John Hastings
A Pelican crewchief from the 1967-68 era

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It was an interesting experience; one marked by extreme excitement at times and one also marked by extreme boredom and tedious monotony.

The monotony was sitting in the back watching the world go by at 80 knots enroute to a large base camp to pick up supplies for our little home away from home and our own makeshift PX. There were times when we would supply and re-supply and supply and re-supply again and again all day long. I can remember fighting the urge to close my eyes and sneak a nap, although I never fell asleep, it was a temptation.

The assaults were exciting and at times scary too. With guns firing as we entered into the short final approach, our job was to ensure that the enemy was either dug in deep or dead, if they were there at all. Most of the time we would not see anyone as the gun ships had already cleared the area for us, but it was always a concern and precaution that was standard operating procedure for us in the back seats.

Tedium was a common occurrence for the back seaters after the flight was over and we were back at our own company area. During the flight of the day, at times little things would pop up that needed attention and after the flight, the gunner and I would spend the time to repair and adjust whatever was needed.  

On September 12, 1967 a series of events occurred that will stay with me all my life.  The mission for the day an airlift elements of the 101st Airborne Division into the foothills northwest of Chu Lai.  All aviation companies of the 14th Battalion would be furnishing aircraft for the operation.  My crew that day was Captain Thomas Hooker, our 2nd Platoon commander, a Warrant Officer, whose name may have been John Newell.  My gunner was a Staff Sergeant from the 14th Battalion Headquarters.  I would guess this mission was considered not too dangerous and this sergeant wanted to get some flight time.

The usual preparatory artillery barrage in and around the landing zone will precede the landing of the first aircraft.  I had later heard some of the artillery prep-fire included airburst above the LZ to hopefully clear the area of land mines.

When it was our turn to land, I vividly remember how rocky the LZ  was and barren… not much vegetation, at all.

We landed, our troops got off and we departed without incident.  However, a few minutes later, there was a call for an emergency medical evacuation at the LZ. 

As I monitored the radio traffic, I could tell mines had been detonated in the LZ.  There was an aircraft disabled in the LZ.  Evidently, there were still mines in the LZ not detonated by the artillery prep-work..

Captain Hooker answered the medievac requested and we headed back to the LZ to make the pickup and fly the wounded to the nearest medical facilities.

As we approached the LZ, to our left, I recall seeing another Huey shut-down in the LZ.  We landed slightly ahead of this aircraft.   I glanced back at this aircraft, not noticing the presence any of the crew.  One thing I vividly remember about that aircraft was the nose access door, where the battery and radios are mounted.  The door was unlatched and was flapping up and down from our rotor wash.

I glanced back to my right and saw a group of soldiers approaching our aircraft from the right side, carrying another soldier.  I unbuckled and stepped around into the cargo area to assist loading the soldier into the aircraft.  He was loaded feet first, so I grabbed him by both ankles and eased him onto the cargo deck just behind the pilots seat.  I immediately noticed he was a helicopter crewmen, since he was still wearing a chest-protector and flight helmet.  Another thing I noticed about this man was how his head rolled from side-to-side as he was laid on the deck… this man was dead.  From my brief observation of this man, I did not see any noticeable wounds on this man.  The first dead American I had seen in Vietnam, a fellow crewmember.

Another soldier got into the aircraft  and assisted another wounded soldier into the aircraft.  This man was obviously seriously wounded in the leg.  We laid the cargo seat down, which had been stowed in the upright position, and placed him stretched out along the length of the seat.

I made my way back to my crew chief seat on the left side as three more walking wounded got on board.  One of the three, I noticed, had a puncture wound in his right cheek.  I, also, vividly remember this, because my father had the same kind of wound he received in Europe during WWII.

As we lifted off, I overheard Captain Hooker on the radio that we would be flying the wounded back to the big Evacuation hospital at Chu Lai.  When we arrived at Chu Lai, the hospital staff was waiting at the helipad.  The first person they grabbed to unload was the dead helicopter crewman, but one of the other passengers waved his hand across his face to signal the corpsman that this guy was already dead and to get the other wounded first.  The fellow laying across the seat was placed on a stretcher, the walking wounded got out on their own and finally the KIA was removed and placed on a stretcher.

After unloading our passengers, we quickly took off and contacted the airlift commander for instructions to rejoin the flight.  For now, the flight was stand-down at a small airstrip, whose name and location I never heard.  We landed in line behind the other helicopters that were already shut down and awaiting the next phase of the mission.

One of the duties of the door gunner (right side) was to tie-down the main rotor once we shut down.  Since we had a guy from 14th Battalion HQ did not know the routine, I did this little chore myself.  Also, did my usual walk around the aircraft and checked for any battle damage or anything that needed attention… everything seemed to be okay. 

Inside the aircraft was another story.  Beside the usual sand and dirt was fair amount of blood on the canvas seat and along the cargo deck along the transmission bulkhead.  About this time, a group of five soldiers, who were assigned to our aircraft for the next lift assembled around the aircraft.  The sight of the blood seemed upsetting to one of the guys.  Obviously, new in-country by sight and condition of his fatigues and gear.   I got some grease rags and water and as I tried to clean up, I related to them about the mines in the LZ and our medievac.

We soon cranked up and proceeded with the next phase of the airlift.  With our load of five grunts, we seemed to fly further into the mountains.  Our ship was on the left leg of a three-ship v-formation into the landing zone.  We landed and the grunts disembarked quickly and we took off without incident without any enemy ground fire.

