TAY NINH, Vietnam — August 7, 1967, started quietly enough. That morning we were north of Saigon, flying a military courier from Bien Hoa Airbase to Tay Ninh City when my crew chief came on the intercom.
“Sir, there’s a helicopter in trouble. It’s going down!” Specialist 4 Charles “Skip” Lyons told me. I couldn’t see the other helicopter because it was behind me, so I asked the crew chief to direct me to the aircraft. Using Lyons’s directions, I put my Huey into a rapid descent from 2,000 feet.
Minutes later, as I made a sweeping right turn, I saw the other helicopter for the first time. It was about 100 feet ahead of me.
I began overtaking the other helicopter, which was a Huey like mine. I had closed to about 50 feet when the helicopter banked onto its side and dropped to the ground in a patch of grass about 10 feet tall. I saw one of the main rotor blades fly into the air and come back down. Then nothing. I had lost sight of the other helicopter. Not sure where the other Huey was in the grass, I landed so the nose of my Huey touched the wall of grass.
I didn’t dare risk hovering blindly through the grass without a firm sighting of the other aircraft. The grass was tall enough to get tangled in the tail rotor, which would have incapacitated our helicopter.
To my left was an open, dry rice paddy. In the distance, I could see a row of Viet Cong soldiers coming toward us, firing AK-47 assault rifles. Some were firing from hips level as they walked; others would stop, squeeze off several rounds, and then continue walking toward us. They were too far away to get off an effective shot.
Lyons jumped from our helicopter, an M-16 assault rifle in hand and wearing his flight helmet. Some 20 feet from our helicopter, his head jerked sharply to one side and he fell to the ground. I was certain an enemy round had struck him. But as I started to unbuckle my seat belt to drag him back to the helicopter, Lyons stood up. “I forgot to disconnect the damn intercom cord,” he said. He had run so fast that when he reached the end of the cord, the tightened line had pulled him off his feet.
As the Viet Cong came closer, their gunfire forced Lyons behind a rice paddy dike. We wouldn’t be able to remain exposed much longer. In the meantime, Lyons had taken up a defensive position.
I thought about leaving the aircraft to look for survivors, though I doubted there was enough time. I also thought about making a high hover through the grass. As I weighed the options, a pair of hands parted the grass directly in front of me. My heart came to a momentary halt. It restarted when I saw the hands belonged to the other helicopter’s aircraft commander, who had led his crew to us.
I waved the four crewmen aboard our aircraft and then told Lyons to board. With all on board, I hovered our helicopter backwards, away from the grass. I then did a fast hover forward and eased the helicopter over a stand of trees along a nearby riverbank. The trees now were between the Viet Cong and our helicopter. I gathered airspeed over the river, and then pulled the helicopter into a rapid, cyclic climb.
After reaching 1,000 feet, we circled back over the downed helicopter. I wanted to be certain no one had been left behind. I had not yet had time to visit with the aircraft commander or his crewmembers.
None of the downed crewmen appeared to be wounded or injured. However, I decided to fly them to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh to be checked out. I later learned they all were OK.
On the way to the hospital I asked the aircraft commander for his unit’s radio frequency so I could call his commanding officer. When I told the C.O. I had picked up the crew there were several seconds of silence. “Christ, I didn’t know they were down,” he told me.
It turned out the unit had made a combat assault into a landing zone where the enemy was massed in a live-fire exercise. Some of the helicopters had been shot down on approach, while others had been downed on departure. The helicopter we had followed to the ground was the only one that had gotten out of the LZ. However, it was badly shot up and didn’t get far.
|From left, Lt. Ivar Siqveland, pilot; PFC William|
Dalton, door gunner; WO1 Jack Swickard,
aircraft commander; and Spec. 4 Charles
Lyons, crew chief, after awards ceremony.
The next day I was told to take my crew to the main U.S. military base at Tay Ninh for an awards ceremony. After we landed, the crewmembers we had rescued rushed over to us and began shaking our hands and thanking us. They then escorted us to their battalion area.
A general pinned medals on us and other flight crews. That day I received a Distinguished Flying Cross and each of my crewmen got an Air Medal with “V” device for valor.
For days after the rescue, Lyons would ask me: “Did you see the look on the face of the courier when he thought I had been shot?”
Over the years I’ve wondered if it was simply luck when Lyons saw the helicopter going down. I don’t know how the Viet Cong soldiers could have missed us as they advanced firing their weapons. I also don’t know if I would have been able to help the other crew had any of them been trapped in their Huey or been wounded.
Fortunately, things fell into place for us very quickly, even though the rescue seemed to last a long time.
I know many other helicopter pilots who flew similar missions during the war. Some were awarded medals. Many others were never recognized.
I was fortunate most of the combat assaults I flew were during daytime. Sometimes we’d get up early and be in the air before sunrise, heading to a pickup point to load troops for a morning assault. When we started our approach into the landing zone there would be enough daylight to fly safely in formation.
In my helicopter company, night assaults were rare. That was fine with me because it was difficult to fly a tight formation in the dark. I guess if we had flown many night assaults, we’d have gotten used to it.
One of the most frightening combat assaults I remember flying was at night. Our mission was to carry soldiers from Bien Hoa Airbase to a landing zone near Xuan Loc, a town east of Saigon on Highway 1. Eight years later, Xuan Loc would be the site of the last major battle of the Vietnam War.
We took off with troops at dusk. Soon it was very dark. We flew formation by lining up on one another’s position lights. It was not much fun, but doable.
Then instructions came over the radio: “Turn off your position lights. Use instrument lights to hold your position in formation.” The flight commander did not want us to show the enemy our location.
Off went position lights throughout the formation. I eased my helicopter a little higher so I could see the red instrument lights in the cockpit of the Huey 45 degrees to my right and front. The copilot monitored our instruments.
It was so dark outside I couldn’t even make out the shape of the other helicopters in formation. All I could see were the damn red lights.
“Tell me just before we touch down,” I told my copilot. “Roger,” he replied.
Soon we began our descent. I had no sense of anything outside our helicopter but the red instrument lights I was following.
“We’re 5 meters from the ground,” the copilot said over the intercom. I flipped on the landing light in time to make a soft landing. Dust started churning up, but I could make out the ground. The soldiers leaped from the Hueys. Grass flew into view from the dark around us. No shots were fired. The pilots pulled pitch and we were flying out of the landing zone.
We returned to Bien Hoa in a loose formation with position lights on all the way.