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Note: Gen. Brady’s full account of his extraordinary rescue operations is included in his newly reissued book, “Dead Men Flying,” a riveting tale from America’s most decorated living soldier. Get it autographed!
Over the years I have read various accounts of the rescue missions for which I became one of two soldiers in Vietnam to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, our second-highest award. None is completely accurate, including the official Medal of Honor citation itself, not to mention the exaggerations of my heroism. At the time, some criticized my flying on these missions as irresponsible; it was outside the regulations but necessary and in no way reckless. What follows is what actually happened on those missions and how I discovered the techniques that made them possible.
The changes between my 1964 tour in Vietnam as a helicopter ambulance, or “Dust Off,” pilot and my second tour – from 1967 to 1968 – were monumental and frightening. “Dust Off” had gone from 16,000 troops supported to some 500,000, and from 4,000 patients carried per year to more than 7,000 per month. Helicopters and crew losses were alarming. And Mother Nature was killing more than Charlie (from Viet Cong, phonetically, Victor Charlie). Three of our pilots from the 54th Helicopter Ambulance Detachment, which I brought to Chu Lai in August 1967, preceded us to Vietnam. All three were killed at night, two hitting mountains during bad weather. Chu Lai was full of mountains, and the weather was brutal.
I was scared to death. Charlie worked the graveyard shift and used the terrain and weather very well. There were casualties day and night in weather. We had to fly in those conditions or troops would die. But how? Our pilots were inexperienced – 10 of 12 were two months out of flight school – but eager. They would push themselves for a wounded soldier, increasing the risks, almost certainty, of death or accident.
I am a person who wears my faith on my sleeve. We are often warned not to discuss politics or religion – but why not? What is more important? Since my youth I have been in the habit of talking to God – often casually and not always in a prayerful way, but intensely, during stressful and dangerous situations. I had a serious dialogue with Him as I matched our experience with the mountains and weather at Chu Lai. Many of the troop locations were on mountaintops often enveloped by clouds or in valleys covered with a dense, solid ground fog resembling a 500-foot snow bank. These were zero-zero conditions, and there were no let-down facilities in the mountains. To make matters worse, we were to go operational during the monsoon season. OK, Lord, how do we do it?
Weather was not our initial problem, however; that was Charlie. Our first operational day we had one ship shot up, on the fourth day two more, and on the fifth day, all six ships were shot up and three crewmen seriously wounded. My first tour was semi-war; this was war. But as bad as the first week was – and despite the fact that it was monsoon season – no one was killed, and we did not have to face the dreaded night weather pickup. That came the second week.
The call came on 2 October late at night in the middle of a violent tropical storm. Several units of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Division, the famed Screaming Eagles, had suffered numerous casualties and were surrounded deep in the mountains to our west. All Army aircraft had been grounded. I knew the wounded must have been extremely serious or they would not have called us in such conditions. We headed out into that blizzard using a method that worked my first tour. We flew as low and slow as possible sighting lights from villages to our front and, with the crew in back leaning out the doors, keeping in sight some lights from villages behind us. Working the mountains at night in weather is like running through a dark room with huge razors jutting down from the ceiling and up from the floor. The key was to always have a back door, an escape route; to never lose sight of either light as we hovered from light to light toward the mountains. It worked on the flat terrain on the coast, but as we neared the mountains, no joy, the front blacked out. As was my routine I began lamenting with God. OK, Lord, what now? Here I am, send me, but I need to know how. Why are You doing this to me?
Then I remembered a river to the north that circled into the valley. I was sure I could get down on the water and, using my search light, work my way in as we did in the Delta. But I had never encountered such rain or winds in the Delta. The rain was so fierce it blinded me as it reflected off my search light as the winds jerked us about. Still no joy. Then I had a vision, an epiphany really. Thank you, Lord.
