by Rod Carlson
After returning from wars, Americans go back to school before moving on to success and wealth. After Vietnam, I was in business school at the University of Virginia. Most every day, a few of us survivors would have lunch and distract ourselves from the inevitability of having our total stupidity discovered and being ejected from the school.
Looking up from his chicken pot pie, Art Johnsen, known for touch and goes at Khe Sanh said, “Hey, there’s Chuck Robb.” It was common knowledge that Robb was President Johnson’s son-in-law and here at UVA attending law school. As part of the first family, he had national celebrity. However, at this university, known for it’s reverse snobbery, he was pretty much ignored.
Robb had passed through the chow line and was now at the cashier with his tray and a few books under his arm.
“You know,” I said, “I think I know him.”
“You’re so full ,” ex-naval officer Jack Garrety, said, “Get off it.”
“No, I really do,” I was on my feet walking toward Robb.
I could feel my comrades watching me, and Robb seemed to flinch as I interrupted his comfortable anonymity. Within a few seconds he was smiling enthusiastically. I pointed toward our table and asked him to join us.
“You bet, I do remember the day we met,” he said tearing open a packet of
ketchup. Having gone this far, I was obligated to tell the whole story.
It was in the early fall of ’68. I was a 1st lieutenant and pilot flying a CH-46A in a Marine helicopter squadron HMM-265. Since arriving in country in April, my life changed dramatically. Several good friends had been killed in combat, and I had learned that my wife was pregnant with our first child. Typical of any pilot with almost five months in country, my flying abilities, nervousness, and surly demeanor had all increased substantially. When you accept the responsibility for the lives of your crew and passengers, you have become the only authority figure that matters.
On that particular day, our squadron and several other ’46 units, plus a VMO squadron with Huey gunships, had been given a mission to land a reinforced battalion, which was to attack a heavily fortified area that included a village occupied, by a large number of NVA regulars.
En route, we had refueled at Marble Mountain Air Facility and flown southwest some 25 miles to An Hoa where we landed, pulled off the Marston mat runway, and shut down.
“This is going to be great,” said Captain Lance Bergen who was my senior. “Look at all those helicopters,” he added as we walked to the pre-mission briefing, “People write books about stuff like this.”
The skipper of VMO-6, a very confident lieutenant colonel with a regulation haircut for your hair wigs began, “Okay, here’s the deal. First there’s the fixed wing prep followed by a half hour of artillery, then riot gas. He gave the coordinates of the landing zone, approach and egress routes, radio frequencies for FM and UHF, and the instructions, “Just follow the bird in front of you, stay close, land, drop your Marines, pull out over the open area the way we came in.”
He looked at his watch, “Show time,” he said, and in the distance to the north we watched the first of the F-4’s making their runs and dropping 500 pounders. Clouds of smoke and dirt rose into the clear sky. “Let’s saddle up, ” he said. “I’ll give the signal to start up, good hunting, Marines.”
We walked back to our ’46. “How does it look, Corporal Moth?” I asked our crew chief who was supervising the boarding of the Marines we were to carry. “And, make sure all their grenades are secure. We don’t want any loud surprises,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Sir,” he said, “We’re ready.”
I studied our Marines. So young. None over nineteen. Even the squad leader had that fresh-face, first-day-away-from-home look. A young rifleman’s eyes met mine as if to say, “Hey Lieutenant, how did we get into this mess?”
Lance and I were still strapping in as the signal was given and the An Hoa airstrip came to life with the sounds and smells of turbines and jet fuel. “Ready APE?” I looked to ramp in the back. The crew chief gave us the thumb and we started the aux power plant and soon the rotors were turning at 100%. We lifted off the runway, spiraled up to 1500 feet and headed east. Then the flight circled wide to the north so that those who followed could increase their rate of turn to catch up.
Now we could see the cloud of riot gas like a marsh fog blowing to the northwest into the target area. We played follow-the-leader and in minutes, the open expanse southeast of the village was full of whirling rotor blades and green fuselages.
Our Marines streamed out the back, Moth raised the ramp and gave us the thumb. Lance pulled up on the collective. Now light, she rose easily and picked up speed rapidly. Then over the radio, so faint in the distance as to be almost inaudible, two words “turn right.” It was too late.
Before my hand could reach the stick, Lance had already turned to the right, and we were headed straight for the village.
“Damn it, not us,” I screamed without bothering to use the intercom. I looked down at the trees. And there they were! Conical straw hats, then faces under the hats, then muzzle flashes. Then a lot more muzzle flashes and the sound of aluminum being punctured.
“I’m dead,” I said, “So this is where my life ends.” Our .50 caliber machine gun opened up so close that the concussion blew the thought out of my mind.
“Hey,’46, you’re burning,” A voice said in my earphones. I looked to the back but I couldn’t see the crew chief or the gunner. Only Smoke!
“We’re with you.” It was the VMO Huey gunship pulling along side shooting its machine guns and rockets into the trees ahead. “You’ve got Hill 65 about 3 clicks ahead. Follow me.”
I fully expected that we would lose control and corkscrew into the ground in flames. But to my amazement, we made it to Hill 65 and landed. Corporal Moth put the fires out, and, except for the sound of my heart thwacking against the armored vest, it was suddenly quiet.
“You almost killed me,” I gasped. Lance offered a brief explanation, but I was too enraged to hear it.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Carlson, your husband and the father of your unborn child is dead because his friend Lance Bergen flew him right over a hot vil.”
“I’m going down to the operations bunker,” Bergen said gleefully. “We’ll need a ride home.”
The Hill 65 landing pad and command post was on a huge pile of earth that rose some forty feet above the ground and gave a commanding view toward the south. The operations bunker had been burrowed deep in its bowels as protection against the nightly mortar attacks. Behind a perimeter of sandbags about waist high, there was a spotting scope that was so powerful I could see An Hoa. I watched a couple of A-4’s dropping napalm and an A-1 shooting its 20mm guns as I tried to calm down, but I was still vibrating with the combined force of hate and fear.
Behind me, Lance had returned and said, “Hey, Roddy, come on down. Guess who’s here. Chuck Robb is the operations officer.” All I could do was ignore him.
After perhaps an hour, I looked up at a young, neat major. “You okay?” he asked. “You know, that guy almost killed me,” I said.
“Well, almost doesn’t count,” he studied our scorched helicopter and walked back toward the bunker.
Now, years later, civilian Robb was finishing his fries.
“I’ve always remembered that I did not salute, call you “Sir,” or even stand up, and you didn’t call me on it. As I recall, you were a major, and I but a lowly lieutenant — it was generous of you!”
Wondering how severe Robb’s indictment might be, my cohorts leaned forward in attention.
“Strange,” he said, “All I can remember is wanting to get your damn machine off my landing zone before it became a magnet for mortar rounds,” he smiled. “This law school routine is a killer,” he added standing up, “Good seeing you again.” This time I stood up and we shook hands.
Chuck Robb went on to be a credit to Corps and Country as a U.S. senator. Garrett became a Wall Street tycoon, Art Johnsen went into marketing, and I went into advertising where I’ve encountered a lot of people easier to forget than Lance, who I soon forgave for almost killing me.
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Note: Any similarity between any real person, except for Chuck Robb, and anyone in this story is purely coincidental.
submitted by Rod Carlson