July 26, 1968, is not a date that will live in infamy, but it will live forever in my memory.
Some days are better than others. Some are flat-out bad – especially when bad guys are shooting at you. On this day, so long ago and far away, a North Vietnamese Army soldier shot one of my fellow Marines, Danny Anders. A few minutes later, a U.S. Marine fighter-attack pilot dropped a napalm bomb that almost turned my good buddy into a human french fry. Danny was having a bad day.
Fellow teammates Lee Kohler and Bob Tender were having a bad day, too, that fateful July afternoon. In fact, my whole Marine reconnaissance team was experiencing a rather awful day, as an overwhelming number of North Vietnamese troops were trying to annihilate us in a helicopter landing zone in the hills somewhere southwest of Phu Bai, South Vietnam.
I was worried even before the helicopters took us in to the landing zone. The 1st Marine Division intelligence boys suspected that an entire North Vietnamese Army division was in the area we were to patrol, and we were supposed to confirm they were there. However, a couple of other reconnaissance teams already had been shot up while trying to be inserted by choppers into that area. Now we were going to be dropped into the same place. It didn't make sense. Yet, we were going in there, no matter.
When our CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter landed in the zone, the tailgate ramp failed to go down – keep in mind that the tailgate is the exit point in a CH-46 – so we couldn't run out the back of the chopper. We were stuck there on the landing zone, waiting for the tailgate to drop open. Little did we know that NVA soldiers were just 20 to 30 meters away, waiting to cut us down whenever that tailgate dropped.
But it just wouldn't drop. The enemy soldiers were probably looking at each other, wondering what was going on with us American jarheads: Is this a crazy new Marine tactic?
Glyn Burney was the patrol leader, and I was the assistant patrol leader. We decided we would all crawl out, one at a time, through the opening between the top end of the ramp and the back of the rear-rotor section of the chopper. Our point men would go first, so Lee Kohler and Danny each slipped through the opening and dropped to the ground. Third was Bob Tender, and as soon as he slipped out, the NVA soldiers opened fire with grenades, a machine gun and automatic rifles. Lee was peppered with grenade shrapnel, while Danny's shoulder and arm were torn open by small-arms rounds. Bob reached up to the ramp and tried to pull himself up and back into the 46.
Inside the chopper, I could feel rounds ripping through the skin of our Sea Knight. Al Cirelli, who was firing his M14 through one of the helicopter's paneless portholes, took an enemy round right in his rifle's flash suppressor, which is an extension at the business end of the rifle barrel to suppress muzzle flash. Yep, we were all having a bad day, although that's not exactly what I was thinking about at the time.
Could it get worse? Yes, it could. Did it? Yes, it did. Our helicopter began to lift into the air, and the big green bird suddenly became airborne, with Lee and Danny still on the ground and Bob dangling from the edge of the tailgate ramp. The pilot obviously thought everyone was still aboard the aircraft.
Bob barely had a grip on the ramp, and then the ramp finally dropped. Bob somehow managed to maintain his grip and hold on, dangling there, high in the air. As the chopper rose ever higher, Bob's eyes got bigger.
Glyn quickly slid on his belly down the ramp and grabbed Bob's wrists, while I grabbed Glyn's ankles, and a couple of guys grabbed my ankles, pulling the human chain until Bob was safely inside the bird. I'd been through some wild firefights and downright dangerous events, but Bob's predicament was the most inconceivable and incredible and scary dilemma I'd yet encountered in that crazy Vietnam War. I couldn't believe how he was able to hang onto that tailgate. I also couldn't believe Al had not a scratch, yet an enemy bullet was lodged in his rifle's flash suppressor. And, most of all, I could hardly believe Lee and Danny were still down below in the landing zone, which had become a killing zone. Glyn ran up to the front of the chopper to tell the pilot that we had to go back down there and save our buddies.
In the meantime, two Marine combat jets – I can't remember if they were A-4 Skyhawks or F-4 Phantoms – dove down out of the sky to drop bombs on the bad guys. The jet pilots did not know that two friendlies were stranded on the landing zone when they let go their ordnance, which included napalm bombs. Lee and Danny were about to experience a fiery heat like none they could have imagined.
Fortunately, the worst of the napalm's deadly effect wiped out some of the enemy soldiers, not Danny and Lee, who then popped a yellow-smoke grenade to alert the pilots of their presence. At the same time, the chopper pilot explained to the jet pilots that two Marines were still down there on the landing zone. Every Marine recon-team insertion involves two attack jets, two Huey gunships and two CH-46s – in case of an emergency just like the one we were experiencing that afternoon. So, while the Hueys made gun runs to help suppress enemy fire, the second CH-46 swooped down and rescued Lee and Danny.
The escort-46 pilot flew Lee and Danny to Charlie Med – that was the nearest Navy medical battalion – for immediate medical treatment. Lee was able to return to our team later that day, but Danny was whisked off to Japan and then the States. We never heard from him or about what ever happened to him.
I wondered for years about Danny's wounds and his whereabouts. Was he OK? Did he recover well and get on with life? Then, in about 2000, I heard from an old friend of Danny's, down in Baton Rouge, La., where the two had grown up together. He had seen an article by me, in which I recalled Danny Anders, whom we Marines affectionately called Swampy. Danny's friend contacted Danny about me, and before too long, my old recon buddy came to visit me in California. Swampy and I finally reconnected.
In September, I will attend a reunion of my Vietnam War recon unit – Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. I'll get to visit with about 20 Charlie Company comrades, including Danny and a couple of the other guys from our recon team, Team Mad Hatter.
By the way, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong hated recon Marines and tried to kept tabs on us through our tactical-radio transmissions, for example, and they put a monetary price on our heads. So, to confuse the enemy, the names of recon teams were changed every so often, and we later became Team Lunchmeat. Before we were Mad Hatter, we were Team Warcloud.
Anyway, our team will be represented at the reunion by at least four of us – Mike Ward, Roger Speakman, Danny and me. We'll catch up on recent events and also recall some of our times in war. And somebody will probably bring up July 26, 1968: "Hey, Danny! Swampy! Remember that day you got hit, and you and Kohler almost ended up as a couple of crispy critters? Fun times, eh, buddy?"