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.

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