Snake Doctor Work
by J.T. Johnson (EM Oct 68 - Dec 69)
When I arrived in the company my first work assignment was hauling water to the bladders every night. I did this job for 4 or 5 months. Someone on the Snake Doctor crew derosed and the guys in my hooch asked me if I wanted to join the crew. I said, "Sure". I flew for the next 4 to 6 months.
On the Snake Doctor crew I recall being called out one day to inspect a ship, which had been shot down on the side of a mountain. We couldn't land so we hovered about 10 or 12 feet off the ground and dropped in from the skid. There was nothing to save. All this time I had assumed that the infantry had stripped the ship to keep Charley from getting anything. There was some infantry around us and they had cleared the small area that we dropped into. We cleared out a little more area and WO Isley was able to hover in low enough for us to grab the skids and fly out.
One story I have not seen and would like to know if anyone else remembers concerns a combat assault on which the Snake Doctor was used as the recovery ship. I recall that day we were flying at 1500 feet watching the action below as our ships and some other company ships were inserting troops into an area north and west of Chu Lai. We got the call that a ship was shot down and they wanted us to rig her up with sling gear and they would bring in Chinooks to take her out. We made a quick descent and pulled up on top of a rice paddy dike, grabbed our gear and ran to the downed ship. We had practiced the rigging procedure many times. John Duncan was the Crew Chief, with Wally Smith, Rodney Zacher, and myself classified as gunners. We were all trained mechanics but you could have only one Crew Chief. My job was the tying down the blade to the nose. Zacher tied down to the tail. Smith and Duncan climbed on the roof to assemble the gear for slinging. Everything was going well until one of the grunts around us stood up and started firing bursts from his M16 into the bush. The next thing I knew the other guys were yelling at me. I then realized they had flipped the blade to me but I was so busy watching the action I had to come to my senses. I did and we got the ship rigged. We were supposed to wait on the ground and hook up the sling when the Chinook arrived. Upon looking at our own ship sitting on the ground our Pilot was waving at us to come back. I still remember clearing that 4-foot high dike in one leap. When we got back on our ship and assumed our normal positions, Mr. Isley picked up the ship and climbed out of the area. Only then did we realize he did this because even though we had taken our rigging gear we had forgotten to take any of our guns! He thought we might have a hard time on the ground without them.
After we were in the air for a short time we were told they would have an infantryman hook up the sling. Two Chinooks came in for that ship. Each of these Chinooks had an engine shot out when they tried the recovery. The decision was made to blow the ship up. We were told to return, pick up the infantry and move them a few clicks to where the main battle had moved. We picked up the grunts and were given directions from the command helicopter on inserting them. Once on the ground the command ship started yelling at us to "get the hell out of there now" as we were beginning to hover. It seemed we were in between two hedgerows. One side was bad guys and one side was our guys. Needless to say Isley pulled up sharply and we flew quickly to the our guys side of the tree line. After we had dropped off the grunts we were told another ship had been shot down close to the action and we needed to pick up the crew. We pretty much hovered over to the other ship, landed, and picked up the crew. Isley then asked the pilot what was wrong with the ship. The pilot said he had lost all instrumentation and couldn't fly it that way. Isley said he could tell from the whine etc. if he could fly it without instruments. He jumped in, started it and gave us the thumbs up. He took off and we took off. As he was leaving he took fire through the doors and out through the roof with only superficial damage. All that time on the ground and we still hadn't taken a single round. We hadn't fired any either because we were told not to fire unless we were sure it was enemy. There were friendlies all over the valley. Once we became airborne our co-pilot assumed he would take control of our ship. He was a Lieutenant and the pilot we picked up was a Captain. Well the Captain took charge. I can't remember the Lieutenants name but I still recall he was pissed. We flew somewhere over towards the beach where Isley was and switched back to our original crew. We got back to the action in time to watch two Cobras make passes over the downed chopper and miss with their rockets. They finally allowed the Firebirds a chance and they hit that ship on the first pass. We were very proud of our gunships.
Later, on one of the combat assaults, I saw puffs of smoke in the air. When we landed I asked what this was. I was told it was anti-aircraft gunfire. I decided right then that I would rather work on Hueys than fly in them. I was too short for AA gunfire. At the end of my tour I was the crew leader of the night shift PE (periodic inspection) crew. I extended an additional two months to get a 5-month early out.
Sometimes I'm not sure if my memory is right or if I'm still trying to bury memories. I would be interested to know if anyone else remembers the mission I just described to see if I got all of the facts correct. It's been too many years and too many bottles of wine.