Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 4

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On May 20, 2008, I received an email from Bernadette Ross, saying she planned to contact Fort Rucker, Alabama, about “filming opportunities” on a documentary about the Cau Song Be mission.

Fort Rucker is the home of the Army Aviation School, as it was in the 1960’s when Tom Baca, Larry Liss, Ken Dolan and I attended flight training there.

Tom had sent Bernadette a digital video showing the landing zone where our two UH-1D “Huey” helicopters had landed repeatedly on May 14, 1967, to rescue more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers ambushed by 600-700 enemy troops hear Cau Song Be. Two days after the rescue, Tom flew over the landing zone and took film clips on Super 8 film.

Tom had digitized the clips, along with other film footage he had taken during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. Windfall Films of London was delighted to have Tom’s original video from the Vietnam War.

Bernadette, as associate producer with the planned “Helicopter Warfare” television documentary series, was doing groundwork on the two segments dealing with U.S. military missions. Another crew from Windfall Films would be filming the two documentaries involving military helicopters from the United Kingdom.

During the exchange of email Tom had told Bernie the New Mexico Army National Guard still had some Vietnam War-era Hueys in Santa Fe. Though they had medevac (medical evacuation) red cross markings on the nose, the inside of the helicopters looked just like the ones we had flown in Vietnam. The Hueys even had armored seats.

Tom was New Mexico’s state aviation officer and had excellent contacts within state government. He thought the National Guard helicopters in Santa Fe could be used to film some of the reenactments and as backdrops for on-camera interviews.

On May 23, Bernie sent a note to Tom and me, saying she and Richard Max, the director of the Vietnam War documentary, planned to be in Albuquerque in late May to meet with us, and then visit with the National Guard Public Affairs Office.

Tom and I drove to a hotel near Albuquerque’s Old Town Plaza on May 29 and met Bernie and Richard for the first time. We then took the short drive to Tom’s house, where we spent the next 5-6 hours rehashing and fleshing out our parts in the Cau Song Be rescue. Bernie and Richard were sticklers for accuracy. Tom and I felt good about the attention they were paying to details.

At the end of our meeting, Tom told Bernie and Richard he and a friend planned to visit Vietnam in October. Richard did a quick calculation. “That would be during editing, but we can’t miss an opportunity to film you in Vietnam,” he said.

Tom turned to me. “Why don’t you join us in Vietnam?”

“Let me check my schedule,” I said. For years, I had planned to return to Vietnam. Now I had a deadline. “I’ll do it.”

That evening we ate Mexican food in Old Town and then took the filmmakers back to their hotel. They planned to visit National Guard officers in Santa Fe the following day, and then fly to Alabama to look over Fort Rucker. The next time we would see Bernie and Richard would be in July, when we would be in front of the camera.

During June, Tom and I were in regular contact with Bernie as she and Richard tightened the storyline and focused on details. I became accustomed a regular phrase in her emails: “I have a couple of questions which I’d like to run by you if I may.”

On July 4, Tom and I received a note from Bernie. “We all at Windfall wish you and your family a wonderful 4th July. We haven’t confirmed our flights yet, but the National Guard have confirmed that they can accommodate our filming (from 15th-18th July) and so yours and Jack’s interview day is Thursday, 17th July. We very much look forward to filming with you . . .”

The reservations were confirmed. Now we had a date for filming and reliving the Cau Song Be mission.


Monday, August 27, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 3

The quietness about the Cau Song Be mission was about to end after 41 years.

Late on the morning of May 5, 2008, I received an email note from Bernadette Ross of Windfall Films in London. It followed a note I had received several days before from Michael O’Neill, president of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society.

In the note, O’Neill asked if he could tell a television crew about a mission I had flown in Vietnam. “Sure,” I replied, though I did not expect to hear anything. Tens of thousands of missions were flown by U.S. helicopters during the Vietnam War. The odds were against any of my missions being selected.

“Mr. O'Neill, President and CEO of the DFCS was kind enough to put us in touch,” Bernadette’s letter began. “He has mentioned that Windfall films is making a series about Helicopter Missions for Channel 5 (UK Network)/National Geographic/The Smithsonian Channel. We hope to examine the role of the helicopter, the pilot and the crew and explore the skills and innovations in flying techniques that made their particular missions a success.

“I would like to give you a call at your convenience where I can explain a little about the approach of the programme and to have a research chat with you about your particular experiences. If you could let me know a good number and a time to call you and I'll happily follow up,” she continued. 

