A tribute to the Crew of “Blood Sweat & Tears”
And the Marines of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division
Marines were dying. They had hit an explosive device, and the Marines of Alpha Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division closed ranks. They had been sweeping an area on the left flank of their insertion point. They had already engaged the enemy twice, had tagged a booby trap just moments earlier, and some of them were in a running firefight as they pursued enemy forces. The sound of that explosion told the Marines someone had just found another booby trap, the hard way.
The Marines closest to that blast site moved to help the wounded. Some of them had to go through concertina wire to get to them, and others simply ran into the large clearing where the wounded lay. The remaining Marines down the line circled in to set up a defensive perimeter. There, they held positions to provide cover for the Med-Evac they knew would probably already be en route. They didn’t know they had just taken up positions in a minefield and were now standing at Death’s door. In a matter of minutes this reality would come crashing down on them. They would soon be giving their lives trying to save each other, and one Marine; Private First Class Mike Clausen would be trying to save them all.
As Lieutenant Colonel Ledbetter barreled his CH 46 aircraft into the mine field, the three Marines at his one O’clock disappeared in an eruption of earth filled with searing metal and with the blood sweat & tears of young Marines. The crew of the Colonel’s aircraft was going to “Gopher Broke”, collect that precious Blood Sweat & Tears, save the rest of those Marines, and get the hell out of there! But the dying wasn’t over.
The stage was set. Lieutenant Colonel Ledbetter’s aircraft, Blood Sweat and Tears, had just landed at Death’s door, joining the Marines of Alpha Company, 3rd Platoon. What happened next may be viewed by some as a waste of humanity. It would be recognized by others as representative of a Marine’s commitment to his Fellow Marines and would answer two questions: How many Marines does it take to save a Marine? As many as it takes. How many times do they try? As many as it takes.
These questions have been answered throughout Marine Corps history.
That January 31, 1970, merits a place in those Hallowed Halls can only mean one thing:
Self Sacrifice, Uncommon Valor, and the Congressional Medal of Honor Earned by Private First Class, Mike Clausen.
It was the morning of January 31, 1970. I was a radio operator (known then as Delivery Boy 1-4 / Lance Corporal West) serving on the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), Head Quarters Company, First Marine Division on Hill 55 just south of Da Nang. Another of the “Kingfisher” Patrols was already underway as Lieutenant Cruikshank and I left the command bunker and ran down the hill to the lower landing zone. 1st Lieutenant Cruikshank, an A-4 Skyhawk Pilot, was serving as an Air Liaison officer. Major James W. Rider, was the Regimental Air Liaison Officer in charge of the TACP and a Gun Ship Commander with HML-367. Two Ch-46 Sea Knight Helicopters sat with rotors turning at a high rpm ready to lift off, and the Marines of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company were already in line at the ramp of the Sea Knight we reached first. As we joined the end of their ranks, we all advanced up the ramp and into the orifice of the CH-46. I was amazed at how quickly we had placed ourselves elbow to elbow in the long canvas seats given such a confined space. The ramp closed. The whine of the engines increased and there was an audible change in the pitch of the rotors and the large Sea Knight lifted off, leaving Hill 55 with the Marines of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Most of them would never see Hill 55 again.
Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon had been inserted earlier and encountered a sizable enemy force; 3rd Platoon was now being inserted as a blocking force to cut off any possibility of retreat by the enemy. The order to “Lock and Load” was given, and I could feel the aircraft flare as the ramp came down. Lt Cruikshank and I exited the aircraft and turned to our right taking up a position along a small rice paddy dike followed by the Marines of 3rd Platoon. I could not believe it. Right there in front of us was Charlie, wearing black pj’s, running diagonally across the rice paddy in a southwesterly direction. I raised my weapon to my shoulder and squeezed off about four rounds when I felt Lieutenant Cruikshank’s hand on my shoulder. He gave me a stern, “That’s not what we’re here for,” and then was back on the radio. I couldn’t believe my ears. Hell, I was thinking how’d I miss that guy as I realized he was still getting it across that paddy. There must have been 14 Marines to my right along that dike, all firing at him. Still he just kept trucking, heading for the far right corner of the paddy. The Cobra Gun Ship glided in at treetop level right on the heels of Charlie. That’s why we were there, TACP. The Scarface pilot of the Cobra positioned the nose of his aircraft directly above Charlie and fired his automatic grenade launcher. Charlie disappeared in a circle of explosions only to emerge looking as if he was running a 50-meter dash. He had picked up the tempo and now disappeared into the jungle at the far right corner of the paddy. He was one dedicated individual, who was now full of holes and must have dropped dead in the jungle.
The Marines to my right formed a line and moved down the paddy dike, we followed suit. As we reached the corner at the end of the paddy, a Marine warned, “Booby Trap.” That’s why Charlie was so set on his direction across the paddy, not zigging or zagging to escape our fire. He was leading us to a place of death even as we were killing him. We didn’t know it yet, but his buddies were doing the same thing. “Booby Trap.” My senses tightened as the words echoed in my head. I strained to see where the Marine was talking about, but we were already on the move again. Turning East we moved across the end of the paddy and into a clearing. In front of us was a drainage ditch with a narrow tree line parallel to it. The lead elements were already through the ditch and trees, and there was sporadic firing in the distance beyond.
As I waded into the chest deep murky water of the drainage ditch, I couldn’t stop from thinking, “Booby trap; please don’t let me get blown up in this crap and drown.” Up out of the ditch and through the tree line into a brushy area. Where the hell did everyone go? It seemed to be just the four of us there at the end of the column. There was high scattered brush everywhere and a tree line in the distance to the south. The Marine with the M-79 must have seen something move in that tree line and squeezed one off. There was the distinctive thoop followed by an explosion in the distance. I looked at him, and as he turned and looked at me, we heard that same distinctive thoop, and then the bush between us exploded. We both cringed and dropped to the ground. I’m sure the expression on my face said, “Don’t do that again.” Then we heard that first deafening explosion. It came from our 8:00 O’clock, behind us in a northwesterly direction approximately 50 yards away behind a group of small trees and brush. The words “Booby Trap” still echoed in my head.
There was a rifleman, Lieutenant Cruikshank, myself and the Marine with the M-79 grenade launcher taking up the rear. We turned and ran to an opening in the brush just to the left of the small clump of trees. It was there we hit the barbed wire and, as fast as you can go through wire, we went right through it. The small group of trees was now on our right; in front of us was a large open area with a tree line in the distance. On our left was more high brush jutting out into the clearing. We skirted the small tree line to our right, moving to the group of Marines now in front of us.
There were a lot of wounded Marines lying there. Others were on top of them as if in some type of football huddle. We stopped just short of them. 1st Lieutenant Cruikshank was now between me and the wounded Marines. The two other Marines with us had stopped at about seven yard intervals and were covering the rear. I leaned past Lieutenant Cruikshank and looked into the group of Marines. This face glanced up at that same time, and I had eye contact with a young Corpsman. He was all I could see in that maze of green. The look on his face told me I was lucky. Lucky I didn’t see what he now turned back to.
There are no words to describe the sound of that second explosion as it killed one Marine and wounded two others. The Marines in front of us cringed as dirt and shrapnel from that second explosion brought home the realization we were in a mine field. It had come from behind the first group of wounded Marines, further down the tree line and a bit further into the clearing. Lieutenant Cruikshank and I had cringed also, and I was now smacking at my right knee trying to stop the burning sensation from the tiny piece of metal that had made it past the wall of Marines in front of us and was now embedded in my right knee. It was nothing, but it had gotten my attention as if someone had stuck a lit cigarette to my flesh. Lieutenant Cruikshank was busy on my radio as some of the Marines in front of us shifted position to help the second group of Marines just hit.
