Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 5

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Tom Baca called to say Windfall Films had decided to interview us in mid-July 2008 at the New Mexico National Guard Flight Detachment.

For a time, it appeared Tom and I would be traveling to Fort Rucker, Alabama, home of the U.S. Army Aviation School, but that was no longer necessary. We would be filming closer to home.

The plan was for me to drive to Albuquerque and spend the night of July 16 with Tom and Jan Baca. The next morning, Tom and I would drive to the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, where the National Guard Flight Detachment was assigned.

Tom and Jan took me to dinner that evening. When we returned to their home, Tom suggested we call Larry Liss, his copilot on the Cau Song Be rescue, and tell him the interviews would begin the following day. Larry’s wife, Celeste, answered the phone at their Birchrunville, Pennsylvania, home.

“Larry is out, at a meeting,” Celeste told Tom.

“Well, tell him we called, and have him call us if it’s not too late when he gets home,” Tom said.

We stayed up for several hours, hoping Larry would call. The phone remained silent.

I had been looking forward to visiting with Larry. Though we had flown the Cau Song Be mission in May 1967, Larry and I had never met. After the rescue, our paths had never crossed.

Tom Baca and Richard Max on flight line.
The next day, Tom and I drove to the Flight Detachment Operations Center at the Santa Fe airport. Documentary director Richard Max and associate producer Bernadette Ross were waiting for us.

Tom would be interviewed first. He was seated on a chair. One of the National Guard Hueys was parked behind him to provide a background for the interview. The videographer lined up the angle for a high-definition camera, while the sound technician twisted knobs on his audio equipment. Richard took a seat directly in front of Tom, but out of camera view.

Before Tom left the Operations Center, Richard and Bernie asked if I would like to watch Tom being interviewed. Of course, I did. Bernie now led me outside, where a chair had been arranged for me to sit behind Richard and the videographer.

After a camera and microphone check, the interview began. Richard would ask generalized questions in a conversational tone. Then Tom would elaborate. I had worked more than 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, so I could appreciate Richard’s skill in not asking leading questions. He wanted the documentary to tell about the mission in our words.

Several hours later, Richard told Tom and me he would like some shots of us climbing aboard the Huey. We were fitted with wireless microphones. The cameraman followed us closely with his lens as I climbed into the armored pilot’s seat and Tom stood on the left skid outside the open, cockpit door. “Go ahead and talk,” Richard told us.

As Tom and I talked idly about the “same armored seats we had in Vietnam” and the aircraft being “not quite as old as we are,” I saw a man in tan slacks and a light blue polo shirt come around the corner of the hangar to our right. He walked toward us

“Why, that’s Larry Liss,” Tom said as the figure came closer. Richard and Bernie had flown Larry to Albuquerque, where he rented a car and drove to the Santa Fe airport. On cue, he had walked around the corner and toward us. The camera was rolling and the sound was set for a candid reunion.

Larry Liss being interviewed.
We started the afternoon filming a scene in which Tom, Larry and I sat around a table in the Operations Center and discussed the Cau Song Be rescue. I had brought photographs from my tour in Vietnam, as well as my Army Tactical Instrument Card, which Tom referred to as “a license to kill … yourself.” During the Vietnam War, the cards took the place of regular Military Instrument Tickets, permitting briefer instrument instruction and fewer student pilot washouts from helicopter training.

Later that afternoon, the film crew shot scenes from one of the National Guard helicopters. Then Richard interviewed Larry and me individually. Tom and Larry did incredibly well during their interviews. I was impressed watching the interviews being conducted, so I knew they would play well in the documentary.

After our interviews, Richard, Bernie and crew would spend time in Hampton, Georgia, at the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, which restores and flies Vietnam War-era helicopters. There some of the Foundation’s Hueys would be filmed reenacting the Cau Song Be rescue.

While in Georgia, the Windfall Films crew also would interview Jim Dopp, brought in from Central America, where he now lives. Jim had been the medic at Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp in May 1967. He and Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson, the camp commanding officer, had flown into the landing zone with Tom and Larry on a medical evacuation flight just before we began the extraction of more than 100 CIDG soldiers under fire.

The next time we would meet Richard would be 3 months later, in Vietnam. He hoped to interview us in the landing zone.


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