Chinook crewmember recalls close call with sappers in Vietnam

Aloha, OR

I was a flight engineer with the 242nd Assault Support Helicopter Company, the Muleskinners, in Cu Chi Vietnam from June 1968 to February 1970.

In the predawn hours of Feb. 26, 1969, the North Vietnamese sappers made a ground attack on our flightline. I was part of a reactionary force asleep on my helicopter when the attack came. One crewmember was on each helicopter in its protective revetment to assist in any attack that might occur. We were warned this may happen.

We had rotated crewmen each night for two weeks in anticipation of such an event. It was difficult because we also carried out our normal duties, including flying daily. It was exhausting. The predawn attack on a moonless night began with a huge explosion in the revetment directly across from mine. What appeared to be a mortar but with no crump sound on impact was in fact a satchel charge - either in or behind the helicopter parked in that space. The revetment walls were made of sandwiched perforated steel plates (PSP) filled with sandbags and a PSP floor. The explosion was accurate and profound, sending a fireball 80 feet in the air.

When the second helicopter blew, I knew something bad was happening. I rolled to the floor and opened the CH47's side door. I grabbed my duty weapon, a .45 pistol, and got out of the ship. I was amazed to see the third, fourth and fifth ships blow up in rapid succession. I knew there was a crewmember on each ship dealing with this situation. As I came to the front of the ship, the raging fires revealed personnel at the opposite end of the runway talking and motioning with their arms.

One of them came running my way. It was Juan Torres, a crewmember from another ship. He told me the soldiers we saw were VC. We stared at them, both realizing they were North Vietnamese Army with AK47s glinting in the firelight.

Torres, a short fellow from Guam, had dark hair and olive skin. The NVA had mistaken him for one of their own, and he had run right past them in the confusion.

More helicopters exploded in flames on both sides of the now roaring runway blazes. I told Torres we should take cover. At that moment, a huge explosion roared overhead, knocking us to our knees. We moved to my helicopter's rear and hid in the tall grass beside the revetment.

As the helicopters continued to blow and burn brightly, a sapper, naked and muddy, ran through my revetment and exited right by us, headed for the bunker line and darkness. His joints were tied with wire, to work as a tourniquet if injured. He had a camouflage poncho liner over his head for crouch concealment and three or four RPG rounds strapped to his back.

My adrenaline was at an all-time high.

I stepped from the shadows with my pistol, aimed and let the sapper have it. I fired five or six shots, missing his load of RPG every time. I thought he'd go off like a Roman candle. But the rounds I'd loaded were of limited ballistic quality--inaccurate beyond 10 yards. Thinking I was a poor shot, I retreated into the darkness. Soon I noticed the unfinished bunker between the next helicopter and mine had had some activity. I grabbed my buddy and we cautiously went for the bunker. Four or five crewmembers from other ships had rallied to this point. We didn't know the fates of the rest of the men caught in explosions around us.

Dawn soon approached and we moved out to find our friends past the wrecks of burning helicopters.

Jose Purdom, an infantry doorgunner, told me he'd killed a sapper carrying an RPG launcher and had blown my helicopter's forward pylon off. I had seen his ammo bearer running through my revetment, and told him so. We continued up the line into daylight, and the carnage became apparent. A firetruck appeared, attempting to douse huge fires nearby. An RPG made a direct hit on the truck, and the firemen were hit with shrapnel.

The fight was still on.

Two military policemen drove up and asked if we were having a bad day, unaware of the battle raging around us. Next door, the POL (essentially an aviation gas station) and ammo dump with rockets and fuel exploded with a tremendous roar, the victim of sappers' satchel charges, I'm sure.

Behind the military police (MP), five VC soldiers with shoulder-slung rifles appeared, running down a ditch double-time in an orderly exfiltration just yards away. The MPs jumped under their Jeep, M16s and all. I begged for one of their rifles, feeling under-armed.

They refused.

So with my .45 I charged the VC from behind. My crappy bullets once again saved me, because the men I was shooting never saw me. I crested the road when a blast from an RPG threw me forward to my knees and just about blew my shirt off. My ears were ringing.

Adrenaline still pumping, I jumped up, put another clip in my pistol and continued the charge, slower this time as I was a bit dazed.

I was outgunned. A grenadier was targeting me to protect his brothers in arms--a common infantry tactic. A large explosion less than 10 feet to my right sent shrapnel everywhere. With my arm extended in shooting position, I heard a large piece of steel go whizzing past very close and I felt its burn.

I'm hit.

I instantly felt lucky to be alive because the large piece just missed my head and bounced off my ribs. Six inches higher and I was dead.

I retreated to the bunker for safety. I remember the acknowledgment of the revelation: Someone was actually trying to kill me, personally.

Nine Chinooks were destroyed, five men were badly wounded and one was killed.

It was a sobering thought for someone so young and filled with such a sense of duty, as we all were. Though badly wounded, I felt glad and thankful to have survived.

At the hospital receiving treatment for my wounds, I realized I'd gone through the whole battle in my stocking feet with no boots.

I believe the attacking soldiers were the infamous Dac Cong, an elite sapper battalion. They infiltrated between two other bunkers, killing all the men in each, undetected. They blew bunkers as they left. I saw the roof lift off one in front of us.

The gunships caught some in the barbed wire and a few were killed inside the base, 13 men in all. Their bodies were dumped in the streets of Cu Chi Ville as a warning.

Despite the damage, the 242nd Muleskinners were back, continuing our support mission shortly thereafter.

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