't clear it."
Suddenly the green plastic window over O'Connor's head exploded, showering plastic splinters everywhere. O'Connor tucked his head down instinctively. He threw his hands over his flight helmet to avoid the shower of debris caused by the Vietcong bullet fired at us from the jungle below.
Two of the enemy ran from the trees carrying Russian made AK-47 machine guns. Before they could stop to take aim one of the recon team members threw a fragmentation grenade between them. The blast flung them in the air and back into the jungle's smoldering eastern perimeter.
The helo sat hovering seventy-five feet above the zone at full power, the engine straining to deliver every bit of its 1250 horsepower, unable to climb, too heavy to power up any higher in the thick tropical moisture and burning heat.
 
I suddenly remembered that as a last resort if you added right pedal it takes pitch from the tail rotor giving more engine power for the main rotor, and when power is marginal it just may give the extra edge to get out of a tight situation.
 
Desperate, and out of ideas, I kicked in right pedal. The aircraft swung violently to the right. I dipped the nose, guiding the machine through the sporadic enemy fire. The skids dragged through the tangled branches of the lower trees to the rear of the zone. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! several more VC rounds punctured the aircraft. We cleared the trees with no room to spare, accelerating down the jungle-covered mountain slope to safety.
 
The machine-gun fire ceased. All that could be heard was the loud, low guttural roar of hot air rushing through the gaping hole over O'Connor's head. I accelerated to sixty knots and began a climb.
 
Bill radioed, "You guys all right? Shit, that was some show!"
 
I radioed back and told him everyone was OK. The chopper shimmied, vibrated, and shook violently. The caution warning light segment on the instrument panel was lit up like a Christmas tree with red and yellow lights, but the Huey managed to stay in one piece for the twelve minute flight to LZ Vandergrift where we landed safely on the strip.
 
Editors Note: Five months later, the Author was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight.
 
Randolph P. Mains continues to work in the helicopter industry after a 42 year career of aviation adventure. He currently works as a Bell 412EP flight simulator instructor/examiner for Abu Dhabi Aviation. This article is an excerpt from his book Dear Mom I’m Alive, Letters Home from Blackwidow 25. To learn more about Randolph P Mains or the books that he has published, please search for him on www.amazon.com or on www.randymains.com .

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