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Door Gunner–a Memoir

This piece is from the book Door Gunner by Ernest Garcia. This book is available at Amazon.com

Ernest Garcia and Eloy Martinez in Quang Tri

Ernest Garcia and Eloy Martinez in Quang Tri

I landed in Da Nang and took a night bus to Dian. My tour of duty started in Vietnam with my assignment to the 3/17th aircav Charlie company. My MOS, or military occupation status, was 35k20, avionics tech. I was assigned to a helicopter unit in Dian, close to Saigon and Cam Ran Bay. After a few months we moved to Quan Tri and became part of the 3/5 aircav, Charlie Company, 9th infantry dir. Airmobile.

Upon arriving to my unit in Dian for my first night in country and not even having been assigned a rifle yet, reality set in as to what Vietnam was all about. Enemy ground forces attempted to overrun our base camp. I wasn’t prepared for such an event, realizing that just a few days earlier I had been in the comfort zone of home. I had to grow up from being a carefree teenager into instant manhood. From bullets flying, mortars coming in, flares lighting up the sky, explosion all around us, and facing death, seeing dead and wounded around me was more than a new soldier on his first night in the country could endure.

“We were just doing our jobs.”

I/we made friends quickly and easily because we had to depend on each other for support. In Dian we had thirty five choppers assigned to our company. In one particular month during operation Lom Som 719 we went through as many as thirty five choppers being shot down or damaged. This operation was the U.S. incursion into Cambodia to stop the heavy flow of ammunition and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Our death toll was heavy and I lost many close friends that I had bonded with, taking a heavy toll on me. I had never suffered loss of family or friends in such a violent way ever. All the training I went through in basic could never have ever prepared me for what I had to endure in a real war zone. The experiences were quite traumatic.

I was working twelve to eighteen hours a day trying to keep our choppers in flying condition with radio equipment in combat readiness. It came to the point where volunteers were being solicited to temporarily replace door gunners/crew chiefs that were being killed or wounded. With every chopper that was being reported shot down, scrambles were initiated where anybody, including me, available to fly a rescue mission jumped into helicopters, in an attempt to go out and try to rescue our buddies. As these situations escalated more and more I started flying as a door gunner in regular daily rescue missions.

“The Life Expectancy of a Door Gunner is Thirty Minutes after Take Off.”

Common saying among door gunners.

Our unit was designed as a search and destroy operation. We flew tree top level in an attempt to draw enemy fire. We would drop smoke, engage the enemy with our Hueys, Ranger gunships and a light infantry squad. On every mission my body was overtaken by an intense and overwhelming adrenalin rush. The biggest adrenalin rush was on a rescue mission where we were shot down.

It was on one of my last rescue missions when a pilot named Captain Bartholomew and I were dropped into a lz or landing zone, to try and extract a downed chopper. The pilot of the downed chopper reported that the chopper was flyable. We did manage to start and get the aircraft airborne but we started receiving fire, took several hits and lost power and hydraulic fluid. We had to auto rotate and we crash landed, just missing a river by a few feet.

When we hit the ground my right knee slammed into the console causing an injury that still gives me problems over forty years later. I threw my M-16 to Captain Bartholomew, kept the 45 acp between my legs. No, it wasn’t some sort of phallic symbol hanging there. It was just handy and when I ran out of ammunition for the M-60 I could just reach down, draw the automatic and have another seven rounds to throw at the enemy.

The supporting aircraft that came in to rescue came under intense enemy fire. Those few minutes on the ground with the enemy in sight heading for us for the kill seemed like an eternity. Adrenalin flooded thru my body until I was awash in it.

As a door gunner, shooting from above always caused an uncontrollable adrenalin rush. No matter how hard I tried, my legs and knees would uncontrollably bounce out of control! When I got shot down and was shooting at the v.c. while I was on the ground hiding behind a very small bush my adrenalin rush was off the scale of any fear or anxiety I had ever felt, it was a level of fear I wasn’t used to.

When I first arrived in Vietnam and was just working on keeping the helicopters flying I remember looking up to the pilots, door gunners and crew chiefs with envy and awe for what they did. When I began flying as a door gunner I felt an incredible pride within myself being part of the team, one of them and feeling the thrill of the mission.  There really are no words to explain how tall I felt being with these men who I looked up to, feeling they were so far above me, a different species.

As I found my comfort zone flying door gunner, it made me think back to my rough neck days working in the Texas oil fields. Back when it took a man to do a man’s job! We rough necks all carried that inner pride of being part of an elite club, very similar to how I felt as a door gunner.

The fear of being a KIA, killed in action, on the ground or the possibility of becoming a POW was a fear factor all it’s own. Not knowing my destiny was a roller coaster ride but all I could depend on and cling to was  my belief of my buddies up above trusting in them to get us out of there in the best possible condition and maintain the credo:

“Leave No Man Behind.”

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