“Door Gunner for a Day”

by William Gritzbaugh

The US Army helicopter circled the tiny hilltop battle site at an altitude just below the monsoon overcast. It was – hopefully – high enough that any Vietcong fire directed at us would be a waste of their ammunition. Our embattled ground unit had popped a smoke grenade, and the purple pall that drifted slowly off the hilltop showed that wind direction needn’t be a factor in the pilot’s choice of landing approach or departure. His assessment made, the pilot closed his circle pattern, banked hard to his left and began a hair-raising corkscrew descent towards the ground and our attempt to evacuate several wounded Vietnamese soldiers. That I found myself a door gunner on this particular medevac mission was just one of those situations not uncommon in war, but this time could be considered symbolic of the emerging shift in American war strategy.

In the late summer of 1970, I was Executive Officer of A-104 Ha Thanh, a Special Forces outpost in I-Corp, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. Soon, however, my world changed as ‘Vietnamization’ of the US war effort heralded the exit of Special Forces from its traditional role as trainer and force- multiplier for our allies.

September 1 found our twelve-man A Team split up, with half returning to 5th Group I-Corps Headquarters in Da Nang. The other half, with myself in command, would remain at Ha Thanh and be reassigned to US Army Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), a non-combat bureaucracy headquartered in Saigon. Our indigenous (Vietnamese and Montagnard) troops were converted from their former ‘Civilian Irregular Defense Group’ (CIDG) status to Vietnamese Army ‘Mountain Rangers.’

Correctly sensing the disarray and confusion on the part of the Vietnamese forces, the Vietcong increased activity in our area of operations (AO) in the form of troop movements as well as direct and indirect fire attacks on our camp. A visit with me at Ha Thanh by the Deputy Commander of the Americal Division, whose AO included Quang Ngai Provence, made it clear that the Vietnamese were expected to ‘step up’ and run the show going forward.

A critical manifestation of support inadequacy showed up almost immediately. It became apparent that the Vietnamese would not provide air medevacs, what we called ‘dust-offs’ for wounded troops in the field. Since our new MACV status didn’t include accompanying combat operations like we had done as Special Forces, the lack of these dust-off extractions did not expose our small team. But that wasn’t how it worked with people who’d come to depend on our loyalty.

The first time, Vietnamese camp commander, Dai Hui (Captain) Luc, ran up to me outside our Team House and, red-faced and exasperated, described a radio transmission with his chain of command in Quang Ngai City. The Dai Hui had called for a Vietnamese medevac to pick up several wounded soldiers who’d been in a pitched battle with the Vietcong. Incredibly, he’d been told it would be “two days” before a helicopter could be sent. In other words, no support was forthcoming. This after having recently been given a ‘rah rah’ speech by high ranking Vietnamese Army commanders who’d been visiting camps like ours that were transitioning away from substantial American combat and logistical support.

I didn’t even think about calling for a US medevac due to Americal Division directive. So, I got on the network and asked if one of the US utility helicopters that crisscrossed the area might be able to go off-course for an extraction. I didn’t mention that the troops were ‘indig’, but just ‘wounded.’

Shortly, a UH-ID ‘Huey’ was inbound to pick me up. Utility helicopters, or ‘slicks,’ that were delivering people, mail, and movies were the same as the troop carriers that conducted combat assault operations. The crew included a pilot, co-pilot and two door gunners. By contrast, American dust-off units included a Huey without door gunners but were accompanied by two gunships. Anyway, I climbed aboard with my weapon, gear and PRC-25 radio, and since the mountainside location could be seen from our Camp, directed the pilot to head out on a direction and distance. Once in the air, I radioed the ground commander to pop smoke when he saw and heard our approach. Thankfully, this landing zone (LZ) wasn’t ‘hot’ but merely lukewarm, meaning that the soldiers were kneeling or crouching watchfully in the sword grass rather than prone and firing at the VC who’d apparently left the area. The casualties were loaded and we took off back to Ha Thanh without taking hits nor seeing tracer rounds.

