War Stories 17

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Medevac, D 2/7, and Martha Raye

By James C. McKay, Medevac, 1968-1969

 December 3, 1968 was a dark day for 2nd battalion,7th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division, that subsequently would be described by a military historian as one that resulted in “the decimation of Company D. “Before the day would be over, 15th Medical Company’s Medevac would be involved in mass casualty extraction and evacuation of the survivors of D 2/ 7 to nearby Quan Loi (LZ Andy). And I would meet a movie star from the 1940’s and 1950’s in an unlikely way.

I was then a “newbie” medic, that had only joined Medevac in An Khe (I Corp) shortly before the entire Division had relocated to the south to Phuoc Vinh ( III Corp). I had come along with the last Medevac to leave An Khe, hugging the South Vietnam coast to catch up with the rest of the Division at Phuoc Vinh, with Medevac crews already dispersed from Quan Loi to Tay Ninh to Phuoc Vinh. In the early afternoon, I was at Phuoc Vinh at the 15th Medical Company HQ as part of the backup Medevac crew. Around 1200 Hrs., CW2 Gatto, Medevac 20, and LT Williams had notified HQ that a Cav unit was in heavy contact and had numerous WIAs and would need other aircraft to assist in evacuation of wounded personnel.

Our Medevac crew had arrived on station and began to circle around the landing area, that was partially concealed with grey haze from grassfires at the landing zone site.Our aircraft was directed to land at nearby LZ ( Eleanor ), to await clearance to land. Additionally, there were already multiple aircraft in the immediate area to provide fire support to the besieged unit and other Command aircraft helping organize relief reinforcements. One gunship had attempted to bring in combat supplies and troops but had been badly damaged, with the pilot shot along with both door gunners and three medics on board at the time. That helicopter managed to limp away, with ammunition and other combat equipment jettisoned without getting to the ground unit, who were in desperate need of ammunition, water, and medical support.

After landing at LZ Eleanor, our Medevac was shut down to await further developments and directions to proceed. At some point, CW2 Gatto’s Medevac had begun to make the initial pickups at the LZ and we were notified that our Medevac would be clear to land at landing area. We were aware of, by then, the grievous nature of the ground combat, as the Company’s First Sergeant had reported that the Company had 50% casualties and were running low on ammunition. Knowing this, troops at LZ Eleanor had loaded ammunition crates into the aircraft, both machine gun M-60 ammunition and M-16 ammunition. (I recognize that this was contrary to the Rules of Engagement, but no one ever questioned the crew about this delivery and I am confident that any Statute of Limitations has expired.)

The pilot was to my memory, WO Westmoreland. It was the only Medevac mission I was ever on that both the crew chief and the door gunner fired their M-60’s going into the landing area, on the ground and then again on the exit leaving the pickup zone due to the hostile ground fire. The shape of the landing area was in the middle of a huge horseshoe-shaped field, with tree lines surrounding the field, covered with high, dry grass ( that had ignited at some point from either gunfire, explosions or incendiary fire. ) in the center. D 2/ 7 had essentially never left the landing area where they remained pinned down by intense enemy fire. As we approached the landing area, we had lost the visual where the wounded evacuation point would be, because we were so low to the ground, which although it looked more or less flat from the air, in fact had swales and rises. We passed one rise where the soldiers were laying near the top of the rise, but in defilade to incoming fire. As we flew low to the ground, one soldier sensed we were looking for the pick-up point and he stood up and pointed us forward with both arms. We flew over a rise, and the pickup point came in view and we landed quickly. Our Medevac crew kicked out the ammunition crates, while simultaneously the troops on the ground on-loaded three or four litter wounded soldiers as well as walking wounded. I’m not sure how short a period of time we were on the ground, but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes at most. The pilot said, “We have to go”, pulled pitch and left the way we had come into the landing area, not gaining altitude until we left the open end of the horseshoe shaped landing area, staying away from flying toward or over the wood lines. From the D 2/ 7 wounded pickup point was a short run-in to LZ Andy, approximately 15 miles to the northwest where we off-loaded the wounded to 15th Medical Company C awaiting personnel. Following that, we were directed back to LZ Eleanor once again to pick up additional wounded who had been off-loaded there by an unknown aircraft, While called-in as “urgent” by LZ Eleanor, in fact the wounded were not “urgent” in the Medevac use of the word but nevertheless were “priority” wounded. These wounded were then flown to 15th Medical Company C for drop-off at the landing pad. At that point, we went to the fuel point for JP-4 as we had expended for fuel supplies, plus the door gunner and the crew chief next went to the ammunition point to re-load their M-60 trays of ammunition that had run low from the firing of their aircraft weapons, and then we were directed to “shut-down” once more at 15th Medical Company C. (The door gunner on this mission, SSG McGhee, would later be killed on another mission on 7 September 1969) Apparently before this, Medevac 20 had been able to land at the landing area where D 2/ 7 was trapped and had evacuated numerous wounded from the field site. And, at some other point, a Chinook helicopter had landed at the 15th Medical Company C and had evacuated 30 plus wounded from that location.

