Aviator in the Attic: I know that sound
Post date: Feb 10, 2020 11:42:7 PM
Between 1961 and 1975, tens of thousands of U.S. military helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, gunners, and medics spearheaded U.S. efforts to secure the 67,000 square miles of South Vietnam. This Southeast Asian war has long been known as the “Helicopter War.” The distinctive “thump-thump” sound of choppers is seared deeply into the memories of Vietnam veterans, especially combat troops. About 12,000 U.S. military helicopters spent 7.5 million hours flying 2 million missions. A total of 5,086 choppers were destroyed by enemy fire, bad weather, and mechanical malfunctions.
Many of these brave men made the ultimate sacrifice, rescuing more than 90,000 wounded. The terrible toll among those who flew was 2,002 pilots and 2,704 crew chiefs and gunners killed. That is about 7% of the 58,000 American troops killed in Vietnam.
Captain Charlie Mason arrived in country on May 10, 1967 and over the next seven months he flew hundreds of sorties over densely foliated jungle terrain and open rice paddies as a UH-34D helicopter pilot. Along with logistics missions, he ferried troops and medevac patients from base to base and went into “hot LZs” (landing zones under fire) to extract combat troops. He acquired the nickname “Guts” for his actions while attached to Helicopter Marine Medium Squadron 363 during the Tet Offensive that began in January 1968. Picking up wounded Marines all day from Hue City, he was returning to base when he received a distress call. A rifle platoon surrounded by NVA soldiers had a badly-wounded Marine needing medical attention. With the LZ hot and Charlie low on fuel, he should have denied their request.
“This guy really needs to get out of here,” the radioman pleaded.
“Coming in,” Charlie said.
Wanting to reduce the chance of having his aircraft raked with enemy gunfire, he headed straight for the trees away from the enemy and chopped the tops off with his rotor blades so he could land and load the Marine. The damaged blades made a loud whishing sound all the way back to Marble Mountain.
One of the mechanics walked over and shook his head, “What did you do this time…try to fly through a tunnel?”
“Just doing a little tree trimming,” Charlie smiled.
Helicopter missions were usually conducted in groups called packages: two Sea Knight transport helicopters and two Huey or Cobra gunships. On one particular sortie, Charlie was piloting one of the Hueys with his crew of three, a co-pilot and two gunners. While coming into a hot LZ, the helicopters took heavy fire. The gunners on all four aircraft shredded the area with machine gun fire, allowing the Marines to disembark and run for cover.
Charlie knew his Huey had taken many rounds, but the gauges were all reading normal. Little did he know, an important electrical component had been damaged leaving the gauges frozen in place.
Once airborne, Charlie saw that his copilot was wounded. One bullet had come up through the floorboard and lodged in his thigh. From the size of the bloodstain on his flight suit, Charlie guessed it might have struck an artery. He headed to the nearest medical facility at Dong Ha.
Crew Chief Sergeant Tim Benson stuck his head in the cockpit and held up his left hand. It was covered with a red fluid, “We’ve lost one hydraulic system and the other one is probably damaged too.”
Charlie knew that flying a helicopter leaking hydraulic fluid is like driving a truck without power steering. And once the hydraulic fluid is gone, it’s like driving with the steering wheel completely detached. If he landed, his co-pilot would certainly die before medical assistance could arrive, so he decided to take the risk.
“We’re going to try to make Dong Ha.”
By the time Charlie saw Dong Ha in the distance, he was using all his strength and skill to keep his chopper in the air. It landed with a thud and medical personnel rushed to the assistance of the wounded co-pilot. Charlie and the other two members of the crew caught a ride back to Marble Mountain. They rested for only a day before they were back in the air in a different chopper.
Charlie had become keenly aware of the sights and sounds of war especially the distinctions between the ping of small arms fire and the rip of a .50 caliber round. It could be the difference between life and death. If he heard AK-47s he might take the chance and go in alone, but a 50 cal could rip a helicopter to shreds. At night the tracer rounds of this large caliber weapon looked like flaming soda pop cans flying by. Going up against them was never a wise maneuver without air support, even though Charlie had been known to do it when ground troops were in danger.
