The Pilot

By Denis Chericone

It was raining lightly, waving in sheets across the FOB. A barrage had been raging for over an hour and so far we’d been lucky, no wounded or worse. I stood in the main trench trying to keep dry while watching the F-fours bomb the shit out of the far side of the ridge where the farmers were forming up to assault us. A couple of marines stood nearby cheering every time there was an explosion. I agreed, heartily. We were staying low. Gunshots stuttered through their own echoes and we had grown cautious of too much exposure. Enemy snipers were now active and Clipper had pulled me out of the way after a thinly smoking hole appeared in a sandbag near my head. Yeah, another quickly followed. As we crouched, Clip stuck his fist above the rim of our trench, middle finger extended, and began moving it back and forth like a carny target. As I shook my head he looked at me with that impish smirk and said, “If that asshole was any good I’d be picking your brains up right now.” He was right. He’d saved my nut and I started laughing.

The Phantoms were coming in only a few hundred feet over target dropping high explosives and napalm, trying to scatter the farmers before they could attack. It was turning into quite a show. As the napalm boiled the air and the barrages grew thicker you could barely hear yourself think. There’s a point in any battle where it cannot get any louder. We’d passed that soon after it all began. Everybody was pissed off and everything was a “Fuck you!” The jet jockeys were rolling the dice daring the farmers to bring them down while trying to help us any way they could. I heard guys mutter Steel Balls more than once.

Besieged U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, watch as a U.S. Air Force USAF F-4 Phantom II over Khe Sahn (Sgt. Robert F. Witowski, USAF - National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo 130605-F-DW547-016)

The flyers were taking heavy ground fire from the farmer formations who were learning fast. At one time they would shoot at the aircraft rarely leading it, but lately they’d begun grouping a dozen or so men to shoot ahead of the plane. Now our guys had to fly into the waiting bullet swarms. It worked well this time. As a Phantom lowed down into his strafing channel and I mean low, brother, just a couple of hundred feet above the deck, if that, a large bulb of flame ballooned out of his exhaust. We watched the canopy pop off as the pilot ejected. His craft slammed into a low hill and disappeared in a cratering fireball. He was maybe three or four hundred feet in the air when his chute opened. Down he came. The marines began yelling bitterly, “He’s dead, man! He’s a goner! Right into the middle of the Dinks!” The pilot and chute disappeared beyond the ridge and we rippled knowing the farmers were going to nail him. Suddenly, I heard Bob’s voice yelling my name. “Kid! Kid! C’mon, we gotta go!”

“Go? Go where?” I asked, looking up from the trench as my dread instantly intensified. Ah, the old They’re trying to kill me again routine.

“We’re gonna go get that guy.” he said smiling before he hurried away. “The pilot?” I yelled astounded.

He turned, “Yeah, c’mon. We don’t have much time.”

I grabbed my weapon and as I climbed out of the trench I was muttering “No, no, he’s gone. They got him.” I heard a chopper coming in as the barrage intensified and we ran towards the FOB’s LZ.

We laid low in a hole as the barrage casually shifted directions. When the helo whirled to a hover near us the barrage began creeping back towards us. At the right moment we made the dash, and then we were in, up and on our way. Bob was smiling and laughing big time as if he’d just won a bet. He loved impromptu flirtations with getting your ass shot off. It kind of fit our situation. He was contagious. I looked at him, “Mommy, are we gonna die?” He gave me the peace sign and laughed some more and as I armed up the crew chief swung his machine gun towards our destination. As we came over the rise I began thinking, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be dead before you know it.”

Khe Sahn, March 1968 (US National Archives)

I expected to see a bazillion farmers aiming at us, but there was only a mushed-up chute a few hundred yards distant billowing in a narrow ravine and a lone figure slogging through the mucky earth. It was our guy. When he saw us he started waving wildly and as we flew at him I heard the hollow sound of a few hits bopping our ship’s frame. We skirted the ground and as we neared our boy Bob and I jumped off in a dead run. The pilot could barely walk, but he was game and gave it everything he had left. When we got him on the ship he collapsed into a sweat-stained shivering ball and Bob immediately gave him a deep once-over. I’d forgotten about getting wasted beneath the effort of getting him aboard. The crew chief brought it all home when he opened up with his fifty. Then I suddenly remembered something about dying as we lifted off. I was surprised. There weren’t many zzzt’s of bullets aside from a few hollow metallic thunks into the side of the ship. The crew chief yelled something to me and pointed his weapon to the crest of the ridge a few hundred yards distant. I looked and saw some dark smudges oozing over the brow. He let loose and we lifted off just as I fired a burst at the smears. Then we were over the rise. In the distance I saw more smudges moving over the blasted landscape towards where we’d been.

Definitely not our guys. Bob held the pilot’s hand and was saying something to him as he stared blankly into nowhere. I remember thinking then that maybe our guy was realizing he’d come back from the dead. I still think it’s strange. I’ve forgotten most of the little details of being shot at and bombed on, but I remembered this small thought from that moment in the helo. We took a few more hits and then were touching down on our LZ before any of us knew it.

The helo left and we dodged the barrage well enough to get him down into the med bunker. He was weak and disoriented and I wondered if he was able to believe he was safe. He was what I could only describe as consciously unconscious, you know, he wore a haze.

Bob sat him on a stretcher for a closer exam and was trying to be as reassuring as he could. I got him some water which he greedily drank and immediately choked on. He was a large man and an Air Force colonel, a sign he was a “hands on” kind of guy. He’d broken all the rules by skimming the targets; but he and his boys had succeeded in breaking up the assault. We were humbled, grateful and definitely in awe of his band of madmen. We knew what that kind of flying took. Suddenly, he was talking excitedly to us about the mission and then promptly fell off the stretcher onto the muddy floor where he began crying uncontrollably. We didn’t expect it at all and when he rose to his knees and hugged my legs tears darkening the caked mud on his face I couldn’t speak.

Stammering, he hoarsely croaked, “I would be a dead man if you guys hadn’t…”

Bob tried lifting him up; but the pilot was elsewhere right now.

“I know they would have gotten me. I saw them! They were already shooting. I wouldn’t be