Red Blood of Patriots

Dong Ha Takeoff (2)

This morning as I was watching coverage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was keeping track of Twitter. In his speech, President Trump spoke this line – “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.” Immediately after he said it ,  Conservative, Inc. writer John Podhoretz, who has a reputation for arrogance, tweeted that traitors have red blood too, which is true enough but the way he said it really pissed me off. The president’s line reminded me of my own experience with red, American blood, although it was Podhoretz’ comment that caused me to dwell on it for some time. I know exactly what the blood of our armed forces, whether patriot or not, looks like after it has been spilled.

During the late Southeast Asian unpleasantness, I was an Air Force flight crewmember, a loadmaster assigned to squadrons that flew the now-famous, but not so much then, Lockheed C-130 Hercules. It was sometime in the spring of 1967. I was nearing the end of my tour. A year before, I was flying on missions over North Vietnam and Laos dropping flares for fighters to attack trucks bringing supplies south to the communists who were seeking to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. I had returned to routine transport flying, or hauling trash, as we were beginning to call it. Our flying really was routine – hauling troops and cargo, but mostly cargo, around South Vietnam and Thailand. We were physically based at Naha, Okinawa but we’d go TDY for sixteen days at a time to either Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam or Bangkok, Thailand to fly airlift missions. We called the stints “shuttles.” We’d take off early on our first day in country, then start later and later each day until we were flying mainly night missions, then we’d have a day off and start over again on the day missions. After two weeks, we’d go home for a few days then come back and do it all over again.

On this particular shuttle, I was flying with Captain Tom McQuaide, an experienced C-130 pilot who had come to our squadron from a Tactical Air Command C-130 squadron at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio. Some of our pilots had come from other commands and other aircraft types, and were restricted to airfields with runways at least 4,000 feet long because of several prop-reversal accidents involving the C-130As we were flying. Flying with them truly was routine but when flying with an experienced C-130 pilot like Captain McQuaide, we got into the short, unimproved airfields out in the boondocks where the war was. (We actually got shot at no matter what airfield we went to – one night after landing at Tan Son Nhut, the huge airport at Saigon, the air freight people who met us told me they’d watch us come in and that we’d been trailed by tracer bullets.)

We were a little over half-way through our two weeks of flying. We took off for our first sortie late in the afternoon and had then gone to night missions, which usually involved moving backlog cargo out of Cam Ranh to the major airfields around South Vietnam, particularly Qui Nhon. We went north to Da Nang for the last part of our mission and after dropping off our load, air freight brought out a stack of five empty pallets – we were required to always have five pallets on the airplane to insure a supply of pallets in the country – and were supposed to take off and fly south to Qui Nhon to pick up cargo for Cam Ranh. When we reached Cam Ranh, we’d be finished for the night. I had just finished chaining the empties to the ramp when a dispatch truck drove up to the back of the open ramp. The driver stuck his head out of the window and informed me that our mission had been changed – we were being diverted to a combat emergency air evacuation mission to Dong Ha. Combat emergency was the highest priority for airlift missions in Southeast Asia. My adrenaline started pumping just at the words.

I was well-acquainted with Dong Ha. I took the above picture there in the fall of 1965 when I was at a tiny island in the Philippines called Macton on temporary duty from Pope AFB, North Carolina. We took a hit that day, although we didn’t know it until we got back to Mactan. Miraculously, it was only one of two hits I took in more than 1,200 combat sorties although we got shot at on nearly every flight. I had flown air evac missions before, but not a CE. In fact, although air evac was one of our missions, we rarely flew them because Army and Marine helicopters usually flew wounded men to rear area hospitals. As the dispatcher was pulling away, a forklift came up to  remove the forklift. As soon as the pallets were removed, I went to the front of the airplane and got the emergency escape ladder and installed it just behind the wing – the ladder was part of the litter system. Then another truck pulled up and the air evac crew got out, a nurse and two enlisted medical technicians. The nurse was male – only male nurses were assigned to combat missions. They loaded their equipment on the airplane and got on.

The nurse, a lieutenant, told me that Dong Ha was under attack and that a Marine had been hit in the head. We were to pick him up and bring him back to Da Nang, hopefully in time for emergency surgery to save his life. Casualties were mounting and there were other wounded, some in litters and some walking, and we would be bringing them back as well because the field hospital at Dong Ha was running out of space. After engine start, I continued setting up litter stanchions and dropping the straps from the ceiling that served to secure one side of each litter. We continued rigging stanchions and dropping straps while we taxied out and took off. Each stanchion had steps that could be dropped down so someone could climb up and reach the straps – since it was my airplane, that someone was me. The medical crew and I also dropped the nylon seats on the sides to have them available for walking wounded.

