The Fog and the LOCH Pilot
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
Toward the end of my tour, perhaps just after Christmas, the Tiger Force was given an unusual assignment. Because the heavy contacts that occurred at the Tet of 68, and the subsequent actions around Veghel and the A Shau had wound down in intensity, we were at somewhat loose ends for awhile. This gave us the opportunity to actually work in a village (Phu Loc) for a week or so, but sure enough, someone got in trouble. Command decided to put us on top of a hill until something better could be done with us. The hill was actually in sight from the Phu Loc area.
The hill was a single mountain, that stood slightly away from the rest of the mountain complex to our west. It was slightly south and west of Phu Loc. It did not tower over the valley like some Rocky Mountain or Sierra Nevada peak, but was high enough that the top was almost always clouded in fog. It was close enough to the coast that the moist influence of the ocean provided the needed moisture, and the altitude did the rest.
On a rare clear day, the entire Tiger Force was lifted up to the top in one or two loads. A few more hueys brought the Recondos in as well, much to our mutual surprise. We quickly made a few acquaintances and shook hands all around as we spread out to our respective sides of the perimeter. Two or three more loads came in, with supplies, and a single water trailer. The last helicopter left, the clouds closed in and we were left to explore our new home. The assignment was to sit on a perimeter on top of this mountain, and stay out of trouble.
It didn't take long to figure out that there would be no patrols on this mountain. The slopes dropped away precipitously to all sides, so steep that only one finger to the east afforded any means of walking away from the top, for a few hundred feet. Only rarely would the cloud lift for a few hours every few days to afford a view from the top. We settled into the abandoned bunkers that made up the perimeter. We were told that this was a holy mountain, and that the Vietnamese had been up here for a while. They had built rather complex and large bunkers for the perimeter, so we could put three or four guys to a position. I got stuck with Sergeant Wade, who didn't like me any more than I liked him.
The place was crawling with rats. I made up a method to keep them off me at night, but never felt comfortable as far as fleas and plague was concerned. We used liberal amounts of insect repellent on our clothes, and skin, as well as on the beds inside the bunkers.
I would wrap my poncho liner around me tightly, then wrap the top around my head. Then I would lay back on the log bunk and turn face down. I could hear the rats come out right away, scuttling around in the dark. Occasionally I would jump as one would land on my back and run down my length to jump off the end of the bed to the floor. These rats were huge, at least the size of a cat, and weighed at least a few pounds as they landed with a thump on my back. I took this for a few nights and finally decided to sleep out side in the foggy mist, no matter how wet I got.
We made friends with several of the Recondos. I would make rounds to each of the bunkers to check on jungle rot and other tropical wonders as well as the condition of the condition. There were “sets” each night and we “rapped strong” I compared notes with the other medics from Recondos. The days stretched on. The nights were interminable. The rats kept crawling around. The few mortars that were there with us fired a few rounds , but had to shoot almost straight up to drop rounds as much as 100 yards away, the hillsides were so steep. They gave this up when it was realized that a mistake of a few yards would land a round right on top of us, or so far down the hill that you could barely hear the explosion.
Finally one day, we were told that a company of infantry would be coming into the hill, to walk off onto the finger that stretched to the west. I found this thought amazing since we had determined that there was really no way to patrol down this way. They would be confronted with ever steeper drop-offs as they went and would surely come back this way to crowd onto our little hill top.
The cloud lifted off for a few hours and the Chinooks began to cycle in, dropping 30 men at a time. The last one brought a load of supplies for us along with a water trailer. The line company gathered at the east side of the perimeter and as it got dusky they began to walk off in single file. The cloud settled in again and we made our way to our bunkers to put away our share of the supplies, including the loot from the PX box.
I had been resting in top of the bunker when heard a commotion at the CP. A radio man came running over to me out of breath and excited. He quickly told me that the line company was coming back up with some guys that had been injured. During the time that the Vietnamese had held this site, they had put rings of booby traps out along the perimeter, so they wouldn’t have to patrol on the steep ground. Since they had been on this hill for years, there were untold numbers of traps strung out all over the hill. One of our earliest patrols had discovered several, and was part of the reason that we did not go on extensive or frequent long patrols. Now this company had run into one of these booby traps. Friendly or not, these were just as dangerous.
Soon, a group of men came struggling up the hill, carrying 3 or 4 severely wounded men. The booby trap was an American grenade that had been placed in a c ration can, with the pin pulled. The can was tied with the opening downward, the grenade stuffed inside. A trip wire ran across the opening to keep the grenade inside, and stretched across the trail at about 2 or 3 inches height. Several men had stepped across it in the near dark and had passed to safety.
These men had been standing right on top of the trap when it had gone off. One who was only slightly wounded said he heard the grenade drop. He had dived to the side and hollered “Grenade!”
The Recondo medics and myself huddled in the CP bunker, where there was a Coleman light burning. I could here the radio man desperately calling the rear for a medivac. The team brought in the 4 wounded men, two or three others were being treated outside, since they were not badly injured. I stripped the clothes of the man nearest me. Examining him quickly, I could see that his left leg and arm where little more than hamburger. The rest of him where he was facing the grenade, was a mass of square holes covering that entire side of his body. There where holes in his eye lids, and holes in his nose. There were holes in his scrotum and penis, and his entire frontal aspect of his body. The thorough and devastating amount of shrapnel coverage was astounding. As I covered his body with a poncho liner, my partner handed me the needle end of an IV line. I quickly placed it and another in each of his arms, and opened them up wide. I turned to the next two, and in quick succession had them assessed and treated. They were all semiconscious, and severely injured. Now, here in this isolated spot I could only keep them alive, by replacing their fluids, and not much else. I turned their care over to the other medics, and went to the Lieutenant who was standing at the radio.
