The True Nature of Courage…

The Story of Some Hillclimbers:

Teaching at a continuation high school for the last five years has given me an extraordinary insight into the state of our current society. While I was studying for my teaching credential one instructor commented to the class that we shouldn’t blame the kids for what they didn’t know.  “They don’t know the rules,” the instructor would thunder in class after class as he brought home the point that it was our responsibility to teach them “The Game.” Even though I believe that he was right in principle, I have sadly concluded that most of the adult world in this country knows even less then the kids about many things, primarily the true nature of courage. 

This country is obsessed with a celebrity subculture. Somehow excessive adoration of the popular and famous has mutated into the belief that the simple act of making money by throwing a ball, portraying some real or imagined person on the silver screen and television, or by stretching the bounds of civility to the breaking point is “Heroic.” Movie stars become “American Heroes” or worse yet “Legends,” and talented athletes are heralded as “Sports Heroes.” Most dictionaries actually use words like “bold action” to define a hero and I agree. However, the definitions all leave out what I regard as another important component of real heroics: That the act of heroism must have been performed with knowledge of the risk to one’s physical well-being. Celebrity figures are pampered entertainers. Everything is calculated with an eye to the bottom line (fame and money). Real heroes do not play to an audience. They do what they must because it is what is expected of them. In order to teach our children “the rules” I want to tell them what I think constitutes a real hero. This is a war story, but not your usual war story. There are no blazing guns or exploding bombs falling all around. No enemy troops are rushing the American lines. My story is about a routine helicopter flight on a freight-hauling mission during the Vietnam War. This flight thrust the crew into the jaws of Hell. The lives of everyone aboard were at stake on that fateful day of March 12th 1967, ten thousand miles from Hollywood.

This is the story of a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter, 62-2132, that was lifting a 105MM artillery piece on an external sling with the eight members of the gun crew riding along inside the aircraft. There were five additional crewmembers: Two pilots, a flight engineer, a crew chief, and a gunner. Shortly after loading the gun crew and sling loading the artillery piece, a hand grenade carried by one of the artillery crewmen fell to floor about ten minutes into the flight. No big deal except that he had pulled the safety pin and put a rubber band around the grenade to hold the handle in place. The rubber band broke when the grenade hit the floor and it exploded in the airborne CH-47. All of the artillery people along with one of the aircraft crewmembers who were riding in the cargo bay were severely wounded. The left gunner was not wounded because he was shielded by one of the artillery gun crew. Newt Coryell, the flight engineer, was not hit since he was lying on the floor looking out an open hatch at the artillery piece on the sling. Pilots, John Caron and Harold Miller, were not wounded since they were up front and were shielded from the blast. After the explosion the Chinook made a forced return to the landing zone they had just left.

This is where the story takes on heroic proportions and even though I was a CH-47 flight engineer for most of my time in Vietnam, I had never faced anything quite like this. I can’t honestly say that I would have done the same thing that this crew did in this circumstance. At first glance the crew seemed to do the logical thing given the situation. They decided not to wait on medevac choppers to take away the wounded. Instead, they performed a quick check of the big Chinook (without shutting down) to determine if she was still airworthy, after which the wounded were flown to the nearest hospital thereby saving precious time for the injured soldiers. Because of potential damage from the explosion it would have been very easy for Newt to simply say that he could not guarantee the airworthiness of the Chinook. Warrant Officer Miller wanted to take the wounded back to Vung Tau and Major Caron supported the decision. Newt was not in disagreement, but had he insisted that the aircraft was not airworthy it “may” have lead to a reevaluation of the decision to go to Vung Tau. Whether any wounded soldiers would have been adversely affected by a decision to call the medevac helicopters will remain pure speculation since they did fly the wounded back to Vung Tau.

