It was the longest 15 minutes of David Bennett’s life.
As he waited to be rescued, the Marine Corps pilot stared out into the pitch blackness that surrounded the downed CH-46 helicopter.
There was no movement amid the shadows of the landscape around the rice paddy. The crew manned a defensive perimeter supported by two machine guns pulled from the mounts along the fuselage.
“It was very quiet ... I don’t recall being scared,” the Carlisle man said. Yet Bennett remembered how his flight gloves were soaked through with sweat from that eventful night in South Vietnam.
The date was April 13, 1970, and he was just three weeks shy of leaving active duty in Southeast Asia for civilian life stateside in the Marine Corps Reserve. Bennett was looking forward to attending college.
A Marine captain, he was finishing up his second tour of duty in Vietnam. Bennett first arrived in country in November 1967 as a lieutenant who had earned his commission after graduating from an aviation cadet program. That first tour lasted until December 1968.
Bennett returned to Vietnam in April 1969 and stayed until April 1970 – the same month as the friendly fire incident. He flew hundreds of missions over the northernmost region of South Vietnam that was under Marine Corps jurisdiction.
The mission that night was the emergency evacuation of a Marine seriously wounded while fighting off an enemy attack on an American base. As with any battle, there was confusion and the potential for friendly fire.
Bennett was the pilot of the lead helicopter flying with all its lights turned off. A second CH-46 flew in support as the wingman, slightly ahead of the lead ship to draw attention away from its approach to the landing zone. Two helicopter gunships hovered nearby as escorts.
There was a shudder and a thud as Bennett moved into position. He was told by the crew chief that something had hit the helicopter punching a hole in its rear pylon causing significant damage.
He learned later the object was a flare dropped from an airplane flying overhead. Bennett believes the flare was not deployed to illuminate the landing zone, but to help Marines on the ground see the attacking enemy.
“It went through the rotor blades without touching them,” Bennett said. Though the flare proved to be a dud, the impact was enough to cripple the helicopter. It knocked out a generator and an engine and caused a pump to leak hydraulic fluid.
There was no way he could keep it airborne. Bennett had to think fast.
All of his flight time made Bennett familiar with the landscape. He knew that just southeast of his position was terrain flat enough for him to safely land the crippled helicopter.
“I could not go much further away,” Bennett said. “I was lucky.” No one was injured and the back-up CH-46 had arrived within 15 minutes to pick up the stranded crew.
Bennett flew out again that night in a different helicopter to retrieve the wounded man. By then, the firefight had injured two other Marines who were picked up and transported to the nearest medical facility. He never heard what happened to them.
“I never had a passenger or crew member injured or killed in two years of flying,” Bennett said. He did have helicopters return to base with bullet holes from ground fire. Bennett flew out of the Marble Mountain Air Facility near Da Nang or Quang Tri further south.
His first tour of duty started just after the Viet Cong launched the TET Offensive – a coordinated assault on all the major towns and cities of South Vietnam. Many of his early missions involved the transport of Marines and allied troops sent to retake the areas occupied by Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army fighters.
It was during this time that Bennett flew four to five missions into Khe Sanh, a Marine firebase that was under siege by enemy forces. One trip was to bring in journalists who were covering the war and were eager to interview members of the beleaguered garrison.
Fortunately Bennett arrived during a lull in the fighting, but noticed how the terrain around Khe Sanh resembled a moonscape pocked with craters from artillery shells, air-to-ground weapons from attack planes and payloads dropped from B-52 bombers. Scattered around the devastation were the remnants of parachutes from air supply drops blown off course by wind currents or by the heat of battle.
Bennett never lingered over a landing zone longer than it took to load or unload cargo or personnel. To do so would court attention and invite enemy ground fire. “We had to go in and move out,” he said. “All of us got to learn little tricks on how to do it as soon as possible.”
As a pilot he was too busy to interact with the journalists. “It didn’t matter who they were,” said Bennett adding there was a national debate underway on the merits of the war.
Bennett decided early on he was not fighting for God or country or to rid the world of the threat of Communism. “The flying that we did and the risks that we took were all in support of our fellow Marines. They depended on us.”
Many of his missions involved the resupply of Marines on the ground with food, water, ammunition, medical supplies and reinforcements. He also flew reconnaissance missions.
After the war
After Vietnam, Bennett went to college and graduate school before joining the diplomatic corps of the U.S. State Department. He first arrived in Carlisle in 1989 as a student at the U.S. Army War College. He later returned to teach on its faculty in 1995 and again in 1998. In between, Bennett served as a diplomat in Africa. He has since retired from the federal government.
Last year Bennett toured the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum annex at the Dulles airport. He knew the aircraft on display included a CH-46 helicopter similar to what he flew in Vietnam.
In reviewing photographs of that helicopter, he was surprised to learn that its tail number of 153369 matched a machine that he flew during the war. Each helicopter in Marine Corps service was assigned its own unique tail number.
Bennett flew that particular aircraft seven times during the waning months of his second tour of duty while he was serving as an aide to a general assigned to the First Marine Aircraft Wing based in Da Nang. One of those missions took place on April 14, 1970 – the day after friendly fire from a dud flare took down the other helicopter.
Since Vietnam, 153369 had been upgraded with new avionics. It was shiny and polished while on display. The sight of that helicopter brought back fond memories of the affection pilots had for the CH-46 as a durable machine that served its country well.
“As a helicopter, it proved itself valuable to the mission,” Bennett said. “I’m grateful I had the opportunity to fly one for those years. It carried me through the war. It has been very forgiving. It has been my friend.”
Pilots in Vietnam called the CH-46 “The Phrog” and were known as “Phrog Phlyers.” The last active Marine squadron to fly the CH-46 was the same squadron Bennett flew with during the final months of his second tour of duty.