Late this morning I realized that it is August 15. Unless it is your birthday or an anniversary, this date probably means little. It always stops me in my tracks. The following is Chapter 9 from Just Let Me Walk Away. Maybe you have seen the Army helicopter called the “Huey.” If you’ve ever heard those blades…
Hill 534: B Company, 2/5
B COMPANY WAS in real trouble. They were up against a force
that was entrenched in well-fortified positions and outnumbered
them perhaps five to one. They were nearly out of ammunition and
they had no food or water. They had suffered serious casualties. The
enemy owned the only clearing in the area so it had been impossible
to reinforce our people with new troops. Our guys had them by the
nose and couldn’t get loose.
I went to see the operations officer of 2/5 twice that night to find
out when he wanted us to go back to Hill 534 to deliver the ammo
and supplies. Both times I entered the command post I found the
2/5 battalion commander immersed in intense, grave conversation
with the young captain and company commander of B Company.
I had never heard such an exchange over military radio. I felt as
I did when I walked into a church sanctuary, that I should be reverent
and still. As he spoke to CPT William Taylor up on the mountain,
the lieutenant colonel’s voice was quiet and intimate. I could hear
only one side of the conversation, but the intensity of the hushed,
low tone of the colonel’s voice made clear the gravity of the situation.
I never met Bill Taylor. I wish I had. I heard several officers and
enlisted men speak of him that day and the next. He was tremendously
respected, held in the highest regard. This was one hell of a
good man, and he and his boys needed saving.
After waiting several minutes at the command post, I told the
operations officer we were loaded and ready to go. I was intent on
making myself clear. “There is just one thing, sir,” I said. “We are
entirely socked in here with cloud cover. I don’t know how long it
will last. I can get out of here up through the clouds, but I won’t be
able to get back in until the clouds go away. So you had better be
damn sure the top of the mountain is not socked in when you send
us up there, because if it is, I won’t be able to get in to them and I
won’t be able to get back in here either. I’ll have to go to Pleiku
where I can get an instrument landing. And of course the ammo will
have to go with me. So don’t send me until you are sure I can get to
“Okay, okay, I understand,” the major said. “We’re going to send
an Air Force helicopter up there after a while with a winch and chair
that will go down through the trees to bring out some of the
wounded. You go back down to your helicopter and wait there. We’ll
call you when we’re ready for you.”
It was 9:30 or 10 at night. I went back to the helicopter, briefed
everyone and told them to get some sleep. It started to rain. The crew
chief and door gunner were sprawled out on the cabin floor, so there
was no room inside the helicopter. I crawled under it and lay down.
That’s when I learned the Huey is not an efficient rooftop. Because
of the curvature of the sides and bottom, rainwater runs down both
sides of the helicopter, clings to the bottom until it meets at the center
of its body, then falls. That night it fell on me.
I crawled into the only spot in the helicopter that I could call
mine—the left seat—and soon began to doze. Trying to sleep in that
straight-backed seat was agitating and uncomfortable. The aches and
cramps of sleeping upright and the anticipation of a call to fly the
mission kept me in and out of a fitful sleep. It was close to 3 a.m.
when fatigue finally won out and I slept.
Shortly after 6 a.m. Captain Taylor began to issue instructions in
preparation for the coming day’s battle plan. Each of the platoons
were gathered in groups making last-minute preparations. Thwump!
Thwump! It was the sound of enemy mortar rounds being fired. The
company was under attack. Captain Taylor called for artillery fire,
then shouted to his men to prepare for the enemy ground attack which
was sure to follow. Moments later Captain Taylor and his command
group took a direct hit. Captain Taylor, 1SGT Kenneth Hawsey, and
the radio operator were killed instantly. The company’s chief medic,
SP4 Teddy G. Barger, was critically wounded, as were several others.
A human wave assault came at the company. Responding to Captain
Taylor’s instructions, the troops were ready. The enemy ran into a
wall of fire, forcing them to the ground. For the next four hours B
Company traded shots with the enemy at an average range of 25
meters. The company’s second radio operator, Tiger Shark 6 Alpha,
though seriously wounded, remained on the air.
