War Stories 10
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A Stitch in Time Saves Nine
By baby huey
My long-departed four-foot eleven-inch Irish-American mother had a
proverb for just about every situation in life. If it wasn't an urging to
finish my meal because "there are starving kids in China," then it was to
stay out of the cookie jar before I was "caught red-handed." There seemed to
be a rich collection of animal phrases such as "it's raining cats and dogs,"
or may times, I was "barking up the wrong tree."
With all the running around I did as a child, many times, I would get
injured and just have to "bite the bullet" while crying "crocodile tears"
and hoping I didn't "kick the bucket." She'd lovingly, but sternly, tell me
to stop crying and "stick a sock in it."
One of the more odd or obscure proverbs were "a stitch in time saves
nine," which I didn't understand until much later in life. It seems she
meant it to mean to delay or put off doing something until a later time.
People use "a stitch in time saves nine" to express that it's better to
spend a little time and effort to deal with a problem right now than to wait
until later, when it may get worse and take longer to complete.
In early 1971 I was stationed at Mace Fire Support Base (FSB), where we
had a rash of overly critical classifications of wounds to soldiers
originating from one particular unit. The unit was conducting operations in
the old lighthouse area just north of the coastal town of Ham Tam. Flying to
this unit's location put us at the furthest north edge of our area of
My fear was we'd fly to this unit's location for a traumatic wound only
to find some soldier had a scratch on his knee. Being that far north would
leave us vulnerable to having multiple wounded soldiers, in the southern
part of our AO, almost 30 minutes away.
After several over classified patients, we started doing a lot of
"bitching in the hooch." A day later, we got a nine-line casualty report
that this unit had an urgent traumatic amputation of a soldier's arm. We
scrambled as fast as we could and were airborne in only minutes. About five
minutes into the flight, I let Doc Nose use the FM radio to talk directly to
the unit medic on the ground. It was then that I overheard the wound
downgraded and described as a traumatic amputation of the hand. Another five
minutes went by, and I put Doc Nose in contact with the unit medic again. We
found the patient's wound reclassified as an urgent traumatic amputation of
When we arrived over the unit's location, we were required to conduct a
hoist operation to extract the patient from the jungle. I slowed the
helicopter to a hover, and the medic lowered the hoist cable and forest
penetrator to the ground. A minute or two later, the medic reeled back up
the hoist cable, and the patient brought into the cargo compartment.
That's when I hear Doc Nose say over "hot mike" that the soldier only had
a small cut to the top of his hand. I was livid. I asked Doc Nose if he had
surgical thread for stitching a wound. He said yes, and I told him to lace
the injury with a single stitch and send the trooper back down to his unit
on the rescue hoist.
Arriving back at Mace FSB, I was greeted by an Infantry Colonel who
proceed to "dress me down" for what was probably only 90 seconds but seemed
like weeks. I was about to start my well-rehearsed (I got in trouble
frequently), "Yes Sir, yes Sir, never again, Sir" when I decided on another
I threw my shoulders back, looked him straight in the eyes, and told him
the Army Medical Department has the mantra "To conserve the fighting
strength" and that one could not have conserved the fighting strength any
fast than I had. Ahhhhhh, that didn't go over well with the Colonel, and to
this day, I can still see his red, vein-bulging face as he screamed at me
that my military career was finished.
Of course, I just stood there at attention and smiled, visualizing my
mother saying, "a stitch in time saves nine!"
Getting on the R&R Roster
By baby huey
I arrived in-country as Medevac Meadows drew to a close. Little Okie flew
down to Ben Hoa and snatched my young butt out of the Three Days Charm
School and off to Song Be we went. Not that I had a choice, but my hold
baggage went to Phouc Vinh, where I finally found it a little over a week
I was issued a room and dumped my stuff in it, and then decided to
take a walking tour of the area. The first folks I met were Ray Zepp and
Rich Leonard, who came to a stiff attention and saluted me.
