Rick Brittingham does not remember seeing the enemy soldiers, but he does remember the sound of the Huey's rotors and the rattle of the M-60 machine gun he fired from the helicopter's door despite his wounds.
Brittingham, of Lawton, was an 18-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam on Jan. 21, 1968. When a couple of Huey pilots were looking for a volunteer to replace their wounded door gunner, Brittingham agreed. The decision changed his life. Nearly 40 years later, Brittingham discovered one of those pilots, Bob Ford, was a fellow Oklahoman. Ford, of Okeene, and Brittingham shared a ride Sunday in Norman as part of an ongoing effort to recognize Vietnam Veterans in Oklahoma. Ford was the leader of a flight of Hueys sent that day to help out some special forces soldiers in danger of being overrun in Khe Sanh. One of their door gunners had been wounded, and they needed a replacement. "I said, 'Well hell, get a Marine. We haven't met a Marine yet who didn't want to fight,'” Ford said. That Marine was Brittingham. "I had just come off of perimeter watch, and I'd been up all night,” Brittingham said. "They said they needed a door gunner because this other guy got shot through the foot. They were desperate. I was a Marine, 18, no brains. I just said yes.” He knew the job was dangerous, but he had no idea he was flying into an ambush that would mark the start of the Battle of Khe Sanh. The flight of Hueys went in to try to recover the Americans caught among a division of enemy soldiers. As they tried to land, all hell broke loose, Brittingham said. "The helicopter in front of us got blown up,” he said. "A lot of guys got killed. The guy in front of me got shot in the head. Next thing I know, I'm shot. I just started shooting back.” Ford could see dozens of enemy soldiers trying to overwhelm the helicopters. The pilot in Brittingham's Huey shot one enemy soldier with his pistol as he tried to board the aircraft. "My brain just shut down that there were enemy soldiers rushing our helicopter,” Brittingham said. "I was hitting every one of them, but I don't really remember it. I was blocking it out.