Marta RayeOur Medevac was next notified that we would fly D 2/ 7 wounded in a “backhaul” mission from LZ Andy to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital located in Long Binh. Just as the final wounded had been loaded into “stacks “, and other wounded were on board as well, suddenly a woman LTC appeared out of the dusk ( it was then approximately 1700 Hrs. or later ), and announced that she would be accompanying the wounded to the hospital. I notified the pilot, who looked around in his seat, saw her, and said, “OK. “I read her name tag, and it said “Raye“. Additionally, she had on a Green Beret, and her military blouse signaled that she was a “Green Beret“, that also showed a variety of skill and proficiency tabs and badges, ranging from Airborne wings, to a Ranger tab, RVN Airborne wings and a Combat Medic badge. But, I still recognized her as “Martha Raye“, an American entertainer who was a movie star from the 1940’s and the 1950’s. She had become associated with the military during WW2, and then in Korea in Bob Hope and USO shows, and thereafter with the “Special Forces“, thus accounting for her Green Beret in Vietnam. While I was checking the litter casualties in particular, who had multiple wounds in some cases, and were sufficiently badly wounded that I wanted to assure myself that they could make the flight without a medical emergency or incident, LTC Raye asked me, “Can I help? “I said, “Yes“, and I asked her to help keep an eye on a soldier with a chest wound, and another with a windpipe wound, and then check on the other wounded stashed in the “hellholes“ behind the door gunner and the crew chief, and in the small places remaining. About halfway down to Long Binh, she decided one of wounded was cold because he had lost his blouse in treatment. So, she expertly removed her military blouse revealing large breasts in a black bra. The wounded didn’t notice but I did. Just before we landed in Long Binh, she recovered her military blouse, and then straighten her Green Beret. At the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, we were greeted by litter bearers at the landing pad to unload the patients, but also by a contingent of Green Berets, some taking pictures of her “in action” unloading wounded. She disappeared into the night with the Green Berets.

We then returned to Phuoc Vinh uneventfully, as our missions were then complete for the day. Much later I learned that D 2/ 7 had sustained an unclear number of KIAs, some reports reflecting 20 KIAs or 23 KIAs or 25 KIAs, with an additional KIA from an artillery officer attached to D 2/ 7, with 52 or more WIAs. As a final footnote to the intensity of the combat on 3 December 1968, Sergeant John Noble Holcomb would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic actions. Additionally, three medics in D 2/7 would become KIA, one of whom was SP/4 Walter Timothy Bahl, who would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously as he attempted to rescue fallen comrades. I also learned that Martha Raye may not have been actually a Medical Service Officer, or a nurse, except in an honorary capacity. When she passed away, as per her wish, she was buried with special permission from the DoD at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in the post cemetery as an honorary Colonel in the US Marines and as an honorary LTC in the US Army, the only civilian so granted such a unique privilege. But, on 3 December 1968 she had lived up to the motto and admonition of Medevac in a combat medical evacuation operation, “So That Others May Live“

