“Dust Off” and the Power of Perseverance

Lt. Col. Robert B. Robeson, USA (Ret)
Lincoln, Nebraska (Summer 2016)

helicopter
Dust Offs over Da Nang Harbor. March 1970.
Photo by Chief Reporter Gunter Stiller, used with permission

“…I think I should say one word, too, a special word, about the ‘Dust Offs’–the Medevacs. This was a great group of men. All those who flew them, all those who did it. Courage above and beyond the call of duty was sort of routine to them. It was a daily thing, part of the way they lived. That’s the great part and it meant so much to every last man who served there. Whether he ever got hurt or not, he knew

Dust Off was there.”–General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., Army Chief of Staff.[i]

As a “Dust Off” medical evacuation helicopter pilot in 1969-1970 during the  Vietnam War, I quickly realized that our four-man flight crews were similar to being main actors in an action movie. Our often teeth-grinding missions to evacuate wounded and dead soldiers and civilians in unarmed aircraft were continual tests of our willpower and perseverance against that of our communist enemy.

I flew 987 combat missions, helped evacuate over 2,500 patients, had seven UH-1H “Huey” helicopters shot up by enemy fire, and was shot down twice in my one year tour. I was also operations officer and later commander of the 236th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) stationed at Red Beach, next to Da Nang Harbor, in Da Nang.

“Dust Off” was our call sign, which most people believe came from the dust our helicopters kicked up when we were landing. It is actually an acronym that stands for dedicated, unhesitating service to our fighting forces.[ii]

wounded soldier
Wounded North Vietnamese officer treated en route to the Special Forces Hospital in Da Nang.
Photo by Chief Reporter Gunter Stiller, used with permission

Our crews lived in the fast lane…the very fast lane in the midst of perpetual chaos and constant threat of annihilation. Risking death became matter-of-fact to us, even ordinary, in our often sleep-deprived and harried evacuation missions. We were on duty 24-hours a day and 5-7 days at a time at our field sites at landing zones Baldy and Hawk Hill south of Da Nang. We took off immediately on every mission, day and night, as long as they kept being called in. Never ducking the daunting, we flew directly into each mission’s unknown where adrenaline levels could be astronomical.

Through repetitious training by veteran pilots who had survived months of hazardous missions, the new guys—”peter pilots”—eventually became proficient in combat pickups, too.

This encompassed missions at night in triple-canopy jungle in the mountains, in abysmal weather and monsoons, and under enemy fire in rice paddies fertilized with human excrement. Through trial and error that did not result in death, we discovered ways to evacuate our patients with techniques previously unknown.

Patients were never left in the field unless our helicopters were shot down. When that occurred, another crew was always dispatched to complete the original mission and rescue our comrades on the ground, dead or alive. The welfare of our patients was our universe.

The majority of our missions were single-ship. We were a free-enterprise operation.

Individual pilot initiative ruled. As soon as we received a long white mission sheet from the battalion aid station radio-telephone operator, we took off and immediately flew to the ground unit grid coordinate. This mission sheet contained their radio frequency and call sign. We dealt directly with them without a middleman. Each crew worked alone and never wasted time waiting for gunship support to arrive except in extreme situations or when the landing zone couldn’t be secured by those in close enemy contact. Even if the landing zones were under fire, it never kept us from attempting to land.

wounded soldier
Robeson points to bullet holes in his helicopter after being shot down at Landing Zone Ross. 9/13/69.
Photo by Gary Horton, used with permission.

Dust Off became the most successful and effective battlefield operating system in Vietnam. From May 1962 through March 1973, our 1,400 Army commissioned and warrant officer pilots serving there were responsible for evacuating 850,000 to 900,000 allied military and Vietnamese civilians. In World War II, deaths as a percentage of hits was 29.3 percent. Due to air ambulance range, swiftness, and maneuverability in Vietnam— where the only way out of thick jungle, remote rice paddies, and mountains was by air—this percentage was 19 percent.[iii]

Dust Off statistics also confirm that our crewmembers–pilots, medics, and crew chiefs–stood an overwhelming chance of being injured, wounded, or killed during their tours. More than a third of us became casualties. Our air ambulance losses to hostile fire were 3.3 times that of all other forms of helicopter missions in Vietnam. Dust Off was busiest in 1969 when 140 of our aircraft were stationed around the country. That year Dust Off carried more patients than in any other year of the war.[iv]

When hoist missions (evacuating patients by way of a hoist from areas where landing was not possible) became a routine part of our work, enemy fire was especially dangerous. A pilot had to hover, sometimes 100-150 feet, above the casualty while he was electrically winched-up to the aircraft by the medic and crew chief. If there were more than one patient to deal with, the aircraft was particularly vulnerable since the pilots had to maintain this hovering position from 5-10 minutes or longer to complete the extraction. This process mirrored being a sitting duck in a shooting gallery. Pilots devised specific ways of reducing this danger, but these efforts barely kept ahead of improvements in the enemy’s marksmanship and weaponry.

