Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 41

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — Sunday, May 14, 1967, began quietly.

I was the pilot of a transport Huey from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. I had been flying in combat for 3 months and recently had been named an aircraft commander, a title granted after several months of flying in Vietnam, followed by a checkride.

My copilot, Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, was just beginning his tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

Jack Swickard
In the back of the helicopter was Lieutenant Al Croteau, who regularly flew as door gunner on combat missions when he took a day off from his regular job as commander of the 198th Signal Detachment. The detachment supported the 118th AHC.

Warrant Officer Tom Baca, pilot of the other Huey, had 12 days left on his 1-year combat tour in Vietnam. A former pilot with the 118th, Tom had transferred several months earlier to the II Field Force (Vietnam) VIP Flight Detachment.

Tom’s copilot on May 14 was Captain Larry Liss, a recent arrival at the II Field Force Flight Detachment. Larry had served as deputy commander of a Pathfinder detachment before being transferred to the VIP flight unit. He had seen his share of ground fighting, some of it hand-to-hand in the helicopter landing zones he had marked.

Larry had arrived in Vietnam in October 1966 and received his aircraft commander orders in the third week of November.

Though they did not know it when their helicopters lifted off on May 14, all of the crewmembers’ combat skills and experience would be put to a test before the day ended.


The 2 crews were flying a rare mission that day. May 14 was the final day of the largest U.S. military operation of the Vietnam War — Operation Junction City. Ground troops were mopping up the operation. Most helicopter crews and aircraft that had supported the operation for 3 months were on stand-down.

Operation Junction City, on top of other missions being flown near Saigon, had put a heavy burden on the helicopter units. With the operation winding down, the crews were given a day off to rest.

While the aircrews rested, mechanics were going over their helicopters, catching up on repairs and change orders.

My Huey was the only Thunderbird UH-1D transport helicopter with a mission on May 14. I would be supporting 5th Special Forces Group.

I remember checking the mission board the night before. I would be flying the paymaster to Special Forces camps throughout the III Corps. It looked like an easy day, flying the paymaster from camp to camp. I liked working with Special Forces, so the day would be enjoyable.

Al Croteau came to my room in the villa on Cong Ly Street and asked if he could fly as gunner on my helicopter on May 14. Al liked to be in the thick of things and regularly would take the place of the helicopter gunner. “I’d like to get some pictures,” he told me.

“It’s fine with me, Al, if the gunner wants to take the day off,” I told him. I had no doubt it would be an easy sell to the gunner, who could sleep in that day.

Al joined Ken Dolan and me for breakfast at 6 the morning of May 14. Ken had been with the 118th a month. We would take off at 7 a.m. from Bien Hoa Airfield, land at the 5th Special Forces Group helipad, and pick up the paymaster.


Ken Dolan in Huey cockpit
By May 14, Ken Dolan had been in the 118th AHC “probably a month, maybe two months. It was probably a little over a month. I remember we used to get our missions in the evening. I was still walking around in a daze.

“I recall it was a vey casual start. It wasn’t expected to be a problem, it was supposed to be pretty easy, just flying, it was going to be up in the northern part of III Corps and it was just a beautiful area, up by Song Be Mountain,” Ken said.


Al Croteau recalled, “Sunday was my day off. What I would normally do was fly. I started off flying as a door gunner. I thought I’d get some excitement. But sometimes during the week I’d hop on a pigs-and-rice mission.

“One time, when I was flying as a door gunner. I was in the top plane. There were these 2 planes under me. They yelled, ‘Open fire.’ So I opened fire. I’m not a good shot, and when we landed that day one of the other warrant officers called me over and said, ‘Look at this! Look at my skids. I’ve got some bullet holes in them.’

Al Croteau in Vietnam
“I said, ‘Uh, oh.’ I decided on that day that unless it was a single-ship mission, I would fly with the maintenance helicopter, which would fly out with a bunch of spare parts. I’d fly with Birdwatcher and throw a bunch of radios in,” Al said.

“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,” he said.

Al accumulated 250 hours of combat flight time. “I would fly, at a minimum, 2 or 3 times a week.”

On the night of May 13, “I went to your room, because 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. 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 friends and I said, ‘This will be great fun.’”


Larry Liss had never met Tom Baca before May 14. “My friends were all at the 334th (Attack Helicopter Company), the gunship company. They were the Dragons. They had a great club on Cong Ly Street. All my friends who I went to flight school with were there. The guy who ran the club was one of my best friends, a guy named Bill Frank.

