The Lin Tau trail
Up on the trail, at the same time as the message was being transmitted, Tin stepped to the side of the trail to watched his men tramp sullenly uphill, avoiding his gaze.
He removed his pith helmet and wiped the sweat from his face and the headgears leather brow band. This was the second day in a row without rain and there was barely a cloud in the sky so the rainy season was well and truly over. The ground was drying out, so the misery of carrying several pounds of cloying mud on your boots was absent but this was small comfort to his men. Any farmer who had yet to plant a root and corn crop was going to find the work arduous; the sun would bake the ground to the hardness of concrete over the next few days.
He had felt accusing stares aimed at the back of his head as they obviously felt that their officer was somehow to blame for the uphill hike. Tin, however, was not in a popularity contest and to his mind the sooner the South was beaten, the sooner he could get back to his studies.
His radio’s frequency range spanned the medium and high frequency bands, just 1.5 to 6MHz, the downed aviator(s) from the crashed T-28, for that is who they believed were transmitting, had a VHF radio, 30 to 300MHz. He could not hear when they transmitted but signals intelligence could and kept Tin updated. Tin had assumed that by the time he had got this far that the enemy aviator’s position would have been triangulated, but that was certainly not the case. He regretted not collecting Thet from the ammunition supply labour crew; the Montagnard was by far the best tracker in his small unit. His best bet now was to find the crashed aircraft and track the enemy on foot.
Taking his new map from his pocket, he quickly orientated it in order to pinpoint their current position. They were due east of the clearing near the pagoda and this trail bisected it. By staying on the trail, they could pass the pagoda and pick up the old trail that had been the centre of the previous night’s battle. The crash site was not far from there.
Tin replaced the helmet and snapped at the man at point, urging him to greater effort.
Phoenix Zero Four
Captain Leo Marx, USNR, Lieutenant (JG) Christian Durant, USN, Petty Officer 3rd Herman Frey and Seaman Efren Lubay were the crew of Phoenix Zero Four. Captain Marx was enjoying his second war, the first being at the controls of a Sikorsky H-5 in Korea. His civilian job did not cut it in the excitement stakes, ferrying passengers between Idlewild, New York International Airport, and the Pan Am Building.
Lt (JG) Durant was not entirely enamoured with his first war, although he had only been into three hot LZs in his two months in-country, his fear transmitted itself to the aircraft when he had control. He was beginning to think he was not cut out for a life of danger, and privately yearned to be home in Vermont, New England.
Petty Officer Frey was Zero Four’s crew chief and he hailed from Georgia. Herman kept himself to himself but he did not particularly like Vietnam because it was full of Vietnamese. Herman was bipartisan in his bigotry though as he did not like white people from the next town either. It made for a slightly uncomfortable working relationship with the rescue swimmer, Seaman Efren Lubay, a Filipino from Luzon, who had joined the USN via the Philippine’s Enlistment Program. Seaman Lubay, on the other hand, had previously been unemployed for two years since graduating from nursing college, there being more nurses on the job market than there had been posts. Efren was aware of the crew chief’s prejudices but he kept his mouth shut and did his job.
Efren was manning his M-60 machine gun, clamped to a ball-socket mount at one of the two portside windows in the troop compartment. The mount was not standard, it had been fabricated in a shanty built machine shop at Subic Bay by a cousin of Efren’s, in between converting US surplus four seater jeeps into eighteen seater jeepneys. The Filipinos are the kings of mechanical adaption.
On the starboard side, the aircrafts single cargo door had been slid open and locked in place. There were pintle mounts available for the Choctaw’s other M-60 position but it impeded entry and exit through that cargo door. Herman had his M-60 suspended from bungee cords in the doorway, which was a best-alternative-option move. It limited the door gunners to short, three to five round, bursts but it was better than what their opposite numbers on the Shawnee’s had going for them. Both M-60s had canvas catchment bags on the side to catch the spent cases and links. Only in the movies is the spent brass allowed to be ejected unchecked where it can be sucked into an air intake or up into the rotors.
