Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 25

CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — Warrant Officer Ken Dolan had been in Vietnam only 6 weeks when he flew as copilot on a Huey that joined another U.S. Army UH-1D helicopter in rescuing more than 100 soldiers from an ambush.

Ken Dolan beside Thunderbird
Huey in South Vietnam.
Ken had joined the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa around April 1, 1967. On May 14, he was flying right seat in a Huey that made 5 trips into a remote landing zone, cutting its way to the ground with its main rotor blades.

During each trip into the LZ, Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army soldiers were shooting South Vietnamese CIDG troops after they had boarded the helicopters to leave.

Before joining the Army, Ken had flown only once, taking a round-trip flight from New York to Tampa, Florida, to pick up blueprints for his employer.

Ken and his brother began working in their teens to help support their family.

Their mother had moved to the United States from Scotland about 1918 as a teen-ager herself.

Mona Treasurer, 18, was from a large Scottish family. “Her older sister came over first and was doing domestic work for a wealthy family in New York,” Ken said. “She wrote my mother and said she had a job for her. So she came over.”

He said his mother worked several years for the family, then moved back to Scotland. “She never talked about it, but there was no real future back in Scotland because it was depression time,” Ken said. “She came back to the United States and went to work in Greenwich, Connecticut, for another wealthy family.”

There “she fell in love with the chauffeur,” Ken said. Thomas Francis Dolan was second generation Scots-Irish from New York City. “They met, fell in love, and got married.”

Ken’s father worked as a chauffeur while his mother stayed home to raise a family. Ken’s brother, Thomas Christopher Dolan, was born in 1943. Ken was born in 3 years later.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Ken’s father enlisted in the Army and was sent to Hawaii as a radio operator.

“He evidently fell in love with Hawaii because a year or two after I was born, he took off and went back, never to be seen again,” Ken said. “So my mother raised my brother and me by herself.”

Ken said his mother had “gotten into the hotel business in New York at the time. She was working in the laundry room, initially, and then she worked in housekeeping. She later worked up to a supervisor in the hotel industry in New York. Welfare worked out a lot in the early years when we were very young.”

Ken said when he and his brother “were old enough to fend for ourselves, she started working again; she found jobs and eventually worked her way up in the hotel industry in New York. We lived on 33rd Street and 1st Avenue in a very Italian neighborhood. The homes were brownstone, with families living in 2- or 3-room apartments.”

When Ken was 11 or 12 years old, the city condemned apartments and houses in their neighborhood to make room for a Bellevue Hospital expansion. “They needed a full city block to build condominiums for their doctors and residents. We ended up on the Lower Eastside. My formative years were spent on the Lower Eastside, Sixth Street and Avenue D. At the time it was a very, very rough neighborhood. It was downtown New York,” he said.

After the move, Ken received encouragement from a school official. “I had a very good relationship with the assistant principal at the junior high school. He encouraged me to take tests for the competitive high schools in New York. I passed those exams and went to Brooklyn Technical High School. The City of New York had six competitive high schools. Back then Brooklyn Tech had 6,000 students, all guys.

“In the meantime, my brother had graduated from high school and he was kind of the father figure. He moved us out of the Lower Eastside, over to a nice, quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn.” Ken commuted to high school each day on the elevated railway — or “L.”

“We were still not wealthy, by any means. My brother was working in a management-training program at Woolworth’s,” Ken recalled. His mother was working at the New York Hilton Hotel.

Ken graduated from high school with a structural design degree, which was a prerequisite for civil engineering. “I had enough grades to get into college, but I didn’t have any money. I realized I was going to have to work before I could go to college.”

He found work as a structural designer for a year and a half after high school with Charles Cohn and Sons, a small shop that did steel design. “Most of what we did was for the steel structure of buildings all over the world and all over the United States. We did the layout for the beams and the columns, and the whole structural steel that goes into the buildings.”

