Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 34

DUC HOA, Vietnam — U.S. helicopter pilots knew the area around Duc Hoa village and Special Forces Camp as a place where the Viet Cong were looking for aerial targets.

I remember taking off from the airstrip at the Duc Hoa Special Forces Camp and hearing what sounded like popcorn. I looked out the window of my helicopter, but I didn’t see anything. I knew what sounded like popcorn: AK-47 assault rifles on full automatic, aimed at you. I had heard the sound before, while flying between 2 U.S. artillery bases near Tay Ninh City. When I heard the popcorn near Duc Hoa, I was about the same altitude — 300 feet.

Later that day my crew chief found a hole in the tailboom where an AK-47 round had struck. It missed hitting any of the control cables or rods inside the tailboom, so the damage was only surface.

Shrapnel from a mortar pocks bathroom at
Duc Hoa Special Forces Camp.
Duc Hoa was west of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. Stories were rife about Duc Hoa being a training area for Viet Cong soldiers, who could quickly move back and forth across the border for sanctuary.

One day, after flying combat assaults all the morning and into the early afternoon, 6 Thunderbird lift helicopters and 2 Bandit gunships were detached from the regular formation and sent to the airstrip at Duc Hoa. A Special Forces sergeant told us his troops had captured an enemy grenade factory near the border. One night, Special Forces advisors had heard the clanging of metal and seen the glow of fires. A patrol was sent out the following morning to investigate.

The problem was after the factory was destroyed many of the enemy remained in the area. It would be dark soon. To bring the troops out, we would make a circling descent to the ground, staying directly over the soldiers. When one helicopter took off with a load of soldiers, the next Huey would descend. The gunships would fly overhead to cover us if we came under enemy fire.

I was at the tail end of the flight and would be the last Huey to land. Climbing to 2,000 feet, the 6 Hueys flew in a circle. An NCO on the ground called on the radio and said his soldiers had secured a landing area near the factory ruins. The first Huey in line began a tight, right-hand circle descent to the ground. We all watched as the pilot flared the helicopter near the ground, leveled the aircraft, and touched down. As it took off, the next Huey in formation started a circling descent.

We had to keep the circular descents tight to avoid overflying the enemy.

Old French armored car at Duc
Hoa Special Forces Camp.
After the other 5 lift helicopters had picked up their load of soldiers, it was my turn to make a circular approach to the 4 remaining soldiers. As soon as our aircraft touched down, the 4 soldiers were aboard. Our fuel tank was half full, so we climbed to altitude quickly. Warrant Officer Tom Kagan, flying as my copilot that day, was on the Huey’s controls.

As we reached 1,500 feet, one of the GIs slid forward and handed me a souvenir — A hand grenade taken from the factory. I turned the grenade in my hands, examining it. It was roughhewn, but about the size and weight of the standard issue U.S. Army fragmentation grenade.

Kagan got excited when saw what I had in my hands. “Hey, take the controls and let me look at that thing,” he told over the intercom. I handed the grenade to Tom, and then took over the controls. It was a mistake.

Tom gave the grenade a close look, and then focused on the pin housing. He started twisting and pulling on the housing. I knew this could set off the grenade inside the helicopter. As he twisted and pulled, I screamed at him: “Throw the damn thing out the window! Immediately! Get rid of it before it explodes!”

Tom ignored my shouts and continued unscrewing the top of the grenade. He gave it a last, strong twist. I watched in horror, knowing we were about to explode into a ball of fire. Tom held the top up and looked inside the grenade. “It’s empty,” he said.


Later during my 1-year tour I would participate in an Eagle Flight that would test everything I had learned about flying under adverse conditions.

Three other Hueys from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company and mine were sent on a quick mission to withdraw 25 American soldiers surrounded by a North Vietnam Army unit in the middle of a field south of Saigon.

When we arrived, it looked like a quick extraction. The field was large, though some of the 3-foot-tall grass covering it was burning, set on fire by mortars and artillery rounds shelled in during the firefight. I figured there would be 6 soldiers on three helicopters and 7 on one. We all would have light loads.

