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 3 Inches of Aluminum

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Waffenbaum

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PostSubject: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Fri Jul 15, 2016 11:00 am

This is a short story which I began writing for fun around 2012. It is unfinished and far from done, and has been an ongoing piece of work written bit by bit since I began. I've kept coming back to it once in while over the years to add more to it and make changes both as I got new ideas and as my writing style has evolved and changed. What I have so far is only the setup for the real story, one about survival and a very unlikely friendship.

The subject is one which I fully and readily admit I have little to not first-hand knowledge about, namely the Vietnam War. But the conflict has always interested me and felt like I had a decent idea for a story set during that time. I have never shown anyone my work except for close friends, but I've reasoned I might as well post what I have and perhaps get some ideas and feedback. I hope anyone who bothers to read it will let me know what they think, or if they at least enjoyed it.

To those interested in reading it, I want to warn that in order to try and stay true to the general feeling and tone of the era, the characters do use period-accurate slurs and insults, and there's quite a bit of cursing. Nothing in the story mirrors my own opinions though, I've only tried to create characters with flaws, thoughts and prejudices of their own.



My name is Jim Evan Hendrickson, my service number is AF18-396-184.

I'm a pilot with the United States Air Force, I fly a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, colloquially known as a “Huey”, as part of the 20th Special Operations Squadron's ASH unit (that's “Aerial Support Helicopter” for those of you wondering). I joined up in 68' like most of the boys in my neighbourhood, though not in a fevered fit of patriotism and gung-ho fervour for flags and firearms like I reckon many of the others did. My reasons were trivial but important to me on principle; a family history of army aviation, a lack of jobs and a certain tension in the home. All said and done I wasn't exactly typical US-army material, being a downy-lipped 19-year-old with a pilots license. I quickly found that anything that puts you above the cut goes a long way in this, our modern military institution, even if it's only by a hairs breadth. Nothing says that uncle Sam really needs you like a case of childhood polio being brushed aside at your army medical examination with the words; “No one expects you to run track in the air corps, son.”

Now for the record I've never been against the military, it serves a function just like most things do. True enough I've been critical of that function on occasion, but who could blame me? When I talked about a history of aviation I never mentioned how many of my forebears made it down to earth again after takeoff (most did, though a lot faster than they might have wished). I might as well have said that there was a family history of widows and grieving mothers, though that'd have been a lot less explanatory and a hell of a lot more depressing. Now, getting back on track I had the luxury of nearly a full-years training before I even got to sit in the pilots seat of a helicopter, training which I admit didn't hold entirely true to the stereotypes I had harboured about the service up till that point. Obviously the sergeant was an asshole with an attitude so stiff you could have laid it down and ironed shirts on it, but he wasn't an idiot a monster by a long shot. He knew exactly what he was doing, and moreover knew exactly what he needed us to do (and don't do, for that matter). I made it a point to never invoke his ire, to the point where it became a repeated joke in our barracks that I flew so low under the radar that I must have meant to join the submarines before I fucked up my application and ended up in the air force.

The training itself I didn't mind, it was downright exhilarating going through the engine checks and the safety protocols knowing that I was mere moments from the liberating lift-off and the clear, blue sky above the airfield. While I won't say I excelled, my experience and enthusiasm for flying coupled with my generally low profile still earned me a patch on the shoulder and a ticket to Nakhon Phanom Royal Air Force base in Thailand just a week after New Years eve 1969-70. During that last night at home with the family the sadness and unspoken pain hang so thick in the air it could have choked a man. My mother was crying, praying and begging me to not go, as was my younger sister Josie in a synchronized display of tears. Meanwhile my old man, who had been flying transport during Korea and more than likely knew exactly what I must have felt at that moment, simply got up and walked out the door as casually as if he'd gone to for a pack of smokes and would be back before we knew it. I couldn't blame him, no parent wants to say a goodbye to their child knowing it could be a final time they do so, but the choice was already made. Neither tears nor my own wreathing gut could change that.

So I was shipped out, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked like a true newbie on his way to what the NCO's had jokingly referred to as the, “fire-driven, certified, army-approved, man-making machine that is war”. Sitting there in the plane among two dozen other big kids whom, for god-knows-what-reason had decided to join up around the same time I had. "Maybe they were just like me", I remember thinking to myself as my eyes had scanned over their youthful faces. Each of them looked to handle it in their own way, one nervously checking again and again that a cigarette behind his ear was still there, another scratching his cheek so frequently you would worry he might eventually draw blood. Maybe they didn't know why they were there. Maybe they just felt that they needed to be somewhere, anywhere else than Hickville USA. As I had looked out the plane window, I had caught my first true glimpse of the vast rolling plains and dense jungles which spread in all directions below us, the beautiful scenery was marred only by a lazy, oppressive fog that clung to the treetops like a smog. The imagery had sent chills down my spine. What lay below was definitely nothing like home. It was a paradise, and it was going to be hell on earth.