On an earlier routine night mission into the valley, as dark figures darted back and forth loading the patients, I sat there absentmindedly enjoying the sights. In the security provided by the darkness I could actually relax and enjoy the bizarre beauty of night on the battlefield. The flares drifted lazily down through the mountains illuminating the charming landscape in multiple shades of green pierced with deadly but strangely beautiful green and golden streaks of tracer fire. In my reverie I noticed that one of the mountains, covered with clouds, was perfectly silhouetted by the flares – a stunning sight. That was the vision that came back to me, and I now knew how I was going to get those soldiers out. It would be dicey but doable.
Since most of our birds were still down, I was in a float aircraft, an under-powered D model Huey without a transponder. I called back and told operations to get me a more powerful H model with good instruments. Then I called the troops and told them to hang on, I would be back. The voice on the other end sounded depressed. He clearly did not believe me.
My plan was to fly instruments (IFR) to the pickup zone (PZ), using a vector from Peacock, an Air Force radar station. I would then let down using flares to clear the mountains and use my FM homer to find the troops. My hope was that the flares would silhouette the mountains or at least enough area around my bird to keep us safe. In the original Epiphany, the wise men had followed a star to our Savior. My star was a flare, and we would follow it to save those GIs.
I got a fresh copilot and we took the H model IFR to angels six (as I prayed for angelic help), giving us good clearance from the highest mountain in the area. There was an Air Force flare ship at 9,000 feet over the fight. He would provide the star. I explained to him what I wanted to do and asked for help. I got his roger and started down circling under the flares, working to position them out my window. Some of the flares got directly over us, and in my busyness I decided to let one hit me. After all it could not be worse than a tree. Wrong! As it got closer I saw a steel canister full of holes big enough to knock us out of the sky. I almost turned us upside down dodging it.
With all that going on, I forgot to tell the Air Force to keep a flare lighted at all times. I discovered this omission at 1,500 feet in 3,000-feet mountains when the lights went out. I was surrounded by razors. (Three years later a Dust Off crew would be killed when the flares went out while they were hovering up the side of a mountain.) You cannot crash into the sky, and there was nothing to do but come to a hover, not difficult in the H model, and start a steep Instrument Take Off (ITO), clear the mountains and start over. After a few tries we got it right, broke out on the side of a mountain and homed in on the PZ. We took heavy fire on final approach and circled to the other end of the PZ where we landed without mishap. We loaded nine patients and were informed of other patients in nearby locations. The storm had intensified, and we were being rocked about rather violently. But the visibility under the clouds in the valley, with the flares, was good, and we were able to find the wounded at several other sites. Once loaded, I did a steep ITO clear of the mountains and flew instruments to the coast where I was able to descend to the lights of Chu Lai and deliver the patients to the 2nd Surgical Hospital. On the way out we got an urgent call for more patients from another unit of the 101st.
On this trip we were able to get down more easily but could not locate the wounded. They were fearful that the enemy would see their signal and tried to guide us in by sound. The enemy could hear us also, but, as we flew blacked out, they could not see us and were firing wildly all over the sky. And that turned out to be a good thing. It was from the location and fire of enemy quad 12.7 mm antiaircraft guns that we were able to orient ourselves and find the patients.
But there were still more patients, so we returned. On the third trip, Peacock vectored us right into the eye of a thunderstorm. I had stumbled into one of these monsters in daytime. No matter how fearsome they look on the outside, there is nothing in the air as bad as the inside of one of those fiends. Up to this point I felt pretty much in control, but there was no control in that chaotic cloud. I have never been so violently abused in an aircraft before or since. We were gaining and losing thousands of feet, jerked back and forth with lightening flashing through the cockpit. When I brought this to Peacock’s attention he asked what we were. When I told him we were a chopper he moaned an expletive and vectored us out. We finished the evacuations, four trips in all, without further incident, although the bird had to be grounded and checked for structural damage.
I flew over nine hours the night and morning of 2-3 October 1967 and landed 12 times finishing about 4 a.m. I had a standard instrument ticket this tour and logged six hours of night AI – the first such entry on my flight records, although I flew AI day and night in the Delta my first tour. I don’t know how many casualties we carried that night, but they were all, as suspected, very serious, and many would have died before morning.
