There’s a gaping hole in his chest that sucks every inch of air around us. I tear my T-shirt from my body, ball it up and stuff it — force it — jam it into the gaping hole until the sucking sound subsides.
Gale force winds jam my jaws, fill my lungs — I’m choking. The hair on my head, it’s just the right length. The tips whipped by the wind like a million laser beams, stabbing at my eyes. Need to get my face out of the hatch, away from the wind, turn inboard. It’s a different world with no wind. But the noise ...
The heavy dull thump of the rotor as its blades slap the sky. Hand signals are the language in this world above the treetops. Clouds rush by and my thoughts are of the last few days escorting a Catholic Navy chaplain to the South Korean Marines base camp. Twenty minutes more in the air and I’ll be back in the rear with the gear, hot meal and shower waitin’ for me.
There’s just two of us besides the crew on the chopper we’re in, a UH-34 so old I been told it flew in the Korean War. A business-sized card we were handed when boarded this bird reads, “Thank you for flying the friendly skies of Southeast Asia with Jolly Roger’s Dodgers — Marine Air Group — 36. Please fasten your seat belt (there aren’t any) and please sit on your Flak Jacket for the belly of this bird is not armor-plated.”
One moment the door gunner is relaxed — one arm slung over the stock of his M-60 machine gun — barrel pointed skyward. In one sudden sweeping motion he stands, adjusts his intercom — bolt goes home on the ’60 — he’s locked and loaded. The chopper bucks and jerks, almost skidding to a stop, a sudden descent, a spiral staircase toward the ground.
Door gunner beckons — my ear to his mouth. Downward out the hatch, points his finger. He screams. I can hardly hear. Emergency Med-Evacs, that’s what’s here.
A quick look out the hatch gives me the chills. NVA soldiers cover the hills. Pith helmets bob as they swarm like locusts. Scattered here and there are Marine grunts in the valley desperately weathering the blows.
A smoke grenade pops. Plumes of yellow smoke mark the spot for us to go to a small clearing aside a rice paddy dike
The chopper rears its nose up in the air a few feet off the ground, a stallion on its hind legs thrust backward. I struggle to keep my balance. The door gunner laces with lead the pith-helmeted hillside. I wipe the dirt from my eyes created by the force of the bird’s blades that tried unsuccessfully to smother my soul.
I know the routine. The seats get folded to make room on the deck for the dead and dying. Racing toward us are Marines carrying — dragging — others who can’t make their own way. One man is sitting on the arms of two others as a steady stream of blood squirts from his leg. His head gently tilts back and his helmet falls to the dirt, exposing a tan line on his forehead that’s marked with grime. His eyes have never been this wide open, staring straight into the sun.
They reach us at last, passing the wounded and dead up. Those who are still able to stand provide cover fire. The chopper, screams of the wounded, AK-47s, M-16s, the shouting of the men — and now — mortars. The noise is deafening.
We stack the dead in the rear, keeping the wounded close to the hatch and grab the armpits of one man to pull him in. There’s a gaping hole in his chest that sucks every inch of air around us. I tear my T-shirt from my body, ball it up and stuff it — force it — jam it into the gaping hole until the sucking sound subsides.
A sergeant is yelling. One man is missing. He was last seen behind the paddy dike 50 yards away.
“I’ll go!” I scream.
The pilot sticks his head and arm out of the cockpit. Looks at me, points skyward and flashes five fingers twice. I have 10 minutes.
Thumbs-up from the door gunner as he lays a layer of lead above my head. I begin my dash. I’m the fastest man in the world.
My head is pounding as I slam into the dike just ahead of a hail of gunfire. A deadly contest has begun with the NVA on one side trying to put me away and the Marines covering my every move. I scramble over the dike, slide waist deep into rice paddy water. Water buffalo turds float everywhere but no wounded Marine,
Focus ... tune out. All the deafening sound is gone. I can hear the ripple of the water as my eyes search for the Marine. Then I hear it, clear as a bell. Someone singing
He’s embedded into the dike. Can’t tell where he’s hit. He’s in shock. Blood and mud latch on to his collar. I tow him through the turd-infested water. He’s talking to me. “She don’t got a ticket to ride — I do — I got a ticket to ride and I don’t care”
“Sure, pal,” I tell him. “You got a ticket to ride and we’re gonna ride right out of here right now.
I drag him over the dike. Grab an arm, then a leg. Fireman’s Carry. I carry the load. I feel his life’s blood flowing through my fingers. I can hear everything again, only it’s louder now. He’s wet. I’m wet. We’re both covered in blood and mud as I backtrack my dash. The chopper in my line of sight.
Draped over my shoulders he continues to sing over and over “I got a ticket to ride and I don’t care.”
Bullets bite the earth and kick up dirt all around us. In a final burst of energy I make it to the hatch of the chopper and throw my package aboard. I jump in, the pilot pulls us away in a bank so steep that I straddle the hatch and kick to keep bodies from falling out. The door gunner is still spitting lead, the barrel of his ’60 protruding out from under my armpit.
The pith-helmeted figures are still trying to shoot us. We get our load of human flesh back to the rear. Pinkishbrown dirt sticks to bright red blood caked and sun-baked on my arms.
I wonder: Am I more a man today than I was yesterday? I’m tired. It’s over. It’s time for me to cry. But he’s still singing.
James A. Sparrow at the Memorial Day Parade in Stamford in 2016, when he served as grand marshal.