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“An Unforgettable Christmas Aeromedical Evacuation"

Robert B. Robeson
Fifth Prize - $2,000

Robert B. Robeson is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who flew 987 combat medical evacuation missions in South Vietnam, evacuating 2,533 patients.  He had seven helicopters shot up by enemy fire and was shot down twice in one year.  Col. Robeson has been published in Reader’s Digest, Vietnam Combat, Positive Living, and Newsday.  He has been a managing editor and columnist, has a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland and has completed extensive graduate journalism work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  He has won many state and national journalism awards and is a previous Amy Writing Award winner. He and his wife, Phyllis, live in Lincoln, Nebraska where they recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

The chatter of three separate and distinct machine guns filled the cockpit of our unarmed Bell UH-1H (Huey) medical evacuation helicopter. It rang in my ears that Christmas Thursday morning in 1969, south of Da Nang, South Vietnam, and tore at my insides like a rusty knife.


Captain Rich Fox, another aircraft commander and close friend, had asked me for a favor. He wanted to switch our field standby duties at Landing Zone Hawk Hill, about 36 miles south of Da Nang along Highway 1, during the Christmas ceasefire arranged in Paris. I’d been shot down once and had three other birds shot up by enemy fire in the previous five and a half months of continuous action with the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance). It sounded like an excellent opportunity for some R&R—rest and relaxation—during the negotiated truce.


The reddish mud encompassing our home away from home at Hawk Hill was still mushy from the night’s dew. We were supporting elements of the U.S. Americal Division, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets), allied troops—South Vietnamese, South Korean, Australian—and the Vietnamese civilian population. All of the units were in defensive positions. I’d just completed a thorough preflight, had set up the cockpit for day operations, and was lazily taking in the early morning sunshine. That’s when our radio-telephone operator ran toward me from the battalion aid station. He was waving a long, white mission sheet.


 “You’ve got an urgent insecure mission for nine ARVNs—South Vietnamese Army soldiers. All of them hit by small arms. Shot up pretty bad. Their compound was attacked about 10-15 minutes ago. They’ve taken more small arms and some mortars since then.” He paused for a second. “No Americans are at the pickup site. They’ll radio-relay through an interpreter from a position about ten miles away.”


“This is a joke. Right?” I asked. He shook his head.


“How come I always have to deal with the ten percent who never get the word?”


“Merry Christmas, sir.”


Within seconds I’d plotted the grid coordinates on my map, the rest of my crew had arrived, and we were airborne. Our destination was Barrier Island, a historically dangerous stretch of white sand and small villages nestled against the picturesque South China Sea, east of Hawk Hill.


My stomach knotted as we neared the pickup site. It was a silent premonition. At that moment, there was no doubt in my military mind that this warm and pleasant Christmas morning—much like it must have been in Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years before—would be a special one.


I talked to the American infantry advisor ten miles from the pickup site. He gave me an update on the condition of the patients, direction of the last ground fire, and where they wanted us to land. Then I asked him to relay a request to pop a canister of colored smoke.


The last reported fire had come from the southwest. I decided to drop down from 2,000 feet to the northeast and come in low-level on the deck. That way, I could keep the outpost situated atop a small hill between myself and any potential incoming fire.


They popped smoke and we correctly identified the color. Then I began my tactical approach. We were in a 4,500 feet per minute descent and airspeed had built to a redlined 120 knots. That’s when I distinctly remember glancing inside to check the instruments while falling through 800 feet. As my altimeter swept past 700 feet, staccato bursts of machine gun fire immediately triggered the burglar alarm in my central nervous system. Bullets began to splatter throughout the cargo compartment and cockpit, tearing through the tender and vulnerable underbelly of our bird. It was a familiar sound, one you never forget once you’ve experienced it. It reminded me of fire through a forest when underbrush is dry and laurel crackles.


In an instant, I felt like a baby waiting for a diaper change. There was no doubt we were seriously damaged. Fumes from our JP-4 jet fuel filled the aircraft. A fuel cell was obviously riddled and we were trailing a thin mist of flammable JP-4. Even today, all I have to do to bring back this experience is to close my eyes. The images of that mission appear before me, instantly, like the black spots you see after looking at a welding torch.


“Painful” is too bland a word to capture the twang of that agony as the reality of the moment dawned in my brain. War had suddenly become complicated and personal again.


Strange things occur in cockpits in combat and crewmembers have a habit of talking about subjects the average person might tend to repress. My copilot was a warrant officer straight from flight school with barely 220 total hours of flight time. He’d already heard numerous war stories from the other veteran pilots.


“How does it feel to get shot up?” he’d asked, as we were on our way to the pickup site. He sounded a little like a youngster on the way to his first dental appointment for a tooth filling.


That wasn’t the typical question a new pilot posed on the way to his initial, insecure mission. Not when strangers could be waiting to use our red crosses for bull’s-eyes.


“It’s difficult to describe,” I’d replied. “Someday, if it ever happens to you…you’ll know what I mean.” (Less than four months later, he and another crew would win Silver Stars after being shot down at Hiep Duc.)


Pulling up sharply from the dive and seeking the temporary safety of a higher altitude, I asked each person over the intercom if he was okay. My crew chief reported that a round had kicked his leg into the air, making a half-inch nipple in the deck where his foot had been. He wasn’t hurt. The medic was fine, too.


My rookie copilot was silently transfixed, as though in a hypnotic trance. He was staring intently at the instrument panel. After asking him twice if he was all right, and receiving no reply, I reached over with my left hand and touched his shoulder. He didn’t say a word…only nodded his head affirmatively.