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A Dose of Humility

By Dan Brady

Yesterday, my son, grandsons, and I were out fishing on the Stillwater River on land that a good friend of ours owns just outside of Absarokee. As we walked alongside an old homestead cabin that the owners had cleaned up around, I spotted several bottles that were lying there. I got to looking at them, and one of them was an old glass IV bottle. The same kind that we used to carry on the birds and first aid kits overseas. I hadn't seen a glass IV bottle for many years, and it brought back many memories. I took a picture of it and then decided it might be a good time to tell the story that it brought back to me.

IV bottleIt was sometime in 1970, and we were flying out of C Company 15th Med in Quan Loi or LZ Mace. I'm not sure. Hodges, Parsons, and I were the crew and, forgive me because I don't remember who the pilots were. But I'm sure once they read this, they will remember the story vividly. It's not one that anybody connected to it could ever forget. And don't know if they've ever forgiven me for what happened that night, but I think they did as we all laughed about it later.

I remember the pilots waking us up in the middle the night, hollering the usual stuff, "We've got a mission, an urgent one, wake up, let's go." I don't remember where we picked up the patients because it was very dark, as usual Always seemed like that's when those dangerous missions came in. But I remember we landed with the help of flares and picked up our patients. Two of the patients were ambulatory, and I sat one behind the pilot on the floor, and the other in the hell hole with Parsons. I figured Mickey could work on him because he wasn't seriously injured. The third patient came in on a stretcher shot up badly and I hung him on the middle rack so I could work on him. When we got up to altitude, I turned on the lights to see what I had. The man had been shot up and had lost a considerable amount of blood. I started an IV immediately.

Luckily before we left on the mission, I was told we had severe patients, and I picked up three units of blood from the aid station. I was busy working on this fellow; I don't remember exactly what, but I was trying to do four or five things at one time. If you remember our IVs came in glass bottles but the whole blood came in plastic bags. We had to insert these plastic bags into a cuff that was then inflated with the pump, just like a blood pressure cuff. As I was trying to patch up holes on this fellow with one hand, I was pumping the blood cuff pump with the other to get the blood flowing. I had the unit of blood hanging from hook on the ceiling, which was in between and behind the pilot's seats. I was so intent working on the patient that over-pumped the blood cuff, and it exploded. It coated the whole interior of the helicopter with fresh blood, especially the pilots and the windshields.

I remember thinking to myself, lucky it's still dark out, and the pilots can't see where they were going anyway. But I do remember a lot of the language used. I was still working on my patient. I tried to clean things up a little and get a new unit of blood in the cuff and flowing. I had an IV going on the patient at the time, but he needed this blood badly. I was pumping the second unit furiously, and I'm embarrassed to say, I did the same thing again. The second cuff exploded. I've always tried to tell myself that the blood bag was faulty. But we all know differently. The third bag pumped up very well, and I didn't have any problems. That may have something to do with the funs that the pilots were pointing at me threateningly. Honestly, would I lie? Well, maybe just stretch the truth a bit. Everything from there on until the end of the mission went reasonably normal.

After getting back on the ground, the patient was evacuated down to 3rd Field Hospital. Everyone was so tired that we just went to our hooch and crashed.

Upon waking the next morning, we knew we had a mess to clean up, and when we arrived at the chopper, about 25 to 30 people were standing around it. They were talking about how bad the crew must have been shot up and wondering how they made it back. We were heroes to all of them until they turned around and saw us standing there alive and healthy and heard the actual story. I do remember it took gallons of hydrogen peroxide to clean up the bird. I never had that problem again in my entire career, which proved that I was teachable at one time.

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