Earnest Hemmingway stood when he wrote. This morning I'm taking advantage of a few moments at the station to write - at least a little bit - standing at one of the tables. This story, of course, is nothing like Hemmingway.
I’ve Seen the Red Door, and I Want to Paint It Black
By Jon Stark
September, 2013; 2329 words
Vietnam, late in 1967. Firebase Xray-Sierra.
Deuce woke me. "Gear up, Sir." It was 0300 dark, ominous. I followed him to the command post and knew it was bad before we even got inside. The radio speaker was squawking and I could hear the fear in the soldier's voice as he reported on the status of his platoon. I've heard incoming over the air before but this was intense.
Major Leland looked up from a map board when Deuce and I walked in. He pointed to a pin on the map surrounded by unit markers of a different color. Hill Lima-19 was being overrun. "We need to get them out."
Crazy Horse leaned in toward the map. "What's the terrain like? I've never flown that far north."
"It's rough." That was Dorado. "There may be some grass on the top of the hill, but it's not going to be an easy LZ."
"Should we wait until morning?" Crazy Horse wasn't a coward, that was just common sense. Except the VC were moving in and, based on the map, our boys wouldn't be there if we waited.
"If we wait till morning it'll be too hot." said Dorado.
"I've flown into enemy fire before." I said.
He looked at me. "That's not what I'm talking about. There's got to be 40 men left up there. If we don't get started soon, it'll be too hot." I realized what he meant. The warmer the air, the lower the lift capability of our Hueys.
Our chalk was four birds - two slicks (flown by me and Crazy Horse) and two gunships - Kaiser in the lead with Dorado bringing up our tail. The flight line was a mass of men and machines. Pre-flight was short. We all shared an urgency you can’t imagine unless you've been there.
Deuce and I had a good system and we were winding up the rotors as my Crew Chief arrived. Kaiser took off and I eased up after him. Fifteen feet off the deck his main gearbox seized. Hueys are tough birds and can handle a pretty decent drop - onto their skids. He was nose down taking off and when the drive failed they dropped hard in a sheet-metal crumpling mess. I jinked hard right to avoid his tail as it swung in a cartwheel up and over. We knocked a generator over but cleared the base.
That's how Vietnam was. You were screwed before you even got started. We were about to head into the belly of the beast and had lost half our firepower. Deuce looked at me with some concern - as the old man it was up to me to keep things cool. "No worries, Mate." I said. It was something of a joke at the post.
"Roger that, Sir." He dug out our map and started looking for landmarks.
"Angel Eyes, hold up a minute and I'll take lead." said Dorado. I acknowledged him and we backed off a little. This first part would be easy. It was still dark, the jungle was mostly ours, and the distinctive whop-whop of the massive rotors beating the air was reassuring.
The sun rose behind us with the sounds of the fighting coming over our headsets. They'd made it through the night but had been under fire the whole time. They were tired and nearly out of ammunition. Nobody knew how many casualties there were for sure but they estimated 35 for evac. That was too many. The next chalk was going to be at least half an hour behind us.
The VC were everywhere below us. We were low and you could see faces. Some started shooting at us. Dorado's waist gunner opened up with the .30 and they settled down. But then there were more. I swear there must have been a brigade moving in on that hilltop.
Dorado called back to the firebase reporting on the enemy troop count. He requested fire support but was denied. They wouldn’t fire artillery while we were in range.
The small arms fire grew more intense. The enemy was talking- they knew where we were going and were ready for us now. The pling-pling of rounds against our airframe joined the whop-whop.
Dorado's waist gunner was really getting into it. Burst after burst into any sizable mass of men. Then I could see the hill - a small plateau of rocky grass with scrub and detritus covering the sides. Our boys were huddling near the top and beneath them was a sea of VC.
Dorado launched his rockets against what looked like where their motors were set up. The .30 was running constantly now. "About time you got here." came a young voice across the radio. We were maybe a hundred yards behind the lead ship, flying 30 feet above the ground as fast as we could go.
I was locked in, my eyes glued to his tail, so I saw it all as it happened. Light machine gun fire ripped into his tail boom and took out his back rotor. We were going so fast there was no recovery. The aircraft swung wildly out of control, completing two and a half rotations before bouncing pitifully off the ground.
That was Dorado. He'd flown the evac-resupply with Snake the first time Hal Moore got cut off - his bird had 73 holes in it when he was finally grounded. He was my friend.
I didn't hesitate, I didn't think even. We dropped in at the top and waited at low hover. We had seen the enemy and knew they were coming. Every second counted.
Crazy Horse was tucked in behind me and the ground unit began to run toward us. A sergeant was directing them, every other man to each ship, and they all ran as though the devil himself were at their heels. The machine gun squad was last up the hill, firing as they came. The sergeant took the weapon from them and pushed them toward us. He then opened up with the last of the ammunition, screaming the hate of war at the rushing troops.
Enemy faces appeared and he threw a grenade as rifle fire cut him down. Then the VC crested the hill in front of us. A boy lowered his rifle and aimed right at me. I could see him - his intent and fear - perfectly. Then his body crumpled and I turned to see another line of our soldiers running up the hill, one of them rising from kneeling where he'd taken the shot that saved my life.
Motor rounds began falling on the LZ and the shrapnel cut into the running troops and through our open cargo doors. "We've got to go!" shouted Crazy Horse. He lifted off.
