The crew started a foursome game of Hearts to wait for dark, while I stretched out on a bunk to relax. I'd been struggling with my decision about whether to quit Nighthawk and join the gun platoon ever since Captain Corsell told me a Cobra slot was opening up in early January. As much as I had been looking forward to flying Cobras, I wasn't so sure now that the decision was at hand.
Watching the men joke with each other at the card table, I realized how close I had grown to them these past months. We had braved many things together: the terrain, the weather, in-flight emergencies, the enemy. Three times, we had been ambushed together. Loyal and dedicated, they were every pilot's dream crew. I would miss them very much if I abandoned Nighthawk.
Neither was anything wrong with the mission. In fact, I enjoyed it. It was dangerous but unique in the helicopter war. It was so effective at encountering and neutralizing the enemy, I could never understand why there weren't many more Nighthawks being flown all over Vietnam. While thousands of choppers filled the daytime skies with recons, combat assaults and ass-and-trash missions, only a handful ventured out into the night to wage war with the enemy in his own element. In fact, F Troop provided the only such ship between Chu Lai and Phu Bai, covering hundreds of square miles.
Leaving would also mean giving up the pride and privileges of being a mission commander. Starting so late with the gun platoon, I would be relegated to a wing position for the duration. But I was nearing the middle of my tour. If I didn't take advantage of this opportunity, I would probably regret the decision later. I liked the Huey but missed flying the sleek and fast Snake. Besides, Cobra School had cost me an extra year's military obligation, and flying it in combat was the only justification I could see.
Our ARVN liaison officer, Quynh Thanh, joined us shortly. The Vietnamese lieutenant's serious expression lacked his characteristic polite smile, commanding my immediate concern as he motioned me into an empty office to talk. Nervously, he closed the door and turned to me. "ARVN very angry we did not help them the other night, Mike." He was referring to a mission in which the South Vietnamese came in contact with some VC and requested our help. Only problem was, they wouldn't give us permission to shoot, so I refused, telling them to call for illumination rounds from Hill 55 if all they wanted was a light. I wasn't about to put my ship and crew in danger without a fire clearance.
"Some say they try to shoot Nighthawk down, even offer reward." The words clearly pained him.
To say I was floored by the news would be a gross understatement. Instead of trying to rationalize the threat, I immediately became enraged. "Tell your people if anyone shoots at us, we will kill them!"
Thanh seemed shocked by my outburst, but nodded that he understood. Besides, he knew that as our interpreter, he would be on the receiving end as well if they decided to open up on us. Solemnly, he left the room without another word.
I gave the crew a fifteen-minute warning so they could finish their game and walked out to the ship, upset.
We started Christmas Eve with a recon on Razorback Ridge at the western edge of the Arizona Territory, which was as good a place as any to test the enemy's respect for the mutually declared holiday cease-fire. Thanh was busy checking with various ARVN ground units, presumably warning them against any foolish notion of shooting at us. I meant what I said back at Ops. Working our way north around the low finger of hills near the Song Vu Gia river, we turned east toward a large open area of rice paddies. Christmas in Vietnam seemed a vast contradiction, and any nostalgic idea of goodwill toward mankind was tempered by the thought of Carlos' fingers twitching on the triggers of the minigun, waiting for the slightest provocation to kill.
Jansen guided the light along a treeline, then quickly crossed a small paddy and settled on a hooch on the western side, where we started a search of the surrounding thicket. A clump of grass clogged the drainage ditch near the hooch, but the rest of the trench was clean of vegetation, making the lump seem oddly out of place. It was large enough to conceal one or two men, so we began circling to study it from all angles.
"Whaddya' think, Carlos?" I asked.
"Want me to fire it up?"
Normally, the answer would have been yes, but Scott had gone out of his way to emphasize otherwise. Besides, Thanh was with us, so we couldn't break the rules of engagement. "Negative. Light out." We moved a few hundred yards before turning the light on again, revealing a trail along the top of a dike.
Light on. Light out. Light on. Light out. Nighthawk focused the war in a series of random snapshots that were sometimes mysterious, sometimes violent, but always compelling to look at. I thrived on the constant anticipation, never knowing what would be there to greet us each time the switch was thrown. As the beam crossed another paddy, the radio crackled.
"Blue Ghost Four-One, White Knight Six Alpha, I have an emergency medevac request. Can you assist?"
Brigade had never before diverted us on a medevac call, but, being Christmas, there was not an abundance of helicopters available to choose from tonight. An ARVN soldier had been accidentally run over by a truck and needed to be flown to the 95th Evac hospital. Since I was used to night flying, I decided to pick up the casualty in the "low bird" rather than risk having chase get disoriented on the approach. It took some getting used to, flying at night. We were lightly armed and had burned off enough fuel to make it in and out of the confined pad with no problem. Soon, we located the compound and started the approach to a motor pool parking area just inside the perimeter. As we glided over the guard-tower, muffled pops were followed by red streaks shooting past the ship. I knew they weren't tracers, but they startled me nonetheless.
