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.

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