Charlie completed about 700 missions and earned 34 air medals during his first ten months in Vietnam. He also earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs), two single mission Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and the Gallantry Cross of Vietnam.
But while on a simple resupply mission to a Marine outpost on Hill 327, his helicopter came under intense fire and was hit a dozen times. Wounded in the lower stomach and right shoulder, Charlie immediately knew it was dire. Instead of pulling off, he fearlessly hovered overhead and directed fire at the enemy forces who were about to overrun the outpost. Only when the North Vietnamese soldiers retreated, did Captain Mason return to home base.
When they landed, his co-pilot, Lt. Langham sighed in relief, “That was too damn close…beers are on me at the club.”
When Charlie didn’t move, looked closer and saw that his brave comrade was dead. But who landed the helicopter? Lt. Langham knew he didn’t!
* * *
Alexis Mason received word of her husband’s death after returning home from teaching her second grade class at Palmquist School in Oceanside. Charlie and Alexis had four sons; Mike the oldest was twelve, Bill was eleven, Bob was nine, and Matthew was seven. The family grieved, but took solace in knowing that Captain Charles Mason, beloved husband and father, made the ultimate sacrifice doing his duty and saving his fellow Marines.
Alexis Mason placed her husband’s military gear, mementos, and flight suits in plastic containers and carefully stored them in the attic of the family home. She wanted her boys to respect and honor the memory of their father, but she also didn’t want to surround them with sadness and loss. If they wanted to see any of their father’s belongings, all they had to do was pull down the foldable stairs and go up into the attic. It was out of sight, but never forgotten.
The boys grew up in a hurry and became good men. All four served in the military, two in the Marines and two in the Air Force, then became successful in their chosen fields.
Alexis had every right to be proud of her boys. Mike moved to Texas and was working in the petroleum industry. Bill was a casino executive in Reno. Bob was a restaurant manager in Newport Beach and Matthew was an Oceanside firefighter.
Mike’s oldest child, Charlene, graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and joined the Marines with the intent of a becoming an aviator. After finishing basic and intermediate flight training and graduating at the top of her class, Charlene was given the option of choosing jets, helicopter or turboprops. It was kind of unusual—although not unheard of—that the top student in flight training would choose helicopters over jets, but Charlene was not like anybody else. She grew up hearing about the exploits of her grandfather and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Her family, including her grandmother, attended her graduation. After the ceremony, Alexis Mason handed her granddaughter a gift, “Your grandfather would want you to have this.”
Opening the small box, Charlene saw his gold flight wings. “Thank you so much, Grandma!”
Charlene took the gold wings to a jeweler and had them mounted on a chain that she always wore around her neck when she flew. After three years and one deployment to the Middle East, Charlene requested a transfer to United States Special Operations Command (MARSOC), a component unit of the United States Special Operations Command, authorized to conduct counter-terrorism missions. It was while she was on this assignment that she met Captain Tyler McLane an officer assigned to Force Reconnaissance Battalion. After flying a successful mission where she ferried a group of Navy SEALs to and from their mission in Serbia, she received her orders for her next duty assignment.
Colonel Ted Donaldson faced her across his desk. “How do you feel about going to California?”
“Are you asking me or telling me, sir?” Charlene smiled.
“Probably a little of both,” Colonel Donaldson said. “If you really don’t want to go, I could send somebody else.”
“Where in California?” Charlene asked.
“Pendleton; training with Force Recon. From the scuttlebutt I hear, the President wants to hit the cartels hard in Mexico and South America.”
“Couldn’t ask for a better assignment,” Charlene beamed. “I’ve got family living in Oceanside.”
She thought about calling her grandmother but decided to surprise her instead. After arriving at Camp Pendleton and checking in with the squadron, she borrowed a vehicle from one of the pilots and drove to the Henie Hills area of Oceanside.
Opening the door, Alexis was totally shocked to see her granddaughter. “What are you doing here?”
“I just checked into my squadron on Pendleton,” Charlene answered.
“You should have called me. I would have picked you up.”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Mission accomplished, Captain.” Alexis smiled.
Charlene reached for the chain around her neck to show her grandmother that she was wearing her grandfather’s flight wings. “…don’t go anywhere without them.”
