Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Death Before Dishonor

Airborne Fire Team Charlie

In the previous post I talked about one of the missions that put us One Breath Away From Death, this article is the second part of this series.  

I talk about Fire Teams a lot in these articles, so I will tell you what a Fire Team is.  This definition was true as of my retirement in 1995. A Fire Team consists of 4 people.  There is a Leader, Rifleman/Grenadier, Machine Gunner, and Assistant Machine Gunner.  The standard rifle of choice was the M-16 A1 (later on we got the A2 version).  The M-16 allowed for three type of fire settings...Safe (no fire), Semi (1 round per trigger squeeze, and Auto (as long as the trigger is down it would fire).

M16 A1
There is a civilian version of this weapon called the AR-15.  The AR-15 is often confused with an assault weapon.  The M-16 is an assault weapon (since it allows for full auto fire)...the AR-15 is not (it only fires on semi-auto.  I know the Anti-Gun nuts will freak out, but what a weapons looks like does not make it an assault weapon.  

The Rifleman/Grenadier carried a combination M-16 plus one of two types of grenade launchers.  The older type grenade launcher was the XM-148. This weapon was horrible. It was difficult to fire, and was very prone to breaking. 

The newer type was the M-203.  It was much easier to fire, and was very reliable. 
The Machine gun we used was the iconic M-60.  Used since 1957 the M-60 was a nightmare to carry.  The gunner had to carry the gun and 200 rounds of ammo. The assistant gunner carried the spare barrel kit, and additional ammo. The running joke was that the shortest man got the M-60.  I will say it tended to work out that way.

Aside from the weapons and ammo we also carried the good old Metal WWII style Helmet, with a Vietnam Era Flak Vest, and our load bearing equipment (LBE). 


Flak Vest

Load Bearing Equipment.

And of course the most hated piece of gear the Vietnam Era Gas Mask

Gas Mask with cover.

All of the combat gear, and cold weather gear was stored in our Hawk Bag.

Combat Vogue Circa 1980's

When in a mission we wore the Helmet, Flak Vest, LBE, Gas Mask on our side in its carrying bag, Ammo, Canteen, cold weather gear, and of course an empty plastic bottle. Other gear included code sheets (lose these and go to jail). 

To unsuspecting civilians we could look very dangerous...or very uncoordinated...that stuff was hard to move in.

The Mission

The Charlie missions were always an iffy affair.  If the Helicopter worked...If the wind was not too bad...If the temperature was not too low...If the rain/snow was not too heavy...If the clouds were not too low...then we went. If not..we still went...just a different way (which I will not tell you about). 

This particular day the weather was on the edge. The cloud cover was sporadic and ranged from a few hundred feet to about 1 thousand feet.  Since we were required to have a visual of the convoy throughout most of its movement, the clouds would mean we would by flying lower than normal. 

When the warhead reached its final destination we would orbit within visual range of the team on site.  The site we were at was in a canyon that was open on one end and closed on the other.  On the way to the site the clouds lifted to a higher altitude of about 3000 feet above ground level, high enough that we could safely maneuver above the convoy.  At the site the clouds appeared to be at that same level...the difference was the hills that made up the canyon were around 2 to 3 thousand feet above the site itself.  

We began our orbit of the site and went through several evolutions of the pattern when suddenly the front of the cockpit went from white cloud,  to white cloud and trees...very big...very close trees.  The pilot...who was normally a pretty quiet guy...screamed...yanked hard on the stick and we began a very hard turn.  I swear I could see the astonished faces of the squirrels as we barely..and I mean by feet...missed hitting them.

The term "Death Before Dishonor" is a nifty thing to have on the back or your flight helmet...but being killed because you hit a squirrel would make for a lousy epitaph.

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