After a week or so of simple
ash-and-trash missions around Nha Trang
it was time for my first mission with troops. I was right out of high
school and here I was getting ready to fly an actual combat mission.
I was both scared stiff and excited beyond belief and probably all 135 lbs.
of me was shaking. Little did I know the mission had a secondary purpose.
I was now under the wing of WO Dennis Petrovich for my first few missions. We had dropped off a company or so of ARVN early in the morning and were now picking them back up. Our ship was #2 in a trail formation. The landing was without incident and I saw that all the ARVN were boarding with big bundles of tobacco that they had harvested.
Just then, my door gunner opened up and said that he was receiving fire from the tree line. I looked over at Petrovich and started to say something when the door gunner put the barrel towards to my ear and fired several rounds. He then swung the gun back to the tree line and opened up again, this time saying we were receiving HEAVY fire from the tree line. The ship in front of us was also firing from the right side. Just then the gunner started to talk again but stopped mid sentence with a deep heavy moan. I looked back and he was slumped back in his cubby hole. His gun barrel was now pointing straight down. I was sure he was dead.
I looked over at Petrovich and told him the gunner was hit and we had to get out of there. Just then Petrovich swung around in his seat and grabbed his left shoulder. “I'm hit, you got it” he said. I about died. I couldn't take off because lead was in the way. As those seconds passed by, all I could think about was that I was a sitting duck and what the heck lead was doing just sitting there. As soon as I saw lead get light I was ready and followed him out.
About a half mile out Petrovich let the cat out of the bag. It was just a test to see if one of us new guys would freeze when all hell broke lose. My door gunner acknowledged he was still alive and that the ship did not receive any damage. I had passed their test but was wondering how long it would be before my right ear was on line again.
Back then, new peter pilots didn't mingle with ACs very much. The showers was one of those mingle places though and when I went in for mine, the ACs were already in there. I didn't dare say a word and began taking my shower off to the side when Petrovich said “Hey”. I turned around and saw him and the others looking at me. “When the shooting started, where did you go", Petrovich asked? "I didn't see anybody in that seat – thought you had got out.” The ACs all laughed. Petrovich then said that all he could see in my seat was a skinny little arm sticking out with one finger on top of the Chinese hat trim button that was on the very top of the cyclic and that's how I flew her out. He said he had never seen anyone suck himself down into an armored seat as far as I had.
I passed the “Test” as did the others and the mingling got a little easier. Tom Condrey became my steady AC with a little bit of McCoig mixed in for flavor. Those two taught me how to fly and more importantly how to stay alive. When my son (9 now) is ready, he will be told this story and others and the tears that I will probably shed will convey the feeling, sincerity, and the importance of the memory. It was a time when boys became men overnight.