There have been a few times in
my life when the adrenaline was really pumping.
On December 15th, 1967, I used up a whole year's worth. This
is the story of that day as best as I can recall.
I had been in country just over a month and was flying co-pilot for Tommy Condrey. We were working the area west of Kontum and on that particular day we were starting to pull out an assault group that had met more than it's match and was under fire.
The only LZ they could get to was at the edge of a clearing that had huge trees that formed a sort of widened out “U”. There was a little river to the east that ran North and South. The LZ was a one shipper, up against the trees deep in the middle of the “U”, and the troops were not loading very fast. In order to compensate for the extra loading time we had to string out the formation, which left us flying low and slow, a real no-no for choppers.
We were the #3 ship, I believe. Condrey was flying and I was watching #1 waiting for his load while #2 was slowing up his approach. This meant we had to slow up even more and stretch out the formation towards the little river.
I don't remember hearing the bullets hit. I do remember the cockpit instantly filling up with the dust that was kicked up from the floor. #4 later told us 3 NVA jumped out of the tree line and unloaded their AK’s at us. Of those some 90 odd rounds, 7 hit us. The bottom of the transmission had been blown out, McKenzie our door gunner was slumped over and one round came within 1” of hitting the tail rotor drive shaft, which at our speed would have put us down right then and there. We later found out that McKenzie took at least 2 of those rounds. We later were told they came up between the plate he was wearing and the one he was sitting on. He was paralyzed from the neck down and out cold.
The dust settled quickly just as the master caution started going off. A quick check of the gauges let us know we had no transmission fluid which meant all of 90 seconds to land that thing before it would freeze up. Condrey immediately started for the river while informing C&C (the command and control chopper running the operation from above), of the transmission problem. C&C just as quickly picked us out and gave us another heading to take up and told us he was taking us to the LZ where we had lost a ship the day before. The #4 ship didn't have to be told, he fell right in line with us for the pickup. We were now right on top of the trees and at the total mercy of our comrades. As soon as C&C told us where he was taking us to, things got quiet for a few seconds. It was one thing to have to set down on your side of the battle but completely another when you have to set down on Charlie's side and only being about 1/2 mile away. Everyone knew Charlie would be hot-footing it to that LZ to get another crack at us and it sure would not take him very long either. We had a few minutes at the very most.
One of the guns immediately picked us out and reported such, that was the good news. The bad news was that he reported only 3 seconds of mini-gun left. A mini-gun shoots 100 rounds a second and they had one on both sides of the ship. Because we were right on top of the trees, C&C had to tell us when to start our approach. The gun must have been right on our tail. We were about 100 yards out when he opened up. I had a full view of the LZ and when those mini-guns let loose it looked like someone was taking a giant weed wacker to the place. Limbs and leaves were fling all over and the tracer rounds were ricocheting all over as well. We were about 50 feet out when the gun ship's 3 seconds were up.
Condrey found a place to put her in but because it was a one shipper to begin with; getting us out would be another problem. It was the AC’s job to change the radio frequencies, secure the maps and such, then shoot out the actual radios in the nose of the aircraft. The crew chief (CC) had to open the fuel drains and then secure all the weapons because that was the door gunner's job and McKenzie was out. I was the free man so McKenzie was mine.
The second I got out of the ship I about lost all my toes. The night before someone had told me of a pilot that got his chin all tore up when a round hit his chicken plate and the splattered bullet and ceramic plastered his chin. I didn't want that to happen so that morning I took my chicken plate out of its harness and set it on my lap with just my jacket over it. As soon as I straightened up it fell out and that 20-lbs of metal just barely missed my toes. I now see that as a blessing in disguise though I didn't see it that way at the time. Guess the LORD knew that chicken plate would have been the straw that broke the pilot's back in this case and apparently he didn't want that to happen...just yet.
Now I'm going to have to whip some numbers on you here so you can get the gist of things. I weighed in at all of 135 lbs.. McKenzie was 170 lbs. with 40 lbs. of chicken plate which comes to 210 lbs. But now that 210 lbs. was dead weight poundage and not live weight poundage and there is a world of difference in the two. I might as well been trying to carry a 210-lb. slab of concrete. There wasn't time to get his harness off so I bent down and put him on my back then straightened up. Just as I straightened up I felt a sharp pain in my lower back just above the right hip and I could feel it getting wet and pretty hot in that spot. I figured I was hit but everything was still working, McKenzie was now up and #4 was almost to the ground and only about 50’ to our right. He was heavy and every step was an effort, even with all the adrenaline flow. Condrey and the CE were behind me. I was almost to #4 when he lifted off and moved to another spot where he could get low enough for us to get in. I about died, I thought he was leaving for good. The picture to the left was taken by Corbin Humphreys, crewcheif of the Wolf Pack gun ship circling above. Our heliciopter, I believe, is the lower one. When #4 moved to the craters his trail rotor was towards the left crater and his right skid was on the lower porton of the bottom crater so we could get on. The small clumps of bamboo to the crater's left and bottom right was what he had to chop down through to get to us.
#4 couldn't get down low enough to get us on board so he picked the only other spot out he could and went to it. I started back the other way but McKenzie was sure getting heavy and I had to take things one step at a time so my knees wouldn't buckle. I cleared the front of our ship and saw the CE in front of me with all our rifles and both M-60s. I don't remember seeing Condrey but I was rather busy at the moment. The going was rough because we had to step over this and go around that. I came upon a log that was about 2’ in diameter and set McKenzie down on it. NVA or not, I had to lighten the load and that meant taking off his two chicken plates. As I set him down he about slid off the log but I caught him and as I was pulling him back up we made eye contact. I wondered what was going through his mind just then.
