Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 10

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — For months, I had been looking forward to returning to the landing zone where our two helicopters had rescued more than 100 Vietnamese soldiers and 2 U.S. Special Forces advisors in 1967.

After my wartime tour of duty in South Vietnam ended in February 1968, on the heels of the Tet Offensive, I never imagined returning to the landing zone (LZ) or to the Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp north of the LZ.

The camp was just off National Highway 14, between Chon Thanh and Dong Xoai, while the landing zone was firmly inside the Iron Triangle, also known by the U.S. military as War Zone D. The Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold north of Saigon, was built during the French colonial period by Vietminh resistance fighters.
Cameraman Stuart Dunn fits mike to Tom Baca.

During the Vietnam War, it was a very hot area where bad things could happen. When overflying the Iron Triangle, helicopter pilots maintained an altitude higher than what the Army told us was “effective small-arms range.”

I was curious about what was below us, on the ground we overflew daily. I never thought I would be able to safely walk around. Now I would have an opportunity.

Tom Baca, the pilot of the second UH-1D “Huey” helicopter involved in the rescue, brought a GPS (global positioning satellite) receiver with him when we returned to Vietnam in October 2008 to be interviewed in the landing zone for the “Helicopter Wars: Vietnam Firefight” documentary.

At the time of the rescue, the landing zone was a narrow, dirt road that cut through a rubber tree plantation. Bamboo grew along the sides of the road, in some places forming a canopy over the roadway. To reach the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers on the road, our helicopters cut through smaller bamboo branches with their main rotor blades.

Tom; his copilot, Larry Liss; Al Croteau, who had flown as my door gunner; and I rode in a van we had rented in Ho Chi Minh City. We were accompanied by a second van, carrying Richard Max, the documentary’s producer; camera operator Stuart Dunn; and Dinh Ngoc Truc, the film crew’s escort from the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information in Hanoi.

As we drove through the countryside in what had been the Iron Triangle, we would make stops to get our bearings. There had been many changes in the 41 years since the rescue.

Eventually, we found a dirt road cutting through a sea of rubber trees that looked like it would lead to the landing zone. The road led past brick pillars used to grow peppers. We passed several farmhouses before arriving at our destination, a short stretch of red dirt roadway. This was the landing zone where we would be interviewed.

Producer Richard Max with boom mike in LZ.
The LZ was serene. Water from a morning rain was pooled in parts of the road. We could hear birds in the trees. A young woman rode past on a motorbike, then came back to see what we were doing. She turned her motorbike around, smiling as she passed us again, riding in the other direction.

It was light years from May 1967. No bodies on the road or in the ditches along each side. No sound of gunfire or bamboo being thrashed by helicopter rotor blades. No soldiers struggling to board our helicopters or being shot once they had boarded.

Richard and Stuart began their work, filming our memories of the noisier time when standing in the road meant you likely would die. It was exhilarating to stand in the open and feel safe.

During each of the five trips we flew into the landing zone in 1967, I was certain we would not survive. Though enemy gunners found human targets in the back of our helicopters, they didn’t fire into the cockpit of the Hueys. One of my life’s big questions is how we survived. Waiting for the Vietnamese soldiers boarded my helicopter, I expected to be shot in the head. I expected the same each time we returned for another load.

During filming of the documentary in the landing zone, Tom said he sat behind his helicopter’s controls on the ground, “just waiting to die.”

Larry spent much of his time in the landing zone outside his helicopter, pushing Vietnamese soldiers onto the back of his Huey. He remembered CIDG soldiers being shot in the back of the helicopter he and Tom crew were flying.

During filming in the landing zone in 2008, Larry said he was concerned he would be shot in the back, “live and become a paraplegic.”

“My experience at the LZ was much less upsetting than being in Saigon, but being back at the LZ did push up memories. It was obvious the trail was just about the same as it was over 40 years ago. The bamboo was just as high as I remembered it, but a little bit thinner.

 “Coming up on 70 years of age, I had to ask myself where the hell did I ever get the energy and certainty to fly that mission and jump in and out of the helicopter, gathering together the remaining soldiers, so that we could save as many as possible before the NVA (North Vietnam Army) got one or all of us,” Larry said.