Offensive armament for the Choctaw had been tried out by the US Army in the form of 2.75in rockets in boxy, un-aerodynamic, launchers, and .50 calibre machine guns in fixed, forward firing, positions but the aircraft was not of a sufficiently robust design for gunship adaption. It was a troop/cargo and anti-submarine platform. Even the attempt to enhance its defensive weaponry had been halted as ill-advised as the 1917 model .30 Browning caused vibration that was detrimental to the aircraft’s handling characteristics. The French had mounted 20mm cannon in the cargo doors of some of their H-34s in an effort to create a gunship, but the weapons were limited to single shot operation because of all the above reasons and it required a great deal of maintenance to keep their Choctaw gunships airworthy.
Captain Marx kept a good lookout for other aircraft as they neared the Highlands. If the fighting around Zara escalated further they could well have additional close air support sorties, launching from Tan Son Nhut, traversing this piece of sky.
“Phoenix Zero Four, Rodeo Zero Seven?”
“Hold dry at eight grand, three minutes out from Audrey, copy?”
He heard two clicks in his headset as Mike acknowledged and Leo flicked over to ‘intercom’ on the cyclic control.
“You got it.” He told Lt Durant, declaring that he was handing over the flight controls. He felt the young officer placing his feet on the tail rotor control pedals and grip the cyclic and collective.
“I got it.” Christian already had butterflies in his belly and everyone else in the aircraft felt the moment of transition, from rock steady to slightly jerky.
Leo watched Christian and felt the nervous movements on the controls before his hands and feet left them. Reaching down to the comms panel on the centre console, which sat between both pilots positions, he disabled the pilots intercom feed to the crew chief and gunners headsets in the troop compartment.
“Young man, you have to learn to relax on the controls... just tune out the fact that this is a war zone.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it anymore, Christian.” He looked from his map and down at the ground. “Orbit here.”
Leo reached down, but his finger paused above the intercom feed switch.
“Once Rodeo gives us the ‘Go’, you are flying the actual extraction, understood?”
Christian’s head turned towards him, his nose beaded with sweat, and looked at the aircraft commander with worried eyes before looking forward once more.
Leo Marx re-enabled the troop compartment intercom feed and resumed the business of looking out for conflicting traffic, with regular glances at the instruments.
On the Lin Tau Trail.
The sudden appearance of the little spotter plane, and the sound of its firing smoke markers, caused Tin to reassess his intentions.
He had be working under the assumption that the T-28’s survivor(s) would follow their escape and evasion doctrine by putting as much distance as possible between them and the crash site before calling for rescue. It now seemed certain that they had done otherwise and were in the vicinity of the large clearing the helicopters had used to snatch the villagers from his grasp. Perhaps someone was too wounded to follow that course of action?
The T-28s had then taken them by surprise, suddenly overflying him and his men, seemingly following the line of the trail on a bombing run. He and his men had scattered before realising that they were not the target and in fact were undiscovered, semi concealed by overhanging branches. The sound of helicopter rotors came to them immediately, echoing elusively as it circled somewhere, making it impossible to discern its direction or the distance to it.
The use of small-arms against enemy aircraft had been drummed into the men during training, the need to aim ahead of an aircraft by a given number of aircraft lengths, as dictated in other armies, was impractical in this terrain. Volume fire, that was the method taught, to make a snap judgement on the aircraft’s line of flight, and firing with all available weapons at an imaginary fixed point that the enemy must fly through.
Tin briefed his men quickly and had an air sentry, with a whistle; follow two hundred yards behind, just in case the enemy fighter bombers returned, taking the same line as previously flown.
With the machine gunner assistants just an arm’s distance from the gunner’s backs Tin resumed their hurried hike towards the clearing.
Mike orbited LZ ‘Ted’, hoping to induce an element of uncertainty into the minds of any VC or NVA still in the area. However apart from a brief glimpse of what had to be Henry, emerging from the jungle shadows on Audrey’s southern edge, only a Buddhist monk in his saffron robes, watching Mike from the pagoda’s roof, were sign of any other human activity in the vicinity.
