By Robert B. Robeson, LTC, USA (Ret)
“…I think I should say one word, too, a special word, about the Dust Offs—the Med-Evacs. This was a great group of men. All those who flew them, all those who did it. Courage above and beyond the call of duty was sort of routine to them. It was a daily thing, part of the way they lived. That’s the great part and it meant so much to every last man who served there. Whether he ever got hurt or not, he knew Dust Off was there.”—Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., Army Chief of Staff.
The recollection of that unbelievable medical evacuation mission on Saturday, 13 Sep 69—two days before my 27th birthday—flashed through my mind. I was standing bareheaded at “attention” in our unit area on the shore of scenic Da Nang Harbor in Da Nang, South Vietnam. It was mid-March 1970. The aide for COL D.W. Pratt (the U.S. Army 95th Evacuation Hospital commander) was reading my citation for a Distinguished Flying Cross, which our entire, four-man Dust Off crew had been awarded.
“…While participating in aerial flight, evidenced by voluntary actions above and beyond the call of duty….four critically wounded casualties…enemy fire ripped through his air ambulance, seriously damaging the engine and severing important navigational controls…”
The memory, alone, of the danger and drama surrounding that mission was enough to make me sweat even more than I already was. I’d been in-country barely two months, at that time, but had already seen more of war at 26 years of age than I cared to imagine.
Merely the process of getting the wounded aboard our aircraft often made Dust Off flying appear like some bizarre form of Russian roulette. Landing in a “hot” landing zone, where people you’ve never met are trying to kill you, can raise the curtain on a show every bit as intriguing and entertaining as the civil punishment of being stoned must have been in Biblical times. As John Keats so aptly stated, “Nothing ever becomes real ‘til it is experienced…”
That’s part of the reason why Chief Warrant Officer Two John Ball would mean so much to me. John—or “Eight-Ball,” his nickname—was one of our unit’s elder statesmen at 32 years of age. He had four children. This former Marine-turned-Army-aviator had a favorite expression he used whenever things weren’t going well. “This is not good,” he’d growl. I soon discovered that this old soldier, of many military campaigns around the world, had a heart of marshmallow which he continually hid behind a tough-appearing exterior.
As operations officer for the 236 Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) headquartered at Red Beach, I’d scheduled myself to spend five days—10-14 Sep as John’s copilot. He was an aircraft commander and also one of our unit’s instructor pilots. We’d be stationed at our field site battalion aid station at LZ Baldy, located approximately 25 miles south of Da Nang along Highway 1, Vietnam’s main north-south highway.
We gathered our crew—a medic and crew chief—and flew out to cover the action that would keep us in the air over 31 hours, which included 12½ night hours, evacuating dead and wounded from both sides of the action.
On 11 Sep, our supported infantry units were hit hard by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). We were in the air 11 hours that day and 10 hours on the 12th. We’d slide out of the sky on mission after mission picking up torn and broken bodies. They would often literally be tossed or dumped—in the heat of battle—twisted and bleeding into the cargo compartment of our unarmed, Bell UH-1H Iroquois, better known as the “Huey,” helicopter. Here they’d remain for 15 to 30 minutes while our medic feverishly worked to keep them alive until the doctors and medical personnel at LZ Baldy could take over.
We’d already flown over three hours before the sun came up on the 13th and had finally shut down hoping to snatch a few “Zs.” About mid-morning, another mission was called in. After what was only a brief rest, we quickly scrambled and became airborne again. While returning from this mission with a load of wounded, a second urgent request was broadcast over our FM radio. It was another “hot,” insecure LZ reportedly under heavy enemy fire. While I called for UH-1C helicopter gunship support from the “Firebirds,” who also flew out of Baldy, John landed and unloaded these patients. Then he lifted off again in the direction of four Americans who had been seriously wounded by small arms fire.
Between air-to-air and air-to-ground communications, I offered my usual silent prayer for our safety and that of our patients. That’s when an eerie sensation crept over me. For some unexplainable reason, I intuitively sensed that I was about to be tested like I’d never been tested before.
As we approached the area of contact, a few klicks (kilometers) southwest of LZ Center (Hill 348)—a towering artillery base jutting nearly straight up well over a thousand feet above the surrounding terrain—concentrated artillery fire could be seen bracketing a heavily wooded area. This fire was soon cut off so that our gunship team could make gun runs on enemy positions before we went in. After their second pass, I asked the ground troops to “pop smoke” to mark where they wanted us to land.
