61. The Night That Changed My Life Forever By Hans-Jürgen Underwood
The expression, worst day of my life, is something I hear a lot. It made me wonder, what was the worst day in my life. It's difficult to choose one worst day because I had many during my Vietnam tours, but if I had to pick one, it would be the 18th of June 1971, the one that altered my life, the one that haunts me in my thoughts and dreams. Cung Son! Two words that came home with me.
Many years ago, Stan Gause requested stories from our constituency about their time with The Unit. For reasons some readers will understand, I just couldn't bring myself to putting anything down in print until now ; sorry Stan. For the past few days, I've been updating the Compiled Recollections Page or Unit Stories Page and started re-reading the stories that have been added over the years. After reading some of the events, the memories, that I preferred to forget all these years, returned. Even now I'm sitting here trembling as I type this story. I've been trying to put the memories of that night in 1971 out of my mind for over years. Memories that changed me as a person. As I previously mentioned, this is the first time I've put this story down in type. To put it briefly, it was the most horrific night of my life. I'll try to be as accurate as possible considering the difficult memories.
1970 It was only 14 years earlier that my family immigrated to the United States from Germany. In 1970, still a German citizen, I found myself in the United States Army stationed in the Republic of South Vietnam. What a complicated journey it was. Not at all what my dad had in mind for his sons when leaving Germany in 1956.
1971 That night, in June 71, I was on 15 minute alert status. It was very dark when we were called to the flight line. The alert ships were already pulled from their revetments and setup for immediate take off. As each ship came on line the lights began flashing. The chatter of takeoff instructions came over the radio systems. Then Clear Left, Clear Right came over the radio. All the ships began to hover and one by one, collectives were pulled, cyclic pushed over.
The ships came to a hover and all moved to the active, turned into the wind and were off in minutes. We were in route to an unheard of village called Cung Son about 35 miles inland along the Tuy Hoa River. This was to become the biggest engagement between Allied and Communist forces in Phu Yen Province since 1968. I knew nothing about the mission except that the village was under attack by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). It didn't take long to arrive on site. Adrenalin was pumping and we were ready for action.
Night flights look so very different. The navigation lights of each ship all lined up painted on a totally black background. Nothing was visible but aircraft lights. It was warm and the doors had been removed from each side of the ship. I liked feeling the warm wind as the sound of the rotor blades whipped up my blood into the tension and alertness necessary for combat. We were flying Lima Lima (low level) and could see barrel flashes off in the distance as we approached the village. Despite our low level flight, in the dark, the sound of our rotors announced our approach and we started taking fire immediately as we got close to the edge of the village. We began returning fire. Every 5th round of the M60 machine gun chain link ammunition was a tracer so the gunner could see directionality and line up the target on the ground. All you see was a solid stream of red, piercing the darkness, headed for targets on the ground. It must have been hell to be on receiving end of the fire.
We were covered by gunships with mini-guns ablaze. What a sight! We kept passing over the hooch's. We shot at everything that gave the slightest movement on the ground. Suddenly the light from a barrel flash. We began to circle a single hooch at the intersection of two streets and returned fire. A man ran into the hooch. Our machine gun fire started taking the mud building apart. So many rounds went into the building nothing could have survived. Pass after pass we strafed the village until there was no return fire. That kind of silence was deafening to me as my mind put together the evening's event and the sickening totality of death and destruction.
Just before dawn we began our return to Tuy Hoa. I remember feeling exhausted; it must have been from the lack of sleep and adrenal fatigue. I began having flash backs of the mission passing through my mind over and over. I couldn't wait to get back Tuy Hoa and get to bed, as if sleep would somehow expunge the guttural dread I was experiencing. It seemed as if it was taking much longer going home but then with a sudden right turn we were on final to the Tuy Hoa landing strip, made our way back to the revetment area, hovered, turned the nose out toward the taxi area and set down. We did a quick and efficient post flight. That done we made our way back to the alert hooch.
Fatigue finally got the better of me and I was out. This reprieve was not for long of course, and I had to head back out. This time it was a recon mission, which returned us to the scene and aftermath of the previous night's events. On our approach to the, LZ, I took pictures. What a mess! CUNG SON After shutting down we left the ship and did a walk around. There were South Vietnam regulars there to meet us for the look see.
What I saw first were 2 bodies of Viet Cong lying in a ditch. Chickens were pecking at the bodies. I kept moving. I looked down what was the main street of the village. Bodies were being removed to a designated area outside of the village. Civilians with strong and efficient movements lifted bodies in pairs, one at the feet, one lifting the upper body. The ironic sensation that this scene could be tidied like so much house cleaning sickened me. Most of the thatch roof tops were burned. The houses were mostly made up of dried mud, but now were smoke stained from fire. (It is amazing what is coming back as I sit here and type.)
As I recall, we were not there very long before we fired up the engine and headed home. We were there only long enough to talk to the ARVN Commander, prepare an after action report and get a body count. When we got back we were released from alert status, I headed back to the company area to get some sleep. Surprisingly enough I was able to sleep. Next day, I started to put the previous couple of days behind me, like closing a door and looking forward. We all hardened our hearts to the pain of yesterday and took the next day as it came. It was all I could do. Though I was on other assault flights, that was the most horrific encounter of my tours of duty, not to be repeated. Though I did have many nightmares after returning home, I consider myself thus fortunate. Others were not so fortunate and relived that nightmare over and over. For some the only relief was to die amid such a nightmare.
Present Day Today it's all just a bad memory. Once in awhile I still have one of those emotional moments that all of us share from time to time. It'll just come on suddenly and disappear just as quickly, like right now! If only I could un-see the things I've seen. My wounds can not be seen nor will they ever heal.
Many times I'm asked if I still think about Vietnam. My response is usually, YES, I was just there last night! Clearly I would never be the same.