Robin Bartlett

Vietnam Combat: Medevac, Jungle Penetrator and Unusual Finds

As a combat infantry platoon leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), I was in country at the height of the Vietnam war from 1968-69. The Air Cav was famous for implementing the airmobile concept, bringing fresh fighting forces to the battlefield by helicopter rather than humping through the boonies. It was a formidable strategy, and we were fortunate to be able to carry lighter packs, more ammo and water than many other line divisions. Our AO (area of operation) was I Corps, with the Gulf of Tonkin in the East, parallel to the DMZ and the Laotian border on the West. Near the beach, the terrain was rolling hills, sandy soil with no overhead cover. Near the Laotian border, the terrain became mountainous, three-canopy jungle.

My company made lots of Charlie Alphas (helicopter combat assaults), sometimes twice a day. By my calculation, I made more than 50 CAs during my seven months in the field including assaults while assigned as the QRF platoon (quick reaction force) where we spent the entire day at the landing strip preparing to attack any enemy unit that might be spotted.

Cobra Support

Every assault followed what was to become a familiar pattern. While I appreciated the only opportunity I ever got to cool off, flying in the first bird when it was my platoon’s turn to lead the assault always raised my pucker factor. At about 5 minutes out from the LZ (landing zone), each man checked his weapon and fired a short burst out the door to make sure it was ready to go. Kneeling between the pilots, I could see the 105-artillery barrage hitting the LZ and raising my comfort level just a little bit. A Willie Peter round (white phosphorous) signaled the end of the barrage and two Cobra helicopters supporting our assault, dipped their noses and darted in spraying the perimeter with rockets and miniguns. I loved those Cobras. They were always a lifesaver as long as they could see my front-line smoke and knew the direction I wanted them to strafe. And finally, as my first bird pulled pitch and started to land, the door gunners opened up on both sides spraying the surrounding brush hopefully keeping any enemy’s heads that survived the barrage from popping up.

How any enemy soldiers could survive this LZ prep is unimaginable, but sometimes they did, and then the LZ rapidly turned from cold to hot (green to red). Enemy soldiers loved to try to take out the second bird, giving the men who had already landed a false sense of security. They’d fire an RPG and if successful the helicopter would crash on the LZ. Not wanting to risk additional helicopters, the remaining assault would be diverted to an alternate LZ hopefully close by and the company would move to support the men on the ground. Those on the first chopper and those who survived the crash had to fight it out on their own until support arrived. The Cobras remained on station available to support if the assault ran into trouble. That’s why my men wanted off that first bird as quickly as possible and get to cover. As my chopper came to an abrupt hover 5-10 feet off the ground, my men, riding the skids on both sides, jumped. Jumping from the skids was always dangerous, as your body was thrown forward and your pack rode up on your back causing your helmet to fly off and your body to tumble forward. But my men knew they were vulnerable. Pilots too wanted to get the hell out of a potentially hot LZ.

Once on the ground, assuming no enemy fire, I gave a call to the C&C helicopter (Command and Control) overhead that the LZ was green and directed my men to areas of the perimeter. As subsequent platoons landed, they took over their assigned sectors of the perimeter and my men gave up their positions and moved back to my platoon’s area of responsibility. After the company was fully landed, the CO gave the word for reinforced squads to move out on patrols and look for blood trails, wounded or bodies left behind and try to engage any enemy that might be attempting to retreat from the area. After that, we would hump to a previously selected NDP (night defensive position), recon for night ambush locations, dig our holes and get ready for the nightly routine of clearing fields of fire, putting out trip flares and Claymores, grabbing something to eat, cleaning weapons and sending out nightly ambushes.

Humping the Mountains

But Charlie Alphas were much more challenging as we moved into the mountainous, three-canopy jungle near the Laotian border. Our objective in this AO was to locate, block and destroy NVA units coming in to I Corps from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was a free-fire zone and if anything moved you shot it. There were no friendly civilians in the area. The terrain was grueling. We humped up and down mountains. It was hot, humid, and extremely dense jungle with three layers overhead. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke were a real factor especially for the point man, often following animal trails and chopping through “wait-a-minute vines.” Under these conditions, I changed my point every 15 to 30 minutes. If someone was wounded or keeled over from heat stroke, the only way to get him out was to call for a medevac with a jungle penetrator. In the evening when we set up for an NDP it required chopping down trees to open a space where a chopper could hover and toss out supplies.