He informed me that no one would come up in the dark, especially since the cloud cover was back and as thick as ever. He said that a LOCH pilot had told him that he would consider trying and was flying up to look things over now. I went outside into the dark. The cloud was well settled onto the mountain top. I couldn’t see past the end of the bunker, a distance of only about 20 feet. I certainly couldn’t see the near edge of the LZ which was the absolute top of the hill, hard packed mud, about 150 feet across. I walked up to the LZ, and found a couple of sergeants setting piles of powder bags from the mortars out in piles at the four corners of the LZ. The object was that if the chopper actually made it in, they would light them off, to give him a last minute chance of figuring out where he was to land. They burned off one of the bags, to show me how bright they burned, and I agreed that this might just give the pilot the edge he needed.
The mountain top was totally bald, and the trees that covered the hill sides, had been cleared back far enough that none were any higher than the top of the mountain. This meant that any approach or exit was safe as long the pilot could maintain altitude.
In the pilot compartment of many helicopters was a device that I had seen and marveled at several times. Essentially it was a map rolled up on spools at the top and bottom. Across the center from left to right and top to bottom were two small rods that met at the center. At the rear, the pilot could set the center piece of the cross bars on the exact spot where he was starting from, and as the helicopter flew, the map would scroll or the pin would move left to right, coordinating the bird and the map to the exact position. The map was a topographic map, showing ground contours, and could be torn out of the rig if the bird went down. I believe that the LOCH pilot was using one of these map systems to check out the possibility of coming in.
In about 15 minutes I could hear the buzzing of the LOCH as it circled the mountain top. By the sound I estimated that he was just outside the cloud, maybe 500 meters away. A LOCH is what we called the Hughes 500 helicopter, a small powerful 4 bladed bird, now in service all over the world in police and rescue work. The acronym stands for Light Observation/Command Helicopter. It had Two command seats, and three seats in back. Although considered small, it was also said to be very powerful. When seen to be maneuvering I had noticed that it often had short jerky movements that I interpreted to mean a great deal of power in a small package. I had seen them pull away quickly from enemy fire, and pull turns that would have yanked the blades off a huey. Now we had one buzzing around just outside our cloud trying to find a way in.
Again by the sound I could tell that the helicopter had stopped circling and was hovering out at 6 o’clock from the LZ. He was facing into the wind, a slight breeze that drove the mist sideways. Behind me I could hear the radio man bringing his rig out onto the top of the command bunker, and could hear the Lieutenant talking to the pilot. Slowly the bird crept forward and gradually his engine and blade noise grew louder.
In about a minute of very tense waiting I realized that the bird was felling his way in a foot at a time, and was now just over head. I could feel the rotor wash flapping my hair and clothes, so I shouted over my shoulder to the radio that he was just overhead, to set down now. Instead the bird moved on past the LZ and circled around again outside the cloud. Again the LOCH began the approach, and this time it was obvious that he was about 100 feet lower than before. Slowly he came forward. This time as he came in , I could just see the right skid above my head. The men at each corner of the LZ touched off the piles of powder bags, and the LOCH stopped it’s forward movement, dropping quickly to settle on the LZ, dead center. I was astounded, and impressed at this man’s courage, that allowed him to feel his way blindly into that cloud to pick up these wounded men, when no others would come. The LOCH was certainly not configured as a medivac helicopter, and this pilot most certainly did not have to come up to do this, when his usual job was probably flying staff officers around the rear.
I tore open the door on the pilot’s side and thumped him on the back several times. Although I was just 18 myself, I was amazed to look into the pilot’s face and think, “He’s just a kid!”
The wounded men were loaded quickly into the LOCH, piled on top of each other. The lightly wounded sat on the bench seat in the rear, and we laid two of the men on their laps, two others were laid on the floor, in front of their feet. It made a tight and heavy load. As we had loaded the later guys, I kept asking the pilot over the noise of the rotors spinning above and the howl of the engine, if he could take any more. He kept gesturing to bring them on, I got the impression that he wasn’t coming back and was going to carry this load if he had to pedal the blades himself. I felt sure that this lift was going to be in part by sheer will power. I pushed the door shut, forcing it the last few inches, and latched it closed. I stood back then went close to the pilot again. I leaned close to his helmeted face and shouted, “Thanks, Good luck, I owe you a beer!”.
He nodded and turned his head forward. I shut his door, and stepped back, then knelt on one knee, and turned my head against the increased rotor blast.
The bird lifted off, quickly lost to sight in the thick mist. Just one skid, then nothing as he crept forward. A few minutes later, the sound changed pitch as he peeled the bird to the right, half circled the mountain top and then dropped toward the rear area and the safety of the Evac hospital below. His engine noise was quickly swallowed into the night, and we looked at each other in the calm of the aftermath. Returning to the command bunker, I sat with the other medics, and the two Lieutenants, discussing the bravery of the young pilot. It left us with quite an impression. One of the Lieutenants said he would find out who the man was, but we never heard.
I still owe that guy a beer.