Mike Clark's worst day in Vietnam started out benignly enough, as he flew along splitting the attention between the rolling, jungle-cloaked hills and the instrument panel of his Chinnok chopper on a routine shuttle to deliver five passengers and assorted supplies to a forward base.
He was surrounded by the best of friends, in the tight combat fraternity of a helicopter crew in a combat zone. At the controls, sat co-pilot Walt Zimmers. Back in the open doorway, 18-year-old Jim Wooley manned his machine gun -- scanning the thick jungle below for signs of a threat.
They were all talking and joking on the intercom, in the easy going manner of combat units where the banter is draped casually over the training and the tension.
But unbeknownst to them, the day would soon take a terrible turn. In the end, the day would give Clark, now principal of the Pine/Strawberry School, one more reason to anticipate the coming to Payson in June of a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall inscribed with the names of more than 55,000 war dead.
"We were all talking, when we suddenly started taking hits," recalls Clark, who served two tours in Vietnam flying helicopters in the late '60s and early '70s, before retiring from the military in 1992 and becoming a teacher in 1993.
Wooley shouted into the intercom that they were taking fire from the ground, his voice crackling in Clark's ear over the whomping of the twin engines on the enormous helicopter, capable of carrying a squad of 30 soldiers and their gear.
They did not know it until later, but three of the bullets fired from the ground tore through the engine, severing fuel lines.
Clark's instrument panel went into an hysteria of flashing lights that he'd spent more than a year learning to interpret, against just such a moment.
In a burst of flame, the left engine shut down. Zimmers struggled with the controls, looking for a good place to crash --knowing the second engine couldn't keep the heavily loaded helicopter aloft for long.
Meanwhile, Clark's hands flew across the control panel, shutting off the flow of fuel and fluids to the crippled engine. As he worked, he put out the Mayday call.
But a moment later, fire engulfed the engine -- sending a flash of flame through the chopper -- singeing the side of Clark's face.
Dimly, he sensed that the thudding of Wooley's machine gun had fallen silent, but he had too much happening to ponder the implications.
Zimmers wrestled the suddenly unwieldy helicopter toward the ground, trimming the forward speed to about 90 miles an hour and aiming for a rice paddy.
Just when it seemed they might be able to skid safely into the flooded rice paddy, the second engine cut out -- probably because the fire in the other engine had cut off its fuel supply.
Still 200 feet above the ground, the stricken helicopter plunged from the sky like so much scrap metal. Even then, Clark and Zimmers worked the controls by dint of their obsessive training, adjusting the pitch of the rotor blades to slow the plunge.
A real bounce
"It was a real bounce," says Clark, with a pilot's instinctive understatement. "Luckily, the rice paddy was full of water and crud. I saw the forward blades flex down and hit the ground. So all this water comes up. It was enough to suppress the flames a little bit, so almost all of us got out."
The chopper continued to burn as the stunned passengers and crew struggled out of their safety harnesses and cast about for an escape route. One passenger trying to make his way out the rear cargo bay was killed when the rear rotor pylon collapsed, crushing him.
The crash somehow sheered off Clark's emergency escape door, and Zimmers was injured and trapped in his seat.
So Clark jumped out, ran to Zimmers' side and with the help of another crew member wrestled open the emergency door and pulled out Zimmers before the flames reached the cockpit.
They carried Zimmers away from the chopper and gathered up the survivors. Only then did Clark discover that the cheerful, optimistic 18-year-old door gunner with a great attitude and his life ahead of him had been killed while they were still in the air, hit by the gunfire that brought the chopper down.
Two helicopter gunships were already overhead, together with a fighter bomber -- all having responded quickly to Clark's mid-air Mayday. Medivac helicopters arrived within 15 minutes, to whisk them to a field hospital.
Clark earned a purple heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross that day, but he also gained one more reason to visit The Wall, a once-controversial and now revered war memorial.
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington had such an emotional impact that a replica has drawn millions of visitors as it tours the country. Organizers expect 20,000 people or more to journey to Payson to see that reduce scale version of The Wall in June.
Clark says he doesn't talk much about his two tours in Vietnam -- and concedes that his own kids haven't heard the story of his crash in any detail -- although his son has served his own tour in the military.
Clark was willing to tell the story here in hopes that it would contribute to the Roundup's effort to get as many Rim Country Vietnam vets as possible to send in their stories. Those stories will run in the paper and will be posted on the Roundup's Web site between now and the arrival of The Wall in June.