We tried to stay at these NDPs for a couple of days before moving to a new mountain top. For security, each of the three platoons would send out a patrol in the morning, navigating a third of a circle counterclockwise around the base of the mountain where we were camped and then head back up to the NDP at the end of the day. It was my turn to lead a reinforced squad and I followed my usual procedure making sure each man carried at least two gallons of water, 20 magazines of ammo, hand, and smoke grenades. I made sure nothing rattled as we snaked our way down the mountain to its base. My reinforced squad consisted of a machine gunner, his ammo bearer, an M79 grenadier, RTO with extra smokes and star clusters, squad leader, medic, three riflemen and me – ten men in all.

After reaching the base of the mountain we started to follow a small creek bed which provided the best path for walking and generally ran in the direction we were scheduled to patrol. I knew this route was not the safest, but the terrain on either side of the creek was a wall of impenetrable jungle. The water was only ankle deep and with the intense heat and humidity, we appreciated the opportunity to frequently dip our towels and sweat rags into the water and wipe our arms and faces. At around noon I called a halt, put out security to the front and rear and told everyone to eat something. The men relaxed, ate C Ration fruit, and smoked cigarettes. We had seen no sign of any enemy activity that morning and our patrol had been uneventful.

A Single Shot Rang Out

After 30 minutes, my squad leader, chuckling and acting funny, approached, and said that he wanted to take over the point. This was a bit unusual as the squad leader usually walked third in line, but he was insistent saying that he wanted to relieve the point man due to the intense heat and take a turn leading the squad. I relented and said OK. We saddled up; I pulled in the security, and we continued to hump the stream bed. After about a kilometer, my squad leader alerted, and called me forward. He pointed to a fresh footprint on a rock protruding from the stream. Suddenly we all became very aware that we were not alone in the jungle. I gave the signal of enemy to the rest of the men to pass down the line (closed fist in front of face). I reassumed my position in line and slowly and cautiously, we proceeded in line formation through the dense jungle, gradually moving away from the stream bed. I was now fourth in line and my squad leader was roughly 50 meters to my front. The jungle was so dense I could only see the man 5 meters in front of me.

A single shot rang out! We all hit the ground. My cover man screamed out, “Medic!, 1-1 (the squad leader’s call sign), has been hit. Doc, my medic, came running from the rear and scrambled past the men in front. I immediately directed two men to move forward to the left flank and two to the right and placed my machine gunner and grenadier in the center to take up firing positions. I asked them what they could see. They yelled back that there were some hooches to their front but no movement and no firing. I waited anxiously for my medic’s report. It came soon enough: “He’s got a sucking chest wound, call for a medevac with a doctor onboard.” I screamed at my medic to grab on to 1-1 and pull him back to my position. I also screamed at my men to cover my medic’s retreat and fire one clip at the hooches – single shots, no automatic fire. In a second all hell broke loose as my men vented their frustration on the hooches. A few minutes later my medic and the cover man were pulling 1-1 back to my position. We found a large boulder and pulled him behind. There was blood all over the man and he was rasping, having trouble breathing and making gurgling sounds similar to what we’d been told a sucking chest wound sounds like.

I quickly consulted my map. Fortunately, I had been keeping up with my location and was able to identify where we had moved away from the stream bed, so I had a good fix on my coordinates. I got on the horn and called the CO and put in a request for a medevac for a sucking chest wound and a jungle penetrator. This lifesaving request automatically qualified as a medical priority to have a physician on board. I quickly converted my coordinates to our company’s ten letter code and gave my position.

Then I realized my predicament. There were three layers of canopy over my head. There was no way a medivac would ever find or see me even with exact coordinates, and my smoke would not be able to penetrate the canopy. I needed to open a hole. I yelled for my machine gunner to come back to my location. He was the biggest and strongest man in my unit. He also carried a spare machete. I told him to start cutting down trees to open a hole in the canopy. He attacked the trees with a vengeance and ferocity that only adrenalin can induce. A few minutes later my medic said, “It’s not a sucking chest wound. He’s been shot in the throat and if we don’t get him out soon he’s going to bleed out. I realized that I should not have requested a doctor to be on board, but it was too late now to counterman that request. The medevac would be in the air and overhead in a few minutes.

