by Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
As a new Aircraft Commander with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company
some of the jobs assigned to me were somewhat less than desirable, in
fact they were down right lousy. I wish I had known then the full
ramifications of some of these missions, it was not life and death it
was even more convoluted.
"Coe, you and Hartman are flying the Airforce tomorrow, meet them at the
base of the Tay Ninh tower at 0700," the deep calm voice of my platoon
leader Captain Billie Presson giving out the missions for the next day
to the assembled lift platoon. "The Airforce is sending over one of
their specialists to see how effective the herbicide spraying is in the
triple canopy jungle North of here. Remember you two, low and slow is
deadly. Show him what he wants but watch yourselves out there." Captain
Presson was handing out the rest of the ash and trash missions, I was
glad to not be going on a combat assault tomorrow. 0700 takeoff, I would
get some extra sleep in the morning something that had been in short
supply around the company for the last few weeks.
Warrant Officer Steven Hartman was my favorite peter pilot, he knew the
Area of Operation or AO like the back of his hand and could fly like he
was born in a helicopter. We discussed the upcoming mission on our way
back to my tent to listen to a new Gabor Zaebo tape my brother had sent
me for my reel to reel tape player. Steve had flown this mission before
and with a wave of his hand pronounced tomorrows mission "a piece of
The Airforce had converted several C-123's into spray planes and would
fly in four ship formations low level over the jungle pumping out Agent
Orange mixed with something to make it stick to vegetation. The C-123's
would form up in a stagger wing formation and spray huge amounts of
chemical on the jungle, leaving dark brown stripes with smaller green
stripes where they had not sprayed, giving the appearance of something
huge painting the forest brown with broad strokes and missing a few
Steve and I walked from operations to the revetment containing our
helicopter and I noticed there was a crew spraying diesel fuel mixed
with some sort of herbicide around all the open areas. The combination
of heavy rain and serious sunshine was the perfect environment for
vegetative growth, and the army did not mow, they sprayed. The smell
coming from the newly sprayed ground made the tip of my tongue numb.
When we got to the helicopter my Crew Chief was wiping down the aircraft
complaining about the over spray from the spray crew getting all over
the aircraft, it was hard enough to keep it clean with all the dust. It
was just what he did not need, more work.
After a preflight we untied the UH-1D, and at 0655 we called the tower
to ask for permission to hover over and pick up our passengers at the
small ramp at the base of the tower.
The Airforce Lieutenant was easy to spot in this land of Army fatigues
and we hovered up next to him and set down.
Our Airforce Officer had a map sectioned off in grids, he pointed at the
area he wanted to look at and ask if it would be possible to make some
low level passes so he could get an up close and personal look. Low
level, Steve and I looked at each other and smiled, we loved low level.
Down in the trees going like a bat out of hell, Steve was right, this
mission was a piece of cake.
The Airforce Officer plugged in his head set as we lifted off of Tay
Ninh and ask if we would call Paris Radar and ask were his spray planes
I keyed my mike, "Paris Radar Blackhawk 54 over" and got the booming
voice back "good morning Blackhawk 54 this is Paris Radar." "Ah, Paris
we have a spray mission this morning and our passenger is looking for
his flight of C-123's over." "Blackhawk 54 your flight of four C-123's
has departed Bien Hoa at 07 over." I looked back at the Lieutenant and
he gave me thumbs up and then asks me to tune to an UHF frequency to try
and contact the newly departed flight. "Ranch Hand 16, Blackhawk 54
over." The exquisite clear side tone of the airforce radios came back
immediately with the very clear voice of the pilot. I put the Airforce
El Tee on the radio and they had a little chat about how long it would
take to get to our location. He then turned to me and asks how long it
would take to get to the road marking the center of the spray area he
had outlined earlier. I pointed out the windscreen at the crack in the
jungle marking were the road was running under the trees. You could just
make out the road under the canopy. "I would like to look at that area
before and after spraying, would you please take me on a low level pass
of that road before the spray planes get here?"
