From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Boom Boom

In Vietnam, I served as a helicopter pilot with the A Company, Helicopter Assault Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. During the summer and fall of 1968, we spent an inordinate amount of time in an area called the A Shau Valley. We had two basic missions: performing combat assaults and resupplying the troops in the field. The days following a combat assault were known as “log days”: logistics missions where our helicopters brought supplies to the field troops. We carried out all the essentials needed to conduct a war. During these resupply missions, we also brought back the wounded and the dead.

The first thing we did on log day was land at the logistics point and load the aircraft with the material to be taken to the field positions. One memorable day, as we were being loaded, a small dog jumped into the back of the helicopter and settled among the boxes and bags as if he owned the place.

“What’s with the dog?” I asked the officer in charge of the loading detail. He explained that the dog was the mascot of the unit I was assigned to, and he always took the first log bird that went out to the troops in the field. He did, however, always manage to return on the last flight from the field to the base camp. Apparently, he didn’t want to spend his evenings in the A Shau Valley. I thought to myself that this dog had more sense than a lot of people. I asked the logistics officer what the dog’s name was, and he replied, “Boom Boom.”

As soon as we landed at our first site in the A Shau Valley, the dog leaped from the aircraft and was treated like a celebrity. There were smiles all around from the troops as they played with Boom Boom, and I felt that I had really done these people a favor. The dog was a definite morale boost.

As evening approached, we received a call from one of our units that they had a trooper who had been injured in an explosion and the resulting fire. This man needed an immediate medical evacuation. We proceeded to the location at our best speed. I felt quite calm at the time, because after nearly a year of doing this sort of mission, you learn not to become too involved emotionally with the wounded. My job as a pilot was to transport the injured soldiers to medical help as soon as possible, and not be distracted by their distress.

Since this young soldier’s injuries were quite severe, I had to take him to the nearest medic, who was in a forward base in the mountains bordering the A Shau Valley. Berchtesgaden was a difficult place to get into, mainly because of the updrafts and windy conditions. But the injured soldier needed immediate treatment. If he didn’t receive it, he might not survive the thirty-minute trip to the nearest hospital.

Just as we were loading our patient into the helicopter’s empty cargo bay, in jumped Boom Boom for the trip back to the rear area. I paid little attention to him since my thoughts were on the task at hand; I just knew Boom Boom was in the back with the wounded soldier.

Just before beginning the approach into Berchtesgaden, I looked back at our patient. The man was burned quite badly, and his arms and chest were blackened; but he was conscious, so, I motioned back at him to grab onto something, knowing that the trip was about to get very rough. He grabbed onto a support in the rear of the helicopter, and I started our descent.

I was having a very tough time controlling the aircraft. At one time, the collective control was bottomed out, which should have had us dropping like a rock, but instead of descending, we were climbing at five hundred feet per minute. I took a quick look at our patient. The burned trooper seemed to be doing okay. But, then, I caught sight of Boom Boom, and I was horrified: The little dog was slowly sliding toward the open cargo door! He was frantically trying to stop himself by digging his claws into the metal floor, but it wasn’t doing any good. He couldn’t hold onto anything.

I was powerless to save him. This friendly dog was going to go out the door of my helicopter and fall five hundred feet to his death in the jungle below. Instead of flying my aircraft with total concentration, I was staring at little Boom Boom, this dog that had done nothing but make people happy. I thought of the joy I saw on the faces of the men that morning when I brought their dog out for a visit. How could I face these people again? For me, this incident would probably be the last straw. After nearly a year of missions, in which I had heard the cries of the wounded and looked into the unseeing eyes of the dead, I was going to be emotionally destroyed by a small dog’s death.

Boom Boom was whining with fear and still struggling to save himself, but it was no use. Nothing he or I could do would prevent disaster.

Then, at the very moment Boom Boom was about to go flying out the cargo door, I saw a blackened arm reach out. The arm grabbed the flailing dog firmly and pulled him back from the edge.

I breathed an immense sigh of relief. “Thanks, trooper,” I whispered as I focused my mind back on the task of landing the helicopter. For the remainder of that roller-coaster landing, Boom Boom was held close to the blackened chest of a badly injured man who still had it in him to save a small but precious life.

As soon as we landed, the young trooper received medical attention from several skilled people. I was informed that he would remain at the forward base until the next day; he needed a lot of attention before he could make the ride back to a hospital. Boom Boom stayed with him. I guess the dog wasn’t about to risk another ride in my chopper, and I can’t say I blamed him.

James R. Morgan

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