Finding and Evacuating Wounded in Vietnam | Eastern North Carolina Now

How we found the wounded and how we got them back.

    I was a Lunatic in Vietnam in 1965. If you want to know why I admit to having been a Lunatic so many years ago, read this posting.

    Back in August 2016, one of the other contributors to Beaufort County Now asked me how did we go about finding the wounded in Vietnam.

    I responded and he came back at me recommending I turn my response into a posting in Beaufort County Now. Aware that those who read this posting may draw the conclusion that I am a procrastinator, I am going to proceed with that recommended posting anyway. I've been busy!

    Before I get into my recollection about 1965 I would like to digress and make a comparison to modern day Medical Evacuation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    There is a series called "Inside Combat Rescue" that runs on The National Geographic Channel that lies in stark contrast to our missions in Vietnam in 1965. What caught my eye was the amount of technology that they have available to them.

    Modern Medical Evacuation:
     They have Command Centers.
     They have latest Gee Whiz Technology.
     There about 8 Computer Monitors in front of the person manning the Command Center.
     The pilots take iPads along on their missions to do whatever it is that iPads are capable of doing for them on their missions.

    Vietnam 1965:
     We had no Command Centers.
     We had no Gee Whiz Stuff.
     There were no Computer Monitors but we did have a Telephone, a Radio, a Blackboard, a Note Pad and several Pencils.
     Our pilots carried Paper Maps.

    To answer the question about how we found the wounded...We used a Paper Map and Map Coordinates.

    That's the short answer. The late Paul Harvey just came up behind me and told me to tell you The Rest of the Story...

    I Digress Again...No the enemy in Vietnam did not respect the principles of the Geneva Convention. The Red Crosses on our ships were something to aim at. On any pickup, if the enemy were around, they did their best to kill all of us and all of our patients.

     Missions started when we would receive radio call or a phone call in our command shack.

     Once we knew the call was about a mission, there began a scramble to get off the ground as fast as possible.

     The command pilot would remain in the shack to get the info needed for our mission.

     The Other Pilot, Crew Chief and the Medic would already be on the way to the ship.

     By the time the Command Pilot got to the ship, the Other Pilot had the ship lit up and ready to lift off.

     We flew to the wounded using Map Coordinates that were given to us on the Radio/Phone Call.

     We flew day or night.

     Landing in the right place, even after we found the right place, could be problematic.

     Early on we would request smoke to mark the landing site and more than one smoke would come out.

     The extra smoke was the enemy trying to get us to land right in front of them so they could make us feel real unwelcome.

     We got smarter.

     We still asked for smoke but, when the smoke came out, we would identify the color and the troops on the ground would verified the color before we would go in.

     If the color identification was wrong or both smokes were the same color, we asked for more smoke and repeated the whole process all over again.

     We once landed to a Zippo Lighter at night. Probably was not too smart but there was only one Zippo Lighter waving at us (that we could see), so we took a chance. Smart or not, we got the wounded out of there.

     One way to land at a pickup site was to drop down to treetop level away from the site and come in at high speed. If the enemy were below us as we came by, the hope was we would be by them before they could get a good shot at us. I was never hit on such an approach and it was a very exciting ride because the trees were many times higher than we were.

     Another type of an approach was to drop the ship like a rock from 3,500 feet and pull it out at the bottom and drop it onto the ground (hopefully right next to the wounded).

     The reasoning for this was small arms fire could not reach above 3,500 feet. We wanted to get from 3,500 feet to the ground as quickly as possible and, therefore, be vulnerable as short a time as possible.

     Coming back out we did the opposite. We stayed at treetop level to gain airspeed and then pulled collective pitch (power) hard and rose up like an elevator. The Huey was a very powerful ship. Those rides up were surprising and thrilling the first time you rode one and thrilling every time after that.

     In heavy jungle we had to hover down through the trees with all 4 crew member looking 360 degrees around the ship so we could hover away from tree branches.

     Sometimes the troops on the ground had to blow away trees to make a big enough hole for us to hover into. Many times the holes were very small.

     Some of our guys made these hole pickups at night. I never had the opportunity to do this at night.

     On the way back up, we were again all looking for branches as we reversed the process.

     If we knew where the enemy was, we approached from the opposite direction. We did not want to be slowing down for a landing right over them.

     Again, if we knew where the enemy was, we landed with the back of the ship towards him. This was done for several reasons. We did not want to be loading patients with him looking and shooting right at the pilots. We wanted the back of the ship toward the incoming fire, hoping and praying that some of the fire might be adsorbed or redirected by the ship itself. Finally, we did not want to taking off low and slow right toward or over the enemy.

     Guys in the back...The pilots were, of course, vital to any Medical Evacuation Mission. We flew it in and out of harm's way (as the say in the movies). The Medic and the Crew Chief were as vital as any pilot.

     Often they were even more exposed to enemy fire than the pilots. There were times had to leave the ship to get the patients. There were even times when those already on the ground would not stand up to load the patients because of the fire being received. Our Medic and Crew Chief went and got, loaded and then cared for the patients as we flew back.

     It was amazing how many holes could be put into a Huey and it would still fly. Of course, any single one of those rounds in a vital place could destroy your ship.

