As you may know, my original blog was taken down by hackers recently. I am trying to retrieve some of the blog posts that I thought were worth something.
Originally Posted on October 2, 2010
Driving north from Fredericksburg, Virginia is driving through history. From the scene of one of the worst battles of the Civil War in that town, one drives past other battlefields and in many ways the heart of our Republic in Central Virginia. Not far off is Monticello, Jefferson’s home, and further north is Manassas and then Mt. Vernon.
Driving above the speed limit on I-95 a few days ago on the way from one meeting to another for which I was already late, I saw a sign and was forced to veer off of the highway suddenly. It wasn’t an emergency, but it was something I had to do. For you see on February 4, 1968 my friend Jim earned a Silver Star, and the helicopter he had been flying that day was enshrined at the Marine Corps Museum, which is visible from I-95.
Airframe 153986 is a CH-46, the same medium lift helicopter the Marines are using today. It was built near Philadelphia and delivered to the Marine Corps in August 1967. The CH-46 was introduced in 1962 and is still the backbone of Marine transport. The last one was built in 1971. If it needs moving in the vertical plane, it’s usually a CH-46 doing it even after 48 years. It’s absurd, really,when you think about it.
When you step into the Khe Sanh exhibit at the Marine Corps Museum, you enter through the fuselage of 153986. I could smell the oil and solvents and gak that had built up during its service life. Probably some smoke and burned insulation as well. You walk off just like the troops and supplies would drop in, with sandbags and mortars around you and a narrative of the battle by survivors on the sound system.
On February 4, 1968 my friend Jim was the maintenance officer for HMM – 364, the Purple Foxes, a typical Marine can-do unit. Their motto is “Give a Shit” and they surely did. In Vietnam, especially at Khe Sanh at the height of the Tet Offensive when the whole country was on fire, the odds didn’t count for very much. You did your job and maybe you prayed you would survive the day.
Khe Sanh was bait right in the middle of Planet NVA. It was Custer and the Indians all over again. Every ration and every bullet had to come in by air, and the enemy had the runways and flight paths registered and zeroed in. As a pilot you had under 30 seconds to get a load down on the ground, load back up with wounded or dead, and back out again. That’s how long it took for the mortar rounds to hit from the time you heard the thunk from the barrel. Usually, they could anticipate you as you flew up the valley, so you were screwed anyway. There was a junkyard on the side of the runway of aircraft that didn’t make it out. It was the most dangerous place on earth.
On February 4, at the height of the battle, Airframe 153986 (YK-13) had been damaged while landing. Jim and a crew chief and couple of mechanics had been flown in to try to repair it and fly it off. Mortars and artillery and accurate automatic weapons fire did their best to kill the crew as they tried to fix the beast.
Late in the day, they were ready for a check flight. Jim took up a co-pilot and pick up crew with him, expecting to check the airworthiness and maybe get back to Phu Bai for the night. A call came in. Another helicopter had gone down near Hue with 17 Marines aboard and they needed help immediately. He responded that 153986 would take the call despite the fact that the navigation system was broken.
The weather was virtually unflyable except there they were. Fog and mist and rain and every sort of ground fire imaginable. Jim and his crew went in the first time. No joy. Heavy small arms fire mixed with .50 cal machine gun fire. He cleared the fog and went in again. No luck. At that point the helicopter had taken heavy fire. A gunner was dead and another crewman wounded.
They chanced it one more time, and this time they were able to land. They were able to pick up the wounded Marines and evacuate them back to base. They were on the ground for close to 10 minutes, more than a lifetime.
The next day, another crew was flying 153986. They weren’t as lucky. They went out on a medevac call not far from HMM-364′s base at Phu Bai to pick up three wounded Marines. On the way, the corpsman, Jack Ehrhardt, was badly wounded through the thigh as the helicopter took very heavy ground fire. They continued to fly towards the landing zone until the ground fire hit cables and wires and fuel lines and hydraulics. The aircraft was screwed at that point. With no hydraulics or control, the helicopter pitched up, somersaulted, crashed and burned. Everyone on board was killed except Ehrhardt and the crew chief, Corporal Conner. Ehrhardt was thrown from the helicopter into a rice paddy covered in the flames from burning fuel. One of the dead was Sgt. Jim Shelton, who had crewed on the rescue mission the night before. The wounded were evacuated by 153986′s wingman, but Cpl. Conner died 2 weeks later of his burns in the Air Force hospital at Cam Ranh Bay. The wounded Marine survived.
Later on 153986 was retrieved. The casualty report said that it was a bunch of pieces held together by pipes and cables that bore no resemblance to a helicopter. Whether the fuselage in the museum is in fact 153986 or how it ended up at Quantico is a story I don’t know.
Yesterday, we went down to MCAS Miramar for the Air Show. I met a young Marine pilot down there from the Purple Foxes and asked him if he knew the story of 153986 and my friend Jim. He did, and had been to the museum and seen it and knew what it was all about. He didn’t know of the final act in Vietnam, and I told him what had happened. We paused for a just a moment. I asked him where HMM-364 was based and he told me and gave me his phone number and said they would love to have Jim come down sometime. Hopefully that will eventually happen.
Most of the time heroism is just doing your job or taking care of your friends. You don’t think about it. You just do it and maybe you tell the story to a friend who remembers it driving 75 on the interstate when a light bulb goes on over his head.
And remember, there are young men and women out there right now from HMM-365 and 1,000 other units continuing in the same traditions and putting their lives on the line for their brothers and sisters every day. I hope someone remembers this story 40 years from now.