Three months later I found myself not only officially but also formally adopted into the Green Hornets, the air cavalry of Nakhon Phanom. For all intents and purposes I was still the “new guy”, although being among men sometimes trice my age and picking up their slack in less than a month did command a modicum of respect. The name-calling and frequent "friendly" slaps across the back of the head had gradually stopped and had been replaced with the kind of sombre nods you find among men who value one another, perhaps not as friends, but at least as someone can could rely on to have you back, something which most found hard to express in words. I had found myself flying supplies, ammunition and even a M551 Sheridan light tank across the Vietnamese border, although that had required a CH-47 Chinook and I had been relegated to co-pilot for the trip. I had become well-accustomed to the role of glorified deliveryman, although the nature of our deliveries were often strictly confidential and gave me a tiny feeling of being a clandestine special operative which I can't say I didn't revel in, given the drudge of the day-to-day. It made it all the more surprising when orders came down from the brass that I was to be given a stripe and transferred to Da Nang Air Base effective immediately, on the grounds that my abilities were being wasted on menial labour.

Never before in my life had a promotion felt so much standing on the edge of a cliff with a firm hand on my shoulder ready to give a helping push forward into oblivion. But as I was never one to argue with the powers that be I soon found myself right along the 17th parallel where the North and South of Vietnam borders met and consequently, stationed at the busiest airport in all of Asia. I hadn't been prepared for what I was about to step into when I first set foot upon Vietnamese soil, but the sheer amount of men and vehicles was enough to send my head spinning. With nearly seventy-thousand landings and take-offs daily, Da Nang was an endless bustle of mechanics, pilots, passengers and all manner of army material either waiting to be transported elsewhere or, at times it seemed, simply left where it stood and forgotten by everyone under plastic tarpaulins often marked “AVRN” (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam”, I would come to learn). The chopper detail already stationed at Da Nang was the 205th, the boys known as “Geronimos” after the Apache leader who waged a bloody war campaign against both the Mexican and US military in 1859 (the USAF has a well-developed sense of irony, if nothing else), as they primarily flew chinooks I wasn't half surprised to find they needed another pilot who was as intimate with a huey as I was, given they had one grounded due to a lack of manpower. In a flash my life became a whole lot more interesting, and by interesting I mean increasingly more often subjected to flying young soldiers into and out of some of the most dangerous Vietcong-controlled territories in the country. At this point is had become a source of morbid amusement to me that although I had participated in the war for almost a full year, I had yet to see an enemy combatant in any other form than newspaper photographs, though I was no stranger to the bullets and flak they had thrown my way.

Every time my Huey had come under fire, I had thought back to the sergeant who's words had been hammered into my mind like nails time and time again, his gruff voice imprinted in my memory. “Gentlemen, seeing as you'll soon be going abroad to fight the good fight against the red menace for the good of democracy and the people of Vietnam, I want you to keep these words of wisdom in mind. So listen well and listen good because I do not intend to repeat myself; Your average Vietcong SOB will be equipped with an Automat Kalashnikov or “Ay Kay” for short. This stamped-metal travesty is the backbone of the Soviet fighting force, assembled in Siberia by grandmothers four times your age with cataracts in conditions that make your barracks seem almost fit for human beings! And despite that, this rickety piece of communist know-how fires 7.62mm bullets at a top speed of 840 metres per second and can penetrate brick walls with little to no issue. The projectiles from the Kalashnikov can reach a maximum distance of 800 to 1000 meters, meaning that the insidious little shits will have reached their terminal velocity and begun their descent towards mother earth long before ever reaching you! At all times while not landing or taking off, you will remain at an average altitude of 10,000 feet, well beyond the range of conventional commie firearms. Should you deign to keep your ass above the required altitude you will also steer clear of most heavy machineguns with a maximum reach of just below 9000 metres. In short; in the air you are untouchable gods of death and destruction, on the ground you are more useless than a four-foot high pile of pig shit and only half as likely to get a date with Hanoi Hannah! So keep your asses in the air and pray to the good lord above that you'll always steer clear of any AA, the gooks have precious little of it but they make the most of what they have. That is their nature, just like yours will be to give them hell once I am done with you!”.

