Taking Fire

by Steve Tedder

TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE! I’M HIT! I’M HIT! MY OBSERVER’S HIT! MY OBSERVER’S___!!!

Those words come back to me at the damndest times. Not every day but often enough. At times I recall them while driving, cutting the grass or simply lying in bed before falling asleep. I don’t consciously bring it up, it just happens. Here is a little background on who said it and why.

It had been 19 months since I had arrived in Viet Nam. Except for my brief stint with the 334th Assault Helicopter Company I had served the entire time with the Silver Spurs, A Troop, 3rd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. I had been a “Grunt” with the Aerial Rifle Platoon, Door Gunner/Platoon Sergeant with the Lift Platoon and a Scout Observer with the Scout Platoon. A man of many talents you might say.

All of my time up until now had been down in the Delta located in III Corp with a few months in IV Corps at Soc Trang. The Delta had a few mountains but the vast majority was jungle and rice paddies. My new home would be much different. Not only would I be a member of the famous 101st Airborne Division but now there would be mountains and valleys to fly around.

I reported to A Troop 2nd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry on October 1, 1971. Upon turning my orders over to the Company Clerk the First Sergeant came out and welcomed me to the Troop. He glanced over my orders and said that I would be assigned to the Blues (Infantry Platoon). I told him that I had extended my tour for the second time specifically to fly scouts and that I had over 300 hours flying scouts down south.

He then explained that since my MOS was infantry, and that they needed experienced infantrymen I was going to the Blues. He was determined that I would not be flying with Alpha Troop and I was just as determined that I would. After all, I had already spent 19 months in-country and the first 9 months had been as a Grunt in the Blues. I told him that if they didn’t need experienced Observers please send me back to where I had come from. I did NOT extend for another six months to be back in the infantry.

At this the First Sergeant left and disappeared towards the rear of the Orderly Room. He returned a few moments later and told me to follow him. We went to the rear office and was introduced to an officer who happened to be the Troop Commander, Major Teddy Allen. Major Allen asked me how many hours I had in Scouts and when I answered him he asked why I had wanted to transfer to his unit. I explained that I had heard of Alpha Troop and wanted to serve in such a great unit like the 101st. I was dismissed and told to return to the Orderly Room later.

Not having been assigned a hooch I just hung around the Orderly Room talking to the clerk. A few hours later I was called into the C.O.’s office and introduced to Captain Robert O. Baker who was the Scout Platoon Leader. Captain Baker grilled me on my experiences in Viet Nam and after answering several of his questions I was dismissed and told to wait outside.

Afterwards Major Allen and Captain Baker departed and the First Sergeant called me back inside. He told me that Captain Baker wanted me in his platoon on a trial basis. He would take me out to the AO and if I passed muster he would keep me. He also told me that he didn’t know what kind of unit I had been in but Grunts did not fly in Alpha Troop. Therefore, if I was going to fly my MOS would have to be changed to Crew Chief. I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

The Crew Chief was actually the most important person in the crew when the aircraft was not flying. He was the only person actually assigned to that particular aircraft. When flying he acted just as an Observer. When not flying he was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the ship. After every flight the pilot would fill out the logbook noting the condition and state of readiness for the next flight. Once a mission was completed and they returned to base the pilot would report to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and complete his after action report. Then he would usually mosey over to the Mess Hall or the Officers club where he would regal the other officers about his exploits.

The Crew Chief would tie down the rotor blades, disarm the ship, check the write- ups in the log book and note if fluid checks were up to date.  He would also take any necessary oil and fuel samples, clean the air filters and generally keep the ship in flying condition. He would take time for chow but it may be hours before his job was done and he could leave the flight line. In short it was HIS aircraft in every sense of the word.

The missions we flew were extremely hazardous. When flying you didn’t give much thought to the ship’s maintenance. You simply relied on the aircraft to do what the pilot told it to do when he told it to do it, no sudden vibrations, no warning lights flashing at you. It had to perform flawlessly every time. It was the crew chief that assured us the ship would handle and perform this way.

To be an Army helicopter crew chief meant you had completed Army Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Rucker. Eight weeks of intense training that taught you not only how to keep your aircraft up but also the task of manning the M-60 machine gun and the XM-203 Rifle/Grenade Launcher.

