A Voice in the Dark

By COL (R) Doug Moore

A VOICE IN THE DARK

I’m sure most Dust Off pilots have flown a mission, or perhaps several, that seemed surreal when finished. I certainly had one in late January of 1969.

We had been extremely busy all day and, as night approached, my co-pilot, W-1 Ted Jacoby, and I became concerned about a huge cloud system forming along the Cambodian Border. After a couple of early evening missions, things quieted down but just before midnight, the bottom fell out of the sky and heavy rain began crashing down. Sure enough, the alert phone rang and one of our radio operators said, “Sir, we just got a call for five US wounded just northeast of Dodge City (Trang Bang).”

I ran the coordinates through my mind and knew they spelled trouble because they were in an area of frequent heavy fighting. I looked out the door and could only see a blur of lights at the unit next door, so I knew the visibility would be horrible.

When I called for take-off clearance, Cu Chi tower asked where we were going. When I told him, he replied, “Roger Dust Off, be advised a Little Bear slick landed a few minutes ago and reported quarter mile or less visibility.”

Rain pounded against our windshield as we lifted off. At about 800 feet, our rotating beacon began lighting up the clouds around us and visibility dropped to zero, so we stopped our climb and continued ahead. After a few minutes, I made the first call “Corner 26, this is Dust Off 156, over.” A calm voice answered, “Dust Off, this is Corner 26.” I told him we were about five miles out and asked for his situation and recommended approach.

“Dust Off, we have negative enemy contact at this time. We got into some booby-traps and I’ve had several people hurt. Be advised you can’t land at my location because of the trees, but it looks like there might be an opening off to my whiskey (west) that you might be able to get into.”

“Corner 26, we should be about two miles out. Go ahead and show your light.”

“Okay, Dust Off, light’s coming on. Listen, you’re going to have to find someplace to land and then we’ll work our way to your aircraft with the wounded.”

The crew and I began searching the darkness for their light but saw nothing. Then he called, “Dust Off it sounds like you may have just gone past us.”

“Okay 26, you must be in that heavy rain we were in a moment ago. We’ll circle around and try to come in from the other side.”

Although the weather was horrible, I felt comfortable because I was instrument qualified and had flown in that area for nearly 18 months. I felt we were right on top of the ground element, so I called again “Hey 26, you certain you have a light on?

“Sure do, Dust Off, we’ve got a red-lens flashlight, but be advised it’s raining awfully hard down here.” At that point, I flashed my landing light, but he couldn’t see it either. Suddenly, the crew chief spoke up and said, “I think I see them! Look at our two o’clock low.”

After seeing what appeared to be the dim light from a red-lensed flashlight, we started in. At about 150 feet, I switched on our landing light and saw a quick blur of trees and then we were over what appeared to be a small rice paddy. I turned the nose of the helicopter towards where we thought Corner 26 might be located and began easing the skids into the water. It seemed like an eternity before they sank into mud in knee deep water.

I then called, “26 this is Dust Off, we’re on the ground.” “Okay, Dust Off. I’ll get the wounded started towards you. Be advised, it’s going to take quite a while because we’re a long way away from you.”

I switched off our lights and sat there in pitch black darkness. I didn’t have to remind our crew in back to get their weapons ready because they were aware that we were in a hotly contested area and didn’t have the foggiest idea who was near us. For all we knew, we could have landed in the middle of an enemy unit’s night position.

We waited for ten minutes or more before our medic finally broke the intercom silence. “I’ve got movement out to our left. I think it’s the wounded.” Out of the darkness, several shadowy figures came towards us carrying some of the wounded and helping others along. Our medic did a quick assessment and reported, “It looks like we’ll have two litter and four ambulatory patients.” I replied, “Okay, let’s get them loaded and get out of here.”

“Ah, Dust Off—ah wait one!” We waited several moments and then Corner 26 continued, “Dust Off, my people tell me we have more wounded on the other side of the woods from where you are located. Is there any way you can go over there and pick them up? I don’t want anyone else moving through this area if I can help it?”

“Roger 26, we’ll try. Is there a place for us to land over there?”

“Dust Off, I don’t know. It looks like there might be a clearing to my southeast. I apologize for not checking it out myself, but I’m pretty sure I’ve bumped into a booby trap and don’t want to move around until we get the wounded out.”

Silence. Absolute silence! I wasn’t sure what I’d just heard. “Say again, 26!”

“Roger Dust Off. Just before you landed, I’m pretty sure I stepped on a booby trap, but it didn’t go off. I’m certain I can feel the wire, so I’d rather sit tight until we get everyone picked up.”

After the wounded were loaded at our first location, we lifted straight up and skirted around a clump of trees where Corner 26 was apparently located. Luckily, we found a small triangular clearing and landed. In the rear of our helicopter, the medic and crew chief began making the wounded as comfortable as possible and offering encouragement that they would be in a hospital within a few minutes. All the co-pilot and I could do was stare into the darkness and listen to the rain pouring down.

“Dust Off, my people tell me we have five more wounded. Can you take all of them in one load or will you have to come back?”  I made a quick assessment, eleven wounded Americans would be one heck of a load, but the alternative was worse. “26, we’ll take all of them this time rather than come back in this weather. By the way, what are your intentions?” “Well Dust Off, as soon as everything is squared away, I’m going to try moving from where I’m at.”

Several minutes passed before we saw movement to our front and then several soldiers materialized out of the darkness. At that point, I called Corner 26 to tell him we were almost loaded and asked a critical question, “26, want us to wait?” “Okay, Dust Off. I’d sure appreciate it.”

The crew and I sat there helpless. Somewhere out there in the darkness, an American soldier had more than his share of trouble and we could only imagine what he was thinking as he prepared to move from what was possibly a booby trap’s trip wire.

The rain continued to pour down and we fully expected to see a bright flash of light signaling that another booby-trap had exploded and that pieces of metal were flying through the air, through trees, and through people. After what seemed to be an eternity, our radio finally came to life, “Dust Off, this is 26. I think I’m okay. My people and I will be moving out of this area and setting up our night positions. Thanks a lot for waiting.”

We began what amounted to an instrument departure and turned south. “26, we’re off and headed to Cu Chi with your wounded.” There was a long silence and then came a reply that I still treasure. “Okay, Dust off. Thanks again for your help and God Bless you. You Dust Off people are the greatest guys in Vietnam.” I quickly replied, “Thanks 26 but we think you’re pretty special too.”

We sped through the night with our precious cargo aboard and were right on top of the basecamp before we saw the faint lights marking the way to the hospital helipad. As they were being unloaded, most of the wounded either waved or gave us thumbs-up signals. Those simple gestures from men who had given so much made our jobs the most gratifying in Vietnam.

After parking on our alert pad, the crew and I trudged through the rain and mud to our rooms in silence. We had just experienced the thing that makes our soldiers the world’s best. In what must have been a terribly dangerous situation, Corner 26 and his men had remained calm and disregarded their own safety until the wounded were cared for. Our troops can be the most cantankerous and unpredictable people in the world at times, but when the chips are down, they sure can produce.

I never had an opportunity to meet the “Voice in the Dark” and didn’t hear his call sign again. The war kept on and another medevac mission turned into another and then another. I’ve often wondered who he was and whether he survived his tour in Vietnam or not. Whoever he was, or is, he earned my respect and admiration on a dark, rainy night 55 years ago. 

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