Fear learned the hard way...
by Dan Sutherland - April 1987
Vietnam taught lessons soldiers can't forget...
The Register Star -- April 6, 1987
In Nam, many strange things happened. Once our infantry team was doing a sweep and they walked into an ambush. Seven men were wounded and one killed. One of my hometown friends from Rockford was in this ambush.
I was scared for my friend. I ran for the courier chopper assigned to take the equipment and men to that hot spot and told that gunner I was going in his place. In case it was bad, I would see Shaky's mother when I got home.
As we were flying to our destination, the infantry called and said they would pop green smoke where they wanted us to land. They told us that due to intense enemy fire, they weren't able to get our wounded yet, so we should just drop the stuff and wait for word to medi-vac.
All the while we were transmitting, the gooks were picking it up and so they popped green smoke and we started coming in. The place they popped smoke was all trees so the pilots told us to kick the supplies out and he called the platoon leader on the ground to find out why he didn't put us down in a clearing.
We started throwing the equipment out when all hell broke loose. The infantry man was screaming, "Abort! Abort! Negative Green Smoke!" The pilots were screaming for us to get on the guns. The other gunner and I scrambled into those gun mounts like squirrels in a tree and started firing.. Watching my tracers, I saw two NVAs go down. All of a sudden the windshield broke into a thousand pieces as rounds started hitting our chopper. The whole ground was nothing but muzzle flashes.
The infantry broke over the radio again screaming, "You're trailing smoke!" The pilots hit the guard button and started calling, "Mayday! Mayday! We are on fire and going down."
Our pilot started calling grid to our infantry telling them our location as the other gunner and I tightened our belts, waiting to crash. I found time to pray in all that, asking God to not let us crash in the trees.
As we hit a clearing, I was bent over in crash position. The pilots brought her down pretty good and we didn't hit hard enough to hurt us, although it did spread the skids.
Our pilot told us to get the 60s and flank the chopper. We all knew if the dinks had seen us they would coming to finish us. My crew chief and I were setting our places about 10-15 meters from the downed bird when we heard the whop-whop-whop of our unit's pink team.
The most heart-throbbing sight I'll ever remember as when five Cobra gunships topped that clearing. It was a sight to behold. They fired up the treeline as six helicopters loaded with infantry landed all around us.
I was never so scared and so happy all at once.
Will anyone ever imagine how scared a person can be, or how much fear a man's mind can handle? I will tell you how scared I've been.
I've been so scared, I've eaten dirt. Just put my face right on the ground and started digging with my teeth. I've clawed on a wall with my hands, trying to squeeze my body through the wood until I got slivers and tore off fingernails.
Find yourself in a mortar or rocket attack once and you'll know what I mean. A heartbeat so loud that it's blowing your eardrums apart. And a shake so bad that you can't stop vomiting.
I've prayed and I've sworn, and I've been humbled real quick. I've known the silence of fear and I've smelled the presence of death.
One morning, about 6 o'clock, our flight platoon sergeant woke us and told us to go to the flight line after breakfast and get our ship ready for a combat assault. I was lying there with last night's party still in my brain when I started hearing the rockets, a swoosh, and then boom.
My roommate and crew chief, Gil, came flying out of his bunk and started screaming at me to get down on the floor. I guess I didn't move fast enough, because frantically he hollered "Incoming! Get down NOW!"
I dived on the floor, and my first thought was to get to the bunker about 30 feet outside our door. I started to get up and run out the doorway. The noise was close and deafening. it seemed the whole earth was shaking.
Gil jumped on my back in a type of body block, still screaming at me to stay down. The look on his face was unbelievable. Still, something told me to get to that bunker. It was what they had trained us to do.
I low-crawled out into the hallway of our hooch. There were four men running out, also trying to make it to the bunker. I was looking at the doorway of the bunker. The last man cleared it and they were on the stairs when the bunker took a direct hit, killing all four men on the stairs.
I was first out the door and the sight I saw was not pretty. A man's chest cavity can be awful sickening. Two of the men died of massive head wounds and there were other men outside who were also wounded.
After the rocket hit the bunker, everything was chaos. There were fires and ambulances everywhere.
Our flight platoon sergeant came running, telling Gil and me to get on the flight line now. All the helicopters were warming up and standing by for medi-vac.
The Air Force barracks had been hit bad. There were over a hundred wounded. The line in front of their mess hall had taken a hit and many of the tin quonset huts were hit, with men lying in their barracks.
One man had one hand gone and both his feet. He was smoking a cigarette with his good hand. He looked up at me; I will never forget it. He said, "I guess I'll be going home now." I nearly threw up. The other man had been sliced open and his guts were lying exposed under a sheet. He seemed dead...
We flew medi-vac many times that morning. One time I almost lost it. We had a man whose arm was gone and he had a chunk missing from his leg. The man screamed beyond description when the corpsman grabbed him and the stretcher and just threw him down the flight line. I wished I could have killed that corpsman, but I guess he was about fed up with all the pain and suffering that day.
I watched one amputation in our chopper. I was holding onto the plasma bottle and the flight surgeon was on board. He said I was to give him my flight helmet, and I said no, it was against regulation. He told my pilot and the pilot said I was to give it to him so he could talk to the hospital.
I was half berserk. He just cut off the man's leg. My crew chief Gil threw up and cried.
We were sitting on this road one day, waiting for our mission, when this little girl -- maybe nine years old -- started toward us. I moved toward my weapon, gently clicking off the safety. In Nam, we were real leery of children. They could be deadly.
As she came closer, I noticed she was limping, and I saw a bread bag around her foot. She had cut her foot on something and it was bleeding bad. The bread bag was bloated like a water balloon filled with coagulated blood.
I checked her out and tried to get her to let our medic give her aid, but she said, "No can do, VC kill family." She pointed at a C-ration can I had on my 60. I gave it to her and she limped over to two other children by this stump. I watched them for the longest time, and I remember thinking I would have killed her if she'd had a grenade. There was no doubt in my mind. I know I would have.
In Nam, you didn't choose your enemy. Your enemy chose you, and whether it was man, woman or child made no difference. It was part of Nam. Just the way things were.
Printed with permission of Dan Sutherland