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"A gripping combat memoir...honest and exciting...a rousing tale, full of sharp details and told in the harsh language of soldiers baptized in fire."—Kirkus Reviews
"Everybody who survive ground combat in Vietnam had his life saved at one time or another by helicopter crews. We were in awe of them. You will be too after reading Taking Fire."—Jim Morris, author of War Story and The Devil's Secret Name
The way I ended up in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot was by looking for a way out of Vietnam. I was a smartass kid a little brighter and a little more cunning than the average turkey off the turnip wagon. At least that was how I figured it. My old granny always said when you weighed 125 pounds soaking wet with a squirrel in your pocket and stood all of five-three and three-quarters, it wasn't brawn that put you on top of the ant hill. Brains was the only thing that kept you from going around armpit high to the rest of the world.
Actually, I might not have been that bright after all. It was my idea to join the U.S. Army in the first place.
"Tell you what," I said to my high school buddy, Randy Huntzberry.
"What?" Randy said, biting.
"Let's join the army."
"I thought you were brighter than that, Ronnie Alexander."
Randy and I had graduated from South Hagerstown High, Hagerstown, Maryland, in the spring of 1963 and started at a local junior college that fall. After the first semester, we were both eager to get out of Maryland and see how the other parts of the world lived. We might not have been so anxious if we had listened to the low and steady storm rumble of Vietnam over the horizon. But when you were eighteen years old, you never listened anyhow. The dark clouds had not yet appeared. Besides, I couldn't have picked Vietnam out on the map if it were the only country on the map. For all I knew, Vietnam was a town in Texas or New Mexico.
"Hey," I said to Randy, sensing his hesitation, "joining the army is better than hanging around this one-horse burg and watching them roll up the street every night."
It took him a few days to make up his mind. "Let's do it," he finally agreed.
"We're out of here, partner."
We trotted down to the local induction center and enlisted on the buddy plan as ground-pounding infantry soldiers. E-1 grunts—first pay grade enlisted, earning about seventy-something dollars a month. By the time we were halfway through boot camp, I had already decided double-timing in the rain and sun, digging foxholes, and getting smelly in the woods was for suckers. I looked around for a way out.
"Randy, let's volunteer for the airborne," I suggested.
"At least we fly to wherever we're going instead of having to walk," I argued.
"But we have to parachute!"
We both volunteered for airborne training after basic training. Turned out Randy was colorblind. Couldn't tell his reds from his greens. Airborne rejected him. I ended up alone in front of the gate at Fort Benning, Georgia. THROUGH THESE PORTALS PASS THE FINEST AIRBORNE SOLDIERS IN THE WORLD. A column of sweating troops jogged by chanting a Jodie call.
"Two old ladies lying in bed;
One looks over to the other and said:
`I wanna be an Airborne Ranger,
I wanna live a life of danger ...
Airborne! Airborne! All the way!"
It began to seem the more I tried to get out of things, the deeper I got in.
Soldiers called summertime Fort Benning "The Frying Pan." Appropriately. Damn, it was hot. Black Hats—parachute instructors—ran us through outdoor sprinklers six or seven times a day, clothes and all, to keep us cooled off. In between showers, it was balls to the wall starting at five A.M. every day. Double time! Hut! Don't let a Black Hat catch you walking anywhere, anytime.
"What are you doing, Leg?" Leg, spoken contemptuously, meant non-airborne personnel. "Get down, Leg! Drop! Drop! Give me fifty!"
"Yes, Sergeant!" Bellowing it out.
"Are you stupid? Don't you know my first name? It's Airborne! Got that, Leg?"
"Airborne Sergeant! All the way!"
Assholes and elbows in the front leaning rest position. My company's Black Hats were "Smoky" Jackson, so dubbed because he brought down smoke on everybody, indiscriminately, and "Drop-Drop" Estelle. It was obvious where he got his name.
"Drop, Leg! Drop! Drop! Give me fifty push-ups."
Drop-Drop was one of the original Rangers and a Korean combat vet. He wore the scrolled Ranger patch on his left shoulder rather than the new Ranger tab. We held the guy in total awe. He had been there, done that, collected the medals. In Korea, the bones in his left forearm had been shattered by a bullet and replaced with steel. When he scowled down at me in formation, I felt like a Shetland pony confronted by a Budweiser Clydesdale.
