This article is dedicated to the countless men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice of service to this nation, and those who remember them.
The following article was pulled from the journal of Art Costanzo, a Vietnam Veteran who served in Bien Hoa, Vietnam as a helicopter gunner with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.
* This article contains mild language
January 31, 1968, 4:30 AM
I had now been in Vietnam for twenty-four days. I had not fired a shot in anger nor had anyone fired at me. I had flown a total of six days. All we did was pick up people or stuff and fly them someplace else. One of those days, the pilot flew to a “free fire zone”, so I could have a chance to shoot and get comfortable with hanging out of a helicopter. I remember jokingly telling my sergeant, that in training, I was not too good with the machine gun. I couldn’t shoot straight. He said: “Don’t worry about shooting straight, asshole. Just shoot a lot.” I would live by that advice.
Those days that I was not flying, were spent getting myself set up with a bunk, fatigues, weapon, etc. The facilities were not that bad. We slept in a two story wooden barracks. On each floor was a long center hallway with rooms that slept two all the way down. No doors, but everyone bought beads to give themselves some privacy. It kind of looked like a whore house. I was surprised that we had porcelain sinks, showers and toilets. All over the country you could see black smoke rising everywhere you set your eyes. It was shit burning. 90% of the troops in Nam shat in outhouse latrines into 55 gallon drums. Once a week they were set on fire and burned. So I considered myself very lucky to have flush toilets. I was wrong. We had no running water. You would go in a stall and do your business and then the next guy would go in, cover your business with toilet paper and then do his and on and on. Every day, mama Sans from the village would come in, scoop it all out and put it in 55 gallon drums and burn it. After about five months of this nonsense, someone realized the futility of this situation and they built outhouses and did what everyone else did. Once a week, a water truck would come and everyone could take a shower. Hot water was only a memory.
Vietnamese New Year is referred to as Tet. It falls on Jan. 31 and is the major holiday of the year. Even North Vietnam had declared a cease fire for the occasion. Everyone was in good spirits. I even had a chance to take a day trip to Saigon. Ate some street food, walked around, looked at the girls. I remember we walked past this huge horse racing track. I told the guys I was with, that if my dad was here, that’s where he would be.
So at 4:30 in the morning, it’s pitch dark out. I’m sitting on the edge of my bunk, smoking a cigarette and lacing up my boots. In two minutes, the Vietnam conflict will turn into the Vietnam war.
Instantly the world turned to bright white. It was as if the sun had landed right outside. Everyone ran out in the hall staring at each other, stunned. Then the sound and shock from the explosion hit us. We were all knocked over like dominos.
The largest ammunition supply dump in Vietnam was located about three miles from us in Long Binh. The enemy had infiltrated the facility and blew it up. All over the country, at the exact same time, similar events were taking place. The enemy had pulled off a surprise attack and there was no turning back now.
The siren started wailing and an announcement came over the loudspeaker instructing all flight crews to report to their choppers and all non-flight personnel to get into the waiting trucks with their weapons. They were going to the perimeter of the airbase, as we were under attack.
When I got down to my chopper, the pilots were already there doing their pre-flight checks. My crew chief arrived and started unhooking the rotor blade and making his preparations. I ran to the weapons locker and grabbed two machine guns and set them up. Ran back and got two boxes of ammo. Went back, and got two more. Within fifteen minutes we were getting airborne. We didn’t have to go far.
The perimeter of the airbase was about a football field deep. Barbed wire was strung in row after row. Sandbag bunkers were set up about every hundred feet. On the other side of the perimeter was the village of Bien Hua. Directly across the street, a row of ticki-tacky houses and a Sinclair gas station. From where we were parked, I could see the perimeter. There were three gunships from our company firing everything they had, and the guys in the bunkers were blasting away as well. All of a sudden, the gas station exploded and a huge ball of flame mushroomed up. I was getting myself ready to enter this foray with a combination of youthful enthusiasm and fear. I was wrong again. That fight was none of our business. We were headed elsewhere.
Daylight was starting to take over and we were flying as a company. We flew in formation of about twenty helicopters. As the new guy, I really had no idea what was going on or what we were doing. I was listening to all the radio transmissions blaring in my ears but most of it was Greek to me. I had not learned the slang terms and radio terminology yet so I was pretty much in the dark.
