Monday, October 29, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 13

TAY NINH CITY, Vietnam — During filming of the Helicopter Wars documentary in October 2008, helicopter crew members of the May 14, 1967, rescue returned to Tay Ninh Province.

Before he was assigned to the II Field Force (Vietnam) VIP flight detachment in early 1967, Warrant Officer Tom Baca was a pilot with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, stationed at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. During our Vietnam tour in 1967 and 1968, Lt. Al Croteau, and I were assigned to the 118th AHC. Al commanded our communications detachment; I was a warrant officer pilot.

Other crewmembers on the rescue in May 1967 were Capt. Larry Liss and Warrant Officer Ken Dolan. Larry was copilot on Tom’s Huey; Ken was my copilot.

Flying with the 118th AHC “Thunderbirds,” we had made repeated flights to Tay Ninh City and Province during our combat tours in the mid-1960s. Our company, which came under the 1st Aviation Brigade, supported various U.S. and South Vietnamese military units throughout the III Corps area that encompassed Saigon, Bien Hoa, Cu Chi, Tay Ninh Province, the Iron Triangle, the Plain of Reeds, the Parrot’s Beak, Loc Ninh, and the Rung Sat Special Zone.

A regular mission involved loading supplies and passengers at a Special Forces landing strip in Tay Ninh City, then flying them to the top of Nui Ba Dinh, a lone, cinder cone mountain that rises 3,268 feet from a plain near the city. The top of Nui Ba Dinh was controlled by U.S. and allied troops, while the Viet Cong held the rest of the mountain and surrounding plains.

The mountain had military value for several reasons: It was 18 miles from the Cambodian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it had a commanding view in all directions, and it was the site of a U.S. radio relay station.

Dinh Ngoc Truc and Al Croteau standing
in front of Nui Ba Dinh.
In flight school, we were taught how to shoot approaches to pinnacles. This proved invaluable when ferrying supplies and passengers to the top of Nui Ba Dinh. Typically, after picking up a payload at Tay Ninh City, we would climb to around 4,000 feet on our way to the mountain.

About 2 miles from the mountain, we would begin a steady, gradual descent to the helipad at the peak. From a mile away, the helipad looked like a postage stamp. It wasn’t much bigger after landing: There was just enough room for the skids of a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter.

The pad was constructed of perforated steel planking, known to American GIs as “PSP.” It was on the edge of a cliff; on the other end of the pad were rocks as large of houses. When you reached short final on your approach, you were committed to a perfect touchdown. There was no hovering around, looking for a place to set down. Nor could you be too far forward or too far back. Too far forward and your main rotor blades would strike a rock, likely throwing the Huey over the edge; too far backward and your helicopter could topple off the cliff and tumble down the side of the mountain.

On approach, your Huey had to be moving fast enough to maintain flight because at 3,300-4,000 feet, a heavily loaded Huey couldn’t hover. If you let your airspeed drop too low to remain in flight, the helicopter would drop out of the air.

During approach, there also was a concern you’d come under fire from the enemy, which operated from caves that honeycomb the mountain.

Renee Swickard with coconut.
There was no fudge factor in landing at the top of Nui Ba Dinh. As far as I know, no pilot from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company ever lost a helicopter landing on the mountaintop. Pilots from other units were not so fortunate.

One afternoon, after landing at Nui Ba Dinh, I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down the mountain. Huey skids, rotors and tail booms littered the slope below the helipad.

Today, the mountain is a major tourist attraction, with famous temples and a theme park. Where once helicopters were needed to ferry people to the mountaintop, an aerial tramway now carries visitors to a pagoda.

In October 2008, we drove by van to the base of Nui Ba Den, which means “Black Woman Mountain,” a term stemming from a myth about a woman who falls in love with a soldier, but then dies on the mountain.

It was a warm afternoon, so we stopped at one of the rural restaurants that line a road skirting the mountain. The middle-aged woman running the restaurant chopped up a block of ice in a bucket to cool Saigon Beer for us.

