At War For Christmas
An Unforgettable Aeromedical Evacuation During the Vietnam War Reflects the Meaning of Christmas
by Lt. Col. Robert B. Robeson, U.S. Army (Ret.)
The chatter of three separate and distinct machine guns filled the cockpit of our unarmed UH-1H (Huey) medical evacuation helicopter. It rang in my ears that Christmas Thursday morning in 1969, south of Da Nang, South Vietnam, and tore at my insides like a rusty knife.
|Cw2 Sandy Letcher provides last minute details for an urgent evacuation in early 1970 at red beach in Da Nang.
I'd agreed to do a favor for Capt. Rich Fox-another pilot and close friend-by switching our field standby duties at Landing Zone (LZ) Hawk Hill, about 36 miles south of Da Nang along Highway 1, during the Christmas cease-fire arranged in Paris.
After having been shot down once and having three other birds shot up in the previous 5 months of continuous action with the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), I'd assumed this would be an excellent opportunity for some R&R (rest and relaxation) during the negotiated truce.
The reddish mud encompassing our home away from home at Hawk Hill, where we supported elements of the U.S. America Division, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Special Forces, allied troops (South Vietnamese, South Korean, and Australian) and the Vietnamese civilian population, was still mushy from the night's dew. All of the units were in defensive positions.
I'd just completed a thorough preflight, had set up the cockpit for day operations, and was lazily taking in the early morning sunshine, when our radio-telephone operator (RTO) ran toward me from the battalion aid station. He was waving a familiar white mission sheet.
"You've got an urgent insecure mission for nine ARVNs (South Vietnamese Army soldiers). All of them hit by small arms. Shot up pretty bad. Their compound was attacked about 15 minutes ago and they've taken more small arms fire and some mortars since then." He paused for a second. "No Americans are at the pickup site! They'll radio-relay through an interpreter from a position about ten miles away."
"This is a joke?right?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"How come I always have to deal with the ten percent who never get the word?"
"Merry Christmas, sir."
Within seconds I'd plotted the grid coordinates on my map, the rest of my crew had arrived, and we were airborne. Our destination was Barrier Island, a historically dangerous stretch of white sand and small villages nestled against the picturesque South China Sea east of LZ Hawk Hill.
My stomach knotted as we neared the pickup site. It was a silent premonition. At that moment, there was no doubt in my military mind that this warm and pleasant Christmas morning-much like it must have been in Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years before-would be a special one.
After talking to the American infantry advisor ten miles from the pickup site, getting an update on the condition of the patients, direction of the last groundfire, and where they wanted us to land, I asked them to relay a request to pop a canister of colored smoke. The last reported fire had come from the southwest, so I decided to drop down from 2,000 feet to the northeast and come in low-level on the deck. I intended to keep the outpost, which was situated atop a small hill, between myself and my potential incoming fire.
They "popped smoke" and we correctly identified the color. Then I began my tactical approach. We were in a 4,500 feet per minute descent, and airspeed had built to a redlined 120 knots, when I distinctly remember glancing inside to check the instruments while falling through 800 feet. As my altimeter swept past 700 feet, staccato bursts of machine gun fire immediately triggered the burglar alarm in my central nervous system.
Bullets began to splatter throughout the cargo compartment and cockpit, tearing through the tender and vulnerable underbelly of our bird. It was a familiar sound, one you never forget once you've experienced -like fire through a forest when underbrush is dry and laurel crackles.
|Capt. Robert B. Robeson flying an urgent medical evacuation mission east of LZ Hawk Hill (Barrier Island in the background) in late 1969. Note patient count written with grease pencil on winshield for five earlier missions already that morning.
I had no doubt we were seriously damaged. Fumes from our JP-4 jet fuel filled the aircraft. A fuel cell was obviously riddled and we were trailing a thin mist of flammable JP-4. Combat had suddenly become complicated and personal again.
Pulling up sharply from the dive and seeking the temporary safety of a higher altitude, I asked each person over the intercom if he was okay. My crew chief reported a round had kicked his leg into the air, making a half-inch nipple in the deck where his foot had been. He wasn't hurt. The medic was fine, too. My copilot had asked me-only minutes before we made radio contact with the ground element-what it felt like to get shot up. It was one of those strange questions that often come up in a cockpit in combat. He was fresh from flight school and on his first insecure mission.
