Monday, March 11, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 31


BIEN HOA, Vietnam — I spent my first night at the Thunderbird villa in a room for transient officers. This would be my home until I was assigned to a flight platoon.

My roommate was a Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) lieutenant briefly attached to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company to learn some of our tactics in combat assaults. I don’t remember his name, as we roomed together only a few days.

What I do remember was entering the room once while he was asleep and making noise as I plunked down on my bed. The lieutenant sprang to his feet like a startled cat before I could react.

His reaction impressed me. I had never seen anyone go from sleep to readiness so quickly. Americans would come to this beautiful land at war and then most would leave. The Vietnamese had been warring for centuries and would be fighting for years to come.

Within days, I would become a combatant in the war. The difference between my war and the war fought by the Vietnamese was I had a chance to go home after a year.

*****

Several days after I joined the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, the daily mission board showed I would be flying my first combat assault. I was assigned as copilot — or “Peter Pilot” — on Warrant Officer Charlie Bennett’s Huey.

During my first week with the Thunderbirds, I noted the more experienced assault pilots in the company had handlebar mustaches. Charlie Bennett had one of the largest.
                    
I had been awaiting with some trepidation my first combat assault, known as a “CA” among the flight crews. Before joining the Army, I had worked as a reporter for The Indianapolis Times and The Albuquerque Tribune. In the newsroom, I had followed the Vietnam War, knowing there was a chance I would become involved.

One of the United Press news photos that caught my attention showed a Marine Corps H-34 helicopter in a Vietnam landing zone, while troops charged off the chopper. The pilot sat calmly in the thick of battle, waiting to take off. I wondered how he could remain so casual under the circumstances. I also wondered if I would be able to do the same.

After an early breakfast, I joined the other pilots on a deuce and a half truck for the ride to the flight line. Playing off the “Thunderbird” call sign, our helicopters were parked in the “Birdcage,” inside revetments made of steel planking and sandbags.

I accompanied Charlie through the preflight inspection of our helicopter. Though our crew chiefs and mechanics did an excellent job with maintenance, many flight hours took their toll on the helicopters.

Many of the Hueys in the Birdcage had been patched to cover combat damage. If an enemy round hit a helicopter, the crew chief would cover the hole with silver duct tape, nicknamed “100-mile-an-hour tape.” Later, during maintenance, an aluminum patch would be riveted over the hole.

After preflighting the Huey, Charlie and I strapped into the cockpit seats. Ceramic plates protected the back and one side of each cockpit seat. For protection from a round or shrapnel coming from the front, each pilot would strap a ceramic armor “chicken plate” across his chest. I later developed the habit of shifting my .45-caliber pistol into my lap.

The doorgunner untied the main rotor blades. The crew chief stood near the Huey’s turbine engine, holding a fire extinguisher. Charlie yelled: “Clear!” The crew chief responded, “Clear, Sir!” That was the pilot’s cue to start the engine.

The turbine engine began turning. I could hear the igniters popping. Then there was the high-pitched whine of the turbine coming to life. The rotor blades now were turning.

The tachometer had 2 needles, 1 showing the engine revolutions per minute and the other the speed of the main rotor blades. When the needles were “in the green” — an area of the tachometer window marked by green tape — the Huey was ready to be hovered out of the revetment. The nose lifted first, followed by the rest of the helicopter.

When the Huey was about a foot from the ground, Charlie hovered slightly backward and then to the left. He then performed a slow pedal turn and hovered the aircraft into line on the right side of a staggered trail formation with the other assault Hueys.

After all 10 helicopters were lined up, the lead aircraft became light on its skids. Its pilot radioed to the rest of the formation: “Lead is off.” One by one, the aircraft followed. Within minutes, the formation was flying toward the pickup point where we would board the soldiers we would carry into combat. Today’s assault would involve a company of ARVN (Army of Vietnam) Rangers. At the pickup point, the soldiers had queued up, 12 to a line.

A cloud of red dust swirled as the helicopter formation flared before settled to the ground. The ARVNs boarded the Hueys and we again took off in formation.