Carlos' angry voice boomed over the intercom, "The ARVN bastards just shot pen flares at us!" The pen flare was a small signaling device about the size of a fountain pen, carried by ground personnel for emergencies only. I was thankful Carlos had cleared his weapon on the way back. As mad as he was, he might have put a burst down next to the guard tower just to scare hell out of the pricks, and I wouldn't have blamed him. But there would have been a lot of extra paperwork and explaining to do in the morning; so it was just as well he hadn't. Thanh looked worried as he chattered loudly on the radio.
I returned my attention to the approach and settled slowly to a point on the ground about fifty feet from a small crowd of men. Four of them quickly loaded a stretcher and waved us off. In a moment, we were airborne again for the short hop to the hospital.
Another group of people rushed the ship as the skids slouched on the brightly lit helipad at the 95th Evac. Pulling the mangled soldier from the cargo bay, one began cutting away a sleeve on his blood soaked fatigues with angled scissors, as another shoved an IV needle deep in his arm, trying to reverse his slide toward death even before he was inside. In the light, I could see the swelling in his face and how his head was deformed from being crushed by the truck. I didn't rate his chances of surviving very high.
Then I saw her.
She moved quickly around the patient, examining him by flashlight, giving orders to the others. And she was stunningly beautiful, this Army nurse. She seemed odd, out of place with Vietnam.
Because of the predominately male role in combat, I lived with men, ate with men, fought with men. As a result, I naturally developed the notion that only men went to war. Rarely even catching the glimpse of round-eyed women, I had somehow forgotten that they served right along with us. Just not in combat, but they were victims of it as well, seeing it's carnage and waste first hand. From the Doughnut Dollies of Special Services, engaging in much needed and appreciated female conversation as they dusted off requested albums or taught us how to correctly tie-dye our blue jeans, to the nurses that cared for the sick and wounded, American women were serving in Vietnam too.
I wanted to remove my helmet, tell her thanks, and that I thought she was beautiful. She looked up at me for an instant, forcing a smile and waving thanks for bringing the injured man in so quickly. The mercury vapor light revealed her brown eyes and full mouth. God, how I missed the companionship of a woman right now. I watched her until she disappeared through the hospital doors and from my life forever.
Checking the gauges in preparation for take off, the clock showed five minutes past midnight. "Merry Christmas, Vietnam," I said as I pulled pitch and left.
After we finished removing the loose gear out of the low bird and cleaning the blood off the floor of the cargo bay, Thanh departed on his scooter. I hoped the episode had revived his faith in our commitment to help him and his people, but I had been too concerned with the routine of finishing the logs and after-action reports to talk with him very much. As we climbed on the truck, the crew invited me to stop by their hooch for some holiday cheer.
A snowman, built from sand bags and wearing an OD tee-shirt and regulation ball cap, stood outside their dilapidated hooch. An empty beer can was secured to one of its broomstick arms. Its crooked smile of buttons was held in place with short pieces of safety-wire, giving the appearance of wearing braces. Tate disappeared inside for a moment, returning with cold beer as we gathered on China Beach in the bright morning sunshine to drink and talk. The discussion turned to the holidays.
"Me and my sister used to camp out in the living room every Christmas Eve to wait up for Santa," Jansen said. "And every year, we'd fall asleep and wake up to find this empty glass of milk and a half eaten cookie."
One by one, each related fond details of Christmases past. Growing up as the only child in an alcoholic family, the holidays usually represented the worst of times for me. When it was my turn, I changed the subject.
"I'm thinking about leaving Nighthawk for guns, and wanted to know what you guys thought about it."
Tate looked surprised that I would be asking for their advice. Wadell leaned back against the snowman and took a drink of beer.
"It's what you've been waiting for isn't it?"
"Yeah. At least I used to think so. I mean, I really like flying with you guys, but I..." Groping for words, I wished I hadn't brought the subject up now. "Nicholson says he wants to go full time, and Bronsen and I think he's ready to be on his own. What do you guys think?"
"No problem with that. Seems to know what he's doing. Besides, it might be a nice change for you. Hell, you'd even get to see the AO in the daylight," he laughed.
I really hadn't thought about it until he said it. It was weird to know I had never once flown in the daytime since arriving in Vietnam back in August, except the short AC checkride with Wilburn. Tate walked over and looked inside the hooch. Then he smiled and gave a thumbs-up signal to the others.
"We all chipped in and got you a Christmas present," he said, pointing toward the door. I was surprised and deeply touched by the gesture, and feeling bad for not getting them anything. Inside, four poncho liners hung like drapes around the center of the room. The men gathered around the curtains.
"Close your eyes."
Tate took my arm, leading me forward a few steps, as I felt the curtains close around me. "Okay, you can open them now," he said from outside. I dropped my hands and fell speechless. Lying on the clean-sheeted bunk, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman smiled enticingly as she pulled the top sheet away, exposing her smooth olive skin all the way to her toes.
"Merry Christmas, GI," she said softly.
And so it was.