Until the war in Vietnam, many American soldiers were constantly facing long hours or even days of worrisome waiting before making contact with the enemy. The US Army Air Cavalry changed that forever. With the introduction of the helicopter to the battlefield, US troops were instantly airlifted to the fighting, or removed from the battlefield in the same manner. After engagement with the enemy, Americans were transported back to a secure support base or they were flown by helicopter medivac to mobile hospitals. After the ultimate sacrifice, the American remains were sacredly and respectfully gathered for shipment back home. Never before in the history of warfare have troops been delivered to the battlefield faster than in Vietnam. Like a marriage, for better or for worse, the helicopter warhorses of the 1960s made this possible.
The US Air Cavalry used three types of helicopters. The small egg-shaped maneuverable LOACH helicopters were for scouting out enemy positions. Upon contact, the LOACH’s mission was to draw enemy fire to assess hostile strength and numbers, and to keep the enemy engaged until stronger forces arrived. The mission for the Cobra Gunship was to support the smaller LOACH, and heavy-lift operations and to deliver rockets, heavy machinegun fire, and other bad news to the enemy. The third and final component to the Air Cavalry was the Heavy-Lift Ship. This was the workhorse helicopter which delivered the ground troops into action to rescue downed aircraft, and to search out and destroy enemy positions, and to find and maintain enemy contact.
After the war, many Vietnam helicopter pilots found jobs flying helicopters back home. The mantra for these flyboys was, “Flying these things is easy when nobody is shooting at you.” The mantra for the flyboys delivered to the battlefield on the same engines of war was simply, “Flying in these things is fun if nobody is trying to shoot you down.”
Jean Lefebvre worked for 27 years at Marriott’s Marco Beach Resort, leading the Engineering grounds crew to achieve perfection with the over 300 varying species of palms, shrubbery, ground cover and flowering plants in the subtropical climate that is Marco Island.
Before that, Jean had another life in the air, on the ground, and above the jungles of South Vietnam. Jean served with the 1st of the 9th 1st Air Cavalry and they were known as the Headhunters. The Headhunters painted crossed sabers on their helicopters, and they wore the cowboy-style hats with tassels just like the horse Cavalry of the old Wild West.
When Jean was 19 years old, he was drafted by the Army, did his basic training in Fort Dix New Jersey, his advanced infantry training at Fort Polk Louisiana, and he arrived in Vietnam in February 1968.
When Jean arrived at the airport in Saigon and was getting off the airliner, there was another line of soldiers getting ready to board a different plane to take them home. The American soldiers headed home had been “in-country” for one year. It was obvious they were about the same ages as the soldiers Jean was with that had just arrived, but their faces were very different. These one-year veterans of the jungle war in Vietnam had the faces of much older men. Their features were drawn and haggard, they looked as if they had not slept in weeks, and they had a hardness about them that was unmistakable. In the eyes of the soldiers that were going home was the reflection of someone that had seen too much.
After the airport, Jean and the other new arrivals were transported to Camron Bay for “in-country” R&R. The scenery was beautiful. There was a beach, the food was good, and among the newcomers, there was an overwhelming feeling of “so far so good.”
The purpose of Camron Bay was to supply the army with new troops for varying assignments. Every day the new troops lined up in formation, and as names were called, individuals went to meet their new outfits for the following year.
One morning, Jean’s name was called to join the 1st of the 9th 1st Air Cavalry and within minutes Jean was nicknamed “Frenchie” because his last name of Lefevbre was too hard to pronounce, and because the officers learned could speak fluent French.
Within minutes of finding himself with the new name of Frenchie, the 19-year-old Jean Lefebvre was left behind, but the newfound Frenchie was onboarding a heavy-lift ship with open side doors and powering up and over the jungle to 3000 feet above South Vietnam. Onboard the mechanized Warhorse, M-60 machineguns were facing outward on each side with the pilot and co-pilot up front with radio headsets. The door gunner and the crew chief were manning the M-60’s while Frenchie and five other newcomers sat in the seats or on the floor of the helicopter where the noise level of the engine was something that had to be shouted over.
Flying alongside Frenchie’s helicopter was a Cobra Gunship and a little two-man LOACH helicopter. Frenchie didn’t know what was coming when all of the helicopters at once dove straight down to the top of the jungle canopy where everyone could smell the dense rainforest below.
With the skids of the helicopters racing inches above the treetops, the crew chief shouted over the engine noise. “When we get to any LZ we come in low and fast so if the VC are under there, they won’t hear us coming.”
The LZ was Landing Zone Sharon in the Quang Tri Provence and when the jungle canopy suddenly ended, LZ Sharon was a large cleared area surrounded by fences and barbed wire with artillery positions, makeshift barracks, supply shacks, and everything the 1st of the 9th Air Cavalry needed for a home away from home.
