Release Date: April 25, 2022
October 27th, 1967, outside of Bù Đốp, near the Vietnam-Cambodia border. The helicopter John is piloting has just been shot down by an enemy RPG while attempting to evacuate two wounded Special Forces soldiers from the jungle. In this episode, John shares the story of his service in Vietnam, including his helicopter crash, his dramatic rescue, and his long, strange journey home.
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(JOHN): [00:00:00] I remember seeing the main rotor break off in the jungle as people were scrambling out of our way. And that’s the last that I remember until I came to on the ground.
(HOST): [00:00:16] That’s John Woods. It’s October 27th, 1967, outside of boot camp near the Vietnam Cambodia border. The helicopter John is piloting has just been shot down by an enemy RPG while attempting to evacuate two wounded Special Forces soldiers from the jungle.
(JOHN): [00:00:33] When I came to, everything was completely black. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. But I couldn’t see anything either. And my initial reaction was, oh, is this what it’s like to be dead? My flight helmet had been crushed and I’d been cut above my eyes all the way across my forehead. And blood had closed my eyes. Later I heard Vietnamese voices and I thought, Keep your mouth shut. You don’t want them to know you’re here and be taken be taken as a prisoner.
(HOST): [00:01:19] We like to call John our longest serving volunteer. He’s been on VVMF’s board of directors since before the memorial was dedicated 40 years ago. In this episode, he’ll share the story of his service in Vietnam, including his helicopter crash, his dramatic rescue and his long, strange journey home. Stick around. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of The Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This is Episode 27. John Woods is a Ghost. John Woods, Jr. Grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He and his brother always wanted to be engineers. John remembers the two of them building roads in the back yard when John was just in elementary school. John’s mother’s side of the family was concentrated around Durham, North Carolina, and John set his sights on Duke University. When he was a senior in high school, he was accepted at Duke, but even with his scholarship, the cost was beyond his family’s means. John thought maybe he could work his way through school, but he wasn’t sure.
(HOST): [00:02:53] And one night, John was out with a group of boys, one of whom had already graduated high school and was a freshman at the Citadel. The nob declared that none of those other boys, including John, could make it through the Citadel and on that dare, plus the fact that Duke would cost his family four times as much. John went to the Citadel. He made it through and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve in May of 1964. He received a two year deferment to pursue a master’s degree at Duke, which he completed in July of 1966. Six weeks later, he completed the Engineer Basic Course and was given a temporary assignment as the XO of an advanced training company at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In November of that year, John got his orders for flight school at Fort Walter’s, Texas. And in July of 1967, he proceeded to advanced aviation training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he learned to fly the Army’s main rotary wing aircraft. The Bell UAH1D better known as Huey. In August 1967, John was awarded his Army Aviation Wings and a trip to Southeast Asia. All expenses paid.
(JOHN): [00:04:22] I only remember exactly what day I departed, but I arrived in Vietnam at Biên Hòa Air Force base just north of Saigon. September the 12th, 1967, I spent a day or so with the aviation battalion headquarters just northwest of Saigon, and then was assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, which was at Củ Chi. We were the Hornets, which were the primarily the troop carrying models. We were limited by our flight surgeon to, I believe it was 120 hours a month. Not sure of that, but I know I exceeded that in the first month and was granted an in-country R&R to go down to Vũng Tàu down on the southeast coast. That was really what we would refer to as a long weekend, Thursday through, Thursday through Sunday. Then I went back to Củ Chi to fly again.
(HOST): [00:05:39] Flying a helicopter was one of the most dangerous jobs in Vietnam, and that’s saying something. But when they weren’t flying, according to John, the pilots in Vietnam had it pretty good.
(JOHN): [00:05:50] Actually, being in Vietnam was not an enjoyable thing as a pilot, being able to see the country and the style of living which aviators got to have. We lived in what were referred to as hooches. They were wood frame buildings that had typically four beds, four areas of beds and had a lavatory in it for which the water was furnished by having a 50 gallon drum sitting up on the on the roof. The nice thing was we had made service of Vietnamese women who cleaned our hooch every day, washed and put clean sheets on our beds because we flew every day from six in the morning till six at night. We in essence slept in a bed each night. We got cleaned uniforms the next morning when we came back from flying at around 6:00 each evening or in some cases a little earlier. We like to be the first ones to get in the shower, which was a gang shower. The water came from putting aircraft wing tanks on the roof. And you wanted to be the first in the shower coming back because the first amount of water that came out was warm from the sun heating the wing tanks during the day. We also got hot meals for breakfast and we got a hot meal for dinner. We typically had the c-rations during the day because we were out on the airstrips waiting for orders for combat. We had television and the officer’s club. Obviously, alcohol and snacks were incredibly cheap and readily available. We had an amphitheatre as a part of this aviation company where they showed movies at night.