This time the weight of the armed Rangers made the takeoff run longer. As the Hueys moved from a forward hover to “transitional lift,” the aircrews could feel a slight bump as the helicopters entered flight. The most difficult part of the takeoff was over.

Some 20 minutes later, the staggered formation of Hueys made a sweeping right turn toward a clearing along a tree line that followed a small river. Now 2 miles from the landing zone, the flight began a gradual descent.

Four UH-1C gunships that had flown ahead of our formation began making gun runs along each side of the LZ. The gunships hit the LZ with rockets and machine gun fire. Viet Cong soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles held their fire, waiting for the assault helicopters to slow their approach. The Hueys were most vulnerable to enemy fire on short final approach.

Charlie was at the controls of our Huey as we began short final to the LZ. I sat in the right seat, trying to make sense of the confusion. Flying into combat for the first time, I was on the verge of sensory overload. I could hear Charlie talking to our crew chief and gunner in the intercom. I also could hear the popping sound of AK-47s being fired at us by the enemy. And there were explosions from the grenades and rockets being fired by the gunships.

“Take the controls! Take the controls!” Charlie screamed into the intercom. I fumbled until my left hand was on the collective pitch lever and my right hand the cyclic, which controlled our direction of flight. I didn’t know if Charlie had been hit by gunfire. Struggling to keep the helicopter in a descent with the rest of the formation, I wondered what to do if Charlie had been hit.

I grabbed a quick look at Charlie to see if he had been hit. He was furiously slapping himself in the face. “Damn, he must really be hurt,” I thought.

Warrant Officer Charlie Bennett at controls of
a Thunderbird Huey.
“Taking fire! Taking fire!” the pilot in the lead assault Huey shouted over the radio. The pilot of another Huey yelled, “Fire coming from 3 o’clock, behind the trees!” M-60 machine guns mounted on the sides of the lift Hueys laid down suppressive fire. The trees came alive with muzzle flashes.

“I have it!” Charlie shouted over the intercom. I gave him back control of the Huey, but only momentarily.

On our descent to the ground, Charlie told me 2 more times to take the controls. Again he would begin slapping himself in the face. “OK, I have the controls,” he would repeat each time.

Our machine guns fell silent as the Rangers jumped from the helicopters when we landed. The AK-47s came alive with more vigor as the Rangers charged toward the trees. Enemy rounds hit the ground near our Hueys. One of the aircraft would be hit, but there was no way the round could be heard hurling through the thin, aluminum skin.

At Charlie’s command, I again took over the flight controls and stayed in formation while the Hueys became airborne. From the corner of my eye I saw Charlie reach into his mustache and pull something out with his gloved fingers.

“Damn red ant got into my mustache. It was biting like hell,” he told me. He crushed the ant with his fingers and flicked it out his window.

After departing the landing zone, the 10 Hueys flew to the pickup point, where some 100 more soldiers boarded the helicopters. The Hueys made 5 trips into the landing zone. Eventually, the Rangers subdued the battlefield and the Viet Cong melted away, leaving some of their dead behind.

Helicopters detached from the formation and began ferrying wounded Rangers from the battlefield.

Our formation remained on the ground in a secured field 5 kilometers from the landing zone while ARVN commanders and American advisors decided the next move. The Rangers would spend the night in the field, and then move through an area suspected of enemy activity.

The pilots shut down their aircraft’s engine and began inspecting the Hueys for battle damage. On the tailboom of my helicopter was a hole from an AK-47 round.

On my first combat mission, my aircraft had suffered battle damage. Now I was a real combat veteran. I would be expected to toss a $20 book of drink chits on the bar at the Thunderbird Lounge after dinner. The other pilots would drink with my chits until the book was depleted. With beer costing 10 cents a glass, the chits might last 5 minutes.

*****

Warrant Officer Ken Dolan also remembered Charlie’s “red ant trick.”

“He did the same thing to me on my first or second combat assault,” Ken said, adding it wasn’t red ants that come to mind 46 years later. “The thing that has stuck with me over the years was the shear noise of a combat assault, with door guns going and rockets whizzing by on the way in.

