26 September 2005
At 02.00 hours Captain Kit Beatton, Apache Three Zero, entered the darkened hooch, switched on his flashlight, and stopped short of the Blues Recon platoon leader's bunk, knowing that Lieutenant R.B. Alexander was probably already awake and likely had his hand on the grip of a .45 automatic.
"Blue, you awake?"
The young infantry officer from San Clemente, California grunted his response and sat up slowly. “What's up?” he said finally. In the distance the generator next to the troop's tactical operations center droned indifferently in the predawn hours.
“The Lurps are in contact,” Beatton said, as Alexander recognized the captain's voice. Usually when he was awakened from a sound sleep it was someone from the TOC with bad news. The fact this time that it was the troop's lift Platoon commander indicated that it was something really serious.
“I'm heading out to extract them,” announced Beatton. “Just thought you'd like to know. I mean, in case we go down and you have to lose some beauty rest trying to rescue us.”
“It's not beauty rest,” snorted Alexander, “it's nasty dreams, so I'll thank you not to screw it up, Captain.” Alexander stole a glance at the iridescent face on the Timex travel alarm next to his cot. Hell, it was still the middle of the night! Day contacts were bad enough but the small running night battles were especially dangerous. They were compounded by the likelihood of encountering an NVA with an RPG standing only a few feet away in the pitch black rain forest. You'd never even see him until he fired the rocket propelled grenade and you only had inches to live or die.
“The only lace you're going to see this morning, Blue, will be on your boots!” Beatton Chuckled as he walked out of the hooch heading towards the flight line.
Soon afterward Alexander heard the helicopters cranking. He knew that Beattons Huey lift ship would make the actual extraction while a gunship would accompany it to provide cover.
Alexander dressed quickly then headed across the compound to the platoon hooch to let his squad leaders know what was going on. Then he went over to the TOC to check on the situation himself. Inside the large sandbagged reinforced bunker that served as Apache Troop's tactical operations centre, the room was alive with night shift personnel who were busy monitoring the radio traffic between Beatton's aircraft, the radio relay team, and the long range patrol team leader, who was at that moment yelling that he had two line 2's (wounded), and that the NVA were closing in on them.
It was the six-man team's third day out along the Cambodian border and the H Company Rangers had discovered a well-used trail hidden in the dense jungle canopy. They had decided it would be a good place to set up an OP to monitor the trail and maybe even blow an ambush.
Shortly before sunset the 1st
Cav's Lurps had blown their claymores on a well-armed enemy six-man patrol only to discover to their dismay that it was the point element for a much larger NVA force. Grabbing some enemy documents and other intelligence material the team slipped back in to the jungle as the larger enemy unit deployed to overrun the ambush site. The Lurps called in the contact on their radio and reported that they were being pursued.
In the chase that followed the Lurp team set up another hasty ambush, killing the first two enemy soldiers to reach them, then turned to continue their escape. The North Vietnamese soldiers would slow down their pursuit now, not knowing if the Americans would be waiting for them again up ahead. The tactic would buy the team critical time to put some distance between them and their pursuers. But their ammunition was getting low and they knew that they would only be able to carry out one or two more delaying actions. The odds were stacked heavily against them. They had to lose the enemy or escape and evade to a prescribed pick-up zone to get out of danger. The Rangers were good at their job but the NVA had a few surprises of their own.
There were a limited number of likely PZs in the immediate area of the contact, and the enemy knew all of them, as well as the network of trails that fed in to them. As in a chess game, the enemy monitored each move and feint the American long range patrol made, narrowing the choices for their meeting place with their helicopter. By splitting their forces the NVA gambled that they could block these escape routes until the rest of their forces could close in for the kill, only this time it wasn't happening that way.
The Cav Lurps realizing they had to do something, quickly decided to use one of the trails to get to their pick-up zone, but as soon as they got to it they came face-to-face with a squad of enemy soldiers who were running down the path towards the same clearing in the jungle. In a vicious close contact firefight the Lurps kept their escape route clear, but suffered two more wounded in the process. Now four of the six-man team were WIA, one seriously enough to require help from one of the two Lurps who had not been hit. The sixth team member, the rear scout, was covering the team's escape route.
By this time the rescue helicopter from Apache Troop was well on its way while the Blues Platoon back in Tay Ninh had scrambled and were busy checking and rechecking their equipment at the staging area ready to come in if the helicopter extraction failed.
“Slashing Talon…this is Apache Three Zero. We're on short final,” Beatton's voice crackled through the TOC's speaker as the lift ship aircraft commander let the Lurps know the game plan.
“We…we're on our way but we have five line 2's!” the Lurp's team leader yelled in to his radio hand set, his voice failing to mask his concern. The situation was becoming grim.
“Roger…hit your strobe when you get to the Papa Zulu and we'll cover your six. You copy?” Beatton ask surprisingly calm as he let the patrol leader know that he would be zeroing in on the team's flashing signal.
“I copy,” came the reply as the unmistakable sound of NVA AK-47 fire could be heard in the background.
Back in Tay Ninh Alexander and the others at the TOC hung on every transmission that came in over the air. Their fingers were crossed that Beatton would get them out.
As the change in pitch of the chopping blades of the helicopter signalled that the aircraft was touching down, the enemy soldiers turned their attention from the Lurps to the approaching Huey. Tracers began to lace throught the night across the helicopter's airspace. The two doorgunners returned fire but were careful to keep their rounds away from the flashing strobe light the Lurp team leader held over his head.
