by Rev. Bill McDonald
The 1st Infantry was involved with a military campaign in Vietnam called “Operation Billings.” Our helicopter had been assigned to insert troops into some very hostile areas when we received a frantic call for immediate assistance from a group of about one hundred men who were trapped and fighting for their lives. The enemy units had surrounded the group. The perimeter of this small landing zone (LZ) had partially collapsed. There was ongoing hand-to-hand combat on the edges of the clearing in which our helicopters would land.
We could tell from the voice of the radioman that they were in the thick of a firefight. We could hear the gunfire and explosions in the background as the guy yelled over his radio. They needed medical evacuation as soon as possible. We were the only available aircraft in the sector, so we turned around and raced to their location.
When we approached the landing zone, we saw the yellow smoke that emanated from capsules our troops had popped open to guide us to our pickup point. We could also see red and white tracers bouncing off the trees and the ground. There were several explosions from enemy mortar rounds falling into the LZ. I assumed some of the explosions in this open meadow were from hand grenades. It was a living hell for those men inside that LZ. The smoke drifted through the broken trees that had fallen and were on fire. Men were running and moving in all directions. There seemed to be no organized plan of action—it was total chaos unfolding below us. No area in this lethal place looked secure or safe from the action.
We were flying at treetop level as we pulled into the LZ. This made us an easy target for enemy troops in the surrounding jungle. We could feel the belly of the helicopter taking hits. Tracer rounds also were flying through the open areas of the ship where we had taken off the doors. The ship rocked and bounced along the treetops. Intermittent, violent upheavals from ground explosions rocked our aircraft. I thought it was going to be torn apart by the pounding of the blasts. Every explosion caused our helicopter to rock and roll as if it were going to suddenly drop out of the sky and into the trees a few feet below us.
I had my machine gun fully at the ready but could not pick out any clear targets below. I could not fire since the good guys and bad guys were mixed together. I had to sit there while the enemy took shots at us. It seemed to take hours to travel that last 100 yards to where our soldiers had popped smoke for us to land. By the time we set down, we could see hand-to-hand combat taking place a short distance from us. We were the biggest target in the LZ, and we could not hide anywhere. We needed to load the wounded and get out of there quick.
There were more explosions just yards away from us. I could feel the dirt and pieces of tree branches hitting my face and body. All around me, men were dropping. Their bodies were being ripped apart by automatic gunfire and mortar rounds. The green grass was turning red from all the flowing blood. I unplugged my communications line from my flight helmet and jumped off the helicopter as soon as we set down on the ground. I ran about twenty yards to the medics who were dragging wounded men toward our ship. I grabbed someone’s leg to help out. There were bullets hitting the ground all around us, and some were hitting the wounded men we were trying to evacuate.
The pilots were yelling at me to hurry up and get back into the helicopter. Every second we were on the ground, we allowed enemy mortar teams to sight in on our ship. Getting out of the LZ as fast as possible was our key to survival.
To make matters even worse, the trees and the grass had caught on fire. We now had a raging forest fire engulfing the area. It was hot and the smoke made it hard to breathe. I kept going back to help load more bodies onto the floor of my Huey. There was nothing gentle in this act as we threw these men in the ship as fast as we could. Within about half a minute we had loaded several wounded soldiers on the floor and more on the canvas seats.
By now, all hell had broken loose. The mortar rounds were landing just yards away, and we were the focus of attention for all of the automatic weapons’ fire. There was a wall of tracers coming at us, which we had to fly through to get out of there. I jumped back onboard and looked at the medic who stood watching me as we began to hover and lift off. His eyes were full of tears that rolled down his face, turning his dirty cheeks muddy, as he raised his hand to wave goodbye and to somehow bless his men. It was the saddest goodbye in the world. He knew he was probably not going to make it out of there alive. He got his buddies on the ship and that must have given him some satisfaction at the time. Our eyes connected for a brief moment, and I raised my hand to bid him goodbye—but it was more than that. I knew—and he knew—that he might not be alive when I came back. I silently sent him my prayers. We were all in God’s hands now.