Rubber trees near landing zone.
“All I kept thinking as we stood in the forest and the rubber trees, was: ‘Wow!’ Just, ‘Wow!’ I also looked around and was so glad we were all standing there and were alive and didn’t have to be sad for one of our fallen brothers,” Larry said. “Why not one of us died, or was even wounded, is an absolute miracle and a moment in life when I truly got that there was — and is — a higher power at play in each of our lives.”

Al said he feared that “once we loaded, we were going to crash.”

Al, who remained busy loading the Vietnamese soldiers, said the idea never occurred to him that he would be hit by enemy gunfire. “I never had a fear of being hit, only the fear of crashing.

“What I was doing was almost mechanical,” Al remembers. “There wasn’t much thought. Get the people in, get back in the aircraft, and tell you we were all set to go. It was like running a fast film. I didn’t have time to think about it.”

The helicopter crews survived to return to a peaceful setting, now a simple dirt road, not a landing zone.

When I watched our interviews in the landing zone during the documentary’s screening in London the following January, it seemed we all had the same sense of exhilaration.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 9

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Shortly after returning to Vietnam for the first time after the war, I learned of a heavy emotional burden Al Croteau had carried with him for 41 years.

Al, my wife, Renee, and I were having lunch at an Internet café in downtown District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City when discussion turned to the perceptions many of our fellow American GIs had about Vietnamese soldiers on both sides.

As we discussed the Army of Vietnam — known as ARVN — which was allied with U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War, Al told me he thought one of the biggest misperceptions many former GIs had was the quality of the South Vietnam soldier.

“I found them to be tenacious and disciplined soldiers,” Al said. “I saw this a lot, particularly during the Cau Song Be mission.”

Lt. Al Croteau in
1967 photo
Al, who had commanded the 198th Signal Detachment attached to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company “Thunderbirds,” had voluntarily flown as my door gunner during the rescue of more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers on May 14, 1967. I was the pilot-aircraft commander of a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter that made five trips into a landing zone we carved through bamboo. My copilot was Ken Dolan, a fellow warrant officer.

Warrant Officer Tom Baca was the pilot-aircraft commander of the second Huey that flew the rescue mission, as well as a medical evacuation before we began the extraction. His copilot was Captain Larry Liss.

Al, Tom, Larry and I had returned to Vietnam in October 2008 for filming of a documentary about the rescue by Windfall Films of London.

During lunch at the Internet café near our hotel, The Caravelle, Al and I discussed the merits of Vietnamese soldiers. Al zeroed in on the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers we had rescued.

“I can remember how disciplined and orderly they were as they waited to board our aircraft,” he said. Al had a good opportunity to make this judgment. He had taken charge of making certain our Huey was not overloaded so we could take off. Al, who had been manning an M-60 machine gun during our landings and takeoffs, helped the soldiers board.

Al being interviewed by Richard Max in Vung Tau,
Vietnam, for documentary. Stuart Dunn is on camera.
A general rule of thumb was a D-model Huey could carry 12 Vietnamese soldiers or 10 U.S. troops, plus a crew of four. Besides being lighter than their American counterparts, Vietnamese soldiers generally went into battle with lighter loads of equipment.

Al had to make some tough decisions during each landing. Small-arms fire from North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong soldiers was intense while we were on the ground. The enemy soldiers were taking aim at the CIDG soldiers boarding and those already on board our helicopters.

On the ground after our first landing, I looked back to see how loading was progressing so I could coordinate our takeoff with Tom and Larry’s helicopter. Al was pulling CIDG soldiers on board as quickly as he could. As I watched, several of the soldiers were hit with enemy rounds. Others on board threw their just-killed comrades out the cargo doors of the helicopter. The bodies were stacking up on both sides of our Huey. Other CIDG soldiers stepped over the bodies to board the helicopter. Then others were hit and their bodies thrown off.

Tom transmitted on his FM radio: “We’re up,” which meant his helicopter was fully loaded and ready to take off.

