‘Anything but routine’

A story from the Vietnam War
Fri, 11/10/2017 - 9:00am

Veteran’s Day will be celebrated on Saturday, Nov. 11. 

When asked to submit a short account of my experiences as a veteran for this week’s edition of The Block Island Times, I kept coming back to one particular incident in the summer of 1963.

Our squadron arrived in Da Nang in early June and were bivouacked in an old French fort about a half mile from the flight line. We were the only U.S. Marine unit in Vietnam at that time, a squadron of 24 troop transport helicopters, and our mission was to provide support for the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and to resupply the Special Forces units scattered about the countryside. The flying was anything but routine as all the outlying bases were jungle hilltops surrounded by Viet Cong and our approaches were always by auto-rotation to avoid enemy fire.

The evenings were pretty relaxed. We usually finished up flying about 6 p.m. and then back to the compound for showers, chow, and then repaired to our adjacent O Club for some drinks and blackjack.

This one night — not so relaxed.

After about three or four rounds apiece, the call came in that a Special Forces outpost was being overrun and all hands were needed to evacuate. We dropped the cards, grabbed our sidearms, which we had hung on pegs on the wall, and jumped in our jeeps for a race to the flight line. No time for a proper briefing as the sun was setting; two pilots, a crew chief and a gunner ran pell mell to man each aircraft. I think we launched 16 that night. My good pal “Groovy” Pomeroy was in the right seat and myself in the left. It was pitch dark by the time we reached the zone. No trouble finding it as the tracer bullets lit up the sky like the Fourth of July.

The Special Forces had set up a combat landing system on the mountain top to guide us in, with a few oil pots to mark the zone. We circled in sections of four until our turn came. Each H-34 helicopter could haul out about 12 American soldiers, but I’ve had up to 23 ARVNs at times in a pinch. Coming down the glide path, “Groove” held her steady while I covered our port side with my AR15. We couldn’t see jack and I was calling out altitudes on the radio altimeter. At about 20 feet, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan. The aircraft rolled violently to the right and I was sure we were hit and going in. At the last moment we touched down in a controlled crash. The crew chief, manning the .50 caliber machine gun at the right hand door, radioed that we were full up and let’s get out of here. Off we lifted and plunged into the night, tracers still whizzing by.

Only my laundry maid knows the extent of my distress and I’m sure the rest of the crew feels the same. About five minutes later, when I could bring myself to speak, I clicked the intercom mike and said “Groove, what the hell happened?” He turned toward me and with a sheepish smile said “I reached for the landing lights and turned off the auxiliary hydraulic servo instead.” (Both switches were adjacently located on the pilot’s cyclic control. Not the best design!) About an hour or so later, after counting the bullet holes in our fuselage, we resumed our favorite nighttime activity. It’s amazing how some things can focus your thirst.

Torrey served in the Marine Corps from 1960 to 1965.