Soldiers carry a fallen comrade to a medic copter. Photo submitted
Editor’s note: The following is the second part of a two-part series.
After years of career maneuvering and months of flight training, Army Capt. Britt Knox finally arrived in Vietnam, near Saigon, on Nov. 20, 1965.
Knox was anxious to do what he was trained to do, but multiple days of rain initially kept his helicopter and crew on the ground.
“After endless days and days of rain, I was going crazy,” he recalled.
By this time, America’s political and military leaders had committed massive troops and war machines in the fight.
Finally, on Dec. 7, 1966, Capt. Knox and his flight crew were launched into combat action. They were deployed to the mountains of Vietnam, where an American unit was pinned down by enemy forces.
“In Vietnam’s mountains, the turbulence was so bad our crew was challenged merely to keep our aircraft under control,” Knox recalled.
This mission was a success. It was the first of 120 danger-laden missions Knox would ultimately lead his flying war machine crew on. He would eventually accumulate 1,520 hours of flight time in and out of war zones.
“Some days we would fly five missions in a two-hour period,” Knox accounted. “So, it wasn’t hard to quickly accumulate flight hours and mission numbers.”
On one of his early missions, Knox and his unit were the lead war machine to extract units of American and allied troops in the midst of enemy fire.
“Despite the enemy being close by, and us taking on fire, we were fortunate to extract two or three loads of our surrounded troops,” Knox described. “If we didn’t, they were in danger of being overrun by the enemy.”
Capt. Knox didn’t know it, but after multiple rescue flights to extract American soldiers, his commanding officer put the former Tennessee National Guard soldier in for the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“We were doing our jobs, doing what we were trained to do,” Knox noted with modesty. “We had taken on hot enemy fire, but went in blazing away from our chopper in order to keep the enemy’s heads pinned down long enough to extract our troops. This happened on Jan. 12-13, 1967.”
By this time, Knox and crew were flying night and day, round-the-clock missions, before finally being shot out of the air not once, but twice by enemy fire. Mechanical failures caused multiple other crashes.
“Another time, we hit the ground hard after our helicopter experienced hydraulic failure while in flight,” Knox explained.
“Another flight into enemy territory ended when our engine blew up.
He doesn’t hesitate when describing his “prayer life” while in ‘Nam.
“After our chopper was shot out of the air, I felt around in shock, I guess, and asked myself: ‘Am I dead?’” Knox recalled.
“I often quote the 91st Biblical Psalm, when God was speaking to Moses: ‘Since you have placed your love upon Me, therefore I shall honor you and deliver you.’”
Knox stopped the interview to gather thoughts and emotions, before describing another harrowing mission.
“We were transporting assault troops into an area our intelligence people advised the enemy was preparing for an ambush.
“Suddenly, we took a hit, immediately under heavy fire. We went down in a hail of bullets, but we kept firing from our war machine to help keep the enemy heads down. This was the first of two times we had our aircraft blown out of the sky.”
The former soldier described another dangerous mission.
“We had to practically land on the side of a cliff as we were attempting an emergency evacuation of troops surrounded by the enemy,” he recalled. “However, we were facing an attempted landing on the actual side of a cliff. But, we had to go in or our soldiers would perish.
“However, since there was no landing area of any type, we couldn’t go straight in. Flight engineer Bobby Golden kept yelling, ‘We can’t do it! We can’t do it!!’ But, we had to go in! And due to the cliff, our crew chief climbed out on the skid and he backed us in -- to the point we hit a tree with one of our big blades.
“You immediately worry about sheet metal fabric coming apart, so there we were, hanging on the side of this cliff when we started falling. I let her (aircraft) float down (toward earth) in order to finally set her on the ground. After that harrowing crash and being hit by fire, Bobby Golden declared he couldn’t take anymore!”
Knox also recalls when his personal misjudgment endangered lives of his flight crew.
“We were flying into a strong 35 mph headwind on a resupply mission,” he explained. The wind was so strong that it was nearly impossible to land, but we had to get ammunition and supplies to our troops, when one of our blades hit the ground, throwing five of my guys out of the aircraft and on the ground. I was still strapped in, and when I finally got the craft on the ground, I said: ‘Thank you Lord.’ I had screwed up, but I was thankful my action had not resulted in any of my crews’ deaths due to my impatience in trying to land.
Now age 74, Knox recited part of his favorite 91st Psalm: “You (God) are my refuge and my fortress. … So surely you shall deliver us from the snare of the fowler, cover us with Your feathers and give us refuge under Your Wings.”
“Fifty years later, I’m thankful about not having the guilt of causing deaths of my comrades due to a mistake I made,” Knox testified.
Finally, the Army ordered Capt. Knox “home.” But not before he received 35 Air Medals, two of which were awarded with “Valor.”
Knox said soldiers, when under fire, often ask themselves why some perish while other lives are spared.
The Vietnam veteran recalls “getting sick” after one perilous rescue mission when they brought American soldiers’ bodies back to base in body bags.
Finally, it was time for Knox to come home. But war had changed him in multiple ways.
“I left Vietnam very angry, so I decided against staying in the military,” Knox shared.
Upon finally returning safely on beloved Volunteer State soil and entering his parents’ (nationally-acclaimed newspaper editorial cartoonist Jack Knox and wife Speedy) home in Nashville, he observed what he believes helped deliver him safely out of the Vietnam war zone.
“Mother had a model helicopter war ship, like the ones we flew in ‘Nam, and on it, she’d attached three angels. … And she prayed the 91st Psalm on my behalf each and every day.”
Knox, who resides in Woodbury with his wife, Woodbury City Councilwoman Faye Northcutt Knox, and still has his Mom’s model helicopter.