I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

Here my new First Sergeant was telling me that I was now a crew chief. No training, no experience whatsoever.  Poof, I now pronounce you something you’re not. Little did I know what a crock that was or how it would change my mind about a career in the Army.

Early the next day I reported to Captain Baker at the flight line. He introduced me to Sergeant Tom Mundell, who would be responsible for teaching me my job as a crew chief. At that time Tom and I armed the Loach while Captain Baker performed his pre-flight. Tom explained that they had plenty of real crew chiefs and that my only responsibility would be taking fluid samples, cleaning the air filter and arming the aircraft. I was absolutely NOT to do anything else. That was okay with me, the same duty as in my last unit.

Captain Baker must have been okay with me in the AO. Nothing much happened that day. I didn’t even get sick from his wild gyrations ten feet above the trees. When we returned that evening he shook my hand and welcomed me into the Scout Platoon.

I flew a lot with Captain Baker after that. Over the course of the next month I got to know him pretty well. It was always Captain Baker or Sir, nothing informal. But it turned out we had a lot in common as far as the Army was concerned. We formed a bond, as much as an officer and an enlisted man could in the Army. He was one of the best role models a young “lifer” could have.

He was from California and had enlisted soon after graduating from high school in 1963. He was also a Mustang which meant that he had signed up as an enlisted man with an MOS in Armor. After a few years he decided to make the Army a career and volunteered for OCS. Upon graduating he again volunteered, this time for flight school. Upon graduation he was one of that mythical breed of men known as Army Aviators.

In January 1971 he had been assigned to Viet Nam for his second tour. He had been the Platoon Leader for the past six months. I asked him once if he was married and he responded that he was, to the Army. Looking back after all these years it makes it all seem so sad and oh so wrong.

For the next month I had many interesting experiences flying with Alpha Troop. It was so different from what I had been used to. I saw Fire Support Bases on the very tops of mountains and we went into some LZs that could only be described as strange. Some could only handle one helicopter at a time, having literally been carved out of the jungle amidst boulders the size of semi-trucks. 

The morning of November 5, 1971 started off like any other day for me. Chow in the Mess Hall at 0530 hours. Go to the flight line at 0600 to arm the aircraft while the pilot performed the pre-flight. Then off we’d go. We would lift up, maneuver out of the revetments, hover over to the air strip with the two Cobras behind us and the C&C Huey following. The take-offin itself was a thrill, all that power going up into the air, looking for Mr. Chuck and ruining his day. Actually, hopefully, to end it. We weren’t called Hunter-Killer Teams for nothing.

The first mission was outside of the old Marine base of Kha Sanh, snooping along the many trails running towards the Laotian border. After two hours we hadn’t found anything so we returned to Phu Bai to refuel.

After refueling we formed up and headed west. We were headed to the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was the main infiltration route favored by the NVA.  We had found beaucoup activity there over the past couple of weeks and would normally have one or two teams working there every day. Mr. Todd had even found large D-9 size bulldozers hidden there. A few days before Lt. Green found a truck park camouflaged next to a large stream. Yep, the A Shau was the hottest place in all of Nam.

We were flying at our normal cruising altitude of 2000 feet actual. As soon as we arrived to our assigned area Captain Baker cork screwed the aircraft down to the deck. While going down I pulled the pin on a white phosphorous grenade and placed it in an empty can that had the top removed. I then held it outside the door with my left arm extended ready to drop it if and when we found a target. The Cobras would automatically roll in on the smoke and kill whatever was there. I cradled my XM-203 automatic rifle/grenade launcher with my right hand pointed out and down with my finger on the trigger.

We spiraled down over a brushy grass area with a beautiful rock strewn stream on my side of the aircraft. The green grass reminded of the pictures you see of Ireland, just a beautiful bright green glade. The stream really stood out also, not muddy but so clear you could see the bottom. I was looking down at the water rushing over the rocks looking for a trail or some signs of Charlie next to the stream. We were flying uphill about five feet above the scattered trees when we popped up over a small ridge doing about 50 - 60 knots.