Over went the nose and we started down like a free falling safe. There
was just enough room between the trees to get the rotor disk between and
Steve and I blasted down the road going North like a rocket, popping up
to miss errant branches, and sometimes going sideways to get through
tight areas. It was a white-knuckle ride for the El Tee, I don't know
how much he saw, he was so busy holding on.
After flying several miles of the road the El Tee got on the radio to
his spray planes and gave them their final instructions.
What a magnificent sight, four C-123's in stagger wing right making a
low level pass down the road, first on one side, then on the other. The
spray swirling in the trees, the rotor from the wing tips making small
horizontal tornadoes out of the white spray and then disappearing into
We made one more low level pass down the road. Everything was wet and
the spray hung in the air like a fine mist in the morning. The smell was
overpowering. At first I was nauseated, then my stomach cramps up, my
eyes were watering and my tongue went completely numb. I could not take
the chemical exposure and after only a short time low level I cyclic
climbed out of the mist up into the cooler cleaner air that my whole
system was craving.
The C-123's went back to Bien Hoa for another load and we refueled. The
process of spraying the jungle went on all day, and late in the
afternoon I left the El Tee at the base of the Tay Ninh tower and one of
the C-123's landed and picked him up.
I scrubbed and scrubbed in the freezing cold shower but no matter how
hard I tried I could not get the smell of the agent orange off of my
body, I must have gotten completely saturated today.
I had not given the spray mission a second thought until Major Bauman
uncovered a map of the up coming combat assault, and there was the road
running north that had just been sprayed, the site of our new Landing
We picked up our 25th Infantry troops in Cu Chi and formed up in the air
stagger wing right for the trip north.
It was a long trip to the landing zone. Major Bauman came on the radio
as the brown stripes in the jungle started to get larger and larger,
"Blackhawks, visors down, harness locked, suppression both sides going
in, lets form up in trail." With that radio transmission Bauman started
the freefall decent into the landing zone.
I was busy trying to not run over the chalk ahead of me and keep my
spacing for the landing. As we came in over the skeletons of the huge
trees that just a few days earlier had been so lush and green that the
road was just visible. Now it looked as if everything was dead and
lifeless. The dust mingled with the fallen leaves wiped out our
visibility as we neared the ground. My crew chief and gunner were
working out with their M-60's and the Grunts were ready for a fight. I
could not see a thing in front of me as we came to a hover momentarily
and then to the ground. The Grunts had jumped out when we were still in
the air rocking the ship from side to side. Now they were squatted down
pointing out ready to charge the skeleton tree line.
It was almost surrealistic with the red dust and brown leaves in the
rotorwash of twenty helicopters. The probing line of tracers coming from
each of the helicopter gunners cutting through the dust and ricocheting
at every angle imaginable. Instead of a usual green tree line we were
looking at trunks and branches not a green leaf anywhere on anything.
We did all the shooting going in and coming out. The Viet Cong did not
fire a shot at us. The Rat Pack Gunships had seen no movement and held
their fire. The Grunts moved through the skeleton forest finding
abandoned Viet Cong bunkers and living quarters for hundreds of men,
deserted after losing the protective cover of the green leaves.
The Grunts blew the fortifications and living quarters and by early
afternoon we were called in for the pick up.
The pickup went off without a hitch, not even one shot fired in anger.
It was if the Viet Cong did not want the denuded forest and was not
willing to fight for it.
The trip back to Tay Ninh was punctuated with Bauman chewing ass for
sloppy formation flying and the 360 overhead with smoke that was
beautiful to behold and exhilarating to fly.
That night over cards, the topic was the spraying of the forest to knock
off all the leaves, one of the pilots wanted to pave the entire country
and put a traffic signal on Nuhi Ba Dinh. We all felt it was safer to be
able to see clear to the ground and not give the Viet Cong a place to
hide from our formidable gunships.
Thirty years later in an Agent Orange clinic in San Francisco, I would
learn that the birth defects on two of my four of my sons were caused by
my Agent Orange exposure in Viet Nam. Up until that time I had thought
the exposure was harmless just like the Army had repeatedly told us.
Wayne R. "Crash" Coe
187th Assault Helicopter Company 67-8