Chopper Down

by Bart Russell

Late November 1966, I woke from my bunk. It was hot, and the rainy season was in full force. Early over-flight, so I dressed and ran to chow. The rain had stopped for now but as I reached the mess hall it started again. Our scheduled over-flight that was to commence early was put on hold. Hours passed. The flight was on and off. And then between the stop and start of rain and fog, it was just about to happen. Sitting under the small lean-to with a tin roof and bench seat made of a few ammo boxes and a board, I was soaking wet from the heat and humidity of this country. 

It was almost three in the afternoon and because of the delay my Lt. was unable to make the fight, so I was going alone. I had been on many of these over-flights and had no problem doing it by myself. 

I jumped into the side door of the 34 Chopper, a leftover 1950 something chopper with a single rotor. The two pilots were up front. They had to crawl on their bellies to reach their seats. I would often think how in the world would they ever get out if something happened. 

The gunner was to my left, hanging onto his M-60 and swinging back and forth tied to a bungee cord.  He wore cutoff fatigues and no shirt. Everyone thought the gunners were nuts. 

We lifted off and the chopper shuddered from the heavy wet air and heat of the day. We were always glad when they made it into the air. 

Our ride to, what was to be our patrol area, was less than a half hour and I always looked forward to feeling the cool air cross my body. I was sitting with my legs hanging out the door and holding onto a long handle to my right. 

The gunner gave me a hand signal. We were coming to our patrol area, so I began to look around. The jungle was denser than I had seen in other areas. I marked on my map some LZ's to come in and later get out. I found three as the chopper made a slow turn to make a lower pass at the area. I always found this not a fun time. The air that was cool now became hot and heavy again. It was hard to hold onto the handle with the sweat pouring off my body. As we came around, I could see a very large river towards the east. Not knowing at that time, it would be that river that would save my life. 

Suddenly, a noise came from the front and smoke began to fill the chopper, we began to spin out of control. We had been hit. As the chopper spun and the jungle came closer and closer, I was tossed out. I began hitting the tops of the trees and falling from one branch to the next with no way of stopping myself. I am sure I blacked out. The next thing I remember is being on the ground. I begin to move, and my body hurt all over. I lay back and started to check myself over, no broken bones, that was good. No open wounds, my head was still attached. I reached for my 45 and it was gone. That was bad. I had to move. Where are the chopper guys? Where am I? How long has it been? I fought to stand and looked around, I could see smoke up the hill. 

I moved to the smoke, it was closer than I thought. I quickly entered the chopper. It was smoking, but no fire. Fuel was spilling out everywhere. I saw the gunner, he was gone. Then I saw that the pilots were also gone. I saw two clips and a 45 on the one pilot and grabbed them. I could not reach their bodies to really see and I guess I did not want to. I looked to the side where the kill box was and turned the handle causing the timer to start. I did not know how long it would take to blow up. I knew the gooks would be there soon. 

I was several yards from the chopper and there it went. A large explosion and a fireball. I did not stop. I kept moving. My body was killing me, but I had to get distance between me and the gooks that were, for sure, coming to find me.

The river!

I looked at my watch compass and began to move southeast. I had no idea how far the river was, from the chopper. It was close, but everything looks close when you are not in the jungle. I kept moving, and then suddenly, I could hear water, lots of water. I kept moving in the direction of the water. There it was, a fast-moving river with a very steep bank. How can I get to the water? I knew from the many times I had been in rivers like this, about very large boulders right below the surface. Jumping in was not an option. I had no time to think. I just went for it and slid down the bank, hitting the water with full force. Lucky for me I did not hit anything but water. The river took me in its jaw, and I was flying down the river too fast to control my body. I was hitting rocks below and bouncing off large tree limbs, but I was making distance between me and the gooks for sure. 

I could feel my body giving out on me and it was hard to keep my head above the water. I had to find somewhere to hide. The river bank had lots of overhanging areas where animals make their burrows. I grabbed the next large branch I could and was able to pull myself into one of them. I crawled in as far as I could and pushed mud out to cover my tracks. My body gave out and I fell into a deep sleep. I woke up with a start. How long had I been asleep? I looked toward the river. It was dark and when I looked at my watch it was 11 PM. I had been hiding since around 4 or 5 PM. I did not move and listened for anyone around and heard nothing. I decided I was too weak to move so I fell back to sleep again. 

When I woke up again, the sun was up. I looked at my watch, it was 5 AM. I heard voices and brush being pushed aside. Did I make the wrong decision not to go back into the river last night? 