“I didn’t know anybody at II Field Force. The only guy I can remember was a guy named Becker. He carried a Bible with him all the time, but I don't remember anybody else. I couldn’t tell you one guy I flew with. They kept them moving in and out. In the aircraft I flew most of the time, somebody would jump in and I’d fly with him and the next day it would be someone else, but I don’t remember creating any relationship with anybody,” Larry said.

Larry Liss with Vietnamese children
“There was no II Field Force club. We lived in that villa on Cong Ly Street. My room was right there on the street, so when I looked out my window, I was looking down onto the street. I was with a guy named Tom Turner. They called him Terrible Tom Turner. Everything was like a whirlwind,” Larry said.

“Somebody said something to me Saturday night while I was in the villa. They needed somebody to copilot for a guy named Baca. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” Larry recalled. “I got over there and I think we took off around noon or 11 o’clock.

“When I said I would fly with Tom, I had no idea who he was or how well he flew or didn’t. I let go of any apprehension I had within minutes of him taking off. That’s how good I thought he was as a helicopter pilot,” Larry said. “ So, I just settled in and relaxed, expecting to nap all day. I have no idea if we even spoke very much until we got to Cau Song Be. Who knows; we may have been just yacking away, but I don’t remember with any certainty.”

Larry said on other missions he had flown, “Some guys were crazy. I flew once with a guy who loved flying on the ground, you know, nap of the earth. Crazy. The first time I flew with him it was kind of thrilling; he flew like he had a great touch. The second time I flew with him, it was like ‘I don’t want to fly with this guy anymore.’ He was an accident waiting to happen, but with Tom, I could kick back, cross my arms and go to sleep.”

After picking up the chaplain, Larry said, “The first thing I really remember was getting out of the helicopter at Cau Song Be. One of the guys flying with us had some coffee. I had some coffee and some C-rations and some crackers and stuff, then this sergeant came running out. He was freaked out about what was going on. He said, ‘Let’s go.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, let’s go.’”


Warrant Officer Tom Baca remembered, “Sunday, May 14, started for me at sunup. I had a full morning of transporting different officers from II Field Force to various locations in III Corps. This was the last day of Operation Junction City.

Tom Baca in UH-1D helicopter
“I remember carrying the IIFFV artillery commander, a brigadier general, to several locations. We then returned to Long Binh and picked up the IIFFV staff chaplain. I had never met Larry Liss or flown with him before he met me at the aircraft that day.

“The flight with the chaplain began about noon from the II Field Force Headquarters, with an initial stop at Bu Dop Special Forces Camp. After the chaplain finished his services there, we arrived at Cau Song Be in the early mid-afternoon. Earlier in the day I had already flown about 5 or 6 hours,” Tom recalled.

“After landing at Cau Song Be, I was attending Mass when I was approached by a Special Forces officer, Captain Wallace Johnson, who asked me to help evacuate some soldiers wounded in a firefight not far from the camp,” Tom said.

The helicopter Tom was flying that day was a VIP Huey with no machine guns. In 12 days, Tom was scheduled to complete his Vietnam tour and rotate back to the United States.

“I thought I would probably die on this mission,” he recalled.

Wally Johnson told Tom, “There is no other aircraft in the area to get for the rescue.”

Tom said he requested consensus of his helicopter crewmembers on whether they wanted to go on the mission. “They all agreed to go and their only arms were several M-16 rifles, an M2 carbine and a few .38-caliber pistols,” Tom said.  “Captain Johnson and a Special Forces Specialist 5 medic named James Dopp were to fly into the zone on the initial rescue flight.
Wallace "Wally" Johnson during training

“The first trip into the landing zone — or LZ — was a narrow trail bordered on each side by tall bamboo and small trees. There was no area to land with rotor blade clearance,” Tom said. “I was flying a VIP Huey with new rotor blades. I had no doubt the blades would be structurally damaged and seriously compromised.

“My first descent sounded like a buzz saw going through the bamboo. The main rotor blades were taking damage and I was very worried about the tail rotor being damaged by flying bamboo,” Tom said.

On the Huey’s medical evacuation flight, Tom and Larry Liss evacuated 7-8 wounded soldiers. The helicopter left after Tom hovered the aircraft straight up and made a 180-degree turn to depart over the same trail they had flown over coming into the LZ.