They welcomed me and told me the R&R roster was a first-come-first-leave
list and that I should immediately go to the orderly room and sign up for my
R&R. Any delay may mean the difference of weeks and weeks, or not being able
to go at all. They also were kind enough to warn me that the orderly room
clerk hated lieutenants and would probably try to tell me one had to be
in-country for three months before being eligible for going on R&R. I was
assured that if I "locked his heals," I could get him to put me on the R&R
Off to the order room, I went, and sure enough, the clerk tried to hand me
crap, saying I didn't qualify since I wasn't in-country long enough. I
proceeded to have him come to attention and "ripped him a new one" only to
hear loud uncontrolled laughter coming from the doorway.
Yup, there were Zepp and Leonard on the ground laughing hysterically. That's
when I realized the clerk was telling me the truth and never listened to
Zepp or Leneord again.
Where Are You Going, Medevac?
By James C. McKay
On 1 May 1970, the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was the "spear
point" of the "Cambodian Incursion" (Operation "Rockcrusher"). The Cav was
implementing President Nixon's announcement of American military forces
penetrating Cambodian territory to seek, destroy and disrupt the Communist
Supreme Command for the Liberation of South Vietnam ("COSVN"), in the
so-called "Sanctuary." But well before "Cambodian Incursion," the Division
was more than well-acquainted with the interdiction mission and what it
meant to be at the "spear point" on the Cambodian/South Vietnam border.
The Division had pivoted and re-located from I Corps to Ill Corps on 7
November 1968, where it immediately met fierce enemy resistance from North
Vietnam Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) units from Phuoc Vinh to Quan Loi to
Tay Ninh. Medevac had become acutely aware of the danger in its combat
mission in support of the operational units. On 26 November 1968, Medevac
18, the crew, and six soldiers from A/5/7 were killed in action (KIA)
approximately three miles from the Cambodian border, north-northwest of LZ
(See, "The Vietnam War's Most Costly Army Aeromedical Evacuation Mission
26 November 1968," Terry McCarl, War Stories.
On 22 January 1969, I was a combat medic with Medevac at Quan Loi air
ambulance base for "C" Company. Late in the afternoon, Medevac was
dispatched to Tay Ninh Province for an urgent pickup for several wounded
personnel (WIAs) from 2/5, that had been in substantial contact with NVA
forces near the Cambodian border. After a 30-minute flight from Quan Loi to
the grid coordinates, we found where 2/5 in, an area of triple-canopy
jungle, dense vegetation, and undergrowth with downed trees and craters from
B-52 Arclight bombing.
After making initial radio contact with the ground unit, WO Allen
Westmoreland, as the aircraft commander (A/C), flew a large loop over the
area since we could not see the unit due to the thick jungle. WO
Westmoreland began asking the standard questions before a combat pickup.
Approximately how long ago had the unit been in contact with the enemy was
the pickup area secure or not, the direction of enemy fire, the total number
of casualties, and in this case, whether a hoist would be needed to extract
the wounded. Satisfied with the answers, including that a hoist would not be
necessary since there was a jungle clearing, that would be the pickup point.
WO Westmoreland requested the unit "pop" a smoke grenade as a marker. After
a moment, WO Westmoreland responded to the unit, "l have a Goofy-Grape," to
which the unit responded, "That's a Roger, Medevac." The purple smoke was a
faint stain in the jungle as the Medevac began a reverse turn and got
aligned for the approach and descent.
The Medevac's approach direction would be opposite from the last known
enemy fire. The approach would be a high-speed, low-level flight to limit
Medevac's visibility to enemy gunfire. But because the smoke had become
filtered by the jungle, it was dispersing. WO Westmoreland, in radio contact
with the unit, requested the unit guide Medevac into them by using the
distinct Huey-helicopter sound until they could see the Medevac. Still,
there was nothing to see in the jungle, except split and toppled trees, with
tangled undergrowth. WO Westmoreland had Medevac moving forward over the
treetops at the slowest airspeed possible and had the whole crew with "eyes
on" the jungle, looking for any signal, marker, or movement that would
reveal the unit's location. Radio contact continued encouraging Medevac,
saying, "Keep coming. Keep coming, Medevac." By then, I was on the cabin
floor looking underneath the helicopter, to make sure that somehow, we had
not bypassed the unit. Finally, the crew chief, PFC Edward Miranda, new to
Medevac, saw some purple smoke hanging in the trees. He directed WO
Westmoreland toward the smoke. The radio contact said, "You're almost there,
Medevac. We hear you 5/5." The purple smoke billowed through the tree limbs,
but neither the peter pilot (co-pilot), Miranda or door gunner SP4 Dale
Harmon, nor I see anything resembling a military unit in the field.
