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.



  1. Mr. Swickard,

    I recently came across your posts while researching information for a Vietnam history class. Your writing is very interesting and well-done. I'm currently working on an assignment where I have to interview a Vietnam veteran. It seems as though you have a good relation with Mr. Ding Ngoc Truc. I've been searching extensively trying to find someone on the other side of the conflict to give a different twist on my assignment to no avail. Would there be any chance you could assist me in getting n contact with him for an interview for my assignment? Thanks and keep posting awesome articles!

  2. I would be happy to pass your name and email address along to Mr. Truc. Please send your email address to me.