Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.
During that NVA wave attack, Boggs called in an airstrike. He told the Spads to hit ST Louisiana to break the charge. The first 20mm gun run ripped into the NVA and through ST Louisiana’s perimeter. Cunningham was in a world of shit and there was nothing he could do about it. The next thing he knew, he was having an out-of-body experience. There he was, 100 yards away, watching himself get hit twice with 20mm rounds. One round went through his right leg, one through the radio on his back.
Although the radio was destroyed, it saved Cunningham’s life. Boggs got hit with shrapnel from the exploding PRC-25. The Vietnamese team member who was sitting where Walton had been was killed instantly. The rounds detonated the frag, smoke, and CS tear gas grenades on the dead indig. More shrapnel knocked Boggs into semi-consciousness.
The gun run broke the NVA wave attacks against ST Louisiana. It also left the team in a plume of tear gas, and smoke from smoke-grenades, weapons fire, and the earlier napalm run. The NVA probably felt the conditions around the team perimeter were far more deadly than facing the gun runs from the Spads and gunships. Walton performed a quick triage on Boggs and Cunningham.
He found that while the explosion of the 20mm round had left only a single piece of flesh holding the leg together, it had seared a good portion of Cunningham’s wounded right leg, actually helping the situation by keeping the loss of blood to a minimum. The medic pulled out a green cravat for a tourniquet. He used his knife to twist the bandage tight above the stump to stem any further bleeding. Walton also treated Cunningham for severe throat burn from the CS gas.
Realizing the PRC-25 had been destroyed, Walton reached into his pocket and pulled out the URC-10 emergency ultra-high frequency radio and called Covey. He reported one dead, three wounded, and that if Covey was going to get them out, he had to do it ASAP. Walton didn’t have the luxury of spare seconds to think about the short distance he had crawled earlier. Those eight to 10 feet had saved his life.
Cunningham, still watching himself from far away, heard someone on a radio calling Covey saying there were two dead. He thought he’d better find out whether or not he was alive. The Green Beret had a unique test to find out. He yelled. It sounded like it was far, far away, but he knew that he was alive. The yell also ended Cunningham’s out-of-body experience. He returned to his body, lying on the ground. Cunningham knew that he had to help himself. The more he did, the better it would be for everyone.
While Walton worked to save Cunningham’s life, Covey directed a series of deadly air strikes around the knoll where ST Louisiana was fighting for its life. Walton returned to the URC-10 to tell Covey that two of the three wounded were in serious condition and request an immediate extraction. Covey rider Pat Watkins told Walton to move the remainder of the team closer to the open area along the ridge.
Back at FOB 1, most of the spike team members were either huddled around their PRC-25s listening to Covey talking to ST Louisiana members, or in the comm center, where they monitored more radio frequencies. When the first reports rolled in from Covey about ST Louisiana’s situation, the team sounded doomed.
In the A Shau Valley, the airstrikes gave ST Louisiana a brief lull in the fighting, enabling Walton and the one remaining unwounded Vietnamese team member to move the wounded closer to the clearing. Watkins told Walton that he was going to direct a series of strafing runs by Air Force F-4 Phantom jets, that the first Kingbee would land to pick up the most seriously wounded, and that a second and third H-34 would extract the remainder of the team.
Kingbee go down
Walton and the Vietnamese team member moved the tail gunner out from the tree line, into the grassy area, while Boggs assisted Cunningham. As soon as the NVA heard the Kingbee, the activity picked up again. The wounded were moved out to the open area where the grass was only six inches tall. There were constant dirt spurts kicking up all around from enemy gunfire. South Vietnamese Air Force Captain Thinh piloted the first H-34 Kingbee and landed with the right strut only a few feet from the wounded members of ST Louisiana.
There were only three times Cunningham really felt pain that day: The first time was when he got hit. He said later that his body felt like one of those huge Chinese gongs as the shock waves reverberated throughout it. The second time was when Boggs was helping him back to the landing zone. The wounded leg got caught on a tree. He immediately knew what they meant when they said pain has colors. Cunningham saw a rainbow of color.
The third time occurred at the H-34. Boggs assisted Cunningham to the steps of the Kingbee, but he turned around to fire at the charging NVA. Cunningham didn’t want to get shot in the back, so he used his stump to climb aboard the H-34. He crawled to the back of the chopper, thinking he was finally safe. The Kingbee lifted off with Cunningham and the Vietnamese tail gunner—the latter wounded four times.
After Capt. Thinh lifted off from the LZ, Walton realized that the second Kingbee wasn’t heading toward the LZ as planned, and the NVA continued to pour heavy small arms fire toward Walton, Boggs, and their brave Vietnamese counterpart. Walton knew why the plan called for using three Kingbees for extraction; the weather was hot and the LZ was on a mountain range in the A Shau Valley. The heat and the height of the mountains reduced the lift capabilities of the helicopters. Walton radioed Watkins, asking where the second Kingbee was, and Watkins told him the pilot wouldn’t go into the LZ because there was too much enemy ground fire. A third Kingbee pulled out after receiving heavy gunfire.