"This ain't kindergarten. How old are you, Leg?"
"Nineteen, Airborne Sergeant."
"Huh! Jesus, they get younger and smaller every year. We'll have to strap a ton of lead to your ass to get you to fall out of the sky."
"Airborne Sergeant! All the way!"
When it came time for our first parachute jump, we were more scared of Drop-Drop than we were of the jump. Better to bail out and crash on the drop zone than to turn chickenshit and face the man mountain's contempt. Because everything was done according to the alphabetical order of our last names, Alexander was one of the first jumpers in the stick. Adrenaline pumped through my veins like water through a fire hose.
We shuffled belly button to asshole out the open door of the C-119 Flying Boxcar, stamping our boots and shouting to build up courage. Out that terrible door into nothingness. The roar of slipstream in my ears. The "positive opening" of the T-10 parachute that turned baritones into tenors if the harness wasn't tight enough.
As expected, I was the last man out of the air although I had been one of the first into the air. I hung suspended in a thermal and watched in exasperation as heavier jumpers passed me and landed on the DZ, their 'chutes collapsing. They formed in ranks and looked up at me with amusement. Drop-Drop stomped back and forth. He pointed his finger up at me and shouted in make-believe rage.
"Get down here, Alexander! Do you hear me, trooper? Get your bantam-ass down here right now!"
That was the first time he called me trooper instead of Leg. He grinned when I finally did my PLF on the ground and trotted up. I was now a member of the elite airborne forces. I had leaped—fell—out of a perfectly good airplane and lived to bullshit about it.
We graduated after making four more jumps that same weekend. Drop-Drop and Smoky pounded blood-wings into our puffed-out chests.
"I've been dropping you guys for three weeks," Drop-Drop said. "It's your turn to drop me."
"Awright!" somebody shouted. "Drop! Drop! Give me fifty!"
"Your left." The arm with the steel in it.
He did fifty push-ups so fast he was a blur. Then he bounced and switched hands and did another fifty with his right hand.
DECEMBER 11, 1961
Arrival of the U.S. escort carrier Card in Saigon had received little fanfare. A war was on, and America was in it—but only in a small way. So far, the only role the U.S. military played was in advising and training the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in its struggle against Communist insurgents from North Vietnam. After the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the country had been divided by treaty along the seventeenth parallel into two separate nations: the Communist People's Republic of North Vietnam, with its capital at Hanoi, and the Republic of South Vietnam, a democracy with its capital at Saigon. Wily old Ho Chi Minh vowed not to rest until Vietnam became a single nation ruled under communism. His National Liberation Front (NLF), whose guerrillas became known as Viet Cong, began infiltrating South Vietnam to foment its overthrow.
The appearance of the Card in Saigon that December morning heralded a significant reshaping of America's low profile in Indochina. Strapped to the carrier's deck were thirty-two U.S. Army CH-1 Shawnee helicopters—big, dual-rotor craft well suited to carrying troops into battle. They would be piloted by Americans, demonstrating a newfound American willingness to aid South Vietnam in combat operations, particularly with aviation support.
In the space of a few years, however, this first modest inclination would explode into an enormous national commitment that would bring about nine million U.S. soldiers to this tropical land and claim 58,000 American lives. It would be a war unlike any other ever fought by the United States, lacking conventional battle lines and waged mostly by small actions against an elusive enemy. At times, it would encompass an almost phantasmagoric fluidity, characterized by rapid shifting of men and weapons across sodden lowlands, jungle-clad mountains, and lush valleys, insertions and extractions of troops in response to a jack-in-the-box enemy. The prime agent of all that movement would be rotary-wing aircraft, helicopters, the first of which clung to the deck of the Card.
Vietnam would become known as the Helicopter War, a concept of airmobility that was just taking shape in 1961. Some military planners saw the helicopter as catalyzing a revolution; others believed these relatively slow-flying aircraft would fare poorly in the rigors of war. The fighting in Vietnam would be the acid test.
