James J. Jackson
This narration revolves around the downing of the UH1C "Joker" gun ship from the 48th AHC carrying W1 Jon E. Reid, 1Lt. David M. May, SP5 Randall L. Johnson, and SP4 Robert J. Acalotto and the subsequent actions of two other Joker gun ships that day.
I was Crew Chief for W1 Freddie Few on the Joker gun ship "Marquis De Sade" and on 20 February, 1971 we, along with another Joker gun ship (canít recall which one) were supporting a medivac mission out of Khe Sanh inside Laos. It was very humid that day and, being overloaded as usual with mini-gun ammo, we were having trouble gaining altitude as well as airspeed.
We received a radio call that one of our gun ships had gone down in the area, so Freddie requested that we be relieved of the medivac mission so we could lend support to the possible extraction of survivors from the downed gun ship. Permission was granted and we rushed to the crash site. Freddie was communicating with a FAC pilot circling high over the crash site and the FAC indicated that there was lots of NVA activity near the aircraft and the area was "hot".
I was on the port side when we came upon the downed ship, which we approached from left to right. It was sitting upright and its nose was facing away from me at 11 oíclock. I had a good view of the area, and of the left side of the downed helicopter. While there was a fire in the engine area, the front of the helicopter seemed in good shape and both front crew doors were standing wide open. I did not see any activity at the helicopter itself. There was however, plenty of NVA activity around the downed helicopter and we began receiving fire as soon as we closed on the crash site.
Freddie dropped our ship low and slow so we could get a good look for survivors, and we ended up low enough for the rotor wash to part the tall grass below us. I could see running NVA and abandoned machine guns in the grass below us. They thought we were going to land on top of them. We were so close to the ground we could actually hear the sustained NVA gunfire through our headsets. Both Freddie and the Co-pilot were looking out of the left side of the aircraft at the downed helicopter while the door gunner and I concentrated on spraying M- 60 lead.
And this is where it really got desperate. Freddie looked forward and yelled. I looked up out the front windshield and could see the top 10 feet of a tall, dead tree sticking up right in front of the windscreen. We were headed straight for it and if it hit a rotor, we were done for. He jerked the collective up and pulled back on the cyclic, flaring the helicopter and putting the tail down at a 45 degree angle. The aircraft slowly gained some altitude, but not enough to miss the tree. The top of the tree hit the underside of the helicopter just aft of the pilot area, shattering the top of the tree and making a loud grinding noise. Believe it or not, the NVA troops actually quit firing and watched us climb that tree. I could hear their gunfire through my headset before, now it was quiet.
Then Freddie did the amazing. He momentarily rested our ship on the stump at the top of the tree, and then slid it over the top while pulling up as hard as he could on the collective. We were going very slowly and laboring to gain altitude, so we began throwing full ammo cans out the back doors to lighten the load. It looked for a moment like we were going to hit the ground, but Freddie got it under control and began picking up altitude.
When the NVA realized that we might actually make it, they began firing again. Our co-pilot emptied the remainder of the mini-gun ammo at anything on the ground in front of us, and we were off and running. The pilot of the other gun ship reported that both he and the co-pilot had sustained minor injuries and damage, so we both headed for Khe Sanh.
We landed in front of the medical bunkers there and both Freddie and the co-pilot ran inside to check on the two pilots from the other ship. I crawled underneath my helicopter and began counting the holes. It looked like about 15, mostly from small arms fire, along with the gash from the tree. I pulled an inspection panel off but couldnít tell much except there were no obvious fluid leaks.
Freddie came running out of the medic bunker and yelled at us to get ready. He said he expected a rescue mission on the downed helicopter to commence any minute and he wasnít going to miss it. He asked if we were ready to go and I said we were. I didnít even mention the damage, and I donít think it would have mattered to Freddie anyway. Leaving the other crew there at Khe Sanh, we flew to the rearming site, loaded up, and then re-fueled. I asked him if it was flying okay and he said fine.
We then set down at a staging area and waited, and waited. Freddie got angrier by the minute and I heard him yelling into the radio at someone. It seemed that a rescue mission request was denied by someone and we were going home. We eventually lifted off for the flight back to Dong Ha. I remember that ride as being one of the saddest of my life.
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