The Day I Got Wounded, My Short Story with the 129th AHC by Craig Mateer

My Story with the 129th

I enlisted in the Army on April 1, 1968. I was sent to Fort Bliss Texas for basic training. After that I was sent to Fort Huachuca AZ for additional training. But they didn't have the MOS I had enlisted for so I was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood MO. After completing 8 weeks of training and a week of preparation for Vietnam I was sent on leave and the reported to a base in Oakland to go to Vietnam. Two of us from the same AIT unit at Fort Leonard Wood were going to Vietnam. The rest of the group were assigned to Germany (go figure).

We arrived in Vietnam on August 22, 1968 at Long Binh for reassignment to our unit. Both of us were assigned to a transportation unit in Pleiku Vietnam. Once we arrived at that unit, we checked in. The Sgt at the transportation battalion HQ noticed I had taken typing in high school and asked if we wanted to work at battalion headquarters. We thought that would be pretty good so we were assigned to different duties at battalion HQ. I was in S-3 Operations. After a few months seeing helicopters flying over and not seeing any action and since I had access to a type writer, I completed a DD form 1049 requesting reassignment as a door gunner for the 119th. The 119th was an Assault Helicopter Company in Pleiku. The request was denied by everyone but approved by USARV. One December 31, 1968 I was transferred from Pleiku to the 17th Aviation where I spent New Years Eve listening to the radio alone in a barracks. The next morning, I was flown via UH-1H (my first flight on huey) to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company in ROK Valley on January 1, 1969.

I was assigned to the 1st Platoon although I never knew that it was the 1st platoon until after I was wounded. Anyway, I was assigned to aircraft 637 as a door gunner. I was given some instruction on what to do as a door gunner and on one of the first flights they took me past a free fire zone and had me fire the M-60 and observed whether I could follow a steam, where they could see if the bullets were hitting the water as they flew along it. I hit the stream most of the time so I guess I passed the test to be a door gunner.

Around February 15, 1969 aircraft 637 was red xed due to engine deck separation and the crew chief was due to deros by the end of the month, I was reassigned to aircraft 288. I worked with a new crew chief for a few days and we flew regular missions.

We went on a few resupply missions, some VIP missions and a flare mission. Nothing remarkable. We did go on a CA but it was pretty cold.

On February 28, 1969 we were assigned resupply missions in the morning by the platoon NCO. We flew resupply for most of the day, dropping off C rations and ammo/mortar rounds to Korean outposts in the mountains. Around 3:30 that day all aircrafts were called in to the airfield for pilot briefings. Once we had landed and were out of the ship the AC told me "make sure we have plenty of ammo." That was an unusual command. I just asked if this was going to be a "hot CA." The AC just responded "just make sure we have plenty of ammo." My response was "yes sir." I went to the ammo conex and picked up two more cans of ammo. The crew chief and I waited for what might have been 45 minutes for the pilots to return. Shortly the 1st flight lined up at a hover to take off. Bulldog 288 was chock 6 in first flight.

Later I found out it was a battalion size CA and 2nd platoon or 2nd flight was also involved and would follow our flight on sorties. We flew to the PZ and picked up Korean troops to be inserted in the Phu Cat mountains where a battalion of NVA were setting up 51 cal chicom guns to attempt to shoot down Air Force planes on short final or after takeoff.

Around 5:30ish we were heading into the LZ in single file. The LZ was large enough for one aircraft at a time. As we approached the LZ I could see the aircraft ahead of us on the way down into the LZ. The B model gun ships were along side the flight firing rockets. The radio lit up and it was difficult to tell what exactly happened, but the landing was aborted and we began to circle the LZ. From my side of the aircraft I could not see anything that was going on, on the ground. All I knew from the radio talk was chock one had been shot down or crashed and it appeared we were looking for a place to drop the troops in close to the downed aircraft. Later, in the hospital I found out LT Hansen had been shot through both knees which probably resulted in chock one being down in the LZ. I learned that because he was in the bed next to me.

Within a few minutes we went back in to drop off the ROK troops. The gun ships had expended most or all of their rockets protecting the downed aircraft, so it appeared we went in without gunship support.

We got into the LZ. I was putting down fire on the tree line when the AC came over the radio, shouting get them out of here. We were at a hover but the ROK troops were not getting out for some reason. I leaned over the back of the jump seat and began patting the Koreans on the shoulder saying "let's go, move out." In the blink of an eye I was back against the back of the door gunner area.