“Phoenix this is Rodeo… Jupiter’s East/West ordnance run did not attract any ground fire, same story with their egress bearing.”
His radio crackled, Leo Marx voice responding calmly.
It was never going to get better than this.
“Phoenix copies… approaching from the east… will advise on egress intentions when the survivors are on board,” replied Leo before looking across his shoulder at Christian Durant and pointing with emphasis in the direction of LZ Audrey.
This was the acid test and Christian felt his heart begin to pound as he turned onto a heading of 225° and lowered the collective, beginning a rapid descent and gaining speed.
The perspex canopy and lightweight magnesium airframe were not proof against bird-strikes, let alone bullets, and not even flak jackets were available to flight crews so Christian felt vulnerable every time he climbed up into the aircraft’s elevated pilot’s positions. The pilots sat forward, and above, the troop compartment where the enemy could always see them in their aircraft fuelled by 115/145 Avgas, 337 gallons of it when full and built of the same stuff that makes flares burn bright and hot.
The aircraft did not have a built-in fire extinguisher system, just the crew chiefs hand-held one. The drill for dealing with engine, clutch and transmission fires on start- up, aboard ship, was to shut down, kill the fuel feed, climb out and help push the thing over the side. A fire on a H-34 Choctaw was impossible to put out.
When the army had been given the task of trialling and assessing the H-34 they had recommended parachutes being worn at three thousand feet and above, stating that an in-flight fire would turn an emergency auto-rotating Choctaw into a torch with still a thousand feet to go.
Parachutes, like flak jackets, were not issued.
Little details like those seemed to plague the young Lt (JG) Durant.
The roof of the pagoda was already visible above the trees, the LZ was situated 200m before that, not hard to spot owing to the napalm burning on its northern edge.
Leo unzipped the top of his olive green, one piece, flight suit and fished out his binoculars; he wore them on a strap around his neck for easy access. Putting them to his eyes and peering ahead through the cockpit canopy he panned them across the clearing and its surrounds. It was on a very gentle gradient just before the steeper slope down to the coastal plain and the breeze was carrying the burning jungle’s black smoke away to the north west. The surface of the LZ was unobscured by smoke from the fire.
“Christchurch this is Phoenix, throw smoke!”
A few moments later, Christian and Leo spotted a growing splash of red against the green background.
“I see red?” Leo transmitted.
“Red is correct.”
With the survivors position pinpointed Leo switched briefly to intercom.
“Here we go… twenty seconds, get ‘em onboard and we are gone in thirty.”
Leo positioned his feet just clear of the pedals and lightly curled his fingers around both collective and cyclic, ready to take control if Christian was hit.
Christian’s mouth was dry, his heart was beating a tattoo and he could do nothing to stop the slight shaking of his hands. They descended below the level of the clearing and he felt Captain Marx give him a quick, critical, look.
Christian arrested their descent, catching it on the collective and beginning an ascent parallel to the hillside, keeping the trees sixty feet or so below the Choctaw’s fixed undercarriage.
He could now see faint wisps of the red smoke appear above the trees.
Three things happened at once, a small hole appeared next to the compass, the perspex above his head shattered, showering him in shards, and something warm and wet hit the right side of his face.
He could feel strikes on the fuselage now, the airspeed indicator gauge exploded, sending glass splinters flying about the cockpit, which started to fill with smoke from smouldering wiring inside the instrument panel, stinging his eyes and making him cough. Petty Officer Frey was screaming in pain on the intercom and the master fire light shone red, like a beacon, through the smoke.
A quick glance to his right revealed Captain Marx sitting upright but unresponsive; his face was missing due to a high velocity round entering through his groin, deflecting off a collar bone and exiting via the bridge of his nose.
Christian depressed the transmit button on the cyclic control stick.
“TAKING FIRE!... WOUNDED ON BOARD…!”
The Choctaw breasted the crest of the slope and Christian felt through his backside the beginnings of a stall. The RPMs were falling and they lacked both height and enough forward momentum to reach LZ Audrey. He continued transmitting. “SHIT!... WE’RE GOING DOWN!”
