I will never forget the day my observer, Buchanan (we called him "Blade"), got hit in the sand spit area. We had shot up some dinks there earlier in the day. The first flight had been with a Marine Corps liaison officer, who was not an experienced observer. We had basically ended up having to point everything out to him. He would get distracted by things, like watching a pig run, instead of shooting the bad guys.
Blade flew with me on the next mission. An infantry company was sweeping north along the coast, and wanted a Hunter-Killer team to scout an area before they entered it. We took off to the northeast with Bobby Zahn flying gun cover for me in a Huey "Hog" with 48 rockets. Zahn was a real rocket shooter. He didn't miss very often. As we headed out to the possible contact site, the operations officer called Zahn and told us to be careful. Bobby relayed the message and I popped off that I was too short not to be careful. I wasn't all that short, but I was trying to say something smart.
We came ripping up on this infantry company from behind. Their battalion commander was overhead in a C&C (Command and Control) chopper, telling them to get their asses moving. The company commander wanted an aerial recon. He wasn't sure what was in front of them, but said that it didn't look good to him. We went right on by them and over the front, then swung back around toward them. There were little clumps of brush dispersed all across the open sand spit area. The brush wasn't the kind of foliage that was supposed to be there. Blade opened up on a couple of bushes and took out two guys. The Vietnamese had little brush patches on their backs. They had dug fighting positions about two feet deep and bent over in them, and they looked like bushes growing on the sand.
I slid back over to the infantry and told them that the whole area on the other side of the berm where they were lying was full of people. The Charlie-Charlie (C&C) was pretty well pissed off, and still wanted them to movie out. The infantry started getting ready, but I told them to wait. I called the infantry battalion commander and told him that there were people right in front of his men. We wanted to mark the area with smoke before they moved out. The ground commander offered to give us a cover fire. I told him, "No." We needed to know when we were being shot at, but he should be prepared to get us out of there if something went wrong.
We headed back north, and were fifty meters in front of them before we started encountering the first bushes. We turned sideways, so that Blade could toss smoke. A bad guy jumped up to pop some caps at us. It started with a few isolated "Pops!" then rapid fire all around us. I was shouting at Blade to shoot, and hollering to Bobby Zahn that we were taking hits. I looked over at Blade, and he was slumped over in his seat. One of the first rounds had gone through Blade's visor and hit him just to the right of his nose, over his eye. The whole inside of the aircraft went blood-red. It took seconds, but seemed to last an eternity. Zahn later said that the whole ground appeared to light up under us. He rolled in and pumped all 48 rockets around us in one pass.
I wasn't flying my own aircraft that day, so there was no skid gun. I was watching Blade and holding down the trigger, and nothing was happening. I felt something slam into the side of my leg. A bullet had gone through the ammo can between the pilot and observer, continued on through the two AK-47 magazines I carried in my leg pocket, and lodged against the skin. I looked down at that instant and watched a bullet enter my pant leg just above the boot, then exit at my knee. It never touched me. Another bullet hit the same leg and left a nasty, bleeding cut. The whole cockpit was getting hot from the heat of the rounds passing through it. We were getting the hell kicked out of us. Then the whole instrument panel exploded. My face felt like someone had hauled off and slapped me with a wet towel. I started having trouble seeing.
We tried to get back to LZ Baldy, but were flying the wrong way. I could just make out a few things outside the aircraft, so we weren't flying totally blind. Bobby Zahn started talking us back as he flew the wing beside me. My eyes were really burning, and everything outside was hazy. The shield below the saddle fuel tank was supposed to drain gas away from the engine, but it was full of holes, and fuel was spilling everywhere. The gunship crew saw this and they knew that we were in bad shape.
About that time, Blade tried to sit up in his seat. He kept putting his foot down on his foot mike to talk, but I couldn't hear him. He could hear me. I told him to hold is head back and stop moving around. We would get him to safety. They finally talked us back to Baldy, I set the bird down at Baldy by compensating for lost tail rotor control. The two gunship door gunners got out and started towards us. I reached up to shut down the engine and it quit. We were out of fuel.