by Robert Robeson
(Nearly four decades have come and gone, yet one moment in time continues to play back through my mind at regular intervals. It’s like the music of a beloved love song from one’s early dating years. Unique. Inspiring. Unforgettable.)
May 9, 1970. Another oppressively hot and humid Asian afternoon was drawing to a close for our helicopter medical evacuation crew of four near Da Nang, South Vietnam. I was an aircraft commander and also commander of the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) located at Red Beach on the southern shore of Da Nang Harbor.
My medic for the day was First Lieutenant Ron Reidenbaugh, a close friend who also functioned as my administrative medical officer on the ground. I’d tagged him with the nickname “The Mauler,” because of his size and aggressive outlook on life. He was a young man you liked right away, perpetually smiling and always full of humor. At 6-2 and 235 muscular pounds, he was an imposing figure. He’d been a defensive end in football at Kent State University before being commissioned as an officer.
In the previous month, the thirteen pilots in our unit had experienced having 16 helicopters shot up or shot down. We’d gone through our authorized inventory of six helicopters nearly three times. Our flight crews had been stretched to the maximum. Mauler had volunteered to fly as a medic (due to his extensive medical training at Kent State) to give a few of our enlisted medics a breather.
We had just completed a number of difficult medical evacuations of wounded South Vietnamese soldiers from remote jungle locations. Now we were lifting off from our field-site aid station at Landing Zone Hawk Hill. Two ambulatory patients and a youthful, pregnant Vietnamese woman on a litter were being flown to the Vietnamese hospital in Da Nang.
It was a 36-mile flight. A few minutes after takeoff, a call came over our FM radio. We were asked to evacuate an Australian civilian from the coastal town of Hoi An. His ankle had been crushed by a heavy 50-gallon drum. We made the pickup en route and flew north along the South China Sea toward Da Nang.
After the second takeoff, Mauler noticed that our pregnant patient was beginning to stir. Her eyes had been closed. Now she was alert and the old mama-san accompanying her was pointing and attempting to communicate in high-pitched Vietnamese.
“I think the aid station was a bit off on its estimate,” Mauler said. “Doc told me she wasn’t going to deliver for a couple of days.” He had a rare frown on his face. “Can you go any faster? I’ve never delivered a baby before.”
“Me, either,” I chided him. “You’re the one who volunteered to fly as a medic.”
I turned in my armored seat and glanced at the fragile-looking young woman lying on a litter covered with yesterday’s bloodstains. We were at 2,000 feet with the cargo doors open. Her long black hair was blowing in the refreshing slipstream. Black peasant garments were tucked in at the waist and knotted.
“Can you go any faster?” Mauler repeated. “She’s in labor.”
“It’s redlined,” I replied.
Mauler was bent hunchbacked before her litter. He was silhouetted against the light green of the South China Sea, behind and far below.
Our rotor blades beat against the air and wore down the minutes as I initiated a rapid descent and approached Marble Mountain. These rugged, triple-peaks marked the southeastern outskirts of Da Nang. We were on the deck, now, about five feet above waves gently breaking on the white sandy beach beneath our skids. I felt that exhilarating sensation of tremendous speed that one doesn’t experience at altitude. Doing 120 knots (about 140 mph) this close to the ground, as our Lycoming jet turbine engine rumbled away behind us, felt like Warp Factor Ninety.
Normally, during daylight hours, all Vietnamese patients were taken to the Vietnamese Providence Hospital in the center of Da Nang. As aircraft commander, though, I’d already made the decision to take her directly to the U.S. Army 95th Evacuation Hospital. It was located on China Beach, touching the South China Sea, to the east. Here she would get the best and quickest medical care available.
“We’re not going to make it,” Mauler said matter-of-factly over the intercom.
“I’ll call ahead and have a nurse standing by on the pad at the 95th,” I replied.
Everyone in the aircraft was suddenly concerned for this mother-to-be and the new life about to be born into a war zone. Glancing over my shoulder, I was amazed to see that her face was not distorted by pain. Instead, her features appeared to convey peacefulness and tenderness. These were qualities not often observed by soldiers accustomed to the danger, devastation, and death of everyday combat situations.
The next words that I heard, coming a short time later, were those of our crew chief. “Congratulations, sir. We’ve got us a girl.”
When I turned around to see, Mauler’s hands were covered with blood. (In those days, no one used rubber gloves in combat outside of a medical facility.) He was cradling a tiny Oriental infant. Those arms that had effortlessly knocked two-hundred-pound men around on the gridiron now tenderly held this fragile child. Then, like Ben Casey from some old TV rerun, he gently patted that small bottom with an oversized palm. We all heard the first sharp wail of new life above the noise of our rotors and jet engine.
