There are many names on that wall in Washington, D.C., and behind every name there is a person, one of our buddies, and his story. This is the story of "The Reverend" Bob Black.
If you look in the Memorial section of this web page, and scan down to January 11, 1971, youíll see an entry that says simply, "Black, Robert Dennis, Jr., Hostile, Helicopter-Pilot Air Loss, Crash on Land." As with the loss of any of our buddies, this brief description doesnít do enough in telling how our fellow soldiers died and it doesnít mention the circumstances of Bobís death and the things that happened after his crash. Iíd like to tell you more about that event.
Bob Black wasnít assigned to the 3rd of the 1st, but he worked with us on a regular basis. He flew for Primo Helicopter, flying an L.O.H. out of Duc Pho. He was called "The Reverend" Mr. Black, not because he was a minister or anything, but because of some lyrics in an old Johnny Cash song that mentioned a Reverend Mr. Black. He flew various missions for the battalion but I was with him most as he flew me around on my S-5 (Civil Affairs Officer) missions. Heíd fly me back and forth from the Hill to Tu Nghia or to other villes I needed to visit to set up MEDCAP missions or pay solatium money to relatives of people who had been accidentally injured or killed in friendly fire incidents. Heíd also fly me around when I had to drop Chieu Hoi leaflets over suspected NVA or VC concentrations. That was always a bit nerve wracking as we intentionally flew where the bad guys were to throw paper at them. Iím glad they didnít have Stinger missiles back then. Iím pretty sure Bob didnít like the Chieu Hoi leaflet missions for another reason, as well; almost invariably weíd end up with the damned leaflets flying all around inside the cabin of the loach, getting all over the instruments, the inside of the cockpit and in our faces.
Bob met his end working for us. On January 11, 1971, he was flying a mission, I believe, to drop someone off at Bravo Companyís location. His helicopter went down shortly after taking off, crashing in the Song Tra Khuc River. I wrote home to my wife about the crash, and it was also mentioned in Les Stottleís history of the battalion. In addition, I have been in correspondence with Bobís best friend, Art Magee, who is now a pilot with Northwest Airlines. Iíve drawn on these resources to give this account of Bobís loss and the things that happened recovering his chopper and his body.
In Stottleís history, taken from the Battalion logs, is the entry "...11 January...B Company watched as a Brigade L.O.H. went down in the river near BS503743. They searched the area and found the pilotís helmet and map but did not find the pilot, WO-1 Robert D. Black..." In my letter to my wife that day, I told her, "Today a loach got shot down in the Song Tra Khuc River west of Q.N. (Note: Quang Ngai.). A "flying crane" was sent out to get it and it got shot down. The pilots havenít been found yet. I guess they were killed with gunfire, were killed when the ship went down, or drowned. (Note: This later turned out to be incorrect. See Rescue Chopper Rescued.) Thatís real bad. Thatís another close call for me (us). We had flown along the river to QN just about fifteen minutes before it (the loach) went down. I still think "the Big Ranger" is looking after me." Art Magee, who was one of Bobís best friends, has a very vivid recollection of that day. He later wrote, "...Bob was not only my hooch mate and good friend at Primo but taught me some invaluable skills when I transferred from the 174th. The events of that day are burned into my memory and my recollection remains good, albeit tempered by almost 30 years.
I was in my hooch when one of our crew chief/door gunners ran in and told me ops had just received a call from the TOC that Bob was down at Hill 411 (as we used to call FSB 4-11). At the time we had no other info and I recall that we even thought he was on the pad at 411 with a mechanical problem. I remember the crew chief even grabbing a tool box. He and I jumped in a ship and hauled ass up toward 411.
Not until I established radio contact with the ops at 411 and eventually the unit on the field on fox mike did I really understand the gravity of the situation. I cannot remember the exact time frame of our arrival, but I recall one of the recovery ships in the area already. The river was quite swollen with what appeared to be a very fast current. With help from the guys in the field, I was able to find the aircraft. It was laying on its left side facing north. There was about a foot or so of water covering the ship and I could make out outline of it and could clearly see the red fire extinguisher that was mounted on the aft outside part of the front right seat. The water wasnít clear enough to see in the ship itself.
The crew chief (God, I wish I could remember his name!) said if I could get close he would try to check the inside of the ship. Because of the reflection of the sun in the water, I had to hold about a 10 foot hover a little to the east of the ship and descend with the crew chief on the right front skid. The first two times he attempted to grab enough of Bobís ship to hold on, the current tore him off and Iíd have to hover down river to pick him up. On the third try he was able to hold on long enough and feel below the surface enough to determine that Bob was not still strapped into his seat. We then flew down river a mile or so and started looking for Bob. As we worked our way back upstream, I recall we recovered his flight helmet (chin strap still fastened) and a map. We started running out of gas and daylight at this point and headed back to Duc Pho."
