I’m delighted to welcome Chuck Jackson to my blog today. Chuck is an author, writer and blogger, and lives in Florida.
Chuck shares his incredible story of life as a Special Forces member of an Air Force Pararescue Team in 1968. Reading his story told me how all these men and women deserve to be remembered for the champions that they were and still are.
* * *
In December 1968, after completing 14 months of Special Forces training to be a member of the Air Force Pararescue team (PJ), I left my wife in tears and joined a hundred plus men from all branches of the military for the dreaded flight to Vietnam. Dressed in our fatigues, we boarded the aircraft at Travis AFB with stops in Alaska, Japan and then on to Vietnam. The closer we got to Da Nang, the more nervous we became.
Upon our arrival, the weather was cold and rainy; the scene was bedlam, with aircrafts of all sorts and sizes parked haphazardly. Military vehicles of various types were running back and forth-carrying men, fuel and cargo. Over to the side, I spotted a haunting site I would never forget. Lined up were many baggage carts, and on them were black bags containing the bodies of men who had given their lives. I saw no honor guard, nor flag covered caskets; only those body bags lying in the freezing rain.
* * *
When I checked into the 38th ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service) Detachment 7 in Da Nang, they assigned me to an Air Force Kaman HH-43B team. The HH-43B “Huskie” or as PJs named it “Pedro” they never designed it for combat because of its slow speed, short range, and it was not armored.
My team included Air Force Major William (Billy) Atkins, First Lieutenant Lawrence (Larry) Riley, Airman Samuel (Sammy) Burkowitz, and me. Our call name was Pedro 7-5. The other three had been together for several months and I was replacing a PJ that had rotated back stateside.
The first week we did nothing but Medevac to get me broken in. Although I was told this was temporary, my ignorance of actual rescue missions left me bored and wanting more. I did not understand what my future held; however, it wasn’t long before they immersed me into the reality of being a PJ.
I was hanging out in Detachment 7’s ready room with Sammy when the alarm sounded. By the time we arrived at our bird, Billy had the engines running and Larry was standing out front watching for us. As soon as I got out of the vehicle, Larry yelled, “Come on Doc. Get your gear on; we need to be in the air.” Sammy and I didn’t have enough time to get anymore than our helmets on and plugged into the communication systems when Billy was lifting off.
I asked, “What’s the scoop?”
Larry said, “We got two Huey medivac birds down. Sandy 2-7 says he is not sure there were survivors. There are hostiles crawling all over the area and command has scrambled a support jet and a second Sandy from Dak To.”
“Are we the only rescue crew?”
Billy said, “No, Pedro 4-4 out of Pleiku will be in support, but we are the primary.” Billy snickered, “Hey Doc, I hope you put on clean skivvies this morning. You wanted a mission, you got one now.”
Within 20 minutes, we were in communication with Sandy 2-7. He all but escorted us over to the crash site. We were circling at 1,000 ft. and it did not look good. Wreckage was spread over a quarter mile, although one cabin seemed to be intact. It took another half-hour of circling in the distance, with the two Sandy’s and an F-100 Super Sabre clearing the area. Pedro 4-4 was in formation with us.
Finally, we got the call, “Pedro 7-5, Sandy 2-7; Copy? .”
Larry answered, “This is Pedro 7-5; Go ahead.”
They gave us the green light and Billy made the turn. We heard the Sandy, tell Pedro 4-4 to maintain his pattern. Billy made a wide sweep and then as he lowered to less than 200 ft. Sammy yelled, “We got some hostiles at 7 o’clock.” Billy instantly kicked our bird in the butt and ascended back to 1,000 ft.
“Pedro 7-5, this is Rooster nine-err, two—two. Maintain your altitude.”
Billy replied, “10-4, Rooster 9-2-2; Roger that.”
Out of nowhere, a F-100 swooped in below us and hit the area with an onboard rocket followed by his guns. The target lit up with flames and smoke.
Sandy 2-7 cleared us again for an approach. This time we saw nothing, and Billy brought us in, hovered at six ft., and I jumped. Billy immediately rose and was making tight sweeps. I ran toward the cabin. When I got within 100 yards, I started seeing body parts. While still strapped I found the pilot in the cockpit, the other two were lying outside at various distances. The body parts seemed to come from one individual.
I radioed, “Pedro 7-5, PJ 7-5; Copy?”
Larry responded, PJ 7-5; Go ahead.
“No survivors here. Give me the direction to the other site.”
“PJ 7-5, 3 o’clock and 200 meters.”
I hightailed over toward the other site. I had to break through some thick brush. Once I did, I saw a burned cabin, or what was left of the cabin. I also saw severely burned bodies. I only found what I could identify as two crew members.
“Pedro 7-5, PJ 7-5; Copy?”
“PJ 7-5; Go ahead.”
“No survivors here. Check on the number on board this Huey.”
“PJ 7-5; Roger that.”
While I waited, I searched the area. The stench from the burned bodies was nauseating. I checked in all directions, finding nothing.
“PJ 7-5, Sandy 2-7; Copy?”
“Sandy 2-7; Go ahead.”
“Command says crew of three on each bird. Copy?”
“10-4, Sandy 2-7; thank you.”
Billy instructed me to return to the first site. He said Pedro 4-4 would handle the burned site.
With both Sandy’s, keeping watch over our backsides, Billy landed at the first site. He kept our bird’s engines running. Sammy helped me get the pilot out and put him in a body bag. We gathered as many body parts as we could find and put them in a separate bag. We did not have another bag, so we used a tarp out of our emergency locker and wrapped the third crewmember. Then we loaded all three in our bird.
Pedro 4-4 landed at site two and it took its crew 30 minutes to find the third crewmember. We left before Pedro 4-4 and headed for our base. For the last week, I had hauled body bags when we did Medevac. However, this seemed more dismal. Perhaps it was because these were flight crews and not Army grunts. No one spoke on the return to base.
As I helped unload our formidable cargo, I must have had a melancholy appearance. Billy walked over, put his arm around me, and said, “I’m sorry to tell you Doc, it doesn’t get any easier.” Then, cynically, he added, “Oh yeah, Welcome to Vietnam.”
Thoughts of a Pararescueman
I am that which others do not want to be. I chose to go where others fear and excel where they have failed.
I ask for nothing from those that will not give… and reluctantly accept the thought of eternal loneliness, …should I fail.
I have seen the face of death, felt the stinging cold of fear; I have realized the harsh reality of just what this job is all about. I enjoyed the sweet taste of victory and love; but those were just fleeting moments.
I have cried, pained and hoped, most of all, I have lived times others would say are best forgotten…But,
At least I will be able to say that I was proud of who and what I am and that in my heart and soul I will always be a “PJ”
“These Things We Do, That Others May Live,”
Chuck Jackson is a retired accountant living in Southeast Florida. He was an ‘Air Force Brat’ and followed his dad’s 33-year military career by also serving four years in the Air Force.
He is an extensive reader and since retirement; he has spent much of his time studying and enhancing his love for writing. This story is taken in part from his published memoir. He is a two-time cancer survivor and draws his strength from his faith and church activity.
For years, he spoke little of his Vietnam experience, suffering similarly as many Vietnam Veterans anguished in silence. With this writing, he wants to help return the honor and dignity of those that served with him. He dedicates this story to those men that proudly served as PJs.
Connect with Chuck
Chuck’s story appears in the Anthology – Stories Through The Ages – Baby Boomers Plus 2020.
Click here to order your copy.
My thanks to Chuck for writing this guest post.
If you have any questions or comments for Chuck, please leave them in the comments section. He’d be delighted to hear from you.
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