Since North Vietnam had never signed the Geneva Conventions, which the United States considered itself bound to observe, the large red crosses on all sides of our aircraft proved to be excellent aiming points as bull’s-eyes for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese gunners. We were fair game, as far as they were concerned, even though our side considered us “noncombatants.”

wounded soldier
(L-R) The late Col. D.W. Pratt, 95th Evacuation Hospital commander, presenting Capt. Robert Robeson with his 2nd Distinguished Flying Cross and 2nd Air Medal with “V” (both for valor), at Red Beach in Da Nang, early 1970. (Photo courtesy of author)

Patients were always more important than ourselves. These evacuations were eye-opening and humbling. We realized that anything else going on was irrelevant unless it was being done for someone else. This was especially true of our flight medics, most of whom were barely out of high school and in the 18-21-year range. It was about selfless service while helping provide wounded people, frequently from both sides of the action, an opportunity to continue breathing. We pilots were particularly proud of these courageous young medics’ unrelenting devotion to those injured, sick, or needing their assistance. What they experienced on every mission, up close and personal, most rational people would call gruesomely bloody, stark, and unbelievable.

Medics on my aircraft were exposed to plague, cholera, rabies, leprosy, and gas gangrene. Pools of blood would cover our cargo deck on mission after mission, while miscellaneous body parts were continually tossed aboard with the dead, wounded, mutilated, and burned patients. We were all attuned to the ominous possibility that our next mission could be the one that would claim our lives.

Doing nothing was never an option flying Dust Off. It’s also difficult explaining what it’s like making consistent life and death decisions for people we’d never met. It’s something that has to be experienced firsthand to completely understand. We quickly discovered that all of us, soldiers, civilians, and even enemy soldiers, were tied together by the same rope of humanity. That is why we never knew whose life we would step into or who would step into ours on each mission.

Flying an unarmed helicopter into shooting situations was like putting a mouse in the ring with an elephant. Sooner or later, the mouse is going to get stepped on no matter how brave it is. Our 236th Medical Detachment losses proved that in April of 1970, with a total of six authorized Hueys, we had sixteen helicopters shot up or shot down in thirty days between thirteen pilots. We went through our entire inventory nearly three times.

It was always apparent to us that we were living in a world of close and final calls. This type of flying was the trick of the dancer—to make the strenuous appear effortless to those we evacuated from “hot” landing zones—to present the dance to the enemy, not the dancer, and above all not to make a pilot error or trip over the scenery. Many of the ground troops had never seen us fly and we wanted them to understand no situation or obstacle would prevent us from attempting to evacuate them. Our patients were someone’s son/daughter, mother/father, brother/sister, cousin, or close friend. It was our responsibility, on their behalf, to take whatever risks that were necessary in an effort to give them an opportunity of being reunited with these loved ones.

As one example of other similar experiences, I flew into an enemy mine field in early 1970 to evacuate seven critically wounded American infantrymen who had ventured in unaware of the danger. My left skid landed on two mines: one estimated to be a 250-pound anti-tank mine. Neither of them detonated. When they were later discovered and blown in place with C-4 plastic explosives, the top of the hill disappeared. Their platoon leader, a first lieutenant, drove forty miles to Da Nang over an often-mined road to thank and notify me of this fact, or I never would have known. As John Keats so aptly stated, “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced…”[v]

Dust Off’s final years in Vietnam were to earn helicopter evacuation a lasting place in modern medical lore. This technology would later be instituted in the public safety and  medical sectors of America and around the world. It would benefit civilian emergencies, and save untold lives, through swift aerial movement of sick and injured to hospitals from highway accidents and remote areas where roads were not suitable for ground transportation.

In the end, I am proud, privileged, and honored to have been a part of Dust Off and this medical innovation.

References

[i] Remarks by the late, Army’s Chief of Staff, General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., at the AAAA Honors Luncheon held at the Sheraton Park Hotel, Washington, DC on 13 October 1972.

[ii] David A. Maurer, “Vietnam Vet Reunites with Helicopter Pilot Who Helped Save His Life,” Charlottesville (Virginia) The Daily Journal, 13 August 2015, 4.

[iii] Peter Dorland and James Nanney, Dust Off: Aeromedical Evacuation in Vietnam (United States Army Center of Military History, Washington, DC, 1982), 115-116.

[iv] Ibid., 116-117.

[v] John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 14th edition, (Boston, 1968), 585.


After retiring from nineteen years as a U.S. Army, medical evacuation helicopter pilot, and a total of 27+ years of military service on three continents, Robert Robeson was a newspaper managing editor and columnist. He’s published 870 articles, essays, poems, and short stories in over 315 publications in 130 countries. This includes the Reader’s Digest, Vietnam Combat, Logbook, Official Karate, Writer’s Digest, Frontier Airline Magazine, and Newsday, among others. His work has also been published in 40 anthologies. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife of 47 years.

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