“Roger,” I replied. I pulled the collective pitch lever with my left hand, steadying the helicopter with the cyclic on my right hand and the foot pedals that control left and right movement around the rotor mast. We lifted off gently. I continued pulling pitch as we hovered straight up for 40 feet and the helicopter had cleared the tops of the bamboo plants and nearby rubber trees. Tom did the same.

It was a risky maneuver in a heavily loaded helicopter, but our only option was to hover up through the upward tunnel we had chopped and beaten down in the bamboo.

Once above the treetops, our two helicopters began moving forward. We captured translational lift and were in actual flight.

After taking the CIDG soldiers to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp, we returned to the landing zones to extract more soldiers.
Our van follows film crew to landing zone in 2008.

Years later, Al recalled the mission.

“On our second sortie into the landing zone, I noticed one soldier manning a circular fire pit. He was dug in the center of a defense position, which appeared to be a pit outlined by a circle of rocks. They looked like rocks, but where he got them, I have no idea. He was within 25 or so feet from where we touched down.

“The individual was returning fire with what looked like an M-1 carbine. It was impressive because he seemed not to notice us having full concentration on what he was doing. Each time the ship returned, he was still there. He seemed to be in a movie.

“The last trip in finally came. On our approach, I noticed he was still there defending his position. We landed and I loaded the ship to the max, hoping you, Jack, would be able to lift off. I guess in the moment of high stress and fear I had forgotten that Tom’s ship had followed us in. As the ship struggled to get airborne, I glanced back and saw this lone man still defending his position.

“My mind yelled out, ‘Oh my God, we left him behind to his death.’ Through the years I often relived that event, thinking of the one, brave solider who, by his action, may have saved our lives.

“When we returned to Vietnam to relive the battle, his memory was very much alive.
It was only when Tom spoke of the last extraction and of Larry holding that man against the ship’s outer hull that I asked if anyone had seen that brave solider. Tom or Larry spoke these words, ‘No one alive was left behind. We got them all.’

“I could never put into words the affect those words had on me. For over 40 years, I regretted leaving someone to die. To this day, I still think of that one, brave comrade and how he was willing to give up his life for us. The U.S. Army should award him the Medal of Honor. I have. If there is an afterlife, maybe I can find him.”

Larry Liss remembered, “clearly seeing the Vietnamese soldier that Al was focused on.”

He said the soldier “wound up being the last or second to last to board” the helicopter he and Tom Baca were flying. “He was one of the guys I was holding on to. It could be that Al was distracted with his own loading and didn’t see the guy finally make a run for it.”

On the last flight out of the landing zone, the helicopter flown by Tom and Larry struggled to get airborne, overloaded with the last 18 living soldiers in the landing zone and the Huey’s crew of 4.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 8

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — As we boarded our van at The Caravelle, I wondered what emotions would surface when I returned to Bien Hoa.

Tom Baca, Al Croteau and I had lived in the same villa on Cong Le Street — Tom before he was transferred from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company to the II Field Force (Vietnam) Flight Detachment, Al and I throughout our tours with the 118th AHC. The company’s call sign was “Thunderbirds.”

Al commanded the 198th Signal Detachment, which was attached to the Thunderbirds. Though not a rated pilot, Al flew hundreds of combat hours, manning door guns on the company’s assault Hueys. What I admired about Al was he regularly volunteered to fly into combat. That was why he had flown with me on the Cau Song Be rescue.

Al never got rattled in combat. During the Cau Song Be mission, his cool head probably kept us alive. He knew what to do and he did it.

Jack Swickard with Tom Baca and Al Croteau (right)
in front of hotel at site of villa in Bien Hoa.
In 1967, Al lived down the hall from me in the villa. By any standard, we lived well. Two officers lived in each room, which had ceiling fans and bathrooms. In the back of the villa, where I lived, the rooms also had doors opening onto a large patio.

Over the years, at Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association reunions, a Thunderbird would tell us how he had gone back to Vietnam recently and found the villa. The last report I had heard about the villa was several years earlier. In the report, it had been converted to an apartment building, with families living in the rooms.

