While still moving forward the nose of the Huey is pointing maybe 30 degrees downward. We are swinging violently while plunging down. The windshield is full of the onrushing treetops. I've sometimes thought about those apparently final seconds, what I was experiencing. The most accurate statement I can make is that I felt and thought absolutely nothing. No emotion of any kind; not apprehension, not peace, nothing at all; just an empty-headed passivity. No calling on the Deity. Nothing.
I've sometimes wondered if prey animals experience something similar when they feel the jaws of a predator closing on their windpipe. Maybe the passivity is due to shock, or the brain [unconsiously] accepts that all control, all ability to influence events, is gone. Nothing to do but wait. Perhaps a protective response. I don't know.
What happened next is exactly as I will describe it. It is inexplicable. In front of that windshield there appeared a generously sized landing zone, wide and long. It was directly in front of us which is important as the pilot could not move the chopper even slightly right or left. Directly in front. And we were maybe a second from hitting the treetops. In this vast, unbroken surface of dense woods, here was suddenly a perfectly placed opening. We hit hard, did some bouncing, got thrown around a bit, but all of us were in one piece. I will let you draw your own conclusions. For me, the word miracle seems apt.
We exited the Huey, dismounted the door gun. We were again in my domain, mother earth. I moved everyone back into the vegetation at the edge of this beautiful LZ and set up a small defensive position. My interpreter's radio calls received no response but the pilot, like every pilot, carried an emergency transmitter. He extended the aerial. Every aircraft flying could pick up that signal and follow it right to us. I hoped they would do that quickly as a downed chopper is always a magnet for the enemy.
Perhaps 10 minutes passed. Then an airforce plane flew over us, directly online with us. The problem was he was way too high, maybe 3 or 4 thousand feet. Unless you have experienced it you may not understand how difficult it is to see specific features on the ground especially if you are moving with speed or happen to be looking the wrong way. So despite the relatively large opening with a helicopter parked in the middle of it, he flew past us. Still on the right heading, but now away from us until he disappeared. Talk about frustration. I think I said "Gosh!" again.
Another few minutes passed when I heard an engine growing louder. It was an Army pilot flying what I always called a souped up Cessna. I sometimes flew in one looking for potential LZs to insert my ARVN troops. And he was doing things the right way. He was flying super low right at tree top level. His wheels were knocking some leaves off the trees, imaginatively speaking. He acknowledged us with a wave and kept going as was proper. If he immediately started circling over us he would have given away our position to unpleasant people in the neighborhood. Eventually, he turned and began making circles about a mile away.
We began talking on the radio. He said, "I've got good news and bad news." I asked for the good news first. "There is a Ranger company on the way to get you and the chopper." Great. And the bad news? "I see NVA moving fast in your direction." How many?
"Can't be sure through the canopy. At least 50, maybe double that." What is the ETA [estimated time of arrival] of the Rangers? "Bout 10 minutes." How long for the NVA? "Maybe 10 minutes." Gosh!
Time for a critical decision: stay or run. The aircrew was for running. The NVA were too close. I pointed out that the good guys would lose track of us back under the canopy and, most importantly, there would be no place for them to extract us. The open coast was 20 miles away. Right now the cavalry knew our exact location. If we left it, all bets were off and we would never outrun the NVA. It was my decision to make and so we stayed. Improved our position some more, added more vegetation on top of us to try and hide ourselves better. And maybe crossed our fingers. My thinking was that a kindly providence provided this fine LZ at the most critical moment. To abandon it would be less than grateful.
Gradually we heard the beautiful whop, whop, whop, sound of approaching helicopters. The radio came alive and we were instructed that the Huey would be moving fast; run out and jump on board. The first craft surged into the LZ, its nose well in the air, flared so that its tail boom almost struck the ground. It never stopped or touched down. We ran and jumped into the still moving Huey which then speeded up and climbed. I stuck my head out of the door and looked back at a splendid scene. A long line of helicopters each one doing essentially the same maneuver as the first one: a steep flare without stopping but with a squad of rangers jumping out. Each Huey in turn doing the same thing unloading those squads. As I've pictured that scene over the years I've often had the thought that it was a picture of the American army at its very finest. I tend to have warm fuzzy feelings towards those who saved my bacon.
Over the radio came the Army spotter. The NVA were now running away.
"Life is good if you don't weaken." AG Russell