Flicking from ‘TRANX’ to ‘INT’ he barked a warning. “BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!”
In the troop compartment, Efren had pulled Herman away from the open door. A round had first entered through the thin belly, missing the main fuel tank, a 115 gallon, self-sealing bladder, and then it penetrated the deck before hitting the crew chief in the lower left leg. It missed the bone but nicked the posterior tibia artery below the knee. The round had exited without causing further wounds but had then all but severed Frey’s safety line. Efren could do nothing about the crew chief’s wounds until the aircraft stabilised, and the shouted warning on the intercom to brace made that doubtful. He held tightly on to Herman Frey to prevent him sliding out of the open cargo door. What remained of the safety line was unlikely to take his weight.
Christian allowed the aircraft to sideslip to the left, applying pressure to the left pedal, turning the damaged helicopter to face the line of trees marking the edge of the slope.
Nose down, the tree tops seemed to rush at him but they cleared the edge, just, brushing the tree tops and the starboard gear carried off a souvenir, trailing behind like ten feet of green bunting.
They were hit again as they passed back into view of enemy troops on a steep trail, his side window shattered and the pedals bucked once, hard. He thought that he felt a slight vibration in those rotor pedals now, but they were gaining airspeed and this was translating to the rotors.
The stricken machine dropped below the level of the attackers, the incoming fire ceased and the RPMs grew.
In a detached way, Christian was vaguely aware that for a person of his nervous disposition he was taking this awfully well, the shakes had gone and even his heart had ceased its kettle drum solo.
The Choctaw had something in common with the T-28 Trojan and B-17 Flying Fortress, it was also powered by a Wright Cyclone radial engine. Mounted at a 45° angle in the nose, with a drive shaft running up between the pilots seats to the clutch and gears sited above the troop compartment. A titanium firewall across the engine compartment bulkhead gave some protection from engine fires, but no such measures existed to inhibit a fire caused by damaged and overheating gears.
His hand hovered before the fuel pump switch, hesitating, but the things he had been taught to do now were to turn off the fuel pump, lower the collective and auto-rotate down to a suitable landing site. There was none of those currently available, just jungle, with shoulder to shoulder trees.
The combination of the shattered side window and perspex panel above his head had cleared the smoke in the cockpit. He pulled back gently on the collective and their descent slowed, putting them back on an even, though shaky, keel.
Therefore, they had airspeed and increasing RPMs and despite the fact that something was broke they weren’t falling out of the sky. The fire warning light was still shining brightly however.
He turned onto the bailout heading, 124°, taking them towards the nearest friendly forces, and keyed the intercom.
As soon as the machine began flying straight and level, Efren elevated Herman’s injured leg, propping it up on one of the benches lining three sides of the troop compartment. It caused even louder screams from the crew chief but he ignored them and tore open the leg of the fatigues. Before he could get to work though, Lt Durant’s voice sounded in his headset.
“How’s the chief?”
“Arterial bleed… got to clamp it.”
“Stop what you are doing and stick your head out the door, look up at the gearbox and also forward, under and back… any sign of fire, any smoke trail?” the lieutenant asked. “Do it now.”
Efren put opened field dressings in the crew chief’s hands and placed them against the entry and exit wounds.
“Press hard!” he instructed via the intercom. “Back in a second.”
Checking that his own safety line was undamaged and secure, Seaman Lubay braced himself, reaching up to get a firm grip on the winch strut. Efren leaned far out in order to see upwards, before lying on his belly to look beneath the fuselage.
The 90 knot slipstream tore at him, threatening to tear him loose and set him dangling above a green jungle canopy, speckled with patches of white mist, five thousand feet below.
Efren edged back into the safety of the troop compartment.
“Speak to me.”
“No fire, not much smoke… some, but not much… and a hole in the tail, maybe baseball size.” Efren realised he had not heard Leo Marx’s voice since they were hit. “How’s the Captain, sir?”
