By Maj. Tony Geishauser (USA-Ret.)
It started as just another routine day at the office. Of course, my office happened to be the cockpit of a U.S. Army UH-1 “Huey” helicopter flying over Vietnam. Every day started routinely. Some even ended that way. March 16, 1966, wouldn’t be one of those days. That morning, two 173rd Airborne Brigade cooks quickly loaded large containers of hot chow into our bird. Fully loaded and carrying a 400-lb. sling-load of ice, we headed for War Zone D north of Bien Hoa. Our LZ or Landing Zone was designated “Zulu-Zulu.” The 2nd Battalion of the 173rd had been in the field for several days, living on a diet of C-rations, and its airborne “Sky Soldiers” were badly in need of hot chow.
My outfit–A Company, 82nd Aviation–carried troops to and from fire fights, provided medical-evacuation services and kept a steady resupply of ammo, “C-” and “A-rats,” water, mail and, on rare occasions, ice to our ground-pounding brothers-in-arms. This morning, we were scheduled to deliver a hot breakfast and drink-cooling ice. A few miles from our destination, we called the unit, asking it to pop a smoke grenade and identify the landing zone. I soon reported spotting red smoke. A radio operator responded, “Roger, red smoke, Cowboy. Wind calm. No Victor-Charlies in the AO.” Good; a friendly Area of Operations.
The Viet Cong were elsewhere this morning. We made a slow pass over a hole in the jungle’s canopy and decided our best approach was straight down into the LZ, some 100 ft. below the treetops. The hole appeared big enough for us to hover through. Still, the crew chief and gunner stood on each of our helicopter’s skids, talking us down and ensuring we didn’t inadvertently back our tail rotor into a jagged tree line skirting the LZ. Without a tail rotor to compensate for the main rotor’s torque, our Huey wouldn’t hover; it’d spin and crash. So, keeping our tail out of those trees was a high priority. We had just started down through the hole when the jungle erupted. “Mack! Machine-gun tracers, 2 o’clock! Pull pitch, pull pitch!” I yelled. Mack, the other pilot, saw what looked like basketball-size 0.51-caliber tracer rounds pass several yards in front of our chopper a second after I did.
The enemy gunner, obviously trained to lead his target, expected us to fly into his line of fire. But we weren’t flying forward. We were hovering straight down. As Mack started to pull pitch, rotor RPM decayed. “Punch off the ice, Mack! Punch off the ice!” I yelled into my microphone. Mack didn’t hear me, couldn’t find the sling load release button on his stick or had a few other things on his mind. I didn’t wait for an explanation. I kicked the manual release lever between my pedals and 400 lb. of ice fell away. Without that extra weight, rotor RPM slowly edged back into the green. As Mack started easing us up through the treetops’ opening, that enemy gunner swung his aim point, overcorrected and blasted our tail boom and tail rotor. The chopper started to spin, dropping towards the ground. I said what every helicopter pilot says at a time like this: “S–t!”
The closer we got to the ground, the faster my mind raced, which converted all activity into an illusion of slow motion. All the way down, I talked to myself: I’m not going to get seriously killed. Heck, I even upped the ante and said I wasn’t even going to get hurt. It worked–at least, the not-getting-killed part did. The foliage cushioned our fall somewhat, but the main rotor blades nearly shook the helicopter to pieces as they chopped trees into kindling. Our Huey finally settled to the jungle floor, crashing on its left side with a final death heave. “Anyone hurt?” I shouted. Everyone reported he was OK, including the crew chief, whose back was nearly broken. Banged-up and bruised, we all scrambled out the right cargo door as fast as possible, slipping on spilled eggs, orange juice and coffee.
I saw a figure running towards us, rifle in hand. Our gunner held his fire, identifying the man as a round-eyed airborne soldier. He’d been sent to escort us to safety. As our last crewmember scampered from the dead Huey, all hell broke loose. Hundreds upon hundreds of weapons started firing–all on full-automatic. The noise was deafening. The 700 or so men of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry were surrounded by a reinforced North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment of 2,000 regular soldiers, not ragtag Viet Cong rebels. Once we were clear of the chopper, our 173rd paratrooper escort bent low to the ground and shouted that timeless infantry command: “Follow me!” We hauled for all we were worth, aiming for the center of the battalion’s defensive position, perhaps 100 meters from where we had crashed.
