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Posted: August 19, 2014 7:44 p.m.

A Veteran's Story: The dustoff

The unsung heroes of war

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Their aphorism, ‘Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces’ was better known in Vietnam by its acronym ‘Dustoff’. These were the medevac choppers. Unarmed and unwavering, the courageous crews of ‘Dustoff’ missions flew their Hueys into combat zones to bring out the wounded, the dying, and young soldiers covered with rain ponchos. ‘Dustoffs’ were clearly marked with the Red Cross insignia to signify a mercy flight, yet that distinctive Red Cross also became a prime target for Communist gunners.

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen refer to their ‘ships’ in womanlike jargon, ‘she was a great ship’, the ‘Fighting Lady’; ‘she never failed to bring us home’; ‘she was a gentle plane.’ One such lady, medevac chopper 405, recently had a ‘facelift’ so to speak, fresh paint, new markings, and was rededicated this month at American Legion Post 77 in Conyers.

In attendance for the ceremony was one of her crew chiefs in Vietnam, Randal Drew. A soft-spoken gentleman, Randal offered the gathering a few poignant words concerning his service aboard his lady, 405; then I watched as he tried to quietly fade away into the crowd. Beneath that humble veneer dwelled a narrative, the life-saving experiences of a 7th Day Adventist who earned 17 Air Medals and a the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.

Drafted in January, ’67, Randal was destined for the infantry after basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. He recalled, “They told us if we’d enlist for another year we could apply for crew chief on a chopper or tank. Only 3 of us volunteered. In Vietnam I medevaced 80% of those guys I attended basic with.”

Many Seventh Day Adventists, as conscientious objectors, volunteered for a little known unit at Camp Detrick in Maryland called Project Whitecoat. Randal explained, “The Whitecoats were human lab rats, injected with experimental drugs or antibiotics.” These boys were also injected with biological and chemical warfare agents. Extremely controversial on so many levels, Project Whitecoat was terminated in 1973, ironically the same year the draft ended. Only 7th Day Adventists were used for the project.

Assigned to the 159th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance) at Ft. Riley, KS, Randal completed an abbreviated course on medical procedures before his deployment to Vietnam. On the deployment: “We took a troop transport, the USNS General Weigel, for the 30 day journey to Vietnam, our 40 man medical group and over 4,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne and other divisions. Most of us were seasick before we went under the Golden Gate Bridge.”

The Weigel docked at Vung Tau, Vietnam. “From Vung Tau I took a 2 day bus trip to Cu Chi. Metal screening covered the bus windows to protect us from hand grenades. I remember watching the old TV series “Combat” at Cu Chi on a big screen. The actors were dodging artillery fire and the older guys were suddenly scurrying for cover. We newbies laughed at them until we realized the base was under mortar attack.”

After a short stay at Cu Chi, Randal was transferred to 45th Medevac, 2nd Platoon, at Long Binh. Assigned to chopper 405, Randal recalled, “I liked my job, 24 on and 24 off. During my off time I worked on 405 to be sure she was airworthy.”

From Oct, ’67 until Oct, ’68, Randal Drew lost track of how many hours and flights and rescue missions he participated in, but his recollections are as vivid as yesterday. The following is a brief summary of his most powerful memories.

“I remember my first mission. A Huey doesn’t have rearview mirrors so the crew has to ‘clear left’ and ‘clear right’ each time you dustoff. Our copilot was a southern boy with a deep southern accent, and when he asked me to ‘clear left’ I didn’t understand him. I asked him ‘What?’ and I guess he took that as a ‘clear left’. We came within a few feet of colliding with a Cobra gunship. He yelled at me, but I yelled back, ‘Next time speak English!’ We communicated fine after that.”

“After a month you knew the terrain and territory. It was the same old story; go out, kick butt, pull out. Then later go back in and do the same thing. We took ground but didn’t hold it…..such a waste of life.”