I’m still looking out my side door when out of nowhere Captain Baker yells over the radio “I’ve got Gooks in the Open, Gooks in the Open, COMING HOT. I jerk my head to the front just as he opened up with the mini-gun. The mini-gun is mounted on my side of the aircraft less than three feet from my seat. It makes a hell of a noise and I saw something we could only dream about. Less than 50 yards directly in front of us were about fifty NVA soldiers wearing pith helmets and khaki-green uniforms. Some had camouflage and they all wore small packs. We were close enough that I could see the shocked looks on their faces with mouths gaping wide. They had been in the process of crossing the stream when we popped over the small ridge and caught them completely off guard.

Captain Baker kicked the pedals and made the Loach fishtail as he continued firing. This made the stream of bullets spread out and the carnage was both terrible and beautiful to see. Bodies were disintegrating right before my eyes. Body parts, blood, weapons, packs, tree limbs and dirt were flying everywhere. An ungodly amount of blood sprayed over it all. Then the craziest thing of all happened. Captain Baker banked the Loach to the right directly over their position. He was looking down at them and I was looking up at nothing but blue sky. I couldn’t drop the Willie Pete or fire my weapon accurately. This certainly was ass backwards!!!

This lasted for just a small moment but to me it was an eternity. I tossed the Willie Pete out and away. Even though I did not have a target I started firing my 203 emptying the 30 round magazine with one continuous burst. Then the shit hit the fan for real. The NVA didn’t lose any time coming out of the shock of us blowing their column all to hell.    

It sounded like an entire company lined up at the firing range firing all at once with everything they had. The only problem was we were the target now. The gunfire was so loud I could barely hear Baker yelling on the radio. The first thing that registered in my mind was the incredible amount of tracers coming up and flying through the open door on his side flying in front of my face. I swear that they were mere inches from my nose. Not one or two, it seemed like hundreds. Maybe even a thousand. At the same time I heard the zap zing pow of rounds hitting the right side.

Then I swear someone hit me in the ankle with a sledge hammer. My foot actually jumped to the left. Captain Baker had already started yelling on the radio, “TAKING FIRE, TAKING FIRE, I’M HIT, I’M HIT, MY OBSERVER’S HIT MY OBSERVER’S___!!! That’s all he got out before the radios blew apart sending metal and plastics shards all over my arms and chest. He got us out of there just before my white phosphorous blew up. I had immediately reloaded another 30 round magazine and fired it off. A tremendous rage came over me when my foot flew to the side and the bullets were flying.. KILL ME?, KILL ME? YOU BASTARDS, YOU THINK YOU CAN KILL ME. HOW DARE YOU!!! WATCH THIS YOU COCKSUCKERS!!! Somehow later on we found three empty magazines lying on the floor of the ship. I was amazed that I was able to get that many rounds out. It all just happened so fast.

We were not out of trouble yet. We climbed up to altitude and Baker made gestures with his hands asking if I was okay. I looked down and only two small holes in my left trousers leg with a little trickle of blood. There was also a small shard of metal sticking out of my right boot at the ankle. All I felt was a small sting. I gave him a thumbs up yelling that it wasn’t bad at all. Remembering his yelling that he was hit I asked him if he was okay and he in turn gave me a thumbs up. Then he reached over, smacked me on the top of my knee and yelled“Good Job, Good Job”. That kind of stunned me, I certainly couldn’t recall having done much.

Soon one of the Cobras came up alongside us. The pilot, Captain Bob Karig communicated with Baker by hand signals that he would check us out. After maneuvering all around us Karig gave us a thumbs up. I guess he was telling us we weren’t leaking fluid or had anything falling off. At about this time I reached down and pulled the metal shard out of my ankle. I stuck in in my shirt pocket as a souvenir.

As soon as we had come upstairs Captain Baker pointed us in the direction of Camp Evans where the US Army18th Surgical Hospital was located. Soon afterwards the Cobra disappeared and was replaced by our C&C Huey which took up station at our six o’clock. Having heard our last transmission the other pilots quickly figured out we were headed to Evans and why. Following along behind us the Huey pilot, CWO2 Robert Segura radioed that we were coming in with wounded on board. Now the comedy begins.

