The Phu Loi flight line was a bustle of activity. 19 July 1971 was a typical day at this helicopter base northwest of Saigon. It was 08:30 and flights of Huey's took off en route for their assigned combat assaults. The familiar whump, whump, whump of their rotors beating the air echoed in my ears. They would pick up their cargo of soldiers and venture out to jungle and rice paddy in an attempt to make contact with Charlie.
The almost constant hum of helicopters taking off and landing had begun and would continue throughout the day. The temperature was beginning to climb as the sun rose and cut through the morning haze. There was something peaceful and comforting to the familiar sounds of the whirring rotors and the smell of aviation gas and exhaust. Peace in the midst of war. It seems strange but I was now nineteen had been here nine months and this had become the life I knew.
My friend Rick Page had finished his shift at the Phu Loi MARS Station. The MARS acronym stood for Military Auxiliary Radio System which was our only contact with the World outside of good old letter writing. Lonely soldiers would come to the MARS station to try and make a phone call home. Rick would get on the shortwave radio and contact ham radio operators in the States. They would patch in the call to the soldier’s home. It was a great system, but it had a few flaws. Whenever either side was finished talking, they had to say “over” to switch over from transmit to receive. Of course, that meant at least two radio operators were on the call, so you had to watch what you said.
The loud impact of incoming rockets exploded in rapid succession shattering my morning reverie. This all too familiar noise stopped the bustling activities of virtually everyone on the base as they all hit the deck or ran for the nearest bunker. I was on the south side of the runway when I heard the loud “WUMP” or the exploding rockets. I threw myself face down in the dirt, heart-pounding, adrenalin pumping, waiting to see if there were more rounds coming in. There was always an eerie silence after a mortar or rocket attack. Then the sirens started to wail signaling an attack. A little late I am afraid, I thought. I slowly got to my feet, dusted myself off and looked for smoke from a burning helicopter after a direct hit. But there wasn’t any. Just the normal plumes of smoke from the shit burners here and there. I could see no sign of damage anywhere I looked. I breathed a sigh of relief and shook my head thinking “I hope they don’t learn how to aim those damn things.”
As it turned out, the rockets impacted the northwest corner of the airfield, probably aimed at the Navy Seawolves, gunships that normally were parked there. But they had already left for a morning mission. Either way, the rockets overshot the Seawolves area and struck the hooches of the MARS station personnel.
Rick’s hooch took the brunt of the attack, and he was killed instantly while he slept. Rick had a premonition that he was going to die in Vietnam. Now it was true. He was gone, but in that instant, I didn’t know that.
I can’t remember who told me, but one of the guys came up to me and said: “Did you hear that a rocket hit Page’s hooch?” “No shit?” I replied. “Is he ok?” The response was “He’s dead.” Dead? Rick is dead? Just like that? Typical morning and he is dead?
I jumped in a ¾ ton truck and drove over there, the thought of him being dead raced through my mind over and over. There were soldiers milling around the wreckage when I arrived. “Where is Rick?” I yelled.
“Gone” was the response from a soldier I didn’t know. “Medivac took him out along with another guy who was wounded.” Gone, just like that. A three-rocket harassing attack that could have hit anyone or no one.
I stared at the wreckage of his hooch. Slowly my mind drifted back, and I once again heard the almost constant helicopter traffic. Another day, another day, just like any other.
We who served in our war did not have the luxury of mourning our dead. Either there was no time, or they were just gone. Out in the field with infantry, artillery, engineers, and others the dead were bagged, put on a helicopter and whisked away never to be seen again. For the helicopter units, it was usually different. They were just not there anymore. Remains from a helicopter crash or shoot down were, in many cases recovered by another unit and transported to a graves registration collection point, mortuary or field hospital. Their friends were left in a daze, maybe watching while an officer or NCO cleaned out the personal effects of the dead in preparation to be sent home to the next of kin. Making sure to cull out anything that might be offensive to the family back home.
No one really thought about the devastation of the family back home upon hearing of the death of a husband/wife, son/daughter, brother/sister or friend. We dealt with the loss differently than those back home. Sometimes we cried, but usually, we just buried it and carried on. It was war, and more deaths would be coming.
Many years later the enormity of the loss of our friends would be felt when we visited the Vietnam Memorial (the Wall) in Washington DC. Now, we were able to grieve and understand how devastating the violent death of one so young could be. We were able to feel the loss so deeply it hurt. Finally, the tears were able to flow, and for many, the healing had begun.
A typical Monday in Vietnam? There were no “typical” Mondays in Vietnam.