While the wounded were being loaded into the Huey’s cargo area, the enemy was shooting the soldiers on board the aircraft. Tom said he was amazed no fire was directed at the pilots and crew.

On the way back to Cau Song Be, Tom was asked by Special Forces officers to help extract all of the CIDG troops from the LZ.

“I recall calling on the Guard radio channel for any aircraft in the area. When I landed at Cau Song Be, I landed behind Warrant Officer Jack Swickard. I was glad Jack Swickard from my old assault helicopter company, the 118th, was going to help with the evacuation of the rest of the troops,” Tom said.


Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp
I was nearing Cau Song Be with the paymaster aboard my Huey when Tom Baca’s call came over the Guard channel. Guard was set up so radios on all military aircraft would pick up emergency transmissions.

I responded to Tom’s call, wondering about the emergency he was calling about. In my radio call, I told Tom I would be landing at the Cau Song Be airstrip shortly.

To my surprise, I did not see Tom’s helicopter on the runway as I made my approach. After I was on the ground, the paymaster got out of the Huey and began walking toward the camp.

A major ran to the window on my side of the cockpit. He was out of breath. “I need you to evacuate our soldiers. They are surrounded by the NVA and Viet Cong,” the major told me. “I’ve called for an airstrike.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 40

BIEN HOA, Vietnam — Pilots of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company generally ate pretty well, even in the field.

Because the 118th AHC was not part of a U.S. division, helicopter crews supported a variety of allied military units. One day I would be carrying ARVN — or Army of Vietnam — soldiers into combat. The next day I would be flying supplies to Australian Army Training Team soldiers. The day after that I could be supporting the 199th Infantry Brigade, 5th Special Forces Group or a Marine Corps colonel with the call sign “Leatherneck 6.”

Getting helicopter support was a big deal for most of the units we would be assigned to for a day or half day. As a result, the people we supported treated the aircrews well. This carried over to meals.

Pigs and Rice Mission items.
On a typical day of flying resupply — or “pigs and rice” — missions, the morning generally would start with a hot cup of coffee as the officer or NCO assigned to coordinate briefed the helicopter crew. Sometimes, particularly with Special Forces, the briefing was over breakfast.

It seems the crews were always hungry. Even though the pilots ate breakfast at the Officers Villa where we lived in downtown Bien Hoa, there was something about the 1:1 bouncing motion induced by the helicopter’s rotor blades that made you hungry again. The same held true with our enlisted crew chief and doorgunner, who had eaten breakfast in the Mess Hall before heading to the flight line.

At lunchtime, the flight crews usually were invited into Special Forces dining rooms or mess halls set up by regular U.S. units. Though the pilots, who were warrant officers or commissioned officers and received an allowance to cover meals, it was rare when we were asked to pony up the standardized $1.05 for lunch. Generally, the regular U.S. Army units were strict on separating officers and enlisted men for meals, so our flight crews would eat in different parts of the mess hall. I can recall during one operation the battalion we were supporting erected a GP medium tent and then used a rope to separate the ranks.

When supporting troops on combat operations, dining was less formal. If we received a break for lunch, the aircrews would stand in line with the soldiers we were supporting. When our plates were filled, we’d find a rock or a log on which to sit and eat.

The best lunches, though, were served in the U.S. Navy Petty Officers Mess at Nha Be, a Navy base and petroleum tank farm 7 miles south of Saigon. One day, while supporting the Navy’s Seawolves at Nha Be, I discovered the Petty Officers Mess served lobster Newburg weekly for lunch. After that, if I was within 20 miles of Nha Be and had the time, I would fly to the Navy base and the crew would enjoy a special treat.

Heading for lunch in an overloaded Jeep.
Usually when we weren’t eating with the unit we were supporting, lunch consisted of C-rations. Actually, the Army had discontinued C-rations in 1958, replacing them with Meal, Combat, Individual rations. However, GIs continued referring to them as C-rations — or simply “C’s.” I never heard anyone refer to these rations by their Army abbreviation: MCI.

The crew chief always made certain there were at least 4 C’s whenever we took off each day. You never knew where you would be for lunch, so we always had a backup. Everyone had a favorite main course and a favorite dessert. Because both favorites rarely came in the same C-ration package, there was a lot of food swapping among crewmembers.