I drew orders out of parachute school to the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Clerks checked my GT aptitude scores. You had to have a minimum GT of 115 to become a parachute rigger while 110 got you into Officer Candidate School. Riggers had to be smarter than officers. My GT was 122.
"Alexander, Ronald? You want to go to rigger school and learn how to pack parachutes?"
I hesitated. "What are my options?"
The clerk shrugged. It was no hair off his balls either way. "You can stay with the company and walk in the woods, mud and rain and eat C-rats. Or you can be a parachute rigger and work normal hours in an air-conditioned building. You get a chow break and two coffee breaks a day. Come four o'clock, you're off-duty."
What a deal. Sign me up. I had this man's army dicked.
By the time I returned to the 82d as an honor graduate rigger, the rumble and black clouds of Vietnam on the horizon were drawing nearer. LBJ had not yet sent combat troops, but a lot of rumors were floating around. Since the 82d was a reaction force, trained to drop our socks, grab our cocks and be ready to go when the balloon went up, we expected to be the first on line. By April 1965 I could at least pick out Vietnam on the map.
The 82d was always on alert. You were either IRF or RRF. The IRF, Immediate Reaction Force, had to be ready to go immediately, your shit already packed in one rucksack. The RRF, Ready Reaction Force, had two or three days to get ready. On a warm spring evening in April, a bunch of the guys and I were hanging around the barracks bullshitting in our skivvies just before taps and lights out. We were on IRF and confined to quarters. The NCO on duty at HQ burst in like somebody had stuck a rocket up his butt.
"This is an alert!" he shouted. "This ain't no drill!"
War? We were going to war? Where were we going to war at?
"How the hell should I know?" the NCO snapped.
"Vietnam? Is it Vietnam?"
"All I know is this is the real thing. Grab your cocks and socks and draw your M16s. Transportation is waiting outside. Double time, troopers!"
Nothing like a little This is the real thing! to poke a stick down your anthill.
In the event of an action, parachute riggers bailed out with the assault force to recover 'chutes and equipment. Ten IRF riggers with Staff Sergeant Johnston in charge drew our M16 rifles and were helmeted, rucked-up and climbing into the back of a truck within a few minutes. Although it was near the middle of the night, Smoke Bomb Hill at Fort Bragg blazed with enough energy, electrical and otherwise, to power the entire state of North Carolina. Soldiers and vehicles filled with soldiers rushed madly about. Trucks loaded with artillery, ammunition, and other supplies rumbled toward Pope Airfield, the martialing area. A single question rocketed back and forth. It became a standard inquiry. Where are we going?
Damn. I didn't know war happened this fast. But, damn, wasn't it exciting for a nineteen-year-old American boy to be part of something like this? Getting out of it never even occurred to me. I wanted in.
The airfield was lit up from one end to the other. C-130 Hercules aircraft parked noses to tails lined the ramps, APUs already hooked up to them and ready to start cranking their engines. Pallets laden with materiel formed mazes, clown which blunt-nosed forklifts scurried like cockroaches, moving stuff here and there and poking other stuff up the open rear ramps of the C-130s.
If you were nothing but a lowly grunt, one of the privates, you never saw the Big Picture of what ,vas going on. You simply followed orders. Go there, do this, get that.... You bitched about it, naturally, because as an enlisted man you doubted the colonels and generals knew what they were doing. You still did what you were ordered to do. That this was the real thing took some of the edge off the chickenshit. That it was the real thing became even more clear when trucks drove up and issued parachutes and live ammo and grenades. It was a little sobering, what with the initial excitement wearing off.
"What do you think, Shorty?" a buddy asked.
"I think we're gonna win combat jump wings."
"It can't be Vietnam. They wouldn't be issuing us ammo and parachutes now. Maybe it's a race riot."
"They wouldn't send out a whole brigade for a riot."
Sergeants with their jaws stuck out and their shoulders hunched stalked around shouting, like they were afraid of being shouted at by officers unless they shouted at us first.
"Okay, people. Get a move on. Draw your 'chutes and gear. Goddamnit, people. This ain't no fucking tea party, ladies. Get your asses moving. Formation in front of the big hangar in ten minutes."
