JUST ANOTHER DAY IN NAM
Newly arrived in Vietnam, I was scared, but excited to be headed out on my first combat mission. As I stepped up on the skid of the chopper to jump aboard, I could see two large, "Skull & Crossbones" with the inscription, "The Grim Reaper", painted on each side of the fuselage.
It looks like a giant, sleeping, bird of prey, I thought to myself.
The B Model, UH-1 Helicopter Gun Ship I was climbing onboard was a flying arsenal. On the nose was a deadly 40MM automatic grenade launcher. Round pods of sixteen, 2.75MM rockets were mounted on either side and the door gunner on each side, manned M-60 7.62 MM machine guns.
The pilot started up the powerful, jet turbine engines with a loud whine that progressively built in volume and pitch as the giant blade spun faster. The loud, chopping sound cycled faster, as the pilot changed pitch in preparation to take off. The sleeping bird was awake now and ready to go hunting.
Sitting with great anticipation on the canvas seat, I looked out the open door as we launched into the air from the steep hill top. Diving steeply over the edge to pick up air speed, the pilot then pulled the nose up and we headed swiftly into the An Lao Valley to search out and destroy the Viet Cong.
At my feet was a large wooden box with thousands of rounds of 7.62 MM ammunition. The lethal M-60 machine gun hanging from a "Bungee Cord" in front of me was ready for the hunt. I had never fired an M-60 before, in fact, this was the first M-60 I had ever seen. The other door gunner had quickly shown me how to operate it. I wondered how many VC had been on the receiving end of it's' death dealing 600, 7.62 MM rounds per minute. There was a good chance I would be firing that M-60 at the VC today and they would be shooting at me.
I was scared, for certain, but surprisingly, I was more excited than scared. Flying into my first combat experience, I was feeling the same breathless anticipation I remembered, from my first roller coaster ride. As the car clickety clacked slowly to the top of the first big hill, I had wondered what kind of wild ride was waiting for me, just on the other side. This was roller coaster excitement on steroids and my heart was trying to jump out of my chest as we flew deeper into the valley.
Holy shit, I thought with a touch of panic, I have never even been on a helicopter gun ship before and here I am, flying into combat on one with a frigging machine gun I have never fired.
I knew I should have studied harder in college. It seemed like just yesterday I was opening the letter from Uncle Sam telling me to report to basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. The next thing I knew, I had volunteered for Officer Candidate School at Ft Sill, Oklahoma, and after six grueling months, graduated as 2nd Lieutenant George Kalergis, a commissioned officer in the field artillery.
Now, just a few months later, it's January, 1967, the sun is just going down and I'm sitting in a GP Medium Tent on LZ Pony. LZ Pony was a First Cavalry Division fire base perched on the flat top of a high hill overlooking the Bong Song Plain and An Lao Valley. Outside, I heard artillery firing in support of the search and destroy missions being conducted by the maneuver units in the surrounding jungles and rice paddies of the Vietnam Central Highlands.
There is a big situation map up front, with pins and markers on it to show friendly and enemy locations. The air is hot and dusty and the smell of canvas pervades the interior of the tent as twenty helicopter pilots and I sit waiting for LTC A. T. Pumphrey, the 1st of the 9th Armed Helicopter Squadron Commander, to begin his evening briefing.
We stood up as he entered the tent. "At ease men," he said as he picked up a pointer and went to the map. He started the evening briefing by introducing me to the other officers. Phumphrey was tall, fit, confident and a great leader. If they made a Top Gun movie for helicopter gun ship pilots, he would have been cast in the lead role without hesitation. Any pilot that flew with the 1st of the 9th fit that mold, at least in their minds.
They were all crack pilots, the best of the best, superbly trained and skilled to fly and fire the multiple weapon systems of their lethal war birds. Their 88 helicopters accounted for more than half the enemy killed in the entire 1st Cavalry Division and during the course of the war, four of their pilots received The Medal of Honor.
