By Morris Cox
The rock festival known as Woodstock began on August 15, 1969, but this story has absolutely nothing to do with Woodstock, except it happened at the same time. While hundreds of thousands gathered on a farm in New York, another group of American youth, Company “A”, twelve time zones to the east in I Corp, South Vietnam, prepared for combat.
That morning began differently than most days in-country. Company “A” had been enjoying a rare and well-deserved standdown on Camp Eagle and was now resupplied, ready to be transported to the Ashau Valley via CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Sleepy-eyed troopers on the chopper pad waited and hoped for the early arrival of the helicopters. Waiting was always the hardest part. Dawn witnessed some in the First Platoon wishing they hadn’t had that last Black Label or Hamm’s last night.
We lucked out and boarded early. Seated along both sides of the fuselage on the red nylon web seating, few of us spoke, each man absorbed in his own reverie. Often, prior to making combat assaults, soldiers become introspective, keeping their thoughts to themselves, but the deafening scream of the turbine engines and hydraulics of the aircraft virtually denied us the opportunity for verbal communication while we headed to battle. The noise was unbelievably loud and almost impossible to shout over.
I was the second man behind the cockpit, seated on the left side of the helicopter, lost in my own kind of soul searching, when I noticed the right side machine gunner become more animated. His gun position was only feet from my seat, and I could have sworn I read lips saying, “We’re going down.” Not sure if this was an attempt to pull the leg of an unsuspecting line doggie or just a really bad joke, I turned toward the man seated next to me, and his concern was obvious. Any remaining doubt was erased when I glanced over my left shoulder and noticed our altitude was about half what it had been.
Word was passed to each man that we were going to crash. Under any circumstances a helicopter crash is bad news – in Vietnam’s triple canopy jungle covered mountains, the results was bound to be disastrous. My mind feebly weighed the options. No seat belts. Do I lie down? No, that didn’t seem right. What do I do? What could I do? As clich ‘ as it might sound, my life flashed before my eyes, with visions of my obituary in the West Carroll Gazette – died on the twenty first birthday of Paul Tucker, who had graduated from high school a year before me. As my incoherent thoughts raced, we continued to lose altitude until the double rotors exploded against the tree tops. And the remainder of the flight was in free fall.
The green behemoth came to a begrudging halt, exerting one final twisting, bucking roll, then rested among the debris in what appeared to be an old, long-since-abandoned road notched into the mountainside. I recall a flash running the length of the fuselage, then thinking that even though we had survived impact, now fire was a real possibility. The right emergency exit panel was kicked out even before the debris had stopped raining down and the rotor stubs had stopped turning. First instincts were to get the hell out before the whole thing went up in flames, but we realized that some probably wouldn’t be able to get out unaided. Quickly the injured were removed and a defensive perimeter around the crash site established.
Within minutes the wounded were medivaced and a Cobra gunship circled overhead, a comforting sight to the few of us who remained from the platoon. The rest of the day we secured the site for the salvage operation. Eventually, an engineering crew was sent to the site to finish cutting the downed helicopter in half so that a flying crane could haul it away.
Upon closer observation of the crash site, it was obvious that we had crashed in a jungle area less dense than the surrounding terrain. Surely the pilot had selected this area as the best place for a crash landing, which had avoided tremendous loss of life. What had killed so many of the large trees in that area? Ironically, the spraying of herbicides containing the infamous Agent Orange just might have saved our lives. That and one able pilot.