FOUR MINUTES TO CU CHI

 

 

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Written by   CW2 Dave Holloway
68th Slick / Mustang Pilot 

 

It was about two weeks after the Tet Offensive had started and things were winding down a little.  Charlie and the NVA were certain they would deal the South Vietnamese and US Forces a major defeat during the offensive but that was not the case.  The VC had taken heavy losses over the past two weeks and their attacks on outposts were now more sporadic.

 

I was assigned as pilot/gunner on an ESB (Emergency Standby) Fire Team.  My AC and fire team leader was Capt. Harry Gawkowski, Mustang 6.  I was happy to be flying with Capt. Ski, I wanted to learn from the best.  We had had a rather uneventful day considering the VC were still pretty active, but Charlie was now mostly striking at night, so by the time we had hit our bunks this night, we figured it wouldnít be long before we would be scrambled.

 

About 0230 hours the phone in the BOQ outside the Mustang quarters rang.  Capt. Ski was the first to answer the phone.  It was a scramble mission.  As we dashed to the flight line, SP5 Larry Shook (crew chief) had the blades untied and we were ready to crank up and go.  As Ski lifted the aircraft out of the revetment I was on the radio with Battalion Operations getting our mission. 

 

We were headed to a small village just west of Phu Loi.  The ARVN outpost at the village was under heavy attack.  By the time we reached the village Capt. Ski was in touch with the American Advisor, attached to the ARVN unit.  We were told the VC had already overrun one of their outposts on the south end of the village and was now attacking the northern compound.  Most of the villagers had sought refuge inside the northern compound or fled to the nearby countryside.  The ARVN commander gave us permission to level the small village, which was now completely occupied by the attacking VC.

 

Capt. Ski briefed our wingman and we began making gun runs on the village.  We were taking heavy fire from all parts of the village.  We could see muzzle flashes all over the area.  As we rolled in for our third gun run the fire was intensifying. We were just about ready to break off of target when we heard and felt rounds ripping into the belly of the aircraft.  As Ski broke right the caution panel lit up like a Christmas tree and the master caution warning light and buzzer started going off.  I reached up and hit the reset switch on the caution light panel.  All the lights went out and then about two seconds later eight of the lights came back on, including the master caution and buzzer.  As I was scanning the caution lights to determine which systems had been hit, Ski was asking me what was causing the master caution warning signal.

 

It only took a few seconds to determine that the engine oil cooling fan had been damaged and that is what was causing the master caution warning signal to go off.  Ski and I both knew we didnít have much time before the engine would overheat and burn out, resulting in a forced landing.  Ski first mentioned the possibility of setting the aircraft down inside the northern ARVN compound. I suggested that we might try to make it to Cu Chi.  Ski asked me how much time we had before the engine would burn out and I told him about four minutes.  He then asked, how far is Cu Chi, and I responded four maybe five minutes.  Ski decided we would try to make it to Cu Chi.

 

Ski contacted our wingman and informed him of our situation and that we were heading for Cu Chi.  During the next few minutes, he also contacted Battalion Operations and informed them of our situation and recommended sending out another fire team to complete the mission, since the ARVN compound was still under attack.  He then contacted Cu Chi tower and declared an emergency landing.

 

Eleven months prior I had been wounded when my aircraft was blown up when landing in a mined LZ, resulting in the other three crew members being killed in the explosion.  I can honestly say that, on that day, I was not scared of dying.  Everything had happened so quickly I didnít have time to think about dying. But this was different, I now had four or five minutes to think about what might happen if we couldnít make it to Cu Chi before the engine quit.  It was 0300 hours and there were no friendlies in the area.  If we couldnít make it to Cu Chi we would be on our own. Ski and I discussed what we should do if we went down before we got to Cu Chi.  We were following a dirt road that ran from Phu Loi to Cu Chi.  If we had to make a force landing Ski would auto rotate onto the road and we would pull what guns and radios we could carry, drop a hand grenade into the fuel take and run like hell down the road to Cu Chi.  Ski alerted our wingman to our plans and told him to make sure our aircraft got destroyed if we went down before we got to Cu Chi.  We didnít want the VC to get their hands on any of the weapon systems, radios, or other equipment on the aircraft. 

 

By now we were half way to Cu Chi and I didnít like the possible outcome.  Thirteen months in Vietnam and this was without a doubt the most frightened I had ever been.  I had time to think about the possibility of dying and the thoughts were not very appealing.

 

Four minutes had now passed and we could see the outer perimeter of Cu Chi. Just then the engine burned out.  It was pitch down and a hard ninety degree turn to the left as we headed for the grassy area next to the runway. Landing light on to make sure we had a clear spot for landing.  Time to flare and kill off that airspeed, then the final pitch pull to cushion the landing.  Ski had made one of the best night auto rotations I had ever seen.  We were on the ground at Cu Chi and I was one happy guy.  I would live to fight another day.

 

 

 

 

 

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