I took over from my machine gunner and chopped down a couple of small trees. I was sweating so much that the machete kept slipping out of my hands. After a short breather, my machine gunner took over the chopping again. Meanwhile there was sporadic firing by my men toward the enemy, but apparently no return fire.

Finally, after chopping down about 10 trees we opened a hole about 12 feet in diameter. I heard the medevac calling me and I spoke with the pilot saying that I could hear his rotors and was going to fire a star cluster so he could pinpoint my location. I got a “Roger that” in return. I grabbed one of the three star clusters from my RTO’s pack and pulled off the cap and placed it on the bottom. I crawled out to the center of the hole cut in the canopy and raised up on my knees. I smacked the canister on the bottom and watched as the rocket hit one of the tree branches and fall to the ground. I crawled back to my radio and told the pilot that the first one was a dud, and I was going to try again. I repeated the procedure, crawled out to the hole, put the cap on the bottom and fired the rocket through the hole. There was no response from the pilot.

I called the pilot asking if he had seen the star cluster and he said they had but it was spotted too late to see where it had come from. I told him I was firing my last one and to watch carefully for it in 30 seconds. I crawled back out to the hole above and fired my third and last star cluster knowing that if I could not get my squad leader on that medevac he would surely die. The rocket rose high in the sky leaving a smoke trail and exploded at about 200 feet up. “Roger, I’ve got you!” I heard the pilot exclaim over the radio. Next he said, “Pop smoke.” (In retrospect, I have always wondered why I had not carried all three star clusters with me on the first trip to the hole, but it was super-hot, I was in overdrive, and I was trying to think of ten things at once. I’ve given myself the benefit of the doubt.)

“Oh shit, now what am I going to do?” I thought. The smoke is not going to go through that hole. He’ll never find us. Then it hit me, and I yelled at my machine gunner to pull the laces from one of his boots. I grabbed a smoke grenade and tied it with his boot lace on to one of the long poles we had cut down. I pulled the pin and held the pole up to the hole. The smoke penetrated and the word came over the radio: “Roger, I’ve got purple smoke.” I responded with, “Roger, purple smoke.”

As the pilot started to descend I let him know that my WIA could not sit or be tied to the seat of the jungle penetrator. He responded that they would toss out a stretcher and to tie the man into it. As the medevac came closer, the pilot asked about white smoke coming from an area about 100 meters to my northeast. I told him that this was the area of contact, my men were in defensive position and had been firing on it with tracer rounds that had started a fire. The pilot became super cautious and wanted a base of fire to be laid down as he approached the area tail rotor first. I yelled to my men to start firing as soon as the helicopter started to hover.

As the pilot swooped in just over my hole and dropped the stretcher, my men let loose with a volley of fire that startled everyone and the pilot took off as quickly as he had come in. We grabbed the stretcher and tied 1-1 into it. We had applied a bandage to the hole in his neck and had attempted to apply pressure, but that forced blood out of his mouth and caused him to choke. He was turning pale, and I could tell he had lost a lot of blood. All we could do was tell 1-1 to hold the bandage in place. We had to get him out – NOW!

But another dilemma presented itself. I had only witnessed use of the jungle penetrator one time in training and in that case the man was able to sit on the seat of the device and be pulled up. But 1-1 could not sit or even be tied to the seat and what I could not determine was if the stretcher should be hauled up vertically or horizontally. So, I called the pilot and asked him. Sensing my confusion, the pilot told me he was sending his crew chief down to assist us.

The medevac hovered over our hole once again and down came the crew chief on the hook seat wearing his Mickey Mouse helmet and holding a .38 pistol in his hand. If the situation had not been so dire, I would have laughed at the site. As he got off the wire he yelled at me, “What the fuck is the problem?” I responded with, “How do we attach the stretcher to the wire?” The crew chief walked over to where my medic was administering to 1-1 who was now tied into the stretcher. He tightened the straps, and we carried the wounded man over to the dangling wire. The crew chief attached the strap at the top of the stretcher to the hook and gave the signal to haul the man up. 1-1 was hauled up rapidly and as soon as he cleared the canopy, the chopper flew away with the stretcher dangling in the wind and the bloody bandage falling to the ground. A few minutes later the chopper came over and dropped the hook again and the crew chief sat on the seat and was hauled up.