After about a half hour, we approached a large staging area and landed to pick up troops. All these young guys like me. Loaded up with ammo, grenades, bazookas and quite a bit of bravado. I don’t think anyone, including myself, had any idea the enormous step forward this war had taken.
And where did we drop these fellows off? Right in front of that racetrack I had visited 3 days before. It seems that all the attackers of the various places around Saigon, (what was left of them), had congregated at the racetrack and planned to make it the Alamo. We left those guys there, went back and got another load and dropped them in the same place. What happened after that, I don’t know, because now, we all broke away and flew off to answer whatever we were called upon to do. In my case, that turned out to be medivacs.
Before this day, the only dead people I had ever seen, were in their Sunday best and sleeping peacefully. This was a little different.
Let me clarify first what I mean by medivacs. ` I was not a medic. Nor was anyone else on that chopper. We were gunners and bus drivers. If you were in need of life saving measures while in route to the hospital, you went in a designated medivac chopper. They had a big white cross on them and no guns at all. They had medics and possibly doctors on board. They also had lifesaving equipment. If you were bleeding bad, you went with these guys. In order to keep them free to attend to the seriously wounded, we carried the stabilized and the dead. We carried a lot of medivacs in my twelve-month tour, but never as many as on this day.
Every place we landed that day was either inside Saigon or just on the outskirts of the city. We were getting a lot of walking wounded. Shrapnel wounds, broken bones, guys wrapped in tons of bandages suffering from who knows what. That bravado from earlier this morning, was gone. And then there were the dead. They were on stretchers or in body bags. The wounded guys would be sitting there staring down at the guys they shared smokes with just hours before. Of course, I was staring as well.
It had been a very long day. We went non-stop. I don’t even remember eating anything. My pilot announced that we had one more mission and then we were heading back to the base. Again, we started flying towards the city only this time we started gaining altitude. We were landing on the roof of a very tall building. As we started to set down I could see about ten guys standing in a group and behind them were rows and rows of dead men. The pilot said, “We have just landed on top of the U.S Embassy.”
“Oh where have you been, my blue eyed son?” “And where have you been, my darling young one?” …” I been 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Bob Dylan
The Embassy was one of the major targets that day. It was guarded by MP’s who for the most part, were only armed with side arms. Like everyone else that morning, they were caught with their pants down and didn’t stand a chance.
There were no stretchers or body bags. These guys had been killed early that morning and were frozen in the position they were in when they fell. Arms and legs spread out. Heads turned in impossible positions. One fellow was even in a kneeling position. They looked like a pile of broken mannequins. All these guys could do was carry them the best way they could and stack them in the chopper like cord wood. They were able to get six on when the pilot stopped them for weight reasons. As soon as we took off, another chopper landed to pick up another six.
I was in that situation where I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t not look. It was like a scene from some horror movie. Only it was real. I said an Our Father. … I said another Our Father. The faces. …Pain. …Shock. …Resignation. I saw Saint Christopher hanging from a chain. …Patron Saint of the traveler. I saw a gold wedding band. …I visualized Mickey Rooney riding his bike to deliver that horrible telegram to some soon to be devastated family. …I said another Our Father.
After we finished our last mission, we flew back to the base. Coming in over the perimeter, I could see that the gas station was still smoldering. A score of enemy were still hanging all over the barbed wire where they had fallen that morning. One of our helicopters was lying in the field on its side. It was covered with fire retardant foam. The crew had been killed.
After we landed, there were certain chores to get done before you could go back to the barracks. I put the guns and ammo back in the locker. No need to clean them. We never fired a shot.
“I was bruised and battered. I didn’t know what I felt. I was unrecognizable to myself” – “The Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen
I lay on my bunk staring at the ceiling. Everyone else straggled in throughout the evening. I knew they all were bursting with stories about what happened today, just like I was. But not tonight. Tonight there was silence as we remembered the empty bunks among us.
I had to go. When I stepped in the stall, I thought how fortunate I was. There had only been one visitor before me. I guess everyone was too busy to even shit today. I came out and poured a bucket of water into the porcelain sink. I dunked my head in the water and stayed there till I ran out of breath. I stood up and looked at my reflection in the mirror. Different.