Then Ken received a military draft notice, but he wanted to enter the Army as a volunteer. “I went down and took my physical and they gave me my 1A. I was ready. I was expecting that letter from the President any day, so I went down and talked to an Army recruiter and he told me about the Warrant Officer Flying Program. I enlisted,” he said.

Ken in Army flight school.
Ken entered the Army in February 1966. It was a good time for a career change. “I had been having second thoughts about staying in structural design. It wasn’t that exciting. So I decided to go to flight school.”

He had been on one commercial flight in his life. “Flight school sounded like something unique and exciting. The only time I had ever flown before was when I showed up for work one morning and the boss came out and said, ‘Ken, I need you to go to Florida. I got tickets for you and we’ve got some plans, blueprints, down in Tampa that we need you to pick up.’ He lent me his car and sent me to the airport. I flew down to Tampa first class.”

Ken was thinking ahead and planning to use the GI Bill for his education.

He had attended Queen’s College in the evening while working in structural design, but work kept him busy during the day and he would go out with his buddies on Friday and Saturday nights. He recalled working 12 hours a day while attending college at night. “It didn’t ring any bells. I wasn’t excited about it, so when the draft time came around, it was something different to do,” he said.

Ken began basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in February 1966.

To get to Fort Polk, Ken flew from New York City to Atlanta, and then boarded a DC-3 twin-engine propeller plane for the flight to Alexandria, Louisiana. He remembers being put up for the night in a “fleabag hotel.” The next day he rode a bus to Fort Polk.

“It went from bad to worse. They ran you around in circles. I guess we sat there for three days. We were trying to figure out what was going to happen next. All they did was feed you. Then, all of a sudden, all hell broke loose from the drill instructors,” Ken recalled. Basic training had begun.

After completing basic training, Ken traveled to Fort Wolters, an Army post at Mineral Wells, Texas, some 45 miles west of Fort Worth.

“Checking in at Fort Wolters wasn’t that traumatic. They threw a bunch of information at you and gave you a pile of books. ‘This is what your uniform has to look like.’ Then, finally, they assigned you a room,” he said. “There was a lot of walking. Then it got pretty hectic when the TAC officers and TAC NCOs got into our faces.”

Ken sitting in Huey cockpit at Bien Hoa.
Ken described himself as an “average” student during flight training at Fort Wolters. “I had never touched the controls of an airplane before, so it was a challenge. I had to really buckle down. The actual flying part was a real challenge.”

He said his “first traumatic experience was solo. I didn’t want the guy to get out of the cockpit,” Ken joked. “I wanted him to stay right where he was. Once I got over the fear of being on my own in the aircraft, it was like a catharsis. After that, I was fine.”

By coincidence, the officer in charge of Ken’s training company at Fort Wolters was Dewey Shelton, who Ken later would work for in aircraft maintenance at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam. Shelton was a captain when he took command of the maintenance detachment.

One day, Shelton told Ken: “Come work for me.” Ken extended his tour in Vietnam for 6 months and became a maintenance officer.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 24

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — When Lieutenant Al Croteau took command of the 198th Signal Detachment in March 1967, he wanted to boost the morale of his soldiers.

 “We had a three-quarter-ton truck. I had my own Jeep and we had a flight line Jeep,” he said. “I told my men, ‘Look, I want you to get together, decide who you want your day off with because everyone is going to get a day off, and then you can get together with some of your friends and take the truck where you want to go, as long as you stay with your group, with your friends.’”

One of the soldiers replied, “Lieutenant, it would be nice if we had a Jeep rather than a three-quarter-ton truck. There are a lot of junkyards in Vietnam where they take the old Jeeps that have been damaged.”

So Al and one of his enlisted specialists started touring military salvage yards and picking up pieces of Jeeps. “Then we assembled a Jeep,” he recalled.

However, the newly reassembled vehicle could not be operated on Bien Hoa Air Base or other military installation because it didn’t have unit designation numbers painted on the bumpers, Al said.

He solved the problem with a visit to his roommate at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company officers’ villa, dentist Louis “Lou” Lorton.

