From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

One Hell of a Plan

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey had been playing for about twenty minutes when my gunner tapped me on the shoulder and told me my ACs (Aircraft Commanders) wanted me at OPs (the operations hut).

I was a member of a helicopter team from the 176th AVN, a company of Hueys based out of Chu Lai. Our twoship team worked with Special Forces units, taking them into and getting them out of often risky places.

When I got to OPs, the two ACs, Warrant Officers Connors and Rodriguez, were listening to a distress call from a three-man Special Forces team, code name Montana, deep in the A Shau Valley, “The Valley of Death.”

The SF team was in deep trouble. Exhausted and with one wounded, they were under heavy pursuit by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army. The voice on the radio was tense, whispering coordinates and asking for help. They needed an extraction, through a triple-canopied, three-hundred-foot-high jungle—now.

My ACs turned to me as if to ask, “Do we go?”

What the hell, I thought, I didn’t understand that movie anyway.

The A Shau was called the “Valley of Death,” because it is thick jungle about a half mile wide with six-thousand-foot mountains along each side. If you flew at treetop level to evade small arms fire from below, you were fired upon from both mountainsides. If you flew at altitude, you were a target for the radar-controlled thirty-seven-millimeters stationed throughout the valley. It was a bad place to be, especially in the middle of the night.

We lifted off into a moonless sky. The sky, the trees, everything was black. Using a treetop zigzag search pattern, we instructed the SF team to use only single-word directions like “west” and “north” to indicate where we were in relation to them. They were on the run, trying to evade the enemy and find an open hole in the sky where we could get to the ground and pick them up.

Communication was difficult. The enemy was so close that the Special Forces team couldn’t speak above a whisper, if at all. They couldn’t pop smoke or flash a light.

Finally locating them, we hovered around over their heads looking for a place to land when the radio voice warned, “Pull away, you’re bringing them in on us. PULL AWAY!”

We flew off quickly as small arms fire erupted below. In our attempt to rescue them, we had marked their location for the enemy.

The beleaguered team moved fast, escaping the enemy and letting us know they were still alive. Then my AC instructed them, “Key your mike twice when we are over you.” (Keying a microphone means pushing the button but not speaking; it makes no sound on the transmitting radio, but makes a “click” in the receiving radio.)

We pinpointed the team once more, flew a few hundred yards away from their position and hovered, as if that were their location. It worked; the enemy moved in our direction, away from the team.

“Minuteman, you are about three hundred yards to our south,” a voice whispered over our headphones.

“Roger that, we’re going to make some noise over here while our sister ship comes in for you. Can we land?”

“Negative. We’re in a small crater,” came the whispered reply. “There is a hole in the canopy, but not LZ [landing zone] room.”

“Can you move to an LZ?”

“Negative. They are all over us.”

AC Connors clicked his mike button twice, to signal: transmission received. He did not have words to respond. We were close, but couldn’t get to them; we couldn’t help.

“We have a rope,” came over the radio from our sister ship.

“Say again?” asked Connors.

“We have a rope on board,” repeated Rodriguez. A quick conversation ensued between the two ACs.

Our ship would fake a rescue and draw enemy fire, while our sister ship dropped a rope through the blackness of a narrow, three-hundred-foot long shaft of jungle canopy in an attempt to pull three men straight up from the jungle floor.

It was a foolish plan; we all knew it couldn’t work. Even if they found this small hole in the jungle and lowered a rope—if we weren’t shot all to hell in the attempt—the weight of the three men would be too much for a UH-1C to lift straight up at such a high hover.

Yeah, it was a hell of a plan—but it was all we had.

“Montana, we are dropping you a rope,” Rodriguez transmitted. “Give us a vertical light flash when we are over your location.” Our ship hovered in the distance in an attempt to draw the enemy, while Rodriguez did a slow zigzag over the area. “I have three red flashes,” Rodriguez said.

“Roger, three red,” the SF leader replied.

Rodriguez’s crew chief secured one end of the rope to the floor of his ship, then tied an empty five-gallon water can to the other. The Montana team flashed another quick signal and the can was tossed into the darkness.

Ditching their heavy radio, the SF team gripped the lifeline as Rodriguez started lifting them up and out through the narrow throat of jungle forest. Suddenly, small arms fire erupted everywhere. The thick night air was full of green tracers and the sound of chopper blades.

Then the rope snapped. The SF team fell back through the trees into the darkness, their lifeline becoming a death sentence for Rodriguez’s ship. The rope had wrapped itself around their main rotor and the ship was shaking itself apart.

“We lost them!” yelled Rodriguez over the radio. “I’m losing power! I’m going down!”

Somehow, Rodriguez kept his ship in the air and headed toward the nearest airfield. “Tower, this is Minuteman Two Niner, we have a bird in trouble. We are coming in maximum, running landing, clear the airfield. Stand by emergency.”

Helicopters have skids, not wheels. A running landing is a very dangerous maneuver. You have no control. You hit the ground at one hundred knots, slide, flip, roll, crash and burn—or don’t. And if his main rotor stopped turning before Rodriguez got his ship on the ground, he would simply fall out of the sky.

They hit the ground, hard. The skids spread under the strain of the impact. The helicopter slid across the ground as the main rotor locked up, almost flipping their ship over.

We landed about thirty yards away just in time to see Rodriguez and his crew run from their smoldering UH-1C. They were safe!

No one said much during the flight back to our home base. Our crew was alive and, for that, we were grateful. But we’d lost the Special Forces team. We had picked them up and then dropped them through three hundred feet of trees. Rodriguez had been going down; we had to go after him. No one talked about it, but we all knew. They were dead.

But what else could we have done—stayed looking for them? Once the rope had broken, we’d lost contact with the SF team. If the fall hadn’t killed them, then our hovering around would only have brought the enemy in. Plus, there had been no place to land, no more rope, no more options.

Some rescue.

This one was hard, the kind of thing that you stuff deep inside. You can’t have feelings and survive a war. “It don’t mean nothing,” as they say. But it did.

Several days later, I heard someone calling to me from across the flight line. It was Mike, my AC, coming toward me.

“They walked out!” he yelled.


It was true. Three days after we’d dropped them through the trees, the Special Forces team had walked out of the A Shau—one with a broken arm from the fall, but all three alive. By pulling them out of the crater by rope, we had managed to move them a few hundred yards from where the enemy had believed them to be. They had fallen back into the jungle and hid. Our departure had fooled the enemy into thinking the team had been rescued, so they’d called off the search.

And they’d walked out of the Valley of Death!

Yeah, it had turned out to be one hell of a plan.

Ronald C. Williams

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