All the News thatís Fit to Print
It was a day like all days, to quote a quote. The Boomerangs were flying combat assault missions just like always. In the World it was the winter of 1968, but it was merely the end of the rainy season in the area south of Saigon designated as Three Corps on military maps.
The war dragged on as it would for years yet. The 191st Assault Helicopter Company (Boomerangs) had been in country almost two years, dedicated to flying combat assault missions to insert U.S. Infantry elements in unfriendly territory. These missions were calculated to mete out swift and sure destruction to our enemies; the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army, or anyone who chose to fire a shot at us. There was even one occasion when two American soldiers became the enemy by choosing to get high, and shoot at the passing helicopters. We were all saddened, but unable to recall the four 2.75 inch folding fin aerial rockets delivered by our gunships.
A soldier, you see, does not fight for duty, honor, or country. He fights for his life, and those of his friends. As a twenty-one year old aircraft commander in the company, I had learned that in spades. Today's mission was to fly to various infantry fire bases, collect American infantry troops, convey them to remote landing zones selected by their commanders, have them do battle with the enemy if they could find him, and return them, at length, to the relative safety of their home fire bases. Eagle flights, they called them. Many, many of these missions consisted of twelve hours of tedium since most of the time we didn't know where Charlie was. Sometimes we stumbled on him, and there was hell to pay on one side or the other, or both, but not often enough to win any war. I've chosen, though, to tell you about a slow day in the business of war making, but perhaps a day of significance.
We had flown a number of sorties, inserting the Grunts in several landing zones. It had been "cold" all day as we expressed it, boring, but the only thing that hurt so far was my rear end from sitting in that seat for hours. My ship was tail end charlie in a flight of ten Huey slicks, and the logical candidate for side missions such as resupply, or medevac. We had just finished a troop lift at about 2:30, when my aircraft was redirected. A kilo needed to be evacuated from the landing zone to Tan An.
According to the International Phonetic Alphabet, kilo refers to the letter k. In this case it was also shorthand for KIA, or killed in action. Personally, I preferred whiskeys, since that is the letter w, or wounded in action, a mission with more tangible purpose. But now my job was to evacuate a dead American soldier from a landing zone in an area that we had been flying into and out of all day. I was surprised since we hadn't heard a shot fired, and our Hueys usually drew fire from Charlie if he was in the mood to shoot at anything.
As I turned my D model toward the LZ, I wondered about the man that was going home early. Who was he? Where was he from? Was he married, and did he have kids? Who in his family was going to answer the door to find an Army officer on a mission he didn't want, bearing news they didn't want to hear. When we neared the area, I keyed the FM radio and requested that the ground unit pop smoke, which they did. I identified it as yellow, and the color was confirmed. Charlie listened to the radio too, and would have loved to lure us into his landing zone with a smoke grenade of his own.
We landed, and the kilo was manhandled aboard, wrapped in the green poncho he was issued. I had turned in my seat to watch the process while the rotor wash whipped the makeshift shroud, and finally blew it off. Here was a young, U.S. Infantryman about twenty years of age, shot between the eyes. He had been struck by a bullet an inch above the bridge of his nose. A smell peculiar to violent death filled the aircraft, and I wished that I was far away. There was no escaping, however, and rising anger replaced welling tears. We proceeded to Tan An, and the graves registration unit.
As we flew, the living still had to live, and I was obliged to call the artillery advisory at Tan An via FM radio. It was unwise to fly your helicopter through friendly artillery bombardments, so these advisories had been implemented to prevent unnecessary losses of aircraft, not to mention crews. I made my call, and was advised of conflicting fire across my route of flight. This presented no problem, however, since the maximum ordinate of the projectiles was seven thousand feet, and we were only at twelve hundred. As we often did, we flew under it. I requested attendants at the medevac pad since I was inbound with a kilo, and compliance was advised. As soon as I had finished with business, a fellow helicopter commander radioed, wondering if I might lessen his load. He had picked up a CBS camera team somewhere, and since he wasn't showing them any action, they wanted a new ride. They knew that I was carrying dead, and figured that we could get them some good footage. I didn't want them especially, but offered to check with my commander. I did so, and the power of the press seemed to win out. I was granted the obligation to bring the news team out to the AO, or area of operations.
I landed at Tan An, and the graves registration troops took away the fallen friend I never knew, but somehow missed. I then hovered over to the refueling point to refuel, and meet the press. My crew chief topped off the tanks, the other Huey landed, and here came the nightly news, at least that's who they worked for. Their leader, I guess, jumped aboard and above the whine of my turbine engine yelled "take me where the war is!" The crew loaded their cameras and gear, and climbed aboard, taking care to avoid the puddle of blood on the floor.
We took off and I dropped CBS in the same landing zone where I picked up my lost comrade in the first place, and my crew and I went off to do other things. I never saw them again, and I am ashamed to admit that in a way, I hope they're still there, looking.
You see, the war they were looking for was never out there in the boonies. It was there on my cargo floor, in the mud, and the blood. It was on the doorsteps of America in a mother's anguish, knowing what her uniformed visitor was about to say. It was in the young soldier sobbing from pain, and fear of dying as we raced to save his life, and in him again, later, when he was sorry he lived. It is now on a black granite wall in Washington D.C.
My unit's motto was "Boomerangs Always Come Back". We said it to each other until we almost believed it, but we didn't all come back either.
Copyright 1991 William N. Janes, Sr. All Rights Reserved