Something had happened but I wasn't sure just what it was. It was difficult to react without thinking through each movement from that point on. I could hear the change in the sound from a hover to moving forward to climb out of the LZ and knew I had to get back to my 60.

I slid back behind the weapon and reached out for the 60 to begin firing into the tree line around the LZ. I reached for my 60, but my left arm didn't move. I knew if I didn't feed the ammo belt it would jam from the wind blowing the ammo under the 60, so I attempted using the arch of my left foot to feed the ammo belt and returned fire on the way out of the LZ. It worked for most of the climb out of the LZ but eventually jammed on me.

Once we were clear of the LZ, my mind started churning, "what is wrong with me?" I finally decided I have been hit but wasn't sure where. I didn't have any pain, but knew something wasn't right. I became very concerned we were going back for another load of troops and I was wounded. My mike key button was on the left side and my left arm was not working so I was having trouble finding the mike button and finally gave up and leaned over the back of the jump seat and attempted to yell at the pilots. That was a waste of time due to the noise and everyone wearing helmets. As usual, the pilots had probably check with the crew to be sure everyone was OK.

In a few seconds the chew chief was around to my side and had let the jump seat back down and dragged me out onto the aircraft floor. He got my chicken plate and shirts off, then stood up between the pilot seats.

At that time, I looked down to see where I was hit, but didn't see anything. I tucked my chin up close to my chest and looked down again and saw a red round dot on my chest, just about where you would place your hand when saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

After seeing where I was hit, I just stared out into the gray overcast sky and said, "fuck, I'm fucked." I honestly didn't think I would make it to a hospital. I felt like I was most likely dying.

I can't say how long the fight to the 67th Evac took. I really don't remember much of the flight into the hospital, all I can remember is It was getting very difficult to breath. My lung had collapsed and though I didn't know it then, the bullet had hit my axillary vein, causing my lungs to begin to be filled with blood.

When we finally arrived at the 67th Evac. Two corps men ran up to the aircraft with a stretcher. When they got to the aircraft, one yelled, "can you make it over here?" I recall saying, "I think so." And began crawling to the stretcher. My left knee kept coming down on my left hand since it was just dragging along on the aircraft floor. I remember having trouble turning over to lay on the stretcher with just one arm.

Once they got me inside the 67th Evac, immediately some people moved me from the stretcher to a table. I couldn't see anything other than two arms coming down with a clear mask and someone saying, "this is oxygen, it will help you breathe." It felt like someone put a pillow over my face. I couldn't breathe at all. At the same time someone was cutting my pants and boots off and taking my 45 and belt off.

Next, I felt them cutting into my chest about where the round red dot was. I couldn't see what they were doing but thought they must be attempting to get the bullet out. Actually, they were putting a chest tube in.

After the cutting stopped, I fell into a very peaceful state. A nurse began calling out to me, "hey soldier can you hear me, hey soldier can you hear me?" I didn't have enough breath to speak, but finally got enough wind to reply and said, "I can hear fine, I just can't fucking breathe, man."

Next thing I remember was waking up in almost total darkness. I couldn't move anything and really didn't seem to want to attempt to move anything. it was dark, except for a light from one of those lamps with a half round shade on a metal flexible stem directly across from my left foot. I couldn't see anyone, but could sense someone at my left side and shortly was back asleep.

When I woke again it was day light. I still couldn't move anything but could see I had a blood bag on each ankle and an IV on each arm. Later I found out I had a trach tube in my throat and a respirator keeping me breathing.

Extremely lucking to get to the 67th Evac so quickly. The doctor got the axillary vein repaired and found that the nerves running to my left arm were bruised but not severed. Once I was well enough, he stopped and explained what they had found. The bullet had hit the axillary vein, went through my left lung, shattered two ribs and stopped against the bottom of my shoulder blade. He also told me they didn't know much about nerves other than they heal very slowly. He assured me I would get the use of my arm back but added it might be three weeks, it might be three months or it might be three years, but you'll get the use of your arm back.

A few days later I was transferred to Japan. On the same flight LT Hansen was on. Before we landed in Japan, I asked one of the nurses if I could nurses speak with LT Hansen and she assisted me to his stretcher and allowed me talk for a couple minutes and wish him good luck. I stayed in Japan until around March 25, 1969. I was then transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital. On January 21, 1970, I was discharged from the hospital and returned to duty.

When I volunteered to be a door gunner, I had planned to fly the rest of that tour then extend for 6 months and get an early out. I really loved flying with the 129th AHC, but unfortunately only got to spend two months with the unit.