(HOST): [00:08:05] October 27th, 1967.
(JOHN): [00:08:09] I was flying with Mike Albert, who was a warrant officer as the aircraft commander. I was what we referred to as the Peter pilot or the pilot of the aircraft, as I had not had enough experience in country and in combat to be the aircraft commander of a helicopter. Mike was also the club officer for our officer’s club there at Củ Chi, and I was assisting him. So the that Friday, we had been given a mission of flying ash and trash, which was going to allow us to finish our actual work at around 3:00 or 1500 hours. Then he and I planned to go to into Saigon, and we were going to do shopping for the for the officer’s club supplies at the PX Chau Tuan. Our mission on that Friday was to fly another Corps of Engineers lieutenant who was also like me at that time, a first lieutenant. He had an envelope full of classified documents for airfields northwest of Saigon. And our mission was to fly him to each of these now well known airfields so that he could, in essence, declassify the documents. We stopped for lunch at Lai Khê, which was the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division, better known as Big Red One. I remember us going to Sông Bé and a couple of other locations. I don’t remember whether we actually had a reason to fly to Bù Đốp, which was northwest of Saigon, not far from the Cambodian border, but it was a Special Forces firebase.
(JOHN): [00:10:23] And when we got there, we were beginning to run low on the fuel, plus we were beginning to get close to our end of day, which was 3:00. The Special Forces major came running out along with the Special Forces sergeant and asked whether we would be willing to make an emergency medevac northwest of Bù Đốp, close to the border. There was a MIKE force, which was a special ops unit of Special Forces, plus Cambodians and Vietnamese, all of them disguised as peasants, working their way as a reconnaissance group in the jungles. We were told that two Americans with this unit had been wounded and the unit was surrounded by the North Vietnamese. And obviously, with wounded people, they they couldn’t they couldn’t sneak through the North Vietnamese lines and and get away. So they were asking if we would come in and and pick up the wounded. We were also told that where they were, there was really no place for us to land, that we would do it by hovering probably 200 feet because of the triple canopy jungle. So I remember Mike telling the major, we’ll make an attempt to do it, but we really don’t have much fuel left, so we won’t be able to stay very long. And the major assured us that he had enough fuel on the base there, that we could go out, get it and come back and be refueled before we took these wounded people to to medical facilities.
(JOHN): [00:12:29] In addition to Mike is the aircraft commander and myself is the pilot. We had a door gunner and we had our crew chief, the engineer lieutenant who was flying with us, asked whether he could go along as he was curious and an adventurous sort. And then, of course, the major and the sergeant said they would go with us to get us to the location and then get us back. In those days, we didn’t have a whole lot of instrumentation that allowed us to use GPS, such as we do today. So the major and the sergeant, the lieutenant all got on board and we went to this location. It was very little sunlight that got down through the jungle at that at that point. But it was enough that I could see both the American Special Forces people on the ground, as well as some other members of the MIKE Force. I remember watching the main rotors hovering just above the tree tops. The first wounded guy was on board the aircraft. The second guy was on a sling being pulled up. All of a sudden, the aircraft lurched and we started swinging around, wobbling. And I remember Mike saying, John, can you help me control the aircraft? I’m having a tough time.
(JOHN): [00:14:10] Based on our training in flight school, much of what Mike and I did at that point was reflex, not being able to control the aircraft. I remember starting to nose down and not realizing we were going to crash. We were continuing to try to make the aircraft fly. Our tail rotor was hit by an RPG round which took it took the tail rotor off. It was totally a lucky shot because they couldn’t see they couldn’t see the aircraft from where they were shooting. So they just shot the doors. And they got lucky. I remember seeing the main rotor blade break off in the jungle as people were scrambling out of our way. And that’s the last that I remember until I came to on the ground at some later time. When I came to, everything was completely black. Then my initial reaction was, Oh, is this what it’s like to be dead? I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t hear anything. And I couldn’t see anything either. A little bit later, I heard Vietnamese voices, and I remembered that this MIKE force was surrounded. And I thought, well, keep your mouth shut. You don’t want them to know you’re here and be taken to the prisoner. Shortly after that, I heard American forces and I said, I’m under here. Can you get me out? And I remember them saying, Hang on, we’re trying.