I AWOKE A little after daylight. I wondered why they had not called
us. It was Monday, August 15, a rain-soaked, beautiful morning with
sunshine and a clear sky. I ate a pecan nut roll out of a can from a
C-ration box, and went to the command post to find out what was
I saw the operations officer first. “Sir, you didn’t call us. What’s
“I was just coming to get you,” he said. “They had a rough night
up there last night. That Air Force helicopter got some of the
wounded out. They are still out of food and water and almost out
of ammunition. And they still are in contact. I want you to go up
there now and take that resupply in there to them.”
“Okay, sir. We’ll get going right now.”
I figured the resupply shouldn’t be too difficult, although we
would not be able to see the troops on the ground because of the
thickness of the jungle canopy. We would fly up the side of the
mountain to where I estimated them to be. I would call the company
and ask for smoke to mark their exact location. We would hover over
the smoke, make one final check by radio, and drop the two loads
of C-rations, ammunition and water.
I went back to the helicopter and briefed the two crews. “Okay,
here’s the deal. It’s pretty simple. We’ll go up the mountain and call
for smoke. I’ll drop mine.”
Nodding at the two pilots flying my second helicopter, call sign
Green 4, I continued. “You come in and drop yours and we’ll be
outta there. We’ll come back here and see what’s next. Any questions?
These guys are in a lot of trouble up there. They have
apparently taken a lot of casualties and they are still in contact. They
are completely out of food and water and almost out of ammo. We’ve
gotta get this stuff in there to them. Let’s go.”
It was about 7:30 a.m. We cranked up our two Hueys, picked up
the sling loads and took off for Hill 534 on Chu Pong Mountain.
We flew over flat, fairly open rainforest with trees 90 to 100 feet
high. The treetops nearly grew together in the area around LZ Cat
but you could sometimes get a glimpse of the ground. As we started
up the mountain, the jungle canopy became so thick we could not
see down through the trees at all—it was a solid sheet of green.
Once we were airborne the first thing I noticed was that a huge
cloud covered most of the mountain. LZ Cat and the valley floor were
clear, but this cloud hung over the mountain, almost to its base.
As we approached Hill 534, I called B Company for smoke.
“Tiger Shark 6, this is Green 3-6, over.”
“This is Tiger Shark 6 Alpha, over.”
“6 Alpha, this is Green 3-6. We’re inbound with some goodies
for you. We’re about a minute out. You wanna put some smoke out
for us? Over.”
“This is 6 Alpha. Roger, 3-6. Poppin’ smoke.”
We were at the base of Hill 534 now and near the bottom of the
I spoke on intercom to Warrant Officer Marrott who was flying
right seat. “Boy, I hope they are not under that cloud. If they are, we
will never find them.
“Anybody see smoke?” I asked, addressing the crew.
We looked in all directions. No smoke.
Worried, I called the company again. “Tiger Shark 6 Alpha, this
is Green 3-6. Put some more smoke out. I don’t see anything, over.”
“This is 6 Alpha. We don’t have any more smoke. That was the
last one. It’s red smoke. It’s red smoke, over.”
“This is Green 3-6. Roger. There is cloud cover hanging down
over the mountain. You may be under it. We’ll keep looking.”
As we circled looking for the red smoke, I was thinking out loud
on the intercom. “Damn. They must be under that cloud cover. We
should have seen that smoke by now. They have to be under that
cloud cover. No telling how long that cloud will lie there. It could
burn off in an hour or it could stay three days or a week. We have
to get in to those guys. Somehow we have to get in to them. Their
last smoke grenade. No ammo. No food. No water. Damn. Somehow
we have to get in there.”
I decided to fly down along the ragged edges of the cloud where
the bottommost part met the treetops. Maybe they were just under
the edge of the cloud. If so, I might be able to see the red smoke.
The sling load limited our maneuverability and slowed us down.
Also, as I got right down on the treetops to look under the edge of
the cloud, I couldn’t get as close to the trees as I wanted. Those
supplies should have been inside the helicopter. Dumb-ass major.
I called the troops again. “Tiger Shark 6 Alpha, this is Green 3-6,
“This is 6 Alpha, over.”
