September 22nd, 2017

Were Medevacs in Vietnam armed?

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that during 1968-1969 my boyfriend had been a door gunner for a Medevac helicopter. Commenter “Bumsrush” raised an interesting question in response:

I was there 67-68. Huey gunship pilot. Nine months Vietnam, 3 months NKP Thailand…

As for your boyfriend being a Medevac helicopter door gunner… I always thought Medevac helicopters were unarmed. Whether they were or not my hat is off to those guys.

I remember clearly that my boyfriend indeed held that position, and I even have a photo of him with the helicopter, red crosses and all. But still, I wondered. Memory can play tricks on you, and wouldn’t arming such a helicopter violate some sort of rule?

Well, it turns out that these days they’re not armed, which has stirred some controversy (the following is from 2012):

…Due in part to the lack of an armed escort for the medevac chopper, it took medics about an hour to get Clark, who lost an arm and both legs in the explosion, back to the hospital at Kandahar Airfield.

Yon blamed Clark’s death on Army policies, which require the medevac helicopters to prominently display the Red Cross emblem and be unarmed to conform to rules of the Geneva Conventions. Army commanders also require armed escorts for such helicopters, because Afghan insurgents do not honor the rule that protects the aircraft from hostile fire.

The military’s answer can be found here. I’ll summarize it by saying that they feel that arming Medevacs would impede their work by adding too much weight, and anyway such aircraft almost always are accompanied by a second aircraft that is armed.

But what about Vietnam? I found a bit of confusion when I did a search for answers. Here you can find a discussion where some of the people mention having been gunners on Medevac helicopters in Vietnam. But here’s a discussion where some Vietnam veterans say Medevacs were armed and some say they don’t remember that.

And here’s a Vietnam memoir where someone talks about having been a doorgunner on a Medevac.

But I finally found what I think is the definitive word here.

The brave crews of medical evacuation (Medevac) helicopters, commonly known as Dustoffs and Medevacs, were often required to perform heroic feats when evacuating wounded combat troopers. However, there was an important difference between a Dustoff and a Medevac. The 44th Medical Brigade was responsible for Dustoff operations for all the divisions in Vietnam with the notable exception of the 1st Cav Div. The 1st Cav Div had a dedicated Medevac capability directly under their control for very good reasons; faster reaction, crews were familiar with our concept of operating, and it fostered a closer bond with 1st Cav Div crews evacuating their “own” troops.

My boyfriend was in the 1st Cav Div.

Here’s more [emphasis mine]:

The primary evacuation helicopter used by the1st Cav Div was a specially equipped Huey designed to carry three stretcher patients or six walking wounded. A Medevac crew consisted of the Aircraft Commander, Co-Pilot, Crew Chief, Door Gunner and a Medic. During some missions, gunships provided protection for a Medevac. Although most Dustoffs were unarmed, the 1st Cav Div Medevacs carried two M-60 machine guns for defensive purposes only (the Crew Chief manned the other M-60). The Red Cross on a Medevac Huey did not provide them with immunity and many were shot down. Consequently, when we were in desperate need of resupply, they were known to drop off critical supplies and ammo to us, referred to by one pilot as “preventative medicine”.

In response to our request for a Medevac, the pilot would contact us by radio announcing that he was inbound and request that we pop smoke as he approached our location. This triggered an exchange on the correct smoke color as our enemy also tried to mislead Medevac pilots and lure them to other locations with the use of smoke grenades. As we frequently sustained casualties in jungle or mountainous terrain, suitable landing zones were not always available and a hoist system was used to retrieve wounded soldiers from these locations. As the Huey hovered over the jungle pick-up location, the Medic would lower a litter or jungle penetrator (a folded seat with a harness) to the Bravo Company troopers on the ground. The wounded troopers would be strapped into these devices by a qualified person, usually the platoon medic, and hoisted up.

I’m pretty sure that’s the bottom line.

It was an exceptionally dangerous job, and I remember my boyfriend remarking on the high casualty rate.

18 Responses to “Were Medevacs in Vietnam armed?”

  1. Bumsrush Says:

    As I said earlier my hats off to those guys. When I was there and in my area of operation which was generally III Core, if a call went out indicating wounded needing to be evacuated the nearest helicopter able to make a pickup would respond.It was only rarely that we would make a pickup because gunships typically were too heavy to go into confined areas and take on more load. I think in my year there I only made one pick up and that was at night. Neo, Laura my wife of 50 + years can relate to your stress. We were married right before I went to Vietnam.

  2. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    I have never understood why the US adheres to the strictures of the Geneva Convention when we are fighting with a group of people who do not adhere to those same strictures. Oh, I suppose Washington DC thinks they’re being “noble,” but at the cost of getting more of our soldiers killed.

