Paul J. Greiner (Hombre)
Bandit Door Gunner
Down and Out in the 8th Field Hospital
Zuc Mei Pass, October 1968
We were a flight of four Intruder slicks and three Wolf Pack gun ships en-route to Ban Me Thuot where the Vietnamese Provincial Headquarters had been over run by an NVA regiment. The date was October 25, 1968.
I was gunning on an aircraft flown by Intruder 26, John Wehr with PP, Buck Sorem. For the life of me, I can’t remember the CE. I had been assigned to that aircraft because 455 was down for maintenance. I remember though, I didn’t like the assignment from the start. I had arrived on the flight line well before dawn. The aircraft was really filthy, full of red earth and mud from the Ban Me Thuot area. The guns were filthy too. I can’t remember who the regular gunner was and I don’t know why he wasn’t flying that day. I went and got my own M-60 and I felt better about that. I do remember we were all flying long hours and long days and it was apparent that this helicopter had been back and forth to Ban Me Thuot many times in the previous week. It needed work and I’m sure, the crew needed rest. I’m not finding fault with the performance of the crew. In any event, I was uneasy. Most of us are familiar with that uneasy, gut feeling, that nagging intuition that something’s wrong. For me that morning, that feeling just wouldn’t go away.
The CE arrived and we prepped the ship for flight. He was soon followed by John Wehr and Buck Sorem. As the two pilots conducted the pre-flight inspection, they became concerned about the tail-rotor. They discussed the play in the “whatever” and I thought to myself, “Hell with this, just Red-X this thing and be done with it.” Did I get my wish? Hell no. We were going and that was it.
Soon the flight line was alive with the smell of burning JP4 and the sounds of turbines and rotor blades. We departed Nha Trang, into the early morning sky, as the lead ship in the flight of nine. I don’t recall how long into the flight it was, but as Sorem was flying, he reported a vibration in the pedals. Wehr took the aircraft and said he couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Then, I heard a loud boom and the bottom seemed to drop out. I’m not ashamed to say, it scared the crap out of me. I had been on plenty of practice auto-rotations while training the ROK pilots and Peter Pilots but I wasn’t ready for this. The aircraft started falling and the transmission was making a winding sound, and it was loud. Wehr radioed, “Mayday, Mayday, Intruder 26 going down with tail-rotor failure”. Someone in an aircraft behind us, quickly responded, “Negative, Negative, your engine’s on fire”. Wehr radioed back, “Roger. Intruder 26, auto-rotating.” He slammed the collective down and we dropped like a rock.
After that much of it is a blur. I remember the CE and I pulling the survival pack off the rear wall and I asked a couple times if we could open the doors. I was thinking, “crash and burn”, and I wanted to exit that aircraft as soon as we touched down. Wehr told us to hold tight and keep the doors closed. The following is an excerpt from an email I received from John Wehr about the incident:
As I recall, the auto rotation was a hairy chopper ride Paul, and our only chance of survival was to make that knoll on top of a jungle hill. It was a long way off, at my 9:00 o’clock and I had to initiate some hairy butt s-turns to build rotor RPM which I’d use to extend the glide path to make the landing. I remember bleeding RPM to 5700 (dangerously low), a couple of times then dumping the nose and initiating more sharp turns to build back RPM. I figured it was our only chance, really two choices, either crashing into three canopy thick jungle or a controlled crash on a hilltop knoll where we had a remote chance of survival. All of those things, and a million others, like we were topped off on fuel, were going through my mind. Zuc Mei Pass was not an ideal place to have an engine failure. With the cargo doors shut, the reduction in drag would help us reach the hilltop.
We all focused on the task at hand. Sorem read power, Wehr flew and the CE and I started thinking about ground tasks such as assisting the pilots, removing guns, ammo, and avionics and defending the aircraft. A large number of NVA had been reported in the area and that became a major concern.
The auto-rotation took us though layers of scattered clouds and haze. With the turning and banking there were times I was blinded by the sun suddenly bursting through the hazy layers and other times I couldn’t see through the clouds and I came close to spatial disorientation. I wondered how the hell Wehr was managing to find a spot for touch down. But I never doubted he would. As we got closer to the ground I could see thick jungle and deep elephant grass waiting to swallow the aircraft. Wehr did a magnificent job of choosing a spot, flying to it, and judging the flare. As he flared, he ordered us to open the cargo doors. I didn’t need to be told twice. As the doors locked open, we slammed into the ground, quite hard, but intact. The fire had blown out during the auto-rotation and the now the scramble began. Again, an excerpt from John’s email:
After the auto-rotation one of you guys hugged me, I don’t recall who, but just about broke every rib in my body. As we touched down, Wolf Pack guns were already suppressing the area and a slick hovering over the top of our bird extracted us and flew us back to home base. It took minimum time to zero the COMSEC and remove the guns from the downed chopper. You guys were like a NASCAR pit crew. Wonder why? Was it because we were in bad guy territory? …..We survived that day because we were a team and a crew. You guys talked to me and kept me focused. Remember, after the mayday call, I reached down and shut the radios off because of all the radio chatter and traffic. Hell, the accompanying flight knew we were going down.
