By Susan Johnson
The Vietnam Veteran’s Honor Society is planning a special program for Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, at Midway Village, 6799 Guilford Road. The event begins at 11 a.m. with a speech by veteran Danny Russell, who was wounded in Vietnam.
At noon, Ronnie Heckler, a veteran who received a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for distinguished service in Vietnam and recently died of Agent Orange, will be remembered. His name will be added to the LZ Peace Memorial Wall. He was one of many heroes of that war.
One veteran’s story
Danny Russell was a sergeant with the U.S. Air Force Security Service, who served in Vietnam from 1969 through 1970. He grew up as a farm boy who enlisted in 1966. He took his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, then was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., for Morse code training. There, he became skilled at copying codes. Later, after graduating from school, he received orders to report to Japan. After completing a two-year stint there, he was given the choice of where to go next, and he chose Vietnam.
“I went home on leave,” he recalled, “and they sent me through Survival School in Washington state, and they dumped us off on top of a mountain.” He was one of eight trainees who underwent World Survival School, not Jungle Survival. They were equipped with a parachute, a string, a live rabbit, and a fishhook. They had mock enemies trying to capture them. “Some were people who had been in Vietnam,” he said, “and some were NCOs that were in charge of it, and if they captured you, they treated you like dogs. They crammed you into a box maybe 3 feet tall, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. I had claustrophobia. It was a real problem… And the objective was to capture not only the people for the information but also the aircraft because it had so much secretive equipment on it.
“After we got out of World Survival School, they sent us to the Philippines [for] Jungle Survival, and again we were deprived of all the conveniences… The Filipinos there didn’t speak English. Their job was to capture us.” He was embarrassed to admit how easily he and his companions were captured because the Filipinos literally sniffed them out—by the scent of aftershave, food and other distinctive smells.
Once he arrived in Vietnam, that was another shock—the heat, the stench. He spent some time in Cam Ranh Bay, then went to Plekiu, in the Central Highlands. The runway was covered in red clay, as the whole area had been deforested to keep the Viet Cong from staging surprise attacks. Describing his unit, he said: “We were the 6994th Security Squadron. We copied Morse code. We were kind of the CIA of the Air Force. We went places we weren’t supposed to go and did things we weren’t supposed to do [officially].” Describing the planes, he said, “We flew EC-47s… some people call them Dakotas. It’s a very reliable aircraft. It can put up with a lot of damage, and still be airborne. We had the best crew, the best aircraft… we were invincible!”
He had injured his back in jump school in the States, but was accepted for duty because they were so short-manned. They had to fly 10 missions to be qualified. After Russell flew his 10 missions, he was sent back to Cam Ranh Bay for hernia surgery. Following that, he was sent back to Plekiu, where he was classified as DNIF—“Duty Not Including Flying.” It was a desk job, scheduling flights for others. He had a buddy there, another DNIF, and one day these two friends decided to go flying together. They assembled a crew and took off.
Russell notes the historical significance of the timing. “April 22, 1970,” he said, “President Nixon made a speech to the nation saying that ‘Cambodia will no longer be a sanctuary for the Viet Cong.’ Our mission was April 22, 1970. On April 27, 1970, we invaded Cambodia with information that our aircraft supplied, along with others… it was a whole mixture of information… because we copied the information, and when we sent it to the ground, they decoded.” He explained, “Our job was to watch the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was kind of a fallacy.” Actually, he said, it’s a road. “It goes from North Vietnam to Saigon [but] the Ho Chi Minh Trail can be as narrow as a foot wide, and the transportation is sometimes trucks, sometimes bicycles. These bicycles are loaded so heavy that they can tear down a truck and move it across that 1-foot road and assemble it on the other side. Or they’ve got bridges under the surface of the water. So from the air, you really can’t see them. They drive these trucks across them. Well, how in the world did they get that across there?”
On this day, they were trying to copy from the radar but were having trouble getting a transmission. Russell had just asked the pilot if they had enough fuel to stay in the air, and the pilot said they did, so, as he recalls, “The navigator did his work, the radio operators all concentrated on what we’re supposed to do, and we got a line of sight… and then got a fix, and all of a sudden, ka-boom! It was just an unbelievable impact. They had shot us with a 37mm radio-controlled air burst, and it came right up through the center of the aircraft.” The radio operator was injured in his elbow but kept sending out SOS signals, and Rescue was in touch with them. The right engine was disabled enough to be dysfunctional but didn’t blow off. “We still had a good right wing. We still had a good left wing,” said Russell. “But the engine was smoking, so we were in a bit of a pickle.”
The aircraft commander wanted to put out to sea, where there was less chance of the enemy tracking them down, and they had survival gear on the plane. Unfortunately, they had lost enough power so they couldn’t get over the mountain range. Then they looked for an air strip to land on, and they found one. But when they informed Rescue where they wanted to go, they were told, “Under no circumstances go down there because that’s the A-Shau Valley.” As Russell and his crew knew, that was Charlie’s playground. “GIs not welcome,” he observed. “They would kill you in a second. So we discounted that, and our third option was to bail out.”
He made a personal observation about his buddy. Although he liked the guy, “I got so tired of this kid. All he could talk about was his beautiful wife, and they were going to have a baby. God bless the kid, but you can only put up with so much of that… I got so I didn’t like the lady because I was so tired of hearing this stuff. So we were flying that mission together, and he was sitting maybe 6 or 8 feet behind me, and I was sitting in the primary radio position, and our job during crisis was to get the door open so we could bail out. We got to the door, and we couldn’t get the damn door open. The impact of the concussion, the shell had jammed the door somehow. So we were running out of time, and we literally scratched our fingernails raw and bloody trying to get the damn door open.
“And all of a sudden, the door just blew off. So—what’s going on here? We knew we were too low. We couldn’t bail out. So the pilot looked back, and he was rather disgusted because … we were supposed to jettison all the unneeded weight for chances of picking up, recovery and also to bail out. [But] it would have been suicide, because they would have shot us up at canopy, which is against the Geneva Convention. But it didn’t make any difference.”
To be continued….
From the May 25-31, 2011 issue