Dropped from a Helicopter
Lt. John Toberman photo by "Zeke" Blevins
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
We were working out of Veghel firebase, traveling up into some steep country, to the west toward the A Shau Valley. After we had stumbled on a deep and narrow river canyon , we discovered some old thatched huts along the canyon edge. Captain Westbrook had just rotated out after a honorable tour in the field, and an Artillery Captain with a month left had come out to punch his field command ticket. I cite this so that others who were there and read this can verify the time frame. Several of the troops were screwing around by throwing grenades into the obviously abandoned huts, playing "combat".This was really out of charecter for them, and a reflection of the attitude of the new CO. Just as the platoon sergeant got on the horn to tell their squad leader to stop screwing around two of the guys caught a few fragments of shrapnel in their backs from a "friendly" grenade (Richard Coyne, and Hezakiah Shirley).
The wounds were superficial and I elected to leave them in place until I could cut them out that night when we set up, as we had found more huts, and several bunkers full of ammo (This is another story). There was little damage and there certainly would be no problem to let the removal wait. After we had moved down canyon their platoon sergeant and the CO came to me, saying that the guys wanted to be medivac'ed. The CO's justification was that the small wounds were rubbing on the men's packs irritating them. The CO said that we could call in a bird to the next ridgeline across the river, and get them out of the field. I could see that the CO was determined to do this, over the objections of myself and his Leutenants and that I had little to say about it so I acquiesced, saying " It's your call".
We moved up to the ridge line where the scout team had found two huge bomb craters on either side of the ridge, leaving the jungle cleared, and only a huge tree snag standing at the down slope end of the clearing. Some 3 feet thick at the top, and about 30 to 50 feet tall, it was the stub of one of the forest giants that towered to triple canopy in the rainforest that we moved about in. The ridge line dropped off steeply to either side and on the side we came up, dropped about 250 feet into the narrow gorge described before.
We pulled up to the site, and settled into a perimeter with the 3d platoon CP at the center. Lt Toberman, RTO's Wiley and Fluery and myself, along with the two men to be evac'd, Coyne and Hezekiah Shirley made up the CP element for the dustoff. The company CP was nearby on the perimeter. We had had no enemy contact for 4 to 5 days so far, so there was an air of complacency from the Captain. Toberman and the other LT's felt differently. they expressed concern that something was gong to hit the fan. The men dug in and got ready to receive the medivac to our LZ. Soon we heard, rather than saw the thumping of the huey's blades pulling the slick up slope from the lower river canyon to the south east.
Eventually the Dustoff slick hove-to overhead and lowered the jungle penetrator. Wiley had told the pilot over the radio about the large tree that obstructed a full landing so the pilot hovered some 80 feet above us, out of reach except by cable, but low enough that the rotor wash beat at us on the ground under the bird. I let the hook hit the ground to degauss the static charge, then folded down the leaves that the troops would sit on. I directed the two men to sit one on the other's lap,facing each other, then wrapped them up with the single strap that passed under each man's arms. Stepping back a half step I looked up at the crew chief standing half out of the rig, his right foot on the skid, and signaled him to begin "up hoist". As the cable and helicopter took up the load, I held the guy's shoulders, then waists, then feet as they passed upward. Reaching high above me I finally let go of one of the trooper's feet and lowered my hands.
At just that moment, with the crew chief looking down, guiding the cable with one hand, one soldier on the hook looking down at me and the other looking up at the bird, a cloud of green tracers flew through the canopy and crew area of the huey. Another cloud flew past the two suspended men, who began to jerk at the cable and mouth screams of fear and pain. One of the suspended men had had the toes on one foot shot off. Above me the helicopter bobbled once or twice and another cloud of tracers passed through. Rounds pitted the ground around me as I stood half crouched, wondering what was going to happen in the next second or two. I thought the bird was going to fall right on top of us. Over the noise of the helicopter I could just barely hear the perimeter open up on the side that was receiving fire, and could see both RTO's shouting into their radios. PVT Walt Jackson (now Maj. US, Ret) fired a LAW rocket across the steep valley hitting right into where the green tracers were coming from. The helicopter engines changed pitch, and as I looked up I could see the crewman punching the button on the side of the winch that would send a arc of electricity to cut the cable. Repeatedly the crewman struck the button in the few seconds that the chopper remained above us, trying to cut the two soldiers loose, to fall a few short feet back to where I stood. I could tell this wasn't going to work, so was hoping that the bird would slip away and use the ridge to cover them, while completing the haul up. Instead, the bird began to tip away from the fire coming at them, and fell away down slope, rapidly going below my own actual altitude. The maneuver caused the two troops suspended below to swing like a huge pendulum, rapidly gaining speed. With in a few seconds, these men went from about 30 feet above me, to over 300 feet above the ground, and rapidly accelerated as the helicopter swung them along and behind it.
Suddenly the cable cutter must have worked because the cable parted from up high near the bird. I could see this because as it peeled away, the helicopter turned almost all the way on it's right side. The two men were slingshotted with frightening speed toward the top of the canopy of forest below us. One of the men shrieked in fear as he watched the forest coming at them, The other looked back and stretched out his hand to me, screaming "Doc!" Suddenly they were gone, the chopper was way down slope and hearing returned. I could hear Wiley and Fluery yelling into their radios, one at the helicopter to come back, the other to artillery to provide support. Most chilling however, was the noise that I could hear as the two men, trailing cable, entered the canopy and fell precipitously to the ground breaking limbs and branches and the huge thud that came up from the jungle below when they struck.
