In a Vietnam Helicopter
August 1979

“In a Vietnam Helicopter,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 56–57

In a Vietnam Helicopter

Slowly the delta landscape passed beneath us, its palm trees, rice paddies, canals, and rivers emerging from crimson dawn. Smoke from morning cook fires rose silkily over sleepy hamlets. The sight of those homes reminded me of my own—my wife and our toddling son. For a moment Vietnam seemed far away.

“You guys still awake?” the radio crackled.

“Yeah, we’re here. Watcha got?” came my helicopter commander’s reply.

“Ground troops got Charlie pinned down at the old French plantation near Tan An; they want you to help.”

As copilot I had the helicopter’s side-mounted guns. I pulled the gun sight down and checked. The bull’s-eye beamed brightly in its center.

Then the commander gave me the controls as we flew up the long canal and across the highway. Ten more minutes and we were at the plantation, an insignificant village cluttered with small white structures.

As we flew nearer, I saw dark, heavy smoke billowing from the tiny village. Charred remains and flames leaping from doors and windows revealed the night’s grim events.

“The enemy has only one escape route,” the radio barked, “and we’re supposed to cover it. Anything that moves—shoot!”

I heard the order. I knew what I was supposed to do. And I’d been out on these missions before. But I also knew the divine nature of life, and the eternal character of human relationships. What did priesthood service mean behind these guns?

We started a slow descent with a shallow turn to the right, behind and above the lead helicopter.

“Hey! I think I’ve got something,” came over the radio.

The lead aircraft flew lower and we followed.

“Yep, somebody moving on that path. They’re running! We’ll make a pass; you follow close behind.”

“Roger that,” I responded.

The pilot took the controls. We descended lower, the earth passing more swiftly beneath us.

The lead helicopter shouted, “There he is again! We’re too close. You’ve got ‘em.”

I was breathing rapidly. We scanned the partially hidden trail. There it was—some fleeting white through the undergrowth, escaping the flaming village.

We were too close to aim my side-mounted guns, but right in range for the door gunner’s hand-held machine gun.

We could see the form now, running frantically, weaving, careening headlong through the thick growth into a small clearing. The machine gun began to chatter.

Clutching a bundle tightly in its arms, our target went to the ground, not falling but purposefully and controlled.

Then I saw—and went numb. There on the ground, a young mother curled around her baby, trying to protect it against our aircraft.

The scene passed in slow motion. I seemed to have time to see every detail.

Deadly rounds hit the ground in front of her, then in back. Bits of mud spattered onto her white silken pajamas, even as I cried into the air, “Cease fire! Cease fire!”

The gun went silent. Up and out we climbed. My vision was blurred; I couldn’t see her move as we rose away. Was I the only one who knew? I pressed the intercom button; quietly I asked, “Did you see?”

“Yes,” was the gunner’s reply. “It was a young girl and her baby.”

“Did you hear me say to cease fire?”

The answer came clearly, a little puzzled: “No. I was going to stop but before I could take my finger from the trigger, the gun stopped. It just stopped!”

We came back around, hoping, and there it was—a flash of white scurrying through the underbrush. Yes! Oh glorious yes, she was alive!

Later, after time to ponder, I understood. An elder’s urgent plea had been answered, instantly, and without formality. In that one desperate moment the forces of heaven were manifest, and a life was spared. The gun had stopped. It just stopped.

  • William Everett Phipps, Jr., a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and father of ten children, has recently moved to the Montgomery, Alabama, Ozark Ward.