(HOST): [00:16:32] After a short break, Jon’s dramatic rescue and his unlikely introduction to the man who pulled him out of that chopper. Stick around. Have you ever heard of Wall Magic? People who visit The Wall often talk about it. It’s that unexpected, often spiritual connection or discovery that happens when you visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It’s one of those things that if you know, you know, you’ve either experienced it or you haven’t. Maybe you’d like to, but you can’t easily get yourself to The Wall in Washington, D.C. That’s exactly why VVMF created The Wall That Heals an exact replica of The Wall at three-quarters scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in New Castle, Delaware, April 28th through May 1 and Findlay, Ohio, May 5 through 8. To see the rest of this year’s tour schedule and to learn how you can bring The Wall That Heals to your town. Visit vvmf.org. This year, we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to commemorate this milestone every day at 3 p.m. Eastern. We read the name of every Wall honoree who died on that date. This is in addition to the live in person reading of the names that will be held in Washington, D.C., beginning on November 7th. You can visit vvmf.org/ROTN. For more information about the daily virtual reading of the names and about the in-person event. The 2022 In Memory induction ceremony at the wall is set for Father’s Day weekend, and we’re already accepting applications for the 2023 In Memory honor roll.
(HOST): [00:18:38] So if you have loved ones who survived the Vietnam War and died after returning home, you can honor them in next year’s ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We also have an In Memory Facebook group with more than 15,000 members. So be sure to join that if you want to feel part of a community of people who’ve experienced a loss similar to yours. You’ll find the 2023 In Memory Honor Roll Application and a link to the Facebook group by going to vvmf.org And clicking on In Memory. For 40 years now, VVMF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honour all who served? Our new legacy endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We launched the Legacy Endowment with a $500,000 matching gift campaign. The Legacy Challenge. Each new outright gift or gift established through a will, will be matched up to 50%, with a maximum of $50,000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th of this year are eligible for the match. Learn more at vvmf.org/legacy. In preparing for this episode, one of the people I talked to about John Woods is Jim Knotts, the CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
(HOST): [00:20:13] Well, you’ve known John for quite a while and have worked closely with him for a number of years. Do you remember how you two met?
(JIM): [00:20:19] I first met John Woods whenever I started working with DVNF, and that’s most of a decade now. And any time I needed advice, any time I needed historical context for something related to anything we were doing. John was one of the first people I would call.
(HOST): [00:20:41] How did John get involved with the memorial and the fund in the first place?
(JIM): [00:20:46] He joined the board whenever the organizers needed some help with architectural issues. He’s a structural engineer, so he joined the board before The Wall was ever dedicated, and he has served as a volunteer on the board for more than 40 years. He is just a Vietnam veteran that continues to serve his fellow veterans and serve his country in so many ways.
(HOST): [00:21:14] Yeah, that’s amazing. John must be, I don’t know, 80 years old now. And when you think of what his body has been through, his energy and his his generosity with that energy are pretty remarkable.
(JIM): [00:21:28] John Woods is one of the people that I respect and admire most in the world. He also serves on other philanthropic boards, and since he retired from business a couple of years ago, he’s busier than he was when he was working.
(HOST): [00:21:45] Yeah. Isn’t that something?
(JIM): [00:21:48] I mean, you talk about someone, it’s an unsung hero in your community that defines John Woods. He always finds a way to help and freely gives of his time, of his talent and his treasure.
(HOST): [00:22:05] On October 27th, 1967, John’s helicopter was shot down while trying to rescue two wounded Special Forces soldiers outside of Bù Đốp. John’s legs were crushed below the knees. His left arm broken. His forehead lacerated. He was covered in blood. But he was alive. John’s memories of what happened next are a series of mental snapshots clear but disconnected at various medical facilities in Southeast Asia.