After the first day with the Air Cavalry and landing at Sharon, Frenchie felt impressed, invincible, and truly inspired by the power of the American war machine. He also felt a deep sense of comradery with his fellow Air Cavalry soldiers and he volunteered for everything.
Volunteer assignments included night missions with newly issued starlight night scopes to scout out and destroy Viet Cong supply movements along riverbanks under cover of darkness. Other more exciting missions were to volunteer to be the test gunner in Cobra gunships after the helicopters had been serviced. Launching rockets and firing heavy machineguns from a Cobra Gunship was a truly exhilarating experience for a 19-year-old American warrior.
As the days wore into weeks, the steaming jungle began to take a toll. Frenchie and his Air Cavalry family were constantly moving through rice paddies where muddy bomb craters were waiting unseen. The craters were invisible because the water level over the rice appeared the same even though the water in the crater could be over your head. On one occasion, an M-60 gunner jumped out of a hovering helicopter just above the rice paddies and disappeared as he went into a submerged bomb bowl. He was so surprised his finger pulled the trigger and sent M-60 rounds flying up and out of the water at the hovering lift ship. Not a single round hit anything important, and soon everyone onboard was laughing uncontrollably after they pulled the soaking-wet gunner out of the unseen crater.
Day after day, the routine and the grueling environment was the same. Thick sticky mud, overwhelming heat and humidity, blinding sweat, mosquitos, and the weight of all the gear that had to be carried on the ground. Not only personal gear, but M-60 ammo belts with the sharp shells that poked with every unplanned movement, and everything else that tried to defeat morale while struggling on the ground.
Frenchie was different because he wore glasses and could not see to fight without them. With all of the water, mud, and grime, imagine trying to keep your eyeglasses clean enough to see everything that must be seen to survive jungle warfare.
For everyone, keeping your M-16 rifle and ammo dry enough to be trusted was crucial. Life or death depended on working weapons and ammo. For Frenchie and the others, after a few days of in the water, out of the water, the squad would decide to test the older ammo and have what they called: A Mad Moment.
One steaming day, after several very hot days in the wet, three heavy-lift ships were hovering and waiting to take everyone back to LZ Sharon. At the last minute, because of the questionable ammo, a Mad Moment was called, and everyone started shooting off all their old ammo into the nearby jungle. A Mad Moment was just that. It was mad. Everyone firing at once the sound deafening, the gun smoke thick and triggering the adrenalin rush of actual enemy action. When the old ammo was spent, it took another moment to bring yourself back from the madness, but on that fateful day, there was an ambush waiting on two different sides of the landing zone clearing.
Before everyone could reload with new ammo after “the moment,” a B40 anti-aircraft rocket made a red-hot streak out of the jungle and made a direct hit on the lead helicopter’s tail rotor. When the rotor exploded, the helicopter began to spin out of control and immediately hit the tail rotor on the next lift ship and both went flying into a combination of tumbling fire, bodies, and igniting fuel.
In war, everything slows down. The closer you are to death, the more alive you are. Frenchie remembers being thrown from the lift ship—because he was one of the last on board and sitting on the floor—when next, he was on the ground and the body of the second helicopter was tumbling over him. Before the stricken lift ship was over and past, Frenchie was hit in the chest with the skid of the dying warhorse and could not move his arms or legs for three days.
Helpless, and with the war all around him, the smell of the grass, the heat of the magnesium metal fire of the downed machines, the relentless enemy fire, and the slow-motion of the surviving Americans dragging him to the third and final helicopter made the surviving moments drag on like never before.
As Frenchie was being carried to the final hovering helicopter—to the one that had already taken off but volunteered to come back for the others—he knew even through the fog of war that he was watching a couple of real-deal, John Wayne Heroes.
Inside the returned lift ship and hovering just above the grass with the two other machines burning nearby, the pilot and co-pilot held their ground and their warhorse in place in a steady hover as enemy fire rained in from either side of the jungle tree line. The pilots could have fled for safety, but they waited, they waited without covering fire because the door gunners could not fire into the tree line without fear of hitting their fellow Americans that were dragging their wounded back to the steadfast but hovering machine flown by heroes.
When all that were alive were aboard, the pilot reined in the collective pitch control, slammed the stick forward, and as the final helicopter tilted dangerously forward with overloaded weight, the landing skids were brushing the treetops as a wounded Frenchie and the rest of the surviving 1st of the 9 1st Air Cavalry head back to LZ Sharon.
Out of twenty American soldiers on two Helicopters, only six survived and were airlifted to safety. The next day, a squad of regular army was sent back to the ambush site to retrieve the 14 bodies of the fallen Americans.
Frenchie regained the use of his arms and legs three days later when the hospital came under an advancing motor attack and a new flood of life-saving adrenalin once again propelled the wounded Frenchie into safety and back into another six months of the war in Vietnam.
Look for Part 2 next week.