I turned to my left and looked into the large clearing. To the left of us, about 60 yards away were three Marines. They seemed to be too far from us to be part of the 3rd Platoon. They may have been, but I suspect they were elements of the 2nd Platoon which had been moving to link up with us for an assault on the distant tree line. Whoever they were, they were in a very bad place, and they knew it. The tree line in the distance was full of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army elements that the 2nd Platoon and the lead elements of 3rd Platoon had chased there just moments earlier. They continued to lay down sporadic fire at us and at the 2nd Platoon. The Cobra gun ships overhead were making them think twice before giving up their positions. These three Marines were in a position to have witnessed that second explosion and must have known what we knew–to move was to die. To remain where they were was to ask for a sniper to end their dilemma. The center Marine appeared to kneel and reached down as if to probe ground. Then they were gone. They had disappeared in an eruption of earth filled with searing metal and with the blood sweat & tears of young Marines. Still I thought I’d be OK. Lieutenant Cruikshank was on the radio and looking around as if giving a situational report. The two Marines behind us remained in position, and the look on their faces told me they too understood our situation.
Our world filled with the sound of the large CH-46 as it came in from behind us, seemingly skimming the tree tops. They must have seen those three Marines disappear. It had just happened. Lance Corporal Bish had seen it. He was a radio operator assigned to Alpha Company’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Purdy who circled above in the Command Huey. Lance Corporal Bish had been moving with lead elements of the 2nd Platoon to link with the 3rd Platoon for an assault on the distant tree line. He had seen that first devastating explosion as it cut down five Marines. He had called for a “Corpsman Up” and had been moving toward our position. He now stopped and was on the radio with Lieutenant Colonel Ledbetter, Command Officer, and the pilot of the aircraft, HMM-263, “Blood Sweat & Tears.” We had become his third Med-Evac mission since “Kingfisher” began earlier that morning. The Colonel barreled his aircraft down into the mine field as Lance Corporal Bish advised, “Popping Smoke.” The Corpsman had just run past Lance Corporal Bish heading for the first group of wounded Marines as Lance Corporal Bish threw his smoke grenade. They both hit mines. I never saw Lance Corporal Bish or the explosion the smoke grenade set off. I never saw the explosion that had just killed the Corpsman as he ran to help wounded Marines. They were just out of line of sight behind the tall brush to our left. I never heard them either. These two mines detonated almost simultaneously with the one that was about to send me airborne. Maybe it had already happened and the sound had been drowned out by the rotors and engines of “Blood Sweat & Tears.” They would have been the fourth and fifth explosions since the sound of that first one that had summoned us to the mine field moments earlier.
The sound of that aircraft dropping down in front of us brought my attention back to Lieutenant Cruikshank and the remaining two Marines with us. Lieutenant Cruikshank told the these two Marines to go to the wire as the large Sea Knight, now at eye level, moved directly across from us to the site where the three Marines had disappeared. They made it to the wire and Lieutenant Cruikshank motioned for us to join them. As I turned to go, I noticed a crewmember of “Blood Sweat & Tears” run down the ramp and into the minefield. The aircraft had moved across the mine field and now appeared to be straining to maintain a hover in a nose high attitude. In fact, it wasn’t hovering at all. PFC Mike Clausen had directed Lt. Colonel Ledbetter to a precautious landing in the minefield. To reduce the chance of hitting mines, they had worked together to place the main wheel mounts on craters left by detonated mines. They would repeat this process three times. Lance Corporal Bish saw him too. It was Private First Class, Mike Clausen, disobeying the direct orders of Lt. Colonel Ledbetter not to leave the aircraft on his first of what would total six trips into the mine field. Lance Corporal Bish had yelled, “You dumb SOB, you’re in a mine field.” Private First Class, Clausen knew that, but he was busy trying to retrieve the body of one of those Marines that he had seen disappear in that third explosion.
