Greg Wagoner, Vietnam

Posted by Gregory Wagoner

I Make a Decision for Myself

I made a decision on my own when I turned 18, I joined the Marine Corps. Two weeks after graduating from Reitz High School, I was a bald headed recruit at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina – now someone was making every decision for me, when to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, every minute of every hour, of every day was filled with activity determined by someone else, so much for making my own decisions.

It was finally time for me to give up being a child and learn to be a man (although I would not truly think of myself as a man until I returned from Vietnam). I learned discipline and through that discipline – pride and confidence. I could run 3 miles and was hardly winded, I could march through every command of the drill and ceremony manual with snap and precision, I could field strip my weapon and put it back together in a few short minutes and then I could take that weapon and shoot it and hit a target 500 yards away. I could quote you my chain-of-command from the President of the United States to my junior drill instructor SGT McIntosh.

After "boot camp" I went to Camp LeJune in North Carolina where I went to motor transport school – I learned to drive military vehicles, a 10 wheeled, three axel truck on road and off, through mud, sand, water 4 feet deep, on a trail, or making my own trail. I was 18 years old and finally felt that I was learning and doing something useful.

Skip ahead a few months and I was in Vietnam, foreign culture, hostile environment, but I really felt that I was contributing to the American way of life, being a patriot and not just sitting passively by as an observer. I learned the horror of war, a rude lesson for someone raised on John Wayne movies, war has only one purpose for those doing the fighting – kill your enemy before he can kill you. It is a lie to say there is anything noble about war, there is nothing honorable about war - it only has one single purpose - to kill. That is the bleak and stark reality; war is an ugly, hideous, act of unbelievable violence.

I also learned of cowardice in Vietnam (the biggest lie there is – is that Marines are heroes), a lesson that stays with me to this day. In Vietnam I flew on helicopters as a door gunner. We were flying re-supply missions one day, the pilot was a major – I believe our squadron executive officer. We were taking a water buffalo, a 500 gallon trailer of fresh water, out to a unit that had been in contact with the Vietcong. Approaching their position we could see sporadic small arms fire, so instead of coming in low-level, we came in at a higher altitude to give our escort of Huey Cobra gunships time to make a couple a strafing runs and then we dropped in to deliver their water. We were about 100 feet off the deck and took some machine gun fire – nothing heavy, what we called harassing fire. The major said "fuck it" and jettisoned the trailer "they got their water", the trailer exploded when it hit the ground, but we were already in a steep climb getting out of the area. I do not know when those guys ever got any water; I only know I felt real dirty when we got back to our safe little airstrip. I swore that day, if I ever got the chance to lead men, I would never act like that major acted.

I got that chance later in life after I graduated from Indiana State University Evansville and received my Bachelor of Science degree; I was offered a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army which I accepted. After graduating from the officers basic course I was stationed with the Second Armored Division, Fort Hood, Texas, where I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment. I had a variety of jobs: Fire Support Officer, Fire Direction Officer, Firing Battery Executive Officer, being promoted to First Lieutenant along the way. I also held staff positions at the Battalion and Division level and I had a TS-BI security clearance – so I could study and learn just about everything you wanted to know about nuclear weapons.

After four years I went back to Fort Sill to attend the Field Artillery Officers Advanced course learning more on leadership and management, logistics, and tactics. I then went to Korea for a year as the Deputy Installation Camp Commander of Camp Stanley, Second Infantry Division.

One Day in Vietnam for a Nineteen Year Old

We fly into the night not knowing what the next one or two hours will bring, death is always a possibility. We are the new "turret gunners" like the bombers of WWII, we are door gunners flying in Marine helicopters and like our forefathers, the WW II turret gunners, we have a short life expectancy about 3 times less than other combat troops. I had been flying for 4 months.

We rise into the air, the clapa-clapa of the rotor blades beating out a tempo to some unheard song that was swallowed by the void of the night. I grasp the handles of my M2 fifty caliber machine gun and pull back the charging handle, releasing one of the six-inch long, half inch round, shells wondering if it is the phosphorus tracer round, the armor piercing round, or the ball round. Not that it mattered, the venerable M2 fired at a cyclic rate of over 400 rounds per minute. In 30 seconds the 200 round belt of ammunition, I had just loaded, would be spent. The rounds are strung together like popcorn on a Christmas tree; one tracer, one armor piercing, three ball rounds in an endless belt (you can link the belts together if you are fast enough).

We are flying night med-i-vacs we were going to pick up wounded Marines. I enjoy these missions; it makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile. I volunteered the last three months to fly med-i-vacs, not many people want to fly them – they are dangerous. I am proud of the fact that anyone we pick up alive – we deliver alive – not one person had ever died enroute.

We near the LZ (landing zone) and my body tenses like it is racked with an orgasm from head to toe. Not sexual, but so intense that every nerve is on fire. I smell the rot of the jungle mixed with the smell of JP-4 (the high octane kerosene that powers the Lycoming turbines of the Marine CH-47 helicopter). My eyes strain to see through the black shroud that covers everything. Ears are unable to hear beyond the static in my helmet and the rotor blades as they slap the air in all out combat to keep us in flight.

The static in my helmet come to life as the pilot talks to the ground controller who is vectoring us to the proper coordinates for our pick up. He comes over the intercom and announces, "gunners be alert we are about five klicks out. Return fire only if fired on, friendlies are only at the LZ, all others are hostile." "Crew chief aye aye sir." "Port gunner aye aye sir." And finally I answer, "Starboard gunner aye aye sir". We are ready for what ever the next few minutes have in store for us.