    I am including in this posting an audio recording entitled, "God's Own Lunatics". Click here to hear the recording.

    This recording was part of an address given by Joe Galloway at a Military Convocation many years after the mid November 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. Joe was a civilian photographer attached to 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry of the 1st Air Calvary Division. He was a main character in the Mel Gibson movie and co-author of the book, We Were Soldiers Once... And Young.

    Click here to read about the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.

    I am very proud to have been a Life Saving Lunatic in 1965.

    Alex J Ortolano

    Lagniappe: In case I gave the wrong impression, God's Own Lunatics was not intended to recognize only Medical Evacuation Crews. It was intended to sing the praises of all who flew Helicopter Missions in Vietnam.
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( March 19th, 2017 @ 8:12 am )
Ted, you got me thinking about your question about how we found the wounded at night. The following took place in several emails between me & another pilot I served with...
Me...I’m getting old. How did we find the pickup locations at night? (This confused the other pilot cuz, instead of typing out “we” I had pecked out “me”, as in, “How did me find the pickup locations at night?”)
Other Pilot... Whaaaat???
Me... “Vietnam...Flying at night...Since we could not see like in day time, how did we locate the pickup sites?
Did we just fly by compass, adjusted for wind, for our estimation of time to get that far & look down?”
(Actually it was more than just looking down. We talked on the radio, requested flares and looked down.)
Other Pilot... (After getting out of the Army, he flew for Offshore Helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico.) “That's it exactly. Worked well along with help from "Paris Radar" if within their range. To repay them we allowed those who wanted to earn an Air Medal to "crew" at night when enemy fire was not anticipated.
Time/distance and azimuth with wind correction angles worked well for me while flying around the northern Gulf of Mexico at night before Loran came along in the mid eighties and GPS in the nineties. Today's pilots feel totally screwed when they lose their GPS because they've become too reliant on it.”
And now you know The Rest of the Story.
Lagniappe: Paris Radar came around after I left. It was a radar assist that helped our guys know where they were. I don’t know a lot about exactly how it worked.
( March 16th, 2017 @ 10:29 am )
Alex, Thanks. Maybe you can do an article on the slang as well as the Murphy's law of Helicopters for us ground pounders. The only Slang I ever heard there was the "Loose Jesus Nut."

One of the other jokes I heard was told by a buddy who transferred from Infantry to Door-Gunner. It went something like this:

A Huey practicing autorotations during a military night training exercise had a problem and landed on the tail rotor, separating the tail boom. Fortunately, it wound up on its skids, sliding down the runway doing 360s in a brilliant shower of sparks. As the copter passed the tower, the following exchange was overheard: Tower: “Sir, do you need any assistance?” Cobra: “I don’t know, tower. We ain’t done crashin’ yet!”

Another example of God's Lunatics and their Brass Balls and the calm demeanor that they all seemed to possess..
SSgtsouth said:
( March 16th, 2017 @ 10:15 am )
Welcome home to an "Orginial Dustoff" pilot. I was in the Smithsonian several years ago with two Dustoff drivers when a vet in a wheelchair and his buddies came thru. When he found out they were pilots, he was very appreciative. Glad you made it back!
( March 15th, 2017 @ 4:12 pm )
Bobby Tony,
Enjoyed your comments from your Battle Diary.
Thanks for the Welcome Home or, as I have become accustomed to saying to anyone I meet who had been in Vietnam, "Glad you made it back".
Bobby Tony, Glad you made it back.
( March 15th, 2017 @ 9:03 am )
Thanks Alex for the primer. There is no greater tribute to you guys than Joe's speech. It still gives me chills to hear it again all these year later. I encourage the reader to listen to the speech link above.

Below from an abbreviated chapter in my Battle Diary:

I had numerous occasions to participate in the Medivac or Medevac (I never knew the correct spelling) as and RTO, Litter Bearer, and finally as a Squad Leader. By the grace of God, I never rode in one of those Huey's with a Big Red Cross on the front.

Early in my tour on April 4, 1968, we loaded our wounded comrade Ozzy Osborne on a chopper after a fierce battle in the heavy jungle around Dau Tieng, Vietnam. We were working with a Mech Unit from the 199th Infantry. Fortunately, there was a rice paddy outside the battle area. As we left the paddy, I turned and took a quick picture of the chopper. I was using slide film. I mailed the film home and I never saw it until after my tour.

The years were not kind to the film and I did not scan the picture until after my retirement in 2004. I have often thought about having the slides professionally cleaned and reproduced, but I always feared wading back into the Abyss again.

I did make an effort to clean up the image with my limited Photoshop skills when I started writing my Battle Diary of that horrific day. I decided that the picture is best left somewhat as it was when taken. It reflects the quick over the shoulder look.

It was not until many years later that I noticed the blooming flowers at the bottom of the frame. They perfectly illustrate the contradiction of combat. It was not until several days later that we learned that Ozzy did not survive his wounds.

Here is that image from my Battle Diary.

Thanks again for the post.

( March 15th, 2017 @ 8:26 am )
Excellent technical article. I hope you do more of these.

Flu Still Widespread in North Carolina Foolishness...Or Is It?, Public Perspective, Body & Soul The Man in the doorway, A Marine's tribute to Helicopter crews


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