“Well, Ed, that’s what it feels like,” I reminded him. “Call Hawk Hill and tell them to have another bird flown out from Da Nang so we can get back out there before those guys die on us.” I could tell from his facial expression and body language that he wasn’t anymore excited about going back than I was.


For a brief moment, there was a mountain of self-pity on my part. I couldn’t think of a more miserable way to die than during a supposed wartime cease-fire on Christmas Day—my first Christmas of married life. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to my wife who’d just lost her father, at 46 years of age, not long before. What kind of a Christmas present would that be for her?


We flew toward Hawk Hill with jet fuel spilling out behind us…a potential airborne torch ready to be lit by any inadvertent spark of misfortune. We lost 250 pounds of fuel on the seven-minute flight back.


As soon as our skids touched the ground at Hawk Hill, I chopped the throttle and we all bailed out in different directions. When the blades stopped, we cautiously returned to inspect the damage. There were nineteen entry holes: eight in one fuel cell, six in the cockpit, and the rest in the cargo compartment. Not one of them had hit anyone. We might not have been around to take inventory if the enemy had been using tracers.


JP4 was still draining from the belly of our bird. A huge pool collected as we watched. Our self-sealing fuel tanks couldn’t have been expected to work efficiently when the “shot group” was so concentrated in a six-inch circle in one fuel cell.


My Christmas dinner consisted of a tasteless, cold turkey sandwich. It was nervously consumed while another helicopter was ferried out for our use from Da Nang.


We could have backed out, then. Nobody probably would have blamed us. There were no Americans at the pickup site. The landing zone was still insecure. We weren’t going to get gunship cover. All of these could have been excuses for turning down the mission.


Sitting in the aid station near the radio shack, I quietly reflected on those nine Asian youngsters fighting to live. They were lying out there in an exposed outpost, under siege. They were probably wondering if the Americans cared enough to “hang-it-out” for them a second time. We were their only hope and link to medical care and, perhaps, life itself. After only a few months of war, I had already recognized the strong emotional bond that is formed among soldiers, regardless of nationality. We shared the same privations, hardships, and dangers of combat. If I’d have been in their position, I’d have wanted someone to be there for me, too.


Having been raised in the home of a Protestant minister, the spiritual dimensions of my life and faith had always been strong. Maybe that’s why one question surfaced in my mind to dominate my thinking at that point. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Do you care enough about the freedoms these troops are fighting for—and their wounds—to die trying to evacuate them?


Then a passage of scripture filtered through my mind from my Biblical upbringing. It was by James, the brother of Jesus. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials…because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” This is found in James 1:2-3, New International Version.


In those brief moments of reflection and contemplation, I determined that this mission wasn’t anywhere near over. It wouldn’t be until we evacuated all of our patients, ran out of aircraft, or were permanently put out of commission.


On the return flight in a new bird, I decided to come in low-level from the east a couple of miles out. We requested continuous smoke so we wouldn’t lose the landing zone.


Redlining my airspeed indicator, I snuggled down a few feet above terra (very) firma. Weaving back and forth across the mostly flat terrain, I used small hills and tree lines to hide behind as much as possible. Nearing their smoke from the east, we again encountered a barrage of small arms and machine gun fire. Staying on the deck, I swung back to the south like we were leaving the area. It felt like what a rabbit must experience when it blunders onto an active military firing range.


When the firing ceased, I immediately did a hairy, 180-degree turn and headed due north. I don’t know if this perseverance surprised the “bad guys.” We were on short final for the purple smoke before small arms fire again erupted behind us.


Our nine patients were hurriedly tossed aboard. Then I flew out, low-level, the same way we’d come in and did a cyclic climb to 2,000 feet. We escaped without any “hits” in our second aircraft, even though the landing zone had apparently been surrounded.


At altitude, paralleling the coast north toward Da Nang, I turned in my armored seat to see how our patients were doing. All had multiple gunshot wounds. One ARVN, shot in an arm and leg, was slumped against the bulkhead behind my copilot’s seat. Our eyes met briefly when I turned around. There was no facial expression, merely a distinct and formal bow of his head in my direction. I believe he knew what it had taken to evacuate them. It was a “thank you” from a fellow soldier that I’ve never forgotten. It was the greatest Christmas present a “Dust Off” pilot could ever receive.


We hadn’t done anything extraordinary, considering other soldiers, other wars, and the long course of human history. We hadn’t done anything that thousands of other soldiers on the ground and in the air hadn’t accomplished before or after us in that Southeast Asian war. We all knew what it meant to struggle to stay alive and be a part of the front lines in combat: not the sidelines. And we understood that combat is a blend of extreme violence, gentleness, caring, hope, faith, prayer, and a unique sense of the “nearness” of death.


The central point of this mission involved hope and love. These two words are really the twin messages of Christmas. They ultimately rest on a social contract that calls on us to take risks for others.


The Christmas message of hope and love plays out in our daily lives through the willingness and selflessness of one human being to care about another. It provides someone an opportunity to survive, to grow, and have a chance for a better life. The greatest gift of all is that the one taking the risk expects nothing in return.


The campfire of this combat experience has dwindled to crimson coals. I’m 66 years of age, but I always recall those precarious moments of that special evacuation mission when the celebration of Jesus’ birth rolls around each year.


What I discovered that day was that a growth of character is possible through life and death struggles and in taking risks for others. It’s always appropriate to help someone who’s a little more lost and hurting than we are. That’s because hope and love are what keep humanity going. That’s what Christmas has always been about…even in a combat zone.

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