We didn’t get very far. We took one step, and Lieutenant Cruikshank hit the mine that had been right there between us that whole time. Not much room considering I had the radio and Lieutenant Cruikshank had the handset. Defying the laws of gravity, I was flying in slow motion through the air. It seemed an eternity before I felt the earth bring my flight to an end. Stunned and confused I realized my rifle was gone and noticed the blood at my right elbow. I felt as if I had been hit by a Mack truck, and there was a strange numbness accompanied by an intense burning sensation. I pulled my helmet off and tried to puke in it. I couldn’t and realized I wasn’t trying to puke after all, I was trying to breathe. I was in fact breathing, but that first breath after the mine was forced and hard, not the usual unconscious effort associated with breathing. I threw my helmet down, a really stupid thing to do, considering we were in a mine field. Fortunately, I got away with it, unlike Lance Corporal Bish’s smoke grenade.
I looked behind me for Lieutenant Cruikshank and saw him lying on his back with a large smoking hole between us. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard this loud hissing noise. The large column of yellow smoke coming from the radio strapped to my back told me it was from the smoke grenades I had attached there earlier. I had just popped another smoke, the hard way. I put my hands on the ground and attempted to get up to go to Lieutenant Cruikshank’s aide when a new reality confronted me. My right pants leg dangled in the air, and my right leg was gone. I looked at my left leg to find it severely mangled with my left foot lying at some unnatural angle barely attached. Suddenly, one of the two Marines that had made it to the wire was in front of me knocking me back to the ground. He began to apply tourniquets to my legs. The other Marine was now on top of me also. He was busy slipping the radio off my back and then knelt there with his hands on my shoulders, as if to hold me down. I looked down at the Marine working on my legs and asked, “How are my legs?” to which he replied “don’t worry about them…they’re gone.” He was definitely one “Born Again Hard” Marine. I looked back up at the Marine on top of me and said, “Check the Lieutenant.” He seemed to release me and was gone before I finished getting the words out of my mouth.
Lance Corporal Bish hadn’t seen or heard the explosion that had just claimed both of my legs and one of Lieutenant Cruikshank’s. His attention had been torn between his radio, the rescue efforts in front of him at the site of that third detonation, and the lifeless body of the Corpsman. The Corpsman was obviously gone. He had covered a lot of minefield before fate caught up with him and his lifeless body now rested close to the site of that first mine. Lance Corporal Bish and the Marine with him remained where they were as Colonel Ledbetter air taxied the large aircraft backwards across the mine field to the site of the first, second and sixth detonations. It was here the majority of the wounded Marines lay.
Here Private First Class Mike Clausen would again direct Lt. Colonel Ledbetter to landings at detonation sites and would exit the aircraft another five times, helping the wounded and retrieving the dead. I don’t know how many Marines were left at this position that had not been injured. There were the two who had been with Lieutenant Cruikshank and me when we entered the mine field. There must have been several at the site of the first explosion. Lieutenant Cruikshank and I watched as they formed that huddle over wounded. I never saw the ones that hit that second mine beyond the first group. I was flat on my back, facing the opening in the brush that we had come through. A Marine placed a stretcher on the ground next to me. It may have been Private First Class Mike Clausen; I just don’t know. This Marine and I believe the one that had tied off my legs, moved me to the stretcher. I could feel the torn muscle and broken bones for the first time. There is no gentle way to quickly move a mangled limb. The pain had become excruciating as the Marines carrying my stretcher ran to the ramp of “Blood Sweat and Tears” and deposited me on the deck.
