Night Rescue on 1192


This is a painting of an incident I experienced in the Vietnam War as a junior officer in the Marine Corps. In late January of 1971 I arrived in Da Nang and was assigned to command the 3rd platoon of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. During my first week, the company commander had my platoon move up to Hai Van Pass, where Highway One, the “Street Without Joy,” zigzags up to a cleft in the mountainous ridge north of Da Nang Harbor.

The enemy had been firing rocket-propelled grenades at vehicles from the high side of the pass for several days. My platoon was to ascend the ridge and chase off or destroy the enemy.

At dawn we followed a rocky stream bed up the forward edge of the ridge through low brush and boulders. About half of the climb was on hands and knees. Eight hours later the slope suddenly leveled off. We had arrived, exhausted, at the military crest of the ridge and could look East over the ocean 3,800 ft. below. One trooper reported that he could see Los Angeles.

The high point of the ridge was marked on the map as 1192 meters tall, which gave it its name. It was an eerie place: huge gray boulders between which leafless trees arose. There was no vegetation, not even moss.

We left one squad, Alpha, at the crest and continued along the ridge with the other two. When dense clouds moved in, the trees became ghostly apparitions, like skeletal hands reaching for the sky. The hush of the fog, broken only by the moaning of the wind in the bare branches, imposed an apprehensive silence on us.

The Platoon Sergeant and I stopped with Bravo squad a hundred meters further while Charlie squad continued ahead. We set in for a damp, windy, very cold night. Some time after midnight there was a loud boom and flash in the fog from the direction of Alpha’s position. I crawled through the inky darkness until I could see the glow of the dials on a radio. The Platoon Sergeant was already trying to get a response from the Alpha squad leader. After a frustratingly long delay, he called back to report that three of his men had found an old Chinese mine and apparently decided to heat their C-rations with the plastic explosive inside, despite the “no fires” order. But they set off the blasting cap while trying to pry it open. One Marine was killed instantly, badly mangled, and the two others were bleeding fast.

There was no possibility of going to Alpha’s aid in total darkness; all the Platoon Sergeant and I could do was to listen, helpless, as the drama unfolded. The squad leader called in an emergency medevac. The big CH-46 helicopter and two Cobra gunships arrived within minutes, but as soon as they descended into the cloud cover the pilot reported that he couldn’t see his own windshield wipers and regretfully called off the medevac. The stunned silence of the Alpha squad leader was palpable. He called to report that a second Marine had died from blood loss.

Then a new voice came up on our frequency. He identified himself as an Army Warrant Officer doing artillery control in a two-man observation helicopter, a “Loach,” which I knew to be about the size of a Volkswagen beetle. He had overheard the situation and said he could get our remaining wounded Marine out. He dropped into the dense cloud cover and had the Alpha squad leader direct him by sound. We could hear him in the darkness getting louder as he crept forward. He said he would momentarily hit his landing lights. We saw a glow and heard the cheering from Alpha’s position.

“You’re right on top of us!” the squad leader reported excitedly. “Look for the waving red flashlight. See if you can sidle up to the big rock we’re standing on.”

We heard only the sound of the helicopter engine as the Loach hovered and our troopers climbed onto its skids. They stuffed their unconscious comrade into the back compartment. The sound of the helicopter suddenly diminished and was gone.

“Okay, Kilo Three Alpha, I’m up into the moonlight now. I can see the USS Repose sitting in Da Nang Harbor. I’ll have him there in five minutes.”

”Roger that!” the squad leader called back, “and boo coo thanks, man!”

Back at our rear area, the 3/1 contonement, a few days later I was able to question the Alpha troopers in detail. The mental image they created haunted me for 40 years. Finally in August of 2010 I found the time to paint the scene as I imagine it. And as of this writing, despite numerous attempts during the War and since, I have not been able to identify that Army pilot, the hero of 1192.