This is a true story of John “ACE” Hunt – A Marine crew chief that fell 800 feet from his CH-46 helicopter in Vietnam, and survived.
Marion Sturkey (HMM-265), a CH-46 pilot from the same squadron as John, interviewed John ten years ago. I did a follow-up interview with John on September 2, 2008. Both of our articles are below.
Story of John’s fall written by Marion Sturkey in 2002
Want to hear a gen-u-ine War Story? Want to hear about the gungy Marine Crew Chief who fell out of his helicopter in flight? The Crew Chief who fell 800 feet? The Crew Chief who “lived to tell about it”? He is John Elijah Hunt.
Yes, John fell out of his CH-46, and, he fell 800 feet. Although he was broken and battered, he survived.
Today, John serves as an inspiration to all who knew him. He remains an active member of the USMC Combat Helicopter Association. For those who haven’t met John, a little background is in order.
As a gung-ho corporal in Vietnam with HMM-265, John loved to fly. Getting shot down and wounded on July 2, 1969, didn’t slow him down. But, at the time he had no way to know that he had a date with destiny. He would take his final flight only eight weeks later.
John was the proud crew chief on Echo-Papa-14. Throughout most of the night of August 26, 1969, he and other mechanics worked to change the number 2 Engine. When the sun rose the next morning, John and his CH-46 were ready for the mandatory Post-Maintenance Test Hop.
The crew took off from Marble Mountain and climbed to pattern altitude — 800 feet. Connected to the ICS by his ‘long cord’, John idly chatted with the pilots. As they turned out toward the ocean to start their downwind leg, John leaned out of his open hatch and looked down at the beach far below. “Beautiful!” he thought.
Unfortunately, sinister Murphy’s Law would cut short John’s view of the beach. The “drop down” lower part of the CH-46 door, although closed, had not latched. As John leaned against it, the door popped open. John fell out of his helicopter.
John recalls bouncing off of the starboard stub wing. Then, after falling about 60 feet, he ran out of slack in the long cord. Years later, John would recall, “The long cord almost broke my neck.”
After the long cord snatched his helmet off (almost his head, too), John remembers that the rest of the fall was “peaceful”. Officially, he fell 800 feet. One of the pilots said it was only a little over 700 feet. Whatever!
Although the fall may have been “peaceful”, the sudden stop at the bottom was not. At terminal velocity, John’s body slammed into the earth. He impacted on the side of a sand dune near one of the perimeter guard bunkers. Understandably, John’s recollection got fuzzy after that.
John vaguely remembers remaining conscious, and he remembers people trying to help him. But, his arms and legs wouldn’t work. And, he could barely breathe. He was rushed to the hospital in Da Nang, where he lay in critical condition for days. The doctors did what they could. But, basically, they were just waiting for John to die.
John refused to cooperate with Death. Two weeks later, he still clung to life. So, he got medevaced to the Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. John refused to die there, too. He amazed the medical staff! The word “miracle” doesn’t even apply.
Notwithstanding dozens of broken bones and massive internal injuries, John fought to live. With a limitless inner resolve, he refused to give up, refused to give in. Finally realizing John would survive; the doctors medevaced him to the Naval Hospital in Memphis. There he began his long and painful path to recovery.
The fall had more or less crushed all of John’s body, so the recovery proved to be slow. Nonetheless, John’s attitude proved to be his biggest asset. He was not only going to live, he was going to walk out of the hospital, he promised his family.
Through guts, determination, and Marine Corps pride, John defied medical logic. Today, he wears two knee braces, and ankle brace, and a back brace. Plus, he has to use a cane. But he proved the medical skeptics wrong. He can walk!
Today, John inspires all who know him. Each day he still struggles with the injuries he sustained in his 800 foot fall in Vietnam, 39 years ago. But, he is a fighter, a survivor, and a gung-ho Marine. Despite his injuries, John maintains a positive attitude. There is no bitterness. He never complains. He once explained: “I’m lucky, I should have been on The Wall.”
John lives inn his small hometown of Antlers, Oklahoma. He never misses our Reunions. At Reunion 2000 in San Diego, our Association presented him with a unique “American Patriot Survivor Award”.
In John’s hometown on March, 2001, The Antlers American newspaper printed a Page One featured article on John and his amazing survival story. Appropriately, the article was titled, “Legend of the Fall”. The newspaper article notes, “The fact that Hunt’s survival was a miracle has not been questioned.”
John, we salute you. Against all odds, you are alive! You are the Marine with an outstanding claim to fame, You are the Crew Chief who fell out of his helicopter in flight — and lived to tell about it. Your fighting spirit and your positive mental attitude continue to inspire us.
The text at the bottom of your American Patriot Survivor Award says it all:
Recons May Be Tough, But Only Wimps Wear Parachutes!
Follow-up Interview with John Hunt, September 2, 2008
I caught up with John “ACE” Hunt as he was bracing for hurricane weather down in Oklahoma. I spent a total of three hours on the phone with ACE asking him questions and listening to his stories. Here are some of the questions from our conversation. ACE’s answers are not verbatim, but generally accurate. 🙂
BEDDOE: “ACE, Your fall was nearly 40 years ago. How are you doing physically?”