He said, "This is our new forward observer, Lt Kalergis. Charlie troop, he will be flying with you tomorrow and will take the place of a door gunner with one of your red teams. He will be available to call in artillery and request air strikes."
"Welcome to Nam Kalergis. Do you have your radio and maps ready for tomorrow?"
"Yes sir, I'm ready."
"Charlie, you are to do a first light recon in the central section of the An Lao Valley. As you know, the entire valley is a 'Free Fire Zone'. All the villagers have been evacuated and there has been a lot of enemy movement recently here,"
Pumphrey points to the map.
I did not know it, but the VC would also have quite a welcome for me. My first week would soon prove to be a dangerous one. I had fired only three artillery "practice missions" six months previously at Ft Sill, so I had rehearsed in my tent much of the evening before, calling in practice missions, one after the other. I thought I had the procedure down pretty good. I hoped to hell I did.
It was perfect flying weather, as we flew at tree top level, into the free fire zone of the An Lao Valley. My helicopter was the "chase ship" of the Hunter-Killer red team, as we flew closely behind and above the lead helicopter.
The low level ride up the valley was exhilarating. The helicopters blades made their signature, steady, chop, chop, chopping sound and if my hair had still been long, it would have been whipping from the wind blowing through the open doors. I thought, man what a great ride. Looking down, I marveled at how beautiful and peaceful the deserted jungle valley, speeding by below, looked.
Towering high above us on both sides were rugged mountains covered with lush, green, jungle. We were flying below and between them, a bright blue sky high above. A crystal clear river wound down the center of the valley. We followed it, flying so low that I could make out fish in the water. What kind are they, I wondered.
The valley looked as if it might still have inhabitants that had missed the evacuation. The rice paddies looked neat and well cultivated, terraced geometrically, at successive heights, right up to the edge of the mountains. They took advantage of every square inch of possible terrain to grow food.
There were many deserted, burned out villages, scattered on small rises between the rice paddies on the valley floor. We were low enough for me to see the thatched roof construction of the few huts that had not been completely destroyed. We flew over many of them, searching uneventfully for an hour. It was a great ride, a beautiful valley and a great day to be alive, but it would not be peaceful for long.
We made a sharp turn at a curve in the valley and headed up a large ravine, going up the side of the mountain. Right below us, we spotted a squad of VC soldiers running in a line up a jungle trail towards the cover of the dense vegetation. The pilot said, "Fighter red, rolling in hot!"
Our gunship stooped, nose up like a bird of prey, preparing to strike and then dove rapidly toward the fleeing VC. The pilot fired rapid streams of 40MM grenades up the trail at them like a giant hawk spitting death from its' beak. The VC ran desperately. I could see them looking back over their shoulders at the exploding grenades following them up the trail. The explosions rapidly caught them and several went to the ground violently as if struck down by a giant invisible hand. I could see blood where they had been hit.
The other door gunner was firing his machine gun at them, so I did the same. To my surprise, the pilot hollered at me over the intercom,
"Kalergis, don't fire. There are some friendly soldiers close by on the ground. You don't have enough experience firing the machine gun from the air yet."
No shit, it's the first time I ever fired a frigging machine gun anywhere.
"I'll tell you when to fire Kalergis. Okay, you got it?"
"Okay, I GOT IT!"
A short time later, further up the valley, with my heart trying to pound out of my chest again, we spotted a middle aged man in khaki shorts working alone in a dry rice paddy, outside a small village. The village appeared otherwise deserted, but he seemed nervous, looking up frequently.
I was hyper alert and no longer admiring the scenery. I had been scared on our previous gun run, but not as terrified as I had anticipated. I had never had such an adrenalin rush and events had become crystal clear, almost as if in slow motion.
The lead chopper swept in, landing near the man in the rice paddy. I watched, as their door gunner jumped out with his pistol, runing to take him prisoner and bring him back for interrogation.
Suddenly, the dirt started jumping up all around the chopper. At first, I didn't realize what was happening. I couldn't hear any weapons firing over the noise of the helicopter.
