I had been in vietnam for 51 days. With about 5 hours sleep, I woke up and began to prepare for a busy day at the flight line. I grabbed my shaving kit and towel and headed for the shit-and-shower shack, ...stopping briefly at the door of my hooch (private bedroom cubicle) to rub the Christmas package from home; 1 more day and I could open it; That would help make the day special; Who knows, it might be my last Christmas. I went and took care of my morning constitution, showered and shaved. Someone had tacked a popular poster of an almost nude Raquel Welsh on the wall in front of the unpetitioned bench of toilet seats. Our waste was collected below the seat holes in 55 gal drums cut in half, and were pulled out the back of their bins daily and burned with the help of our vehicles' & helicopters' fuel. I wondered if any fellow Brothers would be on someone's shit list and have the honor on Christmas day of being on the burning detail. Back at my hooch I got dressed, primping my uniform a bit because I was still an F N G (fucking new guy), I still cared about primping and didn't yet know better. On the way out to go to work I again rubbed my hand across the Christmas package from home.
Walking to our mess-hall that was made out of clapboards over 4'-centered 4x4's and roofed with corrugated tin, the air was new with the smell of bread and pies being baked for Christmas the next day. The smell of pies and bread was mixed with the sweet pungent smells of jet fuel, oils and exhaust from our helicopter operations, and the signature odor of fires, mosquito coils and fishy gasses ...that were vietnam just about everywhere you went.
Our Mess Sergeant and Cooks were unsung heroes. Breakfast was good and hearty at our homebase; ... occasionally not the case at our combat forward base near the Cambodian border, although our Mess Sergeant and Cooks did one hell of a good job with what they had the few times that what they had was a bit skosh. At breakfast I began to mentally inventory last night's maintenance work on the helicopters and surmising what their status would be when I got to the flight line. As soon as I had arrived in country I spent almost every night crawling all over the Hueys to learn their every nut, bolt, washer and rivet. I was commended and asked to be our platoon's Maintenance Liason Officer. 2 weeks later was asked to "volunteer" to be the platoon's mission flying Maintenance Officer / test pilot (M.O.) ...to replace another M.O. whose tour in vietnam was ending soon. I was still gung-ho, a FNG fresh out of a year of gung-ho flight school; But the bigger truth was that I wanted to know the Huey like the back of my hand, as that could play a big part of keeping my young ignorant butt alive; And I dearly loved that Huey and wanted to know her every nut-and-bolt and how she did the phoenominal things she did. It was a very real love affair for most combat pilots (and thousands of Soldiers whose butts she pulled out of the fire daily) that few other people would ever understand.
I had worked late the previous night into wee hours of the morning in the team effort trying to the point of exhaustion to get airworthy as many Hueys as possible for the next day's quota requested by higher commands. Even now I was getting up with about 5 hours sleep after most of the flight crews had departed for their daily flights and the maintenance day shift was already at work. I hoped the coffee in the mess-hall's giant serving thermoses would still be reasonably warm since the last refill. As was common, we had to often let some of the ships go fly that would not have been released in civilian life ... but well within the very good safety parameters the army quite appropriately set for vietnam. Safety margins would regularly try our duty and responsibility, and cause some conflict with higher commands who's job was to provide helicopters for our Brothers on the front combat "lines", ....such challenges I would profoundly learn well before my year tour in veitnam was done.
Christmas Eve was evolving as a rather normal day, a bit more relaxed than normal in anticipation of opening our Christmas packages from home and the baking bread and pies that were sweetening the air, and the lighter combat missions slate common to Christmas. Later in the day, after making my status inspection rounds in all the maintenance shops and offering each of the Men there a personal contact to vent any concerns and troubles, ...I even had time to pick a few tunes at my desk on an old guitar that had somehow wound up around the maintenance area along with a banjo ....with a few of us guys able to pick a few tunes.
My picking was halted as I heard a growing swell of distant shouting and voices that I had already learned meant something of immediate importance was occuring somewhere on the flight line. So I put the guitar down, donned my cap and headed out to see what was occuring. I was met by one of our maintenance-chief Captains rushing in the front door of our office shack, a bit short of breath, ... announcing that one of our ships had crashed near Dalat, about a 45 minute flight away. He said all he knew was that the ship had crashed and burned and soldiers on the ground were searching for any survivors. With no waste of time the captain loaded a Huey up with supplies, armament and crew, ...and headed out to investigate the crash.
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It is amazing how loud commotion and noise of war will give way to surreal "silence" when the tasks and noise of hyper actions subside; and just how distant jet helicopters could be heard and felt in such silence. The air in vietnam was always being pounded by helicopters (and distant bombs and artillery most of the time) no matter where you were; and the countless helicopters in the skies of vietnam could be heard and felt several miles away. Seldom was no helicopter heard; only the number and volume would change, which almost every combat soldier learned to guage for various reasons as most combat jobs revolved around helicopters and how far away they were from arriving. Those distant helicopter sounds were prominant in the silence of awaiting to hear more about the fate of our Brothers that had crashed. I was a FNG and it was my first exposure to this inevitable reality.