Alexis embraced her granddaughter. They discussed the family and what little Charlene could share about her previous assignments before Alexis asked, “Are you going to be staying on base?”
“I could, but I don’t have to.”
“Would you like to stay here?”
“You don’t mind?”
“I’d like nothing better!”
“I need to get a car to drive while I’m here. I’ll ask around when I get back on base,” Charlene said.
“I keep an extra vehicle for when your dad and Uncle Bill visit. You’re welcome to use it for as long as you want.”
“Dad always says that he’s never known anybody more prepared than you.”
“I was a military wife for a lot of years and that was just one of the many things I learned. It served me well in my life. Hopefully I passed it on to my sons.”
“You definitely did,” Charlene smiled. “My dad is one squared away dude.”
Alexis placed freshly washed sheets on the king-sized bed, dusted all the furniture and opened the windows to air out the guest room. She placed fresh towels of different sizes and a plush terry cloth robe in the bathroom and made sure various amenities were at her granddaughter’s disposal. She double-checked to make sure that she had not overlooked anything.
After, she felt the urge to be among her husband’s mementos. Up into the attic she went, sitting down on the large overstuffed chair. “You’d be proud of her, Charlie,” she said as she rested her hand on one of the storage containers.
The next few weeks were filled with Charlene flying missions on Camp Pendleton with special operations personnel. When she wasn’t on duty, she went back to her grandmother’s home. One evening during dinner, Charlene asked, “Do you think it would be alright if I looked through grandfather’s military things?”
“Your grandfather’s possessions are part of the family’s legacy, which means that they are as much yours as they are mine,” Alexis said.
Charlene had flown several morning sorties along the coastline of Camp Pendleton and was off duty by 1400 hours. When she got back to the house, her grandmother was gone, so Charlene went into the attic and opened the plastic container holding Captain Charles Mason’s flight journals. She turned on the reading lamp, leaned back in the chair, and began to read. The style of writing was clear, concise, blunt, and not overly descriptive. Charlene read several entries then closed her eyes. She thought about her grandfather’s combat experiences and was transported to a different time and place.
She was flying with her grandfather in the skies above Vietnam when the radio distress call came. “Let’s go,” Charlene said and took control of the Huey. The bullets were so thick outside the chopper that it almost seemed she was flying through a metal rainstorm. Charlene landed and the Marines ran aboard, with more enemy rounds nipping at their heels. Piloting the chopper back into the air, Charlene awakened once they were out of harm’s way. Looking around, she realized she was in the attic and not in combat, then sighed in relief. “That was way too real.”
* * *
Charlene couldn’t resist the temptation to go back to the attic the next day and read some more. When she closed her eyes, the same thing happened. Back into the helicopter with her grandfather. Third day, fourth day, it was the same thing. She’d read an entry then flash back to the event in her mind.
While sleeping one evening, Charlene awoke to what she thought were the distinctive thump-thump of helicopter blades. Rising from bed, she walked into the backyard. It was a partly cloudy night and the moon was full and bright. When Charlene looked up, she was amazed at the shape of one of the clouds. It looked exactly like a helicopter.
Then Alexis was behind her granddaughter. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Charlene was momentarily startled. “I thought I heard something.”
“Sounded like helicopter blades spinning?”
“Yeah, did you hear it too?”
“Not tonight, but I have heard it in the past. The roofer told me that when a strong wind blows from a certain direction it makes that sound when it enters the vent and swirls around through the attic.”
“And you bought that explanation?”
“What’s the alternative?”
As the two women walked inside, Charlene noticed that the treetops were barely moving in the gentle breeze.
“Not very windy tonight.”
“No it isn’t, is it?” Alexis smiled knowingly.
* * *
Charlene was in the flight readiness room of the squadron doing paperwork when her cellphone rang. She didn’t recognize the number.
“Hey Charlie,” Captain Tyler McLane said.
“Tyler! Where are you?”
“Bagram. I’m about ready to board my flight.”
“Where are you going?”
“Affirmative, it seems that things are escalating in Mexico. They want my team to be available if we have to go in.”
“They’ve got us on Threat Condition Delta,” Charlene said.
“Staying on base?”
“My grandmother has a house in Oceanside. I’ve been there.”
