Christmas Day, 1968 was just another day for MACV-SOG Spike Team Idaho. Early that morning ST Idaho was loaded onto Kingbees and flown to the Quang Tri launch site.
“Kingbee come soon?” Hiep asked. I told him Captain Tuong was approximately one minute away.
“They’re starting more fires,” Bubba said. By now, the noise from the fire forced us to raise our voices when talking to each other. The smoke was getting thicker. I began to sweat. We threw a few more hand grenades down the hill to force the NVA to keep their heads down. The noise from both fires was so loud we would not have been able to hear the NVA had they launched an attack. At this point, the most likely avenue of attack would be the knoll ridgeline from the east to our LZ. Bubba said he had a claymore mine strung out there. Black reported that the fire was sweeping through the elephant grass on our western flank, on the steep slope below our LZ which led down to the canyon.
The southern fire’s intensity grew by the second and continued to move up the slope toward us and around to the east. There was a fire or fires to the north and northeast, but they weren’t heading toward ST Idaho with the speed of the southern flames. Black and Shore took out several one-pound bars of C-4 plastic explosive, cut them in half and primed them with blasting caps. With the fire advancing so quickly up the southern side of the hill, they got as close as possible, placed the C-4 at the fire’s edge and set it off. The theory was that the C-4 would temporarily blow the flames back down the mountain. By now the smoke was so thick, I had my green cravat over my face with the top pulled over my nose. Burning embers from the south kicked up and flew over our small, jagged perimeter, dumping ashes, soot and small, burning sparks on the elephant grass and us. Only Hiep and Tuan wore hats. Several of us soaked our hair.
The heat from the fires became so intense that Black and Shore got heat blisters the second time they attempted to stop the flames’ charge toward us. All of us were flicking ashes or small sparks off of our clothing and any exposed skin or hair. Black told me that the NVA weren’t far behind the flames. Tuan had first reported seeing images a short distance behind the flames to the south and southeast. Black had observed the same images, unsure as to whether the images were real or some phenomenon produced by the flames and the rising heat waves. Then Bubba reported seeing the same thing, noting that it was odd that the NVA soldiers were not holding their AK-47s in a firing position, but rather in a relaxed, almost casual way. Black and Phuoc placed a few more claymores on the slope heading south and southeast.
When Spider said the Kingbee was 30 seconds out, I signaled Tuan, Black, Phuoc and Shore to blow their claymores. Finally we could hear the Kingbee. Because we had the most enemy activity to our south and southeast, I told Spider to bring Captain Tuong’s Kingbee in from the north, which made for a radically, steep descent into the mountainous canyon area. The smoke was stifling, choking us while sending up a huge plume of black and gray smoke. Black pointed out that the fires had burnt so long in the southeast, that the NVA might use that burnt area as a line of attack against us. Black, Shore, Tuan and I fired a volley of M-79 high explosive rounds toward the south and southeast. I turned my attention to the Kingbee, and Black and Bubba set off two more C-4 charges in an effort to keep the flames at bay. The explosions slowed the flames and any NVA movement behind them. Black, Bubba and Tuan fired a few more M-79 rounds to the south, arching them as though they were small mortars.
Captain Tuong knew exactly where we were, as he brought the H-34 down the canyon toward us. The smoke was thick, however, and made it difficult for him to see our LZ. It felt as though we were trapped in some sort of Twilight Zone episode, with the smoke and fire rushing up the mountain, enemy soldiers firing at us, and salvation within sight, but out of reach. When the old Sikorsky was about 75 feet from our LZ and flaring toward us, it appeared to me that the rotor blades were moving in slow motion. For a brief moment, I thought the Kingbee was going to pull out of the landing pattern due to the smoke that covered the LZ. My heart stopped. If he left, we would die.
Seconds became hours. My vision was clearer than ever and I was acutely aware of the smoke, fire, popping sounds and enemy gunfire. I stood on the western edge of the perimeter, waving a colored panel skyward trying to catch the pilot’s eye. The H-34 continued its slow motion descent. All I saw was the bottom of the chopper, with the front struts sticking out to the right and left coming down like a giant praying mantis. The rotor wash from the Kingbee began to hit us. Finally, the chopper’s nose turned slightly to the left and I could see Captain Tuong. Seeing his face, seeing him sitting there so calmly in the pilot’s seat, made my confidence surge. We would survive.