“This is Green 3-6. I’m going to try to look up under the edge
of this cloud a little bit. If you hear us or see us, yell. Over.”
“This is 6 Alpha. Roger.”
I flew down as close to the treetops as I could and moved in to
where the edge of the cloud mingled with the tops of the trees.
Surprisingly, as I peered under the cloud, I could see 30 or 40 meters
up the hill. While the cloud formed a solid cover over the mountain,
here was a space of hazy visibility between the treetops and the
bottom of the cloud.
I bet I can fly up this damn hill!
“Green 4, this is 3-6. I’m gonna see if I can fly up under this
cloud. You stay out there and circle till we get this figured out. Don’t
you come in here till I tell you to. Over.”
“Green 4. Roger.”
As I moved slowly under the cloud, whiteness and haze enveloped
us. The treetops were my only visual reference, but they seemed
to be enough. Excited at the prospect of being able to fly under the
cloud, I began to think about what I could and could not do. This
was beyond dangerous. I needed a plan.
Shoot, I can see these treetops! I can fly in here!
I was moving so slowly that I didn’t have to see very far. The cloud
cover wasn’t thick and I could fly up through it quickly if I had to. I
would fly up the hill until I found the red smoke or until I couldn’t
see anymore. The finger I was flying up fell away to lower ground
both to my left and right. I would fly up the hill using the treetops
below me as a visual reference. When I could no longer see I would
go on instruments, climb 500 FPM and turn left until I broke out on
top of the cloud cover. Climbing would break me out on top of the
cloud, and turning left would put me over lower ground in case I got
vertigo and ended up descending when I thought I was climbing.
I can do this. All I gotta do is keep that sling load out of the trees
and keep moving up the hill. Need to keep at least 30 knots airspeed
because of that damn sling load. If I get in trouble, climb and turn
left. I can do this.
We began inching up the mountain at about 30 knots airspeed. I
couldn’t see well enough to go faster, and I felt like I shouldn’t go
slower. We were carrying maximum weight, and the sling load
severely limited our maneuverability. I was in an unfamiliar and
perilous predicament. Simply flying the aircraft demanded most of
my attention. I deliberately kept my eyes looking out and ahead and
away from the instrument panel.
When the horizon is not visible, a pilot must depend on his
aircraft instruments to fly straight and level. He must guard against
going back and forth, from looking down at the instruments to
looking outside for a visual reference—a fast way to end up with
vertigo. You can suddenly find yourself in the bewildering state of
not knowing whether you are right side up or upside down.
I was in wonder at our visual surrounding: hazy, green treetop
canopy under us, the panorama of white that enveloped us, and the
simple fact that we were in there. I didn’t know what to expect as we
crept up the hill, whether the limited visibility would last, if we would
draw fire, or if we would even find B Company. With the cloud lying
over the trees, I figured the smoke would not have dissipated.
We had to find them. Being an infantryman myself, I had a pretty
good idea of what was going on down there. Maybe I had time to
wait for better weather conditions—the troops did not.
“Green 3-6! Green 3-6! We hear you! We hear you!”
There was no smoke to reveal the location of the excited voice
on the radio.
“You’ve gone by us now! You’ve gone by us!”
“Okay, 6 Alpha, okay. We’ll try it again. I’ll go around and start
up the hill again. We’ll be right back. Over.”
I pulled in power, switched my gaze from the treetops in front
of me to my instrument panel and began to climb. We were enveloped
by a dense, murky whiteness. We couldn’t see a thing. After climbing
for a few seconds, I began a left turn to get over lower ground.
Suddenly we broke out on top of the cloud into sunshine, blue sky,
and clear visibility. I was exactly where I had intended to be—off the
crown of the ridge and over lower ground.
We were fired up after hearing the strain and excitement in 6
Alpha’s voice, and breaking on top of the cloud pumped us up even
more. I wanted to find those people and deliver that ammunition in
the worst way.
I flew back to the valley floor and the bottom of the cloud. The
green sameness of the treetop canopy made it difficult to spot where
we had started before. I guessed where our starting point was, moved
a few meters left, and began our second trip up the hill.