  3. kaba Says:

    It could have been decided on a unit-by-unit basis or even a mission-by-mission basis. I know the Medevac that picked me up from Kham Duc in August of 1970 wasn’t armed.

    It was however absolutely filled with wounded ARVN’s. So much so that they kicked two of them off to make room for me. I was full of morphine at the time and told them I could wait but the medics insisted.

  4. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Dustoff crews, Jolly and Sandy, had a hard time orienting to civilian life.
    Turns out drinks aren’t actually free.
    Paradigm shift.

    I hear that the Army and the Air Force, Dustoff and Pedro respectively, differ on whether arming a medical evac chopper justifies shooting at it. IOW, if it’s armed, we can’t call the ref if it’s shot at.

    Personally, if a B52 could do an Arclight with a diameter of, say five hundred yards, I’d say that was adequate support. They can’t, of course, but one can wish.

    Guy asked me recently–less than half my age–what my favorite movie was. Hamburger Hill. There’s a line in there where a guy gets a tape from his girlfriend about her brother in country and how her father eats dinner watching the 630 news.

  5. blert Says:

    The enemy PRIORITIZED shooting down Dustoffs.

    It was official NVA// VC policy.

    Medevacs didn’t start out with door gunners.

    They were compelled to arm up because of enemy action.

    The exact same dynamic has unfolded over Afghanistan.

    The crosses make for the ideal aim point, BTW.

    In such combat zones, one is SAFER flying without any red crosses.

  6. Mark30339 Says:

    Thanks Neo for the conscientious scholarship. I suspect you had to hunt down a lot of paths on this.

  7. Michael F Adams Says:

    If your old boy friend is still with us, and you have a channel of communication, please be sure to thank him, from all of us.

    Viet Nam was such a stupid way to fight a war, as was WWI. I think that, ultimately, both were necessary, but fought in a way that multiplied casualties by a huge number.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Michael F Adams,

    I’m extremely sorry to say he’s no longer with us. He survived Vietnam, but died in his late 30s in an accidental house fire.

  9. L. Greg Says:

    The US Army has a book DUST OFF: ARMY AEROMEDICAL
    EVACUATION IN VIETNAM available as a free pdf at Page 85 mentions 1st Cav adding machine guns and a gunner to the medevacs. Note that the Government puts a lot of free military history (and other) books as pdf or html on the Web.

  10. groundhog Says:

    I always thought the issue was using medivac vehicles as disguises for weaponized units, or filling them full of arms and ammunition. Clearly that would be a violation.

    But a single gunner? Even your file clerk back at a base carries an arm if needed if the base is overrun.
    Just not their primary job until needed.

  11. Missy Says:

    My boyfriend was a 1st Air Cav pilot, kia in 1970. He was technically a resupply pilot, and his Huey well armed, but he left many hot LZs, after dropping off men and supplies, with the wounded and the dead. If you haven’t seen this tribute to the pilots, it is worth a watch:

  12. Mike K Says:

    A friend of mine flew Dustoff helos in VN. He became very good friends with a medical officer and they both ended up in my community. We all used to play handball together.

    We’ve drifted apart after I retired.

  13. Mike K Says:

    I have never understood why the US adheres to the strictures of the Geneva Convention when we are fighting with a group of people who do not adhere to those same strictures.

    Dakota Meyer, in his book, describes how he was being punished for shooting back at some Taliban Mortar men in Afghanistan and this saved his life as he was not allowed to go into the village with his team where they were ambushed and killed. He then, along with a motor pool humvee driver, drove into the village and rescued survivors.
    He was punished because the Taliban were not wearing uniforms.

  14. neo-neocon Says:


    I’m sorry for your loss.

  15. Ymar Sakar Says:

    A lot of WW1’s casualties were intentional. Same for Vietnam.

  16. J.J. Says:

    Thanks for the link, Missy. Powerful stuff. I’m choked up and blinking back tears.

    Joe Galloway is on a mission to honor all those who served in Vietnam. God bless him and all who were in the fight. And special thanks to the wives, girl-friends, and families who waited bravely at home. They, too, served their country in the vital role of support for the war.

  17. Uffdaphil Says:

    Here is a photo that showed in google search for 1sr cav medivac huey. Clearly shows the Red Cross and belted M-60.

    I drank beer in a air conditioned private bar at a medivac unit in Long Binh in 1968. But I quit visiting because the window overlooked the landing pad. Watching the wounded being unloaded was just too grisly and sad to take. I guess the med folks became innured to it.

  18. DDS Says:

    It was an exceptionally dangerous job

    I wonder why this guy he Toured Vietnam never been hurt a bit!!

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