The Night Mission


After a while all of the villages in Vietnam begin to look the same, shacks we call them in Texas. Tin, boards, chicken wire, and dirt. Yet within the confines of each of these hovels lies the potential of death.

The night mission makes this the most clear. For then the shacks become shielding cover for the man who has trained for the last five years or longer to take your life.

"We have a night mission" says the sergeant as he barges through the hooch door. "Combat Assault: Saddle up!" Military jargon for a night insertion of troops. "Get your gear together and report to your ship." Immediate excitement. Your guts begin to churn as you scramble for gear. Where will it be to?, who's going?, what's happening? All go through your head at the same time, each clashing with the other in an attempt to get an answer. No one, not even the most gungho among the helicopter door gunners like night missions. Blackness and death are all you can think about. But it is do or die, or maybe do and die.

The hustle at the fuel dump is impersonal. Each person carrying out his assigned task while lost deep in his own thoughts about the probable out come of the mission. Green fatigues, JP 4, and everyone in a hurry to finish fueling up so he can light a smoke and relieve some of the tension as it begins to build inside.

Lift off at last. Ten UH-1D helicopters disappear in a long line into the darkness leaving the bright lights of Cu Chi in the distance.

Anxious grunts are huddled in the center of the aircraft, each staring intently towards the dark jungle below, while thumbing the safety on his M-16 rifle. The one question on every mind: will the L.Z. be hot? Everyone, but the door gunner on ship number four, is praying for it to be cold.

The flight toward the insertion point seems to last forever. A constant roar from the turbine engine drowning out every sound but your thoughts. I wonder if the grunt closest to me is scared. 11:30 PM, and he already looks tired on what may be the longest night of his life, or perhaps, the shortest.

The jungle below rushes by, menacing in its forbodding blackness. Suddenly the pitch on the rotor blade changes and everyone's stomach tightens in unison, as if some invisible hand had tied all of our intestines together and then yanked on the rope. I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to urinate.

Throttling back on the turbine the pilot signals our approach to the L.Z. A deafening roar that had just moments before insulated each of us from the rest of the world instantaneously disappears. Night air that you were oblivious to previously now seems very cold. The decent to the L.Z. is quick, from 1500 feet to 200 hundred in seconds, where the plummet slows as each helicopter in the ten ship C.A. lines up for the final approach.

Without warning the sky changes from black to Christmas time. Silent night to unholy night. Red, yellow, and green tracers everywhere. Flashes of gunfire, like neon lights, going off in every direction advertising their message of death. "Full suppression!" comes over the helmet intercom. Now there is no fear as your finger pulls the trigger toward your body. Relief, blessed relief, as we build a road of bullets to pave our way into the jungle. The trigger on the M-60 is like the teddy bear you had as a kid. You pull it closer to you and feel safe and secure. Beautiful! This is the only word that can describe your tracers as they leap from the barrel one after another in orange glory. You follow them with your eyes into the jungle below looking for anything, just a single flash to train the M-60's 750 rounds per minute on. Hoping that your bullets are even now turning some gooks head into dirty jello.

Meanwhile the grunts begin to move about as they do last second checks on their gear. Peering even harder into the jungle than you. For they will have to stay---this is their new home coming up. A Phantom jet prepping the landing zone streaks by on a final bombing run so close that the back wind rocks the helicopter violently. Thoughts of a mid air collision, fire, falling into the blackness below jump through your mind, temporarilly crowding out the enjoyment of shooting your gun.

Flaring of the blades signals touch down. A hard bump and in but an instant the young men who had sat crowded in the belly of the ship are gone, disappearing into the black mist. Moments later the ship starts its slow move forward and up. As the turbine whines and the ship shutters, rotor blades grab for lift from the thin hot night air. It seems like forever for the ship to gather the necessary speed to lift up over the jungle. Each tenth of a second is counted as you wait. Any moment can bring the flash of light from the blackness that signals your imminent death. Suddenly the lead helicopter receives fire from the front left and ten door gunners open up all at once on the same target.

Seconds later, though it seems much longer, the ship is up over the jungle and you experience a sigh of relief. Then relaxation, followed almost immediately by exhaustion as adrenalin ebbs from your body.

Two weeks later you hear that you've been awarded an Air Medal for "heroism" for the night mission. Your only thought is wondering what the grunts will get out of it, for they are still out there somewhere, sweating, bleeding, dying.

Essays From Vietnam

by Louis Beam