"Rat Pack 16"  10/66-3/67
Miami, FL

Red Bar Line

2nd TOUR - 1st TWO DAYS!

I departed the Huey ‘slick’ with my duffel on the west side of the Nha Trang airfield on a Sunday afternoon,  December 2, 1966, starting my second tour.  The 281st Assault Helicopter Company operation’s shack was a short walk from the drop-off point.  I opened the screen door to the Ops office and mentally noted that the door hinges squeaked.  My combat boots made plenty of noise walking toward the Ops counter on the hardwood mahogany floors.  There were two persons present. But, even with the racket of the door hinges and the noise my boots made on the wooden deck it was strangely evident that I hadn’t been heard or noticed.  The two occupants of the office, I observed, were obviously in another world looking off into space.

I tapped my knuckles on the wooden; homemade Ops counter and said, “Excuse me!” I startled the two people there.  Then I said, “What’s wrong?” The major behind the counter, in jungle fatigues, jumped up and said, “What do you mean, what’s wrong?”  I replied, “The screen door squeaked and my boots made considerable noise, and you guy’s never heard me.  What’s wrong?”  The major replied, “I’m sorry!  I’m Pat Sheley!” He extended his hand and I responded. “ We just got word that we have a ‘chopper down, all aboard lost, all crew and passenger killed, shot down over Laos.”  Then I understood.  In their own way they had been mourning the loss of comrades they would never share stories with again, never have a drink with again, never fly with again, but yet remembering the good times and fun times and the flying times they had shared. 

Then, Pat introduced me to the young private, sitting at his Ops typing desk, also handmade.  I don’t recall the kid’s name but he was  visibly saddened by the terrible news.

I thought to myself, “What a way to start another tour!  And what’s this about being shot down in Laos?”  As if reading my thoughts Pat explained that it was a Special Forces  extraction operation.  A ‘slick’, protected by gunships, had attempted to lift out a long range recon team which had been compromised, running for two days to evade capture. There were wounded among the ground team.  The ‘slick’ got hit severely by ground fire in the extraction attempt and crashed into Laos killing all on board.

Pat called for a jeep to take duffel and me to quarters.  What a pleasant surprise after the terrible news at the Ops shack.  A villa guarded by Chinese Nungs, a two-block walk to the beach.  A lot of my ’62 first tour was spent in Nha Trang with the 18th Otter Company, so I was familiar with my surroundings.  But a villa?  In ’62 I initially had a tent but it had some sophistication with the ‘pricey-in-USA’ mahogany floors.  Also in ’62, we were allowed to purchase $35.00 palm roof huts with woven reed mat siding.  It was much cooler than the tents, with metal water pitcher and basin for shaving and French baths.  Showers and privies  were nearby, really too close to each other to be termed “sanitary”.  But an air-conditioned villa?  With hot and cold running water?  3-minutes to the beach?  What an uplift—in comparison to ‘62! 

Later, when the crews returned from the extraction operation I met the rest of my villamates led by Major Bill Griffin, our company commander who was  Special Forces trained.  His trademark mountain climbing rope was slung over his right shoulder. 

Bill explained that he would lead a team into Laos the following day in an attempt to retrieve the bodies.  That I would report to Ops for local training with no further explanation.  After dinner; we had three housemaids who did the laundering, cleaning, bed making and cooking; we relaxed and went over the day’s operation and the next day’s recovery attempt.

The next morning I reported to the Ops shack.  I was advised that I would join some Special Forces types  who were getting checked out on riding  an extraction rig made up from a series of mountain climbing ropes.  (Electrical rigs with cable were added to our fleet of slicks several months later)  One end of the rig was tied to the Huey’s floor tiedown rings and slung below the ‘chopper.  I noticed a S.F. master sergeant attending to the rig in the cargo compartment.  I thought, “They want me to watch this operation from the ground so I can see how it looks when I’m flying the aircraft.”  Wrong!  The officer-in-charge of the training said that Major Griffin required all of his pilots to ride the rig so they would have a better understanding of what the guy’s on the rig had to endure.  Two burly S.F types started for the rig.  I followed.  It was a 3-seat rig.  We were further advised that the pilot flying was getting his checkout on the procedure, but not to worry, as there was an experienced instructor pilot in the left seat.

The procedure was for a ground crew to secure the seating end of the rig ropes to prevent them from flying into rotating blades.  The ‘chopper would lift off hovering at about 75 feet altitude or the length of the ropes.  There were three side-by-side canvas seats attached to the “U’s”  the ropes made.  The three riders would sit their buttocks over the canvas seats and intertwine arms and legs.  When the pilot got the signal  that all was ready at the bottom of the ropes  he would continue his hover upward until his rig passengers were sufficiently clear of ground obstacles, then lower the aircraft’s nose, picking up  airspeed and altitude.  What a ride!  We ultimately viewed the city of Nha Trang in a wide circle eventually climbing, and dangling, 500 feet above the multitudes, literally, “at the end of our ropes”, sans parachutes. 

After about 15 minutes riding the rig we noted the pilot-in-training was on final approach to the training site, which happened to be the mud flats south  of the S.F. compound.  On low final we could tell that the pilot was coming in TOO low.  Feet first, we were all three dragged through the mud so we unraveled our limbs from each other, let go of the ropes and slid on our backs through the mud. Better than any slide I ever made in a baseball game.   I returned to the villa for a shower and a change of clothes.

Upon returning to the training site, approaching the Huey for my turn as “pilot-to-be-trained in the rig extraction process,” I again observed the S.F. Master Sergeant in the rear compartment attending the rig ropes.  As I got closer I noted a machete, without scabbard, lying beside him.  I asked what the purpose of the machete was.  The surprising answer was that  if the engine quits in flight the sergeant would chop the ropes to allow the aircraft to autorotate, hopefully saving the aircraft and crewmen on board.  I swallowed pretty hard, glad that I had already ridden the rig, then headed for the right pilot’s seat, introducing myself to the IP.

I had arranged with the ground crew, prior to boarding that I would load my rig-riders up, and drop them off, from the top of a dike.  This would prevent them from being dragged through the mud if my flying proficiency permitted.  I was able to do the intended and was signed off by the IP, certified to fly the rig, if any future occasion demanded.

Later, while preparing for some sack time and mentally reviewing the activities of only the first two days of my second tour, I recognized that the pace of the war had significantly increased since my first tour in ’62.  I hoped that I would live through the second tour intact enough to write about the experiences.