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. He was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor and received two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War.
* This article contains mild language and is mildly graphic
Have you ever been outside and heard that unmistakable sound of a helicopter? You look up and see nothing. You hear it, but have no idea from which direction its coming from and then, all of a sudden, there it is right over your head. That’s the principal of treetop flying or “low level”, as we referred to it.
For about 4 months I kind of wore two hats. I was crew chief on a “slick”(troop carrying chopper), and the next week I was a crew chief on a gunship. A gunship never carried passengers. They were heavily armed with miniguns, rockets and of course, two door gunners. When a gunship took off in the morning, the only mission they ever flew was to search out “Charlie ” and take him out. In some respects, it was safer to fly on gunships. You didn’t have to pick up medivacs, which was by far the most vulnerable you could ever be. Those wounded and dead you were picking up didn’t wind up that way without help.
One of the best ways to flush out the enemy was to fly over suspected areas at treetop level. About a foot above the tops of the trees. Obviously the pilot had to be very attentive as one little slip and you were in the trees. We gunners would sit there with our fingers on the trigger, ready to fire the second we saw something.
July 27, 1968
The next day we were dropping a large number of troops into an area that was held by the enemy. Today, my chopper and three others were doing a “recon by fire.” The landing zone for these troops was a large clearing surrounded by forest on all four sides. The woods had been previously sprayed with agent orange and was in the process of dying. Our mission was to each take a side of this clearing and work our way out about three miles into the wood, flying at low level, and hopefully “soften” up this area before the landing the next day. With the leaves falling off the trees like it was the middle of October back home, it was easier to see the forest floor and possibly, a target.
John Wayne Acosta
Yes, that was his real name. John Wayne was a gunner from Little Rock. Years later, I would see John Belushi on tv and think I was looking at his twin. In fact, he was a comedian. He told me once that the only way I was ever going to get laid, was to crawl up a chicken’s ass and wait. Now imagine hearing that in a voice that was somewhere between Paula Dean and Bill Clinton.
In the military, everyone is referred to by their last name, (“Come here Costanzo.”, “Go there Simpson”, etc.). Half the time, I never knew what somebody’s first name was. Not John Wayne. Everyone, including the commanding officer called him John Wayne. Not John. Not Wayne. John Wayne.
“We said we’d all go down together…” Billy Joel, “Goodnight Saigon”
The following incident probably lasted about thirty seconds from the time the first shot was fired until the end. If only it had felt that way in my head.
We had been zig zagging over this wood for about forty-five minutes. We were looking for enemy caught out, bunkers, or anything that looked out of place. If we saw something, we would open fire and the pilot would immediately bank in your direction and turn so you wouldn’t lose your target. Neither one of us had seen anything thus far.
Suddenly John Wayne opened fire. I didn’t fire because I didn’t see anything. The pilot immediately banked to the right to make a turn so John Wayne could continue to fire. Just as we were starting to level out and I could see the ground, it happened.
Funny, I don’t have any recollection of actually hearing the sound of the explosion. Maybe it’s because I was part of it. What I do recall is getting smacked in the face with leaves and branches. I remember feeling as though we had somehow stopped in the air. I remember smelling fuel and feeling wet. And for the first time in my life, (but not the last), I was very aware that I was screaming “Mommy!” over and over. I was aware, but, like everything else that happened that day, I had no control
Suddenly we made contact with the ground in what can only be described as a controlled crash. They cut the engine immediately and I just sat there for a few seconds to collect myself. I looked down and I was covered in fuel and blood. The blood wasn’t mine.
I don’t know what I expected to see as I scooted over to John Wayne’s side. What I saw will be with me to the grave. What was the floor underneath him, was gone, as were his legs from the knees down. He was peppered with shards of wood and he was impaled by a large branch that was protruding from his unbuttoned flak jacket.
Whatever John Wayne was shooting at exploded. This was something that happened from time to time. Every fifth round on a machine gun belt is a tracer. It’s basically a phosphorous bullet that aids you in directing your fire. If a tracer hits a box of grenades, bullets, or anything else explosive, there is a good chance it will blow up. We referred to this as “getting a secondary” and it was something to celebrate. Unless your 50 feet off the ground.
No one else was seriously injured that day and as the years go by, I frequently relive that episode. You can’t help but feel some survivor’s guilt. It could just as easily have been the other way around. What if one of us had a cigarette hanging out of our mouth with all that fuel? What if those blessed pilots had a little less experience? There is one thing of which I am almost certain. John Wayne’s final thoughts were of his mother.
John Wayne Acosta, Little Rock, AK
10-12-1946 – 7-27-1968
Pictured in the feature photo: Art Costanzo