MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER, N.C. -- Walking through the valley of the shadow of death the Devil demands a high price for passage. Surrounded by madmen and panders, fighting soldiers without conviction, the Marines of 3rd platoon, Alpha Company walked into the darkness and found the worst place in the world.
In the morning hours of January 31, 1970 in the Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, they inadvertently walked into a mine field and were pinned down by sniper fire from an invisible enemy. Not knowing they had walked into a kill zone, a Marine tripped a "bouncing betty" mine and flying shrapnel took the lives and limbs of many young Marines.
With no way out, through eyes burning with stinging sweat, the Marines saw that among the dead and the tortured screams of the dying they were trapped in hell's paradise with no salvation.
It sits there beside the hangar, unassuming and unspectacular. The vacant eyes of missing windows and the toothless grin of absent inside panels betray the heart and soul that quietly beats within. The grey paint, rivets and sheet metal of the unfinished CH-46 Sea Knight wait there, yearning to be put back together. It waits there through the day and into the night, a silent sentinel that belies its pedigree as one of the most famous combat aircraft in Marine Corps history.
Once known as "Blood, Sweat and Tears," it served Corps and Country for nearly forty years before being decommissioned last year in Iraq after a hard landing. It brought many Marines home to their families and one morning in January 1970, in the tall grass of the Vietnamese countryside, it carried five angels.
Doing all they could to stay alive in an unforgiving environment, the Marines of 3rd platoon, Alpha Company called for an immediate medical evacuation of their dead and injured.
Hovering above the carnage on the ground was a CH-46 piloted by Lt. Col. William R. Ledbetter, who responded to the call and made a fateful decision to save the trapped platoon by landing the aircraft in the mine field - placing the wheel mounts inside the craters caused by exploded ordnance.
In the rear of the aircraft was a private first class, busted down twice for various infractions of Marine Corps rules and regulations. Pfc. Raymond "Mike" Clausen, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-263 crew chief, leaned out the side door and steered the pilot into the craters, all while exposing himself to small-arms fire.
After landing successfully, Clausen ran down the back ramp and into the mine field, violating the specific and unambiguous instructions from Ledbetter, who ordered the Marines to remain inside. Once outside, he noticed that the helicopter had landed on the body of a dead Marine. Clausen attempted to rescue the body, but was unsuccessful. He asked the pilot to lift off and move ten feet, and land in other craters, a move that allowed Clausen to recover the body.
Clausen would repeat this process six times, directing the helicopter while hopping into the middle of a mine field. He would sprint through a hail of bullets and cross a danger zone to rescue wounded Marines and carry them back to the relative safety of the Sea Knight. In the same time frame the aircraft set off a mine that littered it with shrapnel and damaged the rotor system and aft pylon.
Once Clausen was certain that all wounded, dead and able bodied Marines were inside the aircraft, he directed the pilot to extract and the decimated crew headed to a hospital in Danang.
For their actions under fire, Clausen and the crew of "Blood, Sweat and Tears" became one of the most decorated in history. Ledbetter would earn a Navy Cross for his handling of the CH-46, his co-pilot 1st Lt. P. D. Parker earned a silver star, and door gunners Sgt. Maj. M. S. Landy and Cpl. S. M. Marinkovic received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Clausen would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military award given for combat valor.
Last year in Ponchatoula, La., Mike Clausen, a true American hero, died at the age of 56. Remembered by his friends and family as "a blunt, fun-loving, hard drinking, two-fisted man who tagged his e-mail with the line 'Death before Dishonor,'" he flew more than 1,960 combat missions in Vietnam.
"I told all my men to stay in the aircraft," said Ledbetter at Clausen's funeral. "Every time I landed that aircraft, he got out when he saw Marines who needed help. He had to get out."
Around the same time Clausen was laid to rest, "Blood, Sweat and Tears" joined him after a hard landing while serving in Iraq. Heavily damaged after a transportation accident, the aircraft was donated to the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, N.C., where a crew of volunteers now work weekends to preserve the combined legacy of Clausen and the helicopter that brought him and his men home.
One of these volunteers, Steve Fresina, a retired gunnery sergeant who last worked here with Marine Aviation Logistic Squadron-29 as a production control chief, donates time and expertise to what he describes as a "labor of love."
"I come here around three times a week," explained Fresina. "This is part of our (Marine Corps) history. If we don't work to preserve it, it'll go away and no one will ever know. I hope Mike is looking down on us and guiding us. We hope that he's pleased we're telling his story."
"We're doing it for him and to honor all of the air wing Marines," echoed Dean Demmery, a retired Marine sergeant who served in Vietnam and is currently the museum's acquisitions chief. "I was in (Force) Recon and was a frequent customer aboard the CH-46 and they saved our bacon more than once."
The effort at the museum continues everyday with workers crafting a damaged aircraft into a striking representation of the aircraft that Clausen and crew flew in 1970. The volunteers beg, borrow and "steal" to try and gather the parts and knowledge necessary to preserve the Sea Knight.
"You have to use your connections, you have to say 'hey, can you get us this, can you get us that," said Fresina.
"We are adapting and overcoming," added Demmery. "But what we really need to make this project work is parts."
The hope of the museum is that with hard work and perseverance and the kindness of the helicopter community, Clausen's legend will be rebuilt along with his helicopter and both can be displayed sometime next year. Their ultimate goal is to draw people from around the world to come there and learn the values of honor, courage and commitment embodied in a Marine and his aircraft and to understand that a guardian angel once walked among us.
"He had done this over and over," said Ledbetter. "How can you be surprised at what he did? God called him home - he needed a crew chief."
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