LOVE, FEAR AND SURVIVAL
by Anton Wills-Eve
<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/safety-first/”>Safety First</a>
The closest I have ever come to death.
LOVE, FEAR AND SURVIVAL
The only way to discover whether or not the main force of the rebel troops was on the Vietnamese side of the river when dawn broke was to risk taking helicopter reconnaisance flights along the edge of the river. This way we hoped to spot them before they took cover in the dense forest a few miles north of the temporary press corps H.Q.
It was a question of who would travel in the main helicopter, which held some 20 people, and who would fly in the little observation craft which only had room for the pilot and a gunner or journalist. The 23 members of the press who were assembled agreed to draw lots so 20 would go in the large Chinook and three would be alone in a small aircraft with just the pilot. Lucy had come out of the tent to watch. She was obviously very nervous and implored me not to go.
“Darling do you have to? You could ask the others what’s happening when they return.” No way. I shook my head as I kissed and hugged her. She broke down and said she could not whatch them drawing lots for the unlucky three, so returned to a safer point. I drew a short straw.
The small helicopter I was in had an an excellent view of a wide strip of the River and I could see there were no troops anywhere near our position. I ordered the craft to return to base, but at that moment several shots rang out. The pilot, Charlie, shouted over the noise of the engine and rotor blades, “Don’t worry Sir, I can land her”. I was not so sure. In fact I was petrified and felt an awful panic attack starting.
The aircraft started to drift towards the treetops on the river bank getting further and further away from the press tents, until eventually they could not be seen at all. It was only then that Charlie admitted he thought the had lost a rotor blade and might not get the chopper down. I started to sweat and choke as we descended fast into the edge of the forest. About 25 feet from the ground I could risk no more ,
“I’m going to jump Charlie, you will never land this thing”, were the last words I shouted. In desperation I pushed the gun mounting across my lap to one side, unfastened my straps and jumped. A branch almost hit me in the face but I somehow managed to hang onto it for a second or two slowing down my fall. Then I watched in horror as the whole aircraft exploded in a fireball above me. The branch snapped and I fell a long way before hitting the ground in agony and sank into merciful unconsciousness. I did not know it but I was trapped between a tree and the river bed half in the water and half wedged between two tree roots. Before entering the water, I learned later, my back had cracked against the tree trunk as I slid towards the Mekong.
I have decided to write the next part of this episode in my life in the third person, as my friends later described to me everything that happened on that last day that I worked with Lucy in Indo China. She had insisted on coming to Cambodia on my third posting there, saying that waiting for news of me in Singapore or Saigon was far worse.
The Chinook had not taken off when a helicopter was seen descending fast into the trees to the north of the journalists’ camp. Military personnel rushed towards the direction in which it was coming down when an almighty explosion totally destroyed the aircraft and its remains showered down into the trees. Nobody knew who was in it but radio contact with all three observation craft was made immediately. The pressmen on the large craft streamed off to see what was happening and the senior officer told them what had happened. He was still talking when Lucy raced up. Mike saw her and stopped her, putting his arms round her shoulder.
“Luce, we don’t know which chopper it is yet, but they are checking the other two by radio now. I think we’d better wait here till we know who’s been lost. I’m afraid Anton, Joe and the Belgian radio man were the three in the small craft.” She almost fainted on Mike’s chest. Then she fell to her knees,
“Oh dear God, not Anton. Please, not my ‘Ton.” She had seen so much horror in her time in Indo China that Mike knew she could not take this if it was her husband. They listened as the colonel updated everyone.
“Ladies and gentlemen the two helicopters that are still airborne and safe contain Mr Joseph Williams of the United Press and Monsieur Guy Bichaud of the Belgian radio. We have no news of the condition or whereabouts of th…..at this point Lucy collapsed completely round Mike’s ankles and he knelt down and put his arms round her. He could not see her face but other friends and colleagues who approached them saw the tears streaming down his face. Of the people in that jungle clearing he was not the only one who could not control his feelings.
As the inferno that many of the military had seen explode in the trees by the waters’ edge was still crackling in the jungle, it was accepted that Anton and the pilot had both perished. The question of what to do with and for Lucy seemed to be the biggest problem. It was arranged that a small convoy would return to Saigon when she was recovered enough. However, this took several hours and it was well after noon before everyone was ready to set off. But just as they were about to leave one of the native scouts came running into the clearing waving his arms and then making for the US officers’ headquarters. He was met by one of the Americans, who spoke Vietnamese, and he in turn signalled to the convoy to wait. Then he ran across to the jeep that Mike and Lucy were in.
“Mrs.Wills-Eve, hang on we may have some news. But please don’t hold out too much hope.” Lucy had been given some tranquilisers and did not seem too clear what was going on. Just as well. “Some native villagers on the riverbank have reported seeing a man jump from that helicopter before it exploded. He swung on a branch for a minute or two and then fell. But although they have searched the area they have found nothing. But I have told the colonel and he says we must have a proper search before it gets too dark. Some men have set off already.” The effect of this news on a confused Lucy was odd. She seemed to assume her husband had been found, but could not understand why he wasn’t with her. Mike took her back to the tent to calm her down.
The search went on until the very quick sunset began over the Mekong, and they were just giving up when an unmistakable whimper rather than a cry was heard coming from the bank. Two troopers reached Anton first and then stood back in horror.
“He’s alive sir,” they said to their officer, “but he seems hurt real bad. Do we have a medic with this team?” They did, and men with a makeshift stretcher were also on hand. In the fading light the doctor could not see how badly hurt the patient was, but from the angle of his back, the length of time he must have been half in the water and the pitiful soft groans that were now constant, they all knew he had to be got to a hospital as quickly as possible. They carried him gently but speedily to the HQ where has was transferred to a proper ambulance to be driven to Saigon.
Lucy gradually returned to normal and could not contain her hope that they had reached her husband in time. She was present when he was carried towards the ambulance and dashed over to him. She looked down at him and realised how badly hurt he was. But as she got into the ambulance she thanked God that at least he was alive.
I have no recollection of anything before waking up in a sunny ward in a military hospital with an awful pain in my back and unable to move my legs. I was on my own and only the US flag on the wall of the ward told me where I was. But within minutes a male nurse came in and seeing I was awake imediately rushed to tell doctors, nurses and best of all Lucy. Without even knowing how badly hurt I was she put her arms round my neck and kissed me, the tears streaming down her face. I tried to raise my hands to touch her face but the pain was too much. I could barely speak, either and yet I had to ask her to let go of me as she was hurting me so much. She shot back in horror and then collapsed on a chair by the bed, her head in her hands.
The next few days, I had no idea it was more than a week at the time , were taken up with getting me sufficiently fit enough to be told I was being flown to hospital in America and my wife was coming with me. The day before we left Mike put his head round the door and was allowed to chat to me for a few minutes. Lucy told me how much he had helped her, but all he said was,
“You know how much I owe you, fellah, it was the least I could do.” The journey from the hospital to the plane was dreadfully painful but Lucy’s hand was better than any pain killers. She told me she had given the medical authorities a full run down on my health and soon I could feel the aircraft taking off as we set out on a new chapter in our life. How I would cope with my partial paralysis or occasional memory loss I had no idea. But I had my Lucy and what we did next is another story which you must remind me to tell you some time.