Bad guy territory. That certainly motivated me that morning. I was the one who ran over and hugged Wehr. Didn’t mean to hurt him though. Adrenaline, you know. As I look back, I am proud of the way we performed, all of us. But most of all, I am grateful for the flying skills of John Wehr. If not for his actions that day, we wouldn’t have survived. We came through it alive and ready to fly another day. Even though the game plan had changed, the entire flight managed to adapt to the circumstances. The rest of the flight continued on to the battle in Ban Me Thuot as we returned to visit the flight surgeon. My ribs were sore also, but from the landing. I found out later they had been cracked. The flight surgeon gave me the rest of the day off. Wehr got cleared to continue flying. He writes:
Upon returning back to base I had to go to the 17th Avn. Group flight surgeon for clearance to fly. The only thing I told the flight surgeon was that my ribs were sore. Anyway, the co-pilot decided to take the day off and Maj. Dahill, Operations Officer rounded up a new crew and I went back to Ban Me Thuot. I flew to Ban Me Thuot and learned of a 281st bird shot down, destroyed on the ground, with the downed crew in the LZ. I went into a hot LZ and extracted them out, don’t even remember who. ...Ah, just an ordinary day, like so many others in the 281st.
Buck Yancy recently told me that he was the ship behind us when the bearings blew out of our engine. He relates what happened in the following email:
When you guys lost your engine we were in a diamond formation, and I was in the ship directly behind you. We were supposed to be the pick-up ship, but when your engine blew it covered my windshield with oil. So the number two ship picked you guys up while I flew cover -- I was flying with my head out the window till we stopped to clean the windshield at Ban Me Thuot. Then we went on the mission while John drew another helicopter. I was in 136, and we got the tail-rotor, and 90 degree gear box either knocked of, or shot off with an explosive round -- no one ever figured it out. Anyway we crashed, and I broke my back with a hairline fracture, which was believed at the time to be a pulled muscle. I didn't know it was break for a few years, just thought I had done permanent damage to the muscle. Anyway 136 went to the bone yard as unrepairable. We were on the ground about 30 minutes, as we moved to a near by LZ under fire. Once we reached the LZ Wehr arrived, and came in and picked us up. Hence I will never forget the day you had your engine failure at the pass.
It turned out to be quite a day for Wehr and the others but for me, the rest of the day was quite uneventful. I returned to the Bandits hooch feeling lucky. There, I ran into my CE, Kelley, who was getting ready to go down to maintenance.
I was smiling. “Just getting up and around”? I asked.
He nodded and asked why I wasn’t flying the mission I had been assigned.
I said something like, “Hell man, I flew it, crashed in the jungle, was rescued, and now I have a half day off”.
“Bullshit”, Kelley replied.
I just smiled.
Down and Out in the 8th Field Hospital
I remember being brought into the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, RVN after being shot by a psychotic door gunner in my own platoon. It was Halloween 1968. I had been shot in the left thigh and the right shoulder, treated on the scene then transported to the hospital. As I was carried in and placed on a table I begged the medics to knock me out but they told me they needed to take x-rays first. I looked down at my left leg. It was attached but it didn’t work. It wiggled around, something like a wet noodle. My left thigh was mangled and bleeding and much of the muscle had been blown away. I reached up and grabbed a Medic’s shirt and asked him to promise they wouldn’t amputate. He told me to take it easy. He told me I’d be okay. The place was busy, kind of like a scene from the movie, MASH, but no one was telling jokes and no one was laughing. There were other wounded soldiers there and the doctors, nurses and technicians were busy and caring for them as well.
Each time they repositioned me
on the x-ray table I felt the bones grate and grind in my leg and shoulder. One
But, I did wake up, and in terrible pain. I wasn’t the John Wayne type (at least not anymore) and I immediately asked a nurse for morphine. I recall her telling me to quiet down, that there were others in worse shape, and I wasn’t the only one who’d ever been shot. She was right of course, but at the time, I didn’t care what she said. I wanted relief. I fired a few obscenities at her and she finally gave me something.
