Mac's war: The making of a hero
There is an old, old trunk in my old, old house that hasn't been opened in many years. When I did finally open and go through it, I found, at the very bottom, something unusual, significant and precious. There, folded but wrinkled and showing the ravages of time, was a silk pillow cover. On that cover, in vividly bilious green with a red and gold background, was a menacing, coiled cobra about to strike.
If you've read my stories, you know I don't care much for snakes, and you also know why my brother would send me such a thing. It was a wry reminder of our youth, when he gleefully tormented me with snakes whenever the opportunity presented itself. So you may wonder why I chose to keep this long-ago, garish gift from the year 1964. It is because my brother Mac (aka John McCormick Bostdorf) sent it to me during his first tour as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Although small and sinister, it somehow seemed an essential piece of history.
The image on the pillowcase was identical to the symbol on the front of the helicopter he often flew into combat. It was the platoon logo, and the platoon members were known as "the Cobras." Mac was responsible for the snake insignia, having commissioned an artist in Vinh Long, where he was stationed, to design it. It eventually graced the nose of all the helicopters in his unit. The serpentine copters were actually Huey gunships. Coincidentally, during his second tour, Mac would pilot a new helicopter known as the Cobra Attack Helicopter (AH-1G).
Vietnam was a deadly place in 1964. Here are some of my brother's experiences, garnered after some persistent prodding on my part:
First Lieutenant and Army Airborne Ranger John Bostdorf was a section commander for that gunship platoon known as the Cobras, which was part of the 114th Aviation Company — the Knights of the Air. John Bostdorf, now a colonel (retired), thinks he was shot down at least four times. One such expedition left base in the wee hours, at what military personnel often call "0-dark-thirty," and went hunting for the enemy. There were five birds, each with a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief and gunner. The gunships were heavily loaded with Folding Fin Aerial Rockets known (appropriately) as FEARS.
As a seasonal monsoon brought raging rain, the steady WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUP of the copters' rotors signaled the threat of approaching death in the dismal, murky dawn. When the choppers materialized in the mist, with their prominent cobra insignias emblazoned on the front, it must have given the enemy pause. The fast-flying squadron honed in on its target, the Hunan Forest in far southwestern Vietnam. According to Mac, it was a "god-awful place full of mangrove swamps, mosquitos and muck."
At an altitude of about 4,000 feet, Mac's copter suddenly developed engine failure and began descending rapidly. He immediately initiated a technique known as auto-rotation, a procedure used to land a disabled helicopter. Unfortunately, his gunship was laden with a heavy multiple-rocket load, so the descent was faster than usual, resulting in a very hard landing that damaged the tail section.
Shaken but in one piece, Mac and his crew were able to get out of the copter, only to find themselves facing the Viet Cong. They were being shot at from a canal about 500 meters away. The four gunships still in the air began suppressive fire to protect them. Eventually, one of the copters was able to land and pick up the crew, but, mindful of the Huey's limited capacity, Mac elected to stay behind so his crew could get to safety.
My brother tells me it is rare to see the enemy in a firefight, but that the forest lights up with muzzle flashes. Luckily, Mac had a hand-held machine gun and was able to stay alive until he was rescued an hour later.
Following this episode, my brother was shot down twice in a two-week period. One occasion involved a two-gunship search mission during which he lost his wingman to ground fire. The VC were attacking, and the wingman and his downed crew were in danger of being captured. In addition, Mac was out of ammo, except for that in handheld machine guns. While the fighting below was escalating, he circled the area at 500 feet, but the VC continued to concentrate on the downed crew. So Mac descended to 300 feet, which drew the enemy fire to him, instead. It seemed like a lose-lose situation, but Mac made the decision to stay at 300 feet to give his buddies a chance to escape. As a result, his copter took multiple hits, and he and his co-pilot were wounded. Thankfully, reinforcements arrived in time to allow my brother, his crew and his wingman to escape.
The second time Mac was shot down proved to be another battering brush with death. He was flying a mission at low altitude when his gunship took a round through its fuel pump, causing a fire that set off the onboard ammunition. There were also FEARS on board, which could easily have ignited and exploded. He managed to auto-rotate down while a spreading fire beset the gunship, and the ammo continued to explode. He then landed in a field of rice paddies in enemy territory. Fortunately, the water surrounding the rice paddies filled the helicopter, putting the fire out. Somehow, some way, everyone survived.
That almost didn't happen on a subsequent mission. Flying just above the rice paddies, Mac was suddenly targeted by three VC with AK-47s. He remembers being close enough to see the faces of the enemy as they shot at him. Mac tells me they were "lousy shots" because they should have killed him. Instead, he escaped with a gunshot wound to the leg.
As you might have deduced, Mac is a much-decorated soldier with a Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts and multiple combat awards. But there is one more story to tell. It has to do with how he earned his Silver Star.
On a routine search mission, Mac's platoon flew into an ambush that later became known as "The Battle of the Horseshoe." The VC had set up an array of eleven .51 caliber anti-aircraft weapons (known as "Copter Killers") in the shape of a horseshoe. Fortunately, the weapons had been positioned too deep in the ground, and the gun barrels could not be lowered enough to hit most of the low-flying Hueys. Nonetheless, by a stroke of bad luck, one aircraft was shot down and the pilot suffered life-threatening injuries. Despite taking heavy and continuous enemy fire, Mac landed his copter and, in an act of sheer courage, picked up the pilot and his crew. Then, alarmingly, the weight of the additional men kept the copter from lifting off. Mac solved the problem by having the crew disembark and signaling for help. The crew were rescued minutes later while Mac, battling a hail of bullets, flew the pilot to safety.
I recently came across a picture of my brother standing in front of his downed helicopter with a machine gun strapped to his waist, defending it from the Viet Cong. I felt so proud of his extraordinary courage. It's the best reason I can think of to continue to keep his long-ago gift, featuring that significant — and very lethal — cobra.
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