(JOHN): [00:22:43] I remember waking up in the 24th evac hospital in Long Bình and looking up and seeing the aviation company commander, the executive officer and the flight surgeon. And they asked me how I felt and I said, I’m okay. I do remember asking or they all there and they said, Yes, they’re all there. But you sure have broken them all up. I was put in a body cast because I had a broken right femur. Compound fractures of both. Both ankles. Right, right and left. And my left arm was fractured above above my elbow. They transported me from the 24th evac hospital by ambulance to an Air Force dispensary there at Tan Son Nhat. It had screens on it by the air condition clean. But I’m in one bed and there’s another bed next to me before you walk out at the end of this long ward. But this young guy was sitting on the bed. Guess he was 18 or 19 years old, and he was wearing military pajamas. And I said, What are you here for? You don’t look like you’ve been wounded. And he said, Well, I’m being sent to Japan for a mental evaluation. I killed my hooch mate yesterday. And I looked at him and with that he said, and I’m tired. I don’t know why I’m sitting here. I’m out of here.
(JOHN): [00:24:52] And he immediately got up out of the bed and walked out. And about that time, several nurses and corpsman came running up and said, “Where is so-and-so?” And I said, Well, once he told me that he’d killed his hooch mate yesterday I didn’t stop him or ask him where he was going. In the spring of 68 when I was at Walter Reed and I was on Ward One, which was an officer’s orthopedic ward in the old historical hospital, we had a part of that ward that was designated as the snake pit, and only those wounded in Vietnam could be in that section of ward. There were eight beds and we tended to congregate back in the pit and tell war stories, laughed, joked. I was in a wheelchair with both legs in long leg casts, and an officer came back, was standing there listening to the war story and asked some questions, and I answered them. And the ultimate thing was, well, I was the Special Forces commander who pulled you out of the aircraft. And he said, I am absolutely thrilled not only to find you here, but to find that you still have both of your legs because we weren’t sure you were going to keep them when we put you on the slings the night of the crash.
(HOST): [00:26:43] Nestor Pino Marina lived an outsized life. Born in Cuba, he attended the military academy there before Castro’s revolution in 1959. He joined CIA trained Cuban exiles in Guatemala and took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when he was taken prisoner and sentenced to 30 years in a Cuban prison. In December 1962, he was among a handful of prisoners released to the United States in exchange for tens of millions of dollars in food and medical supplies. Nestor joined the U.S. Army and became an infantry officer and in 1964 he joined the Special Forces. He spent 18 months running special ops in the Vietnamese jungle and was sitting at Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base waiting for his silver bird home when the terminal came under a rocket attack. Nestor suffered shrapnel wounds in one of his hands, and since Walter Reed had the best orthopedic hand surgeon in the military at the time, Nestor was sent there for treatment. Incredibly, he ran into John Woods in the snake pit.
(JOHN): [00:27:46] Needless to say, I was really glad to meet Nestor and we went up to the Officers Club and probably finished off a quart or more of Jack Daniel’s and he related all of what happened to me on the ground after we crashed. When we crashed. The door gunner, the crew chief, both fell out of the aircraft before it hit the ground about 25 or 30 feet. The the door gunner broke his jaw and I later saw him in the hospital at Long Bin. I never saw the crew chief, although I heard that he fractured a number of ribs and both of them actually stayed in Vietnam and went back to the our helicopter company. As it turns out, the Special Forces major and the sergeant were both killed in the crash, most likely because they were not strapped in. The aircraft commander was thrown through through the front windshield, ended up ultimately losing an eye, he broke leg, his face was smashed with broken jaw and nose and they did an emergency tracheotomy on him. But at some point, he was asking, was his crew okay? And had they found the engineer lieutenant, his pilot and Nestor told me that they, of course, thought they had had me, when in fact, it was the other engineer lieutenant who was on board the aircraft as an observer. Nester informed me that the way they found me was that he sent his medic back to the aircraft because it was standard procedure to remove the radio. And when the medic walked back to the aircraft, he actually saw my hand sticking out underneath the front of the aircraft in the dirt.
(JOHN): [00:30:17] The aircraft had gone down nose first and rolled to towards the right because of the rotation of the rotor. And in some way my seat was turned 90 degrees, crushing my legs from my knees to my feet against the door, against the ground. They didn’t have any equipment to break the seat out. They started trying to use fire axes that were on board the on board the aircraft to no avail. They apparently called and asked for help in obtaining some tools or something to cut the seed out. And eventually, two people ran through the lines carrying hacksaws. And with those hacksaws, they cut the seat loose. And I remember being pulled out. This all happened. It began at 3:00 in the afternoon. And by the time they were able to extract me from the aircraft, it was close to 7:00. It gets dark in Vietnam every night at 6:00 or 1800. Now to protect me. Our 116 helicopter gunships were flying cover around for the entire time, as well as three other aviation companies with their gunships. So the North Vietnamese who were surrounding this site really were having trouble attacking the Special Forces Group. And Nestor said, I passed in and out, and I still am fascinated that I had no pain. And I specifically remember asking the question, are you guys going to get me out of this? At that time, Nestor said they weren’t sure they could get me out, and I was the only time I can remember being scared.