Richard Max, the documentary director, and my wife, Renee, decided they would rather have fresh coconut milk. The restaurant operator went out back, cut down some fresh coconuts and soon Richard and Renee were sipping coconut milk through straws.

Tom, Al and I enjoyed being on the ground where we never imagined in 1967 we would be safe.

In a way, this was the story of our return to Vietnam. We were welcomed back warmly to a land that was no longer dangerous.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 12

VUNG TAU, Vietnam — After lunch at the Grand Hotel in Vung Tau, we departed for Ho Chi Minh City — formerly known as Saigon.

Before we boarded a Russian hydrofoil, documentary director Richard Max and camera operator Stuart Dunn, who were on contract with Windfall Films of London, had filmed interviews with Al Croteau and me. Al, as a lieutenant, had flown as my gunner on May 14, 1967, during the rescue of more than 100 South Vietnamese irregular soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor.

With us in Vietnam for the filming were Tom Baca, the command pilot of the other UH-1D “Huey” helicopter involved in the rescue, and Larry Liss, Tom’s copilot on the day of the rescue.

We settled into seats and watched the riverbank of the Saigon River. My colleagues on the 1967 mission were familiar with the area — it was in our area of operations during the war.

For Tom, one part of the journey was very familiar. In 1966, he had been shot down in the Rung Sat Special Zone, a mangrove swamp largely controlled by the Viet Cong at the time. The swamp also was known as “The Forest of Assassins.”

As he journeyed along the edge of the Rung Sat, now known as the Can Gio Mangrove Forest, Tom recalled the experience.

“I was a fairly new guy on July 24, 1966. Eight weeks earlier, I had graduated and received my bars and wings as an Army Warrant Officer Aviator. After a short leave, I was on my way to Vietnam,” Tom said.

Capt. John Hopkins (left), WO Tom Baca, and
other members of Huey crew after their rescue

on July 24, 1966. On right is Spec. 4 Bringas.
He was assigned to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company at Bien Hoa, flying “slicks” — UH-1D model Hueys used for hauling troops on combat assaults, carrying supplies and passengers, and for medical evacuation flights.

“July 24th was the day I was shot down for the first time,” Tom recalled. “We were supporting the 25th Division ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in the Rung Sat Special Zone, which reminded me of the Louisiana swamps.

“I remember we had already had a full day of flying and I was hot and tired, but happy to be flying helicopters. I believe it was about 3 in the afternoon. About 8 UH-1D helicopters in our lift were headed to a landing zone (LZ) with ARVN soldiers. I remember looking at the Signal Operations Instructions (SOI) book before takeoff. It was on the instrument panel,” Tom recalled.

“You did not ever want to lose the SOI. It was classified and contained codes, call signs and frequencies for many units in the III Corps area of operations. Lose one and you were in serious trouble. The SOI was attached to a dog tag chain and was normally worn around your neck. There was only one per aircraft, so we usually laid it on the console so either pilot could get to it,” Tom said. “For some reason, I told myself that I should wear that SOI for the rest of the day, so I put it around my neck.

“As we approached the LZ in a trail formation, some of the lead aircraft reported taking fire,” Tom recalled. “We were the third or fourth aircraft and, at about 50 feet in the air, I started hearing something hitting the aircraft. They were small-arms bullets. The gunner was shooting into the bushes and vegetation on the left side of the aircraft.

“I almost immediately felt the controls go stiff. The hydraulic pressure warning light illuminated, along with the transmission oil warning light. We landed with the flight. The crew chief said we had taken rounds in the troop cabin and two ARVN soldiers were hit. He was sure one was dead and the other dying.

“The LZ remained under fire and we decided we would take off and fly out of the hot zone. I knew the transmission could run about 10 minutes dry,” Tom remembered. “We lifted off and flew about 1,500 meters and landed. This was without hydraulic boost for the controls. Landings without hydraulics were made to smooth surfaces where one could ‘roll’ it on, so to speak. We practiced this emergency procedure in flight school and during in-country checkouts. We never trained taking off without hydraulics.