We were directed to locations that might be out of harm’s way, but those positions often changed as the battle raged. Two M-60 machine guns taken from our chopper helped shore up the battalion’s defensive perimeter. A sergeant appeared, carrying our crew chief’s now-broken M-14 rifle. Its wooden stock had snapped off during the crash landing, leaving only a trigger-housing group and hardware forward of it. The burly sergeant motioned for me to come closer, so I low-crawled over to him. Stooped low, the paratrooper held the weapon below his waist and said, “When they break through, hold the trigger housing group here, in your groin. Grab the barrel and aim it with your left hand. There’s not much kick when the M-14 fires. Don’t worry about it. Just hit what you’re shooting at and keep it on semiautomatic. Here are two more ammo clips. Any questions?” Any questions?
How did this day go from routine flying to John Wayne-style lessons about shooting bad guys with half a rifle, when–not if–they break through? I shook my head, which he took to mean “no questions.” Actually, it was my way of saying, “Unbelievable; totally unbelievable.” The next four hours were a blur. Artillery, theirs and ours, fell inside and outside our perimeter. Fighter aircraft strafed us, because the enemy was literally right on top of our position. When I saw lead flying through the air, hitting two soldiers a few yards away, I thought Charlie had finally broken through. Surely, I would be the next to get it. I made sure the ammo clip was firmly seated in the broken M-14 and a round was in the chamber. I waited…but nothing happened. I finally realized the lead I’d seen must have been from a fighter strafing our zone. The perimeter hadn’t been breached.
The 2nd Bat was continuing to hold against overwhelming odds. Box scores can’t measure the strong hearts and brave souls of the men who comprised the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, as they fought and defeated a fierce and determined enemy three times their number. After our sister battalion, the 1st of the 503rd, arrived–fighting through enemy lines to reinforce us–the body count was 11 Americans killed, 109 wounded. Later, we learned that more than 600 NVA bodies were found around the stubbornly held perimeter. There’s no telling how many enemy wounded crawled away. It had taken the 2nd Bat’s sister battalion nearly four hours to hack its way through thick jungle to get to us. One of the men in that unit, Specialist Fourth Class Alfred Rascon, a medic, exercised “…extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire. His heroism in rescuing the wounded went well above and beyond the call of duty to protect and treat his wounded comrades…” as they fought their way to us, according to an award citation. For his heroic actions that non-routine day, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When it came to flying helicopters, I knew what I was doing. But when it came to fierce in-your-face, gut-wrenching, close-quarters combat, there were no better soldiers than the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry and its sister battalion, the 1st of the 503rd. Thanks, “Sky Soldiers,” for saving a helicopter crew and my bacon on a day when we were simply trying to bring you eggs and bacon.
Fast-forward some 36 years. The 173rd Airborne Brigade was having a reunion in Fort Worth, TX. Not long before, I had linked-up with the 2nd Battalion’s radio operator via the Internet. He invited me to come to the reunion and speak to his comrades. Very few of those soldiers had met the Huey pilot who’d crashed in the LZ, dumping their bacon and eggs that fateful day. I did go to the reunion–but not before stopping at a McDonald’s public relations office. Concluding my 5-min. speech to the reunion’s ex-soldiers, I said, “The ‘Cowboys’ always deliver, even if it takes a second try–30-some years later.” To a standing ovation, I handed out more than 300 McDonald’s Egg McMuffin gift certificates.
Tony Geishauser completed a full 20-year Army career, retiring as a major and a Master Army Aviator. In addition to being an infantry officer and helicopter pilot, he served as an Army public information officer in Europe and at the world’s largest military post, Fort Hood, TX. He later held positions as a worldwide media relations and advertising manager for Texas Instruments, and media relations positions at other companies for more than 19 years. He currently operates his own consulting firm.