Friday, April 19, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 36

BU DOP, Vietnam — Crossbows made by the Montagnard people of Vietnam were a hot item for trading.

Pilots of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company had access to the crossbows because we frequently flew into Montagnard camps and settlements. Additionally, many of the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups soldiers we supported through U.S. Special Forces were Montagnards.

The French named the Montagnards —the indigenous mountain people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands — during the colonial occupation of Indochina.

Young Montagnard men at Bu Dop, Vietnam.
When we flew to a Montagnard camp, the locals knew they could get a dollar or two for a handmade crossbow and a couple of bolts. They were a good investment. When we landed back at Bien Hoa Airbase, we put out the word to the Air Force guys and they would be lined up to take the goods off our hands.

The crossbows were hot items because they were war souvenirs that were light to carry and the ammunition wouldn’t explode in a shipping container. It was a keepsake a GI could take home and show he had been in the thick of things during the war. A crossbow was an item of lust for many GIs who never served in the field, as well as some who had. They became a basic unit of commerce.

Personally, I didn’t get engaged in crossbow commerce, but other flight crews did. Stories were rife about how a crewmember had parlayed a crossbow into a case of steaks, which then were swapped for a window air conditioner.

I even heard tales about plywood cabins — or “hooches” — being financed through crossbow trades. These were in the more remote areas of Vietnam where pilots did not live in a nice villa like ours.

Another big appeal of the crossbows was they were fun to shoot.

The two pilots who lived across the hall from me brought Montagnard crossbows home one day. I remember walking into their room that night and seeing them sitting on the floor in their shorts and T-shirts, pointing crossbows toward one of the beds.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked Warrant Officer Ricky Mattern.

“Hunting rats,” Ricky said. “We’ve seen a big one under the bed.” The two pilots were sitting at 90-degree angles to one another so they could not hit each other with a flying bolt.

I brushed it off. I had been living across the hall for several months and had never seen a rat in the villa. “Good luck,” I told them.

To my surprise, several days later Ricky told me he had bagged a large rat.

I began paying more attention to where I stepped when I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

The guys across the hall became such avid rat-hunters you seldom saw them at the bar in the Officers Club. Each evening after dinner they would carry drinks back to their room, sit on the floor, and wait for their quarry.

The door to the room remained closed to keep the prey inside. Music from a reel-to-reel tape recorder would be playing pretty loud inside the room. When I heard the music, I never just barged into the room.

One day Ricky told me his new set of sand-weighted, Sansui floor speakers had arrived from Japan. He had not been able to find a set at the Bien Hoa Airbase PX, so Ricky had special ordered the speakers. That evening, he planned to bring the speakers online. I figured the music would be extra loud.

But I was surprised at how quiet the room was that night. The next morning, the two pilots told me Ricky had fired a crossbow bolt through one of the speakers, just as they had been wired up to play music.

Not long after that, I was in formation on the ground during a troop extraction. Ricky was in a Huey ahead of me in a staggered trail formation. As I prepared for takeoff, I saw one of the helicopters near the front of the formation get airborne, then drop immediately from view behind a row of nipa palm trees. The rest of the formation’s takeoff was aborted. Soldiers and crewmembers from nearby helicopters streamed toward the trees.

It turned out that Ricky’s Huey had lost lift just as it cleared the first row of trees on the nearside of a small river, then settled into the water and sank. Though Ricky and his crew survived the accident, several soldiers they were carrying drowned. Getting out of a submerged helicopter can be tricky. You don’t want to swim to the water’s surface too quickly because the main rotor blades can strike you. Even under water, it takes a while for the blades to lose their momentum.

Wreckage of Huey being flown by WO1 Ricky
Mattern and 1st Lt. James Ante.
Weeks later, on Sept. 3, 1967, Ricky, 3 members of his crew, and 3 passengers died during a freak accident at Di An near Saigon.

“The right cargo door came off on takeoff. The door hit the main rotors blades, causing mast bumping to occur. The tail boom and main rotor blades separated from the aircraft. It crashed and burned,” the Army accident summary says.

Ricky was the aircraft commander, First Lieutenant James Ante was pilot, Specialist 4 Ray Schold was crew chief, and Specialist 4 David Carroll was doorgunner. Among the passengers was Warrant Officer Lewis Gilder, who had caught a ride on the helicopter to visit a friend.

Over the years I remembered Ricky and Jim as very young when they died. Yet, Ricky was only 2 years younger than me, and Jim was 7 months older.


From time to time we would hear about crossbows used as weapons against helicopters.

The one I heard most frequently involved a U.S. Army Huey landing after running low on fuel. The story goes that when the crew chief walked to the side of the helicopter to begin refueling at a P&L (petroleum and lubrication) station, he saw a crossbow bolt had been shot into the bottom of the chopper, puncturing the fuel cell.

The most interesting story, though, was about a giant crossbow near a large, reclining Buddha statue. According to the story, the crossbow was permanently aimed up with a sharpened bolt roughly the size of a telephone pole. When this story was relayed, it carried the explicit warning not to fly low and slow while looking at statues in the jungle.

The location of the reclining Buddha statue and the giant crossbow was always a bit vague. I never met anyone who saw either.

The largest reclining Buddha statue in Vietnam was within flying range of our helicopters. It is the Thich-Ca-Nhap-Niet-Ban located on Ta Kou Mountain about 30 kilometers southeast of Phan Thiet. The 160-foot-long (49-meter-long) statue is near a mountaintop pagoda built in 1879.

1 comment:

  1. Thank You Jack for this story. My Dad is Ray Schold. I was 3 when he died.