Walton felt sick. The question of weight had forced the team to leave the dead Vietnamese team member behind. His added weight might hinder the chances of the living team members being successfully exfiltrated. Walton and his counterpart scanned the sky for a helicopter. None were in sight. The NVA continued to maneuver toward the exposed trio from ST Louisiana. Walton knew the situation looked pretty bleak.
Captain Thinh returns
“Kingbee go down.” It was Captain Thinh! He already had their wounded aboard and Walton knew there was no way he could pull them all out. But the Kingbee came spiraling down on full autorotation before flaring into the LZ. Thinh plunked it down on the ground right next to the remaining members of ST Louisiana.
Walton and the Vietnamese soldier lifted Boggs aboard the Kingbee and then moved to the open windows on the starboard and port sides to fire at the NVA, some of whom rushed the aircraft.
Sure enough, the load was too heavy and Thinh couldn’t lift off. So he lifted the back wheel off the ground and started rolling downhill, gaining as much air speed as possible, while the NVA fired at the chopper. At the last possible moment, Thinh nursed the aging Sikorsky over the trees. Unfortunately, the chopper didn’t have enough air speed to gain the altitude needed to fly out of the mountains, so Captain Thinh dipped down into a valley to build up more. As he circled the valley, building up air speed, the NVA continued to fire at the old war bird. Finally, he got the transitional lift he needed to climb out of the mountains and out of the A Shau Valley.
Because Cunningham had used his stump to get aboard the helicopter, it had started to bleed heavily. He began to fade in and out of shock, never fully passing out. It was obvious he would have to tough it out. Walton used another cravat as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Walton had only carried one IV with him that day and he had used that one on the wounded tail gunner. From that day forward, Walton always carried several IVs on all targets.
When the Kingbee landed at the medical facilities in Phu Bai, Cunningham was taken out of the chopper, as he put it, bare-assed naked. He remembered some doctor saying the tourniquet was too high. Cunningham couldn’t believe it. His leg had been blown off above the knee and they were worried about a tourniquet being too high. When Walton and the Vietnamese team member carried the wounded Vietnamese team member into the Army medical facility, someone told Walton that they didn’t treat Vietnamese. Walton told them to treat that Vietnamese or there would be hell to pay.
For Walton, the drama continued. When they got Cunningham inside, he was barely hanging on, due to the loss of blood and trauma from the amputation. One of the young doctors got nervous. He had never had a dirty, sweaty grunt from just out of the field sticking his nose into his business. When Cunningham’s blood pressure was so low they couldn’t get an IV into him, Walton told the doctor to do a cutdown: Cut into the vein, expose it, stick a catheter into it and tie it off with a suture. The doctor soon realized the medic wasn’t leaving.
Later that night, after Walton had showered and shaved, he was playing poker in the Green Beret lounge at FOB 1. Being left-handed, when Walton dealt a hand of poker he held the deck in his right hand. As he dealt the cards around the table, someone noticed a flesh wound across his right wrist. Walton was asked what had caused the wound. As Walton puzzled over the crease in his wrist, the poker game came to a temporary halt. Most of the men playing that night were on spike teams or were Covey riders and had spent time on the ground.
Finally, Walton said that during contact with the grinning NVA soldier who shot the ST Louisiana tail gunner, one of the rounds from his AK-47 had creased Walton’s wrist as he was turning his body toward the NVA soldier to kill him. Everyone sat there for a second, amazed at how close Walton had come to being shot and just how fortunate he was that the NVA’s round hadn’t inflicted a more serious wound. Walton just shrugged his shoulders and the game continued.
Early Sunday morning, several of the guys from FOB 1 drove over to the hospital area to visit Boggs, Cunningham, and the tail gunner. Cunningham was asleep, but Boggs wanted to get back to work, although he had many bandages on his face, arms, and chest. They slipped him a bottle of his favorite whiskey and talked in general terms about what had happened on Saturday. Boggs focused on Walton’s efforts, Cunningham’s stoicism, and Kingbee pilot Captain Thinh’s fearless and amazing extraction. Later, Colonel Jack Warren, the commander of C&C and FOB 4, and several other SOG officials visited the survivors. They asked Cunningham if there was anything he needed. They left him cigarettes, and Gordon Martin, a SF medic from FOB 1, gave him his lighter. That was one of the few things that went with Cunningham when he finally left Nam.
Postscript: In 2003, John Walton met Capt. Thinh, his wife Le, and his oldest son James at the Special Operations Reunion in Las Vegas for a peaceful, reflective dinner and reunion. Today, Thinh lives in Arizona with his wife, after surviving 13 ½ years in a communist reeducation camp following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Cunningham is the only surviving American from that team, living in New England as a retired attorney who is presently a director on the Special Operations Association’s Board of Directors.
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