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Seawolf And River Rats, Burning Man In The Water

In the early afternoon on March 6 th 1971, Airman Norm Stayton was the left Door Gunner on the lead Seawolf Gunship staging out of the Rach Gia short strip. The Fire Team was assigned to fly cover for a convoy of Army Mike boats and US PBRs transporting munitions and fuel to outposts on the Can Gao canal. These missions were very long and boring—Having to sit in the door at the ready, Flying, refueling and back out again and again—But not on this day, The lead Boat loaded with 9000 Gals of fuel hit a mine and was then hit by two B40 rockets from the bank of the canal shocking all hands on the boats and gun ships into action.

The canal was a blazing inferno, the Boats and Helos opened up with all weapons, but to save the other Mikes and covering PBRs from being incinerated they had to retreat down the canal around a curve away from the engulfing flames.

The crew in the lead bird spotted a wounded American in the burning water trying to swim to the bank where the VC fire was coming from. This was a brother in the water who needed help. With complete disregard for his own safety, Stayton dove from the airborne helo through the enemy fire into the burning water.

Stayton was immediately wounded but swimming under and around the flames he made it to the wounded man (an Army Capt.). Stayton, shielding the man with his own body from the enemy fire, put a life vest on him before pulling him to the bank where there were several VC sampans stashed.

As Stayton was loading the Capt. in one of them, several of the enemy ran to the bank of the canal to get a better shot at the two, and were killed by the helo crew or River Rats. Stayton then paddled the sampan to an open area away from the fire which was burning down. The lead gun Ship hovered while the Boats and the trail helo kept Charlie under cover.

Stayton stood in the sampan and with the help of the other gunner tried to load the survivor in the helo, but the rotor wash and current of the canal made this impossible. On his second attempt he put a gunners belt (a 9 foot wide belt to attach the gunners to the bird in case they get shot and fall out or get pushed out by the other gunner when in training) around the man and tried to hook him to the skid to bring him out, the belt fell off in the water.

His third and last attempt was tried but when the other Gunner grabbed the man's arms all the meat and skin pulled off (he was burned over 80% of his body) and he fell back in the water .As the Capt. was floating away Stayton swam to the bank and got a motorized sampan, started it and retrieved the man again and loaded him up. The motor on the sampan stopped. Now drifting down the canal ...enemy still firing .. he could see the River Boats coming toward him.

Since the fuel fire had subsided, The River Rats, thinking Stayton was the enemy, were about to take him under fire until he started waving wildly and they recognized him as a friendly. They loaded Stayton and the Capt. on one of the Boats, cleared the area to safety where one of the gunships extracted them both.

The bird was too heavy and had to land at a nearby POL. Although wounded, exausted and having just spent 30 minutes in the water in the rescue, Stayton volunteered to stay while the gravely injured survivor was raced to a medical unit. Airman Stayton was picked up later by the other Seawolf gunship and ended up at Long Binh hospital and returned to flying duty 3 weeks later.

With the combined efforts of the River Rats and Seawolves another American was saved from capture and torture. This young Airman was recommended for the MEDAL OF HONOR but higher authority deemed the Navy Cross the appropriate award, he also recieved the Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon for this action Maybe some of you Rats that read this were on this action.

This story was contributed by: Bill Rutledge - Seawolf Gunner