First Lieutenant Maxwell Hugo fidgeted in the cramped briefing room. Around the room’s table was the rest of his crew, his aircraft commander, flight engineer, and three gunners who would depart with him in four hours to exfiltrate Air Force pararescuemen from an English forest. Hugo was uneasy, not due to the demands of the impending mission, as this one would be as straight forward as they came, but because of what had been whispered into his ear the previous day.
“Bring a go-bag tomorrow.”
The words belonged to someone he trusted. Analysis of all the angles uncovered a single, salient fact: the mission crew were all bachelors, unencumbered by a wife who would have to be called on a Friday evening and told her husband wouldn’t be returning that night. This led to the likely conclusion that he and his crew would be the objects of an escape and evasion exercise. Not only would someone be hunting them but since it was meant to be a secret, a fair amount of personal discomfort would be a likely by-product of the event.
Still, it was conjecture until the moment three extraneous men entered their briefing room. Not three random men but those possessing the exact qualifications for the basic crew of an H-53 helicopter.
You bastards, thought Hugo.
The senior ranking interloper was not only a major but a member of the unit’s standardization & evaluation cadre, which meant he could justify hopping on any mission at any time. A good cover, except that the presence of his two companions gave away his true intentions. “We’re going to tag along tonight, just observing.”
Hugo had informed his aircraft commander of the previous day's whisper yet the man said nothing to the major’s pronouncement. Instead the mission leader stood and began his dissection of the night’s scheduled events: a flight to a forest clearing we knew as Coy Drop Zone where we would pick up our eight pararescuemen, fly them back to the airbase, then spend the rest of the evening practicing instrument approaches in the local area. Up at six, down at ten p.m. Almost routine. At the end it was the three visitors’ turn to say nothing.
Four hours later the pre-flight inspections were complete and the helicopter run up to full operating temperature on its first try, no small feat given the H-53 was a powerful assembly of two turboshaft engines, five transmissions, three hydraulic systems, and miles of twenty year-old wiring. At departure Hugo had a map in his left hand, his finger quickly oriented in the day’s dying light. He’d navigated to Coy many times but even with dead reckoning information neatly tabulated, this part of England was so flat it’d be easy to miss their destination among the growing shadows below. En route Hugo interspersed his navigational calculations with thoughts of the three extraneous men standing behind him in the helicopter’s cabin. I bet they’re smiling, he thought.
Twenty-five minutes later Hugo found Coy, his aircraft commander having never relinquished the flight controls. “Coy DZ dead ahead.”
“Before landing check,” voiced the aircraft commander.
The landing itself was uneventful, though it was nearly dark. The aircraft commander plopped their beast seventy-five yards from Coy’s tree line, deciding to leave the rotor rpm at flying speed because, well, they didn’t expect to be on the ground long. The H-53 had barely settled its six tires in the scrub when the intercom squealed. “Right door. I’ve got people moving our way.”
This was wholly expected. Hugo had to look across the cockpit and past his aircraft commander to make them out. The men weren’t running but weren’t walking either, something in between. No doubt they were looking for a night in their own beds after a week in the field.
A second later there was another voice in their ears. “Tail here. I’ve got vehicles moving towards us at a high rate of speed.”
This was wholly unexpected. “Take off. In a real situation we’d leave and support from the air.” Hugo had vomited the words into his mouthpiece, aiming them squarely at his aircraft commander. He didn’t think they would make any difference, but at least there’d be resistance.
The aircraft commander said nothing, did nothing. Then Hugo became aware of a new being in the small cockpit. Or at least the head of one. The major had poked his into their space. “You’ve just had your tail rotor blown off, simulated. Normal shutdown.”
Hugo heard the helicopter moan and groan as it was started anew, then was gone in a roar. He didn’t see any of it because he was face down on the ground, wetness seeping to his chest, thighs, and forearms. The rest of his crew were around him, similarly positioned, including the pararescuemen they’d come to save. Everything of value had been taken from them. Equipment. Tools. Weapons. And his go-bag. Hugo quickly learned their captors weren’t Cold War Soviets, Czechs, or even Poles. They were British, members of the local militia fulfilling their weekend commitments.
It was completely dark now. With his helicopter’s gnash receding into the distance, Hugo was marched with the others to a nearby scrap of concrete and ordered to the ground again. He thought they were in a rough line though it was difficult to say with certainty. Now it was sure there was an uncomfortable weekend ahead. No wonder only bachelors had been picked.
“You can go (eff) yourself, mate.”
The last word had come out sarcastically, as if the airman mouthing it was trying to ridicule a whole language. Hugo was unfamiliar with the voice, learning later it’d come from a pararescueman on temporary loan from the squadron’s Zaragoza detachment. Hugo learned much more quickly that the man was a zealous sort.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you, limey.”
The militiamen were near but not too near, unseen in the darkness. One of them broke after the fifth horrid pronouncement from the man on loan from Spain. “Shut up, Yank, or I’ll shut you up.”
The retort was all the wedge the pararescueman needed. Amid a staccato of expletives, the man yelled back, “You (hmmm) come near me and I’ll (hmmm) cut you. I’ll stab you in the (hmmm) heart.”
The militiaman took the bait, much to his later regret, emerging from the black to challenge his ugly Yank with pugilistic intent, to land a blow with a fist or even the butt of his Fabrique Nationale FAL rifle. Hugo heard the militiaman’s boots resonate on the concrete, then stop. After a sound of struggle, Hugo heard a scream of such ferocity that he thought it would bring the local constable.
Hugo would learn that the man from Zaragoza had hidden a pen knife, now using it to stab the poor militiaman through the palm of his hand. Multiple men emerged from the darkness to save their countryman and to manhandle the American to his knees. They took wire and bound his wrists to his ankles behind his back, an arrangement that quickly proved insufficient. With his own scream and grunt, the pararescueman threw his body forward to break the wire, in the process inflicting a nasty wound to his forehead.
The militiamen then reinstalled the wire, adding a second length wrapped around the American’s neck, all in an attempt to further constrain, punish, and to gag the awful proclamations about their mothers, the Queen, and the IRA’s continued effectiveness against the British military.
Part II to come: Mass Escape