Then John bottomed the collective control—which governs the pitch of the blades—with his left hand and we transitioned into a smooth, 4,000-foot-per-minute descent. As we fell out of the sky, John reminded me to stay close to the controls, something he’d never mentioned before. John always flew with the force trim on. This was an on/off switch located between us at the top of the pedestal beneath the instrument panel. With that switch on there was an artificial feel or force applied to the cyclic stick (the steering wheel of a helicopter that controls the vertical and lateral movements of the aircraft’s nose) which held it in one position. You could move the cyclic against this force but, if you released pressure, it would return to its last trimmed position. There was an intermittent force trim release button on the cyclic stick grip that, if depressed and held, released the force trim. John trimmed the aircraft through the use of a button on the cyclic stick so that there was aft pressure on the cyclic at all times. This ensured that the nose of our bird would automatically rise should he be wounded or his hand come off the cyclic.
When we were barreling along at nearly 140 miles per hour a few feet above the ground, with people shooting at us, that extra split second of time was important. It could mean the difference between survival, becoming a messy Huey sandwich in a sewage-filled rice paddy, or being turned into a metal pretzel in some hover-hole deep in the jungle.
I never flew with the force trim on because it caused me to lose my “touch” on the cyclic necessary to make many precise tactical maneuvers. But because John chose to do so, we’d all soon benefit from a special message that would manifest itself directly to my heart.
As we continued our rapid descent and began a straight-in, short final approach from the west for the LZ, “Willie-Peter”—white phosphorous rockets—fired ahead of us by our gunships suddenly obscured the red smoke from the grenade the ground troops had thrown out.
“You got the LZ?” John asked over the intercom.
“Lost it,” I replied.
John grabbed a bunch of pitch with the collective in his left hand and began a tight, 360-degree cyclic climb to his left. With the bad guys reported to be so close to the wounded, making the ultimate misjudgment of landing to the wrong area could have been disastrous.
“Tango 2-4, this is Dusty,” I broadcast over our FM radio. “We lost your smoke because of the Willie Pete. If you could pop one more, we’ll attempt another approach. Over.”
“Negative on the smoke, Dusty. We’re all out down here.”
“This is not good,” John muttered over the intercom. After a moment of silence, he said, “Okay, we’ll drop our own smoke.”
Under heavy enemy fire, with Tango 2-4 guiding us visually, John tore across the landscape on two runs—10 feet above the landing zone tree line—as our crew chief dropped our own smoke grenades. On the second run, we finally hit our target. Then he circled back to land, this time dropping out of the sky like a bag of dirty clothes down a laundry chute.
Tall trees encircled the tiny inverted-V-shaped landing zone where our patients were located. To get close to them in the least amount of time, John had to make a low and fast approach to position the nose of our aircraft in the tightest part of this “V.”
It was because the landing zone was so tight—we couldn’t turn around to go out the way we’d come in for fear of hitting someone or something with our tail rotor—that John made the decision he did. He decided to do a maximum performance takeoff up and over the tree line that was hiding the enemy force.
“I’m going up and over to get out of here,” John said over the intercom, above the intense ground battle being waged outside our Plexiglas windows. As we topped the trees, at about 75 feet, AK-47s—Soviet assault rifles used by the North Vietnamese Army—and other automatic weapons “hosed us down” from just beneath and to both sides of the aircraft.
From that split second of time, for the next minute or so, everything seemed to occur in super-slow motion.
“My God, we’re going to crash!” John suddenly blurted into his mike. “My cyclic’s been shot away!”
I immediately looked over to see him sweeping his cyclic stick in wide circles around the cockpit. These movements should have made the aircraft spin in circles. But our bird was unaffected. As the Huey’s nose began a dive toward the trees, I instinctively grabbed my set of controls.
“I’ve got it,” I said.
This is it, I distinctly remember thinking, as enemy rounds continued tearing through the tender underbelly of our aircraft and just behind our heads. Today is the day I’m going to die. Then I couldn’t hear the automatic weapons anymore. We’d finally flown out of the enemy’s field of fire.
As soon as I grasped my cyclic, it was immediately evident that the force trim pressure no longer existed. I saw that the switch was on but it had zero effect. A sixth sense impressed me to be very, very careful and not move my cyclic more than necessary to stay out of the tops of the trees that our skids were now brushing. I gently eased my cyclic toward me and we began a shallow ascent.
At that moment, the red rpm warning light on our instrument panel illuminated. This was accompanied by gut-wrenching shrieks in our flight helmets from the low-rpm audio warning. In rapid succession, the yellow master caution light at the top of the instrument panel was next to make its appearance. Glancing down at the emergency panel on the pedestal between us, I saw that the “Engine Oil” light was illuminated.