I was waiting for the last two. The men inside my machine were firing their rifles but we were not going to win that fight. I couldn't hold it steady enough. Then the helicopter dropped. Rotor wash. I'd been hovering too long and pushed away all of the air. Through the hell around me I heard a new scream - the skid had landed on some poor private's foot. Three men leaped out and lifted as I tried to get some kind of bite with the blades. It was enough and they pulled him aboard.
"GO!" screamed my chief. But I couldn't.
"We're too heavy." I shouted back. There was only one thing in my cargo hold – a baker’s dozen of 18 year old kids scared to death and certain to die if they stayed. I couldn't jettison anyone. My crew chief and I stared at each other. This was probably the worst moment of my life.
Then a wall of flame erupted on my left side. An A-1 driver had cooked in a canister of napalm. It bought us a little breathing room from one quarter but the men were still shooting like crazy out the other side. One of them ran dry and with a curse tossed his rifle out.
Of course. "Chief, get rid of everyone's gear. Packs, weapons, helmets, everything." He understood at once and began ripping gear off of the soldiers and tossing it out. A grenade bounced off the side of the ship. For a full second everyone just stared and then PFC Vincent O'Neal dove on it.
I worked the collective again but we were still too heavy. VC were coming over the hill again and we were dry. The distinctive sound of a pair of .30s tore into my nightmare. Then Kaiser's voice on the radio - "Sorry I'm late Angel Eyes, they had to scramble to get another bird ready to fly.
The gunship shot past us, tearing up the hillside. "I'm too heavy." I answered back.
"Will four do it?" asked Kaiser.
"You can't set down up here." I said.
"You can't take off. Will four do it?" He was making another pass and slowed, then dropped to a low hover near my ship.
"Four out NOW." I screamed. My crew chief pushed them out, the four closest. No need for instructions. As soon as they were clear we began to lift. Slowly, but airborne. Air-Cav. Hoo-ah.
Kaiser was right behind me. The pling-pling of rounds striking and screams from the men behind as they were hit drove me to take chances I never would have otherwise. We needed as much altitude as possible at our weight, but I'd never be able to climb fast enough, so I stayed low.
The gunship passed us, trying to clear a path, but there were so many of them. My windows were speckles with bullet holes, our hydraulics were shot, and with every bump, blood would flow into the cockpit from the compartment behind us.
I smelled burning and turned to see my crew chief spraying down a fire in our electronic gear. He shook his head. Behind him the fighting men, now stripped of all their gear and weapons had begun to pray.
"Watch out!" said Deuce and I felt the controls jerk in my hand as he overrode me. A hill had come up in front of us. All I could see were the men praying and the face of the boy who had tried to kill me - just before he died.
A machine gun opened up somewhere to our left and the whole aircraft shook as the massive rounds bit into it. The engine spluttered for a moment and then resumed but we were suddenly yawing right. Deuce said, "Tail rotor is out." We fought with the rudder pedals, already heavy without the hydraulics.
Slowly the firing eased off, then stopped. Kaiser dropped back by my side and I could see his crew chief signaling. We waved back that our radio was dead. He nodded and then they moved up again into the lead.
Every warning light on my board was lit. The powerful whop-whop was now a whop-whopkkk and the frame was shaking. We were missing part of a rotor and it was only a matter of time before we shook apart.
The pressure on the rudder increased and I looked over at Deuce. His flight suit was soaked in blood. "Deuce? Hey - Deuce!" No response. I called back to my crew chief, "Deuce is hit."
He wasted no time. The cramped space was now crowded by a third man struggling to keep my copilot from bleeding out. He kept falling into me and then on top of Deuce as the ship was buffeted by wind and mechanical failure.
I think it was the prayers of the men behind me that got us home. I had almost no control left and my legs ached from holding the rudder. Kaiser had called ahead and the flight line had been cleared. I saw Crazy Horse’s ship off to the side, a battered machine that would take days to fly again.
I came in as slowly and gently as I could, but without the tail rotor it had to be at speed. We skidded across the pads and into some tents. It was bumpy and I was sure we were going to flip, but we didn’t.
We were surrounded by friendlies- pulling bodies off of the airframe and spraying foam everywhere. More than half of us were able to limp away. Only three were dead. One of them was Deuce.
People clapped my back, shook my hand. Major Leland nodded to me, saw that Kaiser was unloaded too, and returned to the CP. I couldn’t walk anymore. My legs were exhausted and cramped. An arm went around my waist and I leaned against the newcomer.
“That was some landing, Angel Eyes.” It was Snake. I grunted.
“You know, most people don’t believe hell is real. Even most Christians don’t really believe.” He was walking me away from the crowd. “But we know better.” He was staring at something nobody else could see. “We’ve flown through its gates and come back.” I’d never seen this side of Snake. Suddenly I was closer to him than I had been to anyone.
“Straight from the belly of the beast. That’s a hell of a thing you just did.”
I teach math now, in high school. Have for almost 30 years. But there’s a calculus I haven’t figured out yet. How another man’s life is worth more than your own, how a man can do what needs to be done, no matter how horrible.
When I bounce my grandson on my knee, I think about the box buried in my attic. I hope he never finds it. I hope that if he does, the pretty colored ribbons and engraved metal mean nothing to him. But if he does understand what they mean, then the world hasn’t changed. If that’s the case, I know that he will do what must be done – even if it means flying into the fiery pit itself.