I’ve been wanting to take some photos of my ex father-in-law, Pat for some time now. He’s a cool cat and we’re still friends. While I was setting up for the shoot, I asked Pat what the single most harrowing, “shit just got real” moment in his life had been.
It was in the Fall of 1973. He was part of a supply operation to North Vietnamese troops cut off in Southern Cambodia. This was known as being “over the fence”, as American forces were not authorized to have boots on the ground outside the country of Vietnam. Supply efforts were however permitted, as was air support.
The South Vietnamese had made an incursion into South Cambodia in the hopes of engaging with a large group of North Vietnamese soldiers. In the process, they’d overextended themselves and were now surrounded by North Vietnamese forces, cut off from their own supply lines, and dangerously low on ammunition.
Pat was crew chief of one of the cover helicopters. His chopper was holding at 4,000 feet, providing support fire for the supply ships on the ground. Almost immediately after the first two supply helis landed, and ammunition had been distributed to the pinned down troops, all Hell broke loose.
The opposition was loaded for bear, with heavy machine guns and even some anti aircraft weaponry. As one of the supply ships left the landing zone, it took fire from the ground. Shells tore into the fuel tank and down it went.
This was the moment when Pat went, “Oh Shit”. United States Forces don’t leave comrades behind. The first thought that went through his head was whether they’d survived the crash. Ten hours later, after a night of searching, his question was answered.
The crew was found and rescued, but not after spending a long night running through the jungle, armed only with one flare gun, a side arm, and a Vietnamese guide who was able to move the American crew away from the enemy forces and back towards the South Vietnamese position.
I asked Pat what got him through the night, and he said one word, “duty”. It was his job, his aircraft. It never even occurred to him to be frightened. After the initial adrenalin rush subsided, his training and experience took over. From there on out it was all business until the search operation was through.
The crew chief is the most important player in a helicopter after the pilot. He or she is responsible for the maintenance of the copter, and in many cases also serves as the number one gunner and order giver while the craft is in the air. The chief is responsible for outfitting the chopper, and ensuring it’s manned with war fighters.
I’m thankful that Pat would share this experience with me. For a lot of soldiers who served in Vietnam, the memories are deeply personal and in some cases, still very raw. Hearing this small story gave me new found appreciation for Pat.