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War Stories

Lt. Buxton at the Controls

Mike Vaughn - Mid 1967, possibly rainy season

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This is a short story of a D Troop Medevac mission that was not your ordinary 'go pick 'em up, take 'em to the hospital and go home' Medevac. Mike Vaughn was the UH-1D crew chief on this mission and tells the story from the recesses of his organic memory bank. Buck Buxton's comments on this story suggests that Mike has taken a bit of literary license with the story because he strongly remembers the actions taken by Mike to help the wounded being more memorable and Buck's belief that the focus of the story should be on Mike's activities on that mission, not on the Aircraft Commander. Since we believe both of them - we believe both versions of the story are credible: The view from the pilot's seat and the view from the crew chiefs seat (or, in this case, from the rice paddy mud).

Crew: Aircraft Commander (AC) Lt. Buck Buxton, pilot WO1 Jim Ashabranner, the other gunner (G) was SP4 Adams & I was the crew chief (CE).

My ship was 661 (tail number) & our crew had been assigned to Dustoff standby for that day. It was around mid-day as I remember & it was the time of year that the rice paddies were filled with water ready for planting.

When the klaxon sounded for the Dustoff mission WO Ashabranner, the gunner & I all ran to the helicopter to prepare for takeoff. Lt. Buxton went straight to the communications post to learn the location of the unit needing our help.

When Lt. Buxton climbed aboard the chopper, the other crew members were aboard & the chopper was already running & ready for takeoff. Mr. Ashabranner called the tower to get immediate clearance for takeoff. Meanwhile, Lt. Buxton was looking over his maps & calling the artillery advisory to ensure they were not firing into the grid we were about to fly into.

The LZ was not a great distance from our base camp & was near one of the rivers close to our Cu Chi base camp. As we flew toward our objective we started to pickup the radio communication from the unit needing help. The unit consisted of a couple of squads of infantry that had wandered into a heavily booby trapped area & were receiving some sporadic small arms fire. Each time the squad of troops would try to move they would set off a booby trap & add to the wounded.

Lt. Buxton was at the controls as we approached the LZ. It became obvious that there was no place to land our helicopter because of the tree lines & the paddies being full of water. Lt. Buxton headed the chopper for one of the rice dikes as near the wounded troops as he possibly could.

The very small space he put the chopper into was only a couple of meters larger than our ship. He balanced one skid of our chopper on a rice dike while keeping the other skid in mid air & holding the chopper straight & level at a partial hover.

At one point I warned Lt. Buxton not to move the chopper aft because of some large tree stumps within feet of our tail rotor. I said to him, “If you backup any further the tail rotor would hit a tree stump & it will come off.”

As Lt. Buxton held the chopper steady the infantrymen started to try & make it to our ship to load their wounded. Only a couple of the soldiers were able to assist with the wounded. Some of them were pinned down by sporadic small arms fire & others because of the hidden booby traps.

The infantrymen had to expose themselves to small arms fire as they carried the wounded across the open rice paddies to get to our chopper. They would only make a few steps & fall because of the grip of the thick black sticky mud in the paddies. It took a lot of effort for them to make even a single step while caring their wounded comrades.

Lt. Buxton continued to perfectly balance the chopper on the rice dike while we anxiously waited for the wounded to be loaded. The men were trying desperately to get the wounded to our chopper…but were tightly griped in place by the thick, knee deep, glue-like, mud. I was thinking that we can’t stay on the ground much longer because of the danger to the chopper & crew from possible small arms fire. I knew that Lt. Buxton must consider the dangers to his crew & the chopper & would soon have to make the decision to leave & come back later.

None of the crew wanted to leave the wounded soldiers. I ask Lt. Buxton if he would permit me to leave the chopper & help load the wounded. He gave me permission to help…he’s still holding the chopper steady & balancing one skid on the rice dike. Remember that the only protection he & WO Ashabranner had to protect themselves from enemy fire from the front position was a ¼ in of Plexiglas. The Plexiglas windshield wouldn’t even stop a fast pitched rock. For them to hold our chopper in such a delicate position while staring straight ahead, not considering the possibility of hostile fire, took great concentration & skill.

I exited the chopper, stepping onto the rice dike that Lt. Buxton was balancing the ships skid on. I ran as fast as I could toward the wounded men to assist those marred down in the mud of the paddies. I reached the wounded without a lot of difficultly but as soon as I stop moving & picked up one end of a stretcher containing a wounded soldier, I immediately became stuck in the thick mud.

There were four soldiers, including myself, now firmly stuck in the mud trying our best to not let the wounded men fall off of the stretchers into the water & mud. We soon formed a kind chain, handing the wounded off from one to the other. I now have a big problem…I’m the link in the chain that’s the farthest from the chopper.

I knew that Lt. Buxton couldn’t stick around this LZ much longer because of the danger to our chopper & the need to get the wounded to an aid station. I keeping struggling & fighting trying to make it to the chopper before they have to leave me behind. Lt. Buxton remains very cool at the controls & keeps the chopper in the perfect position with the wounded finally aboard & ready to “un-ass the area” as we used to say.

After what seemed to take forever I managed to make it to the side of the chopper. I was weighed down by my heavy armored chest plate (chicken plate) & my helmet. I was completely exhausted from struggling to help retrieve the wounded & fighting the strong grasp of the thick mud. As hard as I tried I just couldn’t muster the strength to lift myself out of the grip of the mud & onto the chopper. My helmet headset was not connected to the chopper so Lt. Buxton & I could not communicate direct with each other. However, It was like we were reading each others mind. I managed to crawl up as close as I could to the chopper & grabbed hold of the left skid. Lt. Buxton perfectly lifted the chopper straight up a few feet pulling me out of grasp of the mud. He then set the chopper gently back down on the dike, once again balancing one skid on the dike, straight & level, in a partial hover.

I was finally able to standup & climb into the chopper. Lt. Buxton very skillfully lifted our bird straight up out of that very tight & challenging spot. I was physically spent from the struggle with the mud…but I’m sure Lt. Buxton was even more so. Both physically & emotionally spent from having to hold our ship in such a precarious location for what seemed like an eternity.

If not for Lt. Buxton’s skill & courage on that day, the mission would not have been such a success. The wounded would not have received the swift aid they desperately needed, & I might have been left behind, without his skilled command of the situation.

Lt. Buxton & WO Ashabranner should have received a military commendations for that mission. But like so many other missions flown by solo helicopter crews, there were no high ranking officers to witness his heroics. No one would have paid much attention to a lowly SP4 crew chief should I have presented the facts of this mission to the higher-ups. Lt. Buxton’s efforts were un-commended, but heroic none the less.