“During the Tet Offensive we were called out to Baria, Vietnam. There were ARVN soldiers in need of evacuation from the town at the base of a mountain. Surprisingly, many of the buildings in the town were three stories high. I noticed several APCs (armored personnel carriers) with US markings and .50 caliber machine guns but didn’t think anything of it. Our pilots had to hover between the buildings with the rotor blades less than 2 feet from the edge of the structure. I used the hoist to pull up several wounded ARVN boys then the rotor blew the roof off one of the buildings. Well, right there in the middle of a battle on the top floor was a Vietnamese man and woman doing what comes naturally. It was one of those moments in war that causes you to just shake your head. As we pulled away with our wounded, I noticed the .50 calibers on the APCs were firing at us. The VC had captured them and had turned the weapons on us. That was a bit scary.” Note: A bit heroic also – Randal Drew received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his gallantry during the battle at Baria, Vietnam.

“There were tragic things and funny things. Once I jumped out of 405 into a rice paddy to help load the wounded. The chopper revved up to dustoff before I realized my feet were stuck like a suction cup in mud. I couldn’t move. One of the wounded soldiers wrapped his arm around me and the force of the dustoff pulled me free of the mud. Strange, I guess….I’d just rescued that guy then he rescued me.”

“Some of the crew chiefs would stay in a hot LZ and join the fight. I can honestly say I chose not to do that. It was risky enough in an unarmed medevac. I served on different Hueys and was shot down 10 times, and 6 times we lost power and went into auto-rotation.”

“We were called into the Mekong Delta for one mission that could have ended in tragedy. The air was thick with gunpowder; even from 3,000 feet up we could smell it. Phantom jets were screaming in beneath us dropping napalm and green tracers were dancing around our chopper. We took 34 hits. The sound of a ‘hit’ is like crushing a cola can in your hand, is the best way I can describe it. We did touch down for rescue. One soldier was KIA. You know that before he’s onboard because the boys are dragging him by his feet and he’s face down in the water. We pulled up but the Christmas tree was fully lit (all the warning lights). We were in trouble. About a mile away we had to set her down. A gunship picked us up. I think that’s the scariest moment I remember.”

“We had a medic in the 1st platoon that started giving all his stuff away before his next mission. He claimed that would be his last mission; that he would die the next day. He even wrote his wife a ‘goodbye’ letter. I didn’t believe in premonitions, but the next day the medic flew a ‘milk run’ (easy mission) and one round hit the chopper. The round entered under the armpit area of his chicken plate (80 lb armored plated vest) and pierced both his lungs. He died instantly. Just one of those things, I guess.”

“We would medevac Air Force pilots periodically but that usually meant picking up the pieces. Sometimes when a Phantom jet pilot ejected the canopy did not, so he went down with the plane. We found guys still in the plane, jammed into the cockpit.”

“Phantom pilots knew no fear. We would be at 3,000 feet when all of a sudden a couple Phantom jets at 1,000 feet would shoot across the sky below us. Their sonic boom would shake our ship. Those were brave men. One of them was the famous pilot Chuck Yeager. I met Yeager’s mechanic. He said Yeager was an egotistical maniac but a great pilot.”

“Many people ask if I ever got used to the horrors of war. It’s more like going numb. It didn’t bother me back then but it bothers me now. You just did your job and hoped you made it back. I still can hear guys with their arms or legs blown off asking me to kill them. They didn’t want to go home that way. Of course I couldn’t do that and I wouldn’t do that.”

Randal Drew made it home to make a living in aviation. One job took him back to Vietnam several times. He recalled, “I reprocessed rented or abandoned airplanes. The Vietnamese people were nice to me; their war is over, almost like it never happened. South Vietnam is a mixture of Communism and Capitalism. Beach resorts are being built on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And Saigon is still called Saigon….most South Vietnamese do not call their town Ho Chi Minh City.”

His final thoughts: “I’m proud of my service and what I did in Vietnam. I never killed anyone but I saved a lot of lives. You know, we had about 250 guys in our basic training unit and I medevaced about 80% of those boys. I’d recognized their faces. I still see those faces.”

Randal Drew served his country honorably and heroically. He didn’t like war, and didn’t want to go to war, but he did what he had to do. We all did. So the next time you notice an artillery piece or airplane or tank or chopper on display at a state park, a military base, or perhaps in front of an American Legion, please remember behind the metal that makes the weapon were American warriors, all who gave some, and some who gave all.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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