Although veterans of all wars are often reluctant to talk about combat experiences, Vietnam vets often faced outright hostility on their return.
Clark vividly remembers his homecoming. He arrived on a military transport plane, loaded with men from different units.
"We were walking through the terminal and ran into some people like that -- the baby killer bit -- saying ‘you ought to be ashamed.' They didn't spit on any of us directly, but they spit on the floor in front of us. That kind of stuff."
So in all the years since, like a lot of Vietnam vets, he didn't talk much about his service there.
"Even if someone asks, their eyes generally glaze over if you answer. They have no idea what you're talking about -- so you just don't say anything. Nobody asks. Nobody cares. Vietnam doesn't come up -- it's something for history classes. I've been asked to talk about it in school sometimes," said Clark.
"But what could I tell them that would make any sense? This is ancient history to them -- you might as well be talking about the Peleponnesian wars."
He said he volunteered to serve in part because he romanticized war and in part as a result of a long, honorable family tradition.
His father served on a battleship in World War II and his uncles served in various services, including one uncle killed when a U-boat sank his destroyer.
Clark tried a semester of college, couldn't see the point, and enlisted with the silent assent of his father and over the vocal objections of his mother.
He arrived in Vietnam gung-ho and optimistic, but grew jaded in the course of his service -- not about the Army but about the lack of any real strategic plan.
"I had no doubt what I was doing was the right thing and believed if we didn't stop the communist there, they might be marching down the streets of Chicago. I got a little tainted later on. The only ground we held was what we happened to be standing. But then gave the whole banana back to them and pulled out -- and they never did march down the streets of Chicago."
He said the conflict had eerie parallels with the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. "As a young second lieutenant I started asking myself, ‘What is our exit strategy? How do we know when we win? And you can just overlay it with what's going on now."
But as in all wars, the soldiers on the front line fight so they and their buddies can eventually go home -- and leave the rest of it to the generals and the politicians.
Clark had several close calls in nearly three years of flying helicopters under fire, including one time when they flew in about 400 soldiers, only to discover that they'd set the grunts down in the middle of maybe 1,000 North Vietnamese regulars waiting, invisible, under the jungle canopy. The chopper pilots flew all through the night, bringing ammunition and taking away the wounded as the GIs struggled to survive. Eventually, the North Vietnamese units simply melted away.
But the closest he came to getting shot down again came on a mission to supply a mountaintop artillery battery with more shells.
This time, the Chinnok flew with about 9,000 pounds of artillery shells packed in wooden boxes tucked into a giant cargo net hanging down under the helicopter. Clark piloted the chopper along a ridge toward the artillery post that provided life-saving covering fire for infantry units operating in the valley below. The flight engineer lay on his stomach in the cargo bay, watching the swaying net loaded with ammo boxes through a hatch in the floor.
Suddenly, a 51 caliber anti-aircraft gun opened up from somewhere in the trees below, sending splinters flying off the ammo boxes, which were sucked back up through the floor into the cargo bay by air pressure.
About eight or nine bullets also tore through the helicopter. One passed through the metal floor two inches to one side of the flight engineer, tore through the roof, glanced off the housing for the rotor, penetrated the roof again and came to rest finally in a thick first aid packet.
Clark immediately dropped the load of shells into the jungle, praying it wouldn't explode before falling clear -- then took quick evasive action to rise beyond the effective range of the hidden gun. At the same time, they put out the call they were taking fire.
A bomber appeared out of nowhere and unleashed its load on the position of the shooters.
Clark coaxed the badly vibrating helicopter to a safe landing next to a nearby base, where another helicopter evacuated the unharmed crew.
Many Vietnam veterans went directly from that kind of intense experience, to job hunting in a country where some called them baby killers.
Clark brushed up against those attitudes, but remained in the service for another 24 years, where his combat medals were a mark of distinction.
But he said the arrival of The Wall and the Roundup's effort to get Rim Country vets to talk about their experiences can offer some soldiers a delayed homecoming.
"I think maybe this is one thing we learned" from Vietnam -- to honor the soldiers, even if we criticize the war. "The guys coming back now" from Iraq "are applauded and hugged and welcomed back by perfect strangers -- for that I'm grateful."
He said that Vietnam veterans usually feel comfortable talking about their experiences there, mostly with one another. He said that it's still common when one vet from that era meets another, to say quietly, "welcome home."
And he figures when The Wall comes to Payson, he'll go take a look.
Then he can find Jim Wooley's name there, with all the rest.
And once more say, welcome home.