However, after we cleared the LZ and crossed over the tree line, they opened up on us.  The terrain seemed fairly level, with some vegetation and tall palm-like trees.  I was leaning over my gun pointed down toward the tall trees, when gun smoke suddenly erupted from several locations.  I immediately opened up, pouring M60 fire onto one of the ground fire locations.  Within seconds, we were cleared of the ground fire.

I looked forward and saw both pilots had taken off their flight helmets and trying to talk to one another over the chopper  noise.  Thinking someone by might have been hit, I made my way forward to see what I could do to assist them.  No one had been hit by the ground fire, but I did not understand why they had taken their helmets off, until Captain Hooker pointed to my helmet and signaled me to remove it.  He then pointed to the fuel gauge, which had dropped to zero, as had most of the other instruments.  Captain Hooker then instructed me to look underneath the aircraft, while in flight, and see if we were losing fuel.  Not knowing any better, I laid down on the cargo deck and eased myself out far enough where I could look underneath.  Not seeing any fuel, I quickly pulled myself back inside.  Thinking about this later, it would not have taken much movement of the aircraft to send me flying out into midair.

We did not have any radio communication at all.  I think Mr. Newell made some kind of hand communication to another aircraft flying nearby that our radios were not operating.  Captain Hooker told us keep a look out for any nearby aircraft as we flew back to our base at Chu Lai without incident.

After arriving, the aircraft was inspected for battle damage.  Mix_Hastings_839.jpg (53856 bytes)

We had taken eight small-arms hits, four in the cockpit area, two along the tail boom and two more hits on the tail rotor.  The most serve were two rounds that hit the center console, damaging two major wiring harnesses and junction panels.  The tail rotor took a hit in one of the blades and the bullet hole in the pitch change hub was discovered by the maintenance who replaced the tail rotor assembly.  Anyone on the maintenance crew could have kept the hub as his own souvenir, but I had a good relationship with the crew, and they graciously gave it back to me.

September 29, 1968 is the second date associated with Million-Dollar Hill in which a lot of aircraft were damaged or destroyed and quite a few people hurt.  I did not participate in that engagement since my aircraft “Pelican 839’ was still grounded due to avionics damage sustained on the September 12th shoot-em up. 

I did want to give an account of the death of Robert Douglas Anderson, the only air crewman killed in the engagement.  Robert and I were in the same 2nd Flight Platoon with the 161st AHC.  Neither of us was scheduled to fly that day, because our respective aircraft were grounded for maintenance.  On that day, I was out on the flight line at my ship, mainly just tinkering around and avoiding being tapped for some company detail.  Robert must have been still in the hooch area.

A call came into operations to scramble all available aircraft.  At least one ship from the 2nd platoon was available, but its regular crew was not around, so a skeleton crew was assembled.  Therefore, our platoon sergeant, SFC Danzel Marcantel grabbed Anderson for the crew chief and he took the gunners position.  Captain Tom Hooker and WO William Chellis took the pilots slots. 

I did observe them taking off in a hurry and when the ship returned.  However, I do not recall the elapsed time between takeoff and return, but I do not think it was all that long.

By the time, Captain Hooker and his crew arrived, there were already troops on the ground.  Again, there was a call for a medical evacuation and Hooker took the assignment.  Contacting the ground commander, Hooker asked about enemy ground fire and was informed there was no ground fire in the LZ.

Upon landing, Anderson got out of the ship to assist in the loading of a single wounded soldier.  As Anderson was getting back into his crew position, an NVA .51 machine gun opened up on the aircraft.  Rounds hit the left wind screen sending shards of Plexiglas into the face of Captain Hooker.  Fortunately, he had his visor down and only got minor wounds in the lower part of this face and neck.  Another round struck the armored seat in which Chellis was sitting, wounding him in the buttock.  That round, by the way, entered the right side of the seat and exited the rear of the seat… so much for the term ‘armored’ seat.  Still another round, hit the wounded GI that had just been loaded, although, it was not fatal.

Finally, Anderson was struck in the groin area by a .51 round.  Hooker later said, he heard Anderson cry out and instructed Marcantel and check on Anderson.  Marcantel described how he found Anderson blown against his machine gun mount from the force of the round hitting him.  He pulled back into the aircraft, buckled him in and tried to stop his bleeding.  However, the wound to so massive that Anderson quickly went into shock and bleed to death before they could even get to one of the US field aid stations.

Hooker flew onto Chu Lai and dropped everyone off at the Evac Hospital.  Even Marcantel stayed at the hospital.  Captain Hooker then flew the  aircraft, him being the only person on board, back to the 161st AHC field.  I was still on the flight line when he arrived.  He flew in very fast, not the usual slow approach down the taxi way, but very fast and parked down by the aircraft wash area.  He shut down, got out and quickly walked up the taxi way toward flight operations.  As he past me, without stopping, the said something to the effect, “we need to clean Anderson’s ship.”  I was one of the first to reach the ship and I never saw such a ghastly sight.  The inside and down left side of aircraft appeared to have been spray painted with some kind of rust-colored paint, when in fact, it was Anderson’s blood.

We set about doing the cleanup.  A general wash down was done, then most of soft material, such as seating and sound proofing was removed and thrown away.  As the weapons were being removed, a human finger with a wedding band was found in one of the ammunition boxes.  We later learned the grunt that was being evacuated was hit a second time in the hand by the same machine gun burst that killed Anderson.

I always feel somewhat troubled by Anderson’s death, since I could have very well been in his place when Sgt Marcantel was gathering the crew for this scramble mission.  

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