“6 Alpha, this is Green 3-6. We’re coming in again. Over.”
“Roger, 3-6. We’re watching.”
“You all watch for this smoke, now,” I told the crew.
They did not need the instruction.
I could see nothing. The impenetrable whiteness of the cloud
descended all the way down into the trees. Startled and frightened
by the abrupt loss of sight, I felt a cold tightness in my stomach. Just
as quickly, we were through it, and I could see again. After that, 20
or 30 meters of hazy sight felt pretty comfortable. Losing all visual
sight for that few seconds was unnerving, but we could handle it if
it didn’t get any worse.
We continued up the mountain. After a certain amount of time
passed with nothing from the radio, I knew I had missed them again.
I pulled in power, climbed, turned left and broke out on top again.
“6 Alpha, this is Green 3-6. We’ll try it again. We’ll be right back.
“This is 6 Alpha. Roger.”
We went back in.
“6 Alpha, this is 3-6. We’re coming in again. Over.”
“This is 6 Alpha. Roger.”
I thought if I made enough passes up the hill and kept starting
from a position farther left each time, eventually I would find them,
but I was never sure how far left I had moved or if I, in fact, had
moved at all.
We were under the cloud and climbing slowly up the mountain
again. We hit the whiteout spot again, and I lost all visibility. I held
the controls steady, and, as before, we passed through it in two or
three seconds. I took a breath, and we continued.
Jesus Christ! There’s the fucking clearing!
There was only one clearing on that part of the mountain, and
the NVA owned it. We were behind the NVA’s defensive line at
treetop level, moving slowly over open ground. I pulled in power
and got up into the cloud as quickly as I could. I turned left. We
broke out on top again and started to descend back down the
“Chief, did we take any fire there?” I asked. “Did you hear
“No, sir, I don’t think so. I didn’t see anything.”
I had flown too far up the mountain; that was for sure.
Damn, I cannot fly over those fucking NVA positions again! One
machine gun burst in the right place and we’re through!
“6 Alpha, this is 3-6. We’re coming around again. Over.”
“This is 6 Alpha! Roger! You were real close that time! You were
real close! Over!”
Normally those guys were dead calm and cool on the radio, but
when the bullets were flying and the situation was hot, you could
hear it in their voices. I heard both desperation and anticipation in
this radio operator’s voice. I didn’t know if they were under fire at
the moment, but they needed us and badly wanted us to find them.
That was more obvious each time 6 Alpha keyed his mike.
We flew back to the bottom of the mountain, ducked under the
cloud, and started up the hill again. The whiteout area was becoming
passé. We would hit it, go blind for a few seconds, hold everything
steady, and quickly pass through it.
“6 Alpha, this is 3-6. Here we come, over.”
“6 Alpha, Roger!”
We hit the whiteout. I held steady. We passed through it.
In front of me was a big treetop that loomed 15 or 20 feet above
the others. Twenty feet to the right of it was another, extending above
the canopy exactly like the one in front of me. I had that damn sling
load, so any quick maneuvering was difficult to impossible. My
blades would not fit between the trees, and there was no time to climb.
I broke right and, keeping my rotor blades above the trees, flew
between them, passing the fuselage of the aircraft and the sling load
through the narrow space.
“3-6! We hear you! We hear you!”
This time as 6 Alpha spoke, I could hear other charged voices in
the background saying “I hear them! I hear them!”
Seeing no smoke, I continued up the hill, climbed into the cloud,
turned left and broke out on top. We had missed them again, but I
was greatly relieved to have gotten between those two trees.
We moved to the bottom of the hill to start again.
“Sir, the 20-minute warning light is on,” Marrott said.
“Shit!” I glanced at the red light on the instrument panel, not
knowing how accurate those 20-minute warning lights were.
Do I have exactly 20 minutes left? 25 minutes? 15? Fuck, I got no
I would get us out of there as soon as I could, but finding those
Americans on the ground was what I was thinking about.
We moved up the mountain, passing through the whiteout. We
heard more shouting on the radio. We missed them again.
I pulled in power, climbed into the cloud and turned left. We
broke out on top again. Something didn’t feel right.
I was out of the cloud and in the clear. I had made my left turn
and was headed away from the mountain.
Something isn’t right! Something isn’t right!
I checked the instruments.
Airspeed…that’s okay. I’m climbing at 700 feet per minute.
I checked the climb indicator again, which indicated we were
descending 700 feet per minute.
No, goddammit, no! I’m climbing 700 feet per minute!
I read the indicator again: descending 700 feet per minute.
Instruments don’t lie.
Confused, frightened, and not knowing which way was up or
down, I believed the climb indicator. I brought in power and pulled
the nose up, leveling the aircraft.
In control again, I felt better, but I was shaken—really shaken. I
obviously had had a touch of vertigo. I knew I was pushing it, going
on instruments and off instruments, looking inside the aircraft and
then out, going in the cloud and then out of it, over and over.
The left turn, which was a part of every recovery as we climbed
up through the cloud to break out, turned us away from the
mountain, so the 700-feet-per-minute descent had us flying down
nearly parallel to the mountainside. If we had not made that left turn,
we would have flown into the side of the mountain. It was turning
left every time we climbed up through the cloud that saved us.
I started the descent back down the mountain again.
“6 Alpha, this is Green 3-6, over.”
“This is 6 Alpha. You went right by us that time! You went right
by us! Over!”
“This is 3-6. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Now, we almost crashed
that time, but we didn’t.”
I was talking too fast. I needed to calm down. “We’re coming
back in there and we are going to find you.”
“This is 6 Alpha. Roger.”
“This is 3-6. Look, I’m on my 20-minute fuel warning light. We’ll
make another pass or two and then I’m gonna have to go and get
fuel. But don’t worry. If we do, I’ll be back. We’ll stay right here, by
God, till we find you.”
“6 Alpha. Roger.”
“Green 4, this is 3-6. Why don’t you go get some fuel, then come
on back. Soon as we find these guys I’ll lead you in so you can drop
“Green 4. Roger.”
We made another pass. And then another. We flew over the NVA
clearing twice more. Another time we came out of the cloud
descending again instead of climbing.
On the ground, SSG Ed Walsh, newly promoted from squad
leader to B Company’s 3d Platoon sergeant, was down to his last
magazine of ammunition. He had no food and little water left in his
canteen. Each time he heard us fly by he thought, “Just drop the
I was really worried about fuel now. We had been on the
20-minute warning light close to 20 minutes.
I don’t know how many times I said “I’ll make one more pass.”
It must have been a dozen or more, as we kept going back up the
mountain “just one more time.” But this time had to be the last.
“6 Alpha, this is 3-6. This is definitely the last pass. If I don’t find
you this time I will refuel and then I’ll be right back. Over.”
“This is 6 Alpha! Roger! You went almost right over us that time!
We went under the cloud and started up the hill for one last pass.
This time, after we broke through the whiteout, we heard: “3-6! 3-6!
We see you! We see you! We see you!”
I looked out my left window. There in the haze, about 30 meters
away, lay a pall of red smoke—and we were passing it by. With the
limited visibility, closeness of the cloud to the trees, the low airspeed,
and the clumsiness of the sling load, I couldn’t make the turn to get
“6 Alpha, this is 3-6. I’ve got your smoke. I’ve got your smoke.
I can’t get stopped so I’ll have to go around again. I know where you
are. I’ll be right there. I’ll be right there.”
“This is 6 Alpha! Roger! You were almost on top of us! Over!”
“3-6. Roger. We’ll be right back. We’ll get you this time.”
I began the climb through the cloud and turned left one more
We’ll get ’em this time. Jesus, I hope this fuel holds.
We went back under the cloud and passed through the whiteout.
There on my left again lay the red smoke, hanging in the haze.
Christ! I’m almost by them again!
I pulled in power and made a sharp left turn I didn’t like. The
aircraft shuddered and came around. We moved into the red haze
with the nose of the helicopter pointing downhill.
6 Alpha shouted over the radio.
“Kick it loose! Kick it
loose! No, wait! Move forward!
Move forward! Kick it
loose! Kick it loose!”