“Stay in the air”, he had warned us. No, threatened us was a more correct way of looking at it. This was great advice, but sadly also advice dispensed long before the winter of 70', when the Chinese Communist Party in all their glorious benevolence had seen fit to gift the Vietcong and Vietnamese People's Army with a truly whopping Christmas present consisting of a batch of their trusty Type 63 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns which, despite technical shortcomings and (according to our officers) hardly measuring up to the American counterpart, had still become the subject of most nightmares had by USAF personnel. The distinctive hammering sound they made when firing was usually heard way before the heavy rounds made their way to their target, giving us pilots just enough time to utter whatever curse we might find appropriate before being peppered with a lethal hailstorm of 37-milimeter projectiles courtesy of the People's Republic of China. With this in mind it was more than a little sickening when orders came in to locate and evacuate a missing fireteam consisting of four US rangers which had set up an improvised LZ near Support Base Ripcord, a base located in the A Shau Valley of the Thua Thien Province, uncomfortably close to the Ho Chi Minh trail and the bulk of the enemy anti-air defences. The whole camp had already heard about Ripcord, which had come under heavy NVA attack three days ago while the base had been uncharacteristically understaffed due to the 4th of July rotations pulling soldiers home and replacing them with fresh new targets just in time for the fireworks. And what a fireworks display they had gotten when hundreds of enemy mortar shells had rained down over them that morning. The army had responded by bombing out the hills shielding charlie from return fire, but that didn't stop them. Hell, it had barely slowed them down. So to that end the 75th Ranger Infantry Regiment was called in to deal with the enemy with their signature hands-on approach. Unfortunately for the rangers, their call for an evac chopper now suggested that they had met with more than they could handle. It was on that note that I was sent off along with my co-pilot Grant Hanlon, a brilliant pilot (but a terrible conversationalist, so we made a good team in that regard) to pick up our boys before the enemy got to them first.

Forty-eight minutes later we were circling the dense forest outskirts of the A-Shau Valley, watching for the red smoke which we knew the rangers would be putting down to signal us for pick-up. There was a particularly clammy morning fog enveloping all but the very top of the lush canopy which extended for miles across the Vietnamese landscape like an ancient green carpet. If it hadn't been for the sophisticated electronic equipment in the cockpit, it would have been real easy to lose our sense of direction even at an altitude. I saw Grant tapping a glass-covered gauge on the middle of the dashboard with a gloved finger, indicating that we were rapidly approaching the halfway mark of our fuel supply. Now, your average fully-tanked Huey can stay in the air for about three hours not counting take-off and landing, less depending on the weight of the cargo and personnel. With just over an hour and a half's worth left I immediately realized what Grant already had, that we were eating through our fuel much quicker than anticipated, despite our bird being unloaded and neither Grant or myself being among the heaviest of the squadrons members. Worse yet, the controls were sluggish and it took a lot more effort than it ought to keep us hovering, so much in fact that if I hadn't known better I could have sworn we were already fully packed out back. I switched on the comm and hesitantly asked for Grant’s take on the situation, to which he replied that he'd noticed it too the moment we took off. His answer didn't do much to put me at ease, so I decided to call up Da Nang on the radio. I told myself I simply wanted to verify the coordinates for the landing zone, though my better judgement was begging me to abort. Between the fog, the fuel and the increasingly unresponsive controls I felt more anxious by the minute.

On a scale of zero to ten over my least favourite sounds of all time, the infrequent static of the radio while waiting for our transmission to be answered easily scored a solid nine. Coming in just under “Lu Dan”, the Vietnamese word for grenade, which was without doubt one of the worst things you could hear on a street in a foreign country where anyone, at any given time, might be out to kill you. The seconds that passed while we waited felt like hours, and gave me ample room for thinking about several things which I likely shouldn’t have at the time. The first time I had heard the ominous cry of Lu Dan was while on leave in Saigon about a month after settling in with my new unit. I was in a crowd of civilians at the time, being led to the family home of Phan Chu, a Thai native who I think most knew as an optimistic, pragmatic guy around the base. He was also one of the first buddies I had made after my arrival, as he was an engineer from our local AVRN detachment who helped us with our mechanical woes. He was smart as a whip and well-liked on the base, both for his attitude and his remarkable take on engines. Regrettably he had also been a good five feet ahead of me in the dense crowd when a so-called communist sympathizer had pulled the pin on a fragmentation grenade. When the smoke cleared and my ears had stopped ringing I had barely a scratch on me, though I was covered head to toe in what had moments earlier been Phan's lower half. I later learned that suicide attacks weren’t all that uncommon, especially in areas with large American-friendly populations.

They probably figured that their own lives were worth throwing away if even if it only meant sleepless nights for the imperialist invaders (a tired soldier is a careless soldier, so there’s no arguing the supposed effectiveness of this strategy). I later couldn’t recall how I’d gotten out of Saigon, but when I woke up a nurse informed me that I’d been rattled pretty badly from the blast and a couple of MP’s had brought me home. I ended up spending two weeks in the infirmary with ruptured eardrums, but besides that there was no detectable trauma. Truth be told this temporary loss of hearing had made a welcome change from the constant engine noise and never-ending sounds of the jungle I had put up with for months. This experience had made me cautious though, helluva cautious. Despite several run-ins with death and dismemberment since then, I hadn’t lost anything of significance and aimed to keep it that way. The hardest part of getting back in the saddle had been to visit Phan's family of six, something I knew I would never be able to put out of my mind again.

