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.


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