Primitive Man Meets Modern Technology

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

The day was over and I was helping the mechanics refuel and rearm my airplane and put everything away for the night. The field-phone hanging on the CONEX storage container rang a long and two shorts, and since I was closest I answered it. “Viper 7.”
“Viper 7, Tangerine 31. 43-Delta has a wounded CIDG and needs your help in finding an LZ for a medevac. Over.”
“Okay, tell them I’ll be there in about 20 minutes. Out.”
Tangerine 31 was our TACP Radio Operator and 43-Delta was the callsign of a patrol from the Duc Phong SF Camp. I had checked in with the patrol about an hour ago and knew that they were headed back to Camp, which was only about five or six kilometers east of their position, so I knew they shouldn’t be hard to find.
My airplane was pre-flighted and ready to go, so I told one of the mechanics to go in and have supper and then come back out so the other one could eat, and to be sure to tell the cook to save a supper for me. Twenty minutes later I was over 43-Delta’s position. The patrol had scarcely moved since I last contacted them. They were only about 150 meters south of a large open area, which would be fine for a medevac helicopter LZ. I told them to proceed on a compass heading of 360 for less than 200 meters and they would be there.
For the rest of the story to make sense I feel like you need a little background. The US SF people were actually advisors to the Vietnamese SF or LLDB who ran the camps. Each camp had between two and five companies of local CIDG mercenaries. The CIDG at Duc Phong were mostly Montagnards from the Stieng Tribe. They were some of the most primitive and independent people on earth. They were primarily nomadic hunter-gathers, but they did raise a few crops. They were self sufficient in the jungle and intentionally had very little contact with the Vietnamese. Their native weapons were crossbows. They usually wore little clothes and no shoes. For the most part, the Vietnamese openly discriminated against the Montagnards, often to the point of hostility. For this reason, the Montagnards disliked and distrusted the Vietnamese, especially the VC who stole their food and were very abusive toward them. Their attitude toward the LLDB wasn’t much better, but they generally liked and respected the Americans.
Back to the story
43-Delta, asked if I would stay with them until the medevac chopper arrived, and of course I couldn’t say, no. I was curious as to what had happened and 43-Delta explained that they had had a brief encounter with the VC and the CIDG Company Commander had been shot in the stomach. He had lost a lot of blood and was in a lot of pain. The Montagnards refused to go on, fearing that their leader would die before they got him back to Camp. The LLDB lieutenant on the patrol had called for a medevac through his Vietnamese channels. Now they were waiting for the helicopter. I knew that if the American had called, a US Army Dustoff would probably have already been there and made the extraction. Through Vietnamese channels the request would be routed to the VNAF and they might or might not come. I knew that the VNAF didn’t fly at night and I suspected they would probably wait an hour or so until dark and then refuse the mission. I also realized that the American on the patrol was between a rock and a hard place, and now I was being sucked in to the same hole with him. I called Tangerine 31 on another radio, so that the American on the ground couldn’t monitor the conversation, and asked him to see if he could find out the status of the medevac helicopter. He soon confirmed what I suspected; the VNAF had not yet, but were probably going to refuse the mission. Until that happened, we couldn’t request US assistance. There was nothing I could do about it, those were the rules. To make matters worse, I was afraid that the US Army might also refuse the mission because it was in such a remote region and a night pick-up would be extremely hazardous.
Another slight diversion
The AF and Army had recently come out with a new set of maps on a test basis, and I had a few sheets in my map case. They were a technological marvel. They were actual aerial photographs printed in green and brown, depending on the foliage, and overlaid with the standard NATO grid coordinates with features such as contour lines, roads and trails highlighted in black. They were so accurate you could pick-out individual trees. A clear plastic template was included with the new maps. Using it, you could read them with three-digit accuracy and interpolate to the fourth digit for ten-meter accuracy. With our normal maps you could read coordinates to two digits and interpolate to the third digit for 100 meter accuracy. The big problem I had with the new maps was that they were 1:25,000 scale, whereas our normal maps were 1:50,000 scale. This meant that four sheets were required to replace one of our normal map sheets. They were simply too big and unmanageable in a small airplane, you flew off them too quickly, and then you had to fumble around for another one and find yourself again.
Now, back to the story again
Tangerine 31 called and said that the VNAF had just refused the mission and the Americans were debating whether or not to try it. They told Tangerine 31 they might make one try if he could give them accurate eight digit coordinates for the pick-up site. I couldn’t imagine how in the world the helicopter crew was going to find an eight-digit coordinate in the middle of the night, 50 miles from their takeoff point, but I didn’t argue.
I told Tangerine 31 to standby while I checked my new map. In the fading light I found the right sheet and the plastic template, told the 43- Delta to pop smoke, and told him that the smoke would mark exactly where the pickup would occur. He did, and I picked off an extremely accurate eight-digit coordinate to pass to Tangerine 31. Time passed and eventually the Dustoff helicopter contacted me and established FM contact with 43-Delta. The helicopter crew had rigged a Navy “Stokes Litter” on a winch cable and taped a flashlight to it. They descended down to about a hundred feet above the treetops and then lowered the litter to the ground. The litter came down six feet away from the expended smoke grenade. The people on the ground quickly tied their patient securely in the litter and he was hoisted into the helicopter to be whisked away to the hospital.
I was baffled as to how they pulled off that stunt, so I asked. His reply went something like this. “It’s a new system we’re testing, it’s called ‘Decca’ and it uses something called inertial navigation. I don’t know exactly how it all works, but we have a surveyed point on the ramp where we startup the system and from then on it’s dead-nuts-accurate. We get over the pick up point and descend on our radar altimeter to a couple of hundred feet above the ground and then lower the winch. This is the first time I’ve tried it at night, but it looks like it worked out okay.”
I replied, “It sure did, that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Thanks a bunch.”
My contact with 43-Delta was soon over and I headed home to a scary night landing with only a couple of flashlights for runway lights and then a dry, cold supper. On the way, I couldn’t help thinking of the contrasts. A person from a civilization that didn’t wear shoes and had not even discovered the wheel, owed his life to a scientific marvel so sophisticated that the people using it didn’t know how it worked!

Editor’s Personal Note:
Charlie Pocock, the overall editor of this book, says he took this photo at Song Be shortly after he arrived in early 1966. In the photo, Jim Meade is wearing an Airman’s Medal received for rolling some 20 55-gallon drums of fuel into
a river. Some of the drums, which had leaked or spilled, were on fire and there were HE and WP rockets stored close by. Had the drums exploded, they might have also set off the explosives, and there was a Vietnamese school or hospital (Jim is not certain which) less than 30 yards away. Jim says that an SF NCO named “Dutch” Holland and an Airman Second Class Atkins, who was the FAC Crew Chief, aided him in the effort. Charlie also says that Meade was almost embarrassed by the Medal, thinking the action too obviously the right thing to do to deserve note. This sort of behavior typifies the attitude we FACs observed over and over again in our ROMADs and Crew Chiefs. I only regret that we do not have more of their stories.