CHRISTMAS EVE 1970 - Air America - Ben A. Van Etten
After the Burma adventure I was debriefed by the station chief (customer) in Udorn. Naturally they were interested in what I might have seen since I was probably the only "round eye" that had been in that part of Burma since the Brits were kicked out in 1947. I was also a bit concerned that I might be fired. No big problem. My record up to that point was good. I was given a couple of weeks off for R & R in the Gulf of Siam and reported back for the flight schedule the last week of December.
When I was finally placed on the schedule it was to depart for Laos on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. I asked the chief pilot if I might delay for one day since the kids were looking forward to Christmas and it would be nice if I could be there too. He pointed out that since I had not been flying I was behind on flight time (we were paid for 70 hours per month) and needed to get with it. I would be working for the R.O. customer at Lima Site 20 (Sam Thong) and probably would be getting about eight flight hours per day.
Sam Thong was about a two-hour flight from Udorn. I landed there about ten AM, shut down for fuel, and reported to the RO. He was actually a U.S. Army sergeant named Larry Martin, an all-right sort of guy. The R.O. handled logistics and supplies for the Laotian Army.
The flights for the day would be out of L.S. 108 (Moung Soui), a village and Army camp about thirty miles north adjacent to the Plain de Jars (PDJ). The PDJ was a strong Pathet Lao area surrounded by Royalist (friendly) out posts. My job for the day was to fly supplies and ammo to these various camps. The procedure was simply remain high (about three thousand feet), do not fly over the PDJ, locate the camp and the proper signal for the day, and spiral down for a quick landing. I’d unload my cargo, pick passengers returning to Moung Soui, and continue to shuttle most of the day.
My flight mechanic for the trip was Charley Bringham. Incidentally, like Latloi, it was his first trip up country as a fully qualified crewmember. He helped the Lao soldiers load about a thousand pounds of mortar rounds. They were stacked in the doorway for quick unloading. A Lao lieutenant also jumped aboard just prior to take-off.
It was approximately five miles to our first destination and it took most of that distance for the H-34 to climb to three thousand feet. The area between Moung Soui and the first LZ was relatively safe so I wasn't overly concerned about gaining altitude until we were close to our destination. As we approached the out post the Lao lieutenant was talking on his hand held PRC 77 and said they were expecting us. As we circled overhead the proper signal, a white "Lima", was displayed. I also noticed something I didn't like and pointed it out to Charley. There were no women and kids around the landing area, only soldiers. Not a good sign, even though I was assured that it was safe to land. The absence of women and kids told me that there had been some recent enemy activity in the area. I told Charley that we would remain on the pad only for a few seconds so kick out the load as soon as we touched down. I'd keep the turns (RPM) up and stay light on the struts.
We'd been on the ground about three seconds when a tremendous explosion occurred right in front of the cargo door. The pilot's window was knocked out (on the right side where I was sitting), pieces of shrapnel were blown through the instrument panel, and I had a very sharp pain in my right thigh. The concussion was so great that it actually took away my breath; I knew Charley had to be dead. I wasn't sure if the plane would fly, but that didn't matter since the next round would probably be a direct hit. I grabbed an arm full of collective pitch and peeled left and off the pad. As we gained altitude and airspeed I was amazed that the old bird was hanging together and seemed to be flying normally.
From the pilot's seat in the H-34 I couldn't see the cargo area where Charley was. I was sure he must be dead or at least seriously wounded. I asked, "Are you O.K.?" on the intercom and was happy to hear him answer with "I'm fine, but I can see that you're not". Blood from my thigh wound was beginning to drip down the side panel beneath my seat. I assured him that as long as the aircraft held together I'd be able to hang in there long enough to fly us to a safe area. We headed back to the strip where we'd picked up the load. I broadcasted a "May day" that I'd been hit and was headed back to Moung Soui. A Platus Porter was in the area and answered that he had a visual on me and would follow me in.
After we landed Charley helped me down from the cockpit and carried me to the Porter. We made it back to Udorn in a little over an hour. Pretty good time since the Porter can only do about 120 Knots. An Air America ambulance (meat wagon) met us along with the Air America doctor. As soon as he saw the blood he told the driver to take me to the Air Force Hospital where an Air Force doctor pulled the shrapnel splinters from my leg. I was not seriously wounded.
Meanwhile, back up country, maintenance had begun to recover my aircraft. There were 62 holes where shrapnel from the war-head (an 82 mm round from a recoilless rifle) had penetrated the right side of the helicopter and exited out the other side! Apparently the enemy had been waiting near the pad for a helicopter to come in. Normally that weapon doesn't miss, luck was with us, and a direct hit and we'd been history. It landed about twenty feet short, exploded and sprayed us with shrapnel.
Anyway, 1970 ended with a bang and despite the chief pilot's intentions I was in Udorn for Christmas. Even if it was at the Air Force Hospital.