Why the hell is the dirt jumping up all around the helicopter on the ground?
I quickly realized there were Viet Cong firing automatic weapons from just inside the village. I saw the door gunner fall face down in the rice paddy and lie motionless. I was sure he was hit.
The chopper on the ground, leapt into the air like a giant bird clawing for altitude, leaving their door gunner face down in the paddy. My pilot said urgently over the intercom, "Fighter Red, rolling in hot!"
In we went for a rocket run. It was mass confusion, the rockets fired like giant 4th of July Roman Candles launched from just underneath me. Red sparks flew wildly around the open door, the other door gunner was firing his machine gun, but the pilot had told me not to fire mine just a few minutes ago.
The pilot yelled at me on the intercom, "Why aren't you shooting?"
"You just told me not to," I said.
"What the hell, I wish he would make up his fucking mind", I muttered.
Now, right over the village, I started firing my machine gun. As we made a sharp left turn for another rocket run, WHAM, something hit the helicopter! Looking down, I saw a jagged hole where a bullet had pierced the floor of the helicopter right by my boot and then exited close to my head. I felt like someone had just punched me in the head, hard, and the concussion left me dazed for a moment.
After several more gun runs, the "blue team" reaction force arrived and air assaulted into the rice paddy.
To my relief, the "dead" door gunner came to life, jumped up from the rice paddy, and ran to meet them. He had been "playing dead" the entire time and was rescued unscathed.
I bet he'll need to change his britches when he gets back, I thought.
Finally, the gun ships were running low on ammunition and the pilot said,
"Kalergis, put some artillery on the village."
I was already too pumped with adrenalin to be scared, never mind nervous.
Shit, this is my first combat mission.
I had been frantically reviewing the procedures the night before and evidently I was a quick learner. I fired 200 rounds of 105MM artillery right on the edge of the village where the fire had come from. Seeing the bright red, incandescent flashes and black puffs of smoke inundating the village from hundreds of rounds of high explosive was unreal. It was more artillery than I had ever adjusted. Hell, it was more artillery than I had ever seen.
I felt pretty pleased with myself, as I managed to adjust quickly on the bunker where the fire had been coming from. I even remembered to fire some "fuse delay". Fuse delay rounds had a split second delay in detonation that enabled them to penetrate the overhead protection of bunkers before exploding inside. We would later learn that had been very effective.
We were running low on fuel and the enemy seemed to have disappeared, so the blues were withdrawn, and we headed back to the base.
That evening, LTC Pumphrey described his plan to return to the village.
He started the briefing by saying,
"Good job with the artillery today Kalergis; I think our new forward observer is going to be a good one."
He pointed at the map,
"Kalergis, tomorrow morning, I want you to fire an artillery preparation of 500 rounds on the village. When that is complete, we will insert the blue team to discover whatever intelligence may have been left."
Nobody thought the VC would be foolish enough to remain, but the commander was not about to take any chances.
"Yes Sir, I will arrange for that," I replied.
This is like a dream, but I'm feeling pretty good about myself.
That night I lay on my cot thinking about the people I may have killed that day, probing my mind like you might probe a new dentist filling with your tongue. I could not find much emotion. It seemed like a movie I had seen, or as if I was a character in a play. The reality that I had probably killed someone and damn near been killed myself, just would not sink in. As I drifted off into an exhausted sleep I wondered,
What will it be like tomorrow? Am I going to survive a year of this? I miss home, my family and the comfortable reality I left behind.
The next day, I jumped on board a "white team", two man, H-13 helicopter with a plexi-glass, "bubble" cockpit. (Like on Mash) The pilot, a crew cut, captain who also looked and acted like he came from the set of "Top Gun" greeted me.
"Ready to blow up that village Kalergis," he asked?
"Let's do it," I replied. The H-13 had no organic weapons, so I carried my M-16 rifle and some extra magazines of ammunition. We headed up the valley to shoot my second combat fire mission. The valley still looked serene, peaceful and beautiful, but now I knew better.