As bad as things had been, nothing could compare with what happened next. When they dropped into the minefield, Lieutenant Colonel Ledbetter had directed his flight crew to take off their flack jackets and place them on the deck. It was a wise decision. Again, there are no words to describe that seventh and last detonation. Private First Class Mike Clausen was returning from the left front of the aircraft with a wounded man. Lieutenant Cruikshank, now on a stretcher carried by two Marines is just steps from the ramp of the aircraft. I had cringed during that second detonation, and experienced a personal encounter with the sixth. It still wasn’t over. There was a horrific noise, a combination of high explosive, rotor wash and the whine of the engines. Metal and debris smacked into the rear rotor and left rear of the aircraft. I rolled to my right side towards the center aisle and moved my left arm and hand to cover my head. I remember thinking, “God, please don’t blow me up again.” There was the sound of metal hitting metal, and I held tightly to the stretcher.
Lance Corporal Bish watched in disbelief as the large aircraft wavered, first pitching and then yawing, just inches from disaster. He almost took off running despite the mines. It looked for a moment like it was going to roll over in the minefield and come after him. The rotor stabilized and Lieutenant Colonel Ledbetter regained control of his now damaged aircraft chock full of dead and dying Marines. PFC. Mike Clausen, Colonel Ledbetter’s crew chief, was still outside the aircraft. Lieutenant Cruikshank and the Marines carrying him had been hit by shrapnel. A Corpsman with them had been killed. Private First Class Mike Clausen had been knocked down by that blast. He got up and continued helping the wounded Marine with him to the aircraft. He then returned to the mine field for a fifth and then sixth and last time to help Lieutenant Cruikshank, the wounded Marines with him and to retrieve the body of the Corpsman. “Blood Sweat and Tears”, finally left the mine field.
Lance Corporal Bish watched as the aircraft lifted off and turned away from him heading NE toward Da Nang. He would be going SW back to the 2nd Platoon and the pursuit of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army elements still in the distant tree line, still lying down sporadic fire. All he had to do was turn in a direction as instructed by Lieutenant Purdy and walk out of the mine field. I am glad he hadn’t seen our attempt at that. He had already seen enough to tell him what this meant. Lance Corporal Bish and the Marine with him turned and left the mine field. He cringed with every step. It was agonizing. There was no wire in his end of the mine field–No discernable barrier or border to offer sanctuary, to offer acknowledgment of their successful passage through the killing field. His thoughts, when he had them, kept returning to a snapshot of the dead Corpsman. In his own words, “It had turned into, just another bad day in Viet Nam.” Lance Corporal Bish would know, as Lieutenant Purdy’s radio operator, he had always been in the thick of things, and this was his ninth or tenth “Kingfisher Patrol”. The 2nd Platoon had been “kicking ass” all morning. They now waited, waited for Lance Corporal Bish to join them. Lance Corporal Bish continued his walk out of the mine field, the Marine with him, possibly a Sergeant, a lifer from the looks of him, took point. They made it clear of the mine field and continued with the mission. Guess they were some more of those “Born again Hard,” Marines.
I was so cold I was starting to shiver. There was a crewman moving back and forth passed me as I lay there on the deck in my stretcher. As he passed by I looked up and said, “I’m cold.” He stopped and turned behind him to the flack jackets on the deck at the feet of the door gunners. Retrieving these, he turned back and covered me with them, pushing them in close to me as if trying to tuck me in for the night. Then he was gone. I think it was Private First Class Mike Clausen. I looked up and my eyes were locked with those of the starboard door Gunner. Colonel Ledbetter would later smile when I mentioned this and say, “That was Sergeant Major M. S. Landy.” His eyes left my gaze and would scan the carnage that filled the aircraft. Then he would turn and stare down the barrel of his weapon. His expression said die you SOBs, die. He did this the remainder of the flight to the hospital in Da Nang.