The flight wasn’t that long, not more than twenty minutes at most. Dong Ha was about 50 miles northwest of Da Nang. It sat right on the Demilitarized Zone. On the other side was North Vietnam. When I went in there the first time in the fall of 1965, there was nothing much there but since then, the Marines had moved in and made it a major base. Navy Seabees had laid 2,900 feet of pierced-aluminum planking on the dirt runway, making it an “all-weather” runway. C-130s went in there every day, but not normally at night.  North Vietnamese troops probed the base nearly every night; it was considered too dangerous for routine missions at night.

The firefight was still going on right off the runway when we landed. The guys in the cockpit saw the green and red tracers flying back and forth. I didn’t see them. I was too busy in the back. I was so pumped up on adrenaline that I went outside and started opening the doors that covered the gas turbine compressor, the auxiliary power unit that provided power when the engines weren’t running with the #2 propeller still coasting down. As soon as I got the rear ramp opened, Navy ambulances began arriving with the wounded Marines. The number had increased drastically since we left Da Nang a half hour before. I don’t recall the exact number but there were around a dozen or so men in litters and around twice that many walking wounded. I remember noticing that none of the men were black. I noticed this because civil rights leaders in the US, particularly Martin Luther King, were claiming that blacks were being killed and wounded at rates far in excess of their numbers.

The men had received only minimal medical care and many were bloody and still bleeding. In addition to the Marine with the head wound for which we had initially been sent out, there was at least one other patient whose life was in danger. While the medical crew took care of the litter patients, I helped the walking wounded settle into their seats and fasten their seatbelts. Now, I had always thought I was squeamish; Vietnam proved that I’m not. The men were all bloody but they seemed lucid enough. Once all of the patients were loaded, we fired up the four engines. When the flight engineer switched power from one generator to another, there was a momentary power loss. A huge sigh of dismay went up from the patients. The loss was only momentary and the airplane was only dark for a couple of seconds. Captain McQuaide took off right over the firefight. He reckoned it was safer than taxiing to that end of the runway and then turning around, and exposing the airplane to AK-47 fire in the process. By taking off over them, we’d only be in range for a few seconds. As far as I know, we took no hits.

There wasn’t anything I could do once we were airborne but keep watch on everybody. The medics and the nurse were tending to the litter patients. They were cleaning their wounds and nipping away pieces of flesh, although I didn’t notice it at the time as they were in the back of the cargo compartment and I was sitting in the first seat aft of the entrance door at the front. The nurse was devoting his attention to the Marine with the head wound. He looked up then started walking toward me. I knew the Marine was dead. He told me to ask the navigator for our coordinates so he could put it in the death certificate. He told me not to say anything to the other wounded. He left the dead Marine’s head uncovered. I felt very deflated.

We continued to Da Nang. We taxied to the ramp and were met by a blue Air Force ambulance/bus. They are large busses that had been configured with litter stanchions in the back and seats in the front. More medical personnel were with them. I stood by the dead Marine while the medical crew offloaded the litters and the walking wounded filed by. The nurse had put me there to try to keep the other Marines from realizing he had died. It didn’t work. The other litter patients had been offloaded and the one litter remained in place. The walking wounded had to go right by it and they realized something was wrong.

The bus pulled away and the medical crew got their stuff and went with it, leaving me with the dead Marine. Because we were only a few minutes out when the copilot called and advised that we needed Graves Registration, it was some time before they arrived to take the body. The nurse had given me the paperwork recording the man’s death. I didn’t cover up his head. I looked at him and thought to myself, “What a waste.” I wondered about him. He had the rough face of a coal miner or a football player. I wondered if he might be from Pennsylvania. I didn’t have a clue how old he was. I was twenty-one myself. He could have been older or he could have been nineteen for all I knew. One of the officers, I think it was Capt. McQuaide, came back to where I was keeping watch over the dead Marine and kept me company until Graves Registration finally came out in their olive drab ambulance to pick up the body, or KIA as they are referred to in the military, or were before the military became “sensitive.” After they left, I went outside to keep watch on the engines during engine start then came back inside and closed the ramp. Once the engines were started, I went to work stowing the litter straps and moving the stanchions to their stowage at the front of the cargo compartment.

It was after I had put everything away that I realized that our airplane looked like an operating room after multiple surgeries. Normally, I would sweep the floor and put the dirt in the trash can that was part of every airplane’s extra equipment. We were on our way back to Cam Ranh empty as we had already exceeded our crew duty day. I called Captain McQuaide on the intercom and told him we were going to need a firetruck. I’d never called for one before but had heard of others doing it. The floor was covered with blood but there were also pieces of flesh where the nurse had snipped them off of the wounds. The only way to clean it up was to wash it out.