When the first Huey landed, 3 GIs popped up from the grass and scurried aboard. The takeoff was quick.

The second helicopter landed. Four soldiers scrambled aboard. The math was beginning to worry me. As the last aircraft, I would have to bring out all the soldiers who remained. I wouldn’t have a choice. It was starting to get late and the landing zone was surrounded by enemy troops.

Then the third chopper landed. Four soldiers boarded the Huey.

I knew I had a problem. There were 14 American GIs still in the landing zone and they all would board my Huey when I landed. As the third helicopter began its takeoff, I started my descent into the LZ. I touched down and GIs began rising from the grass and making their way toward me, crowding onto my Huey from both sides.

Huey crews would fly in circles, each waiting
its turn to land and pick up allied soldiers.
Once the crew chief told me all were aboard, I pulled pitch to begin my takeoff. Nothing happened. My helicopter was overloaded and the tall grass was dissipating the ground cushion I needed to get the aircraft off the ground. The Huey wouldn’t lift off the ground. I couldn’t leave any of the soldiers because the other helicopters had left and the enemy was still in the area. To add to the excitement, the grassfire was blowing toward us.

I knew if I could get the helicopter past the fire I would have a chance to get airborne. I would need to gather speed, though. Gently, I nudge the cyclic forward with my right hand and began raising the collective pitch with my left. Slowly the Huey began to slide forward through the grass. I was able to aim the helicopter toward an area where grass had burned all the way to the ground. I would end up near the 30-foot-tall trees surrounding the clearing.

My Huey began gathering speed as it slid through the grass. I pulled more pitch, trying to gather more speed. I was worried the helicopter would strike a termite mound hidden in the grass. If a mound was in our path, there was no way I would be able to avoid it. We would hit the mound before I saw it, bringing us to a dead stop and likely taking out the bottom of the fuselage.

As I slid across a short wall of flames at the edge of the grassfire, I tilted back the nose of the Huey with the cyclic, pulled in more pitch, and kicked the right pedal just as we started to become airborne. I had calculated — or guessed — a kick would reduce the pitch in the tail rotor enough to transfer additional power to the main rotors. But would it be enough?

If I kicked too soon, I could twist the skids off, put the helicopter into a skid or turn the Huey on its side. If I kicked the right pedal too late, the chopper would not have enough time to transition into controlled flight and we would smash into the trees.

I lucked out. The Huey seemed to jump into the air, veering right along the treeline. The low rpm audio was screaming that our main rotor blades were turning so slowly they barely were able to maintain lift. I reduced slightly the pitch in the main rotors. The rotor speed increased and the helicopter began to climb. We were still below 20 knots and the controls were sloppy, but we were moving in the right directions: Up and forward.

Soon the tops of the trees were sliding under the Huey’s skids. After clearing the trees, I put the helicopter into a shallow dive to gain airspeed. As our speed went past 40 knots, I raised the nose into a cyclic climb. When we reached 1,500 feet altitude and our airspeed topped 80 knots I was able to relax.


Another type of eagle flight was one in which a formation of Hueys would fly in formation to a landing zone, then land in different parts of the LZ. My first mission of this type showed me I could not always trust my senses.

Early in my tour, I was flying as copilot on 1 of 10 assault helicopters descending in formation toward a landing zone where enemy activity had been reported. The LZ was not large enough for all 10 Hueys to land at one time, so on short final some of the helicopters began darting into open areas of ground between the trees.

Picking up wounded in a tight landing zone.
My helicopter broke away from the formation and slid into a small clearing surrounded on three sides by trees. As soon as we settled onto the ground, the soldiers in the back charged out both cargo doors and ran for the trees. It appeared to be an uneventful assault. We had delivered our soldiers. In seconds we would be pulling pitch and climbing back to altitude.