I’ve looked back and remembered what it was like in that hospital. There were guys with limbs blown off, burns, and gruesome shrapnel wounds. I recall a pilot who’s Huey had been hit in the chin bubble by a B-40 rocket. The round had entered the helicopter low and from the front. There is no armor in that location and the pilots are extremely vulnerable from that angle. As a result of the explosion, his legs were gone, his privates blown off, and his fingers, hands, forearms and face were badly burned. He was the only one aboard who survived. Night after night he cried and moaned in pain. My wounds paled in comparison to his and I wept for him.
The medical personnel at the Nha Trang hospital and all the medical people who served in Vietnam are true heroes. They went about their business each day of saving lives through endless streams of gruesome casualties. They gave so much of themselves in treating and comforting the wounded and dying. I had seen Delta medics in action and the results of their work during extractions etc, but on this night, their skill and dedication became more personal for me than ever before. From the Special Forces medic who first treated me in the Bandits hooch to all of those personnel who cared for me afterward, the dedication never wavered. They saved my life and the lives of many others that night and I wish now that I could personally thank each and every one of them .
I have long forgotten my own
physical pain from that night but the sounds of that night remain with me. When
I think of all those wounded men I am touched again by their anguish and
suffering. They were brave souls, all of them.
Paul J. Greiner
Most of us who
served in the Armed Forces have experienced someone coming into the barracks
late at night, noisy and drunk, keeping everyone awake. The individual or
individuals might sing or slam lockers. There might be loud cussing or loud
music. Regardless of what it was, it was always quite annoying and there were
times people would confront the drunken individual. However, we soon learned
that confrontation was counterproductive. Confronting usually prolonged the
agony and even created the possibility of a fight. So when it did happen, it was
usually best to put a pillow over your head and just hope that the person or
persons passed out soon and without incident.
On Halloween night, 1968, while serving in Viet Nam, I awakened to the sound of loud angry voices. I heard my Platoon Sgt. Jay Hays exchanging words with Johnny Reaves, a helicopter crewman. Jay sounded angry and Reaves sounded out of it. But, as screwed up as Reaves sounded, I figured he’d obey Jay’s orders to get upstairs and turn in. It was late but I can’t be sure what time it actually was. I do remember being extremely tired. At the time, we were all flying long hours. We were out early, before dawn and Kelley and I were seldom back to the hooch before 10 or 11 at night. Sleep became quite important to us and on this night Reaves wasn't helping matters.
Following his initial confrontation with Hays, Reaves came up the stairs and passed by me on the way to his bunk. However, instead of getting into his bunk, he began attacking his locker with his fists. “What the hell?”, I thought to myself. He was making an awful racket. Hearing it, Hays quickly ascended the stairs and approached Reaves. He told Reaves to settle down. Reaves pushed Jay back. I was surprised by his actions and wondered where this was going. I regret not going to Jay's assistance at that moment. It would have been a fight for sure but I'm sure we would have prevailed. It was so unusual to see a soldier in such defiance of a Platoon Sergeant that I was shocked and unprepared for what I saw. I’m sure we all were. And Jay, seeing he wasn't getting any help from any of us, went back down the stairs. Reaves continued to unleash more anger. He knocked the locker over and punched it with savage fury. I sat up in my bunk and watched the rivets popping out of it. He was literally destroying it with his fists.
It occurred to me that he wanted his rifle. “Oh shit”, I thought to myself. I called over to him to take it easy. I knew that if he got a weapon in his hands, the situation would become lethal. I thought about getting my own rifle but to be truthful, I was at a loss about what to do. I certainly didn't want to shoot Reaves, at least not then. I thought that Hays had simply returned to his room and didn't know he had gone for help. And, while we were well trained and disciplined soldiers, we weren't trained or prepared to deal with one of our own guys going completely off his rocker. In fact, we usually just ignored it when guys let off steam. This was different though.
Reaves kept hitting his locker until it finally gave way. The side of it caved in and I realized my worst fear as I saw him pull his M-14 out of the locker. I couldn't just watch any longer so I climbed out of my bunk and walked over to him. He was facing slightly away from me as I slowly approached him. When he heard me speak, he turned his head toward me. Our eyes met and at the same time I heard the magazine click into the weapon. At that moment, I knew I screwed up. I didn’t know what psychosis was back then but I know what it is now. He was out of it and the deranged look in his eyes told the story. I knew that Reaves was mean when he was drunk. He had a reputation for beating up downtown whores in Nha Trang and it was rumored he had even killed a civilian. But on this night, he wasn’t just drunk and I knew it. My mind raced, I was gripped with fear and I heard myself saying something like, “C’mon man, you don’t want to use that rifle.” I don’t think he even heard me.