ACE: “Well, I can get around. I still have to wear braces for my foot, both knees, and my back. I still need morphine on occasion due to the pain, but I’m doing OK Wally.”
BEDDOE: “Sturk wrote [above] that you described your fall as ‘peaceful’. Can you tell me more about what happened and what was going through your mind when you fell out of the helicopter?”
ACE: “We were on a test flight after the gunner and I had stayed up all night replacing the #2 engine. After we flew to minimum VFR, about 800 ft, I was looking at the gauges then wanting to take an outside look to make sure the engine wasn’t smoking, I was walking towards the hatch door when the pilot turned 90 degrees right, which caused me to get thrown up against the hatch. When my weight hit against the hatch, the lock broke and I fell out the door. I got sucked out of the helo. In one hand I had the long cord, which began unraveling from my arm. I hit against the right stub wing, breaking some ribs, and then I started to fall, straight backwards, facing up, towards the heavens. At that point, I knew I was going to die and I just said “Oh God” to myself loudly. As I continued to fall, I knew what was happening. There was no yelling or screaming. I understood it and I just went along with it.”
BEDDOE: “ACE, What do you remember about hitting the ground?”
ACE: “Well, A lot of what I know about that, I heard from eyewitnesses. Here’s the story about the impact; I landed on the base, on the shoulder of the runway. My right foot hit first, flattening the ball and crushing everything. Then it was my spine. I broke my back and neck, and more ribs. My helmet came off during my 6.5 cartwheels my body did and then my head was scalped to some degree. I believe the status of my helmet was miss-communicated during my interview with Sturk several years ago, because I did land with my helmet. Had I not had my helmet, I would not have lived. After my body stopped rolling, I landed close to a Crash Crew vehicle where two firemen came running toward me. I tried to get up and they were holding me down. A Corpsman immediately splintered my back so I could breathe/live. I remember telling them ‘Man, look at that foot’, which was at about a 90 degree angle. I told them not to cut off my boots, which were fairly new.”
BEDDOE: “Then what happened?”
ACE: “An ECHO WHISKEY 46 that happened to be flying nearby, and I believed witnessed the fall, landed and took me to (I believe) Delta Med. A lot of my internal injuries and broken bones were not initially detected because of the lack of proper equipment available. What essentially happened was that the doctors operated on my foot but did not think I would survive and there was little they could do for me. But I did survive through the night.”
BEDDOE: “Did the crew in your CH-46 immediately know that you had fallen out of the helo?”
ACE: “Well, I’m assuming the gunner advised the pilots that I had fallen but it’s possible they may not have known until they heard the medevac request, but I don’t know for sure. But when I was in the emergency room, the pilot came bursting into the E.R. with eyes as big as saucers but they would not let him in to see me. I remember another 46 pilot, Loren that was holding my hand before I was medevaced. I believe he was one of the eyewitnesses. I remember telling him that I was sorry for letting this happen to me.”
BEDDOE: “ACE, weren’t you supposed to be wearing a safety harness in the helicopter or some other belt to keep you from falling?”
ACE: “In my 15 months in Vietnam, I never even saw a gunner’s belt. It was my/our belief that a crew chief restricted by a belt would get people killed. A crew chief has crucial seconds to get around in the bird. Another thing, a crew chief could not show fear. I’d say my pre-flight prayers, and then I lost all fear. I had a job to do and Marines counted on me to do that job.
BEDDOE: “How long were you in the hospital?”
ACE: “Seven and a half months all in all. I was eventually transferred back to the States, to the Naval Hospital in Millington. My internal organs were still sticking together and were not all functioning properly. I asked the doctor if I could drink beer, since one of the other guys nearby was allotted two six packs of Schlitz per day. He agreed and not long after I started consuming that Schlitz, did my kidneys start to improve. Doctors said I may live, but that I would never walk and be confined to a wheel chair. I promised my family that when I left that hospital, I would leave on my feet! And I did!
BEDDOE: “How much flying did you do in Vietnam?”
ACE: “In 40 days over a 6 month period, I flew 423 Combat missions, losing two birds in the process. A lot of flight time was lost in waiting for replacement birds. Also, the ship, Iwo-Jima broke, loosing another month of flying time. Knowing what I know now, I would not change a thing Wally. I would rather have flown than anything else. To me, flying was total elation!”
BEDDOE: “ACE, would it be ok to print your e-mail address in case someone wants to contact you?”
ACE: “Wally, that would be fine.”
BEDDOE: “John, It sure has been a pleasure speaking with you today. I have a lot of respect for you and want to thank you for serving. All the Marines and Corpsmen of POPASMOKE are my heroes. I want to make sure your story gets out. Others need to hear it, especially the active duty Marines flying phrogs today in OIF and OEF. You fell 800 feet, and are still here today. That is a miracle. Thank you for your time, and SEMPER FIDELIS!”
ACE: “Yes Sir, thank you, and Semper Fi”
John “ACE” Hunt can be reached at JHunt265EP1469@aol.com