The next day Art wanted to go back and look for Bob some more but one of the other officers had other plans. Art continues, "I remember that we had a major assigned to the TOC to handle aviation stuff and for some reason he assigned me to fly the Engineers Recon the next morning. (This was a dawn patrol thing where we would fly from Duc Pho south along Highway 1 to the border of I and II Corps to make sure the VC didnít steal the pavement overnight). This was always assigned to an FNG as part of his indoc and I was now the old man of Primo. Anyway, I guess I used a bad word when I told this guy to get one of the other available pilots to fly it and wound up in the Brigade XOís office where he calmly explained that CW2s were not supposed to use the words "F__k" and "You" in the same sentence when talking to field grade officers."
The next day, Stottleís history reported: "12 January; B Company continued its search for the missing L.O.H. and at BS542752 engaged three VC with M-16 rifles whom they engaged with small arms and M-79 fire, then at BS527757 they found parts of the L.O.H. but didnít find the pilot..." My letter home from that day noted, "...one bit of news that I can pass along is that the loach that went down yesterday went down due to a power failure; it wasnít shot down (Note: Thirty years later I donít know how I have could have known this with certainty, but I must have been told by someone.). The crane was, however. The crane pilots are alright; the loach pilot is still missing and presumed dead."
Art Magee later said, "As to the cause of the accident...there were some reports from the ground unit he had just taken off from, of some small arms fire from the north side of the river, and I recall a recovery ship having some problems on the north side, but nothing was ever conclusive. I spent quite a bit of time hovering over the accident site and received no fire. To my knowledge, Bob received no gunshot wounds. I saw the aircraft in Chu Lai after they recovered it, and to be honest with you, there wasnít much left of the cockpit area and I suspect the injuries he suffered in the crash were either fatal or debilitating to the point that self rescue was not an option. I donít know if Bob was a swimmer, but the current was very strong."
The search for Bob or his body went on for several days, until, as Stottleís log reports, "The 17th was a fruitful day...Then at 1015 hours C Company at BS528759 found the body in a flight suit of WO Black from 11th Brigade aviation."
My letter home from that day described the tragedy that followed. "During this period of time a crew of engineers were taken out to the Song Tra Khuc River to retrieve the body of the loach pilot. It was found on some rocks in the river, so they went out in a raft to get it...
Around lunch time the engineers had gotten the body and called in a chopper to pick it up. The chopper picked up the body, one of the men, and the raft. It left the rest (3) of the men, without weapons, to be picked up later, at about grid 5175...
By this time (Note: About 1500 hours) the engineers had been waiting for four hours, and decided, for some reason, to get into a sampan they had found and started floating down the river...
(About 1830 hours) About this time the CO of the engineers, noticing that the three men hadnít returned, called 4-11 to see if we knew where they were-we didnít, of course-we thought they had been picked up at 1100...
At about 1900 we were getting ready to play some bridge when we got a radio call from the three engineers. It was getting dark and they wanted someone to come get them. The caller was using the wrong call sign, however, which raised doubts as his true identity. Also we still thought they had all been picked up as one of our companies out there had seen the bird go in and thought they had all gotten on. Suspecting a trap, they were asked who was playing in the Super Bowl. They didnít know! That made everybody very leery of the caller (Note: As I recall, at about this point our Battalion CO, LTC Luke, asked the guys to give their names in the clear to check their identities.) but by this time the CO of the men had called the chopper pilot and found that he hadnít picked them up, so the bird took off to find them.
Satisfied that they were Americans, we tried to get them going towards one of our positions near where they were. Our people were shooting up flares to guide them. What happened next is tragic. They walked into an ambush -VC or ARVN, we donít know which yet, and one of the men was critically wounded. (I still, all these years later, remember one of the guys crying on the radio that "theyíd" shot the sergeant and were coming his way. It was gut wrenching to hear.) Then, before the bird got in to get him out, he died. What a stupid waste of life. Itís really sickening. I donít know why they waited so long to call in. I also donít know why they left where they had been working. It was right across the river from one of our units. They ended up way down the river, at about 5476. What a waste. There are so many ways to get killed over here, yet tonight we thought up a new one. Itís a real shame."
Art Magee continues, "Some days later, the unit was advised that Bobís body had been recovered and I went to Graves Registration to ID the body. I also went through his gear and sent his personal belongings off to be shipped home. I still have his flight jacket hanging in my closet to this day. It was some days later that the unit clerk greeted me with Body Escort orders and I flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to pick up Bob and escort him home to Huntsville, Alabama. A 5 minute lecture by an E-5 on what a "closed casket" burial was (Bob had been in the water for several days before his recovery) did little to prepare a 20 year old for the job of convincing Bobís family not to have that "one last look." I think there must have been some divine intervention on that one."
Note: Art Magee provided a copy of the picture on this page of Robert Dennis Black, Jr., which was taken by Fred Thompson. Both Art and Fred were close friends of Robert.
Lou Kraft, another friend, has a memorial to Robert Dennis Black, Jr. on the Virtual Wall.