On Christmas Eve 1970, we received a call mid-afternoon to perform an emergency extraction to our southwest in an area near the city of Tay Ninh called the Bo Loi Woods. En route to the location our flight leader briefed us as to the details for the emergency extraction. It seemed a platoon of soldiers had been attacked by the bad guys — either North Vietnamese regulars or Viet Cong guerrillas — and had been pretty badly decimated by the attack and needed to be extracted 10 minutes ago.
The platoon had been protected by a team of cobra gunships and they had to break off their coverage and go for refueling. When the cobra gunships did that the bad guys realized the soldiers had no cover and they attacked the platoon. Our mission was to get the remaining platoon members out of harm’s way as fast as possible.
It was a well-known fact that the bad guys had tunnels all over the Bo Loi Woods. The platoon was looking for a suspected prisoner of war camp in that area run by the enemy. The platoon never completed its mission before being attacked.
As we reached the unit’s location we were forced to land in a huge bamboo thicket. I remember bamboo being the only thing I could see out our helicopter’s windshield and for a split second I wondered if we could fly on bamboo. I have to laugh now when I see these little potted bamboo plants on people’s desks in offices and chuckle when I think of my experience with that bamboo thicket.
We cut down bamboo going into the LZ and we cut down bamboo going out of it, but we got everyone out. Ours was the last ship out and we had the unit’s medic on board. He was an 18-year-old new guy and on his first day in the bush he experienced the ambush and eight “line ones” — dead soldiers — in the attack. The medic was as white as a clean bed sheet. What a hell of a way to get experience as a medic, I thought, as we lifted off.
The next day, Christmas Day, was 103 degrees in the shade; Merry Christmas to us, as it was the dry season in Vietnam. I was on call with the flare ship that night. If any unit was attacked in the night or if there was some sort of emergency needing illumination, we would be bounced to drop flares. Later that night, a unit to our north was attacked by the Viet Cong. We were bounced and stayed on station for almost an hour dropping flares to illuminate the battlefield as the grunts on the little fire base repelled the bad guys. Looking down from our vantage point it was like looking at a John Wayne movie from above. There were tracer rounds everywhere and bad guys in the wire — what a show. Our guys finally got the best of the enemy that night.
And so it went into the early days of 1971. In mid-January 1971 I came home on leave courtesy of President Nixon. I left the sweltering jungles of Vietnam to return to Reno. It was snowing when I got here and stayed cold until I had to leave two weeks later to finish my tour of duty. That’s one time I really didn’t look forward to a visit to a tropical paradise.
As the year changes to 2011, my memories of 40 years ago fade a little more as time goes on. As they say, time heals all wounds.
Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at email@example.com.