The few of us remaining M.O.'s were left to run maintenance, ... and to deal with the silence ... in rounding up the records and whatever details we could around the maintenace shacks about our Huey that crashed; it would be needed by the investigators. Burned? .......It would be a long and uncomfortable day.
As a few of our ships began to end short days and return home, some had already heard amongst themselves on their radios about the crash; One of the crews radioed an official message to us that they got from our investigators at the crash site: "No survivors".
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I knew 2 of the crewmen rather well that crashed that day. The Aircraft Commander Jim "Ozzie" Ozbun was thought by most of us to be among our very best pilots; He had already flown what was supposed to be his last flight in vietnam before going Home; But he volunteered for this one extra flight to bring some Soldiers in from the field for Christmas. Ozzie had delivered me and the rest of our crew and 8 Infantry "Grunts" out of very heavy gunfire only several days earlier ... with piloting skills bordering on impossible and beyond my comprehension as a FNG. 3 of our Hueys in tight formation, without gunships support, had just landed in a small clearing in the junge to pick up 3 squads of an Infantry patrol, when all hell of an enemy ambush broke out trying to take out our Hueys along with the Infantrymen. The Infantrymen clambered aboard our Hueys which lifted those "Grunts" safely out of the immediate ambush fire-fight; Our's was the last Huey out in trail formation; But it was quickly discovered that 3 of the Infantrymen had gotten separated and pinned down on the ground in the hail of gunfire and didn't make it into one of our ships. Our ship already had 5 of the Infantrymen aboard; The Huey was designed to lift 7 fully equipped Infantrymen, but we knew most Hueys would lift 10, sometimes 12. Ozzy announced to the crew on the intercom, "Guys ... we gotta go back in and get them"; which we all replied yes without hesitiation. Ozzy informed our other 2 ships as he made an aerobatic 180 degree turn back into the ambush to find and pick up the Brothers that had been left behind. Our 2 other Hueys in the mission took on gun-ship roles, ...and circled the LZ at tree-top altitude, Doorgunners blazing machine gun fire at the bad guys, ...while Ozzie found the good guys pinned down and sat the Huey down right next to them ... between them and the nearest bad-guys' machine gun fire so our right-side door Gunner could provide fire-power while the good guys clambered into our Huey; THUMP THUMP THUMP, the last guy in pounded on the floor signaling us through the noise of the engine, transmission, rotor blades, gunfire and screaming ...that they were all onboard; ... "GO GO GO" I heard their screams bleeding into the Crew Chief's microphone as he said "we're up" (ready in the back to takeoff) ....and damned if Ozzy hadn't already yanked us into the air at the sound of the first THUMP, and again left me in awe with his impeccable and instantaneous planning, timing and aerobatic skill getting our very heavy Huey out of there. Infantrymen in the back are not strapped-in and have very little to hold onto on that slippery aluminum floor, ...so especially in aerobatic maneuvers the pilot has to keep all controls perfectly coordinated so that the G-force gravity remains perpendicular to the floor ...lest someone not strapped-in slides out. Good pilots feel this dynamic gravity in the seat of their pants; And Ozzy was among the very best. When one pilot is flying (FP), the other pilot (non-flying-pilot ... NFP) monitors the instruments and has his hands lightly on the controls in case the flying pilot becomes incapacitated (or when a FNG is flying) , ....and the NFP applies slight resistance on the collective stick (power control) when max limits of certain instruments' have been met, so the flying pilot can feel that slight resistance as a cue along with the NFP simply announcing on the intercom the instrument(s) that have reached their limit such as "N1" / "torque" / "RPM". I had announced N1 and torque to Ozzie ....and I watched in amazement as the RPM held steady and the torque needle dipped into the red danger arc for exactly the amount of time it was allowed to be there before watching it ease back down to it's normal limit under Ozzie's expert touch. It was the first time I heard the Huey's banshee moan when all of the engine power is dumped onto the limits of the transmission and held there. FNG learns; especially the thrill of amazement and remaining "calm" under a heavy dose of adrenaline and it's endorphine high.
