William Hamilton – Combat air assaults: A Vietnam memoir
Grand County, CO Colorado
Imagine the year is 1966. You are commanding an airmobile infantry company in South Vietnam. The dawn is coming up like thunder; however, the thunder is from Air Force fighter-bombers and Army artillery prepping the landing zone (LZ) your company is about to assault. Soon, 21 helicopters will arrive in a long, single-file formation to pick up your company and fly you into the cauldron of fire known as Combat Air Assault.
In the gathering light, you and your First Sergeant visit quietly with each man in each squad. Although we have done dozens of these combat air assaults, everyone is scared, but tries not to show it. You check to see that each man has his “buddy.” The buddy system makes foxhole-buddies by combining a soldier with more time in-country with a “newbie.” The buddy system helps newbies become oldies.
Demographically, your skytroopers match the national norm: about 13 percent black, about 12-percent Hispanic; the vast majority white, although a high percentage of the NCOs are black or Hispanic. Of your four platoon leaders, one is black.
You look each trooper in the eye and wonder why some of these fine young men may be dead or wounded within the hour? (You may be, too; however, you can’t think about that and do your job.) Why can’t a sniper or a bomb take out the malefactors who set up this conflict? Why is political assassination taboo? Yet, it is open season on young conscripts trying to stay alive amidst poisonous snakes, malaria-bearing mosquitoes and the jungle rot that comes with horrific heat and humidity.
Preceded by their gunship escorts, the lift birds hover in to pick up your company. Within moments, seasoned sergeants have their squads on board and we all lift off, flying toward the LZ. From your place in the lead chopper, you see the black smoke from the artillery barrage prepping the LZ. You pray the barrage continues until the very last moment and is then lifted in time so you don’t take any “friendly-fire” casualties.
Alongside your chopper, the aerial-rocket artillery (ARA) helicopters are launching rocket-after-rocket into the edges of the LZ. Then, the ARA birds, their rockets expended, break away to be replaced by the gunships that fine tune the edges of the LZ with machine-gun fire.
The cauldron of flame and smoke that envelopes the LZ makes you feel like you are descending into Dante’s Inferno. The noise is deafening. At one minute out, to minimize the time the lift birds will be sitting ducks on the LZ, everyone wiggles down off the cargo deck and holds onto the landing skids, ready to jump. The slipstream dries your sweat. You are as cool as you are going to be until the chill of night when, hopefully, all will have survived to form a defensive perimeter of two-man foxholes.
In 1966, you did not have to worry about women and men paired in foxholes overnight or gay men in foxholes with straights or all-gay foxholes. You are there to fight, not do social experiments. You have more than enough worries, already.
When the choppers are about five feet above the ground, everyone jumps off the skids. The sudden weight reduction causes the choppers to pop almost straight up as they flee the LZ.
You hear the clacking sound made by a few AK-47s. Green tracers fly overhead. A handful of the enemy survived the LZ prep. Most did not. Your men pick off a couple of the retreating enemy. They’ve taken a POW. He is questioned for immediate tactical intelligence. The LZ now secure, you get a chopper to fly the POW to higher headquarters.
While you’ve taken no casualties so far, you still face another grueling day of cutting through the dense jungle in pursuit of an elusive enemy. That was daily life and death in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
– Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, served two years with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, four Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, and several other awards for valor.
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