Monday, June 28, 2010
"I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky, Achin' with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies... These lines, penned by American troubadour Kris Kristofferson, have the power to draw me back to late 1971 and early 1972 when I was an Army Aviator privileged to see the morning burning golden on the mountain and to experience the freedom of the eagle. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain was Chu Pao, but we all called it the rock pile. It guards the west side of the pass between Pleiku and Kontum. When I first saw it in late December of 1971, it was thrusting its heavily wooded shoulders through a blanket of early morning fog into the morning sun. When I last saw it a scant six months later, it was battered and nearly devoid of vegetation -- the result of heavy bombardment and fighting. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain was Leghorn. Leghorn stands atop sheer cliffs in southern Laos and is accessible only by helicopter. Visible at any altitude above 500 feet from just about anywhere around Dak To and Ben Het, it was a handy navigation aid. If you could see Leghorn, you might not know exactly where you were, but you weren't lost. The slanting rays of the morning sun would cause the sheer cliffs to gleam like gold in the morning. Sometimes, someone would mention it as we passed by on our way to doing the business of war. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain is lost to me. It stands on either side of the road through the Mang Yang pass. At the summit there is a meadow marked by regularly spaced round depressions, remnants of an earlier war. It is a graveyard where the Viet Minh buried the dead of French Group Mobile 100 reportedly standing up, facing Paris. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky, and the mountain was more of a ridge than a mountain. We called it Rocket Ridge since it was the launch site for rockets aimed at Tan Canh, Dak To, and Kontum. Anchored on the south by a mountain we called Big Momma and the north by Firebase 5, it stretches over 20 miles from just west of Kontum to slightly south east of Ben Het. Besides Firebase 5, Rocket Ridge was the site of a number of Firebases, including Charlie, Delta, and Yankee. Firebase Charlie was occupied by a Vietnamese Airborne Battalion and subjected to heavy attacks. Of the nearly 342 men that went onto Charlie, less than 40 survived to walk off. From the cockpit of my helicopter, I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky; I have ached with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle. I would have it no other way, and I would gladly do it again.