“I went to Lou and said, ‘What if we use your numbers on the Jeep? And when you need a Jeep, you borrow it.’”

So, we actually had a Jeep with Dental Corps numbers on it. My men used it to go everywhere. They were just thrilled because they had a vehicle they could run around in on their day off. I told them it wasn’t much fun having a day off if you can’t go anywhere.”

Keeping the vehicle filled with gasoline was no problem.

“We were fortunate because we had our own generators. We had to have our own generators in case the power went down. Or, if the power wasn’t clean, we’d run our own generators,” Al said. “With those generators came two 275-gallon tanks filled with gasoline. They were always filled. So, even if there was a shortage on the base, we always had gasoline because we had to have it for our generators. Our vehicles were never down.”

Al recalled having first-class equipment when he commanded the detachment, which was assigned to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company for avionics (aviation electronics) support.

“Originally, we had a semi-type of trailer, which was an electronics trailer, which we weren’t supposed to have. That was a beautiful trailer. It was there when I arrived. Then they did a reallocation and I lost that trailer. We gained 2 other trucks instead, so it was fine. The trucks were deuce and a half — or 2.5-ton — trucks that folded out,” Al said.

One day, though, he came close to losing his personal Jeep.

“I was driving to Saigon one day. There was a deuce-and-a-half truck in front of me that slammed on its brakes. I slammed on my brakes and was able to stop,” Al recalled. “However, the deuce and a half behind me didn’t and my Jeep just folded up like an accordion. I wasn’t hurt, but my Jeep was now gone, and I was very unhappy that I didn’t have a Jeep.”

Al at orphanage with Vietnamese interpreter.
Because he was a commanding officer, Al could requisition items he needed.

“I went to Saigon and went to this major’s office, and I said, ‘Here’s my requisition for a new Jeep.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re crazy. I’ve got generals waiting for Jeeps. You’re looking at 6 months before you get a Jeep. You’re just a lieutenant. You don’t have a prayer in hell.’ So I said, ‘OK’ and I walked out.”

Al returned 10 minutes later with a sheet of paper in his hand. “I said, ‘Would you sign this?’ He asked, ‘Sign what?’ I said, ‘It says here you’re responsible for 60 helicopters staying on the ground tomorrow morning because I don’t have a Jeep.’”

“The major said, ‘I can’t sign that.’ I told him, ‘I can’t go back to my outfit without a Jeep. I’ve got to get these helicopters off the ground and I need a Jeep because it has a 100-amp plug-in to check radios and that stuff. I can’t go back.’

“He said, ‘Come back in an hour.’ I came back in an hour and he had a brand, spanking, new Jeep waiting for me.”

Al put 24,000 miles on the Jeep during the remainder of his Vietnam tour.

“I drove everywhere in Vietnam. I’d go to Saigon and I’d go to any helicopter junkyard I could find to pick up parts, the spare radios.”

During his travels, Al drove to Long Binh, Cu Chi and places “where there weren’t roads.”

One day, on a trip to Saigon, Al and his sergeant heard gunfire nearby. The sergeant said, “We have to stop and return fire.” But Al kept driving. “I’m a lousy shot, but a good driver. We’re out of here.”

A couple of enemy rounds hit the speeding Jeep.

By the time Al flew as doorgunner on one of the 2 Hueys that rescued more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor from an enemy ambush on May 14, 1967, he had racked up many hours of combat time in helicopters.

Al flew on his first combat assault on March 12, 1967. Typically, he would fly on combat missions on weekends.

“Sunday was my day off. What I would normally do was fly,” Al said. “I started off flying as a doorgunner. I thought I’d get some excitement. But sometimes during the week I’d hop on a pigs-and-rice mission.” These were missions when transport Hueys carried supplies to allied soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.

The transport Hueys were known as “slicks” because they were lightly armed with a .30-caliber, M-60 machine gun on each side. On combat missions, the slicks were used to carry troops into battle on assaults and haul wounded soldiers from the battlefield, frequently while the fighting raged.

