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.


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