Dust Off pilots set normal engine rpm for our operations between 6,400-6,600 rpm. John and I always flew at 6,400 because it gave us 200 rpm to play with on hot descents where it could quickly build. It always had the potential to over-speed the engine if we weren’t careful. But ours had suddenly bled off to 5,800 rpm. I knew that if something didn’t happen fast our bird would soon have more characteristics of a crowbar than a crow.
We’d obviously been hit in the engine and oil lines, among other places. Although John had been grazed on his left leg by a round, he immediately reached over to the pedestal and placed the governor switch into the “emergency” position. This provided enough extra engine power to momentarily remain airborne while we assessed the damage and discussed our limited options.
We both realized that our engine was losing a lot of oil and could instantaneously seize. I’d have to autorotate if it did. This meant descending on the energy in our blades alone, rather than the engine, to make a forced landing. Then I’d have to make a dramatic movement with my cyclic stick at the bottom to flare and dissipate airspeed before touchdown, even if I located an open area. Otherwise, I’d have to make a tree landing. Cockpit complications were beginning to pile up like autumn leaves in a windstorm.
“Whadaya want me to do?” I asked John, as I slowly eased in pitch with my left hand, inched up to 500 feet AGL (above ground level) and attained a comfortable 80 knots of indicated airspeed.
“Just keep us in the air,” he answered quietly. “Just fly. Maybe we can find a place to put it down where we won’t hurt ourselves.”
If our engine failed, I wanted to make a running landing. LZ Ross lay straight ahead, six miles northwest of LZ Center and eleven miles southwest of LZ Baldy. Ross was located in relatively flat terrain and had a large open area where we often picked up patients. But this was still nearly four to five minutes away.
“I’m gonna shoot for Ross.”
“Okay,” John said, “I’ll call Da Nang and get another bird flown out there to pick us up.”
“Sir,” Specialist Five Bill Bergman—our crew chief—broke in on the intercom, “we got our guns at four o’clock high. Looks like they’re following us in.”
John alerted the Firebirds to our dilemma and one of them edged close enough under our blades to confirm that we were leaking oil all over the sky.
I did some silent praying en route, too. It was a brief mental quietude in the midst of chaos. My father was a Protestant minister. That upbringing gave me a wealth of appreciation and insight for this spiritual involvement. I thanked God for allowing us to reach our four patients and for helping get us out of that miserable LZ in one piece. Then I asked Him to help me keep the rest of the pieces intact until we reached LZ Ross.
It was not long after this that I felt a wonderful, soothing sensation oozing throughout my aching body. I’d been sweating like a marathoner in the heat and stress of this life-and-death emergency. But, at that precise moment, a cooling sense of well-being swept over me. I accepted this as a confirming sign from God that we were going to make it, hopefully, without hurting ourselves.
Heading into a slow, shallow, and straight-in, long final approach for a large open dirt area at Ross, I could see our American flag on a tall flagpole to the north. It gently fluttered in the light breeze atop a small ridge. Old Glory had never looked as good to me as it did at that moment. I bounced our skids a couple of times on the uneven ground in a short running landing, but I didn’t hear anyone count or complain. When the ground run stopped…so did our Lycoming jet engine. All 1,200 “horses” expired at once.
Simultaneously, John and I turned to look at each other. Neither of us said a word. We both realized what had just happened.
While John climbed down to check the battle damage, I got out and stepped around to the open cargo door on my side of the aircraft where our patients were lying. Most of the cargo door windows had been shot up but, because Specialist Four Tom Franks—our medic—had kept everyone lying on the deck, none had been wounded again.
“How’re you doing?” I asked, putting my hand on the shoulder of an African-American infantry staff sergeant who had managed to raise himself to a sitting position.
He reached up, took my hand between both of his and squeezed hard twice. “You guys are somethin’ else,” he said, in a soft Southern accent. “Thanks, sir, for gettin’ us out.”
Four white guys had been determined and fortunate to evacuate three black and one white “grunts” under enemy fire in their government-issued Huey, that also involved a series of serious emergency situations. Racial diversities were irrelevant to any of us during those moments. We were all Americans and it was our job to see that they received immediate medical attention and safety on behalf of friends and family back home who weren’t able to be of assistance themselves.
I didn’t mention anything about the oil lines, engine, cyclic, or the rush of fear I’d felt myself. There might be a time when he’d have to ride with us again and I didn’t want any rumors spread that all Dust Off flights came fully loaded with enemy ground fire and a rash of emergency situations. We transferred our patients and medic to one of the Firebird gunships and they both lifted off for the aid station at LZ Baldy.
