This work is a view of combat through the eyes of a nineteen year old helicopter pilot who learned to become a highly skilled and respected pilot through his own grit and determination. His combat experiences include the Battle for Hue, Tet Offensives, Khe Sahn (Marines), Covert ops into Laos and North Vietnam (SOG), Hunter-Killer missions, Ashau Valley (1st Cav), Ashau Valley (101st Airborne). Born July 22,1948 he flew some 600 combat missions before his twentieth birthday. Earning a Distinguished Flying Cross after just four months in Vietnam he was perhaps its youngest recipient of the Vietnam War.
Ref. No. 1100703mi
Length 20,000 + Work in Progress
From The Book
LZ Wharton was a small firebase near Khe Sahn not far from the Laotian border. His mission was simple enough and even routine, a logistics mission that would bring ammunition, food, water, a few sundries and maybe even a little mail to the soldiers bunkered on the hilltop at the edge of nowhere.
McKeever sat in the left front seat of the helicopter, the customary seat for the aircraft commander, studying his mission sheet as the helicopter sat at flight idle on the tarmac of the Khe Sahn airstrip while his crew loaded the supplies for their first trip. He heard a muffled tapping sounding through his headgear and turned towards it to see the smiling Marine with his face nearly pressed against his window, his half raised fist positioned to knock again.
McKeever pinned the mission sheet under his leg to secure it in the windy cockpit, then with both hands free he pressed the two latches on the sides of the window and lower it. Pushing his microphone away from his mouth, he shouted above the noise of the helicopter, “Whatcha need?” he asked.
The Marine who stood perched on the skid just outside his door shouted back, “You got any ID? You don’t look old enough to drive this fuckin’ thing,” smiled the Marine.
McKeever had already fielded more than his fair share of questions about his age and was now comfortable with the jokes.
“Give me a few more missions with you son-of-bitches and I’ll be as old as you in no time,” he shouted back.
The Marine hopped off the skid and on to the tarmac, still laughing as he gave him thumbs up in agreement and then returned to help with the loading.
By now, McKeever’s combat experience was extensive and his flying ability had already earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross along with several air medals including the Air Medal for Valor, and just recently he had been recommended for the Silver Star. He even held a position in his unit as a senior aircraft commander. But with his boyish features, he tended to remind one of a sixth grader driving a stolen school bus. Occasionally, his youthful appearance produced nervous questions about his age from grunts or walking wounded on their way back home. They would ask questions as though they were seriously considering some other alternative, even though they had none–unless you counted not going at all.
As he compared the supplies that were loaded onto the aircraft with his mission sheet that detailed the list of supplies that they were scheduled to drop off, McKeever noticed the totals for the small outpost at LZ Wharton seemed a little large, given its size, and it would take him several sorties to get it all in.
He would need to carry all the ammo in the first group of sorties followed by the cases of C-rations and water, and then he would finish up with any “luxury” items if possible. The KIAs, if any, would have to wait for the final flight.
He detailed everything in his mind including the number and the weight of each item for each sortie that he would fly. He rarely had to read his mission sheet more than once to commit it to memory and then he would stuff it into the pouched pocket on the front of his armored chest protector where it would remain crumpled for the rest of the day.
He was confident of delivering the entire load and maybe even some unexpected hot chow for the troops at the small encampment–if he could round it up before dark at one of the nearby bases. This was his only mission, so the prospects looked good for the soldiers of LZ Wharton having a rare hot meal, especially considering their early start.
It was not quite mid-morning and they were already in-bound to LZ Wharton with their first load of ammo. There were high, thinly veiled clouds in the sky above and the mid-morning sun was already shining brightly. Visibility was almost unlimited and he could make out the small outpost through the morning haze in the distance.
Nearby, the smoke from a few smoldering fires on the barren landscape told him the wind direction was from the east, which meant that his approach path would lie between Wharton and the Laotian border. To his back would be the dark walled cliffs that were perched on the edge of the small river that divided South Vietnam from Laos and the enemy sanctuaries–a scant distance by air from his intended landing zone. Further to the south, along the river, he could make out the scarred remnants of what had been the Leng Vei Special Forces camp.
