Voice in the Dark

By Mike Austin (196th LIB 71-72) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70)

Author's note: The following events were taken from my unpublished memoir,Talons of Fire, and happened when I was the Nighthawk mission commander for four months in 1971 with F Troop, 8th Cavalry, near Da Nang. Nighthawk was a special, low-level, reconnaissance mission using a Huey gunship to search out the VC and NVA when they were most active--at night. I have changed all names, except my own, to protect the innocent or guilty.

The late November rains had slowed the enemy's activity in Quang Nam province to a crawl, and we hadn't taken fire on the Nighthawk mission in nearly two weeks. Tonight was no exception. After spending two fuel loads perusing the AO, things were getting downright boring. However, the night had not passed without incident. Wadell was sick with the flu, and a substitute gunner, Spec-four Sands, was filling in on the fifty-caliber. I remembered Sands from the episode with the CCN (Command & Control North) unit on top of the Marbles, when he fired dangerously close to their perimeter. Not trusting him completely on the big gun, I had given him specific orders not to fire unless he saw Tate shoot first.

Being only his second night mission, Sands had gotten dizzy from the constant circling around the xenon searchlight and had thrown up. The aircraft's slipstream rerouted the vomit back into the rear of the doorless cargo bay, hitting Tate broadside and splattering heavily over his wet weather gear. The shock and revulsion of being puked on made Tate sick, and he began to upchuck as well. By the time we returned to base, the entire ship reeked with the disgusting mess. I parked by a water hose at the corner of the maintenance hangar and left Sands behind to wash down the aircraft and Tate's gear while the rest of us went to midnight chow.

Tate's appetite had been thoroughly suppressed, and he picked at his dinner. Before leaving the mess hall, I made up a carryout plate to take back to Sands, much to Tate's chagrin.

"Just more shit to puke up," he protested.

Still, the man needed to eat. Back at the flightline, Sands consumed the lukewarm meal with surprising enthusiasm.

We had departed on a southwesterly course toward a box in Antenna Valley when Brigade's voice broke squelch on the radio.

"Nighthawk aircraft, this is Blazer Six, over."

"Go ahead, Blazer, this is Nighthawk, call-sign Blue Ghost Four-One."

"Roger, Four-One, we've got a patrol in contact. Call Sparrow One-Six-Alpha on forty-eight-point-five fox mike immediately."

The fact that Brigade had given the radio frequency in the clear without encoding it first with the SOI implied a tactical emergency. After receiving the unit's coordinates, also in the clear, I glanced down at the map and pulled maximum power into the rotor system as I turned the Huey to a northwesterly heading toward the foothills north of Charlie Ridge. After rolling level, I gave control to my copilot, Terry Nicholson, and flipped my audio switch to transmit over FM radio.

"Sparrow One-Six-Alpha, Blue Ghost Four-One, over."

"Blue Ghost, this is Sparrow," a course, whispering voice replied, punctuated by machine-gun fire in the background.

Whispering definitely meant trouble. I spoke very slowly to avoid the possibility of having to repeat myself. "Roger, Sparrow, we are a gunship about ten mikes southeast of you."

"We're surrounded. Taking small arms and chicoms. Please hurry."

Even after months of combat flying, I was shocked by the desperation and fear I heard in the barely audible transmission. The war on the ground was so totally different from the one I fought from the sky that I could only imagine their terror as they clawed at the red earth to escape their nightmare. I told Nicholson to red-line the torque in an effort to reach them as soon as possible, causing the main rotors to vibrate heavily, but the Huey was up for the task. The crew was briefed on the situation and each confirmed his weapon was ready.

I called the rescue, or "chase" aircraft, to confirm they had us in sight before going blackout and starting our descent. As I was about to check in with Sparrow, a mad-minute suddenly erupted on the ground just ahead of us. Simultaneously, every man in the trapped patrol had opened fire with his M-16 on "rock and roll." Streams of tracers flew from the tiny perimeter, marking their position at the center of the wagon wheel. Incredibly, the fifty began booming off the left side of the ship. What the hell was Sands shooting at? I grabbed control back from Nicholson and banked the ship slightly left to see the target. To my horror, I saw the stream of tracers swinging downward and forward, toward the patrol!