“The visuals of empty shells streaming out the doors of the Hueys has also stuck with me,” Ken said.

*****

Five months before I arrived in Vietnam, Warrant Officer Tom Baca wrote home about flying a heavy schedule of combat assaults with the Thunderbirds.

“Sorry I haven’t written, but we have really been busy,” he wrote on July 26, 1966, to his parents and twin brother Jim in Albuquerque. “VC everywhere around Saigon and we are making 8 hours of combat assaults a day.

“So how is everything at home? I see in the Stars & Stripes newspaper that it’s been in the 90s there. It is nice and cool here, believe it or not. About 78 degrees today. We like cool weather because our aircraft perform much better.

“I was shot down Sunday, but we weren’t hurt. One of the Vietnamese on board was killed by one of the rounds, though,” Tom wrote. “We were making an approach into a VC hamlet and we were hit with automatic weapons. We lost our hydraulic control system and transmission.
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. 
“We made a go-around and flew about 4,000 meters, then had to set down in a field, which was the muddiest, of course. We got all radio navigation equipment and other classified papers and weapons off and we were picked up by our wingman.

“I have some pictures of when we got back to the staging area. I also have some of them sling-loading our ship back. I am fine, nary a scratch,” Tom wrote to his family.

An official report shows Tom’s UH-1D Huey took “3 hits from small arms, automatic weapons” during a combat assault on July 24, forcing the helicopter down in the Rung Sat Special Zone, also known as “The Forest of Assassins.”

The report says the helicopter was hit in the engine compartment, the enemy rounds damaging the transmission oil system and the hydraulics system. At the time Tom’s Huey was hit, it was about 50 feet from the ground and flying at 30 knots during final approach.

*****

The month after I flew on my first combat assault, Lt. Al Croteau wrote home about flying on his first assault.

“Well, yesterday I flew my first combat assault mission,” Al wrote in a letter dated March 13, 1967. “On the mission there were 10-15 ships, the C.O. and the X.O. were along; I went as the right door gunner on Red II. This is how it began:

“It was a Saturday night and I was welcoming some of the new pilots into the company. Well, they kept buying drinks for me. After about five drinks, I decided to retire for the night. Heading for my room, I ran into a Major who said, “Want to fly gunner tomorrow on a C/A?” I, of course, replied “yes” and went into the private bar, which is run by the 1st Platoon. Well, that party went on until 2:00.

“I was up at 4:45 with a big head. It was a cup of coffee, my flight helmet and flight vest and .45 into the Jeep, out to the flight line.

“We were all loaded up and into the air by 6:00 a.m. My eyes half opened, we were flying,” Al wrote.

Vietnamese soldiers waited to board Hueys
that will carry them into combat.
“Our first touchdown was to pick up some troops; combat troops that is. Unlike any group of men I have seen, these people looked ready. Most of them carried small packages of cigarettes or gum in their steel helmets. All of their faces looked shaved, but worn. Around their chests were slung straps or belts, which contained 7 clips of ammo, each clip contained 20 rounds.

“Also, there were men with rocket launchers, machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers. Hand grenades were hanging from all over their clothing’ these were fighting men — not National Guards or U.S. Army stateside war games types,” Al’s letter continued.

“My mind, what was left of it, quickly left these men and went into action to pick up what the radio was saying: ‘Approaching LZ full suppression unload and get the hell out of there, Blue 6, over.’ This is what it meant: We were going into the landing zone; have all door gunners firing to cover the entrance into paddies. Gunners, get ready to give that suppression.

“Well, I let loose with my gun and I watched my tracers fly into the treeline. The radios were singing, ‘Gunships to your left. Fire at the hut.’ As soon as we lowered the ships, the troops jumped into the rice paddies, which were about 2-3 feet of muddy water. I was still firing over their heads. Off we went. Once we were airborne, I ceased firing and watched the others make similar drops.

