“You’re one of Siler’s boys, right?” shouted the pilot as I strapped myself into the door gunner’s seat.
Siler was the division PIO — the Public Information Officer.
“Yes sir,” I yelled back over the whining roar of the Huey’s jet turbine.
The pilot swiveled his head to look at me and I saw that he was Colonel Burdette, commander of the First Cavalry Division’s Aviation Group.
I was a combat photographer, not a door gunner. But every aircraft has its limitations, and aside from its crew of four, the UH-1B “Huey” could carry no more than eight infantrymen with weapons and equipment. So on the frequent occasions when I was assigned to document a search-and-destroy that began with an air assault, I usually replaced the starboard-side door gunner.
The colonel, Allen Burdette, waited for me to plug in the gunner’s headset, then asked if I’d gone to door-gunner school.
I shook my head, no. I hadn’t known there was such a school.
In 1965 the First Air Cav was a brand-new division, an evolving experiment in helicopter warfare. The men who dreamed up our table of organization and equipment hadn’t anticipated that the Bell UH-1D, with sliding doors on either side of the cargo compartment, would be available so quickly. They had instead based their manpower projections on the older Sikorsky CH-34, with its single, left-side cargo door.
And they hadn’t anticipated that aviators and infantrymen would learn that a key to successful air assaults was minimizing the period when the chopper was most vulnerable: landing troops under fire. By using the Huey, instead of eight men queuing single file up to leave through one door, we removed both doors to allow four men to jump out of each side almost simultaneously.
Thus the need for two door gunners per ship. The extra man came on temporary duty from an infantry battalion. Many had never fired a machinegun from a moving aircraft, so Burdette set up a school to train them.
By the time I got back from the operation, he’d called my boss to say that if I was going to ride shotgun on his Hueys, I’d have to learn how.
The five-day training schedule was mostly a practicum in firing machineguns from fast-moving aircraft. We spent six or seven hours a day zooming over rice paddies and through mountain valleys, flying nap-of-the-earth, hugging the ever-changing foliage contour, jinking and zigzagging, diving or climbing, every so often firing tracers at sand-filled oil drums painted different colors.
It was about as much fun as a dogface GI can have with his clothes on. A million-dollar aircraft, two highly-trained pilots, thousands of gallons of jet fuel hauled halfway around the world, real machine guns, an endless supply of tracer bullets — sorry Generations X,Y, and Z, but show me a better video game than that!
In late afternoon we cleaned our guns, then spent an hour or so learning how choppers fly and how to maintain them in the field.
One day a senior crew chief, pointing out the components of the rotor assembly, casually mentioned that the shaft was attached to the rotor with a single titanium bolt, called the jesus (lower case j) bolt.
“Why is it called that?” I asked.
“Cause if it breaks while you’re flying, you’re all going to Jesus,” he said.
On Friday we flew real missions; I fired my M60 in support of twol assault landings. Afterward there was a graduation ceremony and Burdette personally pinned an air crewman's silver wings on my fatigues: I was officially an Army aviator.
A month later he called Siler and asked to borrow me for a mission; I was incredulous but flattered.
We took off in two Hueys and followed first the Song Ba River and then one of its tiny tributaries north and west, deeper into the mountains. As we approached the Cambodian border we split up to fly individual search patterns, systematically quartering back and forth over thick jungle.
“What are we looking for?” I asked the crew chief manning the other gun.
“Down there’s the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he replied. “Anything that moves is fair game.”
A few minutes later the pilot in the other Huey shouted “Tallyho!” into his radio and fired a Willy Peter rocket — white phosphorous — that zipped down through the jungle canopy and burst with a cloud of pure white smoke.
Burdette turned the ship around and we flew toward that smoke. He unleashed a pair of 3.5 inch rockets, each with a warhead capable of knocking out a tank. A moment later he fired two more. Four dirty clouds flew skyward from their impact points.
A moment later came a series of huge explosions that sent dark smoke and glowing smoke trails every which way.
“Bull’s-eye!” yelled the other pilot. “A secondary!”
The rockets had struck an ammunition supply train.
We dropped down low for a look-see and flashed past three or four big, gray splotches — elephants, used by the North Vietnamese Army as pack animals.. Burdette circled back and set down in a clearing near the biggest pile of raw meat I’d ever seen. Only the head, neck and shoulders were recognizably that of a pachyderm.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I manned my gun, keeping watch on the jungle ready to shoot anything that looked threatening.
And then, to my astonishment, Burdette chopped the throttle back to idle, unbuckled and hopped out.
“Come on,” he said. “Bring your camera.”
So this was why I’d been invited to the party.
Brandishing an M16 rifle, Burdette rested a leg on the great forehead and struck a pose so I could snap a picture: the mighty hunter with his trophy.
Now I really wanted to puke.
The other Huey circled overhead, watching for unfriendlies as our crew chief took out a hacksaw, carried for emergency repairs, and sawed off first one tusk, then the other. I was ordered to snap more pictures; then the tusks were loaded and we flew away.
When we landed at base camp, Col. Burdette asked for the film, and I gave it to him.
War is nasty, brutish, savage. Innocent people die, and rarely for any good reason. Except for two or three psychopaths, no combat soldier of my acquaintance ever enjoyed killing. And I doubt that even the nut jobs would have asked to be photographed standing over a human corpse that they were responsible for killing.
Pack animals bearing enemy ammunition and supplies were a legitimate target in our ugly war; as much as I regret the deaths of those gentle beasts, I understand and accept why they were killed.
But to bring a photographer along in anticipation of such a kill suggests pride of accomplishment: My photos were meant to convey the colonel’s prowess as a big game hunter.
As if killing a big, defenseless creature with an aerial rocket was sport.
Allen M. Burdette, Jr., went on to wear three stars and was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. I knew him as a brave and compassionate commander and first-class combat aviator. He died several years ago.
If there is any justice in this universe, his soul will return as an elephant.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.