I came across this article while reading this morning. It really touched me and I thought I would share it with you.
by W. H. McDonald Jr.
In March of 1967, there was a lot of action in Binh Duong Province -- in particular, a place known as Ho Bo Woods. This still contained large elements of the politico-military forces of the Viet Cong’s Region 4 Headquarters. This area was laced with tunnels and spider holes (camouflaged sniper holes that the VC used).
There had been some heavy fighting in this area for the prior 15 months, with no end in sight. Basically, Charlie owned this piece of real estate. He made us pay dearly for every inch of ground we walked on or flew over. This was “Indian Country,” and it was not a very good place to be flying alone on any kind of mission. In this area our troops had discovered a very large underground complex that included a three-story hospital and offices for the officers, which were all buried under the forest. This was one of those bad places where I could feel the fear creep up my spine, and I could taste it in my mouth anytime I entered the area. It was a very nasty place to do business in, and I never looked forward to flying missions into or around this area.
On this one particular morning, we had an early start before sunrise. We had been airborne for an hour, but were having a very difficult time locating anything below us in the darkness. When daylight broke over the forest, we had to contend with a thick ground fog that covered everything as far as we could see. Below us looked all white, like a rolling cloud on the ground. We could not see the treetops in most places, so we could not tell if we were flying over an open area or trees. The few LZs (landing zones) inside Ho Bo Woods were small clearings where GIs had cut down the trees or blown them up with explosives, so even the LZs were no bed of roses. They all had tree stumps and fallen logs, which forced us to hover our chopper just a few feet off the group, so that the troops had to jump out. We also had to throw out the supplies.
We had been flying support for some elements of the 25th Infantry Division on this day. We were all alone, flying single-ship supply missions mostly, fresh food and ammo for the ground troops. We had been concentrating so hard on watching out for Charlie that no one was watching our gas consumption. Needless to say, we had wasted lots of our fuel in a series of long searches, trying to find where the troops were located.
It was still very early in the morning. The part of the forest we had been flying over was now completely engulfed with a heavy thick fog. There was just no way we could carry on our present mission. We circled around to get our exact bearings and location. The pilots had become a little disoriented by the fog, which covered guiding ground references. The fog was not burning off, but it was slowly rising. It rose upward to around 100 feet or more, just enough so we could not see the treetops anymore. The good news was that no one could see us either, so we were safe from any ground fire.
The bad news was, our fuel warning light had come on with its audio alarm sounding off. The light flashed on the instrument panel as both pilots froze at once. Neither one had any real clue to our present location or where our own troops where below us. We did not have enough fuel to make it out of the fog shrouded forest. We had no idea which way to turn the aircraft. All directions held a mystery. All the ground below us was hostile and forbidding. There was no right place to go. We were stuck in this twilight zone between certain death and the fog.
We had remaining only about five to ten minutes of fuel. It seemed none of us really knew for sure how much was supposed to be left when the fuel warning light came on. We did not know how much time we had before our aircraft would drop out of the sky into whatever waited for us below. If it were treetops, then our ship would crash and the rotor blades would thrash the trees and twist the body of the helicopter and those inside it. We knew what that would look like because we had seen one of our company ships do that same thing just the week before. That image played over and over inside my head.
The other possibility was that if we could crash land and survive, we would certainly be at a high risk for being captured or killed by enemy troops. It would be a long time before anyone could find and rescue us. The fog would hide our aircraft for hours, and no one would have any idea where we were because we did not even know for sure ourselves.
All these thoughts ran through our minds. Our hearts were pounding, as if we had just run a long distance race and lost. I looked around, as I would normally do in this kind of situation, trying to figure out what I might need once we crashed. I grabbed my M-16 rifle and some magazine clips. I wasn’t carrying any food or water. We did have lots of colored smoke grenades to use in case we were in need of a rescue attempt. But in this fog, no one would be able to see them. The pilots had been in radio contact with our other company helicopters, but none of them were close by. That was assuming that our guess about where we were was, in fact, where we actually were. So, even after we had given our mayday distress call, no one would be able to quickly respond.
Our fuel should have run out, and we knew we were running on sheer luck. We did not fully understand why we had not dropped out of the sky yet. The fog was endless in all directions. There was just no opening anywhere to be seen. So, I began to silently talk to God, asking for His help to find us someplace to land before we crashed into the forest below.
We were mentally ready for the worse kind of crash. Not knowing what we were falling into gave us no preparation or defense against the certain destruction that came when the rotor blades tore the aircraft apart.
Then, out of nowhere, just below us, where we had already looked before, there was a clear opening over a grassy meadow area -— a perfect LZ to drop down into. We turn and lined up with the LZ just as the engine died, having consumed its last ounce of jet fuel. The helicopter was less than 25 feet from the ground, and the blades were still rotating with enough force that we did not drop very hard. There was no damage —- a perfect landing, in fact.
I immediately jumped out of the ship as it hit, taking my weapon with me. Around the tree-lined meadow we saw movement everywhere. Our helicopter was completely surrounded. We were on the ground, ready to defend ourselves. There was no way we were going to win this battle. We were completely outnumbered and surrounded. Any resistance on our part would have been a death warrant for sure, so we just held our position and waited.
Then we began to notice the uniforms that they were wearing. They were elements of the 25th Infantry. By some unbelievable luck, we had dropped right on top of one of their small temporary camps. We couldn’t have been more blessed if we had tried. Not only were we surrounded by our own troops, but they also had a supply of JP-4 jet fuel for our helicopter.
It was a strange experience and hard to explain. For example, why did this LZ just open up in the middle of so many square miles of solid fog? Why was there a clearing at this spot waiting for us? Why hadn’t our helicopter run out of fuel prior to seeing this opening? Why had we not seen this opening before when we were looking right in that same area?
It was a very lucky or blessed day, depending on how you viewed the events. Just good luck you might say, but then, perhaps other forces were at work. Maybe the power of a small silent prayer opened a big hole in the fog? I do not know for sure why it all happened as it did. I do know that we did not crash, and no one was killed or injured —- and that was good enough for me. I do not need anyone to tell me that prayers do work —- I believe.
[The poet, and writer, Bill McDonald, served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He was a crew chief/door-gunner on Huey helicopters (UH-1D). He was with the 128th Assault Helicopter Company stationed in Phu Loi, South Vietnam. He was awarded numerous medals, including The Distinguished Flying Cross, The Bronze Star, 14 Air Medals and the Purple Heart.]
“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale