One medevac mission turns into two

Serving as aircraft commander of “Dustoff 619,” a medical evacuation helicopter in Vietnam, we sometimes flew long hours, grabbing a meal of “C” rations while the aircraft was refueled, keeping the engine and rotor blades turning for a fast departure, if necessary.

On this particular day, I was impressed with the tower controlled at the Da Nang main USAF airbase (one of the busiest airports in the world at the time). As we sat eating (my favorite meal was ham and eggs, chopped, pound cake and fruit cocktail, washed down with a Coke), and refueling between the two active runways, we received a call for an emergency medevac. I called the tower to ask for an expedited departure.

To my amazement, he radioed, in one long sentence: “all aircraft cleared for departure, hold position—all aircraft cleared to land, make an immediate 360-degree left turn remaining clear of other aircraft cleared to land—Dustoff 619, cleared for immediate departure.”

Pretty impressive, and off we went.

Crew by Huey
Flying medevac helicopters in Vietnam meant every mission was unique.

The medevac mission was to retrieve a wounded GI, but there was no landing zone (LZ) close by, so we would have to extract him by holding the helicopter at a stationary hover about ten feet above the trees, and use an internal rescue hoist and a “Stokes litter” wire basket. The trees were about 75 ft. tall at the scene, and the basket was quickly lowered, the soldier placed on board, and both were lifted up to the helicopter.

As the wounded GI was being attended to by our medics, we received another radio call from the ground unit. It seemed that one of their members had been granted a seven day “R & R” to begin the next day, but it would take him at least one and perhaps two days to hike out to somewhere he could be picked up to prepare to travel for his vacation from the war. They asked if it would be possible for us to hoist him into our helicopter and carry him and his wounded buddy to the 95th Evacuation Hospital, located in Da Nang, so he could catch a plane to his desired R & R location.

We agreed and lowered a “jungle penetrator” (a metal object shaped like a good sized bomb, but with folding seats that a soldier could sit on) and the GI began his assent to our ship. Just as he was to be pulled in through the open aircraft door, the GI reached around the internal rescue hoist to help himself into the helicopter and inadvertently hit the emergency switch—which cut the hoist cable, and he plunged 75 feet onto a rocky stream bed.

Unable to now extract the injured man due to the lack of an LZ, we immediately left the scene with the soldier we had initially rescued, plus the now inoperative rescue hoist, and made our way as rapidly as possibly to the hospital, and radioed our “Da Nang Dustoff” base to have another hoist ready for us when we arrived. En route my crew had disassembled the inoperative rescue hoist, while administering first aid to the wounded soldier.

When we arrived at the “95th Evac,” we were met by their orderlies and a gurney, and unloaded our patient. The flight from the hospital to our base was only about 5 minutes, where the new rescue hoist was loaded quickly, and we departed to the original scene to now recover the GI who was to be deprived of his vacation. He had a broken back and concussion from the fall, but was immediately hoisted to our ship and flown to the hospital.

The poignant part of flying medical evacuation helicopters in wartime is the inability often to discover the outcome of the patients we carried. After delivering the wounded into the hospital for their care, we were frequently en route to another emergency. When I volunteered to become a medical evacuation pilot, I did so because—although it was a war—I did not wish to injure anyone, but rather to help others receive the care they required. At least that portion of my goal was accomplished.

2 Comments

  • John,

    I have to admit that it is hard for me to read stories like this without getting a little choked up. Following my crash in 1978, I was extracted from the White Mountains of New Hampshire by a USAF Huey from the 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron operating from Plattsburgh. Both pilots and one crewman were veterans of the same work in Vietnam. I was also lifted out on a Stokes litter; I can still remember looking up at the helicopter as I was hoisted upward, wondering why on earth that guy was rotating the helicopter around…until about halfway up, when I realized it was me that was rotating. I can remember, at least I think I can remember, seeing a huge hand extend from the door as I came up alongside, and my head aching when the litter banged the skid while that hand was reaching for me.

    They had spent the entire day looking for me. I was told…no idea how true this was…that the aircraft commander had more or less disobeyed instructions to terminate the search, refueled and came back for one last look, which was successful.

    You guys are nothing less than angels, and nobody who has ever lain broken on the ground ever forgets the sound of a Huey.

  • I know what you mean about not knowing the outcome of the people we picked up. I think about some of them even today. Dustoff 615

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