Then John and I did a post-flight inspection. We confirmed that all of the engine oil was gone. The last of it formed two small pools in the red clay beneath our aircraft. As we stood next to the tail boom, in the shadow of our wounded and downed bird, a moment of silence prevailed. John glanced at me, cleared his throat, and then stared off into the distance. “Somebody else was flying with us today,” he said softly.
I nodded my head. There had never been any doubt about that in my mind.
It was an hour or so later before we knew “the rest of the story,” as radio icon Paul Harvey would say. After our maintenance crew arrived and sling-loaded the bird back to Red Beach in Da Nang—hoisting it out beneath a Marine CH-53 helicopter—one of them took me aside. He told me he’d reached up and merely touched my cyclic stick. It had broken off in his hand.
After removing the metal floor paneling and taking apart the control, he had discovered that only a sliver of metal had been holding my cyclic in place. That’s why I couldn’t feel any force trim pressure against my hand. One of the bursts of automatic weapons fire from John’s side of the aircraft had completely severed his cyclic stick and had continued its flight beneath the floor panels to nearly take mine with it. If that piece of metal had not held until we reached LZ Ross, it’s possible that eight additional names would have joined the 58,000+ on our Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.
That soft inner voice had been right on target. To this day, I firmly believe that God, or one of His guardian angels, warned me not to move my cyclic anymore than necessary and kept our shot up bird flying for over five minutes with little or no oil in the engine. For those who believe in miracles, they’ll realize that this one was extraordinary. If others don’t believe such things occur, it doesn’t matter. They weren’t there and I was.
It was a miracle. No other explanation suffices.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons the 23rd Psalm–Psalm 23:1-6–(KJV) is frequently quoted in military circles. “The Lord is my shepherd…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” These were (and still are) comforting words to those of us who have been there, done that, and would do it again under similar circumstances.
What I discovered in that year’s tour was in this kind of rescue work 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, because hope and love are what keep humanity going. And that’s what Dust Off has always been about.
“Dust Off” was our universal call sign, which most people believe came from the dust our helicopters kicked up when we were landing in dry areas. It is actually an acronym that stands for Dedicated, Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces.
A helicopter is a celebration of human powers of mobility. From May 62 through Mar 73, Army air ambulances evacuated between 850,000 and 900,000 allied military personnel and Vietnamese civilians.3 This was accomplished by a total of approximately 1,400 commissioned and warrant officer Dust Off pilots. A little over a third of our pilots and crewmembers became casualties flying unarmed aircraft as supposed “noncombatants.” Our air ambulance losses to hostile fire were 3.3 times that of all other forms of helicopter missions in that war.
From 10 Jul 69-10 Jul 70, I flew 987 missions and helped evacuate over 2,500 patients from both sides of the action. Seven of my helicopters were shot up by enemy fire and I was shot down twice. On 3 February 70, I was promoted from operations officer to commander of the 236th Medical Detachment. Not only have my Dust Off comrades read the Vietnam book, but we’ve also played unique roles in the movie version while it was being filmed on location.
Every waking day, even over 50 years later, I remember my Dust Off compatriots who endured and gave so much of themselves in our fight to save lives. That also includes those grunts on the ground, who had the toughest job of all, in seeking and confronting an elusive enemy while fighting for freedom for so many Vietnamese citizens who ended up with none of their own.
I flew with John Ball for three more years with the 63rd Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in Landstuhl, West Germany. He retired from the military after 20 years of service in 1973 and continued his aviation career in civilian life.
While logging with a helicopter in the Bitterroot National Forest near Medicine Hot Springs in Montana on 19 April 1979, a mechanical malfunction occurred in his rotor-blade mast that caused his aircraft to invert and crash. He died that day at age 42, along with his 32-year-old copilot.
I flew from Lincoln, NE, to his home in Portland, OR, for the funeral on 25 Apr 79. After all the times he had “carried” me in combat and in Europe, I was honored to be asked to carry him to his final resting place on a magnificent mountainside in a picturesque area of Portland that he loved.
Sometimes people come into our lives who leave giant footprints on our hearts and souls. That’s what John did with me. I will never forget him, our special friendship–both in and out of the cockpit–on three continents, or all of the other soldiers I met and interacted with in Vietnam so long ago.
Thank you, sir, for your contributions to this website. Welcome home and thank you for your service and sacrifice.
This is the second article submission by this author. Here is the link to his other Dust Off story: https://cherrieswriter.com/2019/11/24/i-knew-youd-come-guest-post/