The troops were grateful for our help, and the new technique got a bit of media attention – much of it ill-informed. One book actually recorded that we flew the wounded back low level under the stuff! Others called it the first-ever IFR pickup in the mountains. Still others said it was blind letdown. It was not. I believe that most of the pilots killed at night in weather were killed trying to fly contact without sufficient visibility. Three Dust Off aircraft and 13 crewmen were destroyed in similar conditions later in October. This technique could have saved them. I used an IFR flight with a VFR (visual, not instrument flight) letdown, not a blind one. Never guessing, I always ensured that I was clear of the terrain, and I never descended one inch blindly.
What I had done was clearly outside the rules and not a few of my contemporaries were very critical of what I had done. No doubt had I broken the aircraft or hurt someone I would have been in serious trouble. As it turned out, I was put in for an award, initially a Distinguished Flying Cross that was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross when they discovered the mission was a first. More important, we could now save the night-weather patient. Thank you, Lord. But what about zero-zero weather in the daytime on the mountains and in the valleys? Flares don’t work in daylight.
A second epiphany
I solved that problem on a mission for a snakebite victim on a 2,400-foot mountaintop. When I saw that the PZ was engulfed with clouds from 1,400 feet up, I had a serious dialogue with God: OK, Lord, now what? Initially, I flew straight into the stuff and tried to hover up the mountain. I knew that if I got disoriented I could simply fall off right or left and I would break out in the valley. That happened several times. My crew was tense. Then the ground troops began screaming that the bitten soldier was going into convulsions. I had no idea how we were going to get that kid out. On what I promised my crew would be our last try, I became disoriented.
We were blown sideways, and I was looking out my side window for a place to go in when I discovered that I could see the tip of my rotor blade and the top of the trees under it. That wind was the breath of God. Another epiphany! I now had two reference points and knew I was right side up. I then turned that baby sideways, thanked God and the powerful H model, hovered up the mountain, focused on the blade and the tree tops, right into the PZ. The troops were delighted, and one of them shouted, “God bless you, Double Nickel (my radio call sign).” God certainly had blessed us, although I was a bit upset that He took so long to do it.
Again, what we had done was outside the rules – the R in IFR and VFR is “rules” – but no one challenged us, and we now had a solution for day-weather missions. What I had learned with the snakebite mission was that you can see in zero-zero conditions, not far but far enough. All that is needed is about 20 feet in a Huey, the distance from your window to the tip of the rotor blade. But you had to be able to see to the end of your rotor disc, and you had to have another reference point: a tree, bush or the ground. Nothing must ever come between your eyes and the tip of the rotor blade. And this mission could not be flown nose first; it had to be flown sideways. This was a straight VFR pickup, albeit in IFR conditions. I cautioned our pilots not to push themselves in either night or weather conditions, but to never leave a patient in the field under those conditions and to call me if necessary.
That is what happened on 6 January, the day of the Medal-of-Honor missions, which was supposed to be my day off. Two Vietnamese soldiers were seriously wounded deep in mountainous terrain at an isolated outpost appropriately called Lonely Boy. The valley was covered with fog about 400 meters deep, and the outpost was under attack. Other helicopters made seven attempts to get in before they called me. I found a mountain clear of the fog, came to a hover at about 2,000 feet and started hovering sideways on my predetermined path down through the fog toward the PZ, which I missed. That may have been a good thing, since the selected PZ was clearly registered by the enemy mortars. I landed in a confined area and loaded the patients.
On the way to the hospital we heard a lot of chatter from LZ West, just to our northwest. They had some 70 casualties in Hiep Duc Valley. Why aren’t they being evacuated? Many had been in the mud all night. I was told they could not be evacuated because of the fog and enemy action; others had tried. I was astonished, since fog and enemy fire are almost mutually exclusive. I headed out to LZ West, requesting the radio frequency and location of the casualties. They would not give it to me. I asked to speak with the brigade commander and landed at LZ West.
