Where's Charlie?

Erik Cederblom
Photograph by Dũng Huỳnh on Unsplash

Marine Helicopter Squadron, HMM-364, Vietnam, 1966


On most missions—troop movement, supply runs, transport services—there is a briefing in the ready room, an announced launch time, enough time to wrap our heads around what is ahead, but night medevacs are a scramble. Someone is dying. There’s no time to waste. The time for fear is later.

After we are airborne, I go on the intercom and brief the crew chief, a twenty-year-old sergeant, and the gunner, an eighteen-year-old corporal on his first night mission. Each of them is behind an M-60 machine gun. “Our mission is a medevac. Pickup point someplace south of Quang Ngai. Expect a long flight. We’ll be close to our max range. Any questions?”

The crew chief asks, “Should we expect any hostiles, sir?”

“Everything around us is Indian Country. There will be Victor Charlies out there. We’ll get more info once we make radio contact with troops on the ground.”

“Roger that, sir.”

We are two choppers from a Marine squadron based at Ky Ha, a hastily built helicopter base, perched on the coast of the South China Sea near Chu Lai. Each chopper has a pilot, copilot, crew chief and gunner. Some of us are too young to buy a drink in the States, too young to have a vote about the war we are fighting. I am the flight leader, a twenty-three-year-old first lieutenant, weeks away from completing my tour of duty, hoping this will be my last night mission.

We fly south at 95 knots. The instrument panel glows red, but around us, above, below, is black. There is no horizon and I monitor the gyrocompass to reassure myself that we are flying right side up. Occasional clusters of pale, yellowish lights from rural homes confirm there is life below as we plunge forward into the void of an overcast night on a mission to extract a wounded Marine from a countryside we can’t see.

We are flying H-34s, the last of the piston engine helicopters in use by the Marine Corps in Vietnam. They are heavy, slow, but reliable. There are multiple flight controls requiring the coordination of a unicycle rider. Simultaneously, the pilot has to monitor two radios, the intercom, and an array of dials. The powerful, unmuffled engine exhausts and deafens below the copilot’s window on the left. The physical skill and mental concentration required to fly this chopper are considerable—but flying is the easy  part. Tonight, we have to find our way to a set of coordinates on a map, make a landing in a rice paddy, possibly surrounded by palm trees, in the blackness—probably while being shot at. The pucker factor of night medevacs is high.

The air group’s standing operating procedures dictate that we don’t fly at night. There are two exceptions: bullets and blood. If troops are engaged in a firefight and unlikely to survive without a resupply of ammunition, we deliver. If there are wounded that won’t survive until morning, we pick up. Sometimes a mission involves both. In either situation, many eyes will track us through gun sights.

At the start of every mission, the same thought crosses my mind. I need to deal with it, so I can concentrate on what’s ahead: I briefly envy the men with wives or girlfriends back home, who, I envision, are praying for their safe return. Does that give them some kind of cosmic shield? No! Not having a sweetheart means I have one less thing to worry about, which will help me stay alive. Now, concentrate on the mission ahead.

I fly lead and my wingman will just log airtime. His mission: rescue us in case we go down. We fly on into the warm, humid night, straining to make out landmarks to track our progress. A navigational beacon at the Chu Lai air base will help us get to the general area. Finding the right rice paddy will be something else altogether. All of us are tense.

We have been airborne for about thirty minutes when a call comes through.

“Mayday, Mayday, any chopper in the vicinity of Quang Ngai, this is Red Dog. Over.” The voice is young, anxious.

I respond, “Red Dog, this is Yankee Kilo Thirteen, read you loud and clear. Over.”

“Yankee Kilo, I see two choppers heading south near Quang Ngai, is that you. Over?”

“Affirmative, Red Dog.”

“We need a medevac. Over.”

“Red Dog, stand by.”

I radio my wingman for his fuel status. His answer reinforces my conclusion: we probably will not have enough fuel to include a second mission.

“Red Dog, regarding your request: negative at this time. Will check with you after we have made our pickup. Can you hold out till morning?”

There is a pause in the transmission. A new voice comes on, older, calmer, but still urgent.

“Yankee Kilo Thirteen, this is Red Dog Six, I’ve got some bad wounded down here. Could use your help. Over.”

The “Six” in his call sign indicates he is the commanding officer.

“Red Dog Six, we are tight on fuel. If we have no delays, we may be able to make a pickup on our way out. Otherwise, we will refuel and be back. Over.”

“Roger that. Can you relay a request for other choppers?”

“Red Dog Six, we are beyond radio range. Over.”

“Yankee Kilo, hurry. Please. Red Dog Six out.”

Commanding officers seldom say please, so we know how bad the situation is.

We churn on through the blackness and about fifteen minutes later, I key the mike.

“Black Fox, Black Fox, this is Marine Chopper Yankee Kilo Thirteen, over.”

The radio crackles with static and we make out, “Yankee Kilo Thirteen, this is Black Fox, over.”

“Black Fox, is your medevac ready to go? Over.”

There is a delay.

“Medevac standing by.”

“Black Fox, do you have a visual on us?

“Affirmative. You’re a couple clicks west of our position.”

We turn east and reduce airspeed.

“What’s the situation down there?”

“All quiet. Landing zone secure.”

Everything below is black. We cannot see the ground, not a single feature, not a single light, not a single tall tree waiting to knock us from the air.

“Yankee Kilo, you are directly overhead our position.”

“Roger that, Black Fox.”

We begin a wide circle over the area, but still see nothing below us.

“Black Fox, set a strobe where you want us.”

“Roger that.”

“What do we have for a landing zone?”

“Wide-open paddy, about half the size of a football field.”