He never took his eyes off me as he pulled the bolt back and chambered a round. At this point, I was sure I was going to get shot. I could read it in his eyes. His locker was laying on the floor between us so rushing him was out of the question. And, I knew I couldn’t make it to my rifle. "Be calm, back up, get to the orderly room", I thought to myself. I didn’t want to get shot in the chest or gut so as he raised the muzzle toward me, I turned and slowly walked away from him. Hoping he wouldn't shoot me, I turned at the top of the stairs and started down.
As I descended the stairs, shots rang out and I felt like I was hit by a freight train. The shots were loud and the sound seemed to fill every pore in my body. The impact was shattering. I don’t know how many rounds he fired at me but Jay Hays recently told me it was a good burst. To this day, I remember hearing only two or three shots and being knocked to the floor with incredible force. One round hit me in the right shoulder blade and the other in the left thigh. I think I screamed something out but I can’t remember what it was. I remember trying to get to my feet so I could flee because I was sure he was coming down to to finish me off. The bone in my left thigh had been shattered and I fell back down as quickly as I stood up. Reaves appeared at the bottom of the stairs and walked toward me. I thought to myself, “This is it. He’s going to finish the job”. I looked directly at him, reached out to him, and asked him to help me. I think I said, "Help me man". He just scowled and sort of waved me off. Fortunately and to my surprise, he walked right by me and out the door. I prayed he’d keep going.
By now guys were jumping out of their bunks and coming to my assistance. The Hawaiian guy, can't remember his name, made a frantic call to the orderly room over the intercom. Guys gathered around me and tried to make me comfortable. There was blood and flesh all over the place, a real mess. I was worried that Reaves would return and I kept telling people to get their weapons. I kept saying that Reaves needed to be stopped. To be honest, I hoped somebody would shoot him dead. At some point, Lt. Buck Yancey arrived on the scene, .45 pistol in hand, and told me that Reaves had been subdued. I felt relieved. Buck knelt beside me and comforted me as a Special Forces medic arrived. By now I was having some difficulty breathing and I felt very tired. Smitty, a fellow crew member, kept me awake by talking to me while the medic prepared me for transit. Everybody was great. Everyone took great care of me. The medic bandaged my wounds and I was then transported to the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang.
The thing that bothers me most about that night is that it all could have been prevented. For one thing, I could have gone to Jay's assistance immediately. But before that, Reaves could have been stopped. Not long ago, Jay told me he didn't return to his room. He went to the orderly room to get assistance. He found out that Reaves had already trashed it and that the First Sgt. knew Reaves was on a rampage. Jay grabbed a baseball bat and sought assistance from others but to no avail. He started back to the barracks and then heard the shots ring out. Although the First Sgt. and others knew what was going on they did nothing. They could have called the MPs or gotten weapons and stopped Reaves well before the shooting. But they didn't. It was the First Sgt.'s responsibility to do something and to handle situations such as this. It wasn't until Buck Yancey and an Air Force MP swung into action that the situation came under control.
Since that night, I haven't had much use for Halloween, the 4th of July or other celebrations that call for fireworks or big crowds of people. I still have a pronounced startle response, experience nightmares and night sweats, and awaken easily. I have remained armed since Vietnam and seldom travel long distances without a firearm. I am hyper-vigilant and anxious most of the time and have been treated for depression. I do not expect to be protected by the police, homeland security forces or anyone else for that matter. It is reassuring to know they are there but I learned all too well that I am the first line in my own defense. I never want to be a victim again and I have learned that in order to survive, one must stay vigilant and be willing to take action.
I have tried to take care of myself physically but after 34 years the old wounds are taking a toll. I have lost strength and range of motion in my shoulder and have severe degenerative bone disease in both my right shoulder and left knee. I have venous insufficiency in my left calf and have a history of blood clots thanks to a damaged vascular system.
For years I felt a great deal of shame, guilt, and regret in being taken out of Vietnam that way. I am grateful no one else was shot but I have also regretted leaving my unit when I had extended for an additional six months of duty. I had learned to love my job and felt a great sense of camaraderie with the pilots and crews of the 281st. Also, I was really looking forward to the next Delta. I was extremely lucky to fly with such great pilots and two great crew chiefs, Ken Embrey and Sonny Kelley. And while I may from time to time question why things happened the way they did, I know that things happen exactly the way they are supposed to happen. I am grateful to be alive and I am grateful to have served with the 281st.