The story of a gun
Last week I mentioned one of my guns has a story, a story I have told you in part before. It begins in 1969 Vietnam, and I hope as you read this story you will think not of me but all the others in all of our wars, troops long ago in WWII, today in Afghanistan, what they live through for all of us and how it changes them.
I was a 21-year-old Army Cobra helicopter gunship pilot. Capt. John Synowsky, our Dragon platoon leader and a few years older, taught us a few essentials of survival, like tricks to keep our night vision when firing rockets, avoiding target fixation which might result in flying into the ground, breaking short of the enemy to make their shot at us harder as we went around for another gun run.
We had great fun learning to fly low enough to bring home tree branches in our skids after overflying the enemy so low and fast they couldn’t hit us.
We were each issued a .38-cal. revolver for survival in case we went down. In our macho-talk of youth, we joked that all it was good for was killing ourselves if capture was imminent since the enemy had a record of torture-killing gunship pilots. More quietly, we hoped that test would never come.
I carried my .38 with the hammer on an empty chamber for safety in case I dropped it, but my buddy Graham Stevens said no way, if he ever went down he might need that extra round. As it turned out, his extra round nearly got me.
It was a dangerous business, but we weren’t any more brave than all the other guys in the air and on the ground in combat; we just had a job to do and we were usually called when there was a fight. Even after a bad day, our motivation to climb in the cockpit to kick the enemy’s butt came from our guys on the ground, our brothers who needed us. Here’s one example.
One day an American ground unit was trying to block a superior enemy force invading South Vietnam from across the Cambodian border. Our forces called for help as they were losing the fight in the thick jungle, in danger of being overrun.
John Synowsky took a fire team of two Cobras to help, and in the firefight realized his worst nightmare when he took .51-caliber anti-aircraft rounds through the cockpit.
One of those rounds bounced around the cockpit, spending part of its energy before it went through John’s chest protector and lodged in his chest, but did not go through him. It was still hot enough to burn like the dickens and cauterize the wound, slowing the bleeding.
John’s co-pilot was hit, too, but still functional. The aircraft held together, they stayed with the mission, they hit the enemy again and again, giving our guys on the ground cover to withdraw.
The families of those men on the ground will never know their loved one lived that day because John and his fire team stayed with the mission when things were rough.
On Dec. 17 of that year, in a firefight not far from Cu Chi, Ron Hefner and I took a bunch of hits, lost the tail rotor and lost control as we were climbing out of a rocket run. We went down hard, spinning like a top, hit the ground hard enough to flip the aircraft end to end.
I was in very bad trouble, unconscious, trapped in the cockpit, broken back, legs paralyzed, fuel spilling, the turbine still shrieking and the enemy nearby.
John was the fire team leader that day, and he followed us down, broke all the rules by landing in the battlefield. Graham Stevens, John’s front seat, came running to break me out of the cockpit since my exit door was pinned to the ground.
I was still groggy and weak when Graham threw a roundhouse with his .38 to smack a hole in the Plexiglas canopy, and when he hit it, the pistol fired his “extra round” through the cockpit.
It missed me and did not set the wreckage afire. Graham eventually broke through the canopy and dragged me by my flight suit collar away from the wreckage in case it blew.
Over the years John and Graham and I were in occasional contact, but we never knew where Ron was. Finally, a couple of years ago we found him in Newton, Ala.
In October of 2010, for the first time since the war, we four and a few others from our platoon had a reunion on John’s ranch, just south of Weatherford, Texas.
We are older and look a little different, but even though we had not seen each other for decades, it was almost as if we picked up a conversation cut short yesterday.
Stories flew around the table and campfire with lots of laughs, lips loosened by a little beer and wine. When one story seemed a bit exaggerated, Bob Metzger observed, “Nothing ruins a good war story like an eyewitness!”
While we were all gathered, we talked about the day Ron and I were shot down, and I learned some things I didn’t know.
While I was still unconscious and the aircraft lay on its side, Ron had to exit up, but his canopy door was whacked out of shape and stuck, so he used his .38 to shoot a few holes in the Plexiglas and then broke out. I never heard the shots.
Later, as I was lying in the LZ, I remember Ron was walking around, I thought he was OK and didn’t know Ron’s chest protector bounced up on impact and crushed his larynx, cracked his neck vertebrae, sliced open his neck and our crash crushed two inches of height out of his back. I only lost one inch.
While we were talking I noticed John looking at me, and I tried to guess what he was thinking because I know how much those memories mean to him; amidst all the killing and dying, I was one he was able to save.
From all the medals he has from two tours, he treasures most the Soldiers Medal he received for saving lives that day.
So I said eloquently to John, “What?”
John asked, “Do you remember what you did when they put you on a stretcher and started loading your broken butt on the medevac helicopter?”
“No.” I had no idea what John was talking about.
He said, “You were trying to pull your .38 out of your shoulder holster, and I thought you were going to shoot yourself because you were in a lot of pain and maybe the morphine was making you crazy. I was trying to calm you down, telling you they would take you to a hospital, you were going to be OK, don’t do anything stupid! But you turned the pistol around and handed it to me butt first and said, ‘Here, John, here’s one off the books.’”
We all knew what that meant without another word. When an aircraft was lost in the war, the unit supply officer had an opportunity to make up losses.
He could list on the lost aircraft’s inventory the dozen missing blankets he traded for Johnny Walker Red, an age-old Army supply game.
My pistol would turn up “missing,” so now John had a pistol off the books that he could trade for an unofficial weapon, or steaks, cases of beer, etc.
So I said, “I don’t remember that, John. What did you swap for my .38? I hope it was something good!”
John said, “Well, near the end of my tour I got a sweetheart assignment to be R&R officer in Hawaii, and you know how everybody and their dog wants R&R favors. Soooo, the guy who checked my stuff leaving Vietnam was supposed to check inside the Teak speakers I shipped ... but he didn’t ... and so he never saw the .38 I had securely taped to the inside!”
I said, “John, are you telling me you managed to sneak my .38 all the way home?”
John had it in his hand behind his back all the while we were talking, and he showed me the pistol with a flourish.
Holy crap! After 40 years I was looking over the pistol I carried in the war. I had never fired it.
Later, when I caught John alone, I offered to trade him one of my guns for the .38, but he only said, “I’ll think about it.” I didn’t press, because I knew it might be an important keepsake for him. We didn’t talk about it again that year.
A year later in October 2011, we gathered again at John’s ranch, cooked steaks under the stars out in the middle of nowhere, told some of the same stories and some new ones, drank toasts to our buddies who died young.
Apparently John had given the matter of my old .38 some thought because he ceremoniously made a presentation to me, butt first, and while we were shaking hands he said loud enough for all witnesses to hear that he was giving me the gun with the condition that, if I die before he does, that gun goes back to him. I agreed with no hesitation.
We’ll be gathering on John’s ranch again this October, fewer of us since we recently lost a brother to cancer. I think all of us look forward to October.
Even though our time together in the war was short, and we had families and careers before seeing each other again, nobody will ever know us quite so well, nobody else will ever fully understand our language and codes, and there are some things we will talk about to each other but nobody else.
My other guns are just weapons, but every time I touch that .38 pistol I carried in the cockpit I will think of the young cowboys I was privileged to fly with, guys who did remarkable things trying to keep their brothers alive, just like our troops today in Afghanistan. It would steal your breath if you only knew.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]