When I completed the artillery preparation, the blue platoon would make their combat assault. We flew directly to the village and I started firing. There didn't seem to be any enemy remaining, but I kept up a good barrage of artillery anyway.
Hearing the loud "crunching sounds" of the explosions and seeing the mushroom bursts of black smoke and bright red incandescent bursts of flame from several hundred rounds of artillery was damn exciting. Once again, it was more artillery, by far, than I had ever seen before.
Finally, the artillery battery radioed me,
"We're running low on ammunition. Unless you have a 'live' target, we have to stop firing."
We could see the blues lift ships and supporting gun ships flying up the valley for the combat assault and my pilot told me,
"End the mission Kalergis. Let's go down and see what your artillery did."
I was a passenger, I had no choice. Down we went to telephone pole height. Suddenly, I saw a VC soldier with a rifle running for a spider hole. The captain said,
I had an M-16 rifle in my lap. On full automatic, I shot at him and saw my tracers follow him into his hole. "I think I got him," I said.
As I was trying to reload, another VC jumped up and fired a burst of automatic fire from his AK-47, point blank into our H-13 cockpit.
Shattered plexi-glass and blood was flying around the cockpit. I had blood on my arms, but wasn't sure whose it was. I was stunned and confused; I looked over and saw the pilot bleeding. It sounded like he was trying to ask, "How bad is it?"
I couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from, but there was blood on the front of his uniform and he did not sound good.
"Damn captain! Do you feel dizzy? Are you are going to black out?"
"No, I don't think so; I think I'm okay."
He did not sound okay, but he seemed to have the helicopter under control, so I called the artillery back and urgently said,
"Fire Mission", grid 231 748 automatic weapons firing, direction gun target line, adjust fire OVER!"
They had been reluctant to fire more, just a few minutes before and asked, "Is this a live target?"
"Hell yes, we've been hit and my frigging pilot is bleeding. Is that 'live' enough for you?"
The artillery battery now had the live target they wanted. They repeated the fire mission back and quickly started shooting again.
I didn't have time to be scared, but my knee was jumping up and down and would not frigging stop. I was pumped so full of adrenalin I could barely breathe. I still had time to mutter to myself, "Shit, so far so good. At least I remembered how to call the fire mission in."
We stayed over the village for thirty more minutes firing 500 more rounds of artillery. I kept asking, "Captain, are you feeling dizzy?"
Finally he replied, "Okay Kalergis, I'm getting a little weak."
His voice sounded strange and I could barely understand what he was saying. "Shit, I cannot fly this thing," I told him, "we better head back," to which he reluctantly agreed.
The 1st of the 9th pilots really are frigging crazy!
As soon as I fired the last round of artillery, the blue team swept in for their planned assault. They met little resistance and soon found there had been a VC "sapper platoon" in the village, commanded by a woman major.
One of the "fuse delay" rounds had scored a direct hit on her bunker. It had penetrated the overhead cover and exploded inside, killing them all. The secondary explosions we had seen were from caches of stored dynamite.
Not bad for my second combat fire mission, I thought.
With the pilot still bleeding, we urgently started back. For the entire trip, I anxiously kept asking, "How do you feel?"
Sometimes he would answer and sometimes he would not. He had a grim look on his face as he concentrated on keeping the damaged helicopter flying. Finally he managed to touch down back at LZ Pony.
"Damn good landing sir," I said with relief, as the medics hurried him off.
"Good job Kalergis," I heard him try to say. I learned later, that he had passed out a short time later. There was glass from the shattered cockpit in his throat and vocal cords and he was rushed to the hospital. He recovered and returned to fly again.
As I was leaving the landing strip, I walked by a helicopter that had just landed. To my surprise, I heard somebody call my name. Looking over, I saw a couple of my former officer candidate classmates just arriving in country and disembarking from the helicopter. They stared in amazement at my blood splattered uniform, "George, what the hell happened?"
I answered in what I hoped was a calm voice, "Not much fellas, just another day in Nam."