War Stories

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MY FIRST FLIGHT IN VIETNAM ON MEDEVAC
by Terry A. McCarl
Historian, 15th Medical Battalion Association

It was 10 December 1968 when I had my first ride on Medevac. I had just reported to the 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division in Phuoc Vinh, South Vietnam, five days previously. I was the new 1st Cavalry Division Sanitarian. My task was to keep our fighting forces in fighting condition health-wise. I would be dealing with all types of preventive medicine activities, including food service sanitation, water supply, waste disposal and malaria control. (I found out later that the M-60 machine guns on the Medevac helicopters were often referred to as "preventive medicine.")

LTC Guthrie L. Turner, the Division Surgeon and 15th Med BN CO, told me that morning he needed me to travel to Quan Loi to investigate the cause of an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease (diarrhea) at one of the units there. I asked how I would get there (not even knowing where Quan Loi was). He said," Go to Air Operations and tell whoever is there that you need to get to B Co. at Quan Loi. No doubt someone will be going there soon. When you get there, report to CPT Decker, and he will have someone take you to the unit that is having the problem."

This flight was to be my first of many helicopter flights in Vietnam! I knew nothing about helicopter aviation other than that was the way I would need to travel throughout the Division's area of operation to perform my duties.

Air Ops Phouc Vinh
Medevac Air Operations

I headed to Air Operations. I assumed that it would be an up-and-back in the same day trip. At that time, everyone in the Division had to wear a steel helmet and carry a weapon whenever they left their assigned company area. I assumed that I was all ready to go.

When I got to Air Ops, the only person there was a CPT sitting at a desk doing some paperwork. When I walked in, he glanced up and said, "What do you need, Lieutenant?" I saw an- ever-so-slight glimmer of a smile, which I later realized meant, "Time for a little fun with the new guy!"

I said, "LTC Turner needs me to go to Quan Loi." (I thought it would be a good idea to mention LTC Turner's name). The CPT said, "I'll be making a run to Quan Loi in about an hour." Then he asked the question that I'm sure he knew the answer to, which was, "Have you ever flown with Medevac before?" I replied," No, Sir." He then said, "In that case, I need to fill you in on our passenger policies."

Quan Loi Vienam
Quan Loi and red clay

He began, "We're happy to give you a ride wherever you need to go, but you must be aware that our primary duty is to the wounded. For example, this trip to Quan Loi today is called a "milk run." We are returning some recovered wounded soldiers to their units. I expect that it will be a routine up-and-back trip. However, while in the air, we may get a call to pick up wounded. If that happens, be aware that you are going with us. We won't drop you off in a safe location and then make our pickup.

Furthermore, if we need room on the aircraft for the wounded, you will have to get off and stay where we pick the patients up, probably in the jungle. Getting back to Phuoc Vinh will be however you can get there. We won't come back for you. Do you understand?" I remember gulping and saying, "Of course!"

He continued: "Were you issued a field jacket? You just got here, so you probably don't know yet that although it's normally hot all the time here, nights can be damn chilly! If you are stuck out in the jungle for a night or two, you will wish that you had taken it with you." I acknowledged that I had been issued a field jacket and would go back to my hooch and get it.

He looked at the M-16 that I was carrying and asked," Do you know how to use that 16?" I said that I had qualified on the rifle range. "How much ammo do you have?" I pointed to the single magazine in the M-16. He said," That's not enough! If we get shot down, we need everyone on board to defend our aircraft and patients! Better get at least ten more magazines!"

I don't remember what else he suggested. Still, there were more items, including a change of underwear and several canteens of water. As soon as possible, I collected all the items that he said to get and put them in a duffel bag, which was nearly full and returned to Air Ops.

Just before getting on the aircraft, the CPT said, "Oh, one more thing, did anyone give you one of these cards to carry around that tell you what to do if you are captured?" I said that no one had, so he handed me a card and said, "Be sure and read this before we take off."

That was the crowning touch! I had not given much thought to the potential dangers of making this trip. I was somewhat freaked out at that point, with all kinds of visions of potential disasters racing through my head!

As I boarded the helicopter, I noted the other crew members seemed to be laughing and smiling as l hoisted that duffel bag on board. One of them, grinning, asked, "Sir, can I help you with that heavy bag?" I thought perhaps someone had told a joke or something of that nature.

Medevac Bravo Quan Loi
Bravo Company, Quan Loi

When we landed at the B Co. helipad at Quan Loi, the CPT said to me, "Now, when you are ready to go back, come back here and tell Air Ops that you need a ride to Phuoc Vinh. It's not likely that it will be us."

What about my mission that day? Someone in a mess hall at Quan Loi had failed to realize that ice made with contaminated water was also contaminated. Easy to solve, don't buy locally- made ice. Get ice through regular supply channels.

When it came time to return to Phuoc Vinh, I returned to B Company. Within an hour, I could catch a ride on a different Medevac that was returning to Phuoc Vinh. Again, as I loaded that duffel bag on that helicopter, I noticed that crew also seemed to be in a festive mood, smiling and laughing. Again, I thought maybe someone had just told a joke.

Throughout my year tour, I made about 100 such trips, all without mishap. Still, every time I boarded a helicopter, I thought about what that CPT had said to me that day and when we landed safely, I always, in my mind, kissed the ground!

Since this CPT has been deceased for several years and since he cannot confirm or deny this story, and since my memory of the occasion may not be 100 % accurate, I am not mentioning his name, but in the several months afterward, we became good friends and had many good laughs about that day.

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