I'd told him, "It's difficult to describe. Someday, if it happens to you?you'll know what I mean."
He was staring intently at the instrument panel, as though transfixed, when I finally leveled off at altitude.
"Well, Ed, that's what it feels like." He didn't say a word. "Call Hawk Hill and tell them to have another bird flown out from Da Nang so we can get back out there before those people die on us," I told him. His facial expression and body language showed me he wasn't anymore excited about going back than I was.
I flew toward Hawk Hill with jet fuel spilling out behind us?a potential airborne torch ready to be lit by any inadvertent spark of misfortune. We lost 250 pounds of fuel on the seven-minute flight back.
As soon as our skids touched the ground at Hawk Hill, I chopped the throttle and we all bailed out in different directions. When the blades stopped, we returned to inspect the damage. There were nineteen entry holes: eight in one fuel cell, six in the cockpit area, and the rest in the cargo compartment. Not one of them had hit anyone. If the enemy had been using tracers, we might not have been around to take inventory. JP-4 was still draining from the belly of the aircraft and a huge pool collected as we watched.
My Christmas dinner consisted of tasteless, cold turkey sandwich nervously consumed while another helicopter was quickly ferried out for our use from Da Nang.
Sitting in the aid station near the radio shack, munching on my sandwich, I quietly reflected on those nine Asian youngsters fighting to live. They were lying out there in an exposed outpost probably wondering if the Americans really cared enough to "hang-it-out" for them a second time. We were their only link to medical help?and possibly life itself.
Having been raised in the home of a Protestant minister, the spiritual dimensions of my life and faith had always been strong. Maybe that's why one question surfaced to dominate my thinking at this point. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Do you care enough about the freedom these troops are fighting for-and their wounds-to die trying to evacuate them?
Then a passage of scripture filtered through my mind from my Biblical upbringing. It was by James, the brother of Jesus. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials?because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance," found in James 1:2,3, New International Version.
In those brief moments of reflection and contemplation, I determined that this mission wasn't going to be over until we evacuated all of our patients, ran out of aircraft, or were permanently put out of commission.
On the return flight in a new bird, I decided to come in low-level from the east a couple of miles out and requested continuous smoke so I wouldn't lose the lz.
Redlining my airspeed indicator, I snuggled down a few feet above terra (very) firma, weaving back and forth across the mostly flat terrain and using small hills and treelines to hide behind as much as possible. Nearing the lz from the east, we again encountered a barrage of small arms and machine gun fire, so I stayed on the deck and swung back to the south like we were leaving the area. I felt like a rabbit that had blundered onto an active military firing range.
When the firing ceased, I immediately did a hairy 180-degree turn and headed due north. I don't know if this perseverance surprised the "bad guys," but were on short final for the purple smoke before small arms fire again erupted briefly behind us.
After our patients were hurriedly tossed aboard, I went out low-level the same way we'd come in and then did a cyclic climb to 2,000 feet. We escaped without any "hits" in our second aircraft, even though the lz had apparently been surrounded.
At altitude, paralleling the coast north toward Da Nang, I turned in my armored seat to see how our patients were doing. All had multiple gunshot wounds. One ARVN, shot in an arm and leg, was slumped against the bulkhead behind my copilot's seat. When I turned around, our eyes met briefly. There was no facial expression, merely a brief bow of his head in my direction. I believe he knew what it had taken to evacuate them. It was a "thank you" from a fellow soldier, which I've never forgotten. It was the greatest Christmas present a "Dust Off" pilot could ever receive.
The campfire of this combat experience had dwindled to crimson coals. I'm now sixty years of age, but I always recall those precarious moments of that special aeromedical evacuation mission when the celebration of Jesus' birth rolls around each year. What I discovered that day was that you never know whose life you will step into or who will step into yours. Additionally, I realized that a growth of character is possible through taking risks for others, since it's always appropriate to help someone who's a little more lost and hurting than we are. Because hope and love is what keep humanity going. And that's what Christmas has always been about--even in a combat zone.
About The Author: Robert B. Robeson flew 987 combat medical evacuation missions in South Vietnam (1969-1970), helping to evacuate 2,533 patients. He lost seven helicopters to enemy fire and was twice shot down. He was commander and operations officer during his tour with the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in Da Nang.