One Sunday, Al was flying as a doorgunner during a combat assault. The formation of 10 helicopters was flying in a tight, staggered-trail formation. During final approach to the landing zone, the lead Huey would land first, at the front of the formation.

Al’s Huey was at the rear of the formation, still on final approach. “I was in the top plane and there were these 2 planes under me. They yelled, ‘Open fire!’ So I opened fire. When we landed later that day, one of the warrant officers called me over and said, ‘Look at this! Look at my skids. I’ve got some bullet holes in them.’

“I said, ‘Oh, Oh.’ I decided on that day that unless it was a single-ship mission, if it was going to be a company mission, then I would fly with the captain of the maintenance group who would fly out with a bunch of spare parts with them. I’d fly with Birdwatcher and I’d throw a bunch of radios in,” he said.

“Birdwatcher” was the name given to the maintenance helicopter that accompanied the118th Assault Helicopter Company Thunderbirds when they flew combat assaults.

“If the company wasn’t going out, then I’d try to hook up with somebody and go flying that day, with a single-ship, pigs-and-rice mission. That was my routine,” Al said.

By the time he competed his Vietnam tour, Al had logged 250 helicopter combat hours. “I would fly, at a minimum, 2 or 3 times a week,” he said.

During road trips through the Vietnam countryside, Al sometimes would be away from Bien Hoa when night began to fall. Rather than driving home in the dark, he would hitch rides back to Bien Hoa by driving his Jeep on board a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter.

Though Al enjoyed touring the Vietnamese countryside, he had good reason to make most of his roadtrips.

“Whenever a ship went down, I’d try to get to it. Either by driving or in a helicopter, I’d use any means to get to the helicopter so I could get the radios out,” he said. “I wanted to have a lot of inventory. If we had a lot of radios fail, I could keep everyone going,” Al recalled.

In addition to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, Croteau and his crew serviced avionics for the 68th Assault Helicopter Company’s “Top Tiger” and “Mustang” platoons, which also were stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base.

Al said helicopters from other units oftentimes would come to his detachment if they were having radio problems. “We were a very, very friendly shop,” he said.

Al recalled one mission when the Thunderbird helicopters were landing on dikes because the rice paddies were filled with water. “One of the ships across the field needed an FM radio. I threw 2 radios on my shoulder and decided rather than walk along the dikes and take the long way, I was going to go across. Here we’ve got the whole 118th lined up on these dikes. So I start walking across the rice field and the water’s up to my shoulders.”

Al did not lose the radios, “but I gave everybody a good chuckle. I never walked in a rice paddy after that.”

Another time, “we were sitting on the dikes and I was in the maintenance helicopter, the Birdwatcher, and we took fire. We were the last ship on the dikes and we were the heaviest ship because we were loaded up with maintenance stuff.

“I was sitting in the back and watching the mortars walking down the dikes. There was this little, old lady. All of a sudden these mortars started to come and she disappeared. I don’t know if she took a direct hit or not, but the mortars started walking down the dikes and all the ships are taking off, but we can’t because we’re the last ship and we are overweight,” Al remembered. “I’m saying, ‘Oh. Oh. We’re going to get hit. This is it.’ And we just got off and a mortar landed near the tail section, which was peppered with shrapnel. Just as we got off, it landed right behind us. That was close.”


The night before the Cau Song Be rescue mission on May 14, 1967, Al went to visit Warrant Officer Jack Swickard in his room at the Thunderbirds’ officer villa on Cong Ly Street in downtown Bien Hoa.

“I knew you were going out and there wasn’t much going on and I really didn’t want to hang around on a Sunday, and I knew you were going to be going everywhere,” he told Swickard years later. “I just looked at the mission with the paymaster, and I said, ‘That’s great. We’re going to go all over the country. This is going to be fun. We were casual friends and I said, ‘This will be great fun.’”