“Where’s Victor Charlie relative your position?”

“Could be anyplace.”

It takes several minutes before a small blinking white light appears. It is unmistakable in the darkness. We turn off our running lights to make it harder for the enemy to target us and make a right-hand spiral down while our wingman circles overhead.

The crew chief’s voice comes over the intercom: “Are we cleared to fire, sir?”

“That’s a negative, Sergeant. We don’t know where the good guys are. This is going to be a snatch and run.”

“Roger that, sir,” comes the disappointed response.

As we are about to touch down, I catch sight of the Marine who has been standing in the center of the paddy, a small strobe light held overhead in his hand, a human beacon, an illuminated target. We squish down into mud and keep the rotors turning to reduce weight on the wheels. I don’t want to get bogged down—and I want the turns for a quick liftoff. The Marine with the strobe turns off the light and disappears into the darkness.

My copilot comes on the intercom. “Makes you wonder what he did to catch that assignment.”

We wait.

The H-34 has a high profile; the cockpit is above and behind the engine. Our heads are ten feet above the ground, exposed. The chopper has just thumped our presence to every Charlie with a rifle within miles. Even with our lights off, our exhaust burns bright blue in the dark and the three exhaust stacks glow red making them a perfect, fiery target in the blackness. There is no hiding. We are vulnerable. Every moment on the ground is agony. There is no sign of anyone.

“Black Fox, where’s your wounded? Over.”

“Yankee Kilo, stand by.”

“Stand by, hell! Get the stretcher out here, now!”

We peer into the blackness, waiting to see red tracers stream toward us. When we fly in daylight, we are often the target of small arms fire, but over the roar of the engine, we cannot hear gunfire. For every round that hits us, who knows how many have hissed by undetected? At night, however, we can see muzzle flashes. And, if a machine gun is firing, every fifth round in a belt of ammunition is a tracer, leaving a fiery trail that helps the shooter to see where his rounds are going. For us, they are a sobering reminder that for every tracer we do see, there are four more rounds we don’t.

We sit, burning precious fuel.

Finally, two Marines slog their way out to us. It is too dark to make out their faces. They display no urgency. One carries a rifle. The other carries a pack slung over a shoulder. The pack is tossed aboard and the Marine with the rifle climbs in.

“Secure, sir,” the crew chief says.

I crank on full throttle, frantic to hide in the darkness of the sky. We climb to 1500 feet, flip on our running lights, and rendezvous with our wingman.

Now safe, I allow myself to become furious at the nonchalance of the infantry who seem to have no appreciation for the dangers of flying at night, furious at the Marine who walked out to the chopper under his own power, clearly not suffering from life-threatening wounds.

I key the intercom. “Sergeant, find out what’s wrong with that Marine.”

“Roger, sir… he has VD, sir.”

“Did you say VD? He has the clap?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

Moments later, I am back on the radio, “Black Fox, this is Yankee Kilo Thirteen, over.”

“Go ahead, Yankee Kilo.”

“Get Black Fox Six on the phone.”

“Stand by.”

I wait for the radio operator to get his commanding officer.

“Yankee Kilo Thirteen, this is Black Fox Six. Go ahead.”

The commanding officer on the ground is senior to me, but my anger at having put so much at risk to extract a Marine who has a souvenir from Okinawa spills over into my transmission.

“Black Fox Six, two choppers and eight crewmen have just flown to the outer limits of our range, in the dark, and will be facing low fuel status before we get back. All this just to pick up a man with an itchy pecker. Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Over.”

“Yankee Kilo Thirteen, we put in a call at 0600 for the extraction of a Marine who was running a fever of a hundred and two and needed medical attention. It has taken you rotor heads nearly eighteen hours to get here. Do you have any other questions?”

The anger of the commanding officer matches my own.

I realize neither of us knows how many hands the request for a medevac passed through, why it took so long, or who bumped the request to a status requiring a night launch. My anger fades.

“Black Fox Six, good luck down there. Yankee Kilo, out.”

Black Fox does not bother to respond.

Normally, on night missions, the relief of returning to base is cause for some good-natured banter on the intercom. Tonight, however, each of us is lost in his own thoughts, mindful of the young voice that had screamed for help earlier.

As we approach the area where we received the Mayday call, I make a call.

“Red Dog, Red Dog, this is Yankee Kilo Thirteen, over.”

“This is Red Dog, go ahead.”

“Red Dog, we have our medevac on board and are returning to base. Should have radio contact shortly. We are low on fuel but will get another bird out here pronto for your extraction. Over.”

There is a pause, and a cold voice comes on. “Yankee Kilo Thirteen. They didn’t make it. Please schedule a pickup for first light tomorrow. Do you copy?”

We touch down a little while later and taxi up to the field hospital. Corpsmen with stretchers are waiting. Our unwounded Marine climbs out. He does not turn around to give us a thumbs-up, a wave, or a salute.  Embarrassment, anger, frustration, who knows what’s going through his mind? I know it’s not his fault, but, still, my mood is foul. Knowing we shouldn’t have done anything different doesn’t make any of us feel better.

We taxi back to our flight line and shut down. As I climb down from the cockpit, the crew chief is waiting for me.

“It was an impossible situation, wasn’t it, sir?”

“A no-winner.”

Then, he sums up how we are all feeling: “I know it sounds strange, sir, but I’d sure feel better if we had taken some fire. I mean, where’s Charlie when you want him?”

In a former life, Erik Cederblom was a Marine helicopter pilot. “Where’s Charlie?” is based on actual events from two missions, the details of which have blurred into one story. “Dark Green Comedy,” another story set against the Vietnam war, appears in the online literary magazine Typishly.com.