Black Monday, The Rest of the Story
By William “Whiz” Broome with notes supplied by Wally Honda
The morning of 22 September 1969 dawned with me sleeping soundly in bed. Some of us had been up pretty late the night before throwing a birthday celebration for Barry Alexander. I was still a “Peter Pilot” with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company and had the day off. This was only my second day off for the month of September. So, when the CO, Major Price, awakened me by shaking my feet, I told him groggily to find someone else because I was off and needed the rest.
He then said some things that immediately woke me up…”You need to fly today because we just had seven ships shot down and three totally destroyed, and there is no one else left to fly.” The actual number of ships that were shot down escapes me now, but seven always stayed in my mind.
The CO who had been shot down leading a flight earlier that day, then went on to tell me that CWO Barry Alexander’s ship was one of the ones shot down and that they thought he might be dead. Barry and I had become the closest of friends, spending much of our off duty time and flight time together. One of our inside jokes was that Barry would marry my wife’s sister and we would become family.
I got up, got dressed and went down to the Operations (Ops) hooch as quickly as I could and listened to the radio chatter about the combat assault (CA) and the events of the morning. The Ops Officers teamed me up with WO Wally Honda, who also had the day off, as the aircraft commander (AC) for the mission. It was almost mid-day before we got off the ground because we had to wait for maintenance to fix up the last broken bird left in the company for us to fly. Once we finally got the ship, we headed out to LZ Center.
To this day, I can’t remember the other ships that flew with us on the mission or the names of the other pilots and crews. My thoughts were deeply buried in memories of Barry and the other men that were lost that day. When we got to LZ Center we were given a briefing about the CA. Our mission was to extract troops who were on a nearby hilltop and recover the wounded and dead. Needless to say, our minds were pulled between visions of terror and duty as we looked out over the crashed helicopters and smoldering hilltops. The gun ships were shooting up the hills and the grunts were still there fighting and barely holding the hilltop. The units involved were elements of the 3/21st Infantry Battalion.
Departing LZ Center we flew a wide slow circle in prep for the mission. This took us directly over the ships that settled in helplessly under fire earlier that fateful morning. Including the one Barry was in. This really spooked me and to this day that sight is clearly and sharply etched in my mind’s eye.
Suddenly it dawned on me that this was a familiar scene. The night before the CA we had a party in my hooch; Eric Kilmer and Barry lived there too. We laughed and drank much of the evening away. Someone brought some Champagne and we toasted Barry on his birthday and his “short timer” status. Throughout the evening we cursed the Ops Officers, especially the one who made the decision for Barry to fly; CPT Adams comes to mind as that officer. Barry kept saying that he did his time, got shot up on numerous occasions and swore he was told that the last two weeks in country were “safety” weeks. This meant a pilot didn’t have to fly any CAs or dangerous missions. He was so upset that no amount of drinking or joking could change his mood or his utter disdain for those who seemingly played with our lives as it suited them.
There was a constant irritation between the Warrant Officers and the Commissioned Officers. The Commissioned Officers, or Real Live Officers (RLOs), as we loved to call them, ran the company and scheduled the flights and missions. The Warrant Officers considered themselves the only true chopper drivers and accumulated most of the flight hours in the unit.
Genuine dread consumed Barry about the next day’s mission. Yet, all through the evening I taunted him about having the next day off, laughing and joking about what I would do while he flew. Those actions and his deep fear caused me profound regret almost every day since.
That night, in a deep sleep, I had a very clear dream or premonition about the upcoming CA for the next morning, 22 September. Barry talked about his own apprehension and foreboding, of tempting fate one too many times, so much that it must have registered in my subconscious thoughts as I slept. In my dream, there were three helicopters flying in a formation with Barry as the lead ship. Bullets began to explode all around and then the ships just settled in, evidently just as it had happened. Somewhere inside my head Barry screamed out when the rounds tore through his body and his ship. I felt the abrupt pain of his life being torn away.
Thus, flying over the actual site that day caused me to almost jump out of my skin. Every detail of my dream was there: the hill, the ships, the people, the NVA, the foliage, absolutely everything. In my mind. I could even see Barry’s body slumped over the controls as we flew over. (After speaking with Tom Gates in August 2001, the Peter Pilot with Barry, I learned that Barry actually left the ship and died lying face down in front of the helicopter.) Later that day I believe the ships had to be shot up because the NVA were using the guns against us. My prayers were that he was in fact dead before this happened.
From that night onward, there has been a constant, persistent mystery about why I had that vision or forewarning. This had never happened before or since that night. Perhaps God allowed that experience in my life because He was preparing me for future service as an Army Chaplain.
While pulling CQ sometime later, I found the burnt dog tags and helmet belonging to Barry in the CO’s office. Recounting this now has been therapy for me because my own memories of 22 September 1969 were blocked out for so long that they had become somewhat vague.
No matter how much I think about the date in advance each year, once it actually arrives my mind causes me to forget that anything happened until the day passes. It is often weeks before I realize how well this phenomenon of self-protection works. Every fall my psyche shields those painful events, perhaps because I never really wanted to deal with them until now.
