I was flying a UH-1 D for the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, the Blackhawks out of Tay Ninh, Vietnam in 1967. Sleep never comes easy in Vietnam, the artillery shoots H&I (harassment and interdiction) fire all night, every time one of the 8 inch guns went off, a small amount of the dust, collected from the dry season would fall off the tent roof and drift to the floor. It was the monsoon season and the cool rain had put me right to sleep.
When LTC Bauman wanted to talk to someone he sent a messenger to first wake them up and get them to the operations tent, out by the runway. At 0200 I needed the walk in the cool rain to wake up.
My crew had been assembled and the Colonel was standing at the map. The Colonel was a West Point Officer. Gray hair, and a deep gravel voice, I would do anything to please this man, a real leader, a true warrior, fearless, I had flown a lot with the Colonel on combat assaults, he was cool under fire, and relentless. I knew if I ever got shot down in my helicopter somewhere out there in the jungle, he would come and get me. He would not sleep or eat but he would find me because he would look until he did. He would commit all the helicopters in his company and would lead the charge. Colonel Bauman never left anyone behind. I would not be the first.
Our mission was to extract a LRRP team that was totally surrounded, in an area of the jungle with no landing zones. LRRP teams were the marathon runners we put out in teams of 6 men to collect data on the enemy.
Extracting a team at night with a McGuire rig can be very tricky. The Helicopter sends down four ropes about 150 feet long. The ropes have loops on the end. The LRRP hooks the web gear he is wearing to the loop with a "D" ring. When the team calls up, it means they are all hooked up and ready for me to pull them out of there. Every helicopter pilot has been a passenger on the McGuire rigs. Frightening to ride on in any conditions.
Our only problem was with the weather, it was raining hard and it was very dark. We were IFR as soon as we broke ground, we call the team on the radio and they gave us a long count to home-in on. As the helicopter passed over their location they could hear my rotor blades way up in the sky. It was insanity to try to let down in a monsoon rainstorm. We would crash into the trees it was dark and totally instrument flying conditions. I started to circle their location and let down to about 100 feet above the tree canopy and could still not see anything. If I turned on my landing light I would be a sitting duck for all the NVA gunners I knew were all around the patrol. I slowed my airspeed to about 20 Knots and had the team shoot a parachute flair at about where I had station passage on my instruments.
Tally ho screamed my gunner and I turn left, out of the door is the dim glow of a parachute flair and I start to follow it down, the rest of the crew leans out of the helicopter to look for the trees. I am hovering in a torrential downpour following a burning parachute flair to a triple canopy jungle, with trees 300 feet tall--at 0230. All I can see is the burning flair and I stay far enough away to let it drift down. I know it is crazy, but the six men on the ground will all be killed when the storm breaks and the sun comes out.
Green, green, green, three men mash their intercom button at once, pull up, watch the tail, we have arrived. We are still at a high hover and the grunts are skillfully guiding me in to pick them up. The grunt leader whispers into his microphone, they are all around us, but we all have our zippo's lit and are holding them over our heads. I have long ago turned off all the lights in the helicopter--not a red glow anywhere. There, right between my feet, I can see the zippo's flicker--talk about dark--the crew drops the ropes and in seconds the helicopter is in a cone of tracers coming from all angles. We return fire with our M-60 machine guns, green coming up red going down.
We hold steady, the LRRP team calls Secured, and I pull pitch and am instantly completely blind, I am flying off the light of incoming tracers. I ask for instrument panel lights and get it. We make our assent on instruments. I hope the guys on the end of the rope were not hit, I will not be able to land and put them inside--they have to make the instrument approach to Tay Ninh hanging on a rope in the dark driving rain.
I keep the helicopter slow for the return trip, my beads of life in tow. It takes all my concentration to fly on instruments. The radar operator brings me in and I come to a hover next to the tower. I was glad to see the ground, I set the men down as gently as I could and then landed beside them to see if they were all still in one piece. The LRRP team was wet to the bone, cold, and they thanked me and the rest of the crew incessantly for saving their lives that rainy night. We picked up the ropes, loaded up the LRRP team, and put the helicopter in the revetment. Then we walked together to the mess hall.
I knew the Colonel would have hot food waiting for the crews when they returned. I wondered if the Colonel ever slept. I took my new friends to breakfast. We talked about being a LRRP over dried scrambled eggs and pancakes with brown goo.
Ten men having Breakfast in the mess hall talking loud. Six wet and dirty, four dry and clean. Just coming off an extreme adrenaline rush, we were all glad to be alive. I saw several of the men later and they would always come up and slap me on the back and say, "Do you remember following a parachute flair down to pick up some LRRP's one dark rainy night out of Tay Ninh?" I have to look them in the eyes, when I tell them--it was my greatest hour.
Note: by Wayne R. "Crash" Coe, Hotel-3 Blackhawk 54, 187th Assault Helicopter Company, 67-8.