A miracle on hill 119
Several times I have experienced events that might be called miraculous in my life, but none as clear as what happened on a little mountain a few kilometers from Da Nang, Vietnam in 1970.
First, a little background. I was a reluctant soldier. I had enlisted in the air force when I was told by a recruiter that I would never have to fight in a war zone. I believed Jesus was serious about turning the other cheek and I didn’t believe in war. When I was transferred to Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon, Vietnam, (despite my recruiter’s assurances) I rationalized following my orders by resolving to do everything I could to avoid actively supporting the war. I volunteered for every non-war related activity I could find, no matter how dangerous. I guess after about nine months of putting up with my reluctance and avoidance, my civil engineering squadron’s First Sergeant found a way to be rid of me. I was ordered to temporary duty (TDY) at the air base in Da Nang.
A good friend of mine was present in the meeting in which this decision was made. What he told me was devastating. The request was for an assignment for two civil engineering specialists, but whoever made the request let it be known that the two engineers assigned were not expected to survive the assignment! My friend was frank and direct about the situation: I was chosen to solve the First Sergeant’s problem about what to do with me. I headed to Da Nang feeling like a convict walking to an appointment with the gas chamber.
At first I was greatly relieved when I got a briefing of my assignment at the air base. My main responsibility was to repair any damage to the runway from the frequent rocket attacks. The base was jokingly called “rocket alley” since the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fired rockets at the base’s runway almost very night. If they could do enough un-repaired damage to the runway, they could easily overrun the base since our aircraft were our only real defense. Intelligence reports described three battalions of NVA assigned to the Da Nang region for this purpose. If the runway was inoperable for more than an hour or so we were sitting ducks. My chances of surviving my two month TDY, though, were still a lot better than the marines that patrolled the jungles outside the wire perimeter of the base.
One morning I learned the real reason for my TDY assignment to this base. Me and another engineer were given M16 rifles, several bandoliers of ammunition and a jeep to head to what I think I recall was called “hill 119” about 15 kilometers from Da Nang. Our job was to drive to the top of the mountain with surveying equipment and use it to draw a profile of the horizon to assist pilots coming into the base at very low altitudes trying to evade small weapons fire on the ground. It was felt to be too dangerous to risk a helicopter trip to the mountain and it was hoped that our jeep would not attract as much attention as an armored vehicle.
As we left the air base, all I could think of was the three battalions of NVA we were about to try to drive through in broad daylight. At one point in our trip through the jungle, we could see an NVA patrol within striking distance of our jeep. The soldiers looked right at us but never even raised their weapons to fire! We just kept saying our prayers and hauling butt. Hill 119 turned out to about a 1500 foot mountain that overlooked the plain surrounding the air base. It was the highest in the area, making it ideal for our intended assignment. The mountainside was jungle and very steep with a narrow gravel covered road going up at about a 45% grade. We hit that path up the mountain at full speed hoping for the best. I forgot all about the NVA when I noticed our wheels sliding back and forth within inches of dropping us over the mountain as our jeep was sliding around on the loose gravel during our frantic trip up.
We made it to the top and we were greeted with whoops and cheers from the 18 marines on the flat little plateau that was their camp. Their eyes seemed as big as saucers as they asked the one question on everyone’s mind: “How did you guys survive that trip?” They had only been there two weeks, but they were low on food and water and almost out of ammunition. It was a hotly contested, very strategic mountain. These guys had replaced a squad that was over-run and wiped out two weeks earlier.
That mountain top was surreal! As we set up our equipment and started our work I was frequently riveted to the scenes of war raging in each of the three valleys surrounding our perch in the jungle. What a view! In one valley there would be a fire fight and mortars being lobbed in the rice patties just outside a little village. In another, we could see NVA running from South Vietnamese artillery rounds screaming in from another mountain to our north. It really grabbed my attention when an American F4 Phantom dropped napalm beside the road we had earlier used to get to this mountain. I struggled to push the thought out of my mind that we would be going back down that road in an hour or so.
Suddenly, the marines all around began to cheer again, but this time they were pointing up into the sky. Directly above us, but still just a speck was the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. It was their re-supply flight! It was purposefully coming straight down towards us from several thousand feet up in order to face the thick armor shield on its underside toward the ground at all times. When it got to about 500 feet from the landing circle of marker stones, the whole mountain erupted with AK47 and machine gun fire! We watched as tracer bullets poured out of the jungle from all around and below us like a reverse hail storm towards the sky, bouncing off the helicopter’s armor. The pilot could see that landing was hopeless, he gave the engines full power, the prop wash blew over all our equipment, but the crew managed to toss a couple boxes of supplies out to the beleaguered marines as the copter got out of there.
Then the reality hit me like a punch in the stomach! This mountain was chock full of the enemy with plenty of ammunition. One round form an AK47 or a short burst from one of those machine guns on our way up here and we would have cashed in our dog tags! Then suddenly I knew. I heard no voice nor saw any miraculous signs, but I knew we would make it back safely. Our survival was no fluke, no accident, no lucky role of the dice. I could feel a presence surrounding me that was saying “We are watching out for you, despite what looks like impossible odds, you are in our hands.” I not only knew I would survive, but my very survival meant I had more to do with my life that was important enough to send out some awfully powerful protection!
My mental state on the way back was quite a contrast with the trip to that mountaintop. I had given the marines my cache of ammo before we headed out, my stomach was calm and I felt confident for the first time since I had arrived at the Saigon airport 10 months earlier.
If that was not a miracle enough for me, another greeted me as I returned to my previous squadron at Tan Son Nhut air base. I had never shared with anyone, not even my closest friends, why I was doing so much volunteering to avoid useful work in support of the war effort. Despite this secrecy, a second lieutenant I had never previously met asked for me to be re-assigned to him. His duties were accounting and recording supplies for our squadron. He told me that I was to spend our usual duty hours in the accounting office, he showed me the work he had to do if I wanted to help, but if I didn’t do anything no one else would ever know. What heavenly relief! I had been weighed down with the thought that my fellow soldiers had to carry my share of the work that I felt ethically compelled to avoid, and now that was off my shoulders. I was free to read textbooks and novels and not do anything to support the war. I never asked him how or why and he never said. To me, he was my personal angel in an air force uniform. I rarely saw him and never even got a chance to thank him for his kindness.
Experiences like this have taught me to be thankful for every day I awaken, that there is more to the world than meets the eye and that this invisible realm is loving and supportive. From time to time I wonder just how many angels were assigned to my case :-)
Love to all……Chuck