“The other pilot and I put our muscle into getting off the ground, while hearing people tell us we were smoking and possibly on fire. We landed, shut the aircraft down and tended to getting radios, guns, wounded and dead off of the aircraft,” Tom said. “When we jumped off the aircraft, we literally sunk up to our knees in mud. It was almost impossible to take a step. We were picked up fairly quickly by other aircraft.”

Tom said he could “remember the ARVN soldier who was wounded wanted a cigarette. He was in bad shape. I lit one of my Marlboros up for him and put it in his mouth. He smiled at me and nodded his head. We took him to one of the hospitals; I don't remember which one. I don’t know if he survived.

“I got back to Bien Hoa. We were debriefed. The signal officer asked for the SOI. The other pilot turned white. I said, ‘I have it.’ His color returned. Until the signal officer asked for it, I never thought of it from the time we were hit until just then,” Tom said.

Tom was not the only member of our group with wartime memories of Vung Tau and the surrounding area.

Dinh Ngoc Truc, representing the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information’s International Press and Communication Company, had helped man a 37 mm, antiaircraft gun for the South Vietnam Liberation Army — known to many Americans as Viet Cong — during the later stages of the war.

A young Dinh Ngoc Truc in his
South Vietnam Liberation Army
uniform in Saigon after the
unification of North and South
Truc, who was escorting the Windfall Films crew during production of documentary, had joined the Vietnam People’s Army — known to Americans as the North Vietnam Army or NVA — after graduating from high school in Hanoi.

Two months before graduating from high school in May 1974, Truc had gone to a People’s Army administration center in Hanoi and volunteered to serve. In December of that year, he went to a pickup area in Hanoi and boarded a large truck, which took him to a basic training camp in the suburbs of the city.

After his first month of training, Truc and fellow recruits traveled to the 17th Parallel that separated the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). During a ceremony, the soldiers removed the insignia and red collars from their People’s Army uniforms and replaced them with a single star and plain, green collars. In January 1975, Truc entered South Vietnam, where he completed 45 days of weapons training.

He then rode south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for more than a month, in the back of a Russian GAT 63 lorry with the other 4 members of his gun crew, to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province.

Truc served in the south after U.S. military forces had left Vietnam. His military service ended months after Saigon fell to the People’s Army in April 1975.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 11

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Our return to Vietnam in October 2008 was a pleasant experience, accented with emotion from our wartime experiences four decades earlier.

Though we were reliving parts of the Cau Song Be rescue mission for a television documentary, Tom Baca, Larry Liss, Al Croteau and I had returned to Vietnam as tourists. Our wives accompanied Larry and me; Tom’s Army flight school roommate, Sterling Essenmacher, also had flown to Vietnam with us.

My wife, Renee, had wanted to visit Vietnam ever since I described the beauty of the country in letters I wrote to her during the war.

Richard Max visits with Larry and Celeste Liss
aboard the Vina hydrofoil.
Like the others on this trip, I wanted to revisit places I had known in 1967. Some, like Saigon and Vung Tau, were places I had gotten to know first hand. During the war, I drove to Saigon several times each month on days off from flying to pick up piastres for paying the South Vietnamese civilians who worked for the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, where I was assigned.

The French introduced piastre de commerce currency when they colonized Indochina, which included Vietnam. After the French relinquished Indochina in 1954 and Vietnam divided into two, the piastre remained a unit of currency in South Vietnam.

On my trips to Saigon, I would pick up piastre at a pay office, then visit the U.S. Army Post Exchange in the Cholon Chinese section of the city, and eat lunch at the Brinks Hotel near the Opera House before driving back to Bien Hoa by Jeep. It was a pleasant diversion from flying.

Occasionally it became obvious some of our military people in Saigon had forgotten we were involved in a war. I remember one time walking into the Cholon PX with a .38-caliber revolver on my hip and a briefcase full of piastre.