The problem arose when these situations became regular occurrences. I can’t recall how often I requested such extractions, but it was enough that I was concerned I’d be in trouble – bad trouble – for exposing American aircraft crews when the Vietnamese were supposed to be taking care of themselves. After all, they had hundreds of brand-new Hueys and had been trained to fly and maintain them at great expense. Moreover, I was accompanying these extractions, so my own butt was at risk. For better or worse, air crews mentioned to me that they didn’t mind the distraction of such missions given the mundane tasks they’d been assigned for the day. I certainly didn’t feel that way, but at least knew that these fellow Americans weren’t being placed at risk involuntarily. I was asking for their help and they offered it.

One day Dai Hui came to me with a bad situation that involved numerous casualties, captured weapons and a really crappy, hot LZ on one end of a high ridge with precipitous slopes on three sides. The jungle undergrowth was dense, thus giving cover to the VC, and tall trees surrounding the ridge end would make a landing approach difficult from any direction. In came a ‘slick’ to assist, but I immediately noticed that one door gunner with his M-60 machine gun was missing. His commo helmet was secured by the seatbelt. I can’t recall what that story was, but the pilot suggested I ride in that door gun position and “look like a hard ass.” So after identifying the location on a laminated map of our AO for the pilot and co-pilot and briefly discussing the difficult terrain, I piled into the door gun bay, put on the commo helmet, and struggled into the lap and shoulder belts.

In a short time we were orbiting the defensive position of our embattled unit. With the smoke identified, the pilot began a dizzying corkscrew descent, banking at such a severe angle that I was looking straight down at the LZ with my M-16 braced against my shoulder and one foot welded to the pedestal of the missing M-60. My recollection of that descent was the sensation of impossible sideways and up-down movement, of looking straight down at the green jungle, my weight pressing against the web belts, pushing desperately against that pedestal with my foot, wind howling from our air speed and hoping we weren’t going to get blasted out of the sky.

I’ve never been so thankful to actually land on a hot LZ, given my fear moments before of tumbling from the sky to an ignominious death. The Vietnamese troops were prone and firing into the surrounding undergrowth as I stumbled from the Huey. Several grim-faced men helped me with the casualties and numerous captured VC weapons. Those VC dead from whom the weapons were taken lay further up the ridge trail. After surveying the area, I shook hands with the Vietnamese unit commander and felt real anguish that I couldn’t take him and his men out of that danger zone. But his mission was merely interrupted by this battle, and he needed to move on. I jogged to the pilot’s door and gave him a thumbs up. In his haste to take off, he didn’t wait for me to get strapped in, and I was frantically trying to do so as the Huey lifted off. To avoid VC fire, the pilot barely cleared the trees around the LZ before he nosed down and screamed towards the valley floor in the mist shrouded distance. At least the Huey’s forward trajectory gave me time to strap in, but had I been hit by a bullet in those seconds, my body would still be on the jungle hillside.

Back at Ha Thanh, our Camp medics loaded the wounded and dead into a three-quarter ton truck and drove them up to the dispensary. I thanked the pilot who I could tell was now upset that he’d exposed his crew and aircraft to tremendous peril at the request of a 1st Lieutenant – me – with dubious authority to do so. Indeed, there may have been bullet holes in the fuselage and engine cowling, but he didn’t get out to look. The second ‘real’ door gunner on the other side of the Huey gave me a nod as I walked by and yelled ‘thank you.’ Though I’d always respected the risks of air crews, that this kid and thousands like him did this job day in and day out continues to amaze me more than forty years later.

Personally, I have lived with guilt for having exposed this and other crews to death or catastrophic wounds at a time when the war was winding down, and we were supposed to be letting our allies take over the battle. Our informal dust-offs saved numerous lives, and my guilt is somewhat assuaged by that knowledge. During my tour in Vietnam, I witnessed brand-new Huey helicopters with freshly trained Vietnamese pilots ferrying around girlfriends and family members on joyrides. This was months before the event described above where a seasoned and dedicated ground commander like Dai Hui Luc was callously dismissed (two days!) in a time of need by his own higher-ups. Whether this circumstance was a one-off or a sign of systemic incompetence, I’ll never know. That Luc continued to come to me for the welfare of his soldiers in the field told me that he’d lost faith in those higher-ups and took the path of least resistance. Perhaps I ‘enabled’ his use of that path. But looking back, I believe it was, in fact, yet more evidence of dysfunction within the Vietnamese military that simply couldn’t be overcome by the supreme efforts of tens of thousands of Vietnamese patriots who lost everything in the North’s eventual victory.