By Bud Harton
I was living in Lai Khe, South Vietnam and working as a crew chief/door gunner on a Huey helicopter with an Army Assault Helicopter Company. I did this from January, 1966 to September, 1968. In the words of one my pilots, years later, “it was the best we ever were.” . . .
I started out on slicks, the UH-1D which were used as the troop transports. I spent my first six months flying in formations of 5, 10, 20 and sometimes even more helicopters carrying troops into landing zones which resulted in frequently coming under fire. Sometimes, a particularly highly motivated group of Viet Cong would have the landing zone pre-plotted for mortar fire which always resulted in some memorable moments of incredibly intense fear. It only took the sight of what happens to a helicopter when an 82mm mortar explodes alongside while it’s just touching down to learn that what we were doing was really scary.
But it did have its moments and we usually got to take a shower every night.
After six months of risking my life daily ferrying troops, I decided I really wanted to shoot back a lot more and I was allowed to transfer to the armed platoon in exchange for an additional six months in Vietnam. So, after six months in country, I only had eighteen months left in my twelve month tour.
The armed platoon was flying the Huey Charlie model. More agile because of a newer designed rotor system and more powerful because of an improved engine. The platoon had eight aircraft, five called “minis” because they were armed with two XM-134 mini guns mounted outboard of the aircraft and fired by the aircraft commander and two pods of seven each 2.75” rockets with 17 pound warheads which were fired by the pilot in the right seat.
There were two more known as “frogs” because they had an XM5 40mm grenade launcher mounted on the nose and fired by the aircraft commander and 2.75” rocket pods fired by the pilot. The eighth aircraft was called a “Hog” and it fired 48 of the 2.75-inch rockets. Their main function was to escort the slicks into landing zones after first performing prepatory fires, counter-mortar/rocket, and scramble response for troops in contact.
In the rear of all of the aircraft rode the crew chief in the left seat and the gunner in the right seat. Both were armed with M60 machineguns suspended from the ceiling near the litter rack pole by bungee cords.
That was an infinitely more desirable position to be in. Now when someone shot at us, we didn’t have just to take it but could return absolutely devastating fire.
The Huey was the absolute workhorse of the Vietnam War. They were used not only by the Army, but also the Navy, Marines and Air Force, too. A total of 7,013 Hueys served in Vietnam from 1963 to 1973 and of that total, 3,305 were destroyed killing 2,177 crewmembers.
That’s not the total number of Hueys that “went down,” though. Far from it. For instance, during my 32 months in Vietnam, I went down a total of nine times. Some from combat damage, but most from mechanical failures. If the pilot was able to land the aircraft in an open area, the aircraft was normally recovered, repaired and returned to service. One of the advantages of rotary wing flight is that a skilled pilot can bring the aircraft to a hover just before impact and greatly reduce or even eliminate any impact damage.
Of course, when there is no open area and the aircraft ‘lands’ at the top of a 150 foot tree in the middle of a mahogany forest or on the side of a mountain, there usually wasn’t any recovery necessary.
One of the most memorable landings was the time our wingman called my aircraft commander on the VHF radio saying,
“CROSSBOW 33! PUT IT DOWN, PETE YOU’RE ON FIRE, THE WHOLE TAIL BOOM IS BURNING!”
But, all this is background to help you understand that I was there when the whole concept of the “BoB” came about.
“BoB” originally stood for Bail-out-Bag and no doubt was aptly named by the zoomies in the fast movers. We, of course, couldn’t bail out of a descending helicopter because there was the chance that you would be chopped to pieces by the main rotor blades. And if they missed, you had an even better chance of meeting Mr. Tail Rotor.
What I learned the very first time I went down was that whatever you had on your body or in your hand was all you were going to have to survive with. All too often, once you hit the ground, you were going to be under fire and the aircraft was the focus point of every enemy soldier that you saw you disappear, so you had to flee. Or, as happened to me on one occasion, the aircraft was already on fire when it hit the ground and carrying that much ordinance and that much JP-4 fuel was a great motivation tool to run quickly. So, I learned that having a bag right alongside my seat or even better, already strapped on my body was really the only option.
Because the Army had apparently not given any thought to this possible situation, we didn’t really have a large selection of suitable equipment bags. Enter the previously innocuous M18a1 Claymore mine carry pouch.
Why would a helicopter assault unit have a need for a Claymore mine you ask? Well, to cook C rations with the C4 explosive, of course. And to make field-expedient aerial bombs out of the C4, an ammo can, an M26 grenade and whatever improvised fragmentation material we could stuff inside.
But, that’s a story for another time.
The Claymore pouch comes with a very handy shoulder strap and has two separate pockets inside. In mine, I carried extra 9mm Hi Power magazines, some basic first aid stuff, extra packs of cigarettes and lighters, smoke grenades and a couple of aerial flares. And after I finally was able to snatch one, a PRC-10 emergency radio.
After the very first time I went down, I started accumulating stuff to carry with me and then noticed that other folks had the same idea and were already using Claymore pouches.
And that was the very first recorded use of what’s now known as the bug out bag. Not really, of course, but was my first use of one. And today, a hundred pounds heavier, I still have one with me and, other than the cigarettes, it still contains very similar items.