Supply Fairies

It was hot inside the aircraft. I sat on one of the web seats that hung from the sidewall and affording me a closeup view of the pallets of supplies that had been loaded at the Bien Hoa airbase. I had no idea what was in the crates and containers strapped to the pallets.  We were going to do a drag and drop so the pallets only needed a single parachute. A drag and drop was a method used on landing zones under fire. A normal parachute drop could allow the loads to drift into the hands of the enemy or be slow moving targets for Charlie to shoot at as they fell. The way it worked was this: the airplane would come in at tree top level and drop almost to the ground, flying at a high rate of speed. A parachute attached to the load would be released off the rear ramp and the drag of the parachute would yank the load from the airplane to skid along the ground to a halt.

It was a dangerous way to put supplies on the ground, but sometimes it was the safest or only way to resupply the troops depending on the delivery. The heat of the day made the air turbulent and the C-130  bucked and heaved making me hang on to keep from being bounced around the cabin. There were three pallets to drop in three successive passes. In this case we wouldn’t be under much fire, but there was VC activity circling the outpost and there was no runway at all. Our target was an open area carved into the bush by bulldozers and herbicide sprays. The outpost was a small series of sandbag protected bunkers covered by the trunks of the trees that had been removed to create an open field of fire that disallowed the enemy from sneaking up close.  To make it worse, it was a hilly area, the ground undulating severely with random hills of alternating trees and bare rock.

A chime rang and a red light lit up over the rear ramp. At the same time, the ramp opened and descended so that it was level with the flooring of the Aircraft. That was my cue to go to the rearmost pallet and remove the straps securing it to the floor. I hung the drogue chute on its deployment rack and then got out of the way. The airplane was still doing the shake and bake and I slipped and bashed my shin twice before I got to a position where I was clear of the load, but could keep a close eye on it during the drop. If the load hung up, the drag of the parachute could literally drag the C-130 into the ground. In that event, I had a box with a button that would blow an explosive bolt and release the parachute. It would abort the drop, but at least we could stay in the air and get to where we could figure out the problem and reset the load for deployment.

Low level cargo extraction at Khe Sanh

The pilot rang the chime again and pushed the aircraft down so the wheels were inches from the ground.  As soon as we dropped, the red lamp shifted to green. The sudden descent caused me a moment of weightlessness but I actuated the the deployment sequence. First a eight foot drone chute fell into the slipstream behind the aircraft. The drag it created pulled the thirty foot diameter load chute out of its deployment bag and it snapped open in the wind. It was as if the load stopped in midair while the aircraft kept going and the load was suddenly skidding along on the ground, its front end plowing up dirt and debris in a dusty cloud. Looking out the open rear of the C-130 I could see figure run out to the load, swarming around and over it as the soldiers grabbed their supplies and ran them to storage bunkers.  Occasional puffs of dirt around the men showed they were taking fire as they retrieved their goods but I didn’t see anyone go down.

I quit looking and tended to my job of getting the now unused strapping stowed in a wooden box at the front of the cargo area. I dumped the stuff in, getting it straightened out and inspected for serviceability would wait till we got back to the airbase.  That done, I unstrapped the next pallet and helped by the air force loadmaster, rolled the next pallet into position and rigged it’s drogue chute.  The job was made harder because the aircraft was still getting tossed around by the air currents. The effort made me sweat to the point that I was drenched in sweat. As we made a large circle to come back around again, I drained one of my canteens of water. The water was warm, but it felt great drinking it. I held up another canteen and offered it to the loadmaster. He nodded and I lobbed it over to him on his side of the airplane. Like me, he emptied it in a single long guzzle. No sooner than he finished and the chime rang, warning us that we were approaching the LZ. I took my position again and grabbed the control that would drop the chute or cut it loose.  The red light lit again and I braced for the sudden descent. Even expecting it, the moment of weightlessness was disorienting, but I still managed to hit the deployment button.  Just like before, the parachutes did their bucket brigade of drag and yanked the load out. Again we went into a climb out and the men below moved to retrieve their supplies.

The final pallet was more difficult to move into position, having to move it the length of the cargo hold. We finally got it into position and as I was hanging the drogue, the chime rang and the red warning light lit. I hurried to get the drogue in place but with the movement of the aircraft jarring me every which way, I took more time to get it into position on the clip. I jumped off the load and grabbed the controller just as the chime rang, the plane dropped and the light shifted to green. I pushed the button and almost immediately felt a tug . My pant leg was caught on a nail protruding from the hastily built disposable pallet and it started to drag me toward the gaping maw of the open aft end of the aircraft. Fortunately, the cloth tore and I was just slammed onto the deck instead of going out the door with the load.

“Jesus, man. Are you okay?” yelled the loadmaster over the din inside the C-130. I nodded the affirmative, but I was pumping myself full of adrenaline and wouldn’t feel the soreness and bruises that my fall created. The loadmaster helped me to my feet and we picked up the strapping and dumped it in the box for later.  The pilot did one more turn around the little outpost, but at around 1500 feet. Below us, there was only wood and packing debris in the clearing, the supplies all carted off my the soldiers below. As we passed, we could see a few of them wave or throw a salute as we passed overhead.

I took my spot back on the web seating and looked around the now empty load area. It occurred to me the the empty aircraft meant that they guys at that outpost were better off. No doubt we dropped food and ammunition; probably more. Even batteries or flashlights, books or socks, all of it made it just that much easier for those guys to do their job in such a remote and exposed outpost.  Thinking about the view of the place, I knew that night times would be hell, with mortars and hit and run probes demonstrating again and again this was no nine to five job.  I imagined them down there thinking our job was cushy -and in contrast to theirs, it was. Of course, there were times that things went wrong. On one flight the LZ was under attack and the Caribou aircraft we were in was struck by a mortar. We went down, slamming into the trees. The trees broke our fall to some extent and everyone except the pilot walked out. He was killed when the nose of the aircraft hit a hefty tree and crushed him between a bulkhead and the instrument panel. The copilot, sitting right beside him, was fine. We grabbed our weapons and broke for the outpost we were trying to resupply. We didn’t get out until the following morning when a medevac  chopper picked up a couple of guys injured overnight as the VC relentlessly fired rifles and mortars at us. When the dawn broke, the enemy disappeared knowing what was coming. Thunderbolts came in and dropped napalm into the jungle around the encampment. Between the waves we got our ride back to base.

I concluded that no job in the war was particularly cushy if your job was in the field. I met a few guys in the NCO club at Phan Rang and over beers, talked about our jobs. I was surprised to find out they thought that we had it at least as bad as they did, and said that more than once they were way low on ammo and things were grim until one of the resupply flights would barrel into a smoking hot LZ to drop desperately needed supplies. “It’s like you guys volunteer to do time in a shooting gallery.” one said.

“Yeah, but unlike you we don’t live in the shooting gallery!” I replied.