Sands had been panicked by the mad-minute and was shooting wildly in the mistaken belief that we were taking enemy fire. He was clearly trying to kill them. I threw the aircraft into a violent right bank to point his mounted gun skyward, as a chorus of voices screamed over the intercom for a cease-fire, but Sands had the weapon jammed hard against the stops, squeezing the trigger with a mindless death grip. The ship was rapidly losing altitude in the steeply banked turn as Tate unsnapped from his harness, at the risk of being thrown overboard, and struggled against the G-forces to grab the out-of-control gunner and stop this madness. Finally, the gun was silenced; and I rolled the ship level, just five-hundred feet above the hilly terrain. I felt instantly relieved and enraged at the same time.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing!" I shrieked. "Goddamnit, Sands, you're shooting at friendlies! Now hold your fire or I'm gonna' see that your ass gets court-martialed!"

Sands did not respond, nor had he better. I was livid; my threat intended to be serious.

During the on-board crises, the patrol had stopped firing; and I lost their position again in the black jungle below. "Sparrow, Blue Ghost. We're somewhere over you now. Sorry, but I have to put the light on you for positive I.D. before we can fire. Stay down."

"Roger, Ghost," replied the small voice in the dark.

The searchlight panned the darkness, at first revealing only spindly trees and brush. The beam crossed a thick section of bamboo before settling on a small clearing pocked by freshly dug fighting-holes full of prone, frightened men. As we circled tightly overhead with the xenon blazing on the six Americans, Carlos put the minigun into action, starting his fire about thirty feet out from the light. Tracers ricocheted in every direction, thus the reason I had ordered them to keep their heads down. At this close range, they could just as easily be killed by the savage weapon's bullets bouncing off rocks and trees as they could from the VC's direct fire. Carlos skillfully drew the red line through a widening spiral until a hundred-meter swath was cleared around the patrol.

After creating a buffer zone, we began looking for point-type targets, using the weapon the VC had come to call "muttering death." Soon, nothing stirred in the kill-zone. After widening the search for half an hour, it became obvious that any surviving enemy had fled or gone into deep hiding.

"Sparrow, Blue Ghost, looks like the bad guys have taken the night off. I'll be monitoring this push if you need us again."

"Roger, Ghost, we appreciate the hell out of all your help!" the voice jumped back.

The loud outpouring of thanks from the radio, no whisper now, made me feel good. So good, in fact, that I suddenly became aware of a more important reason for being in Vietnam than revenge or killing or winning anything. The glory days were over; the will of our country changed. All hope for the victory that millions had fought for, and tens of thousands died for, had long since vanished. Certainly, there was no longer any reason to die in Vietnam. As the last Americans here for the fight, we were now trapped together in the withdrawal throes of the War just as surely as these men had been trapped by the VC tonight. Helping each other survive until it was overīthat was the only real thing left to fight for. And because of us, these men would live to see another day. If nothing else of consequence happened during my tour, that was enough to be here.

Another thought occurred. If I had waited even two more seconds before rolling the aircraft on its side.... The thought sickened me. No death in war was more tragic than that caused by "friendly fire." As mission commander, no amount of rationalizing or explaining its circumstance could have erased the guilt had Sands killed one of them. The grunts would never know how close they had come to being destroyed by the very people they were now thanking for saving them.

One thing was certain. Sands would not fly the "low bird" with me again. Ever. In fact, I was going to talk to Green about having him removed altogether as a door gunner from the slick platoon. Sometimes that meant being returned to a leg unit, like these grateful men below, since many of our gunners were grunts who had volunteered for the duty. But they didn't deserve to have him fighting alongside them either, and I could only hope he was transfered to a cozy rear job where he would cease to be a threat to his own kind. Men like Sands had no business being behind a machine-gun in situations that required cool thinking and a calculated reaction. He wasn't a bad person or anything, just someone thrust into a capacity he couldn't handle. I shuddered to think of what might happen if he ever took fire on the tail end of a combat assaultīor even thought he took fire.

I could just see him hosing down an LZ full of Americans.

Copyright 1993 By Mike Austin, Blue Ghost 23 (196th LIB 71-2) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70), All Rights Reserved