Leo was dead, Christian knew this because blood was not jetting out of his awful wounds, and it couldn’t without a living heart to pump it. He was, however, leaking blood courtesy of gravity, his seat was awash and it was running down to the floor of the cockpit, pooling below the aircraft commanders set of pedals.
The cockpit and troop compartment were separated and there was no way Efren could reach it in flight, so he could not have aided Captain Marx anyway, even if Leo’s wounds had not been immediately fatal.
Efren had liked the captain, a good officer and one who had not held Efren’s skin colour against him, unlike the crew chief.
The chief was pale with shock and blood loss, barely able to continue the direct pressure and Efren got to work, looking for the damaged artery.
The vibration was increasing, making it difficult to clamp it off. He checked his watch, noting the time as he would have to release the clamp again briefly every ten minutes. Limbs need blood or you lose them.
With the shot-up instrument panel, Christian had to guess at their airspeed but the still functioning RPM gauge explained why they were gradually losing height, the altimeter read 4100 but the vibration was making it hard to make out the digits.
He was continuously looking for clearings, but the Choctaw was a biggish aircraft, from forward blade’s tip to those of the tail rotor’s measured 65.7 feet, with 56 foot diameter blade span. He had not seen any 70 foot long by 60 foot wide clearings, not yet anyhow. He did not have binoculars of his own with which to assist his search, although Leo’s were in easy reach, still hung about his neck but blood had fill the eyepieces.
Looking at his own map for clearings was tricky, unlike fixed wing aircraft there was no automatic pilot and no way to trim it so that it flew straight and level without a hand on the controls. He got his map out but the gale howling through the cockpit whipped it open, plastering it to his face before ripping it away and out of the gaping panel above his head. Leo’s map was still in the captain’s lap but as equally as unusable as the binoculars, and for the same reason.
After five more minutes he picked out the line of the highway from Lin Tau to Quang Tri, but the term ‘highway’ was open to interpretation. The jungle closely flanked the two-lane road, which was 30 feet wide, at best.
Ten miles on, the first paddy fields, two of them, appeared before the road and Christian saw armoured vehicles stationary on the highway, a whole bunch of them stretching back towards Quang Tri.
This, he thought, must be ‘Marvin’s’ 17th Mechanised Regiment.
They were not big fields but they were big enough, of sufficient size to feed the small hamlet along one edge, and plenty big enough to put the Choctaw down safely, he decided.
A high, wide dyke ran between the fields, with broad spanned fig trees growing atop where they could provide shade to field workers on hot days.
Like all paddy fields, they were a communal concern for the hamlets and villages they served. They were also the communal latrine, the residents producing a constant supply of fertilizer. A near perfect food chain with 100% recycling.
Unless the surface were to be churned up the smell was barely noticeable, provided you happened to be upwind, of course. It would take a fortnight for the hot season to dry them out.
Christian gently reduced speed on the throttle, which topped the collective, and immediately the vibration decreased but the aircraft wanted to turn to the left.
He applied counter pressure on the pedals but they bucked violently, so he increased power. The bucking relented but the vibration returned two fold.
He had to do something to reduce speed and altitude because sure as eggs were eggs they couldn’t stay up there all day. The chief needed a hospital and the aircraft needed repair.
He could barely make out their altitude, three thousand and something, the dial was almost a blur. He braced his feet on the pedals and reduced power again, cautiously, and lowered the collective gently.
It bucked like a bitch whilst trying to turn left, almost throwing his feet off the pedals and after a few seconds he could tell that at their current rate of decent they were going to overshoot the fields and highway to land in the trees beyond. He could slow to a near hover and descend at a steep angle under reduced power with both feet on the right pedal, and the aircraft was not going to like that, it was already shaking like a dog with ticks! If the vibration was related to the engine feeding power to the tail rotor then perhaps that was the cause of the increasing vibration?
His best course of action was therefore to throttle back, brace the right pedal and auto-rotate down before pulling on the power and flaring to a safe landing in the accepted manner, was it not?
It turned out that it was not one of his better ideas.