I later learned Bernadette was the associate producer of a 4-part documentary series Windfall Films planned to illustrate combat helicopter missions during the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. The film company was interested in the May 1967 Cau Song Be rescue because of the continuing nature of the mission.

Larry Liss, copilot of the other UH-1D “Huey” helicopter on the mission, phrased it more practically: The film company needed a story that would fill an hour. Normally a medical evacuation would last about 10 minutes.

During the Cau Song Be mission, our 2 Hueys made 5 trips into the landing zone to extract survivors of the South Vietnamese CIDG company. Additionally, Tom Baca, the aircraft commander of the other Huey, and Larry medically evacuated 6 soldiers from the landing zone before our 2 flight crews made the extraction.

Michael O’Neill of the DFC Society had referred our mission to Windfall Films based on a write-up I had sent to the Society for its newsletter. Like many veterans’ groups, the Society asks members to submit articles on their wartime experiences, in particular the experience that led to the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Tom Baca also was corresponding with Bernadette Ross at Windfall Films.

A chain of events had led Windfall Films to our mission. About the same time, another chain of events began to pull the helicopter crewmembers and former Special Forces advisors at Cau Song Be into view.

Tom Baca’s twin brother, Jim, was running for New Mexico state land commissioner in 2006. During a campaign swing through southeastern New Mexico, Jim called and asked me to join him for breakfast. The conversation turned to the Cau Song Be mission. “Would you send me a write-up on the mission you and my brother flew?” Jim asked.

On April 7, 2006, Jim published an article in his “Only in New Mexico” blog. During the next week, Jim received emails from 2 of the participants in the mission: Al Croteau, who had flown as door gunner on my Huey during the rescue, and James Dopp, medic at the Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp in May 1967.

James Dopp — along with camp commander Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson — had accompanied Tom and Larry on the medical evacuation, then cared for the wounded soldiers we brought to the Cau Song Be camp hospital during the rescue.

Decades before, I had attempted to find Al Croteau. I knew he lived near Boston, but nothing else. Several searches had proved ineffective. Now Al had read Jim Baca’s blog and sent him an email. Jim passed it on to me.

James Dopp had moved to Central America after leaving the Army. He, too, had read Jim Baca’s blog and responded with am email. Jim forwarded the Dopp email to his brother, and then Tom had contacted James Dopp and received a response.

Tom Baca and Larry Liss had communicated with one another over the years, after serving together as instructor pilots at Fort Wolters, Texas, during the late 1960s.

Tom Baca and I were exchanging emails and telephone calls with Bernadette Ross and Richard Max, director of the planned Helicopter Wars series. The film company was interested in our mission, but would like to meet with us.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 2

None of the helicopter crewmembers said much about the Cau Song Be rescue for more than 40 years.

The pilots considered the mission “just something you did” flying helicopters during the Vietnam War. In addition, several of the pilots had gotten into trouble over the mission, so they kept quiet about it.

Like many other American servicemen who returned from war, the helicopter crewmembers learned friends and family members weren’t always interested in hearing about their combat experiences.

During the mid-1960s, many Americans had tired of the war in Southeast Asia. Some took their cue from the anti-war protesters and blamed the soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors. Before returning home from a combat tour in Vietnam, many servicemen received briefings about what to do if they encountered people at airports who spit on or attacked them.

The message was clear:  Put your wartime service behind you and get on with life.

I was fortunate to live in the Southwestern United States, where members of the military were treated well and held in high esteem. I had no unpleasant encounters on my return home from Vietnam, though I did know people who were welcomed home with spit, catcalls and taunts.

Though wartime experiences were on my mind when I returned home, I discovered the people closest to me did not want to discuss them. They were big deals to me. That’s what I had been doing for 12 months. But those nearest did not want to contemplate my near demise. Whenever I mentioned a close call, the conversation shifted. It was a natural reaction on the part of my friends and family. I understood it.

Life went on because it had to.

My combat tour ended in early February 1968 when I boarded one of the first airline flights home from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive. I could see the bodies of enemy sappers hanging on the fence as my plane took off from Bien Hoa Air Base.

For the next 22 months, I would serve as adjutant and public information officer with the 55th Aviation Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas.

I left the Army in December 1969 as a chief warrant officer and returned to my civilian job as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. I became city editor in 1973. A year later, I moved to southeastern New Mexico as editor of the Roswell Daily Record.

Married just days after my return from Vietnam, my wife and I started a family. Our life involved raising children and building a newspaper career. There was little time to think back to my days in Vietnam or the missions I had flown.

