From Green Valley to Vietnam – E
Last week we followed Green Valley’s Dan Markell as he and his unit, the 271st Assault Support Helicopter Company, deployed to Vietnam in January 1968.
The men of the 271st ASH deployed to the far south of Vietnam and used the unit’s CH-47, “Chinook” helicopters to haul their equipment to the Army airfield outside the Mekong delta city of Can Tho. They soon began flying transport missions all over Vietnam’s Mekong delta.
The Chinooks could sling load bulky cargo in cargo nets attached to a hook in the aircraft’s belly or load small vehicles or supplies on pallets inside the aircraft via a ramp in the rear.
Each Chinook had two machine guns to defend against ground fire, one mounted on each side of the aircraft just behind the front bulkhead that separated the cockpit from the cargo area.
Dan, who was the aircraft’s crew chief, described the Chinook’s crew and explained their responsibilities during a transport mission.
“It had two pilots, a flight engineer, a crew chief, and a door gunner,” he said. “The door gunner always took the portside (left) gun on the window and the flight engineer and crew chief would rotate. One of us would be in the rear, watching and making sure there weren’t any major leaks in the aft transmission. The other would be on the starboard gun up front. It was the duty of everybody to kind of be the eyes for the pilot.”
The bulkhead behind the cockpit created blind spots, meaning the pilots could not see to the sides, to the rear, or below the aircraft in flight. They relied on the other crew members to keep them informed via the aircraft’s intercom system connected to their flight helmets.
Dan also described the mission responsibilities of the crew chief and flight engineer in flight.
“The hook area in a Chinook is accessible by a trap door,” he said. “If you had a sling load, usually the crew member who wasn’t on one of the guns would be lying flat, watching the load to make sure it wasn’t swinging wildly. And then he’d kind of monitor for the pilot how close you were getting to the drop zone. Once you got (the load) on the ground, you’d say, ‘Release the hook.’ The hook would open up hydraulically and the donut would be detached.”
“Otherwise, if there was internal (cargo), we would off-load that. If it was a vehicle, we would just kind of push it off the ramp to get it on the ground.”
Dan recalled how the aircrews of the 271st ASH were busy.
“We’d have many flight missions during a day,” he said. “There are days when you are flying 10 hours doing various missions.”
Dan described a mission on May 8, 1968, that particularly stands out in his memory.
“We were hauling PSP on a sling load and Jerry (Jerry McBee, Dan’s friend and flight engineer) was on his belly watching the load,” he said. “All of the sudden I noticed that there were holes kind of erupting around him and I knew that was probably not a good situation.
Dan’s voice tightened at the memory.
“All I could see was holes appearing in the floor,” he said. “And then pretty soon I noticed the aft of the aircraft was on fire because (the ground fire) had probably caught hydraulic lines. Jerry and I each grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put it out and told the pilots we were not in good shape because we’re on fire. They found a clearing not too far from the river and were able to set it down without crashing, which was fortunate.
“It was a controlled landing. But for whatever reason they didn’t drop the load. I remember it was kind of a bumpy landing because the load was 15 feet below the aircraft and as we landed I’m sure it dug into the soil. So, it was a rough landing, but I was glad to get down. We all jumped out of the aircraft and got as far away as we could.
“The engines were still running. I’m guessing they pulled them back to stop, but they would keep turning because they don’t stop right away. The aircraft was soon fully engulfed with fire and we were probably about 100 yards away. I don’t know if they had issued a ‘Mayday,’ but within probably 45 minutes to an hour the Air Force had two helicopters in for rescue. So we were rescued and all five of us escaped with nothing more than bumps and bruises.”
Dan finished the story with a voice tight with emotion.
“They flew us back to our compound and by that time (the unit) didn’t know what condition we were in. They were happy to see us. We were happy to see them, too,” he concluded laughing.
Dan remembered a mission de-brief afterward to create a detailed record of the circumstances of the shoot-down. The next day the company commander flew them to the crash site in a Huey.
“There was nothing to recover,” Dan remembered in a quiet voice.
But the mission of the 271st ASH continued, as Dan explained, “The next day we flew to Vung Tao – or maybe it was the day after – to pick up a new aircraft.”
He and his flight engineer, Jerry, named their new aircraft “Mother Goose II.”
The Army awarded Dan the Air Medal for his actions on the aircraft that day.
“That was kind of an interesting day,” he said.
Next week we’ll explore the rest of Dan’s tour of duty in Vietnam and his return to the US.