The cackling noise of the radio coming alive brought me back to reality, greeted by the voice of our NCO, snug as a bug back at base. His nasal voice grated in my ears as he spoke; “Copy Hummingbird this is red base reading you. Has the package been secured?” I responded that we hadn’t seen neither hide nor hair of the fireteam and informed him of our trouble with the huey. The response came almost immediately but did little to reassure us. The slightly distorted voice on the radio had said; “Hummingbird If you're feeling a little more turbulence than normal that's perfectly alright, over. It's just a side-effect of something new we had the engineers set up in your bird as an extra precaution. You boys just put it out of your mind and keep circling until you see the signal, over”.

I wanted to protest, I wanted to tell him that whatever had been done to our vehicle had made it far too unresponsive to finish the mission, but just then Grant had yelled out and pointed into the dense jungle. I squinted through the visor of my helmet at his suggestion, thinking he was seeing things that weren't there until I noticed it too. The faintest trail of red smoke rising from the ground, mixing with the mist above. I had started to set us down, unreal as it seemed the downdraft from the rotor brushed aside the fog and revealed a small clearing. It wasn't until we touched down that I noticed that what we had landed in was the remains of a native village, but all that was left were ashes and the charred remains of the wooden beams that had held up the houses. Whatever had hit this area hadn't left a single thing standing, though I didn't have long to marvel at the thorough destruction before my eyes caught a glimpse of movement between the trees. For a brief, tense moment I had been ready to throttle the engine and take to the air in the hope of escaping what could have been an enemy patrol, but as the figures drew closer and their features became visible I relaxed with a feint sigh. It was the rangers alright, looking grim with their muddy clothes and unshaven faces a tell-tale sign that they had been there for a prolonged amount of time. The front-most man held up his hand to signal us, and I noticed that the three men behind him were holding up something large and heavy by the looks of it. As he approached he had spoken in a gruff voice with a hint of southern accent to it, well-matching his haggard exterior and sharp features.

“Damn fucking nice of you ladies to show up, we've been popping smoke for the last two hours while listening to you clueless pair of sadsacks skimming the sky up there. I'm Sgt. Faraday and these gentlemen are Spc. Wilton, O'Bannon and Clairemont. Now if you air queens are good and ready we'd like to get this material on board and double-time it out of this shit-show, is that understood?”. The words had lingered for a moment before I had the wits to interject. “No one said anything about cargo, Sergeant. We're running heavy as it is, I'm afraid you'll have to-”, was as far as I came with my response before the man interrupted, stepping close enough to grasp my uniform by the scruff, the warm air from his breath fogging the visor of my helmet as barked at me, gesturing behind him: “Listen pinhead, you're here because this box is worth ten times your sorry hide, and that's including your whirlybird, so don't presume to give us orders. We've bled for this cargo and we're taking it aboard, then you'll be flying us back. You won't ask questions, and you sure as hell won't give us any lip for the rest of this ride. Am I making myself perfectly clear, pilot?”. I looked to my side, hoping Grant could give me some support in the matter but he remained quiet as always. With a displeased sigh I waved the team aboard and the men who had been carrying the large crate began loading it into the middle of the helicopter between the two rows of adjacent seats.


To be continued.


Last edited by Waffenbaum on Fri Jul 15, 2016 8:18 pm; edited 2 times in total
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keatit71

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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Fri Jul 15, 2016 11:25 am

nice story lots of creativity +1 from me

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Eetterinakki

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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Fri Jul 15, 2016 12:24 pm

Definitely interested in what happens next, looks to be a good story Thumbs Up
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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Fri Jul 15, 2016 8:14 pm

Thanks for the kind words @keatit71 and @Eetterinakki. I know it's a long read but hopefully it'll end up being worth it down the line.

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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Sat Jul 16, 2016 4:40 am

A long but definitely a great read! Plus 1 from me brother! Thumbs Up
I especially liked the part where the sergeant said his speech about AKs and warning them about staying at high altitudes. lol!
Looking forward to the rest of it! Keep it up bro! Smile

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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Sat Jul 16, 2016 5:50 pm

Thanks @loki090, I'm happy you enjoyed it, I can't say exactly when I'll continue but I've got plenty of notes on what will happens next. No spoilers though.

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PostSubject: Re: 3 Inches of Aluminum   Sun Jul 17, 2016 2:34 am

Reads great. Excited for the next part.
+1 from me as well.
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