As Tom, Al and I headed back to Bien Hoa, we had no idea what to expect. More than 40 years had passed.

Larry Liss had not lived in the Thunderbird villa, but down Cong Le Street in a villa that housed officers from II Field Force (Vietnam). Tom had moved into the same villa after transferring from the Thunderbirds.

Larry wasn’t with us as our van headed to Bien Hoa. He had not joined us in The Caravelle lobby before departing. At the time, I thought he and his wife, Celeste, had other plans.

This past weekend, Richard Max, the documentary’s producer, wrote about our return to Vietnam.

“I have enjoyed reading your Vietnam blog and think you must have been taking accurate notes about our shared documentary filmmaking journey as it all comes flooding back to me. I, too, was particularly moved by how much Al had been haunted by the one left behind, as well as Larry’s almost physical reaction to going back,” Richard wrote.

Larry added to Richard’s remembrance with an email.
Larry and Celeste Liss in Vung Tau.

“An interesting note by Richard about my ‘physical reaction’ to being ‘back in Saigon.’ I remember that Richard was concerned about my well-being and came to our suite to be with me (and Celeste). It was true. I was experiencing being dizzy and weak and just wanted to hide under the covers,” Larry wrote. “I was dealing with many ‘pictures’ from the past. Saigon in the 1960s, itself, was not a pleasant experience for me. I had been in two bar explosions over about 12 months. I could never allow myself to get comfortable back in the ’60s.

“The only place in all of Vietnam that I felt really on-guard was Saigon. I didn't feel uncomfortable anywhere else, even if the action was more dangerous,” Larry said. 

“I flew into Saigon a number of times and, on my second or third time, I was sitting in a well-known bar and restaurant near our embassy when a bomb went off just outside the front window. It was a mess. Many dead and wounded. I just got a couple of glass cuts,” Larry said. “From then on in, I didn’t stray very far from the heliport (Hotel 3) and the officer’s club. I know that I was in many more dangerous places, but I never felt so ‘on-guard’ as I did in Saigon.

“That was back in 1966-68. I was in Saigon with General Fred Weyand during Tet 1968 and that made it even worse because the VC and NVA were everywhere,” Larry said.

“When we arrived this time, I was shaking uncontrollably for the first few days. I felt safe in the hotel, although I was very clear that this was the same Caravelle Hotel that was bombed in 1964. Whatever it was that was stuck in my mind, passed and I was OK again,” Larry said.

Looking for villa

Tom, Al and I spent more than an hour trying to find the villa on Cong Le Street. The only landmarks we could find were a fountain and footbridge that had been in the courtyard. When we saw them near a fence in October 2008, they were far from where we thought the villa should be.
Richard Max

With a video camera following us, we walked through alleys and up and down streets. Finally, Tom saw the villa where he and Larry had lived after leaving the Thunderbirds. When we got our bearings, we discovered a hotel had been built on the site of the 118th AHC villa. On a second-floor balcony, we could look out over a familiar roofline.

There were several reasons we could not locate the villa: The building no longer existed, the small, alley-like street that ran through the compound in 1967 had been widened into a main thoroughfare with four lanes of traffic, and the street had been renamed.

Cameraman Stuart Dunn and Richard Max got some good chase scenes as we looked for the villa, but there was not much to trip our memories until we drove through other parts of Bien Hoa. I saw the cinema we passed daily on the way to the flight line in the 1960s. The water tower still stood outside the airfield gate. Some buildings near the water tower looked the same, but overall it was not a memorable trip down memory lane.

We returned to Ho Chi Minh City and The Caravelle in time for Richard and Stuart to film an interview with Al in the late afternoon sun.

While Tom, Renee and I drank a beer in the hotel’s Saigon Saigon Bar, Al would describe what Richard later told me was “the soul of the documentary.”


Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 7

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — On our second morning back in Vietnam, we all met for breakfast in first floor dining room of The Caravelle.