No turning back now, I lay still and could hear the gooks talking and pushing into the soft riverbank with a stick or something. I heard them telling each other the few words I knew, they were tired, and this was silly. I was dead somewhere. 

The sounds begin to move away. I waited not moving and began to feel they had left. I needed some food and water. There was a large root over my head with water dripping out. I pulled it to my mouth and drank, it felt so good. I looked up and saw small roots sticking down. I pulled one out and it smelled like an onion. I ate it and many more. I decided to wait until late afternoon to move again, and let the river take me as far as it would. Soon after that decision the rain started again and this time harder than before. The water was rising, it began to fill my hiding spot. There was no choice, it was time to move. I pulled the 45 from my shoulder holster and checked to make sure it worked. These hand guns would work in any condition. Thank you, Uncle Sam.

I rolled out of my hole and was quickly taken by the river. I was moving like a bullet from a gun. No control and this time hitting very little since the river had risen. I worked hard to keep my head above the water and tried to look toward the banks for gooks. Not sure how long or how many miles I went but suddenly, the river opened to a large paddy area and the water spread out. I came to a stop. 

My mind raced, where was I?  Are there people working the rice paddies? Where do I hide? Too many questions, take it easy I told myself. I moved forward into the paddy. Seeing a dike, I went to that for cover. I waited and then stuck my head up. Several hundred yards out I could make out people working. I was sure they did not see me. The rain was sort of a blessing for me. Seeing was hard for both of us. I felt safe, so I curled up and rested. I watched the small fish swim about, and I was going to get one for sure when the workers left. It was midday now and I knew they would leave their work to eat. They soon did and I turned my attention to catching a fish. It was not easy, but I got one. Not really big but it was a steak for me. I ripped it apart and ate almost all of it. 

Time to move on. I took a chance and stood and followed the dike, soon seeing a small village in the distance. I noticed the paddy to my left had small growth and told myself that it was not ready to pick so I rolled over to that one and moved toward the village. 

Once closer, I could see two huts and a cooking area. I watched and saw three women and four men. Seeing the men told me that they were not VC. If they were there would be no men. I still was not sure they were friendly. I still had no idea where I was. I watched and soon all the men left and went back to the paddy to work. Two women started to cook something and the youngest one left. There were no animals, so I suspected they were very poor. 

I heard a chopper fly over my head. Are they looking for me? Am I near a controlled area? What do I do now? My training tells me do not show yourself and do not leave anyone to report your position. I ponder and begin to move toward the huts. No one sees me and I cannot see the men in the paddy or the young woman who left the area. What should I do? I have no choice, I pull my 45 out stand and run toward the two women. They look up and are shocked to see me, but do not run. I do not know what to make of it. Then it happened, one reached into a pile of rice and pulled out a rifle. My fight with myself was now over. I took the two of them out. I knew the men heard the shots and would come running. 

Grabbing some food, stuffing it into my mouth, I started to run. I stopped quickly and hid behind a hut. The men ran into the cooking area where the two women lay. I should have taken the rifle, but I did not. No time to think, I stepped out and took the two of them out. OK, time to sit and plan, where did the other younger woman go? Will she come back? Why did they have the rifle? So many questions. 

The rain stopped for a while, and I sat and ate whatever they were cooking, it was rice and fish and really was not bad at all. Considering I really needed food. I sat and hoped a chopper would fly over again, I could stand and wave and hope they see me. No luck! I decided to rest and wait to see if the other woman came back. I hoped without friends. The hours passed and I used them to rest and eat and drink water. I was feeling much better considering that I had fallen out of a chopper. The rain started and I took shelter in one of the huts. I could see the path the woman took leaving the area. The light began to fade and the rain kept coming. She did not return. I knew she would not travel at night, so I slept like a baby all night. 

The early light woke me, and the rain had stopped. I felt I had to move. I pulled the bodies into the paddies and took the rifle apart and put the parts into the paddy. I looked around for more weapons but found none. I did see lots of rice and I am sure they were feeding the VC, maybe to support them or just in fear. 

The next few days were very hard, I did not know I was moving in the right direction and my condition became more and more of a problem with no food and drinking water from a stream or paddy area. Not sure how many days I walked. I was told later it was five days from the crash. Then one early morning I heard a chopper in the distance. I looked up and waved my arms over my head. The chopper went by. No, I yelled, then it turned back and in seconds I was sitting in a chopper back to my camp. 

I was in shock. I am sure. Safe now and alive. How did I do it? 

I thank my Dad for teaching me " Never give up, Son! ".

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