We were down, and people filled the cramped interior of the aircraft. Two of them grabbed my stretcher, and I was now in the bright sunlight of the landing zone. They were running and each step they took jarred my broken bones. The pain was immediate and unbearable. I tried to rise to my elbows and was yelling at them to stop. All I could do was hold on. We were now in a room, a room filled with saw horses. They placed my stretcher across two of those saw horses, and about five people pounced on me. Some were cutting my clothes off; others were working on my legs and taking my pulse. They all seemed to be in a hurry. One real irritating Marine knelt at my head with a clipboard and kept asking me for my name, rank, and serial number; how many times did I need to tell him? Whatever they were doing to my legs hurt. I moaned in agony. It felt as if they had just closed bear traps on them. A voice came from behind the Marine with the clipboard. It said “Hang in there West.” The Marine beside me moved, and I could see Lieutenant Cruikshank. He was on the saw horses on my left and like me, surrounded by people working on him. We made eye contact and he closed his eyes, passing out. Why the hell was I still awake? All I wanted was to go to sleep and escape the unrelenting pain. I didn’t care or think about waking up. I just wanted it to be over. It occurred to me that if I was still this aware of things, I should just get up and leave this place. I went to rise up on my elbows, made it about half way and fell back to the stretcher, drained from the effort.
The people over me shifted position and he pushed his way between them. He rubbed something on my chest and pushed the long needle between my ribs and into my heart. It may as well have been his fist. The sensation was that of a crushing pressure as if he was trying to push my heart out of my back. He never spoke a word, and then he was gone. It seemed like a lull in a storm. There were fewer people over me, and a back door adjacent to me opened up. Someone stuck his head in the room and said the “O. R. is ready.” Hell, everyone knows they put you to sleep in the operating room. Again I tried to lift my head, turned to the person in the door and shouted, “West is ready!” The people at my side grabbed my stretcher and took me through that door to a room for an X-ray. As soon as the button had been pushed, they moved me down the hall into the O. R. I looked up through the blinding bright light and made eye contact for the last time that day. It was the face of a kindly, older man. His short, graying hair bordered his head cap like a halo. He reached down placing his right hand on my forehead and said, “It’s OK son, you’re going to sleep now.”
“It’s OK Son.” I had heard these same words so many times as I sat in the safety of the command bunker handing off and monitoring the traffic between ground forces and air crews. “It’s OK Son,’ calm down and listen to me, I can’t see your heat tab. You’re going to have to do something else, or I can’t find you.”
“It’s OK Son.’ It will be all right. I know you have many wounded. I don’t know where your two o’clock is. Where are you in relation to me?”
Even Cpl. Bish lost it once as he was targeted by automatic weapons fire from a well entrenched position in a tree line. Evidently the degree of your speech impediment is directly related to the proximity of the fire you are receiving. The Scarface pilot came back with a “Calm down. It’s OK Son,” in response to the unintelligible babble that came across his radio. “Where you from, Son?” the pilot asked. “Oh yeah, I know where that is. OK Son” what are we doing here?” Cpl. Bish directed the pilot to the position in the tree line where Charlie was deep under a large fallen tree. Several bursts of the mini gun and a few rockets later, Scarface had put an end to that crap.
Perhaps in no other war had so many of America’s finest and youngest Marines fought the good fight with America’s finest and most seasoned Marine Corps Aviator’s. It was and remains an Honor to have served with the very best.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Semper Fi Brothers!
Chill, JE St. Louis, MO
Forbes, AL Dade County, FL
*Gillin, WA MD
Lasater, LE Cook County, IL
McKeever, FG San Francisco County, CA
Nick, C Broward County, FL
Sanderson, EW Mobile County, AL
Singleton, JK Montgomery County, AK
Trujillo, A Bexar County, TX
Wynn, L Washington County, MN
Silvoso, JA Boone County, MO
Forward Air Control Party WIA
*Pilot Lt. Col. Walter Ledbetter
CoPilot 1st Lt. Paul D. Parker
*Crew Chief PFC. Raymond M. Clausen
*Door Gunner Sgt. Maj. Morton S. Landy
*Side Gunner Cpl. Steve M. Marinkonic
2 Navy Corpsman KIA
We have no info on them
* Marks men we have found.
If you know any of the men not yet found, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Wally ‘Bytes’ Beddoe, USMC 81-85
USMC/Combat Helicopter Association