We are up about 5,000 feet, a mile in the air, which is a pretty safe distance from any small arms fire, and if the VC had a SAM (Surface to Air Missile) well we would only know about it for a second or two. We start our descent.

Though is it cool flying at 5,000 feet, as we descend, the inside of the chopper is stifling. We drop out of the blackness at a rate of about 500 feet per minute. At about 2,000 feet we are in range of their small arms fire and other weapons they may have, especially their mortars which they aim by hand with an all too often deadly accuracy.

All of us are trying to see the tell-tell sign of a muzzle flash of small arms fire, or worse the green arc of Chi-Com tracer rounds from a machine gun, or even worse the muzzle flash of their hand aimed mortars, or the very worse the tail of fire from a SAM. All have the potential for death.

We come into the landing area in a wide sweeping circle- 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet hoping to draw any enemy fire while we are flying and able to maneuver, once we transition to hover, we are at our most vulnerable. Five hundred feet and we begin our transition, trees come into view and we see the marking smoke telling us where our friendlies are located. I aim at a point beyond; out into the black infinity where anything can appear, it is a place where our fears live, where nightmares become reality. The blackness is death.

We are into our hover kicking up a cloud of dust and debris as thick as the smoke grenade used to guide us into position. I am half way out of my window, leaning over the top of my machine gun methodically searching my half- outside of the chopper. You cannot panic and try to look everywhere at once, or stare at one place you 'think' an enemy might be, you have to be cool, calm, and systematic; left to right, near to far, left to right, near to far all the time scanning for a shadow that should not be there or any other sign that looks out of place. Thumbs are on the butterfly trigger of the M2, I know just the amount of pressure needed to release a hail of death and destruction.

Now, technically, the Geneva Convention prohibits the use of a fifty caliber weapon on human targets, you see a fifty caliber bullet is too large to use on a human target, so it would be inhumane to shoot a person with that large of a round. But, it is OK to shoot at equipment, (actually that is what it was developed for, most WW II turret gunners used either thirty or fifty caliber machine guns to shoot at enemy fighter planes) so we all had a standing story that we were just shooting at Charlie's equipment and he just happened to get in the way. The whole story continued with the "old man" asking you what equipment you were aiming for and you would reply, "his canteen".

We are on the ground for 30 seconds and it seems like we are homesteading the place. I risk a quick glance inside the chopper and see Marines carrying stretchers onboard. One stretcher has a Marine who has had his leg blown off. I do not remember if it was his right or left leg, what I do remember is that he was holding the remaining stump as if the tourniquet could not be trusted. No screaming or tears, just that grim look of determination that he would keep himself from bleeding to death; he would be responsible for his own fate.

At last we are loaded and the crew chief raises the ramp, our pilot has already applied power to the six rotors that once again go to war with the laws of physics and gravity pulling us into the night air. The interior of the chopper smells of burnt flesh and blood, I stick my head even further out of the window and concentrate on the night, it doesn't help and bile still rises in my throat.

We are up over the tree tops and gaining altitude as fast as we can; mercifully we are in and out without any enemy contact. Now it is a race of time to get back to DaNang. There are two places we could be going, to DaNang harbor where the USS Sanctuary (a hospital ship) is anchored, or to the main hospital in DaNang. Since it is night my guess is the hospital in DaNang, landing on a ship at night is risky, and the facilities are better at the hospital – we had some pretty bad wounded on board.

As we reach 5,000 feet there is finally time to relax a little, I look back inside, bathed in the red light of our blackout interior lights, and I see the faint shapes of the wounded we have picked up. Down the middle of the aisle I see the black lumps of the body bags that we also picked up. I want to cry, but there are no tears left.

Our pilot lets us know we are approaching DaNang and we will land at the hospital. We drop out of the sky very fast, auto-rotating from 5,000 feet to probably 1,000 feet in less than a minute, then full pitch as we flare onto the landing pad at the hospital. There are corpsmen and medics there to meet us; they will have our wounded unloaded practically, before the ramp is fully lowered. Then they come back to unload the body bags. Now the chopper, once again, only carries the pilot and copilot, the crew chief, and both of us gunners.

Back in the night sky we head back to Marine Air Group 16 at Marble Mountain, it is a short flight and we are soon taxiing to the ready hanger, the night is only half over, we will stay on alert until 0800 hours when we will be relieved by a day crew. The pilot goes through his shut down procedures, the Crew chief lowers the rear ramp and goes to get a couple of water hoses.

The other gunner and I secure our weapons, unloading them and making sure everything is in order. As the crew chief returns, the three of us complete the worst part of the mission – washing out the blood. You don't think about it, the fact that you have been walking through someone's blood, or the smell, or the grime-faced Marine who holds the stump of a once whole leg. If you thought about it, it would drive you insane.

Our tasks completed, we head to the Quonset hut that serves as the quick reaction ready room. Inside are cots with bare mattresses, we collapse on them and wait for the next blast of the alert siren.

Footnote
  1. I went on to fly for six months, winning my air crew wings with 3 combat stars, along with the Air Medal/4 (four awards of the same medal for flying over 100 missions). Our record of always bringing the alive back alive held true – a fact that I am very proud of. I survived 3 crashes, walking away from each of them without injury. I served a total of eight years in the Marine Corps and won Marine of the year for Det Company K in 1977. I later received a commission in the United States Army where I served an additional 15 years before retiring as a Captain.
  2. I passed the mantle on to my son, Jason, a Green Beret, has over 7 tours of combat in the Persian Gulf.
  3. My Grandson, Tim, is currently on his 1st tour in Iraq.