Dustoff

As everybody knows, wars inevitably inflict casualties. Dead and wounded. Under the doctrine ‘leave no man behind’, both of them need to be evacuated from the battlefield. Especially for the wounded, speed is essential in order for them to survive. In the old days, up until World War Two, evacuation of dead and wounded had to take place on the ground, mostly by Jeeps. The Korean War of the 1950’s saw a new phenomenon: the helicopter.

Many peeps here have watched the comedy series M.A.S.H.. A military hospital in the field, somewhere in Korea, was continuously supplied with wounded soldiers, brought in by Bell 47 helicopters. The series may have been a comedy, but in real life those choppers proved the validity of speedy extractions of those wounded warriors. As air ambulances, those helos have saved many lives of those who otherwise would have perished on the battlefield.

About a decade later, the United States was yet again involved in a conflict in Southeast Asia, in a torn country called Vietnam. As the war progressed, so did the number of US soldiers getting in fire contact with an elusive enemy, such as the NVA and Viet Cong in their black pajamas. In remote areas, covered in vast jungle canopies. This was a costly war. It inflicted a lot of trauma, in the sense of dead and wounded. Especially among the guys on the ground.

As with the Korean War, medical evacuation, or ‘Medevac’, was done by helicopters. The US Armed Forces harbored some airmobile units, eventually equipped with a helicopter type which became iconic and which shape and especially thumping sound became a symbol of the Vietnam War: the Bell UH-1 Iroquous, better known as the ‘Huey’. It was that thumping sound of the supersonic turning tips of the Huey’s two-bladed rotor that became immortal.

The Pentagon saw those helicopters mostly as assault vehicles and gunships. Any other task was regarded as a waste of assets. However, there was one unit that proved otherwise. Under the command of a legendary Aviator, the Late Colonel Kelly, they were called DUSTOFF. An acronym, meaning Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces. As a Medevac unit, DUSTOFF proved the Pentagon wrong. Their mission was vital, and very heroic.

Imagine a DUSTOFF Huey crew of four, barely in their twenties. Two pilots, a medic and a crewchief. The helo is unarmed and adorned with the Red Cross symbol. The Geneva Convention would have it that medical units were not to be attacked by the enemy. They are solely there to save lives. However, in Vietnam this was absolutely not respected. Any medical evacuation of any sort was always under heavy fire. So was DUSTOFF.

As the war expanded, so did the body count and the amount of wounded to be extracted from the field. DUSTOFF had their work cut out for them. Twelve-hour shifts, without any break in between, flying back and forth, extracting wounded, sitting on a blood hot LZ or Landing Zone, or hovering above, hoisting down a litter for the wounded warrior, or letting down a Jungle Penetrator through the tree canopy, fly back, land, hot-pit refuel, and take off again.

The hovers or sitting on the LZ were the most dangerous moments with all that visible popped colored smoke around. It was more rule than exception that the troops on the ground were still in close contact with the enemy just yards away, while the DUSTOFF medic and crewchief tried to get the wounded aboard in under 30 seconds. In all that time, the helo was under attack as well. The pilot would turn the tail into the fire in order to shield the evacuation.

DUSTOFF insured that any wounded soldier in the field would be in a military hospital in under an hour. After a distress call, the troops could be sure that the helo would get in, no matter what. Kelly’s Heroes, displayed such determination, dedication and lack of hesitation that they’d rather get hit themselves while trying to yank those wounded out from under the nose of the enemy, than not try and stay untouched. And, as a result, they were hit hard.

There were plenty times when the guys on the ground would call off the medevac because of the intense fire. But, in the best spirit of Kelly saying ‘when I have your wounded’, the DUSTOFF crews would press on regardless. Other ground troops were afraid that the helos would not try hard enough, and they would downplay the danger close fire contact still going on. But, DUSTOFF always came. The guys on the ground loved those crews to death for it.

DUSTOFF crews did not only respond to distress calls. They went up, stayed up and actually searched for business which would inevitably be there. Day, night, good or bad weather, 24/7, they were ever present. No escorts from gunships, perhaps only carrying some small arms themselves, those four-man crews were relentless in their efforts to save lives. As a result, DUSTOFF itself paid a heavy price in terms of, mostly fatal, losses. They were fearless.

No distinction was made between Americans or Vietnamese when it came to DUSTOFF medevac missions. In the best traditions of the Red Cross, in order to sustain life. DUSTOFF crews were a special breed of warriors and professionals. An incredible skill set, in flying, in maintenance and in medical treatment. Each and every one of the four-man crew was essential. These crews are the blueprint of a true, selfless hero, saving thousands of lives.

‘So Others May Live’

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Peter van Stigt

Peter van Stigt

Dutch, military aviation artist, civilian, not a pilot but a city bus driver, independent thinker, but most of all: human being.