As diplomatically as a major can be with a colonel, I explained that we could get them out and needed to get on with it. In any event, there was no need for them to die without us trying. He said it was impossible; they had tried repeatedly and lost two choppers already. He walked away but must have spoke to some medics, who knew our capabilities. He then actually asked my copilot if I could make it. My copilot explained that we had just made a pickup in identical weather and had done so before. The colonel returned but warned me that they had counted 16 enemy 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns in the area. He would not lift the artillery and asked me to guide four other choppers in to expedite the evacuation. He finally gave me the frequency of the patients.
I had what we needed. The call sign was “Twister Charlie,” and the unit had been decimated. The wounded were near the base of LZ West, only minutes away. The four choppers followed me to the base of the fog and turned back. I hovered down the mountain at about 10 feet and stumbled over a uniformed North Vietnamese Army unit, but I was into the fog before they could hit us. We found the patients and loaded up. I don’t even remember begging God for help.
We did an ITO straight up through the fog emerging right at LZ West directly above us. We heard that the troops on LZ West broke into cheers when they saw our chopper emerge from the fog. The medical officer saluted as we landed, which was nice since he outranked all of us. We off-loaded our patients for back haul to a hospital and went back. Again the four choppers tried to follow and again they turned back. In all, we made four trips in and rescued all the wounded, 54 to 60, depending on who counted. The tragedy was that they didn’t call us the night before. Thereafter, the Hiep Duc Valley became known as Death Valley.
The other two missions for the Medal of Honor action were not unlike many Dust Off pickups. The next area was hot, and we were hit on the way in. The friendlies would not get off the prone, and we could not find the patients. We had to leave and check our bird, which was flyable. They agreed to get up and help us load. We went back and got the patients. The controls were damaged, and we got another bird for the next pickup in a minefield. Everyone had been wounded or killed. A previous Dust Off left the area when a mine exploded, killing two more troops. I saw where he had landed and knew if I could hit that spot I probably would not set off a mine with my skids or rotor wash. I hit the spot and my crew, who were real heroes, literally ran into the minefield and started loading the patients. Things were going well when, unfortunately, they set off a mine. It blew them so high in the air I feared they might hit the rotors. Shrapnel ripped into the side of our bird, and some of our lights turned crimson. Both crew members got up, one put out a fire in his pants, and finished loading. I am not sure why they both weren’t killed outright, but I think it was because they were carrying a large soldier on a litter who took most of the blast. I think he was already dead; one of his legs was bent 180 degrees under his body. We headed for the hospital at a low level so we would not have far to fall if things went bad.
We got another bird and continued the missions on into the night. The Medal of Honor citation credited us with 51 patients; we got at least 64 on the MOH missions plus 20 or so on other mission that day and night.
The 54th averaged one bird hit every four to five days, and 26 Purple Hearts for the 40 men. There were a lot of days like the day of the medal action. I am sure the missions in the fog, the safest of all we flew that day, were the impetus for the Medal of Honor, although the citation, and other accounts, inaccurately describes them. We did not descend “through heavy fog” or turn sideways “to blow away the fog with the back wash” from my rotor blades. How do you blow away fog? Where does it go? You can see in fog or clouds and fly as long as you can see two reference points. Most aviators don’t believe contact flight in such conditions is possible, and it is therefore illegal. Many soldiers are alive today because it is possible.
What was truly remarkable was that the original 54th never left a patient in the field, day or night, in any weather – and it carried more than 21,000 patients in nine months, probably more than any like unit ever. No one was killed, and we never lost an aircraft at night or in weather. God surely blessed this remarkable unit; He most certainly showed me the light, despite my doubts in the darkness and in the fog. I may have been a willing instrument, but He is the Author of those two awards that were the result of two epiphanies: one for flares and one for fog. Not surprisingly, the date of the Medal of Honor action was Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.