Charlene could hear an announcement to board the aircraft, then Tyler’s voice again, “I’ll give you a call when I get stateside.”
“Talk to you soon…take care,” Charlene signed off.
* * *
The DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) had been conducting raids on the Jalisco Cartel. With the arrests of his sister and brother in Ensenada, the criminal organization’s leader, Ruben Osegura, vowed revenge against the United States. He began a series of attacks on American interests in Mexico but went too far when his soldiers kidnapped a family from Carlsbad who were vacationing in Acapulco.
Word of the abduction reached Captain McLane while he was still airborne. He was to be ready to go within 48 hours of touching down in California. With preparation for the mission immediate, Charlene and Tyler had little time for a reunion.
Colonel Ron Huddleston was conducting the briefing.
“The good news is we’ve pinpointed where the Lockwood family is being held.”
“Whenever anyone starts off with ‘the good news is…” you know that bad news is about to follow,” Tyler guessed.
“Your cynicism is warranted, Captain. The Jalisco Cartel has possession of Stinger missiles. What do you think, Captain Mason?”
The Stinger is a single-operator, shoulder-fired, passive surface-to-air missile.
“We have defense systems for missiles. Once I know the exact location, I’ll have a better idea of the entry and extraction vectors.”
Captain McLane interjected, “There’s nobody I’d rather have at the controls than Captain Mason.”
“You’re happy, I’m happy…now all we have to do is complete the mission and everybody will be happy,” Colonel Huddleston joked. “Wheels up in three hours. We got a ship off the coast of Mexico waiting for us.”
Charlene called her grandmother. “I won’t be home for dinner, working late tonight.”
Alexis could tell from Charlene’s tone of voice that something serious was going on but knew better than to ask.
“Be careful…love you.”
Charlene, her flight crew, along with Tyler and his special ops team boarded a jet with no military identification or markings for a flight to Mazatlán International Airport. Met by several vehicles, they headed to the harbor for a boat ride to the USS Tarawa, a landing assault helicopter ship.
Aboard the ship was the “Silent Hawk,” the military’s newest version of the stealth helicopter. Charlene asked Navy Captain Haas, “I’d like to take the Hawk up for a test flight. Every helicopter flies slightly different. I want to make sure I’ve got a good feel for it before we go in.”
“Make it short, the mission is on for 1900 hours.”
Charlene and her crew geared up for a 30-minute flight and performed a series of flight maneuvers. When she returned, Captain McLane was waiting on deck, “How is it?”
“No problem,” Charlene smiled. “She’ll do the job.”
The Silent Hawk took off precisely at 1900 hours, heading for the warehouse where the hostages were held. The helicopter barely made a sound as it approached. Two snipers inside the aircraft took out the three guards on the roof with deadly headshots, then the team fast-roped to the ground.
Breaching the outside, they took out the interior guards, with special ops bringing the hostages to the roof for extraction. Through her night vision goggles, Charlene saw a man on another roof holding a stinger missile. He fired it and Charlene instinctively dived behind a building, the missile hitting the structure. Rising back to her position over the warehouse, the team and hostages scrambled aboard.
By this time the Cartel was alerted to the rescue. Rushing into the open with Stinger missiles, they began firing at the Silent Hawk. Charlene expertly maneuvered the aircraft down to an altitude where she was flying so low she could almost reach out and touch the cars parked along the street. Three of the missiles hit the cars, with the explosions rocking the helicopter. But the fourth missile was right on the tail of the Silent Hawk, only feet away and ready to strike.
Charlene looked over and saw a vision of her grandfather in the co-pilot seat. “You got this,” he said.
The female pilot maximized air speed, applying forward pressure on the cyclic, and increasing vertical thrust to clear the building before her by only inches. The last missile did not clear the building.
Charlene turned for the USS Tarawa. The vision of her grandfather was slowly fading. His last words were, “You make me proud. Semper Fi, Marine.” And then he was gone.
* * *
On Valentine’s Day, Charlene brought Tyler to meet her grandmother. During dinner, Tyler heard the distinctive thump-thump.
“I know that sound,” he said, looking up to the ceiling.
Charlene and Alexis looked at each other and said simultaneously, “That’s the Aviator In The Attic.”
Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press