The pilots pulled up on the collective stick and tried to rise out of the LZ as straight up as we could fly. However, the heat of the day, the height of the trees, and all the extra weight onboard forced us to fly directly over the fighting. We slowly gained enough altitude, we hoped, to clear the surrounding trees. We could see the tree line coming up at us, and it appeared that we were not going to clear it. We needed more room to get enough transitional lift to compensate for all the weight we were now trying to take out of this LZ. We continued toward the trees and somehow managed to clip only a few branches with our skids.
I looked back, trying to get a good shot at the enemy troops with my M-60. I was able to let off about 1,000 rounds into the outer jungle areas where I knew our troops were not engaged. I then was able to take a quick glance back at the LZ as we began to climb above the tree line. The medic with the sad eyes was running for his life. There were bodies falling everywhere I looked. This was the worst LZ I had ever seen in the war. I sat back for a minute to try to regain my composure, and I tried to take a very deep breath. I felt my heart racing and pounding in my chest, and I was having trouble catching my breath.
I remembered the troops that we had loaded on the ship. I set my gun down and looked at where they were lying on the floor and seats. What I saw made me feel sick. There were large pools of thick red blood flowing on the floor of the ship. Since the doors had been removed, the wind blew right through the aircraft. The rotor blades and air speed also made for a lot of wind at the speed we were traveling—and it made the blood fly all around the inside of the ship. Fresh warm blood was splashed on the walls, the windshields, our clothing and helmets, and all over my gloves and face. The pilots had trouble seeing since so much blood had splashed on the inside of the windshield. There also were severed body parts that had fallen off and were laying in the pools of blood on the floor.
I was absolutely stunned by the sight of all this, but I quickly realized that I needed to take some action to help these guys. There was no medic onboard and no medicine. I did not have the knowledge or the means to stop all the bleeding. I was helpless to do much except offer my prayers and some moral support. I went over to check on their condition, and I was angered to find that not one of them was still alive. All ten men were dead. They had continued to take hits when we were lifting off. Their bodies were riddled with holes.
I became upset about risking all of our lives to bring back only dead bodies. I told the pilots, and we changed our destination to the nearest camp. We did not need to fly to the MASH unit anymore.
I sat there looking at these fallen men. Most had their young, frightened eyes still open. They seemed to stare back at me while the ship continued to speed back to the closest camp. The mission had digressed into dumping these bodies and cleaning the windshield, before going back to that LZ to rescue the still living. We were the only lifeline, the only link with the outside world that they had. I sat there in a daze, thinking about what we had just been through. The eyes of the medic still haunted me, as did all of those dead men lying there next to me. I sat there with all of my clothing soaked in red blood, and I knew I would never forget this scene before me.
Suddenly, something caught my attention. I looked over at one dead young man lying there with his eyes wide open, staring directly at me. I could feel his presence and literally sense him reaching out to me. Then, just as suddenly, I saw them all sitting there looking at me – they were ghosts! They were confused and frightened and lonely. I could feel their sorrow and thoughts, and almost hear their cries. It was as if they were all still there, sitting alongside their bodies. I did not know if I had cracked up and been caught up in the horror of the moment by my own fears, or if I was really seeing the souls of these men. My emotions, desensitized by battle, were locked and frozen and I didn’t feel fearful, but neither could I shed even a single tear. However, I instinctively knew what had to be done: I sent up a prayer for each and every one of them.
All these years later, I now know there is a term for what I encountered: A shared-death experience. I also know that those men’s “ghosts” were their spirits, and I feel I somehow helped those heroic young men to move on from this life to something better. And though I’m still here, and hopefully shedding light for many on the true nature of humans as spiritual beings, a part of me also died that day.
I hope you will join me at the IANDS 2019 Conference where I am honored to be a keynote speaker. My topic is “A Rainbow of Revolutionary Experiences,” and I will share more stories of supernatural experiences from my combat days, and my civilian life.
Rev. Bill McDonald is Keynote Speaker & Workshop Facilitator for The IANDS 2019 Conference. He is an author, award winning poet, minister, national veterans advocate, film advisor, artist, motivational speaker, and leader and founder of Spiritual Warrior Ministries.