“A Veterans Story of Faith, Courage, and the Light"
Robert B. Robeson
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000
Robert B. Robeson is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who flew 987 combat medical evacuation missions in South Vietnam, evacuating 2,533 patients. He had seven helicopters shot up by enemy fire and was shot down twice in one year. Col. Robeson has been published in Reader’s Digest, Vietnam Combat, Positive Living, and Newsday. He has been a managing editor and columnist, has a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland and has completed extensive graduate journalism work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s won many state and national journalism awards and is a previous Amy Writing Award winner.
Although nearly 37 years have elapsed since this chaotic combat mission occurred during the Vietnam conflict, God’s love and protection still inspires awe and gratefulness in a medical evacuation helicopter pilot who experienced the darkness, drama and potential death firsthand.
2200 hours on Sunday, November 30, 1969 at Landing Zone (lz) Hawk Hill, approximately 36 miles south of Da Nang, South Vietnam along Highway 1. Night had only begun but, for our U.S. Army, medical evacuation helicopter crew of four, the potential for a major nightmare was already shaping up when the battalion aid station radio-telephone operator (RTO) burst into our underground hootch waving a familiar white mission sheet.
“Captain Robeson, this one’s gonna make your whole day,” he said, handing it to me. “An urgent, insecure for seven Vietnamese civilians with multiple gunshot wounds out on Barrier Island. No U.S. are on the ground and they’re gonna mark the lz with flashlights.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, sir. ‘Charlie Five’ (American infantry advisor to the South Vietnamese) is the U.S. call sign and he’ll be radio-relaying through interpreters about five or ten miles from the lz. And no gunships are available. I already checked.”
“Any more good news?” I asked.
“Charlie Five said they’re pretty messed-up and they’ll never make it to first light,” he added.
of my crew to head for our UH-1H (Huey) aircraft parked between our hootch and the aid station.
As unit operations officer and an aircraft commander, I was acutely aware that our medical evacuation SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) dictated that any insecure mission—where the lz had recently been under fire, was currently under fire or the perimeter was not secured—required helicopter gunship support. Since our medevac birds were unarmed, we were particularly vulnerable to enemy action. This policy was designed to reduce heavy aircraft losses inherent in our noncombatant missions of mercy.
Even this requirement didn’t touch on the worst medevac “no-no” of all, specifically, landing in an lz where there were no Americans and no direct radio contact with those on the ground so information could be obtained on obstacles in the lz or other essential life-threatening elements. To make matters worse, it was a pitch-black, moonless night. We wouldn’t see anything but the flashlights until I turned on our searchlight at about 200 feet AGL (actual ground level). The decision was mine, alone, to make. Should I break our regulations and risk my crew and aircraft for seven Vietnamese civilians or turn down the mission until morning? Would they last the night?
Then I asked myself a question that I often asked when we were facing the most difficult odds and circumstances involving landing zones under fire. If Phyllis—my wife of eight months—was one of those wounded in that lz, what would my decision be? That question always focused my attention. We were all they had. I had to decide in only a few minutes whether these human beings lived or died.
What none of us knew then, was that ours would be the most dangerous and deadly type of helicopter flight in that war. More than a third of our aviators, crew chiefs and medics would become casualties. Our unarmed aircraft losses to hostile fire would be 3.3 times that of all other forms of helicopter missions.
While the RTO ran back to the aid station radio shack, I went over the obvious risks and potential options on my way to our aircraft. I’d already been shot down once and shot up twice in two other birds in my first 4 ½ months in combat. We all existed in a violent world devoid of easy choices. Our medevac role imposed serious obligations on all of us, but I was forced to deal with reality as I knew it.
As we fired-up our Lycoming jet engine, I prayed quickly and silently, as I always did before a mission.
The eight-digit grid coordinate on Barrier Island—a wide and vast expanse of white sand and small villages, extensive mines, booby-traps and persistent enemy action—was a part of this immense chunk of real estate which ultimately made contact with the pristine beauty of the South China Sea to the east. The general area was second nature to me. I knew the approximate location of the coordinate without checking my map under the red light in the cockpit above my flight helmet.
Tightening the shoulder harness against my “chicken plate” (armored chest protector), I began concentrating on the task at hand.
In our line of work, doing nothing was never an option. And it’s difficult explaining what it’s like in combat having to make daily life and death decisions for people you’ve never met. It’s something you have to experience firsthand to completely understand. But we discovered early that all of us, soldiers, civilians and even the enemy, were tied together by the same rope of humanity. On a mission, you never knew whose life you would step into or who would step into yours. But one thing you did know for certain was that an extensive portion of the countryside was “bad guy” territory at night.