(JOHN): [00:32:50] And I said, Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me. And they assured they would not leave me. Well, as it turns out, Nestor said the medic had told them that if they didn’t get me out within the next 5 to 15 minutes, that I was going to die from loss of blood or shock or both. And they said, So we better warn him that the only way we may be able to get him out is to cut his legs off at the knees. So they said they broke the seat loose with the hacksaws. I remember sitting on the floor of the jungle watching them split both of my legs up. I remember going up on the on the hoist up through the trees and seeing the landing light of another aircraft, which turned out to be another Huey. Tracers were going everywhere. And I remember looking at that landing light and thinking one of the things that they taught us in flight school was don’t ever turn your landing light on at night in combat except to look where you’re going to crash. And so I’m looking at that light as I’m going up saying, I hope I hope you’re not going to get shot down and come down on top of me. I remember being pulled up and dragged into the onto the floor of that Huey, and somebody said, Are you okay? And I said, I’m really cold. I later learned it was because I was blood soaked. But I passed out.
(HOST): [00:34:52] Thanks to Nestor, John had a fairly complete picture of what happened right after the crash, but that encounter was months later. The days immediately following the crash were still just bits and flashes of memory. John had no idea, for example, how many times he nearly died after being rescued. He would fill in those blanks with the help of a doctor at Camp Drake in Japan, in a conversation triggered by, of all things, bad handwriting.
(JOHN): [00:35:19] When I went from Tan Son Nhat to Camp Drake in Japan, I was on the ward, what was called F troop ward. Turns out it was a septic ward where all of the patients had significant lacerations. In some cases, they were amputees or having been blown away, lost portions of their legs or skin or arms. The doctor there I was then in a hearing room with him, and he said he’d had a difficult time of understanding all of the notes on my chart. He said, as usual, the doctor in Vietnam had not not had great handwriting and what he would object if he read my chart, tried to read what was written in my chart, and I could fill him in. And it was at that point he informed me that when I arrived, whether it was the 98th or the 24th, I was in surgery and I went into cardiac arrest and they were able to get my heart started again with electric paddles and shock. It was a little later during that surgery that I threw up and the the OR nurse happened to see me do it and I was choking on my own puke and my heart stopped again. And they were able to do CPR on my chest. And he went through went through the whole chart. And when he finished, he looked at me and he said, Lieutenant, with the amount of blood, blood volume loss that you had in that period of time, the amount of shock that you suffered. There is no medical basis for you being alive today. You are a ghost. I remember smiling at him and just waving and going, But I’m here. So I’m convinced that we call him the Great Ranger in the sky. But I’m convinced even today that God decided not to punch my ticket, that he had other things for me to do, to do in life.
(HOST): [00:38:04] John Woods fulfilled his childhood dream, building a long career as an engineer. In 1999, he co-founded Woods Peacock Engineering Consultants in Alexandria, Virginia. He has since retired from engineering but is still active on VVMF’s board of directors. John and his wife Donna split their time between Alexandria and Myrtle Beach. Colonel Nestor Pino Marina passed away in 2013. He was highly decorated, including a Silver Star in 1968, for helping supervise the construction of a vital operating base at Tiangong Vietnam, under intense and repeated enemy attacks. Thanks for supporting the official podcasts from the founders of The Wall in Washington DC. If you want to give us a little extra boost, tell a friend or two to check us out. Or better yet, leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts, that’s the most powerful way to help new listeners find us. We’ll be back in two weeks with more stories of service, sacrifice and healing. See you then.
Full Interview with John Woods
- VVMF Reading of the Names – vvmf.org/rotn
- VVMF 40th Anniversary – vvmf.org/40th
- VVMF The Wall That Heals – vvmf.org/the-wall-that-heals
- VVMF In Memory program – vvmf.org/in-memory-program
- VVMF Legacy Endowment Challenge – vvmf.org/legacy
- John Woods Interview –
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