Christian turned into the wind, all but closed the throttle and lowered the collective to enter autorotation. The aircraft dropped, although under his control and with an eye on the altimeter, which was unwinding rapidly. His legs were almost straight, restraining the aircraft from turning left.
It was working!
At 500 feet he poured on the power and pulled back on the collective to recover from the auto rotation.
A giant hit the airframe with a baseball bat as the tail pylon sheered.
He lost almost all fore and aft cyclic control and the aircraft began to spin like a sycamore seed.
He really did not have time to be scared, five hundred feet is not a lot of room to play with. He closed the throttle and turned off the fuel pump, master battery switch and magneto.
They were nose heavy, of course, because of the engine sitting below his feet. When the airframe hit the the ground first, if it landed evenly on its undercarriage, the momentum would carry the main rotors down to slice through the cockpit and the gear assembly above the troop compartment would smash down to crush or trap anyone who was in there.
The only way to prevent that was to ensure the blades hit the ground first and the aircraft landed half on its side, preferably the left.
Just before they hit, Christian applied full left cyclic and the world tilted to the right. The blades struck the morass of the field’s surface on the left side, digging deep but not under power so they bent rather than sheared, braking the rotor head to a halt. The left side of the helicopter had hit hard enough for the air to be driven out of Christian’s lungs and for his safety harness to leave deep welts in his flesh. A great wave of dark effluent was flung outwards, its crest higher than the tops of the fig trees on the dyke that it pebble dashed.
As hoped, in those last few seconds before impact, the aircraft came to rest with the sunlight streaming through the open cargo door, an escape route for the chief and Lubay. Just as well, for the aroma of faeces and the ammonia scent of old urine was being joined by that of Avgas fumes.
The co-pilots seat was on the left side so that side of Christian’s body was submerged. He kept his mouth firmly shut as he fumbled to release his harness.
Captain Marx’s body hung suspended by his seat’s straps and Christian climbed up past him and out of the right side cockpit hatch without try to recover him from the wreckage. He was dead but the crew chief was not, and Lubay could not lift him out of the wreck unaided.
Once out and standing on top of the, now uppermost, starboard side, Christian went to the cargo door and looked inside the troop compartment. At 200lbs, Petty Officer Frey was twice the weight of 5’2”, Seaman Lubay, but the Filipino was trying to get him out rather than extracting himself.
Christian heard a splashing in the paddy field behind him and turned to see two US advisors and several ARVN troopers hurrying towards the downed machine. Steam was pouring out of the nose cone and gear compartment as hot metal encountered the field’s filthy water. From a distance it could be mistaken for smoke preceding a fire, but they came at a run anyway.
As their rescuers climbed atop the machine, Christian lowered himself into troop compartment and helped Lubay lift the semi-conscious crew chief up. Hands reached down, grabbing Frey and lifting first him out, and then Lubay and Christian.
Again on top of the wreckage, Christian could smell the smoke that was now issuing from the cockpit. He went towards the open hatch but a hand caught his shoulder, restraining him.
“Don’t be a fool!”
It was one of the advisors, an army major, and Christian knew he was correct even if leaving Leo Marx did not seem right.
Jumping down, they hurried in the wake of the remainder, wading to the dyke and clambering up its side.
He turned to look back at the Choctaw, seeing the first flicker of flames through the perspex of the cockpit canopy and then the fumes from the remaining two hundred gallons in ruptured tanks within the belly ignited explosively.
Phoenix Zero Four blew herself apart and burned, her dead AC still strapped to his seat.
It was too sad a sight for him to watch and he turned away, only then noticing they had an awful lot of company on that dyke.
A half dozen trestle tables, covered with crisp white sheets had been placed there, and atop those sat the regimental silver of the 17th Mech’s Officer's Mess. Ornate, burnished tableware holding roast quail, saffron rice and imported, honey roast ham, amongst other dishes. It was the officer’s campaign lunch, a throwback from French Colonial days. Only the sheets were not crisp and white anymore, the silver no longer shone and the food was no longer edible, being thoroughly drenched in effluent, as were the officers.
It probably did not help much that he started to laugh.