“Roger, 6 Alpha. Comin’ to
I pressed the electrical
switch with my thumb to release the sling load. It did not release. I
hit the button again. Nothing.
“Goddammit! Let go, you Mattel son-of-a-bitch! Marrott! Kick
the release! Kick the release!”
Marrott kicked the manual release and the load of ammunition
went crashing down through the trees.
“It’s clear, sir,” said the crew chief.
“Okay,” I said. “We’re outta here.”
I pulled in power, climbed into the cloud, and broke into the
clear. “Let’s go get some fuel.”
On the ground Staff Sergeant Walsh heard a crashing noise and
looked up. Above where he lay, but out of reach, hung the sling load
of ammunition and supplies. The troops had to stay low because of
small arms fire. It didn’t take long for Walsh to solve the problem.
They used C-4 explosive to blow down the trees that held the load.
The men of B Company, on their bellies, looked up to see
C-ration boxes in the trees, ammunition belts hanging from limbs—
and something else, dropping through the bushes, falling from the
trees. Oranges. It was raining oranges.
I STAYED AT the controls. If we ran out of fuel, I wanted to do the
autorotation. We made it to the refueling point at LZ Cat—a landing
I was glad to make. As soon as we refueled we headed back to the
mountain to take Green 4 in to deliver his load. On the way it became
apparent that the cloud was lifting.
As we approached the mountain, I was surprised to see Green 4
climbing out with no sling load. “Green 4, this is Green 3-6. Did you
get in there already? Over.”
“This is Green 4. Roger. Sure did. They have both loads. Over.”
“Okay. Good work. Let’s go back to Cat.”
I spoke to my crew on intercom. “Can you believe that damn
cloud is lifting now?”
I had put my crew, myself, and my helicopter at major risk—
some would say foolish risk—flying up that mountain under the
cloud the way we did. But if we had not done it, and B Company
had been overrun….
I never gave the decision a second thought.
WE LANDED AT the 2/5 battalion supply area and shut the aircraft
down. It was late morning. As I got out of the helicopter the infantry
battalion executive officer walked up. After my previous encounter
with the major, I was ready for anything.
“Lieutenant Clark, I want you to do a rappelling mission,” the
major said. “The company commander was killed up there early this
morning. The first sergeant was killed, and all their medics are either
dead or wounded.”
When I went to the mountain the morning of August 15, I didn’t
know that Captain Taylor had been killed. During those many passes
we made up the hill I wondered why I never got him on the radio.
My only direct contact with B Company was with the radio operator,
Tiger Shark 6 Alpha—SP4 Caney Greene.
PFC Joe Rodriquez survived the battle on 534 and the remainder
of his tour. He was medically evacuated on Monday, the 15th, but
not before his Virgen de San Juan medal was discovered by a soldier
and returned to him. Rodriquez would lose the medal twice more
during combat operations, and twice more it would be returned. His
mother, Concepcion Rodriquez, wears it proudly today.
As for SP4 Caney Greene, I thought his conduct in his interaction
with me was superb. Though I did not know of the Monday morning
attack or that Greene was himself seriously injured, I knew those men
on the ground badly needed us to get that ammunition to them. It
was understandable that 6 Alpha and those around him were excited
and even desperate as we made pass after pass without getting to them.
Major Wesley G. Jones, the 1/5 operations officer, recalled talking
to Greene from Lieutenant Colonel Siegrist’s command-and-control
Here was a man who, when we first called him, was about
out of his mind. I asked him, ‘Where is the company commander?’
‘He is dead!’ ‘Do you have the weapons platoon
leader coming to your position?’ ‘Sir, nobody there can move.
They just got the word.’ Very shortly this radio operator calmed
down, and he really ran the company with his radio. He was
the center link. He got reports. He calmly passed on what was
going on, and we passed our instructions to him. He did a
Knowing his situation in as much detail as I do now, I must say
6 Alpha comported himself in a supreme manner. We have had many
true heroes in our country’s history. Tiger Shark 6 Alpha ranks with
the best. SP4 Caney Greene, heroic radio operator, son of North
Carolina, died in combat later that day, that 15th of August.
Ray Kenneth Clark