This is a story about courage because not Newt, not John Caron, nor Harold Miller took the easy way out. This desperate situation did not allow time for a thorough examination of the aircraft. Since Newt made this quick inspection with the aircraft running it was impossible to be thorough. The check was very incomplete since none of the cowling was opened. There simply was no time. I too was a flight engineer and although this may have seemed like a very logical thing to do, it was not. I know what Newt knew. There were several  holes visible in the aircraft. It was easy to assume that a US Army fragmentation grenade had done some considerable damage, even if it was not readily apparent. The question of whether a fuel line had been punctured or nicked near the engine could not be answered with any degree of certainty at the moment. There are three hydraulic systems on a CH-47. Two of them are for the flight controls and the third one is a utility system. Newt was looking at a couple of hundred yards of hydraulic lines that could be damaged even though the hydraulic gauges in the cockpit indicated that all three systems were maintaining pressure. The major question for Newt was whether they would all hold long enough to complete this flight. Loss of the utility system would mean that they would land with no brakes. An awkward situation, but something that could be managed. The loss of one flight control system was something to be concerned about but did not mean death. Loss of the second flight control system while in flight was guaranteed fatal. The loss of hydraulic pressure was not the only concern with those systems. The failure of a hydraulic fitting or a line in a particular area could result in a fine, high-pressure spray which could cause a catastrophic fire similar to what a fuel leak can do. While all of this would not necessarily be deadly, Newt and the pilots had enough problems that day. Miles of electrical wire that may have also been damaged were of great concern and Newt had no time to consider whether one or two electrical systems or even the whole electrical complex would collapse and set the aircraft on fire.

Now we come to something that every CH-47 flight engineer, at some time during their career, fears may happen to them one day. A Chinook is a very complicated aircraft. The drive shaft system, which connects the engines to the rotor heads, uses an elaborate system of five transmissions and nine pieces of drive shafting. The flight engineer’s nightmare is the five sections that connect the combining box transmission at the forward base of the aft pylon across the top of the helicopter up to the forward transmission. These shafts spin at more than 7,000 revolutions per minute with less then an inch clearance between the shaft and floor of the tunnel area they pass through. In fact, most crewmembers I have known could not slip their pinky finger comfortably between the drive shaft tunnel floor and the bottom of the shaft. If anything metallic came between the floor of that shaft tunnel and one of the spinning aluminum shafts it would only take seconds to destroy the shaft and cause the blades to lose their synchronization. Using Chinook talk this is called “dephasing.” To an observer it appears that the Chinook explodes in flight when this happens. Thankfully, this situation is extremely rare.

I tell this story today because the actions of these brave men bespeak the real nature of heroism. To take immediate and unselfish action in the face of impending danger is the true nature of courage. Police and fire personnel know very well what I’m talking about. They do it everyday and it is regarded as routine and part of the job by many in American society. Unfortunately, our kids are not learning the difference between a “sports role model” and a “real hero.” Real heroes are not considered “cool. I know Newt Coryell and John Caron. Unfortunately, I never knew the late Harold Miller. Most students in my classroom would not consider any of these men to be “cool.” I can personally attest to the fact that they weren’t “cool” thirty-four years ago either. I can’t imagine either Newt or John as the life of the party. They, like many of the Americans in Vietnam, were professionals with high standards. They could be counted on to put everything on the line and do what was required when disaster struck. They didn’t brag, they didn’t look for the spotlight and they didn’t crave attention, They simply knew their jobs and they did them well.

I want my students to see this story. Hopefully some of them will read it and begin to question themselves about some of their “heroes.” Others, with little or no understanding, will simply laugh it off as a military fantasy. I am now fifty-four years old and have learned that what popular culture thinks doesn’t really matter. Eternal truths remain eternal whether popular culture accepts them or not. What the crew of 62-2132 did that day in March of 1967 once again validated the true nature of courage. I will continue to fight popular culture and its’ myths so that my students will learn the difference between “role models” and “heroes.”

As for Newt and John, they may not have Shaq O’Neil’s money or fame, but they have something much more precious. They have the knowledge of themselves and the respect of people who don’t count human worth by the size of people’s bank accounts or their exposure in the media. Shaq may in fact show himself one day to be a real hero. I, however, prefer to stick with the proven product. Thank you gentlemen for allowing me to serve with you.

Rodney R. Brown