Tom Baca; his flight school friend, Sterling Essenmacher; Larry Liss and his wife, Celeste; my wife, Renee, and I were all staying at The Caravelle. Al Croteau, documentary producer Richard Max, and cameraman Stuart Dunn were staying at nearby hotels.

Tom, Larry and I already knew Richard. Three months earlier, he had filmed us in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Al and Richard had visited by telephone and email, but had never met in person. Stuart was new to the project for Windfall Films of London.

Municipal Theater seen through lobby
of The Caravelle
We all had a great time over breakfast as Richard explained the filming schedule. Our first scenes would be at Bien Hoa, where the two flight crews were assigned at the time of the Cau Song Be rescue.

Tom, the pilot and commander of the VIP Huey involved in the May 1967 mission, and copilot Larry flew for II Field Force (Vietnam) flight detachment. Both had considerable combat experience. Tom previously flew with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. Larry had flown with the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company and then served as assistant commander of a Pathfinder detachment that set up landing zones in hostile areas.

I was the pilot in command of the second UH-1D Huey, a “slick” used to fly combat assaults, medical evacuations, and resupply missions. Al was a second lieutenant who had volunteered to fly as door gunner on my aircraft the day of the rescue.

All four of us had lived in villas on Cong Le Street, Bien Hoa.

Renee, Al Croteau in bar at The Caravelle
By chance I had known Tom’s twin brother, Jim, when we were news reporters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before I joined the Army. Jim covered news for one of the Albuquerque television stations; I was a reporter with The Albuquerque Tribune. He never told me he had a twin brother, particularly one in the Army. When I met his brother, Tom, in the Officers Club at the 118th AHC in February, I remember thinking: “What the hell is Jim Baca doing here?”

Tom and I became good friends, staying in close contact for 45 years.

Jim Baca, an Air Force veteran, later moved from television news to public relations and politics. He served as mayor of Albuquerque, headed the federal Bureau of Land Management under President Bill Clinton, and was New Mexico state land commissioner for two terms.

But in October 2008, Tom, Larry, Al and I would be returning to Bien Hoa to rediscover where we had lived during wartime. After breakfast, we agreed to meet in the lobby a short time later to travel to Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

The others were waiting when Renee and I returned to the lobby. In front of the hotel were two large vans. The flight crews and wives would travel in one; the Windfall Films crew in the other.

Celeste and Larry Liss with Renee (right)
Before we boarded the vans, Richard introduced me to Dinh Ngoc Truc, with the International Press and Communication Company, operated by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information. Truc would be the film crew’s escort.

Shaking my hand, Truc said: “I was in the Viet Cong.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I was an antiaircraft gunner,” Truc responded.

I replied: “I’m glad we never met before.”

Before returning to Vietnam, I had wondered if I would meet someone who had fought on the other side during the war, and how we would react to each other. So far, so good.

During a week of filming in October 2008, and over lunch and dinner, Truc and I visited frequently, comparing memories of the war. Truc lived in Hanoi, where he had grown up. After training in the Vietnam People’s Army following high school, Truc traveled by truck — or lorry — down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Vung Tau, in what was then South Vietnam. He served in the Viet Cong several years after U.S. forces had left Vietnam.

Over lunch one day in Vung Tau, Truc and I chatted about General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader and strategist of North Vietnam and Viet Cong military forces during the war. Truc once had interviewed General Giap.
Tom Baca and Dinh Ngoc Truc

On our last night in Vietnam, Truc took us to a restaurant for a Vietnamese dinner. At the end of the evening, Truc handed me an English-language book entitled: “General Giap His Youth”

Inside the cover, he had written: “To Jack with fun. Truc, VC”

Our visits that October were the start of a friendship during which I have visited Truc in Hanoi four times and he has stayed in our New Mexico home, as well as with Tom and Jan Baca.

During the course of our friendship, we have traveled by road from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City twice, and from Roswell to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Los Angeles. We have enjoyed dinners with his and my friends and family, have gotten to know one another’s wife and children, and worked together on books.

One day while driving from Ha Long Bay back to Hanoi, Truc turned to me and said: “Aren’t you glad we didn’t kill each other? We would never have become friends.”