We arrived over the grid coordinate a few minutes later. My copilot asked Charlie Five to have three flashlights arranged in a triangle where they wanted us to land. There were scattered lights from other small villages in the area and we wanted a definitive geometric pattern so we could pick it out quickly and keep it in sight throughout our approach. The American advisor had his Vietnamese interpreters pass on this information.
“Sir, I’ve got lights at two o’clock low,” our crew chief broke in on the intercom a short time later.
Looking out my open side window at 2,000 feet, I counted three flashlights forming a triangle as we’d requested.
“We have three flashlights in a triangle,” my copilot broadcast over our FM radio. “Are those your people?”
“That’s them,” Charlie Five replied.
“Okay, have them flash them on and off,” my copilot requested. This would provide reasonable assurance it wasn’t the enemy trying to lure us into another ambush.
The three lights began flashing on and off.
“Dust Off Six-Zero-Five, also be advised they took the fire from the south and the east is not too secure, so stay to the western side,” Charlie Five added, almost as an afterthought.
I glanced inside the cockpit to check my instruments before deciding whether I was going to risk our crew and aircraft and break our regulations.
God, I prayed silently, if it’s okay to go in, give me a sign to let me know.
When I looked outside again, a fourth light had appeared below transforming the original triangle into a perfect square. For an instant, my mind flashed back to the Biblical account of the three Hebrew children who were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace—that my minister father had preached about many times. When the king looked inside, he saw not three but four men walking about in the midst of the fire without harm (Daniel 3:25, NAS). I knew, in this split second of time, that I’d been given the green light to go in.
I believe this decision was based upon what the unknown writer of Hebrews in the New Testament called “faith.” “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” Hebrews 11:1, NAS.
“Go blackout,” I instructed my copilot. He reached up and switched off our anti-collision light and running lights.
When I turned on our searchlight at 200 feet, it proved to be the worst possible scene imaginable. The landing area was so confined and cluttered with barbed wire and concertina wire my crew chief thought these defensive materials would become entangled in our tail rotor. Somehow we made it to the ground safely.
The amount of time spent in an insecure lz should be less than twenty seconds. Yet the stopwatch on my clock on the instrument panel in front of me verified that we were there two minutes and ten seconds (a literal eternity in combat) while they carried patient after patient out of the darkness and stacked them, bleeding and moaning, on the deck of our cargo compartment. The original patient count of seven quickly expanded to eleven.
It was absolute chaos. We were like a noisy sitting duck in a scary and secluded shooting gallery with no security while briefly interacting with fleeting Vietnamese figures in the dark we couldn’t identify or communicate with. The landing area they’d selected was on a slope and, with our lights off in the blackness—and only the red glow from our instrument panel—I began to experience vertigo. Whenever I switched on my searchlight for a few seconds to stabilize my senses, the Vietnamese thought we were taking off and would begin screaming.
Finally, they were all aboard and I made a maximum performance takeoff away from the wire and over the treeline in front of us. Red and green tracers ricocheted into the air in front of us from a heavy firefight that had begun not far to our west, so I climbed—still blackout—to altitude and headed north up the coast to the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang. Our medic immediately began working on the patients he could reach.
After we deposited our human cargo on the 95th’s China Beach landing pad, an awareness resonated within me that desperate times often call for desperate measures. And being an American soldier, a Christian and a medevac pilot meant taking risks for others.
We never discovered where that fourth light came from or who/what was holding it. Charlie Five had given the order for a triangle of three. But I believe John 8:12 (NAS) holds the answer. “Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.’”
I’d prayed for a sign to let me know it was safe to land. And I believe God provided it in His own way. This mysterious “light in the night” shone at the most critical moment to assure me we could make a difference in the lives of eleven fellow travelers that night. Despite the danger and challenge we faced, I believe He allowed us to be in the right place at the right time. We were the only ones in the entire world—at that precise moment—with the essential equipment, training and opportunity to provide these wounded souls with a chance for continued life.
What I discovered that night so long ago on Barrier Island (and on 986 other Vietnam medevac missions) is that when a person is forced to face uncertainty of the unknown, God is available to lead the way regardless of circumstances. My faith that night was in the flying—flying with conviction, full-speed ahead—into the darkness and danger. All He asked of me was to pray and trust Him. And to keep on flying. As always, He took care of the rest.
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