Then I saw a face about 20 feet in front of me. In front of the face was the muzzle of an assault rifle. I made eye contact with the enemy rifleman and waited for him to pull the trigger. There would not be time to back the Huey out of the peninsula. The soldiers we had delivered had charged off in other directions. Our crew chief and doorgunner could not aim their M-60 machine guns at the enemy soldier.

The soldier made a slight adjustment so his rifle barrel was pointing between my eyes. I saw a burst of flame from the muzzle. There was no way the soldier could miss me, his target, at such short range. I suspected I would see holes erupt in the Plexiglas windshield about the time the rounds hit me.

I waited for something to come out of the assault rifle’s barrel. Just flames. None of the rounds was striking the windshield … or me. At this range, though, it was just a matter of time and adjustments to the soldier’s aim.

As I watched, the enemy soldier stopped firing and slid down into the brush. It was over.

That evening, after we had returned to Bien Hoa Air Base, I examined the front of the helicopter for battle damage. We had not taken any hits. To this day, I have no idea how the soldier could have missed me.

I was coming to understand war is a series of very close calls, until one of them connects.


Many pilots will tell you that any time you get your aircraft on the ground in one piece you have made a safe landing. That usually is true, unless you land in a minefield.

The Viet Cong were very resourceful and they really wanted to bring down U.S. helicopters. In 1967, a VC “wanted” poster was found near Bien Hoa Air Base, offering a large sum of money to anyone who shot down a U.S. Army helicopter with a white Thunderbird image painted on the nose. Viet Cong and People’s Liberation Army soldiers weren’t paid much, so they had big incentive to bag Hueys.

Stories ran rampant among American soldiers about Vietnamese civilians who worked with them by day, then put on VC uniforms and fought them at night. Many of these stories were factual.

One of my flight school classmates, Ron Hall, flew as a lift pilot with the Little Bears, the call sign for Company A of the 25th Aviation Battalion at Cu Chi. He recounts the story of his company coming under ground attack by the Viet Cong one night in 1967. At dawn, it was discovered one of the enemy dead was the barber who cut the hair of American soldiers assigned to Ron’s battalion.

With enemy in your midst daily, it was difficult to keep secrets, so there was always a danger of enemy soldiers waiting for U.S. helicopters to arrive in landing zones. The Viet Cong knew the choppers were most vulnerable during landing and takeoff. They also knew that causing a helicopter loaded with American or South Vietnamese soldiers to crash could cause many casualties.

When the enemy’s intelligence was really good, the Viet Cong would set up mines in landing zones. They then would activate the mines as the helicopters touched down.

The Thunderbirds had the misfortune to land in an LZ prepped with mines one afternoon. We had just touched down and the American soldiers we were carrying into battle were preparing to jump out of our Hueys when the mines began exploding along the sides of our formation.

My helicopter was on the right side of a staggered trail formation. I saw an explosion a little ahead of me and to my right. I looked back at the soldiers and my crew in the back of the Huey. No one on the helicopter had been hit by shrapnel.

Later I learned that although we were in the helicopter nearest to the mine, our aircraft did not suffer any damage. However, shards of shrapnel somehow had gone under and around the aircraft, killing and wounding soldiers on Hueys behind and on the other side of our helicopter. To this day I cannot imagine how this was possible.

Other mines went off in the landing zone, killing and wounding more of the soldiers on board the lift helicopters. None of the choppers suffered damage severe enough to prevent them from being flown out, several carrying wounded to field hospitals.


One of the nice things about the Duc Hoa Special Forces Camp was its PX — or Post Exchange.

My ration card, showing humidity damage.
Though not much larger than a modern convenience store, the PX had items you could not find in larger PX’
s around the III Corps. I can recall waiting weeks to buy a single-lens reflex camera or a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the Bien Hoa Air Base PX. Then you had to be there before they were sold out.

The Duc Hoa PX always had a high-quality camera or tape recorder in the storeroom. Many helicopter crews who flew to Duc Hoa would make a quick trip to the PX before departing for home base.

I think my ration card had more initials on it from Duc Hoa than from any other PX in South Vietnam.

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