“Rocket tracers were hitting the ground from every direction. We unloaded troops there three times, at different locations every time. Each time was just the same except for the last one, when I heard one of my friends over the radio say, ‘We are taking fire, have taken one round. Going to check it out at the refueling station. No one hurt.’

“It was 0930 and we set down to refuel. I went to see Mac’s ship and, sure enough, he had taken a hit. A little lower and he would be without a head. After refueling, off we went to pick up 50 tons of captured rice.

“We also picked up some VC prisoners. These people were small and scared stiff. You could see it in their eyes that they were scared to death. It has been a known subject that VC have fallen from ships when they refused to talk. The prisoners were brought back to the camp and used to unload the rice,” Al continued in his letter home.

“Later we went back to the LZ and picked up some wounded VC. The first one was an old woman who had been shot through the chest. The bullet had passed through her chest and out her mid-back. We applied first aid to her and covered her with a blanket. She was covered with rice paddy mud; a real mess.

“We went over to pick up an old man and a VC boy. Both the man and the boy were given plasma bottles. Both were covered with blood and looked scared and in shock. You could not help feeling sorry for these war victims,” Al wrote.

“In the action, we took about 25-30 prisoners, wounded 6-10, killed 10-12, killed 3 water buffaloes, 1 pig, 1-12 chickens, burned 8-10 huts, 8 hay stacks, captured 5 weapons and 50 tons of rice. We had 2 troops injured; 1 had found a VC grenade and pulled the pin to destroy it, but it went off in his hand. This man is in poor condition; he will lose his hand but will live. The other man received flesh wounds in contact.

“The mission ended about 6:00 with over 10 hours of flying and 90 tired men. This was my first C/A and I hope my description will give you a small idea of what goes on in Vietnam. The fighting men over here are doing their job. I talked to some of them. Even though we risk our life flying these ships, for the most part, we are happy and truly believe we are doing a good job for ideas we believe in,” Al concluded in his letter home.

*****

Captain Larry Liss recalled flying in combat shortly after he had arrived in Vietnam. It was only his second helicopter flight in country.

“I had been in country for a few days. I was given a bed in wherever aviators bunked at Phu Loi,” Larry said. “I was assigned to the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company a day later and was picked up by a UH-1 from who knows where and was invited to fly copilot, as the person sitting in the seat got out and walked off to who knows where.

“I pulled out my helmet and plugged in while the pilot lifted to a hover and off we went. I heard his voice say that we were going to make a few stops before getting to Phuoc Vinh. I sat back and watched to terrain fly by as we flew to who knows where. We landed at a small heliport and then took off from who knows where, flying to who knows where. The pilot, who had his visor down, took the aircraft down to just above the ground and away we went, twisting and turning to who knows where,” Larry said.

“All of a sudden we started taking hits and number of rounds penetrated the cockpit. One hit the pilot in the side of the head and down his body went. I pulled him back, along with, I think the crew chief, and took the controls. I pulled back on the cyclic, pulled more power than necessary and got up to about 1,500 feet.

“I was totally panicked. Not from the bullets flying, but I had no idea where I was, and was totally spaced out on what radios to use or what to do next. I was really lost,” Larry said. “I heard a voice in my head — the crew chief? — telling me to “fly to Hotel 3,” the main heliport at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon. “In my head, it was playing out like, ‘What?’ ... ‘Where?’ He then said something like, ‘fly the needle.’ Of course, the ADF.

“To make a long story shorter, I followed the needle to Saigon and then got ‘talked in’ to Hotel 3. I called, I have no idea who, and had an ambulance waiting. I landed at the heliport and set the aircraft down,” Larry said.

“I found out later the pilot was OK, and to this day have no idea who he was or what unit the aircraft belonged to. I wound up being picked up by a 162nd aircraft and taken to Phuoc Vinh a few hours later. I met my ride at the bar at the officers club. I took a week of razzing.

“At that moment, it seemed like the coming year was going to be a very long one. Who would ever have thought that I would actually go on to be a decent pilot and a good combatant? Certainly not me,” Larry said.

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