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In my short time in vietnam I had become rather close to Kenny, one of the Door Gunners that lost his Life that Christmas day. I had recently helped his best friend Joe / "Slim", the crew chief for the ship, touch up the ship's name "Born Free" and American Flag painted on her nose. Being an artist I was using that skill around the company area to integrate into the company. (To make the opportunity to get to know the Sidekick Gunship crews, ...I had touched up a pair of our rocket pod cans that had been previously painted like Coors cans, and I painted another pair like Budweiser cans). Slim and Kenny were already one of the most concientious and best ship crews even though they had not been there very long; working together every night until Born Free was meticulously cleaned and put to bed clean, resupplied and safe. I had sat with them just the night before drawing a picture of their ship for them, during a break while waiting for their ship to come out of maintenance inspections & testing for Slim's write-ups that day for an oil leak and slow trend of declining max power readings (both of which were found to be within allowable limits). Slim was quiet concerned about his ship that night; Premonition amplified by combat experience is not uncommon in war, and is paid attention to. My job (and that of 8 other maintenance officers and NCO's) was to make sure our ships got thoroughly checked and ensure the Crews of same when they were concerned. ------- I spent allot of time getting to know the Men in the crews that worked under us in maintenance; And doing so encroached upon 2 "rules" we had been taught: Don't make close friends and Officers don't fraternize with the Enlisted Men. Our Commanding Officer understood the value of careful "fraternization", and was liked for his understanding command style. Neither I nor a few others understood as well as the C.O. did; 'nuff said. FNG learns.
When we first learned of the crash I thought that Slim was onboard as the regular Crew Chief; But we soon learned from the records that another Crew Chief was crewing "Born Free" that day. Since I knew Kenny and Slim quite well and worked with them almost every day; I went to the commanding officer and asked permission to be able to find and inform Slim of his best friend's death. In flight school we were taught that officers the closest to men effected by a death was good protocol to inform them; which now made uncomfortable sense. Not being the most sought after duty, and certainly with some compassion, my request was approved.
Checking around the barracks looking for Slim, the few guys there said they thought he had gone to the Cam Ranh beach. But I learned from the Orderly Room sign-in/out roster that he had gone to the dentist. In either case I knew he might be in the Enlisted Men's Club by now, ... and if he wasn't, he would most likely be eventually. He wasn't there. So I sat down to wait with 2 double Wild Turkey & Cokes. Several of our Men came to the table to sit and chat, but I wanted time by myself to think. This first duty for me of this kind was not going to be as "easy" as we passed such things off in flight school, caring not to think about such things too much. FNG gets some more exposure to the rapid schedule of lessons in vietnam.
Before I finished staring into, stirring and sipping the first drink, Slim arrived and said he heard I was looking for him. I gestured to a chair and Slim sat down. I looked into his eyes for a clue whether he knew about the crash; Obviously whoever sent him either didn't know (slight chance) or had also passed the duty on to me. I ordered Slim 2 double wild turkey cokes and me another. As usual we clicked glasses and toasted a heavy pull. The whiskey had entered my blood with a new meaning it still has to this day (and why I am usually careful with it). Looking up from inside my drink, I shot the rest of it down and again looked into the Chief's eyes; My words slowly came out with some strained difficulty but surprisingly direct: "I'm really sorry Slim, but Born Free crashed today ..........there were no survivors." Without going into details here, Slim had normal moments of denial, emotions, and then began to blame me, maintenance, safety, the war, God, himself,.... and he brushed the drinks off into the floor with his arm and got up and left. I don't think he ever talked to me again in any manner of friendship (until just recently after 35 years, and we are now very close). ----- Yet another lesson for the FNG.
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That Christmas day was not the special day we anticipated, for any of our Brothers, ...not even with the pies and grand spread military mess-halls always manage to lay out on Thanksgiving and Christmas, even in war. I did not open my Christmas package from home until over a week later; Some of our other Brothers delayed opening theirs too.
After an extensive 2 month crash investigation it was determined that the ship showed no signs of malfunction and had been developing full rated power when it crashed, ...hitting and sliding down power lines for some distance before flipping inverted, crashing and burning. Thanks to the vigilance of the Maintenance Officer I would be replacing when he soon went home, ....he found the evidence of gunfire upon the ship in the crash site wreckage. The Crash Investigation Report reported all occupants were Killed In Action due to hostile enemy fire. Slim continued to intimate that he blamed maintenance safety margins, himself, and certainly the filthy war of no apparant purpose.
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I ask that every Christmas you to take a moment to remember and honor this young crew of very brave mean who left their homes to do what they thought was their duty, ... along with 60,000 other American boys / Men and girls / Women, ... who gave their all, in most part to allow us to be able to enjoy Christmas and our ways of Life in whatever manners we might.
IN THE HIGHEST OF VERY SPECIAL HONOR TO:
CW2 JIM "OZZIE" OSBUN, 21 years old.
The Aircraft Commander.
WO1 ROGER ROSS, 22 years old.
The Pilot In Command.
SP4 , LEE BROOKS, 23 years old.
Acting Crew Chief / Door Gunner.
SP4 , KENNY DEVORE, 18 years old.
------- May they rest in eternal Peace with the highest of Honor -----------