The tail of this sweet bird could no longer help keep her direction of flight. A quick roll of the cyclic (stick) and a nose forward attitude was carried off. The landing was swift; much is a blur. The crew exited quickly to the rear, found the initial site of impact and formed a defensive perimeter. They began to return fire at the Asians; who angered at having their turf invaded and heavily damaged sought retribution.
Rendering my aircraft secure and benign, I exited. Razor-like briars tore at my flight suit making movement difficult and painful. I paused to free myself of equipment to make my passage easier. I heard and saw branches and twigs mysteriously being sent flying. That too familiar and ominous sound grew louder in my ears. Rounds, bullets, small arms fire, lots of small arms fire, like so many disturbed, angry hornets were flying all around me. Small arms like the size means anything when it strikes. I stood there in amazement; the rounds were close, yet none seemed to be called to me. Shaking myself out of a stunned trance I moved forward through this milieu of steel and lead to join my comrades. Wondering if a piece, a fragment would find me.
Rescue came quick. Mark, Raul, Chip, Larry and others, like the heroes in the old Western movies, had swept in on their Sea Stallion (CH-53), come to a hover and thrown out their lifeline, a ladder. The Army medics, my crew, mounted quickly, all but Mario and me. The sound of firing rockets and gunfire around us was intense, Cobras, Spads were pounding the enemy forces trying to keep them at bay. I could still hear, see, feel the fire being directed at us. Mario clambered aboard and I followed. As we cleared the zone I realized that whatever cover the surrounding vegetation had provided us was to be lost and again, I wondered.
I looked down and saw our wounded stallion, rotors turning slowly, as if she wanted to fly away to safety too. Soon Tom's wingman swooped in and destroyed our aircraft, leaving nothing to be used and removing as much of the evidence of our presence as possible.
CH-53D, Bureau number 15661, Number 14 ceased to exist. The action continued, enemy fire was being directed at our rescue ship in an attempt to bring it down. Marine Cobras, Army Cobras, Air Force AD-1's (Spads) continued their relentless, suppressing fire. The Marines placed themselves between us and the enemy ground force's fire. I waved, grateful for their presence, exhilarated at the moment, adrenaline coursing through my body, a high not to be experienced again or so I thought. We returned to our home base, after a brief stop to move from our battered rescue ship to another. September 8-14, 1970 are days that have marked me forever.
The monsoon rains of October would bring the 'Cao Dao River Bounce', a nearly fatal encounter with a river, swollen, swift, raging, while trying to avoid a possible mid-air collision. The 'Fire over Phu Bai', an encounter with a round at 1500 feet that caused a fire in our electronics compartment and forced us to make an unscheduled landing. The disastrous Lam Son 719, the ARVN's attempt to take on the NVA on their turf. This was our squadron's first encounter with missiles, very large caliber rounds and rockets. This nightmare caused losses of men in our squadron and reinforced my own nightmares, taking what was left of my peace of mind.
The days that followed were tense, strained. I withdrew, lost my edge, and flew apprehensively. Every bump, odd noise kept me on the edge of my seat wondering if this aircraft would fail me, pretending not to know I was failing myself. Finally I spoke to my C.O. and found the respite I needed. A lesson learned in Vietnam was that I had the courage to accept my strengths and my weaknesses.
A sense of peace came many years later as I relived those moments and gained more strength, confidence and a willingness to be as open as I could.