My ARVN battalion of which I was the senior advisor consisted of 4 companies. I was also responsible for 3 other advisors assigned to the battalion. Besides my Sgt I had a Lt. along with the Sgt who accompanied him. Advisors always traveled in twos to cover each other's backs.
On this particular morning my Sgt. wasn't with me; I don't remember why. Maybe he was on leave. The BN headquarters was set up on top of a mountain which we also used as a firebase with our two howitzers. Col. B, the regimental senior advisor, and Col. Q the ARVN regimental commanding officer were staying at the headquarters/firebase. This was in Ninh Tuan province after the big ambush. We were out to pursue the 540 NVA Regt.
I decided to fly out and check on my newly assigned Lt., see how he was getting along with his ARVN counterpart. I showed the helicopter pilots on a map where we were to go, where the Lt's company was set up. On board with me was the pilot, copilot, the crew chief who manned a side door machine gun, myself and my interpreter whom I liked a lot. He spoke good English of course but also had a good sense of humor. Total of 5 of us on board.
We few over the double canopy jungle and fond the company. Very little space for the chopper to land but the pilot finally succeeded.
I spoke with the Lt. and Sgt then gave them some cold beers and mail I brought for them. Good for morale. Then I went and talked privately with the ARVN company commander, another exceptionally good officer. He tells me he is satisfied so far with the new Lt. My Lt. missed the ambush; he joined us by chopper a few days after the big fight on HWY 1. But it is too early for a meaningful assessment of the Lt. He is completely green, has seen no action. Time will tell as it always does.
My visit is finished. Back in the chopper and off we go; slowly, to safely negotiate the treetops and then we gather speed. We have been airborne only a short time when suddenly bullets start ripping thru the helicopter. About the ugliest sound in the world is the sound of bullets tearing thru the aluminum frame of a helicopter. Imagine fingernails on a chalkboard then multiply that sound a hundred times. Horrendous, ugly screeches are all I can think to describe it.
I look around, everyone is okay. Of course the two pilots sit in ceramic chairs which are bulletproof. But the interpreter and I and the crew chief don't have that protection. We keep flying at a good speed, things seem normal for a few moments. Normality is an illusion. The Huey has been gravely wounded. Suddenly the interior of the aircraft including all of us are being sprayed, drenched in JP 4, that is fuel. The fuel cells in a Huey are self-sealing. If they are hit with bullets they will seal themselves and all will be well. However it is only the bottom half of the cells that are so constructed. The theory is that bullets coming from the ground would hit the bottom. But in our case the angle of the bullets was such that they hit the upper half, the unprotected half, of the cells. The fuel was under pressure so now thru abundant holes in the cells and the floorboards we were being soaked in fuel.
Mere seconds later, sparks start shooting out of an electrical panel near the pilot. Sparks plus fuel causes me to say something like, "Gosh." Something like that.
The crew chief grabs a fire extinguisher and smothers the sparks and fire coming from the electrical panel. Attaboy.
Next the Huey begins "yawing" that is swinging wildly from side to side. We still have forward momentum but we have to hold on tight not to be flung out the open doorways as we swing violently. Things are bad. Sometimes it seems the chopper will do a complete 180 degree upside down roll. That of course would be the end. But it does not happen. What does happen is that the pilot yells, "I've lost hydraulics. We're going down." Now this was thought provoking because down meant into a sea of trees as far as the eye could see. There was no place to attempt a landing. We rapidly lost altitude plunging towards the onrushing treetops.
To be continued.....