“I’m sorry, Sir. You’ll have to check your sidearm before entering the PX,” said a specialist 4 security guard, pointing to a typewritten sign that said firearms were not allowed on the premises.

I knew exactly how to answer. “Here, Specialist, sign for the 200,000 piastres I have in this briefcase.”

“Uh. That’s OK, Sir. You don’t need to check your weapon,” he responded. I had figured the last thing he wanted to be on the hook for was a boatload of Vietnamese currency.

There was a big gulf between the sparkly clean Saigon soldiers and the GIs who came in from the field with muddy boots and faded jungle fatigues. The security guards didn’t know where to fit helicopter pilots. Many of us had better living conditions and hooch maids, so we wore pressed fatigues and shined boots when we came to Saigon, but like all soldiers regularly in combat, we never left home without a weapon. As a result, we sometimes had to be direct with the guards. There was still a war in progress.

Tom Baca looks at Stuart Dunn's old movie camera.
Of course, the security guys were just following orders, doing what they had been told by their superiors. I never blamed them or thought they were the ones who had forgotten we were involved in a war.

When we returned to Saigon in 2008, the city long since had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The skyline was vastly different, with high-rise office and apartment buildings. The Brinks Hotel had been demolished and in its place had been built the Park Hyatt Saigon. I did recognize many of the streets and buildings from 1967 — the Saigon Opera House, now the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater; the Continental hotel and restaurant; the Rex Hotel; and fashionable Pasteur Street.

Tom Baca had told me he had taken a Russian hydrofoil boat down the Saigon River to Vung Tau on a trip he made several years earlier to Vietnam. The hydrofoil dock was only 3 blocks from our hotel.

Soon we were aboard one of the hydrofoils, the Vina. A Vietnamese stewardess in a traditional ao dai dress passed through the passenger cabin, handing out packets of wet towels and bottled water. Our fellow passengers included several Vietnamese Americans who had left the country in the 1970s as refugees, but were back as tourists.

Besides being a new adventure, traveling by hydrofoil was much faster than driving to Vung Tau by road. Tom explained the hydrofoil would have us there in about 45 minutes, while the trip down Highway 51 would take more than 3 hours.

The hydrofoil got up to speed quickly. There was no rocking as we glided smoothly downriver.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Vung Tau was to have lunch at the Grand Hotel, where I had eaten prawns as large as a small lobster during an in-country R&R (Rest and Relaxation) in 1967. The prawns were so good dipped in butter I could remember the taste four decades later.

As we skimmed down the river, we passed a large bridge under construction. Then we passed Nha Be. When I arrived in South Vietnam in February 1967, Nha Be was a gasoline tank farm. Later it would become a U.S. Navy headquarters, complete with a chief petty officers mess that served lobster Newburg weekly for lunch.

About 20 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, we skimmed past the former Rung Sat Special Zone, also known during the war as “The Forest of Assassins.” Today, the Rung Sat swamp is the Can Gio Mangrove Forest, a haven for birds rather than the Viet Cong, as it was during the 1960s.

In the Vina’s passenger cabin, director Richard Max discussed an updated lead-in he wanted me to make in the documentary. He also wanted to get Al on camera in Vung Tau.

Al Croteau being interviewed for documentary.
After we arrived in Vung Tau, Dinh Ngoc Truc suggested we buy our return fare before leaving the hydrofoil terminal. Then we were off to look for the Grand Hotel. We found it, but it didn’t look anything like I remembered. Later I learned the hotel had been rebuilt.

We had less than 2 hours before departing for Ho Chi Minh City, so we decided to have lunch in the hotel dining room. There was not enough time for the chef to prepare prawns, so I ate rice flavored with fish bits.

After lunch, I joined Richard, camera operator Stuart Dunn, and Al on a walkway beside the harbor. Al was interviewed; then it was my turn before the camera.

By the time we finished, it was almost time for our hydrofoil to depart. I was the last passenger on board.

I had not eaten prawns in Vung Tau, but the day had been memorable. That night I would dine on prawns in Ho Chi Minh City.