After 6 months “in country,” and after the Mad Moment ambush in which 14 out of 20 Air Calvary soldiers were killed and two heavy–lift ship helicopters were destroyed, the 19-year-old Frenchie Lefebvre decided to take a more survivalist attitude toward his time remaining in Vietnam.
This survivalist attitude was reinforced with several new rules that were rolling down from headquarters and the top Army Brass. All soldiers were now required to wear hard helmets instead of the “Go to Hell Hat” that was the comfortable canvas hat with the round bill that shaded eyes, ears, and the back of the neck from the relentless tropical sun.
After the “Go to Hell Hats” had gone the way of the 14 Air Cavalry soldiers that died in the ambush and the hard, heavy, and very hot—with no ventilation helmets—were now mandatory, Frenchie was reminded of how determined he was to survive the war. On every occasion where there was unexpected movement, the new helmet shifted forward. There always is a lot of unexpected movement in war, and every time the heavy, awkward, and hard helmet shifted forward it crashed down on Frenchie’s glasses, and his glasses, in turn, pushed down and punched him in the nose.
The missions were also getting tougher with every ride out to the battlefield. When the helicopters made that fateful dive down to the top of the jungle canopy, the pilot or co-pilot of the lift ship would always offer a thumbs–up signal to the troops in the back, or the dreaded thumbs down. The thumbs down signal from the pilots meant either difficult conditions were coming up, there was a hot LZ or Landing Zone, which meant the almost landed but still hovering helicopters were going to be taking enemy fire as the soldiers of the Air Calvary jumped out.
Another big consideration for a thumbs down scenario was when an onslaught of Viet Cong was hiding on the ground, they had one thing to shoot at and that was a landing or hovering helicopter or a couple of stationary and hovering helicopters. The door gunners on the lift ships, however, often had an entire tree line of camouflaged enemies to try and target. Every Air Calvary soldier knew that twenty to thirty NVA or Viet Cong had a much better chance of hitting a helicopter that an American door gunner trying to hit something he could not see in a dense canopy of the jungle.
At the beginning of Frenchie’s “in–country” missions, there seemed to be a lot of thumbs up scenarios, but after the Mad Moment ambush, almost every mission afterward seemed to have a thumbs down warning before dropping to the ground to see what type of bad news was waiting.
After a particularly long day caught Frenchie and his Air Calvary family on still on the ground after nightfall, an enemy action started with incoming machine–gun fire but ended with a blinding flash in the darkened jungle. After the flash, an earth-shattering concussion shock wave rattled the world, and then for Frenchie, a searing hot, burning sensation assaulted his face, and particularly, the bridge of his nose.
A few seconds after the flash and the concussion shock wave, Frenchie was worried and yelling for help. “I can’t see!” he was yelling. “I can’t see!”
Within seconds, his friends were looking him over. “Don’t worry, Frenchie,” one of the guys responded. “You can’t see because your glasses are broken.”
Unbeknownst to Frenchie, the nearby explosion had sent bits of red-hot shrapnel into his face and one piece had broken his heavy Army-issue glasses at the bridge of his nose. His broken glasses were hanging by the strap around his neck, but the eyewear had saved his life because the metal that had broken his glasses would surely have gone into his head right between his eyes. There was no blood from the metal that penetrated the skin at the bridge of his nose because the shrapnel was so hot it cauterized the wound. After a new pair of glasses, Frenchie was back in the Air Calvary saddle and off to another mission he could never forget.
One of the main missions for the Air Calvary was to rescue downed American aircraft. This was the most important mission. More important than seeking out the enemy to maintain contact and more important than any search and destroy mission. The retrieval of downed Americans was number one on the Air Calvary agenda.
For a lot of the Air Calvary infantry, it seemed like the enemy action would slow down when there were days of pouring rain, but when the sun came out and the jungle began to steam the thumbs down missions and the action really picked up.
When the call came for a downed aircraft, no one—not even the pilots—knew where to go, but everyone got started anyway. There was a specific signal for a downed bird, and everyone instantly piled onboard the choppers and climbed to 3000 feet. Then the rescue group circled the camp until the crash coordinates were transmitted, and the little LOACH’s, the Cobra Gunship and finally the Heavy Lift Ships headed out for better or worse.
For this unforgettable mission, there was not only a thumbs down before arriving at the burning crash site, but there was also info from the helicopter crew chief when he shouted over the thunder of the air-beating props and the roar of the turbine.
“It’s a downed fighter jet, and they say it’s pretty bad.” The Crew Chief shook his head. “The planes way down in the canopy. No LZ is possible. You guys are going to have to repel down the ropes. It’s probably about one hundred feet to the ground. You know the VC are coming for this one, so you want to be fast.”
The crew chief was right, there was no way to land because of the thick jungle for miles around, but what the door gunner failed to mention was the acrid smoke, the rising clinging soot, and the scorching heat from the burning fighter jet below.
When Frenchie and his newly assigned partner Zeke, dropped down the repelling ropes, they were fighting for not only air to breathe while they were descending through the smoke, but also fighting the adrenalin rush as they continued down layers of heavy foliage, raindrops of falling humidity filled with soot.
When they finally got to the ground, breathing was easier as the heat from the burning fighter was carrying all the soot, smell, and smoke up to the top of the jungle. Once Frenchie and Zeke were on the ground and about a hundred feet from the downed jet fighter, one the helicopters above dropped a heavy cloud of fire extinguisher compound and after the white stuff settled, the fire was suddenly out and it was obvious what the 19–year-old soldiers were about to rescue.
The jet was amazingly intact and resting upright on the jungle floor. Even with the fire retardant covering the plane, it was also obvious the pilot’s canopy had never opened and he had not been able to eject. He was still inside.
When Frenchie and Zeke came close to the fuselage that was still too hot to touch, they began working with rifle butts to open the wrecked canopy covering the burned pilot. Finally, the Plexiglas covering opened and the two soldiers could see there were no hands and no other recognizable features of what was once a proud American Officer and a jet fighter aviator in the service of his country.
No one gets left behind, and just as with the 14 fallen air Calvary soldiers from the Mad Monet ambush that were retrieved the following morning at the Quang Tri Provence, now it was Frenchie and Zeke’s turn to bring back the jet pilot.
Frenchie and Zeke respectfully brought the aviator back as best they could. Thankfully, there was no enemy contact, apart from the horrible visions of the sacrificed pilot, that burned into the memory of two young men in the service of their country and their fellow fallen warrior.
Because of the thick jungle, Frenchie and Zeke had to carry the pilot back through miles of the dense jungle until they could once again be airlifted back to the support base and then onward to the next missions and finally home.
Jean “Frenchie” Lefebvre arrived in Vietnam in February 1968 to face the beginning of the Tet Offensive and some of the most aggressive enemy action of the war. He found Marco Island by accident 30 years ago, fell in love with paradise, and never left.