by Maj. Fred H. Allison, USMC (Ret)
They had flown a few routine and emergency medevac missions throughout the morning of 8 April 1969, ferrying hurt Marines from the Highway 1 area back to the medevac pad. The routine missions were the worst because you knew the Marine was already dead. Now “Swift-04,” a CH-46 helicopter flown by Capt. Bill Beebe and copilot 1stLt. Jeff Monaghan of the Purple Foxes squadron (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364), were refueling at Marble Mountain when they got a radio call from the squadron duty officer telling them to contact the Da Nag direct air support center (DASC) for another mission. They took off immediately and once clear of the airfield rolled to the DASC frequency. It was another medevac, not routine this time. A wounded recon Marine in the bush needed extracting. En route to the landing zone, Monaghan contacted the recon team.
Briefed by the recon team leader, the Swift-04 crew planned a hoist pickup through the jungle's thick canopy. As the CH-46 approached the zone, the recon team called, popping smoke. For operational security they did not announce the smoke's color. When the helicopter crew saw green smoke wafting up through the jungle vegetation, Monaghan called, “I have green smoke.” “That's us,” the recon team replied. Setting up in a hover over the smoke, the crew prepared to drop the hoist. The recon team leader shouted into the radio, “Wave off! Wave off! You're taking lots of fire.” Beebe gunned the engines and accelerated out of the zone. The team was in the midst of about a battalion of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. When the chopper arrived, the NVA decided to make their presence known.
As Beebe cleared the zone and rolled into a turn, he noticed a swift-running mountain stream a few hundred meters downhill from the recon team's position. The stream carved a narrow chasm through the jungle's growth. Beebe thought that the gap in the jungle's growth might handle a CH-46. As Beebe hooked the helicopter around and prepared for an upwind approach to the watery landing zone, he briefed the crew. The plan now was to extract the whole recon team. All crew members were to grab M-16s and lay down covering fire for the recon Marines to give them the best chance of making it down the hill, into the stream, and into the CH-46.
In the back of the helicopter, the Purple Foxes flight surgeon, LT. Clay Linkous, USN, who made it a habit to fly combat missions, was onboard this day to train one of his corpsmen. Like the rest of the crew, he grabbed an M16. As Beebe brought the CH-46 into a hover over the stream, the rotor down wash separated the branches and leaves and provided additional clearance for the chopper to settle into the stream. The water was about 3 feet deep, and Beebe pushed the aircraft down, planting it firmly on the stream bed. The crew then opened up with their weapons. The gunner blasted away with a .50 caliber machine gun out the left side door, and the others fired their M-16s. Beebe looked up the stream and saw what looked like bundles floating toward him. As they got closer, he realized they were dead NVA soldiers – probably victims of the firelight with the recon Marines and supporting Huey gunships. Beebe took no chances with the bodies. Turning over control of the helicopter to Monaghan, he grabbed his .38, leaned out the right side window, and closely examined each body as it floated by. He did not want any of these dead NVA to suddenly come back to life and play havoc with his helicopter.
Monaghan lowered the CH-46’s ramp in the rear. Once it was down, Linkous and the crew chief scrambled out looking downstream for the recon team. The team came slipping, sliding, and splashing through the creek, in full recon regalia – camouflage paint, flopping hats, gear, and packs. They brought the wounded Marine, arms wrapped around him, assisting him along. They enemy was close by. Linkous glimpsed some enemy soldiers up the steep hill to the left. He sprayed the area with his M16. Then the recon team clambered up the ramp. Linkous grabbed their hands and arms assisting them. Inside the chopper they counted heads, and once sure they were all there, Linkous gave a thumbs up sign to the crew chief, who passed the word to Beebe and Monaghan. Beebe pushed the throttles forward while Monaghan shoved the lever forward to close the ramp. The CH-46 began lifting out. Suddenly, as it rose, the aircraft's nose lurched sharply upward. Water that had washing into the helicopter when the ramp was down, along with the recon Marines at the rear of the CH-46’s fuselage, gave the chopper a serious center of gravity problem. When the nose of the helicopter jumped skyward, the rear of the chopper dropped precipitously. The recon Marines perched near the rear of the aircraft were pitched off balance. They all managed to grab handholds to steady themselves, all except the rear-most Marine. He was still on the ramp itself, as it had not risen because of the weight of the water rushing over it. The Marine on the ramp was about to be washed overboard along with the water as it rushed over the dipping ramp. He reached and clawed for something to hold on to on the oily, slick ramp, but there was nothing he could grasp. He was going overboard. At an altitude of over 40 feet, a fall would have caused serious injuries.
LT. Linkous instantly stepped out onto the ramp and – in one deft move – with one hand grabbed the ramp's strut that connected it to the aircraft body, and with the other hand grabbed the belt of the recon Marine. He had the Marine in a death grip as the Marine dangled off the edge of the ramp. In the cockpit, Beebe struggled to correct the nose-up attitude, which he did in only seconds.
As the chopper's nose dropped and the ramp slowly rose, Linkous hoisted the Marine over the ramp's lip and into the safety of the CH-46’s body. It was a very close call. The enemy, seemingly angry at being denied the satisfaction of at least one dead Marine, fired more small arms rounds at the CH-46 that rapidly grew smaller and smaller as it rose and angled off. One round ripped through the bottom of the chopper and smashed into the seat where LT. Linkous sat. Fortunately, like a good many Marines had learned to do, Linkous sat on his flak jacket instead of wearing it. The flak jacket caught the enemy's bullet, and Doc Linkous was not harmed.
LT. Linkous had originally planned the mission to train a new corpsman.
Both the surgeon and the Marine he saved that day got a lot more than they
had bargained for as they made plans for that day.
> Maj Allison is a frequent contributor to the “Marine Corps Gazette”
and is an Oral Historian, History and Museums Division, Marine Corps University.
< Photo of Lt. Clay Linkous near Marble Mountain, January 1969, courtesy of Don MacHarg.
> Editor’s Note: This “Sting of Battle” entry was prepared based on interviews with the mission pilot, LtCol Bill Bee, USMC(Ret), and former LCDR. Clay Linkous. For this mission, Bill Beebe received the Silver Star, Jeff Monaghan received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Clay Linkous, though nominated by the squadron for a Silver Star, received no award.