Bravo, Romeo, Alpha, Siera

The whole experience probably took no more than about 20 minutes, but it seemed like hours. My CO had had the foresight to stay off the radio while all of this was happening, but now he came on the horn and told me to attack the hooches. So, I consolidated my men and moved forward and into a small clearing where we found three hooches made from cut trees and roofs covered with wood and cardboard. We were sure no enemy were around but threw grenades into each hooch just to be safe.

Two of the hooches were for sleeping. There were places where beds had been made and the third hooch held food and medical supplies. I called my CO and gave him a sit rep. I was told to make an inventory of all items that we found and then to move away and set up an ambush in case any enemy came back to the area. So, I set about making a list of the things we found. There were bandages, some medical supplies with Vietnamese names, an American gunny sack filled with rice with the name of the manufacturer written on it, some socks, clothing, and a small brown wooden box. The box was about 10 inches long, six inches wide, and six inches deep. It was noticeably lightweight, so I felt sure it was not a booby trap. Cautiously, very cautiously, I slid back the cover of the box to reveal three, small, light blue bras!

Clearly, we had stumbled into an enemy aid station for treating wounded or sick soldiers and there had been a nurse there to treat them. I saved the bras for the last item when I radioed back my inventory report to my CO. I actually had to spell the last item: “Bravo, Romeo, Alpha, Siera,” as no one could believe what I was telling them. The CO told me that I was to bring one of the bras back to him when I returned.

After filing my inventory report, I moved my men a short distance and set up an ambush. By now I was coming down from the effects of the adrenalin, wounded man, chopping trees, the star clusters, the medevac, and the jungle penetrator. There was nothing left in my tank, and I collapsed in the center of my ambush, drank some water, and fell asleep. I was awakened 45 minutes later by my CO and told to burn the hooches and work my way back up to the NDP.

Daisy Cutter on the Loose

We started off again, single file, following a small animal trail that snaked its way up the mountain to the top. After an hour of climbing, my point man alerted me and called me forward. I thought, “Oh, shit, what now? Hasn’t enough happened already?” I trudged up the winding trail, with barely enough room to squeeze past the men in front of me until I got to the point man. There in front of him, about halfway up the mountain was a 12,000 lb. bomb, commonly known as a “Daisy Cutter.” (The Daisy Cutter was a left-over WWII bomb used in Vietnam to blow the tops off mountains so small firebases could be established with artillery batteries placed to support troops in the field.) There was a large loop on the top of the bomb that allowed it to be slung to a Sky Crain helicopter and dropped onto a mountaintop top and then rigged with explosives by engineers. This bomb must have gotten away from them. The loop on the bomb had pieces of rope tied to it as enemy soldiers had been trying to drag it back down the mountain.

I radioed my CO again to report my findings. He was aghast at my report and had me estimate the size of the bomb several times. He wanted to know if the bomb was booby trapped and I told him I was not about to try to find out. We agreed it would be best to call in the engineers and have them blow it in place.

We gave the bomb a wide birth and continued to work our way up to the top of the mountain where I reported to the CO and went over all of the details of the engagement, the wounded man, the medevac, hooches, and the bomb one more time. He was a real dick about my calling for a doctor to be on board the medevac, but I assumed responsibility and did not say anything about my medic’s mistake of declaring the WIA a sucking chest wound. At the time it seemed that it was a sucking chest wound and it was highly likely the man would have died if immediate medical treatment could not have been given onboard the helicopter. My CO wanted to know where one of the three bras was, but I told him that they had disappeared. He was pissed and wanted the souvenir to send back to the battalion commander, but those bras had already been confiscated and I was not going to search through my men’s gear to satisfy my CO’s wishes.

Several weeks later, my medic received a letter from 1-1 written from a hospital in Japan. 1-1 had survived and thanked us for saving his life. He asked that a bag of weed be removed from his possessions in the rear. He also revealed he had been smoking pot during the lunch break and that he had walked into the enemy sniper without taking any precautions. My response was that 1-1 was incredibly lucky that the sniper’s aim had been just a little bit low because a few inches higher and the bullet would have landed in his head.

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