BigWindow BackArrow top
War Stories

A Visit to the Black Virgin Mountain

by Jerell E. "Jerry" Jarvis


NuiBaDenI had been assigned to fly as crew chief on a UH-1C HOG # 513 in early 1968.

I don’t recall the specific date of this incident. If my memory serves me correctly, it was during the first wet season after I was assigned to crew Hog Gunship #513, that would been sometime in May, 1968.

513 had been assigned to stand-by, as a back up for a F Troop LRRP team that was on a recon mission on Nui Ba Den (Back Virgin Mountain), Tay Ninh Province. As a rule, when we knew the LRRP’s were re-coning the mountain, the gun ship crews would sleep with their boots on and fully dressed and personal weapon leaning against the side of the bunk. Because sure as G-d made little green apples, the LRRP’s would get compromised, and we would have to scramble to cover the extraction ship(s).

To this day I can’t figure out why the higher-ups couldn’t figure out that the top of the mountain was our real-estate, and everything else was Charley’s domain. But they kept sending LRRP teams back there time and time again. And they would get compromised on the first night…..time and time again. This type of tactical thinking is what helped to establish the term: “military intelligence” as an oxymoron.

Well sure enough, Claxton sounded late that night, and we scrambled. The LRRP’s position had been compromised and they were in trouble, (as usual) and we were called in to assist with air cover during the extraction. A flair ship and a Slick were already on station when we arrived. The slick was in the process of extracting the team from the mountain side as we and heavy scout gun ship flew in a left orbit (counter clockwise) around the peak of the mountain. At times we were so low, that the peak of the mountain loomed above us. I only recall one other occasion where my ship had flown that low while on a hot mission. (But that’s a story for another time.)

The Slick had to extract the LRRPs while hovering with the front tip of one skid planted on the steeply sloped mountain side, and the other skid just off the ground. I heard the pilot say over the radio, that the prevailing wind was swinging his tail boom dangerously close to the steep mountain side; and that he has run out of pedal.

Puff the Magic Dragon (AC-47 Spooky) was also working the area over about one or two clicks distant from the base of the mountain on our side. I could see streams of red tracers spraying down toward the ground, and green tracers going up towards Puff.

I could identify at least three enemy positions that were firing on Puff. I later learned that as a rule of thumb, one 51 cal AA was assigned to a NVA brigade sized element. In other words, in theory,…. there was possibly three NVA brigades within two to three clicks of the LRRP teams position. If my memory serves me correctly, that Slick had extracted 3-6 LRRP’s off the side of that mountain that night.

Do the math,…. 3-6 LRRP’s up against 1-3 NVA brigades. Not exactly what you would call good odds!

I don’t know who the pilot was on that slick, but I can tell you that he was one Hell of a good pilot, and had one hell of a set of balls to pull off that extraction the way he did.

The flare ship was dropping it’s flairs up-wind between where Puff was working near the mountain side. The Flare parachutes were drifting down on to the side of the mountain, some of the flairs were still burning on the ground.

Due to the brilliant lighting from the overhead flairs, the entire side of the mountain was lit up like Times Square in New York. We could see that there was lots of movement towards the bottom of the mountain incline, but since we didn’t know the exact location of all the LRRP’s, we had to restrain from opening fire, to give the LRRP team cover fire.

We all felt helpless as we knew that the team was in the deepest possible trouble they could be in. All we could do was orbit around that mountain with a target rich environment all around the base of it, and we couldn’t fire a single M-60 round or rocket. To say that we were feeling hugely frustrated is the understatement of the century.

The night had been clear as we departed Cu Chi and flew up to Nui Ba Den , but by the time we completed the mission over the mountain, a heavy low cloud ceiling had closed in on us. Our AC decided that the ceiling was sufficiently high that we’d have no problems flying back to Cu Chi base camp.

We proceeded toward Cu Chi. About five minutes into the return flight, the cloud cover turned into a dense fog. We were flying at about 2000 feet altitude.

I estimated that we were still over the Michelin Rubber Plantation, as we had flown many missions up in this area during daylight, so I was vaguely familiar with the type of terrain below.

As I sat in my door leaning against the bulkhead, the air was cold and damp from the fog we were flying in. I couldn’t see anything below us or in any other direction either. The fog/cloud was as thick as pea soup. The AC had turned our navigation lights on, and we were enveloped in a eerie reddish cloud.

I noticed that the engine and the main rotor sounded a little odd, and the normal rhythmic pulse you feel in the seat of your pants, from the main rotor blades, was not the same as well. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was out of place, but something wasn’t right. I sat there with my M-60 on my lap, debating as to weather to say something over the intercom to the AC for a few moments. I didn’t want to alarm everyone else on board, since I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.

I finally decided that something was definitely wrong with the ship, and I better let the AC know what was going on. I had my finger on the intercom switch, and was just about to press it when suddenly the AC through both his hands in the air over his head and shouted “take it!! At that moment the Pilot took the controls and started to wrestle with them. He immediately pulled in all the pitch that he could and proceeded to move the cyclic all over the place in an exaggerated manner.

I had been flying for some time by this time, and never before had I witnessed such aggressive and wild movements made on the cyclic stick by a pilot. As he pulled in pitch hard on the collective, I could feel the deceleration press me down into the bench seat canvas harder and harder. I looked past the AC on the right toward the instrument panel (where I can easily see the instruments) and my heart went into my mouth. We were losing RPM, the torque reading was off the scale and we were losing altitude fast. I could hear the turbine engine perceptively changing pitch as it started to slow down. At that moment I expected the tops of trees to come crashing up through the floor under my feet and butt.

Just then I felt the ship pitch nose down and the instruments all retuned to normal readings with the rate of climb indicator showing positive. The customary throbbing of a helicopter in level flight returned as well. I noticed the AC and Pilot giving each other furtive glances back and forth, but not a word was spoken over the intercom.

My door gunner, Barry McFarland, reached across the cabin, from his side, and hit me on the arm and then made a motion that he didn’t understand what was going on. I was too shook up to respond. The fog/clouds dissipated a few minutes later and we then had an otherwise uneventful remaining trip back to base camp.

Once we had landed, and got the blades tied down, I went over to Mack who was busy securing the door guns, and explained that we had nearly flown into the ground (or trees) while over the Michelin Plantation. That our pilot had gotten a severe case of vertigo, and had lost awareness of which way was up etc. And that from what I could see of the instruments, we were at nearly zero altitude readings. And that we were very lucky that the transmission didn’t come bursting through the bulk head behind us from being over stressed.

“All in all,… we’re still lucky to be alive”!!! My back was toward the hanger which put his face in full light. He never changed his expression and said; ”I’m way too short for this kind of shit” he then walked past me back to the hooch area. Mack had an accident while playing Volley Ball the next day that fractured his left arm, and as a result,…..he never flew again.

I think I recall them wheeling 513 into the hanger and giving it a though inspection the next day……not certain about this fact.

I don’t recall the names of the AC or Pilot, All I can say is that their flying skills were the only thing that kept us alive that moonless, foggy night.

Side Note: Just before or just after this incident, one of our Cobra’s had flown into the ground in the middle of the Michelin Plantation under similar circumstances. The two officers managed to walk away from the wreck, after spending the night on the ground playing hide and go seek with Charley, they were found and extracted at first day light the next morning.