My favorite meats were the cooked pork and the sliced beef with potatoes. For dessert, my picks were the chocolate discs and the pound cake. To heat our meals, we would first open one of the taller cans containing crackers or other dry items. The contents would be placed to the side so we could punch holes around the bottom edge of the can. Next we would fill the can part way with sand. Then we would crawl under the helicopter and add JP-4 jet fuel from the drain plug. This then became a stove. You could be pretty creative with your cooking, adding items such as cheese spread to the meat.

The troops we supported didn’t have access to JP-4 fuel, so they cooked with what was available. One day a soldier gave me a fright when he broke off a piece of C-4 plastic explosive he was carrying and lit it. I was certain it would explode, but the C-4 began burning so hot it quickly cooked his meal. Cooking with C-4 could be dangerous in an enclosed area, as it produced a toxic cloud.

To enliven the flavor of C-rations, many GIs began carrying bottles of Tabasco sauce with them into the field. Whenever my helicopter airlifted a squad of U.S. Army soldiers, at least one soldier would have a bottle of Tabasco sauce secured to his helmet with the camouflage band. I suspected the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana, was supplying the bottles to American GIs for free.

Some 45 years later, I followed up on this suspicion and visited Avery Island. My first question was whether the company had, in fact, provided its Tabasco sauce to the soldiers for free. I learned it had.

At a time when many Americans were hostile to GIs serving in Vietnam, the McIlhenny Company was a generous supporter of the troops. Whenever I see a bottle of Tabasco on a grocery store shelf or on a restaurant table, I think of the company’s support for GIs in Vietnam.


After a day of flying, the younger pilots of the 118th AHC would return to the villa on Cong Ly Street and change into Bermuda shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. An observer might think he was in a college dormitory, except for the firearms in the rooms.

Many of the warrant officer pilots were recent college students. Some had become bored with college life and enlisted in the Army’s flight training program. Others had gone to college to play and drink beer, eventually finding themselves on academic suspension. It was a short hop from suspension to receiving a letter that started: “Greetings,” then went on to order the receiver to report to the local draft board. Once Uncle Sam had them by the scruff of the collar, some of the service-bound, young men had opted for flight training.

Before dinner, many of the pilots would drop by the bar in the Officers Club for a drink, and then wander into the Mess. One of the most noticeable aspects of the Officers Mess was the palm tree growing in the middle of the room. The roof had been built to allow the tree to reach its full height. All the tables in the Mess had tablecloths. Young, Vietnamese women in uniform waited the tables. The kitchen was presided over by a Chinese cook.

After dinner, we would bring some drinks from the bar back to our table and await the start of the nightly movie, which projected on a white wall in the Mess. Recent Hollywood films were shipped to Vietnam for showing to the troops, but the favorite among Thunderbird pilots was the ABC-Television series “Combat.” In the series, which ran from 1962-67, actor Vic Morrow portrays a U.S. Army sergeant who leads his infantry squad in Europe during World War II.

The film sequences and dialogue kept us in stitches throughout each episode. We enjoyed laughing at how Hollywood portrayed soldiers in combat, but it also was a relief from the tension of being in combat daily.

Another favorite television series was “Gunsmoke.” We all had grown up watching Marshal Matt Dillon, Chester and Miss Kitty, so it was almost a trip home to see the tales of the Old West.

After the movie, the pilots would check the mission board to see where they would be flying the next day. Then they would meet with friends in the bar or go to their room and clean their sidearms or write letters home.

The next day would begin with a pre-dawn breakfast, then a drive to the flightline. After preflighting our helicopters, we would lift off from the Birdcage and return to war.


Few other helicopter pilots in Vietnam enjoyed the lifestyle of the Thunderbirds.

My younger brother, Jeff, knew he was about to be drafted when he was best man at my wedding in February 1968, three days after I returned from Vietnam. When he was drafted into the Army several weeks later, he applied for flight school and soon was learning to fly helicopters at Fort Wolters, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Alabama.

My brother, Jeff, pulling CQ in flight school.
In Vietnam, he served as a warrant officer gunship pilot with the 134th Assault Helicopter Company, stationed at Phu Hiep, about 5 kilometers south of Tuy Hoa Air Force Base, a large U.S. Air Force fighter base.

His duty station was in south-central Vietnam, on the coast of the South China Sea. During the war, Tuy Hoa and Phu Hiep were in the ARVN II Corps.

