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By Brian Prahl
As soon as I saw the train, I thought to myself, "Why?" What was it doing down there, in the middle of the jungle valley floor, miles from any city, village or hamlet? A steam locomotive of yesteryear and three scattered passenger cars of the same 1930s era. At 1,500 feet they reminded me of a toddler's toy train set strewn across a playroom floor.
It was a beautiful valley, green and lush, filled with tall elephant grass with a small stream flowing eventually, I guessed, into the Mekong River or perhaps the South China Sea. The valley was surrounded by mountains and a triple canopy jungle that rose up with the terrain to 1,500 and 2,000-foot ridges.
I knew I shouldn't, as we were safe from any hostile ground fire at 1,500 feet, but I was drawn to that strange scene below and wanted to know more. AK-47 and RPGs were our primary concern when we were below such altitudes. We had just completed an air ambulance mission and were back en route to Xuan Loc to refuel. I came on the intercom and asked my crew, a medic, crew chief, and co-pilot, if they minded if I did a quick fly by at a lower altitude. They all agreed and were equally interested in seeing a closer view.
Since we were a single "Dustoff bird" with no armed escort and we were in "bad guy territory," I decided on a "high overhead spiral approach." A tight, rapidly descending spiral that enabled us to use all three continuously changing dimensions to make it all the more difficult for any "Charlie" in the vicinity to track, lead, fire and hit our aircraft. I pulled back on my cyclic to reduce my airspeed to 40 knots, then rolled my Huey on its side while simultaneously bottoming my collective (main rotor blades' lift control) to begin our accelerating descent. I nursed the collective to keep the rotor's rpm speed from building while spiraling downwards in tight 360 degree circles towards the train. I heard some hoots in the back as the crew experienced the brief weightlessness. I pulled out of our dive at about 50 feet above the ground then eased lower until our skids were ticking through the tops of the elephant grass.
As we whizzed by the train at 120 knots (138 mph), I could see now that this wreck was the result of either sabotage or ambush many decades ago. There were bullet holes in the sidecars and some larger gaping holes from either internal or external explosions. There were also some missing tracks that may have been part of the ambush scenario.
I pulled back on my cyclic as we came abreast of the locomotive and coal car, and just as we popped back up to 1,500 feet, I caught a glimpse of a reflection from something as we passed over the highest ridge. I circled back and alerted my crew to the location. Could it be the glint off a Viet Cong weapon other piece of equipment? Could it be a missing Army or Air Force aircraft?
It was a crashed aircraft! We could make out a wing and an insignia. "Wait a second, and I'll do another pass," I said to my crew. "It's a Jap Zero!" shouted my medic as we passed over the fighter again.There below you could make out the faded red ball on the wing of the Japanese fighter. Suddenly, it all came together for us; the train, the plane, all of these were the remnants of another war, a distant World War II event. As we banked our Huey towards home, it dawned on me that the people of North and South Vietnam had never known peace or independence in the many centuries since they were a province of China around 1,000 A.D.
First China, then the Dutch, then the French (you could still make of French markings on the train), then the Japanese during WWII, again the French after the war, and now the Americans, Koreans, Thai, Australians and New Zealanders. I found myself subconsciously thinking of the verses to a new song I had recently heard on AFVN Radio, "War! What is it good for! Absolutely nothing!"
Brian Prahl retired ten years ago after moving to Montana in 1997. He began having recurring dreams about his year in RVN. At his wife's suggestion, Brian started writing them down and has now written over 15 short stories. As he missed flying, Brian joined the MTARNG and enjoyed flying over the Northern Rockies. He made the mistake of transitioning from UH-1H/V Hueys to UH-60A Blackhawks right as 9/11 happened. He was activated in early 2003 and was deployed to Iraq/Kuwait in January 2004 as the second wave of OIF. Brian now writes about the comparisons/differences of DustOff aka medevac roles in these two different wars.