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.”

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