“Taking fire!” Beatton announced, surprisingly calm as the distinctive 'ticks' of enemy rounds tore in to the aircraft. He mananged to hold the hsip in place as the Lurp team painfully stumbled out in to the clearing and struggled toward the hovering helicopter. Seconds passed as Beatton waited to pull pitch and get out of the PZ. That's when he heard his crew chief's voice over the intercom.
“Boss, three of these guys are shot up pretty bad, and the team leader's saying they left one behind. He couldn't carry him out.”
“One's still back down the trail. He's wounded and can't make it on his own,” replied the anxious crew chief.
“Roger,” Beatton said, then turned over the controls to his co-pilot. “If I'm not back in a few minutes, take off,” he shouted, as he climbed out of his harness and exited the aircraft.
“Captain, don't do this!” came the co-pilot's response, but Beatton wasn't listening as he pulled out his .38 pistol and sprinted for the jungle where he could hear the sound of an M-16 still firing.
The wounded Lurp was down behind a fallen log, holding his own for the moment against an enemy squad manoeuvring on him. In between rounds he was gamely trying to bandage his wounds. He looked up in surprise to see a helicopter pilot coming up from behind firing a pistol at nearby enemy muzzle flashes.
“Come on,” the pilot shouted, “we're getting out of here.” Beatton lifted the Lurp over his shoulders in a fireman's carry, then turned and raced back toward the clearing. Enemy small arms fire tore in to the log and the surrounding underbrush, but somehow missed the two Americans.
Beatton had fired all six rounds form his revolver and there wasn't time for him to reload. Now, all the Azusa, California native had to do was to make it back to the helicopter before the enemy discovered what was going on.
“Hold on and hold them back. You got it?” Beatton shouted at the wounded Lurp as he jogged toward the PZ.
“Yes sir,” the soldier answered.
'Thank God the kid was light!' thought Beatton. He had to give him credit because he wasn't bitching about the rough ride, and he had enough common sense to hold on to his rifle even though he was badly shot up.
As the two Americans cleared the woodline Beatton yelled to the crew chief to cover them. He could have saved his breath. The veteran doorgunner was already raking the jungle behind them, and with telling effect. The NVA soldiers pulled back to try another approach.
A tangle of arms reached out to pull the two men aboard. The helicopter was airborne and climbing out above the trees even before Beatton and the wounded Lurp were settled in among the rest of the team. Orange muzzle flashes from the trees below tried to reach out and bring them back down.
Climbing back in to the pilot's seat Beatton was breathing heavily, but he managed to relay the news of the successful extraction back to the men waiting anxiously in the TOC. He reported that they would be flying to the field hospital, and asked that they radio ahead and let the medics know that they were coming in with five wounded aboard.
When they reached the hospital the Lurp team leader thanked the aircrew and especially Captain Beatton. The officer had brought back one of his own at the risk of his life, and the young sergeant was grateful. Beatton shrugged it off. “It's okay,” he said, playing down his role in the rescue.
When the aircraft returned to Apache Troop, Lieutenant Alexander and a few others were waiting to greet them and welcome them back. The story of Beatton's daring feat had preceded him.
“So, doesn't that noise bother you?”
Alexander asked, looking past the crew in to the empty helicopter.
“What noise?” Beatton responded.
“The sound of your brass balls hitting against the cockpit while you're flying.”
Again, Beatton shrugged it off. “Naw, I think the sound of my knees knocking together blocks it out. Seriously though, they needed some help,” he offered. “I just couldn't leave them.” And that was it, the bottom line for Beatton. Alexander understood.
May 1969, at the insistence of the Lurp team leader and the recommendation of the Ranger company commander, Captain Kit Beatton was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry.Side Bar I: “Captain Beatton was one of the bravest men I ever knew in Vietnam,” explained R.B. Alexander during a 1994 Apache Troop reunion at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. “He epitomized the best of who and what we were and never made a fuss about any awards or decorations he received, which were quite a few. But the point is, he was always there when you or anyone else needed him. I can't think of a better compliment.”Alexander went on to explain how two months prior to the Lurp team rescue Beatton had been involved in another such mission, this time for members of the Apache Troop Blues Platoon.“Two of three helicopters filled with Blues had been shot down leaving a hot landing zone, and tumbled in to the jungle. There were a number of dead and even more who were seriously wounded, and it didn't look good. The platoon leader, at the time, was struggling to keep the North Vietnamese Army at the bay with what was left of his platoon, while a few others were treating the wounded. Beatton had managed to get his helicopter out and then, realizing what had happened to the others, he off-loaded the people in his helicopter at a safe area, then flew back to the firefight that was still going on. Knowing that time was the key to survival of the seriously wounded soldiers, and realizing that a medevac wouldn't be able to get back in to help until the firefight was over, Beatton brought his helicopter to the crash site and under intense enemy gunfire held the aircraft in place as the wounded were loaded aboard. Then with the nose down and helicopter straining from the bullet holes and excessive weight, Beatton brought the aircraft over the tress and back to Tay Ninh.”“I had just arrived in Apache Troop and was days away from taking over the Blues Platoon when this happened, so it was a vivid introduction to the realities of combat and maybe, too, my first introduction to a real life hero, Kit Beatton. Tributes sometime are long overdue and while medals are awarded for the heroism or valour, it doesn't hurt to retell the stories every now and then just so we remember why they were awarded,” said Alexander.He's right! The stories should never be forgotten.SIDE BAR II:In 1995 Kit Beatton finally lost a battle—this time with cancer. He will never be forgotten by the men who served with him.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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