By the time we landed at Cam Ranh, the sun was up. There was no firetruck but there was a water truck waiting for us. We pulled into our parking spot and shut down the engines. The maintenance dispatcher’s truck pulled up and the airplane’s crew chief got out. He bounded up the steps and took one look at his airplane, then turned around with his hand over his mouth and ran back down the steps, then started retching. The water truck driver took one look then handed me the hose and left. The officers and flight engineer had all left. It was just me, a water hose and a bloody, gory airplane. I started washing. The water mixed with the blood and turned red.

I grew up in West Tennessee about 75 miles from Shiloh Battlefield where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought. I’d been there once on a field trip when I was in elementary school. One of the features on the park is a pond called The Bloody Pond. According to local tradition, the waters of the pond turned red with the blood of the wounded soldiers, Confederate and Federal, who went there to drink and wash their wounds. As I washed the blood and gore out of the airplane that was now being returned to its crew chief, the bloody water reminded me of that pond.

Now, I don’t know if those young Marines considered themselves to be patriots or not. Seriously, I doubt that they did. Patriotism was not something young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines talked about in those days. I’m sure they were volunteers, at least most probably were. Draftees only went into the Army as a rule, although the Marine Corps had started accepting them due to the lack of volunteers in a country where the youth were becoming violently “anti-war” and pro-Viet Cong. Nevertheless, we were serving our country, no matter our motivations – and we all bled red.

What upset me about Podhoretz’ Tweet is that he’s never seen anyone shed blood for their country and never will. He, along with the rest of the Conservative, Inc. crowd are good at using the word processor as a weapon but none of them will ever hear a shot fired in anger. They’re all talk. As for “traitors,” a traitor is a patriot to the country he or she supports. We all bleed red.

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Author: semcgowanjr

I am a native of West Tennessee but have lived in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, Texas and Ohio and now live in Texas near Houston. Twelve years of my life were spent in the Air Force. After leaving the military, I became a professional pilot and worked for two large corporations as a corporate pilot before I took early retirement on December 1, 2000. I went to work for Flight Safety, Texas as a ground school/simulator instructor and worked for a year and a half until I was let go due to downsizing. After leaving FSI, I went back to flying as a contract pilot and aircraft management company pilot until I quit flying in 2010 due to medical issues. I am rated 50% disabled by the VA for Type II diabetes related to herbicide exposure in South Vietnam. I spend my time writing. My books can be found at www.sammcgowan.com/books.html.

6 thoughts on “Red Blood of Patriots”

  1. Sam, I enjoyed reading your article today. I can appreciate your feelings of looking at the KIA’s face and in particular, of the job of cleaning up the blood & tissue from the floor of the aircraft.
    My AO during my tour in ’67-’68, was from Quin Nhon to Phan Rang, and sometimes over to Cambodia, all in II Corps.
    Many times, after a battle or firefight, we picked up wounded & got them to the hospitals at Nha Trang or Tuy Hoa, or delivered KIA to GR. Many times, I have found a stream of water that looked secure, and set the Huey down in a couple of feet of water that had a gravel bed, held the controls and watched the area while the CE and gunner jumped out & scooped up water with their caps and/or steel pot helmets to wash the blood from the deck of the Huey. The chief would keep a sawed off broom or mop in a compartment for this purpose. We had learned that dried blood was really hard to get off, so better to wash it as soon as we could get through with those missions. Our unit flew more wounded than the Dust Off unit at Tuy Hoa, during my tour. It was because we were already on the scene. We didn’t have to fly 30 minutes to get to the wounded; we were already there!
    Remember the saying, “The protected will never understand the meaning of freedom, like the ones that have fought for it”.

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    1. I appreciate your comment greatly Larry. You helicopter guys saw a lot more of if then we C-130 people did. We hauled a lot of body bags though. It seemed that at some fields, we’d have one or two every time we went in there. I was in the States flying on C-141s when you were in country. We’d pick up human remains (that’s what they called them after they’d been embalmed, if there was enough to embalm) in aluminum shipping coffins. I remember once during the Tet ’68 attacks picking up an airplane completely loaded with them. There must have been a hundred. Your right, only those who have fought know what it means to be really free.

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  2. Thanks for the story. I agree with you about that slimeball Podhoretz.

    Since your blog should attract a lot of Vietnam Veterans, I would like to enlist your help in finding anyone who might be able to check out the story that was told to me by an Army enlisted man by the name of Rich Stowe, which I have written up as “A Vietnam Grunt’s Guardian Angel” http://www.dcdave.com/article5/151105.htm

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