LZ Wharton sat on a hill with a small ridgeline that ran roughly north and south. He was now close enough to see the antennas that reached skyward from the sandbagged bunkers near the middle of the ridgeline. Off to his left on the far southern end, he could see the lone unmanned 155mm Howitzer that sat centered in the nearly round sunken pit of the artillery gun emplacement, protected by a low sandbagged wall. Between the two structures and close to the bunker complex was a dark square of perforated steel planking that formed the helipad. Just to the right of the bunker complex was a small bald spot of reddish dirt.
But, it wasn’t so much what he had seen that bothered him; it was what he hadn’t seen. There was none of the usual morning activity he was accustomed to even in the most isolated of outposts. No breakfast fire to prepare the morning coffee or to warm the C-rations. No grunts lounging on sandbags or gathering for patrol. The Howitzer had none its usual attendees and sat alone amidst a few broken ammo crates. The hilltop seemed deserted. The Howitzer and the antennas offered the only hints that it was still occupied. A deep foreboding swept over him as he radioed his intentions to LZ Wharton.
His radio transmission for permission to land was met with a quick and ominous response.
“Uh, roger Bandit one-three,” came the staticy reply.
“Be advised that we’ve been receiving incoming artillery from just across the border,” he paused breaking the transmission. The mike clicked again, and then he continued.
“They’ve been after my log birds and keep chasin’ ‘em off with some pretty heavy stuff. We think they’ve got guns somewhere in the cliffs to the west of us, over.” The radio fell silent as Wharton awaited his decision.
He was being warned. Now, he knew why the firebase looked so deserted and why the supply list had been so large. They obviously hadn’t been re-supplied in a while. He cautiously responded to Wharton’s warning.
“Roger, Wharton. I copy,” he replied as he tried to think.
His eyes scanned the hilltop firebase of LZ Wharton, now off to his left, as he flew passed its northern edge still flying westward. Then he peered through the haze in front of him at the dark cliffs in the distance. He knew the stranded outpost was in trouble or at least not far from it. The ammo list told him that much.
On what he thought was a hunch; he extended his flight path farther west, away from LZ Wharton, towards the border. Then, he lazily turned the Huey towards the south, momentarily paralleling the ridgeline, and continued in his 180-degree fishhook turn that intercepted his elongated approach to the beleaguered outpost. He was flying eastward when he finally aligned the aircraft for their approach to the helipad.
He had worked this area many times and had even inserted Special Forces teams across the border into Laos. He tried to recall what it might look like from the enemy’s forward observer position. He let his imagination carry him upward and away into the mountainous cliffs behind him.
He envisioned himself looking down upon the Khe Sahn plateau with its surrounding mountains, scarred and green, giving the area a bowl shaped appearance. The mountains stood in stark contrast to the red barren hills that littered the landscape below, cratered and scorched with only small scrubby patches of charred, leafless trees. It had been all but stripped of its vegetation by the raiding B52’s, the napalm and the artillery that supported the American effort to hunt down and destroy the North Vietnamese Army.
Next, he cast his gaze further downward, envisioning the round disk like shape that was formed by the turning blades of his helicopter as it steadily flew towards its intended landing area now marked by the dark square formed by the helipad in the distance. He absorbed the vision in an instance, and quickly returned his attention to his approach.
“Wharton, this Bandit one-three, I’m about zero-three out for landing. Could you pop smoke? Over,” He drawled the command in the calm rhythmic tone of a seasoned pilot that belied his youth. The hot chow, he thought, was beginning to look like a long shot.
The announcement seemed to catch the radioman off guard as he keyed the mike momentarily, released it, and then re-keyed it again.
“Uh…Roger Bandit one-three you’re cleared to land; smokes on the way.” The uncertain voice announced.
As McKeever double-clicked his mike in response to Wharton’s message, he could see the whirling canister of the smoke grenade as it arched from the small trench line that ran beside the bunker. It landed on the steel planking, bounced its way across the steel helipad then rolled several feet into the red dirt, sputtering its purple contents into a thick billowing cloud of smoke.
“Roger Wharton, I’ve got your smoke,” he announced in a matter of fact tone.
“Roger Bandit,” was the response, equally as matter of fact.
Carried by an easterly wind, the smoke hugged close to the ground, fanning out, billowing angrily in the direction of the in-bound chopper. Then, caught by the down draft of a leeward wind, it was stretched and pulled close to the hillside, carried downward and finally released into thin rising wisps that soon disappeared into the morning air.
