They walk tall -- some on prosthetic legs -- a mixture of salt and pepper beards, scars and memories. They’re ghosts; survivors of a forgotten killing field that claimed the lives of nearly all who entered. They’re the Marines of 3rd platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division and 38 years ago they walked into the valley of the shadow of death and came out alive on the other side.
‘Don’t worry about them, they’re gone’
1st Lt. Bruce Cruikshank, an A-4 “Skyhawk” pilot serving as an air liaison officer and his radio operator, Lance Cpl. Ed West, call sign Delivery Boy 1-4, were pinned down in a mine field near Da Nang. They, along with the rest of 3rd platoon, had been sent as a blocking force to cut-off retreating North Vietnamese soldiers during a mission as part of Operation Kingfisher and had been engaged in a series of running fire fights – one of which led them into the field.
That they were in a dire situation was no secret. West had already seen a Marine disappear in a shower of dirt and shrapnel, a piece of which jutted from his right knee. Still taking fire, Cruikshank and West tried to move to safety but Cruikshank tripped a mine and West found himself cart wheeling forward in “slow motion” before landing in stunned silence. Glancing down, he saw an empty pant leg, dangling in the dirt. His right leg was gone. Next to it was the torn and mangled left, lying at an unnatural angle -- barely attached.
“I pulled my helmet off and tried to puke in it. I couldn’t and realized I was trying to breathe,” said West. “I felt as if I had been hit by a Mack truck and there was a strange numbness accompanied by an intense burning sensation.”
Lying face down in the field, West tried to push himself up but was knocked back to the ground by a Marine who began to tourniquet his legs. West called out, “How are my legs?” to which the Marine replied, “Don’t worry about them – they’re gone.”
‘He was my biggest disciplinary problem’
Circling overhead was the crew of a CH-46 “Sea Knight” nicknamed “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” The aircraft was piloted by Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 Commanding Officer Lt. Col. William R. Ledbetter, joined by squadron Sergeant Major Morton S. Landy, who had volunteered as a gunner on the flight that included Pvt. Raymond “Mike” Clausen – a twice-demoted crew chief.
“I had no use for him as a Marine,” recalled Landy. “He was a good man at heart but liked to beat his own drum. He was my biggest disciplinary problem in the squadron. He had good abilities as a Marine but he liked to disobey orders.”
Ledbetter, Landy and Clausen were joined on the crew by 1st Lt. Paul Parker, co-pilot and port-side gunner Cpl. Steven Marinkovic. Before departing on the flight, Ledbetter briefed them about the situation, telling them that Marines were badly wounded and the ones that weren’t, couldn’t move because of the mines and small-arms fire. The crew knew what they were getting into and removed their flak jackets in order to stand on them, in case shrapnel from a mine penetrated the floor.
They began their descent toward the mine field with Clausen directing the aircraft, guiding Ledbetter to put the gear down in craters caused by exploded ordinance. They would lift-off and repeat this process three different times.
‘We’re going to go get the boys’
Lance Cpl. Chris Nick was the point man for 3rd platoon and had made it out of the mine field momentarily, but went back in when “Blood, Sweat and Tears” landed. Nick and another Marine helped carry a casualty who had stepped on a mine into the back of the helicopter and once inside, Nick removed his flak jacket and placed it over the body that had been badly mauled by the explosion.
“Ed Sanderson and me just kind of looked at each other after that and said ‘let’s go, we’re going to get the boys,’” said Nick, who crawled on his stomach toward a fallen Marine. “I went out there again and there was still a lot of confusion. On our way back, somebody stepped on a mine. That’s how I got hit. It wiped me out. My face was burned and I was cut real bad in the stomach and in the legs. I remember being on the ground and then someone came and got me.”
That someone was Mike Clausen, who, like always, was in the process of disobeying a direct order, said Ledbetter, who had specifically ordered his Marines to stay in the helicopter because he didn’t want them to get out, get blown-up and become “part of the problem.”
“What he did that day brought out the Marine Corps in him,” added Landy, who had already served more than 20 years in the Corps before the mission. “He earned the medal that day, there’s no question in my mind. But, Clausen disobeyed the commanding officer orders. We landed and dropped the door and he was out there, back and forth, six times.”
On his last trip out of the helicopter, a mine detonated and knocked Clausen to the ground. According to several witnesses, Clausen got to his feet and continued to carry his wounded man to the aircraft, which had sustained rotor system and fuselage damage during the blast. After recovering all dead, dying and wounded Marines, the “Sea Knight” left the field for the final time.
In all, there were 11 wounded, four dead and four unharmed evacuated from the mine field. But, for the crew of “Blood, Sweat and Tears” there would be three more landings to recover other platoons, bringing their days total to six hours of flying, resulting in a Medal of Honor for Clausen, a Navy Cross for Ledbetter, a Silver Star for Parker and a Distinguished Flying Cross for Landy and Marinkovic – making them one of the most decorated combat flight crews in military aviation history.
‘The currency of freedom’
In 2004, in his hometown of Ponchatoula, La., Mike Clausen, a true American hero, died at the age of 56. Remembered by his friends and family as “a blunt, fun-loving, hard drinking, two-fisted man who tagged his e-mail with the line ‘Death before Dishonor,’” he flew more than 1,960 combat missions in Vietnam.
Around the same time Clausen was laid to rest, “Blood, Sweat and Tears” was finally decommissioned after suffering a hard landing while serving in Iraq. Heavily damaged after a transportation accident, the aircraft was donated to the Carolinas Aviation Museum where a crew of volunteers worked weekends to preserve the combined legacy of Clausen and the helicopter that brought him and his men home.
The story came full circle Oct. 20, when the restored aircraft flown during the mission – complete with its vintage, Vietnam-era configuration and panel artwork -- was unveiled during a ceremony attended by crew, survivors and family.
“It’s done and it’s been a great experience,” said Steve Fresina, a retired gunnery sergeant who last worked at Marine Corps Air Station New River with Marine Aviation Logistic Squadron 29 as a production control chief and served as project manager for “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” “I’m happy, but I’m also kind of sad because we’ve been working on it for so long. I just hope Mike (Clausen) is looking down on us and smiling.”
Although the aircraft is dedicated to the memory of Clausen, it remains a piece of history for Marines like Ed West, who couldn’t have known what the last day of January, 1970 had in store for him when he sat elbow-to-elbow on the stretched canvas seats of a “Sea Knight” with 3rd platoon as it lifted into the morning mist and rain around Hill 55. He remains one of the few that stepped into the darkness and lived to tell the tale.
“It was an honor to serve with the very best,” said West. “The currency of freedom was and remains paid in blood, sweat and tears.”
Both of these two birds did heroic deeds in Vietnam.
Their history should be known, to show the service of many in Vietnam.
Who returned to either indifference or right out hostility.