With his chicken plates now removed I tried getting him on my back again but there was nothing left. The CE was just a few yards ahead of me so I called him back and we traded places. The CE was the same size or slightly larger than McKenzie and he about crumbled under his weight as well. I took all the guns he had been carrying and we headed towards the other ship.
As we got close to #4 one of the crew came out to help with McKenzie. They got him in and just as I was getting in I had a second or two to take in what #4 had done. He literally chopped his way down to us. He had put that ship in the middle of the only two big bomb craters that came together in that LZ. His tail rotor was in the middle of one crater and his right skid was on our side of the other crater. I could see small trees just under the rotor that had just been trimmed to size that were still hitting the underside of the blades and cutting them up bad. With Condrey now on we took off and both door gunners opened up on the tree line. I don't know if it was just suppressive fire or if Charlie had finally made it to the LZ and they were returning fire.
The flight back to base was almost as scary. I think I heard later that the ship had lost the last 2 feet of both blades trimming those trees down so they could get to us. The 1 to 1 vertical vibration, due to the blade damage, was so bad we had to hold on for dear life. I don't believe they could reach cruise speed because of it and we limped back home really slow so the thing would not come apart in the air on us. It was quiet the entire trip back. We were all pondering how close a call we had just had. I regret not trying to work on McKenzie but between being totally exhausted and hanging on for dear life and worrying about the ship coming apart in the air he got lost in the shuffle until we landed.
We made it to base camp and that was the last time I saw McKenzie. About 20 minutes later the adrenaline gave out and I found out I had apparently torn something inside my lower back and was not shot as I thought. I could walk around a little hunched over. We were short of pilots so I stayed there, spending most of my time in bed. About 3 days later the back seemed good enough to fly and I was put back on flying status. My back didn't give me any problems for the remainder of my time in Nam. After I left Nam though it would go out about once a year, for the rest of my life.
The rest of the extraction went OK and everyone got out. Our ship wasn't set on fire and was pulled out a short time later. Condrey was telling war stories about it at night and was later given a plaque by the avionics people for saving them the trouble of putting in all new radios. It seems that every one of his rounds either went between the radios or hit so square they didn't make it to the inside. When McKenzie left us he was paralyzed from the neck down. I had heard he was actually hit 3 times and all 3 rounds came up through that little crack between the plate he was wearing and the one he was sitting on. Two rounds followed the curve of the back plate and spun into his spine. The third followed the plate all the way up and wedged in the back of his head. At least that's what I heard. When he left for the real world we heard that he could move 2 toes on one foot.
Some new peter pilots came into the unit later that week and got to see the ship in Pleiku. It seems that virtually all of Condrey’s rounds ended up going through the copilot section of the cockpit leaving holes everywhere. Those guys thought Charlie had it in for PPs and they sure weren't too happy about that. I got to see the ship a little after that and took a picture of the round that hit just an inch away from the tail rotor drive shaft. That one would have put us in the trees right then and there. I cut out one of the bullets that wedged in a radio and gave it to Condrey as a souvenir. I kept one of the door quick release pins as my keep sake.
Getting out of that with just a bad back was a small price to pay considering what could of easily have happened. I learned a heck of a lot that day. Up until then I though C&C never really earned his keep up there way up high out of effective bullet range and out of harms way. That all changed when I realized he controlled all the pieces on that chess board and without someone to put it all together you have nothing. I don't remember who pulled us out, it might have been Torrini. My attempts to find McKenzie have all failed. If he is still alive, I hope he is well and will eventually discover the 281st web site. I know if I were in his place I sure would want to know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say. I'm glad the LORD fixed it so I would lose the chicken plate on that one. I don't believe I would have made it if he hadn't. I'm also glad he kept the #4 ship together until we got back safely. Its a shame that sometimes it takes years before we understand why some things work out the way they do.
With the advent of the Internet more
and more people are seeking information on their old units and buddies.
McKenzie did just such and found the 281st web site and this story.
It is my understanding that after enduring years of rehab he now walks with
the aid of a cane. He did not let his disability hinder him though and
his determination led to him becoming a professor at an area college in Michigan.
Going back to that day Mike recalls that he had one machine gun that would not work properly due to a faulty part. That particular part was on back order through supply and there were none to be scrounged. With only one machine gun working properly it was placed on the AC's side of the ship and Mike took the one that was prone to misfire.
Mike saw the 3 men emerge from the tree line and had them dead in his sights. Mike got in the first shot but the machine gun jammed after that first round. As Mike worked to chamber another round to try again to get the machine gun to function properly all he could do was watch as the 3 raked the aircraft with machine gun fire. Mike saw himself being shot. He was hit 5 times with one of those rounds being a piece of a 51 calibur round that apparantly came through the transmission and lodged in his neck.
When I heard his story all I could do was shake my head in disbelief. For the sake of a breakdown in the supply chain and what probably was a $2 part, a $250,000 aircraft was shot down and 2 men had their lives changed forever. Too bad there isn't a way to track down just who was sitting on those particular machine gun parts waiting for a more opportune time to send them on their way. That's life though and sometimes it sure isn't fair. Even today there are people all over that have little jobs to do that don't seem to be very important to them but end up effecting the outcome of some type of operation. I certainly hope that someone reading the rest of this story benefits from it.
Also, at the last 281st reunion I was cornered by Aaron Rich. Rich was the AC of the ship that chopped it's way down to us. He told me that if we had tied down our main rotor blades he could have landed right next to us, there was just enough room for him to do that. I was then informed that all he could get out of his ship heading home was 50 knots (half speed) because the ship was shaking so bad. Both he and I were glad it held together long enough to get us home. Our Guardian Angels sure must have been straining every little wing muscle they had holding that thing together.