He had gained more altitude before beginning his decent. He could see the helmeted grunts crouching in the doorway of the bunker, ready to spring from their sanctuary to help with the unloading. His angle of approach was much steeper than he liked. Soon, they would be landing. He pressed the intercom and gave his crew their instructions.
“When we touch down, throw out as much of this shit as you can. But, don’t leave the fuckin’ ship!” McKeever ordered.
He had already formulated a plan for what he needed to do. It had drifted into in his mind in bits and pieces from his observations and impressions as he flew towards the outpost. He artfully choreographed his plan of action into a concise sequence of images, weaving them into his reflexes that would execute them instinctively without the need for conscious thought. He had made a decision and was only waiting for the right moment. Then, he felt it, a feeling like a voice that whispered, ‘Now’.
The enemy gun crew had anxiously watched his approach but when the helicopter continued far past the American firebase they relaxed and watched with curiosity as they tried to guess at his destination. They were distracted by their search for signs of other American units along his intended flight path when they noticed he had changed direction and was now heading back to the American base and aimed directly at the landing pad.
Caught unaware, they hastily jumped into action, grabbing a round of ammunition and the pre-measured charge of powder and loaded them into the large gun then slammed home the breach. When the helicopter blocked their view of the landing pad, they fired.
McKeever put the helicopter into a steep left bank, and then made another hard bank to the right. The flight path of the helicopter made a downward ‘S’ pattern towards the red patch of dirt to the left of the bunker and away from the helipad. He fought for control of the heavily loaded aircraft as he tried to slow its rapid rate of decent. He flared the aircraft and then felt the rear of the skids dance as they made contact with the hard ground and slid forward across the small knoll. He quickly lowered the nose of the aircraft and the Huey squat to a halt in the red clay near the bunker. The helicopter rested on the reddish spot on the opposite side of the bunker and the waiting grunts now confused and not quite sure what had happened to the chopper that only a moment ago seemed about to land right on top of them.
The crew chief and door gunner were already in the cargo area throwing out the boxes of ammo before the skids had made their first contact. By the time the helicopter ground to a halt, the remaining boxes of ammunition were lying on the ground beside them.
The enemy’s first artillery round landed with a thunderous explosion just short of the empty helipad, raining dirt and debris into the trenches and sending the waiting troops scurrying for cover back into the bunker. The powerful concussion from the enemy shell wobbled the Huey, its skids just clear of the ground, as McKeever rolled the nose of the aircraft forward and raced towards the steep drop off of the hillside.
“Bandit, we got incoming!” Wharton warned.
“Were up!” The crew chief announced emphatically. But, they were already airborne, diving off the hilltop seeking the safety of the valley below and out of sight of the enemy artillery.
“Wharton, Bandit one-three. Roger that. I’m clear of your Lima Zulu and heading outbound—we’ll be back in about, uh, two-zero with another load–I’ll remain on this push, holler if you need us, over.”
He could hear the relieved laughter of the men in the background as Wharton keyed his radio. And, he could almost see the smile on the radioman’s face as he responded.
“Roger, Bandit.” Wharton responded with a sigh of relief.
Except for the steady sound of the rotor blades, and the wind rushing by the open doors, the aircraft was silent. The normally chatty crew was unusually quiet. He knew what they were thinking, though. He gave the controls to his pilot. Then, he relaxed back in his seat, lit up a cigarette. Then he keyed the intercom button on the floor with his right foot, paused momentarily as he held it in the on position, and drew a deep breathe.
“That was one, big fuckin’ round,” he said thoughtfully.
“No, shit”, came a weak reply.
He had set up the enemy artillery with the long exaggerated approach, the smoke grenade, all of it. He knew they were expecting him to land on the helipad and he wanted to make sure that they continued to expect it–right up to the last moment. He painted them a picture then he just let them think about it. It even confused Wharton who knew he didn’t need the smoke since he had already lined up for his approach but it added just the right touch of deception. He had won this round with the North Vietnamese artillery but it wasn’t over and he had the feeling that he had only pissed them off.
About The Author
Employment Status: Retired
Military Experience: Entered Army Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Course March 1967 at age 18
Graduated Fort Rucker Aviation Training Nov. 1967
Vietnam Experience: Pilot, Aircraft Commander, Sr. Aircraft Commander, Flight Leader all before 20th Birthday
Copyright 2011 – 2012, Johnny McKeever
This post was written by Johnny McKeever