You are 19 years old, Infantry 101st Airborne division, seated in the open door of a Huey helicopter launched on a CA (Combat assault by air)— There are 5 other Soldiers seated on the floor of the ship with you. Helmeted/Sun Visored Door gunners man M-60 machine gun’s on the left and right rear of the cabin. There are 5 other Huey’s to put your platoon into the bush. You are on the 3rd aircraft as they fly in a line. Your MIssion: Go Kill the enemy in the Jungle of Vietnam near the Ashau Valley.Flight time about 20 minutes.
The beauty of the Jungle stretches to the horizon. Hot wind blows in your face as the ship flies at 100 knots skimming the tree tops Looking out forward you see F-4′ (Fighter Bombers) pounding the hill you are going to land on in about 2 minutes. There may be Dinks( the term US GI’;s used ) on that hill., There may not be. That last 2 minutes in the air, is the definition of anxiety. As the Helicopter approaches the Hilltop to land the pilot flares the ship ( to “flare” a Helicopter the pilot puts the nose of the chopper up and reduces speed quickly and gently brings the descending aircraft to a hover at anywhere from 2-8 feet above the ground in the ideal.)
I always preferred to be first off the ship from about 4-6 feet . Remember the infantry soldiers are carrying ruck sacks on their back weighing anywhere from 30-50 pounds. This does not include weapons and ammo. — and during that final approach, the flaring of the aircraft, that’s when you learn all pilots are not equal. There may be smoke or even fire on the LZ ( the Landing zone), maybe a couple of cobras on station (Helicopter Gun Ships) —- If you have an experienced combat pilot he’s going to come in fast, flare and drop you from 4-6 feet off the ground. He did his part (getting you in fast and close to the ground ) — Now you (Grunts) do your part — Get the Fuck out of the ship quickly! –— (where is the rest of the unit? In the near Tree line? In that clump of Elephant grass ? Were you paying attention to the ground as you came in? Did you see how the first 2 Choppers went in?). Again I prefer to be in the door if not on the skid as my launch point to disembark. Get a Nod from the crew chief if you want to stand on the skid during approach. In the open door you will be able to gauge how the Pilot brings the ship in and leap to the ground — (There is an art to this, too long to go into here– ) It is at this moment, when you jump to the ground that is an inexplicable high!! …..Once hitting the ground, the roar of the ship is deafening as the rest of the team exits the Chopper. There is now a partial sense of relief...” Well I’m on the ground and no one is shooting at me yet”. As you run to join the rest of the platoon, the tremendous aircraft engine noise fades away as the last ship in departs the LZ. Suddenly it’s very very quiet. Listen! If there is No small arms fire that is a good sign!!…… the Pink Team or an O-2 may still be on station, but your immediate environment is now quieter and easier to interpret. One key to staying alive in the jungle is noise discipline. Don’t make unnecessary noise! Communicate by whisper or hand signal. ..Once the platoon Sergeant has the unit organized, we move out Going who knows where…. In my experience the majority of CA’s were not met with enemy resistance. Thankfully! Yet It’s that last 2 minutes on the ship and the first couple of minutes on the ground that are the most fun, exciting, gut wrenching and stimulating time of your short life. Professionally I was a Network level TV News cameraman for 18 years. —– but nothing in my life experience, ever matched the RUSH of going in on a Helicopter CA in a Slick as a member of an Infantry unit. Believe it or not…. it was addictive. I’ll never forget it,
Many in the infantry received the Blue and Orange ribbon “Air” Medal “awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”. I remember when my Platoon Sgt. handed me my orders as a recipient of the Air Medal. No Ceremony. No Handshake. Just “here you go”. When I look at my framed Air Medal hanging on a wall in my home, it is that last 2 minutes Inbound on the chopper that comes back to me. The whap/whap/whap of the Huey, the hot air in my face, the sound of the fighter bombers, the leap to the ground and the stomach in knots…….
I remember it all, even now as an old man…..
Mike Whatley / 101st Airborne Division / I Corps Vietnam. 70-71.
. Mike Whatley taking off in a “Slick” . headed to the Jungle. Spring 1971