We came straight in, no circling the helipad, just fast and straight. While on short final to the helipad with the big red crosses I saw a scene straight from MASH. There was a group of people standing there with two stretchers holding a hand above their eyes looking up at us. They immediately started jumping up and down waving us off. Captain Baker and I immediately reached the same conclusion, Shit, they must have mass casualties coming in and we’d have to wait. Baker veered off and started to circle around the way we came in. The Huey naturally followed us and then we realized just how stupid assumptions can be.

The doctors and nurses had seen the Huey and since Medivac Helicopters were normally Huey’s they assumed that it held the wounded. In fairness to them most wounded soldiers did not fly themselves in. Realizing their mistake when the Slick followed us in the turn they quickly put their arms up in the universal sign to land.

The Huey followed closely and before the skids touched down the crew chief, a fellow I knew as Dago, jumped down and ran over to my side of the aircraft. He grabbed me with both hands and tried pulling me out. The big problem here was I was still securely buckled into my seat and wasn’t moving. Realizing what the problem was Dago quit and stood there laughing. I handed him my weapon, unhooked the safety harness and climbed out. Then they all tried helping me lay on the stretcher which to mean seemed ridiculous. I pushed them away and limped off to the hospital entrance.

Once inside I was directed to the operating room where I was helped onto the table. The nurse wouldn’t wait for me to roll my pants leg up. She cut them open all the way to my crotch. A young Captain, who looked like a kid with longer than regulation hair, introduced himself as a surgeon and asked me if that was the only wound I had. I replied that I had pulled a piece of shrapnel out of my ankle. I then pulled it out of my pocket and showed it to him. That was the first time I had looked at it closely and I realized it was the copper jacket from a bullet. It must have been one of the ones that hit the radios and in passing through the jacket had been stripped off and struck me with enough force to punch through the leather of my boot.

Upon examining my ankle the doctor proceeded to give me an ass chewing for taking it out. What if I had pulled and it had cut an artery? I didn’t say anything, just agreed that it was stupid and I would never do that again. As he was stitching the graze on my left leg Major Allen came in and watched the doctor for a minute. He then looked at me and said” Hell son, that’s just a scratch. You are both were very lucky. At that he walked out and soon thereafter Captain Baker came in. 

I followed Captain Baker out to our Loach where a crowd of people were looking it over. There were a lot of oohs and aahs being said. One of the guys told me that they had counted twenty-seven bullet holes. All were underneath the right side and behind the pilot’s seat. While bending down having a look Captain Baker came up to me. He told me that several rounds had hit the armor plate under his seat with enough force to think that he had been hit. Amazingly the fuel cell located on the bottom of the aircraft had not been hit. Amazingly a lot of important things hadn’t been hit, like our heads for example.

After catching a ride back to Phu Bai with Mr. Segura, Captain Baker asked me if I was game for another mission. I thought a moment and answered sure, why not. To tell the truth I was feeling pretty damn lucky right then.

The next mission was in the same area but the NVA were long gone and we turned up nothing. The Cobras had worked it over hard with rockets. Big guns, 155mm and 8 inch howitzers had also done a number on it. Funny when you think about it, how good the NVA were as soldiers. Our Cobras had made a few gun runs, another Hunter-Killer Team had come in a half hour or so after us and except for a bunch of craters and a lot of blood puddles it looked just like it did before. All the bodies, weapons and packs were gone.

After returning to Phu Bai at the end of the day I asked Captain Baker why he slapped me on the leg and said “Good Job”. He just said that I had reacted exactly in the right way. Not only by returning fire but also by tossing the grenade. He told me that he was looking right into the face of a gook armed with a RPD machine gun that was trying to kill us when he saw my grenade sailing through the air. He didn’t see it explode but it definitely took that guy out, and a lot of his buddies.

I liked that. I had not only done my job but I did a Good Job.

A week later I learned that I was receiving a Purple Heart. I didn’t think that I had actually earned it and I asked Captain Baker if I could refuse it. He calmly told me that he could understand my feelings but that he and the CO felt it was right. Even though I hadn’t lost much blood I had been wounded by enemy fire.

At the award ceremony one of the other pilots made an off color remark about it being a scratch. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t respond. The next day that same pilot regretted his words. Karma’s real and Karma can be a bitch. His name is 1st LT Larry Palma and that’s another story.