I pitched myself off the crater lip and ran headlong into the darkening forest as others from Lt Raymond's platoon made their way down from the east side of the perimeter. I met Doc Fritz Persijn at the bottom, and we found Coyne and Shirley, battered, broken and semiconscious, lying tangled in each others arms and wrapped in vines and the full length of the cable. Both men had multiple fractures, and I think it was Coyne who had one of his thumbs nearly ripped off. We disentangled the men, and rendered care, splinting and immobilizing and stringing IV's. The squad that followed Fritz and I down quickly made litters out of ponchos and long saplings, and we carried the men back up slope to the landing zone. During this time, the two engineers that traveled with us had collected up all the C-4 available including half the claymores, to set a charge on the large snag that had prevented a full landing, in the hopes that we could get another bird to land there.
As I approached Lt Toberman's position, I could hear what was transpiring on the radio. It was clear that the original bird was not coming back. They had suffered injury to their crew and damage to their craft and had to make their own way home wounded, and limping. The voice from the aircraft sounded as though it was a struggle to keep it flying RTO Wiley had talked to a supply slick who had just fueled and shut down for the day and was willing to come up if we could clear the snag. He had said he needed to pick up some "guns". Under heavy fire the engineers wired the tree snag, including a kicker charge near the top to knock the tree down. Infantrymen flailed furiously at the tree's huge base with jungle machetes in a futile effort to cut the it down. All the while our own perimeter slugged it out with the unseen source of green tracers from the facing hill some 500 yards away. The LT's had reorganized and redistributed the men to make the perimeter heavy on the side facing the enemy fire, and maneuvered some men up slope to rain fire down on the enemy position. The artillery FO Lt Christian and his RTO Meyer, called in heavy fire from 105's and 155's at the supporting firebases in the area.
Our final enemy was time, the men being badly injured and going in and out of consciousness. We struggled to maintain blood pressures and deal with presumptive head injuries. On top of it all, it was getting dark.
Finally we began to hear the sound of multiple turbines and the whop of chopper blades coming out of the gloom to the east. There below us we could see, coming up canyon and upslope, the resupply slick, with two m-60 machine guns sticking out of the sides. Surrounding the slick, we saw what he had meant when he said "guns". Flying in formation on each side and ahead of the slick where three birds that were relatively new to the war, the Cobra gunship. These modified hueys with double engines and very narrow bodies looked like sharks or dragonflies from hell as they swam up to our area, blades thrumming in the heat of the early evening. The men let out a cheer, and as the slick hove to above me, the blast of the tree charge let loose, knocking the tree over but not all the way down.
There was improvement but not enough room was created to let the slick settle all the way down. The bird settled into the slot, and locked into place with it's right skid just out of reach above me. The front plexiglass was immediately starred in several places as it took hit after hit. The door gunner on the left side hosed his m-60 into the jungle against the shower of green tracers. The artillery had let off just as the helicopters arrived, and the gun ships began to orbit around the bomb crater. Each of the cobras would fire either their mini guns, sounding like basso sewing machines, or would rotate to the front position and spew from their automatic grenade launchers. Repeatedly the enemy would spray green tracers at us, hitting the helicopter overhead, and picking at the ground around us. They never let up in spite of heavy return and suppressive fire from our own forces.
Lt. John Toberman
[see photo by "Zeke" Blevins]
I stood up in this hailstorm of lead and strained to reach the litter poles of the first injured trooper over head to the crewman, standing on the skid, leaning into his monkey strap. The skid was just out of reach. I strained and strained. Suddenly, from in front of me, Lt Toberman, stood up, and unfolding his full 6 ft, several inch frame he snatched the poles out of my hands, and reached them to just touch the skid above us. RTO Wiley, had moments before run and jumped onto the skid and with one hand inside the chopper and one hand below, he reached down and helped the crewman pull the litter into the helicopter. As Toberman pushed one last time to get the poles into the bird above us, we fell back to the ground on our backs and watched as the chopper peeled away to the east again and took cover behind the ridge line. We watched as it swung away downslope and down canyon then turned back toward us, to come swimming back up slope again. Clinging to the right hand skid and leaning inside to avoid the slip stream stood Wiley and the ship's crew chief.
Again the bird settled into the slot, and again Toberman, and I lifted the next wounded man onto the skids, and again the crewman and Wiley lifted the wounded into the interior. Before the bird could peel away again, Wiley snapped off a salute to the crewman ,and took a backwards dive off the skid to land on his butt next to us on the ground about 10 feet below.
The helicopters broke off, and peeled away, the enemy stopped firing, and the perimeter shut down as well. In the quiet that followed we looked at each other in amazement at what had just transpired. The quiet compared to the extreme expenditure of adrenaline just a few seconds before seemed anticlimactic. The order was given to move out, and we dropped off the slope to the east to rest that night in the river canyon. We followed the slope of the hill back down to the river and set up for the night. I never saw the two soldiers again. The next day we discovered 33 2 1/2 ton trucks buried in the jungle, but that is another story.
Epilogue: I have learned that Richard Coyne is alive and well in Las Vegas, NV. He retired from the Army as a Sergeant Major, and returned to Vietnam at least once more. He was located by Walt Jackson, and I was able to speak to him in 1999. Hezekaiah Shirley is living in Clovis New Mexico, with his family. Fully retired. I spoke to him in April of 2000, and convinced him to come to the 101 reunion. He and I met at Fort Campbell, at the Week of the Eagle in June of 2000. He is doing GREAT! It is so rewarding to locate and meet these men again, and know that they are alive and well.
Hank Ortega, Tiger Force Medic, 101 Airborne Division, Viet Nam 68/69