There was an additional benefit from the rotor wash: it pushed the smoke and fire back from the top of the knoll. Normally during an extraction, the powerful rotor wash was a disruptive force as it kicked up dirt, leaves, small branches and stones while the noise eliminated most verbal communication and the swirling blasts of air hurt the eyes. But, on Christmas Day, 1968, the powerful rotor wash became a unique saving grace for ST Idaho. It pushed the fire and smoke back as the entire team jumped into the Kingbee. The rotor wash was so strong it pushed the flames farther down hill, forcing the NVA to back up or to be burnt by their own fires. As the last man aboard the chopper, I signaled to the door gunner to exit the area. I sat in the door as Tuong lifted the Kingbee straight up for several feet before heading south. As we pulled away from the knoll, fire swept up the hill and engulfed the area where we had been standing moments earlier.
Captain Tuong roared down the canyon we had chugged along only a short while ago. I radioed Spider and gave him a team okay. Once again, ST Idaho entered that magical, post-mission moment. The adrenaline was still flowing; we had survived another target. Every breath of air was sweeter. There was no thought of Christmas, mom or holiday presents. Our gift was to be alive. I looked at Black and Bubba. They had burnt eyebrows, burnt arm hair and all sorts of soot and black ashes smeared on their sweaty faces. I started to shiver as the Kingbee headed southeast to Quang Tri. The shivers were triggered by several elements: the cold air hitting my sweaty, fear-laced body, the chopper gaining altitude where the temperature was much colder than that of the LZ and realizing once again just how close ST Idaho had come to getting wiped out. As the One-Zero, the team leader of this small, valiant band of recon brothers, I had extra shivers.
Captain Tuong flew us back to Quang Tri first because he was getting low on aviation fuel. We returned to Phu Bai in near darkness. As he had in the past, Captain Tuong allowed me to ride in the co-pilot seat with him during that last leg of the flight. I asked Captain Tuong if he was getting tired of pulling ST Idaho out of hot spots.
“No sweat,” he said. “Beaucoup smoke, but no sweat. Kingbee go home now. We fly you tomorrow?” I told him I could use a day off. He said Kingbees would fly tomorrow, for sure. Kingbees never rest. When we landed at FOB 1, he wished me a Merry Christmas but declined my offer for a Christmas drink at the club. His family was waiting for him in Da Nang, where the 219th South Vietnamese Air Force was based.
The nightmares began that night. All of a sudden I was back on the LZ. I could feel the heat of the fires, I could smell the smoke and I was coughing. Once more I was standing on the western edge of the LZ, flapping my orange and pink panel trying to get the attention of the Kingbee pilot descending toward us. The flashback was an instant replay of the day’s earlier trauma with one major exception: at the point where the Kingbee appeared to abort the descent I could see a young lieutenant in the pilot’s seat instead of Captain Tuong. It was the lieutenant who had failed to pull out the second half of a spike team in an A Shau Valley target earlier in the year after a veteran Kingbee pilot had pulled out the first half. The veteran Kingbee pilot, Captain Thinh, returned for the remainder of the men after the young lieutenant had panicked. Thinh got them out during one of the more courageous and gutsy extractions in SOG history.
Bubba and I filled in the missing pieces for Le Tourneau about what happened on Christmas Day and how lucky we were. We didn’t want to think about what would’ve happened if the Frenchman hadn’t intercepted that transmission or if Capt. Tuong hadn’t performed his aeronautical feat. Bubba and I both knew he had saved our lives.
* * *
What I didn’t know was that Christmas 1968 would haunt me sporadically for more than 25 years. After a while, I was able to stop sitting upright, sweating with fear when the nightmares hit. It’s been almost 10 years since I last had that dream, but every Christmas, nightmares or not, I always take a moment to think of Captain Tuong’s courage. No sweat. Kingbees never rest.
– John Stryker Meyer
STORY CURATED FROM: SOFREP.COM
STORY AUTHOR: JOHN STRYKER MEYER
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