I thought back to other days, to previous moments…mystical moments. Those were times when we’d rescued someone from under enemy fire we’d been seeking for a long time. I experienced now what I’d felt thenreverence. Suddenly it hits you and you discover in an instant of awareness how wonderful a human life is, no matter where in the world it’s located.
There was a slight breeze, fresh from the sea, wafting its burden of salt and faint scent of fish. I cranked our bird into a hard left turn and hairy flare at the same time for the hospital pad over gentle green waves.
An American nurse met the aircraft as we scattered a group of medics playing volleyball on one corner of the concrete landing pad. She smiled at Mauler as he walked beside the gurney that wheeled his patients toward the emergency room. As they passed my window, I caught the young mother’s eye and made a circle with my thumb and forefinger. She reacted to this international sign with a shy smile and managed a slight wave of a thin hand.
The medics playing volleyball moved closer to the gurney and seemed to sense what was written on all of our faces. For this distinct moment in time, at least, we were a part of life. Then, without any coaching or explanation, they began to applaud the young woman, her newborn, and their bulky escort.
A few minutes later, Mauler ran back to our bird and gave the volleyball players the “thumbs-up” signal. It was as though he’d just “sacked” an opposing quarterback and was acknowledging enthusiastic support from his hometown fans.
After shutting down at our airfield, Mauler walked the eighth-of-a-mile to my hootch with me. His war, to that point, had been doing administrative tasks on the ground and in an office where lives weren’t in constant jeopardy. For a few days, then, he’d discovered that combat flying could be exciting, dangerous, often fearful, yet extremely fulfilling because of the opportunities to impact lives one-on-one.
“For once I feel like I did something worthwhile,” Mauler admitted. “It can be a real kick, can’t it?”
I nodded my head. After ten months in daily combatand having flown over 900 missions to that pointI understood what he meant. It’s a feeling few people will ever know under such primitive and hostile conditions. He’d been responsible for preserving the lives of a number of wounded allied soldiers earlier that morning. Now he’d been intimately involved in welcoming a new traveler onto our spinning ball of clay. That’s a good day’s work for anyone.
For the record, there will always be one medical evacuation mission that I remember as being unique in a year of combat flying. It’s that springtime moment in
May that involved universal involvement above Da Nang. That’s when citizens of three different nations cared and shared together for the common good of the newest miracle on our planet. It reminded me a little of another baby born nearly two-thousand years before in Bethlehem. That, too, was a peasant birth that relied on the kindness of strangers during difficult and dangerous times.
My generation’s war has long since been over. (It’s been half an average life span
since that aerial birth and the time Mauler and I last saw each other. He now lives in Ohio.) I’ve often prayed that this baby girl escaped the demise of her country a few years later. Hopefully, her family made it to a safe shore somewhere. Every child has potential, is important, and we can never predict the impact one specific life will have on our world.
I often replay that mission in my mind. Now I realize it was a victory of life in the midst of death. It was another fresh beginning to inspire those who were still trapped in the throes of war’s winter of discontent. That baby’s birth was a solitary and unique rose that bloomed without fanfare in God’s springtime garden in Southeast Asia to provide a sense of hope for us all. It was a “special delivery” package I doubt any of us will ever forget.
In previous wars, crew chiefs of fighter aircraft would take pride in denoting the number of planes shot down by their pilots. The usual method was by painting a small replica of the enemy’s flag on the side of the aircraft. A few days later, I went down to our flight line to preflight my aircraft. On the pilots’ doors, on each side of the helicopter, our crew chief had painted a small symbol. A white stork appeared with a tiny baby suspended in a diaper from the stork’s bill. I guess he felt it was important to make a point of keeping score.
Robert B. Robeson flew 987 combat medical evacuation missions in South Vietnam (1969-1970), evacuating 2,533 patients from both sides of the action. He had seven helicopters shot up by enemy fire and was twice shot down in one year.
His articles and short stories have been published more than 700 times in 250 newspapers and magazines in 130 countries. This includes the Reader’s Digest, Positive Living, Soldier of Fortune, Vietnam Combat, Official Karate, Sepia, and Newsday, among others. He’s also a professional (life) member of the National Writers Association and the Military Writers Society of America.
Robeson retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel, after 27 years of military service. No other women have chosen to have children born on his aircraft.