Somehow, even though the colonels and generals didn't know what they were doing, the entire brigade formed up in battalions and companies on the ramp in front of the hangar. Every swinging dick was helmeted and rucked and loaded down with weapons and ammo and parachutes still in kit bags. Everyone went silent. Silent and so tense you couldn't have driven a hat pin up an asshole with a sledgehammer.
The brigade commander climbed up on a forklift to address the troops. The scuffing of his boots echoed against the front of the hangar. Floodlights behind chased his shadow across the formation. Out on the ramps, APUs shot juice to the C-130s. Props started to turn.
"Men," roared the commander in his best leader's voice, "our destination is Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic—"
"Where the hell is Santo Domingo?" the trooper next to me whispered.
"Weren't you listening?" I shot back. "It's in the Dominican Republic."
"At ease!" sergeants yelled to quell the muttering in ranks. "At ease!"
The commander stared directly at us as he continued.
"Rebel forces supported by Communists have captured strongholds in the city and are attempting to overthrow the duly constituted government. The Eighty-second Airborne, the All American Division, is tasked with taking them out of there—and, men, that's what we're going to do. We start right now. We're skying-up immediately. You can rig parachutes en route. We will combat jump onto the Santo Domingo Airport, which we believe is being held by rebels. You'll receive your briefings and combat orders from your subordinate leaders. Okay, men. We have a job to do. Let's go do it ...!"
Troopers packed into the C-130s like fish from a cannery. Four long rows of us in each aircraft, two on each side of the airplane facing each other, so close together that our knees banged. Roar of engines and aircraft vibration made talking difficult. Some of the guys soon nodded off with chins bouncing on the tops of their reserve 'chutes. Others, withdrawn and reflective, stared down between their boots. Glances flitted around like ricochets, eyes refusing to meet for fear of revealing the creepy little worms crawling around inside our intestines. You couldn't let your buddies see that you were afraid.
If I twisted around in the web seating, jostling awake the soldier napping on either side of me, I managed to look out the airplane's round porthole behind me. It was dark out. All e the stars and a sliver of moon and the ocean below with a moon streak leading away across it into infinity. My mouth felt dry and I couldn't sleep, but I wouldn't admit it was because I was afraid. I pictured myself strutting around at the NCO club wearing a combat jump star on my silver parachute wings. I was still a teenager; I turned twenty at the end of the month. At that age, you were immortal, invincible, and stupid.
From what I recalled from high school geography refreshed by talk among the troops as we on-loaded the planes, the Dominican Republic was a big island half of which was Haiti. When daybreak filtered weak and watery through the C-130's small portholes, I twisted in my seat to see if I could see it yet.
The sea still stretched away unmarred by land. It was a beautiful cobalt color made translucent in reflection of a cloudless sky. Other dark-green C-130s flew in formation off our flank. I wondered how many aircraft there were in our flight, and how many flights there were. It was an impressive sight when the 82d Airborne and America went to war.
Word came down. "Make sure your weapons are loaded. Keep them on Safe until you hit the DZ."
The DZ, we had been told after donning parachutes by squads inside the aircraft, was a large cane field next to the airport. I felt for the magazine in the M16 secured butt up over my left shoulder and fingered the selector switch for the Safe position. I readjusted my reserve 'chute pack. Because of my small size, it covered most of my chest. It occurred to me unexpectedly that a combat jump was conducted from eight hundred feet AGL. Why were we issued reserves then? Even if your main malfunctioned, you didn't have time to activate a reserve before you creamed in.
Maybe the reserve was just to make us feel better.
Another thought occurred to me. What if they started shooting at us while we were still in the air? The Nazis had done it in World War II. I glanced at the guy across from me. His eyes were round and very wide. Maybe he was thinking the same thing.
"Thirty minutes!" came the word. I looked out the window, but still saw no land.
I was sweating. Judging by the odor, we were all sweating. I told myself I would feel better after the jump doors opened and we got some fresh Caribbean air.
Watch out, commies. The mighty Airborne is gonna kick some ass.
Sergeants started pumping us up for it, shouting and slapping our helmets. We stamped our feet and bobbed in our seats. We fisted each other on the shoulders and grinned to show that, hey, the AA, the All Americans, feared no fuckin' commies. I would have to call on ol' Drop-Drop Estelle and show him my medals when we got back.
