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.


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