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.’”

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