Just when we were really pumped up, more word came back. The aircraft crew chief passed it on to the jumpmaster first. He frowned and climbed up on the webbing above the troops so he could shout and be heard above the engine noise.
"The jump is scrubbed," he bawled out. "The Marines have landed and secured the airfield. We'll be air-landing."
Although we naturally felt obligated to boo the Marines, I saw more relief than disappointment in the faces around me. I felt actually let down, however. I had really been counting on that combat star for my wings.
"Take off your 'chutes and stack 'em. It'll be a hot landing. Get off the airplane as fast as you can get down the ramp when we land. The plane will be taking off again immediately."
I had been looking out the window all the way for a first sighting of the Dominican Republic. I was never to see it from the air. As we bled off altitude on the final approach to the airport at Santo Domingo, the crew chief suddenly bellowed, "Get down! Everybody get down on the deck! We're taking fire!"
Paratroopers tumbled to the floor like a bunch of startled puppies. The belly of a C-130 was armor-plated whereas the sides were only thin metal. I discovered myself crushed against the cool metal floor underneath other bodies. I could hardly breathe.
I heard what sounded like dull thuds striking the airplane. Something like isolated hail stones thumping the roof of your Ford Fairlane. I later learned we took sixteen hits from a .30-cal machine gun on our way in. Rebel snipers hiding in the swamps around the airport's approach shot at everything that flew by. That was the first time it occurred to me that, in an aircraft, the only thing you heard of gunfire was when the bullets hit.
C-130s set down with screaming of rubber on asphalt. They slowed but never fully stopped. Ramps lowered and troopers spilled out onto the tarmac. I scrambled for cover. Everything was brought to a halt when someone shouted in surprise, "What the fuck, over?"
A U.S. Air Force tech sergeant stood at the edge of the runway with his arms crossed, laughing at us. Other Air Force guys and some Marines walked casually about in the morning sunshine, for all the world like guys back in garrison out for a Sunday morning stroll. Some of them had coffee cups hooked on their fingers.
"Glad you fellas could make it," the tech sergeant jeered. "Come on in. Have some coffee, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marines."
Ironic, I thought later, considering the way things turned out, how it was in an aircraft that I received my baptism under fire. So it was only a few rounds and they weren't exactly aimed at me. But even one bullet coming anywhere near you in the air was enough to get you court-martialed for destroying government property by putting skid marks in your skivvies. It wasn't like you could jump in a hole or hide behind a rock. Up there, you were exposed.
The Dominican Republic wasn't much of a war, as wars go. A few of our guys got hit, but the only people I knew to get killed were rebels. The division commander, General Palmer, issued a directive that the 82d would search and secure three square blocks a day from the rebels in the city. When GIs took twelve square blocks one day, he made them give back nine of them. I suppose orders were orders and fair was fair.
"I'd go anyplace with the Eighty-second," he reportedly exhorted. "They're born killers."
My duties as rigger were almost nil. What there were kept me largely confined to the airport at first. Occasionally, I heard gunfire banging in the city as paratroopers flushed bad guys out of hiding, but nobody was shooting at me. It was a good war, as Bill Mauldin, the World War II cartoonist, said through his characters Willie and Joe, as long as nobody was shooting at you. I was bored. If this was war, then it was highly over-rated as an activity.
Excerpted from TAKING FIRE by Ron Alexander and Charles W. Sasser. Copyright © 2001 by Ron Alexander and Charles W. Sasser. Excerpted by permission.
Posted June 8, 2012
I can not believe that nobody else has written a review when they finished this book. Great story about great men. This is one tale of a miracle that occurred during some of the tough battles in Vietnam. My regards go to all soldiers past, present, and future. Where does the bravery come from?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 27, 2005
I found Taking Fire to be an action packed tale, told from the sky rather than the ground. I have enjoyed learning about the Vietnam Experience from actual accounts (as remembered) as opposed to text books and history lessons, and found new and additional respect and admiration for the chopper pilots in the Vietnam War.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 21, 2002
This book is Certainly one the best Military reads. A Great story, hard to put down, sorry I'm all done with it book. Inspirational enough to recommend the wife reads it too.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 16, 2011
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