Copyright 2003. Stew Harris. All rights reserved.
Our first medevac. The Vietnamese corpsman said there were five, three of them very critical.
Quang Ngai had no air assets, but I had to ask. According to the Army SOP communications book, this is how you got a medevac, a “Radium” request. I made sure the Vietnamese commander made a call to his headquarters also, though I knew VNAF did not fly in the dark. Hence, a “parallel” request.
Using the form out of the little book the Army dropped to us once a month, I began.
“Radium. Five. Critical. VNN. Area hot.”
Five Vietnamese sailors, including critically wounded, and we were still engaged. It was a not yet midnight.
It didn’t seem promising to get much help before sunrise
“This is Victor. Roger.”
Finished. Back to the bad guys trying to get into our little fort. The casualties had come from the first or second mortar rounds, before anyone had time to get to cover. There had been small arms fire from the village to our south, rockets, mortar and machine gun fire from across the river. It was the first real test of the base since the Americans had returned. And it seemed to be just that: a test, recon by fire. The junkies’ discipline was excellent. The standing orders were no firing without a clear target and our perimeter held its fire. No targets in the open. Our mortar man walked 81 mm down the tree line on the other side of the river, seeking the enemy positions. The Chu Luc stationed in mid stream had put 30 and 50 caliber on the probable sites as soon as the first B-41 had passed overhead. Small arms continued from the ville and some 60 mm came in close, but no hits since the first salvo.
The village, Phu An, was the problem. Ten or fifteen thousand people, supposedly protected by an RF/PF platoon that was usually not where it was supposed to be in the daytime and was never where it was supposed to be after dark. “Militia units are useless in the attack and questionable in the defense” -- George Washington, circa 1780. Still true. But it meant we could not use our mortar in that area. I did not want random firing toward the village. It would be substantially more difficult to win hearts and minds the morning after blowing apart somebody’s house. No targets, no shooting and the fire discipline continued to hold.
Same Drink Romeo checked in on the net. A Coast Guard WPB and an 81mm mortar with which they were quite expert. Nights like this, it was always nice to hear from friends. Lo and I made an educated guess as to where the offending 60 mm mortar was and made it a target for the Coasties. When the first round from the WPB exploded, the sound momentarily drowned out the cackle of small arms and even the machine guns as it rolled up the river to us. Hard to believe how much bigger an 81 mm is than a little ol’ 60 mm. We were not alone and my Vietnamese sailors knew it.
“Draft Lamby, er, Drafty Lamb Mike, this is Dustoff 26"
The voice trembled as only the vibrating airframe of a Huey could make it.
“Roger, this is Mike.”
“We’re over Quang Ngai city and tuning east. Can you mark your position?”
It was less than twenty minutes since I had requested the medevac.
Only three days earlier, we had put in four 100 watt lights to mark the corners of our pad. Coastal Group Sixteen was operating the only electrically lighted helo pad in Quang Ngai province. Time to turn them on and see what happened.
“We have ‘em in sight.”
Ten klicks away from only 400 watts -- not bad.
“What have you got for us?”
“We have three VNs. One critical.”
Another pause as the helo checked his notes: “We were expecting five.”
And, the unkind truth: “Roger. Two became kilos while you were enroute.”
A sad, laconic, war weary response: “Roger.”
He was two or three minutes out. Time to hustle his passengers out through the wire to the pad. I detached the radio from our large, fixed antenna and carried it towards the pad. Small arms continued from the village, seemingly not very accurate, but we were in the open. To add to the chaos, a 60 mm hit just off the pad and an answering 81 mm from the Coasties exploded a couple of hundred meters south. Red tracers from the junk in the river converged with green ones coming from the tree line. All this would certainly be quite colorful seen from the night sky. It was colorful enough seen from the ground.
“And what is your situation down there right now?”
I started through the litany:
I tried to make an inventory of what I had said from the pilot‘s perspective. The middle of the night. Small arms across an open field from 300 meters. Rockets and mortars and machine guns. Obstacles over the recommended departure route. All this for a bunch of shot up Vietnamese sailors.
What HE said was: “Rog. Be right down.”
And he was. We did our part. The casualties were waiting on the pad. The junk in the river poured 30 and 50 caliber on the opposite shore. In the red light of the Huey cabin, the medic began immediately on the wounded. I had a chance to lean in and give what I hope was a wave of thanks. In seconds, we were done. I leaned into the red light a second time and gave him a thumbs up. The helicopter lifted into the black night and disappeared. We stopped our counter battery fire. The bad guys also had apparently had enough. The Huey was gone. The radio was quiet, the night was quiet and my first medevac was over.
There would be many, many more. But always, the Hueys came. In the dark. Into hostile fire. For my Vietnamese sailors. All they asked was a true picture of what was happening on the ground and a chance to pull it off. A lot has been said about the courage and dedication of medevac crews.
Copyright 2003. Stew Harris. All rights reserved.
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