One of the regrets that haunt me now is that we never let the Ops Officer forget what happened. For this we both need to seek absolution and forgiveness; he was just trying to do his job and I was hurting over the loss of a special friend. There is no doubt that my own bitterness and venomous insults towards him added to the shame, self-doubt, and guilt that caused him to cry alone in his hooch that night after Black Monday. The same feelings, self-doubts, loss of confidence in authority, and haunting fears caused me to stop flying a month later.
We flew three extraction missions off the nearby hilltop that day. The ill-fated insertions took place in the morning before we were on station with our helicopter. The enemy concentration in the area was overwhelming our ground troops and a decision was made to extract all of the troops. By this time, the Firebirds were with us and flanked us as we approached the hill. When you had to go into a “hot” LZ, it was always comforting to see those big red Firebirds on the doors of the choppers next to you, guns and rockets blazing away!
WO Honda was appointed an AC a few days earlier and I was an experienced Peter Pilot, so Ops decided to match us that day. Before actually starting our descent to the hilltop on our final extraction, both of us decided to stay on the controls together in case one of us took a hit. As we talked about this, the look on Honda’s face is burned into my memory, and I am sure mine had the same expression. Similar to children that have been scolded and now just wanted the reassurance that they were loved. Funny how men deal with the possibilities of death in the military, they train to avoid it at all costs, but then solemnly accept it when they see no other course of duty.
As the ship approached the LZ, it came under heavy fire and our world was filled with the sounds of rockets, 60s, 16s and AKs popping and exploding all around us. As stated before, clear recollection of our flights has eluded me for some 31 years. Speaking to Wally about this in July 2001, the final extraction of the troops on the hill was the most memorable.
The grunts that were inserted earlier in the morning got pretty shot up and we had to go back in and get them out. On this hilltop landing, we sat for what seemed like an eternity of frozen, dangerous time while one grunt held his position and kept shooting his weapon, acting like he was John Wayne. Everyone else in his squad was already on board and anxious to leave the hot LZ. This caused me to yell some rather explicit thoughts over the radio while “John Wayne” empted his M-16 and pulled a body to the chopper. It was not clear whether he knew that we were the last helicopter pulling the last grunts off the LZ before the hill was over-run.
With information supplied later in the day, we found out that the soldier did not want to leave his buddy behind in the LZ and was determined to get him out in spite of his own safety. It would be good to know if the man he pulled on board lived or died. Wally found this situation very unsettling, and once the last man was finally on board, he flew us quickly down that hill at tree top level, popping the bird like a champagne cork up onto LZ Center and safety. Without speaking of it openly, our inner voices told us that the flight could have brought us injury or worse.
Looking back on that day, it is both amazing and difficult to comprehend that our helicopter was the only one in the unit not to take a single hit. This is absolutely a miracle based on the amount of firepower thrown our way. You could clearly see the NVA soldiers firing at us as we approached. Just like the dream, this too has been a source of puzzlement and discomfort for me over the years. How could so many helicopters and crews get shot up and shot down while we didn’t take a hit?
In researching the effects of PTSD on Viet Nam Vets; it appears that those who survived suffered a tremendous amount of trauma, guilt and shame over the fact that they came back, wounded or not. It seems that both groups of combat survivors don’t deal well with the fact that they lived while others died. According to the log, Wally and I flew for over five hours on 22 September 1969. Ours was the last ship left to finish the disastrous, ill-prepared mission that changed the lives of so many. The flight back to the Snake Pit that night felt long and tiring. The only sounds heard were the constant chops of the rotor blades as we winged our way home in grave silence.
That night, back at the 71st Officer’s Club on Chu Lai beach, there were abundant stories of heroism, death, and combat. Some of the pilots laughed at my choice of language over the airways when we couldn’t get that last grunt on board. Tommy Desert made us smile with his acted out adventure of the NVA chasing him up the hill from his crashed helicopter, pistol blazing away. Our company was even awarded a big wooden CIB from the grunts because our crews spent so much time on the ground that day. We talked about our dead and wounded and we tried to convince each other we were still brave and ready for another fight. We drank too much, talked to freely and thought too little about what we were doing in Viet Nam.
As the night passed, details about the day’s actions were connected together for everyone involved so that we all finally got a bigger picture of the full day. Some of the crews that were shot down or had their ship shot up beyond flying capabilities left early and never knew the outcome; while those of us that were not a part of the earliest Combat Assaults, finally learned how it all started. Perhaps now, once the stories finally flow to an agreed upon conclusion, we will all learn what happened. These are my reminiscences and I apologize for any inconsistencies or errors in the facts. However it happened, those traumatic events and that senseless war changed all our lives forever: Ripping away our youth, trust, and innocence with a cold and vicious abandonment.
On 25 September 1969, just three days later, an armor piercing 51 Cal bullet tore through the nose of our helicopter impacting CWO Jackson, the AC, in the head. The chopper was at about 2500 feet, and the round was fired from somewhere near the base of LZ East. The 51 Cal anti-aircraft weapon responsible for Jackson’s death was captured a few days later. A round from that weapon is with me yet, to remind me of the carnage of war. But this is another story.
NOTE: I wish to thank Wally Honda, Eric Kilmer, and Tom Gates for the information and support that they gave me to help me remember and write this story.