Fifty Years Ago Today
By Robert Traller
Fifty years ago today at first light, the siren went off in B Co. 25th Aviation Battalion, 25th infantry division. I scrambled to get my clothes on and ran out to the flight line. I slid open the right-hand door of the helicopter, grabbed my machine gun and snapped it on to its mount. My crew chief Goubeau, "Gooby," had arrived and was untying the main rotor and readying our ship for flight.
In a minute, the pilots arrived jogging with their orders. CWO Szabo climbed in on Gooby's side as Lt. Howe got in the pilot's seat. I slid his armor plate forward and closed his door as he started the engine. I took my seat as the rotor gained speed and the turbine wheezed up to a higher frequency. It was less than three minutes since the sirens had gone off and the ship began to hover to the right to clear the sandbags, nose down and we began to pick up speed.
The morning was overcast. The ceiling couldn't have been more than a few hundred feet. We were following the highway toward Saigon. Gooby and I looked at each other. We didn't know what the mission was. "Must be a milk run," I shouted. He nodded. We were heading toward Saigon, the most secure city in all of Vietnam. Perhaps we were going to pick up some colonel to bring him to base at Cu Chi.
As the highway approached the North end of Saigon and the air base at Ton Son Nhut, I noticed a column of armored vehicles on the highway. Lt. Howe began communicating with a commander on the ground who seemed to be in something of a panic. "Start putting fire down on that row of houses west of the highway," he shouted on the radio. We had just flown over the houses and Lt. Howe began a wide turn to the right. The ground commander explained that his men were receiving a lot of small arms fire from the houses and had to retreat behind the armored vehicles. They were about out of ammo. There was more ammo in the tracks but they couldn't get to it because of the fire.
We turned back parallel to the highway and began firing at the houses. Our ship had a grenade launcher in the nose and fired grenades at the rate of about two per second. We were too low and flat to fire our rockets, but Gooby and I were firing our machine guns. Before the end of our first run, my M-60 stopped firing. As we broke to come around for another run, I was desperately trying to find the problem. I opened the cover and checked the belt and tried to re-cock it but it was no use. We began a second run and I was still trying to get my machine gun working. I could see our grenades exploding on the ground between the houses. I was not doing our team any good. When we broke to come around for our third run, I took the gun apart and discovered the driving spring guide had broken. There was no way I was going to make the gun work.
As we started our third run over the houses I grabbed my M16 from behind my seat and began firing at the windows of the houses below. We began taking a lot of fire. Rounds came up through the floor between Gooby and I. Suddenly CWO Szabo screamed. I looked over and saw he was grabbing his right leg and his pants were already soaked in blood. Unbeknownst to me another round came through the plastic nose of the aircraft, hit the tail rotor pedals and sprayed shrapnel into Lt. Howe's face. As we reached the end of the row of houses Lt. Howe dropped the aircraft down on the ground and flew low and fast over fields before popping us up and landing right in the medical evacuation area of Ton Son Nhut. I jumped out, opened Howe's door, and slid back his armor plate. His face was white and swollen with two or three small puncture wounds in his forehead and cheek. In seconds the medics took him and Szabo away.
It was the beginning of a very long day. A day in which I saw another ship from our company take off with the blood of crew chief Ed Pike painting the tail boom from the door to the tail rotor. It was a very long day and its sights, sounds, and smell became etched in my brain. It was a very long day. In fact, it lasted about a week.
Robert Traller is a retired Engineering Associate at Stanford University. He was in Vietnam from '67-'68. He was active in VVAW in the 70's