The Only Coward I Knew

By Mike Powell

We were flying a Combat Assault mission into an area called Bu Dop -- the American name for it was FSB Jerry. My bird was designated Yellow 3, in the initial assault flight. The flight had been advised that there were Indians all around the area with the main force concentrated to the northwest. I think we broke south; but at about eight hundred to nine hundred feet, we began taking automatic weapons fire. I could hear the pop and see the tracers of all the fire coming up. It was my first "hot" LZ after leaving the security of my training aircraft and the security of my door gunner trainer, SGT David Jackson. But what happened next I dream about and second guess until this day.

In the process of taking fire, our aircraft (Yellow 3, the wing aircraft for Yellow 2) took two or three hits; and Yellow 2 took a tracer into the fuel cell. My A/C (Aircraft Commander), David Herbert, radioed to tell Y-2 that they had flame coming out from under their bird, at which time they went into "fire on aircraft" mode, cut power, and headed for the nearest LZ guided by Herb.

We banked hard left, and my machine gun jammed. I then looked around the transmission case, saw the flame engulfing Y-2, and at the same time I saw Sgt Jack jump out, his arms flailing and at least 75 feet above the treetops. I didn't see the Crew Chief (CE), John Rassmussen, jump. I was looking in the opposite direction of Y-2; and as I said before, I had to look around the transmission casing to see what was going on, on that side.

As I tried to clear my M-60, to no avail, I looked one more time; and the aircraft was completely engulfed in flame; it was coming across the tree line to the targeted forced landing area when the tail boom broke off. As we followed them in, Herb swung the tail around; and we settled down at what I suppose was a safe distance, and my CE, Ron Leffingwell, and myself unassed our bird and headed for Y-2.

The Co-pilot, Lt William Rambo, had gotten over the console and was coming out of the burning aircraft through the loading bay. As I grabbed him, this burned flesh pealed off into my hand; but he seemed to feel no pain. Ron had gotten the A/C out, and somehow we managed to get them onto 37deuce (our bird's butt #) when I grabbed my M-16 and headed back toward the downed ship.

Ron yelled at me to get back onto the bird, but I couldn't hear him and finally read his hand signals and understood what he wanted me to do. I asked him if everybody was out, and he said yes. It was at that point that I looked up and followed the smoke trail back out of the forced LZ and pointed to Ron that I was going into the tree line. You could hear rounds going off, and I had no idea if it came from the wood line or just rounds cooking off from the fire in Y-2.

He shook his head, pointed back to the aircraft, and let me know by the look on his face that I was to reass our own. I can never remember being torn between two things so much in my life. Even now. But Dave Jackson had driven home to me that my first commitment was to my aircraft and my crew.

But then, he was the one out there in the bush who could possibly still be alive; and "I" was just leaving him there. But if I didn't do my job on my own ship, I could be endangering my crew and the two pilots we had just rescued. Therefore I remounted, cleared my M-60, and sprayed the wood line with 7.62 rounds until we cleared the LZ.

I looked down at one of the pilots on the floor; I'm not sure which one as their faces were both burned black. I think he tried to halfway smile, and I gave him a thumbs up and told him to hang on. Quan Loi was only about a ten-minute flight when you had a UH-1H rolled over skimming the treeline.

The copilot of our bird, WO Scotty Louden, was making all the radio calls; Ron and I were watching for ground fire and other aircraft, and Herb was flying his ass off back to Quan Loi, where a medivac team was waiting for us. We unloaded both pilots, hovered over to a place out of the way, and shut the bird down.

It was then that we (the crew) got to talk to each other and talk about what the hell happened. We also inspected 37deuce and found a couple of holes, one in the tail boom and one in the sink elevator. Very minor damage to the aircraft, indeterminal damage to our phyches. I asked Ron what had happened to Ras, and he said Ras had jumped also.

As they say, hindsight is always twenty-twenty; and I started beating myself up about not going back into the bush for the crew members. Then, while flying back to Tay Ninh to get the bullet holes repaired so we could fly back up to the AO (Area of Operations), I got the shakes. Ron tried telling me there was nothing that either of us could have done and that I had made the right decision.

But nothing anyone could say, if it had been my own mother, would have helped the feeling that I had just deserted my two buddies, my hooch mates. David Jackson had only days before found out he was the father of a boy that he and his wife had named Bryan. John Rassmussen had, in the last few days, gotten a "Dear John" letter from either his girl or his wife, I just can't remember which; but we all did our best to lift his spirits and at the same time congratulate Jack on his new son. Both entailed over imbibing.

I guess I was in shock and thinking that I might have saved them; I went to my bunk and just laid down on it. One of the older first platoon gunners said he'd take my flight back up to Bu Dop, but I have no idea what I said. I don't know if I slept that night. If I did, it was fitful; and I was waking constantly. I never thought it would end. And, at the same time, I dreaded the coming dawn. Not only did I not have the courage to go back to look for Dave or John in the LZ, but I couldn't even mount my own aircraft to finish the mission that day.

I finally started flying again in two or three days; I'm not sure how many. Ron and I were awarded Bronze Stars w/V device, our two pilots the DFC, all happening a few weeks later. I felt mine was undeserved or misdirected, and I almost decided to take punishment rather than be decorated. I think the ceremony was temporarily postponed due to looking for me. I'd gone to get a hair cut on orders from my platoon sergeant, PSG Whaley. But I was quite despondent.

So the only real coward I ever met while I was in Vietnam, I have to look at in the mirror every morning. My CE, Ron Leffingwell, passed away almost ten years ago due to multiple cancers. My AC, CW David Herbert, died about two years ago of a stroke. He was still flying. Doing spray missions for a county up in New Jersey. I did get to talk to him a couple of times before he died, but I missed finding Ron until about five months after he had died, through a good buddy who was in the same unit, Charlie Rains. Charlie was instrumental in my joining the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association. You see, he's the Executive Director. And I try to stay in touch with Scotty, but I don't think I try hard enough.

I'm not quite sure if I'll ever get past this. And I'm not writing this for any replies saying I did or did not do the right thing. This is only for me to judge. But I do know that Charlie has heard from Bryan, Dave Jackson's son. If he (Bryan) should read this, I only hope he believes I did what I did because I was a FNG and a scared twenty year old, half way around the world in a strange land. My only wish is that I could have done more. My only memory is that I didn't.

(Sgt David Jackson's and Specialist John Rassmussen's bodies were found by elements of the 1st Air Cavalry Division sometime in December of 1969. The above operation took place Nov 7, 1969. My daughter was born on December 21, 1969. This is simply to show the ambiguities a young combat soldier has to deal with in a life and death situation. And we judge ourselves harshest many times over in the course of a lifetime. Sometimes never coming to any type closure.)

Copyright © January 23, 2002, By Michael Powell, All Rights Reserved