Jeff said the pilots in his company “lived in tin-sided hooches, with nothing on the inside except a concrete floor.

“If we wanted to have any privacy or just have some personal space, we would have to build it ourselves. The only building materials we had were ammo boxes. We had a lot of those. Our 2.75-inch rockets came in them and we went through a bunch of rockets every day,” Jeff recalled. “When the unit across the street from the 134th moved to another base, leaving their company area vacant, 6 of us Devil gun pilots moved into one of the empty hooches. It was bone empty.

“Warrant Officer Bob Stanford, who had been my roommate in flight school, and I went looking for materials to help divide the hooch into separate rooms,” Jeff said. “We borrowed a Jeep and drove to Tuy Hoa Air Force Base. After a little exploring, we found an Air Force engineering squadron. While we were talking to one of the airmen, a master chief read my nametag and asked if I had a father in the Air Force. I said, ‘yes.’ He told me he had worked for my father and liked him a lot.

“The next day, a large Air Force truck rolled up to our hooch at Phu Hiep and proceeded to unload two 100-sheet stacks of fiberboard. That was way more than we had a use for, so we started trading for other items we needed,” Jeff said. “Soon we had tile floors and air conditioning. Additionally, we traded fiberboard for steaks and poncho liners. Those were then traded for a Class A telephone line we connected to our hooch. We were able to keep that by connecting an extension to our Officers Club Annex. After that the CO seemed to look the other way and let us keep the phone line.

“Our hooch was pretty nice when we finished it. It had 6 bedrooms and a living room with bar. The broken-down ammo boxes made nice trim and they looked good when made into bookcases or closets. We even had ‘Devil Guns’ spelled out with different colored tiles on the floor of the living room,” Jeff said.


Jeff recalled Tuy Hoa Air Force Base “had a great Officers Club, with a helipad co-located. We occasionally would land there for lunch, but they really frowned on gunships landing there. We always traveled in pairs, so two UH-1C Hueys took up the whole pad.”

He said, “I remember a lot of roast beef and a lot of chicken in our mess hall; almost every meal had one or the other, including breakfast and the midnight meal. I ate at our Army Officers Club pretty frequently for the dinner meal. We could buy a steak and grill it ourselves.

“When we were on missions, we would try to land someplace that had something different. Our company was general support for all of II Corps, so we got around quite a bit.

“Lane Army Airfield at An Son, northwest of Qui Nhon, had a really good Officers Club. The airfield also was home to a gun platoon, so refueling and rearming our aircraft was easy,” Jeff said.

“Qui Nhon had a USO, which meant strawberry sundaes and Red Cross Donut Dollies, but no rearming for our gunships,” he said. “Most of our lunch meals were ‘C-rats.’ I was partial to the scrambled eggs.”


Like Qui Nhon, Bien Hoa had a residence for Donut Dollies, the nickname given to young women who joined the American Red Cross and were assigned to Vietnam, where they visited with and passed out coffee and doughnuts to GIs. The ladies of the Red Cross were a great morale booster.

The Donut Dolly residence in Bien Hoa was adjacent to a senior officer’s house, which was directly across Cong Ly Street from the Thunderbird villa. The senior officer lived in splendor in the large, sparkling white house with a sparkling white fountain in the courtyard. There were even sparkling white ducks that waddled around and swam in the fountain.

Each evening when we returned from the flightline, we would see the senior officer in a sparkling white T-shirt, leaning over the rail of a balcony overlooking the Donut Dolly residence, binoculars in hand. It was obvious he had been watching the Red Cross ladies.

After several weeks, the Thunderbird pilots took matters in hand. Before leaving the airfield in the back of a deuce-and-a-half — or 2.5-ton — truck for Cong Ly Street one evening, each pilot picked out a red smoke grenade. As the truck came abreast of the senior officer’s house, one of the pilots shouted: “1, 2, 3, Go!”

A dozen smoke grenades sailed through the air and clattered into the courtyard. Dense, red smoke engulfed the white house, the white fountain with the white ducks, and the senior officer in the white T-shirt. Before our truck moved on, the smoke cleared enough for us to see the house, the fountain, the ducks, and the senior officer had changed from white to a rich pink.

I was certain there would be repercussions. I was wrong. There was never a peep — or even a quack — about the smoke attack. Several days later, the house, the fountain and the ducks were sparkling white again. But we never again saw the senior officer leering over the balcony rail.