Monday, December 10, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 20

SAIGON, Republic of Vietnam — Larry Liss graduated from flight school in 1966 with a set of Army aviator wings and orders for Vietnam.

“We stumbled out of a plane in Saigon,” he recalled. “I remember going to Camp Alpha.”

Camp Alpha was a military transient camp at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. The camp was where many U.S. servicemen were quartered temporarily while awaiting assignment and transportation to their permanent units.

“I remember going to this place, then I had orders for the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company, the ‘Vultures,’ out of Phuoc Vinh,” Larry said. But first he went to Phu Loi Army Airfield, some 25 miles north of Saigon.

“I can remember hanging out at the swimming pool. It must have been the Officers Club. Dion, which was somewhere close, was getting mortared. I remember being in the pool, having a drink, smoking a cigarette, and looking at the flashes of the mortars,” he said.


Phu Loi Airfield had been a Japanese airbase during World War II, when Vietnam’s Vichy French colonists were allied with Nazi Germany. As an ally of Germany, the Japanese Empire had access to Vietnam.

Allied prisoners of war had built the Phu Loi Airfield. After the war, when the Free French came to power in Paris, French colonial military forces used the airfield in their fight with the Viet Minh, who were seeking Vietnam independence.


Larry said he was at Phu Loi for a couple of days before going on to Phuoc Vinh. “One of the other guys from my flight school class was there, too. We both got in about the same day.”

Larry Liss standing beside armed helicopter.
Flying with an assault helicopter company in Vietnam gave pilots a wide range of experience. One day they could be carrying soldiers into a hot landing zone on a combat assault; the next they could be carrying supplies on a “Pigs and Rice” mission.

Larry said, “I flew a lot of back and forth, back and forth, just carrying stuff. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just flying. If I was told to fly here or there, I would go. I remember one day, this guy named Lenny Ellenstein, who had me go to Pennsylvania Military College, then ended up being part of the Judge Advocate Corps. He was a lawyer.

“I was flying him and we’re talking and kibitzing over the microphone, you know, ‘blah, blah, blah,’ we were outside a place called Duc Hoa and we got shot down. I was at about 200 feet, maybe a mile out, and we got shot down. I should have probably come in a little higher. I was hot dogging, showing off for my friend,” Larry said.

“There were Viet Cong units in the area and we had to evade. Man, it was bad. We could see them. We finally made it into Duc Hoa. It took us a day and a half to go a mile. We had to hide and duck. It was really scary,” Larry recalled.

He flew for the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company through the end of the year and then received orders assigning him to a Pathfinder detachment as assistant commander. Larry and his detachment would mark helicopter landing zones for Operation Junction City.

Larry wasn’t sure why he was selected, though he thinks it may have been because, while stationed in West Germany, he led a group of soldiers into Czechoslovakia during a snowstorm and photographed a mobile radar site. He recalled being on the radio with a general officer and reporting the site. He was told, “There is no mobile radar site.”

“Weeks later they confirmed there were mobile radar units along the border,” Larry said.

This and other missions had enhanced Larry's reputation as a scout. “I just had this reputation,” he said.

“Brent Artley and I wound up in this unit with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. We were in Junction City two days before they jumped. We were already on the ground. I was there until April 8, then got pulled out,” Larry recalled. “It was rough. It was really rough. We got eyeball-to-eyeball 3 or 4 times with North Vietnamese units.”

His next assignment was with the II Field Force (Vietnam) Flight Detachment at Long Binh, near Bien Hoa Air Base.

Larry remembered his first day at the flight detachment, the day he signed into the unit.

“I had always been used to operating pretty independently. I was never part of a bigger unit. I had my own platoon right on the border in the Bavarian Alps. I operated totally independently,” he said. “When you spend winters up there, you get pretty scruffy. If some senior officers are going to come, then you get shaved, get your uniforms washed, get all cleaned up until they leave.”

Larry had just spent two months in the field working as a Pathfinder in Operation Junction City. He remembered he hadn’t gotten any rest and was always on the move.

“We were always reconning. At night we would lay out Claymore mines. Every other night, they tripped the wires and came into our perimeter, and we got into some intense firefights,” he said. “I carried a Colt shotgun with me, a CAR-15, one of my favorite weapons, and a .45 and a Beretta .25.”

A CAR-15 was a Colt Automatic Rifle-15 Military Weapons System, a shortened version of the M16 rifle used by U.S. and allied soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Larry liked the CAR-15 so much, he “brought it with me everywhere.” During the Cau Song Be rescue on May 14, 1967, Larry was carrying the carbine the two times he got out of his helicopter in the hot landing zone and helped South Vietnamese soldier board his Huey.

“When I walked into the headquarters at II Field Force (Vietnam), I was still in my jungle fatigues. I walked in scruffy; I had a scruffy growth, which was about two weeks old. I hadn't had a chance to take a shower,” he recalled. “I had just been picked up at Tay Ninh by helicopter, a II Field Force helicopter, and just got dropped off there.”

He remembered walking into II Field Force (Vietnam) Headquarters.

“This was a pretty big headquarters for Vietnam, a lot of staff. I had the Colt shotgun strapped over my back, the CAR-15 going the other way, the .45 was back, behind me on the hip,” Larry said.

“When I walked in, I thought, ‘Oh, my God,’ because everybody was all spiffy and all the uniforms were all starched and their shoes were all shiny. I took about 10 steps and I felt so embarrassed. I remember saying to myself, ‘Why should I be embarrassed? Fuck them.’ I had an attitude right away.

“I walked in and then I sat with some major. The first thing the guy says is something like, ‘How could you let yourself come here and present yourself like this? What are you doing? How could you come in here looking like that?’”

Larry, who was a captain, told the major, “I just came out of the field.”

The senior officer said, “You’re an officer. You’re supposed to be an officer and a gentleman.”

Larry said he “just sat there and I looked at this guy, and I told him, ‘Fuck you. I just came out of Junction City. I still have blood on my uniform. I haven’t had a chance to shower and shave, and get a new uniform. I just got picked up by one of your helicopters.’”

Larry said the major jumped to his feet, screaming: “You don’t talk to a superior officer that way.”

“I told him, ‘You’re not my superior officer if you don’t realize what I just went through, if you don’t have any empathy for me, it’s like fuck you. You want to send me back, send me back.’ Then he left me in the office for about half an hour.

When the major returned, a sergeant accompanied him. “Go with this sergeant and he’ll get you new uniforms and boots, and get you taken care of, whatever you need and you’ll be taken to your villa, which is on a place called Cong Ly Street. He said, “When you’re cleaned up, come back.”
Larry receiving Distinguished Flying Cross.
“He said, ‘Captain, you should thank God you’re here, because you’re going to be able to take hot showers, you’re going to be able to eat real food. You’ve still got nine months to go on your tour, so enjoy yourself.’”

As a pilot in the VIP flight detachment, Larry regularly flew Lt. Gen. Fred Weyand, II Field Force (Vietnam) commander, about two times a week from October 1967 through February 1968.


General Weyand later would succeed General Creighton Abrams as commander of allied forces in South Vietnam, overseeing the withdrawal of the U.S. military from the war. From October 1974 through September 1976, Weyand served as U.S. Army chief of staff.

Shortly before his death in February 2010, Weyand sent a note to the U.S. Army, asking that awards presented to the helicopter crews for the May 1967 Cau Song Be rescue be considered for upgrades.


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