Medevac had just started a vertical descent, when suddenly much more
intense purple smoke spread below the helicopter, as the radio contact
suddenly said, "Where are you going, Medevac?" With that, green tracers
appeared in and around Medevac, tearing holes through the cabin floor and
impacting into the overhead. Harmon said, "I'm hit," but was still standing,
sweeping the M-60 machine gun back and forth over the jungle to suppress the
enemy small arms fire, which continued to pepper the aircraft. Miranda, on
the other machine gun, had at first been rocked backward into his seat, from
a bullet that impacted the front of his ballistic helmet, cracking it open.
Recovering, Miranda fired his M-60 in the same manner as Harmon, sweeping
back and forth, returning the enemy fire. I had an M-16 at the ready, loaded
with a magazine of tracer bullets and expended it into the unseen enemy
below. WO Westmoreland managed to regain airspeed while turning the
helicopter in the opposite direction and gaining forward airspeed away from
Momentarily, the ground unit contacted Medevac again and asked, "Medevac,
are you coming back?" To which WO Westmoreland replied, "That's a negative.
We have wounded on board and battle damage. We'll send up another Medevac."
By then, the peter pilot had notified Phuoc Vinh that our Medevac was
damaged, had wounded on board, and a replacement Medevac would have to take
At about that time, a "Blue Max" Cobra flew alongside our Medevac,
looking the aircraft over, then dropped back and below in its inspection,
then flew up alongside once more and said, "You'd better sit it down,
Medevac. Your fuel cells are ruptured, and you have an aircraft fire,
trailing you in the fuel leak."
Both pilots were uninjured, despite the enemy fire. I worked on Harmon,
where he received a through-and-through gunshot wound to his left leg. It
took multiple bandages to control the bleeding from the entrance and exit
wounds. Once Miranda removed his helmet, his forehead showed swelling where
the bullet glanced off his helmet, leaving reddened but unbroken skin.
Miranda put his helmet back on, and although cracked, the avionics was
undamaged. He began a running dialogue with WO Westmoreland about the
aircraft fuel leak and where the ignition was sparking away. At one point,
Miranda turned to me and said, calmly, "If the flame gets to the fuel cell,
we'll explode." I believed him. In the meantime, the "Blue Max" Cobra it." WO Westmoreland said,
"OK, roger that," as the Cobra broke away.
The suspenseful flight from that point to the Basecamp was not long, but
time did seem to pass quite slowly. Finally, the base camp was in sight, and
immediately beyond the barbed wire. As the helicopter was
shutting down, a jeep emerged from the base camp with a Special Forces NCO
at the wheel. He drove us into their compound, where everyone was basically
"underground" due to mortar attacks. A Special Forces medic gave Harmon a
syrette of morphine, as the combat shock had worn off, and his wound was
causing him distress.
After dusk, CPT Scofield from Phuoc Vinh retrieved the crew and returned
to Medevac HQ. Harmon had an orthopedic injury, and he was evacuated
out-of-country for surgery. Miranda would be assigned other Medevac aircraft
and was shot down several times. Later, that same evening, WO Westmoreland,
and I would return to Quan Loi with another crew. Later I was informed the
NVA was so close to the 2/5 that they had "popped" another purple smoke
grenade as we approached the "friendlies," which was the purple smoke
Miranda had identified. The 2/5 also confirmed blood trails from NVA, but
there were no bodies found. But as an ambush, it had been just about
perfect. Katum, South Vietnam, would return to the news as an important
staging and operational area for the Division a year later during the
"Cambodian Incursion." Last, I don't know whether WO Westmoreland ever
received an acknowledgment, or decoration, for his coolness and flying skill
as the A/C on that mission. If he didn't, he should have.
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