Warrant Officer Tom Baca, the aircraft commander of the other Huey in the Cau Song Be mission, returned home from Vietnam 12 days after the rescue.

Tom became a flight instructor at the U.S. Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters, Texas. He lived in nearby Fort Worth, commuting to Fort Wolters for a half day of instructing 5 days each week.

Tom married an Air Force nurse who lived in an adjoining apartment. They would raise 2 daughters.

In 1970, he returned to Vietnam for a second combat tour, this time flying fixed-wing aircraft. He received a direct commission to first lieutenant. Tom would remain in the Army for 20 years and retire as a major.

After the military, he flew corporate jets and helicopters, and later served as the New Mexico state aviation director until his retirement in 2009. He now lives in Albuquerque, his hometown.

Over the years, he thought little about the mission and rarely talked about his first tour in Vietnam.

Captain Larry Liss, Tom Baca’s copilot on the mission, left Vietnam in February 1968, just after the Tet Offensive. Like Tom Baca, Larry was assigned to Fort Wolters as an instructor pilot.

He ended up commanding Charlie 10, in which Tom Baca served. Larry later became an instructor pilot for instructors.

In April 1970, three weeks before being promoted to major, he left the Army. He had a 4-year-old daughter and did not want to leave his family for another combat tour.

A year later, Larry founded Philadelphia-based Flightways Corporation, a regional air carrier, which he sold to Federal Express in 1975. He later became president of the Diversified Environmental Corporation, a $150 million division of the LVI Group.

My copilot on the mission, Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, left Vietnam after completing an 18-month tour. He was assigned to West Germany, where he met and married an Army nurse.

After returning to the United States, Ken left the military. He completed his college degree and began a 28-career with Procter & Gamble. The Dolans raised 2 sons. Ken served another 22 years in the National Guard.

Lt. Al Croteau, who voluntarily flew as the gunner on my Huey the day of the Cau Song Be mission, volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. He was promoted to captain.

After leaving active duty, Al began a career with General Electric, starting as a chemical engineer. He was a manager in the Turbine Engine Division when he retired 25 years later.

He married, raised a family, and became involved in volunteer and community activities near his home in Andover, Massachusetts.

As the crewmembers of the two Hueys focused on building careers and families, memories of the Cau Song Be mission faded.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 1

BIEN HOA, Republic of Vietnam — On May 14, 1967, two U.S. Army helicopters made one of the largest air rescues of the Vietnam War.

After chopping through 40-foot-tall bamboo with their main rotor blades, the UH-1D “Hueys” whisked more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1 U.S. Special Forces advisor from the heart of an ambush. The enemy outnumbered them 6-1.
A UH-1D Huey from the 118th Assault Helicopter
Company flies toward a landing zone in 1967.

As the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers climbed aboard the helicopters, North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong soldiers used AK-47 assault rifles to pick them off in the back of the choppers. The soldiers following them dragged and threw their dead comrades off the Hueys to take their place.

Bodies were stacked three feet high on both sides of the helicopters. The outer perimeter was within the sweep of the rotors.

After both Hueys were filled with the survivors, they laboriously hovered up through the tight, 38-foot circles their rotors had carved through the bamboo. Once above the bamboo, the pilots eased the helicopters forward, through translational lift, and into flight. Gathering speed, the pilots kept the Hueys’ fuselage below the surrounding trees, overflying a narrow road.

A kilometer from the ambush, the pilots pulled back on their helicopters’ cyclic control. The Hueys climbed to 1,500 feet and flew 15 minutes to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp.
After unloading their passengers at the dirt airstrip beside the camp, the Hueys returned to the ambush four more times, until all the living CIDG soldiers were pulled from the landing zone cut into the bamboo.

Later, intelligence showed the enemy force that had surrounded the soldiers was made up of 600-700 North Vietnam and Viet Cong troops.

When they returned to their home base at Bien Hoa Air Base after the rescue, one of the pilots was threatened with court-martial.

Later, three of the pilots would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other crewmembers the Air Medal for valor.

The rescue remained a secret for 41 years, a mission forgotten by all but the participants.

The rescue became public when Windfall Films of London came across it while researching for a 4-part series that would be entitled “Helicopter Warfare” in the United Kingdom. The series was renamed “Helicopter Wars” for international television broadcasting, and “Helicopter Missions” in the United States.

Details about the mission, the pilots and crewmembers who flew it, and the soldiers on the ground who lived through it will be the subject of a continuing series on this page entitled: “The Forgotten Mission.”