On the evening of Sep. 25, 1969, while sipping a Segrams VO and soda at the Officers Club, one of the Operations Duty Officers, Lt. John Harris, advised that I was on the flight schedule the following morning. It was an "orientation" flight that would be a "piece of cake" type flight resupplying some relatively secure positions and would allow me to see portions of our operating area, learn radio and control procedures, etc. Lt. Harris also advised that he would be acting as my "tour guide" for the flight. I was both exhilarated and apprehensive at the same time that evening. I was about to do what I had volunteered to come back on active duty for. What was one of those several un-named reasons? To see how I would react in a combat situation. Sounds rather silly doesn't it?
The following morning I, Maj. Gulledge the newly designated Operations Officer, met Lt. Harris considerably before the flight was scheduled to depart. He spent the time getting the "banker" ready by showing me how to wear the "bullet bouncer" describing the survival vest and its associated equipment and even made recommendations on how to position the holster of my 38 cal. Smith & Wesson. He indicated that yes we had some protection from the armored seats which the pilots sat in but that the Plexiglas to our front provided no security. It seems that most of the pilots would turn their pistol belts so the holster containing their personal side arm could be placed between their legs as they sat in the cockpit. This arrangement provided some protection for the "family jewels" from enemy fire received through the nose of the aircraft. Lt. Harris also briefed me and the crew of the second aircraft in our flight of the mission requirements, radio procedures, emergency procedures and other aspects a flight leader did. It was also during this time that I learned that John Harris had just recently returned from the Naval Hospital at Yokouska, Japan where he had been recovering from a 50 caliber round that had penetrated his armored seat and slammed into the meaty portion of his left shoulder.
The flight to various locations such as the Republic of Korea (ROK) Marines headquarters area on the South China Sea south of Marble Mountain, LZ Baldy, the fire support base at An Hoa, one or two of the reconnaissance out posts, skirting the Arizona territory (you didn't want to fly over it for fear of being shot down) enroute to LZ 55 gave me some insight to the area we operated within. The mission was completed and I thought we were going home when Lt. Harris changed frequencies on the radio and called Da Nang Direct Air Support Center (DASC) to advise them his mission was complete and that his flight still had 2 plus crew hours left for the day (normally pilots were limited to six hours of flight time per day). Da Nang DASC's reply was simply, "Standby." Soon they came back with a mission to perform an emergency extract of a reconnaissance team on the south side of "Charlie Ridge." This mountain of course got its name from the number of enemy which operated there. Our flight proceeded to the First Reconnaissance Battalion's LZ to pick up a ladder and receive more details of the teams problems. The team was in contact and their location did not afford any suitable spot to land a CH-46 for the extraction. Therefore, I got my first view of a ladder extraction device which was numerous 5 or 6 foot lengths of pipe bound together at two foot intervals with five strands of cable. One strand on each end of the pipes and three more spaced evenly between the end cables. This device was rolled up the ramp of our bird and one end was fastened tightly to cargo tie down rings located in the deck of the aircraft. Once we were over the beleaguered team our crew chief would simply lower the ramp to half-mast and roll the ladder out the back of the helicopter. The device was 100 or more feet long which allowed it to reach the ground through the tall trees of the jungle. With the ladder securely attached and the briefing complete, Lt. Harris lifted from LZ 401 and headed for Charlie Ridge.
Upon arriving at the team's location we were given a zone brief by the lead Huey gun ship pilot which confirmed that a ladder extract would be required on the south side of Charlie Ridge about one fourth the distance down from the top of the ridge line. The team was in contact and could not move to an area which might improve their accessibility for an extract. The team popped a yellow smoke which was seen rising trough the triple canopy of the jungle below. Lt. Harris briefed the crew and specifically briefed me to monitor all the gauges and standby to control the aircraft if he were to be wounded during the extraction. His briefing was very calm and matter of fact, as if he were giving a training session briefing to transition pilot into the CH-46, which of course he was. Lt. Harris proceed to the smoke, established a hover approximately 15 feet above the trees and commenced backing the helicopter into the side of the mountain from calm verbal instructions issued by the crew chief. "Back sir, come on back sir, approximately 10 more feet sir. Right sir, right about four feet. Hold your hover sir, hold your hover, the team is beneath us. Ladder's going out sir, ladder hung in the tree sir, back , back, back, ladder's free sir hold your hover, hold your hover. Team is at the ladder, hold your . . . . ." and then all hell broke loose. I felt hundreds of strange vibrations flowing through the structure of the helicopter. My first thought was that I had just experienced having hundreds of enemy rounds puncturing the skin of the helicopter and that my first "orientation" flight was going to be my last flight in Vietnam. Then I realized that it was our .50 caliber machine guns blazing away at something (my 45 day re-training at MCAS New River did not include live firing of .50 caliber machine guns).
For a moment I took my eyes off the gauges to see what havoc those rounds were playing on the real estate around the aircraft. It was an amazing sight! It didn't matter that we killed someone, no self respecting enemy would dare raise his head to take aim at us with our gunners rounds literally ripping the surrounding real estate to pieces. I learned quickly the meaning of suppressive fire. When I returned to my task of monitoring the gauges, I glanced over at Lt. Harris and, what I saw I shall never forget. His eyes had a mysterious twinkle to them, his hands on the cyclic stick and collective were rock steady except for the slightest movement in response to the crew chief who was still, and in a calm manner, relaying control information to him. Lt. John Harris, who had recently returned from the hospital at Yokouska, was in his environment and enjoying every second of it! His demeanor actually had a calming effect upon me, so I went back to monitoring the gauges and listening to the crew chief continue his dialogue of the progress in getting the team aboard the ladder. Soon all six or eight recon Marines were assembled on the ladder and the delicate task of lifting straight up, up out of ground effect, climbing straight up 100 or more feet so as to not drag those Marines through the trees below us made us an even better target for the VC gunners below. When the ladder cleared the tops of the trees, the crew chief exclaimed, "Ladder's clear sir, let's get the hell out of here!"
The remainder of the flight, which was flown at approximately 90 knots with the recon team trailing below us, was indeed uneventful and "a piece of cake orientation flight." We delivered the team and their ladder to LZ 401 and returned to Marble Mountain. On our way from the aircraft to the Ready Room, I pulled off my flight helmet and looked with interest at the top of it. Lt. Harris said, "Major Gulledge what are you looking at?" I replied, "John, I am looking to see how many circuit breaker indentations there are in the top of my flight helmet." John Harris simply smiled and we continued to the Ready Room to fill out the after action reports.
I served with the most outstanding group of Marines I have ever known in HMM-364. Many of them, officer and enlisted, made indelible impressions upon my memory that served me well the remainder of my term in the Marine Corps. I must say however, that Lt. John Harris' impression is one which always comes to the forefront when I recall Vietnam. That was some day and, I was both oreinted and indoctrinated!
Franklin A. Gulledge, Jr., Maj. USMC (Ret)
Maj. Gulledge's History Index
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