"One of our planes just got shot down!"Remembrances of war
It was Veterans Day, 11 Nov 1966, when my mission, along with others, was to fly tons of ammunition into Dau Tien, the western-most point of The Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold north of Saigon. The U.S. Army was building a base camp right in the heart of enemy territory.
After Capt. Dick Engel rolled down the take-off runway at Dau Tien, we followed and taxied onto the runway for take-off. Prior to rolling, we heard Engel transmitting the following:
“They’re shooting at us! They’re shooting at us! Getting hit, getting hit! Turning back, turning back! Clear the runway, clear the runway!” I taxied off the runway.
Capt. Engel continued: “They’re still shooting at us! They’re still shooting at us! On fire! On fire! Smoke in the cockpit! Smoke in the cockpit! Can’t see, Can’t see! Going in, going in!” Dick’s radio fell silent.
During World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the best laid battle plans last only until the first shot is fired. He was right again. The military trains us all extensively, but not all situations and circumstances can be taught. When the shooting starts, if we did not already know we would find out who and what we are — and quickly.
I told my crew that I felt that we should go out there and help Dick’s crew. The co-pilot said, “You go, we go.” The Load Master said, “Capt. Brown, I really want to go. The Load Master on that plane is my roommate.” Shutting down our engines, I hopped off the aircraft and flagged down a passing jeep. I told the private driving the jeep that I needed to borrow his vehicle. He asked, “Where do you need to go, Captain?”
“One of our planes just got shot down, and I want to drive out to the crash site and help the crew.”
“We’ll get there faster if I drive Captain. Hop in, sir.”
I sent our Flight Mechanic, Sgt. Coffin, who was from the Boston area, back on board to get our fire extinguisher; then, since we were the only two planes in the area, I told the driver to drive straight down the runway. When we turned onto the runway, we could see the burning aircraft. Capt. Engel, of the 19th Air Commander Squadron, had lined up perfectly with the runway, but had crash-landed about 20 or 30 yards short. The left engine was on fire, and there is a lot of fuel very near that engine, so there was the possibility of a huge explosion any moment. About 15 to 20 yards short, I told the driver, “This is close enough.”
Before the jeep stopped, I hopped out, ran and hopped onboard the burning aircraft while Sgt. Coffin ran to the burning engine. I wanted to make certain there was no one still on board, and because one fire extinguisher will not douse an engine fire unless the fuel valves were shut off, it was essential to ascertain that all the fuel valves had been shutoff. Otherwise, a fuel-fed fire will continue even after one fire extinguisher had been spent, and the plane would then blow.
Although Dick could not see, he had done a superb job of shutting down all the fuel valves. As I hopped down from the aircraft, Sgt. Coffin had control of the burning engine, and there was an Army Major rushing up to me. He was the Army Base Camp Commander. Reading my nametag, he said, “Capt. Brown, I ran out along the tracks of the jeep to shake your hand, and tell you that was the most courageous thing I had ever seen in combat.” He also said that, “We are standing in a mine field. We cleared and mined it just yesterday. Tell your men to step only where they see a footprint.”
After doing that, I looked around for Capt. Engle. When I saw him walking out of the bushes behind the now-smoking aircraft and, walking in his footprints, I went to him. When I was just two steps away, he fell to one knee and sobbed into both hands. I knelt beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. As I waited for him to regain his composure, I visually scanned the far bushes hoping that the Army troops were prepared to fire at any movement in those bushes. My sidearm was a .38 caliber police special revolver. It held only six bullets, but I kept the hammer on an empty chamber for safety, so I had only five bullets. Not much firepower against a Viet Cong AK-47 — or three.
Although still in shock, when Dick had stopped sobbing, I told him of our predicament. Telling him to step only in my footprints, I led him to the jeep. Once there, the Base Camp Commander suggested that I tell the driver to not turn around, but to back the jeep along the tracks made driving out. He was the ranking officer on scene, and the driver was one of his men, but to this day, I appreciated that he was allowing me to continue to control the situation, which I had initiated. He simply observed. That was excellent leadership on his part; it was a learning moment for me.
When I asked the private driving the jeep if he could back his jeep along the tracks made driving out, he asked “With which eye closed, sir?” As both crews loaded up the jeep, the private placed his left hand on the running board and, leaning far enough to see his rear tire, he slowly backed towards the runway, never straying from the established tracks. The major and I walked along the jeep’s tracks. When he got back onto the runway, the driver displayed a release of energy by flooring the jeep for 10 or so yards, then turning it abruptly 90 degrees. Looking at me, I gave him a vibrant thumbs up.
As the major walked me back to our aircraft, he shared that as he had watched Dick Engle’s aircraft get shot up, then turn back towards the base camp, his heart sank. He worried that it was going to crash and burn close enough to explode all 20 tons of ammunition we had flown in so far. It was still stacked up alongside the runway, a short distance away, and had yet to be dispersed. He shared how relieved he was to see us speeding down the runway towards the aircraft. The way he saw it, our actions had prevented the aircraft from exploding, thereby saving his Base Camp from being destroyed by tons of exploding ammunition.
He felt that we had saved many lives, including his. (And ours as well, I thought.)
He said that he was going to recommend us for The Airman’s Medal for Heroism. That medal is higher than The Distinguished Flying Cross, and just a step or two down from The Medal of Honor. It is awarded only when, during combat, one risks his life in an effort to save another’s life. Quite a huge honor!
Prior to climbing onto our aircraft to continue our day’s missions, I saluted the major. He didn’t want a salute; he wanted a handshake instead.
The very next day, when I reported to the early morning squadron briefing, Major MacCarthy congratulated me on the immensely impressive recommendation that the Army Major had already sent in. He vigorously shook my hand and told me how impressed he was over my spontaneous, courageous actions.
I had only done what anyone would have done, given the circumstances. I saw it as just another day at war. So I was not even upset when an AF Academy graduate, through whom all the award recommendations flowed, came to my side as I was drawing that day’s route on my flight chart, and whispered, “Don’t expect to ever see so prestigious a medal coming your way. I don’t think you deserve anything that high. So you ran into a minefield and jumped onto a burning airplane. The plane didn’t blow up, and you didn’t step on a land mine, so what’s the big deal?” (The Army Base Camp Commander had expressed that the plane not blowing up was the big deal.
“Whatever you say, Ted,” was all I said as I, ignoring him, continued to prepare my navigation chart for the mission at hand. Yesterday was yesterday; today is today! Men at war, and now women, as well, must survive that war a day at a time. And each day contained miles to go before we slept.
My experiences in Vietnam made me a very decisive individual. I set foot on American soil in 1967 determined to figure out how to become financially independent by eventually going into business for myself. I did not want my future, or my family’s, to depend upon the disposition of others. In essence, I wanted to succeed, or fail, by my own capabilities or inadequacies; not someone else’s will and whimsy. My determination to not give satisfaction to those who would love to see me fail still defines me to this day.
Happy Veterans Day!