CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — It was 41 years before I realized Tom Baca and Larry Liss had arrived ahead of me at Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp on May 14, 1967.
Though Warrant Officer Tom Baca had broadcast a radio message on the Guard emergency channel, asking for help from any helicopter flying near the camp, I thought for decades my Huey had landed ahead of his. When I made my approach to the Cau Song Be landing strip there was no other aircraft in sight.
Tom Baca recalled he was flying an unarmed VIP Huey belonging to Lieutenant General Frederick Weyand, who commanded II Field Force Vietnam — or IIFFV.
“Our mission was transporting the IIFFV staff chaplain to several Special Forces facilities in the III Corps Tactical Zone,” Tom said. “For the previous 90 days, Operation Junction City, the largest operation of the Vietnam War to date, was ongoing. Coincidentally, the operation was ending that night at midnight.”
The missions that day were to be light duty. Tom, with only 12 days left on his combat tour, was looking forward to returning home.
|Warrant Officer Tom Baca in 1967|
“I had reported to the heliport at Long Binh at sunrise on May 14. I had already flown 6 hours on various missions before taking off with the chaplain for the Bu Dop and Cau Song Be Special Forces camps in the northern part of III Corps,” Tom said. “I ended up flying 10 hours and 42 minutes that day.
“I was really in the go-home mode. During my year in Vietnam I had my share of scary moments, especially with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. I figured I had had my last dose of action and May 14th would be just another day to mark off the short-timer’s calendar,” Tom recalled.
His copilot that day was Larry Liss. “I flew with someone else during the morning missions and Larry came on board for the chaplain mission. I had not met nor flown with him until that day. First we went to the Bu Dop Special Forces Camp. We left there for Cau Song Be around 2:30 or 3 p.m.,” Tom said.
“I remember landing at Cau Song Be and getting out of the aircraft to go into the camp with the chaplain. Very quickly, I was asked to do a medical evacuation of some wounded about 8 miles from the camp. I was told there were no other aircraft available. I went back to the aircraft with the location and frequencies for the ground forces. Larry was ready to go and we took off,” Tom said.
“The landing zone was extremely hazardous. Each side of the trail was covered with a 30-foot-high bamboo forest that extended for several thousand meters on both sides of the trail,” Tom said. “We flew to the location of the firefight using voice directions from the advisor on the ground. Visual contact with the friendly troops was not made, but the advisor said our aircraft was directly over their position. We realized the only way to land was to ‘create’ a landing zone, using the main rotor blades to cut through the bamboo,” he said. “Most critical was the tail rotor, which would have to be centered on the narrow trail.
“We descended into the vegetation, inflicting damage on our Huey’s main rotor blades. The landing zone was in an active firefight, with casualties being shot near the aircraft. Some South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group — or CIDG — troops were being fired upon as they were approaching the aircraft. All air and artillery support had been withdrawn due to the close proximity of friendly and enemy forces,” Tom recalled.
|Captain Larry Liss in 1967|
Captain Larry Liss said he “was sitting on the edge of the cargo bay of his helicopter on the Cau Song Be airstrip, waiting for Tom and the chaplain, when a Special Forces noncom came up and told me what was happening and asked if we could help.
“I said. ‘I think so’ and told him we’d talk to Tom, who was coming back to the helicopter a few minutes later. I told Tom what was up and said I would be willing to give it a shot,” Larry said. “I remember Tom’s face changed. And why wouldn’t it, with only 12 days to go? But he said, ‘Yes.’”
Tom and Larry then flew to the ambush to evacuate some of the wounded from the battle. On board their helicopter were Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson, the Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp commander, and camp medic Jim Dopp.
“We flew that first sortie and were able to get a handle on what was really happening and, by the time we got back to the airfield, Jack came in,” Larry said.
In May 1967, Specialist 5 James “Jim” Dopp was the Special Forces A-333 team medic, stationed at Cau Song Be.
“Typical of most A teams in the area at that time, we usually had one or more operations in the field,” Jim explained. “At the beginning of May, one of our operations had encountered an enemy force much larger than we had become accustomed to engaging in this Area of Operations. That field operation had two Special Forces soldiers, Master Sergeant “Hoot” Gibson and Specialist 5 Dan Lawler. Both were severely wounded and Specialist Lawler died several days later at the 93rd Medical Evacuation Hospital in Saigon.
“A new team sergeant arrived from the 10th Special Forces in Germany, Master Sergeant Douglas Lloyd. Although new in country and new to the team, Master Sergeant Doug Lloyd insisted on taking his turn on the next operation and was joined by the most experienced NCO remaining on the team, Sergeant First Class Hughes,” Jim recalled. “They walked into a large ambush. The survivors were regrouping and radioed for assistance.
“We had limited resources and requested the B Team commander, Major Ronnie Mendoza, to get us air support and, more specifically, helicopters to extract the team members and surviving CIDG. Major Mendoza arrived at Cau Song Be and instructed me to gather emergency medical supplies. I boarded his helicopter with two other team members, who carried weaponry and a fair amount of ammunition to cover the extraction,” Jim said.
“The vegetation in the area was extremely dense, with short visibility and few remarkable features to make it possible to identify their location from the earlier reports they had sent. We began crisscrossing the operations area and someone on the ground popped smoke,” he said.
|Cau Song Be from the air in 1967|
“We were over very thick vegetation not far from the Song Be River. Sometimes the VC would pop smoke to draw in a helicopter so they could down it with rocket-propelled grenades. Despite the potential danger, Major Mendoza ordered his pilot to go in closer. What we found was one of the Special Forces team members, Sergeant First Class Hughes, wounded and holed up with Vietnamese First Lieutenant Au and a few CIDG.
“There were no clear areas near these men where a helicopter could set down or even hover safely, so we bundled some machetes and threw them down so they could begin to cut some area clear. Then the major started to tie a rope around my waist, telling me he wanted me on the ground as quickly as possible to help Sergeant Hughes,” Jim continued.
“The helicopter began taking small arms fire. To keep me from being exposed too long, he asked his pilot to move down as close as he could get. Then the rear rotor clipped a tree and the helicopter started wobbling erratically. The pilot said he thought we were going down. He managed to keep us in the air several minutes and got to what was an abandoned section of Highway 14. The pilot managed to set us down on the road,” Jim said.
“The major was able to get an additional helicopter sent to pick us up and start the extraction of the CIDG company which had been ambushed.
“Inasmuch as one helicopter had already been forced down, it took extreme courage for these pilots to return to the area with neither active air support nor a ground element to suppress anti-aircraft fire. I flew back to the area to show the crew where we had seen Sergeant Hughes,” Jim said, describing the medical evacuation being flown by Tom and Larry.
“The pilot found a small, extremely tight landing pad surrounded by high trees. I estimate 40-50 feet or more. We took out the first 6 CIDG to reach the helicopter. As we lifted off, intense small-arms fire was directed at the helicopter. Some of the fire with green tracers appeared to me to be from what I came to know as a wheel-mounted .51-caliber machine gun, a formidable anti-aircraft weapon,” the Special Forces medic said.
He said it was the most intense small-arms fire he encountered during his combat tour.
“I do not know if the second helicopter landed where we had been or had set down in a different area, but it came into the A camp a few minutes after we landed. Several of the CIDG had been wounded and I took them to our field hospital to treat them, Jim said.
Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson, who commanded the Special Forces A Team at Cau Song Be, said, “activity in camp was reasonably normal” during the early afternoon of May 14.
Wally recalled being in the team house, visiting with the chaplain about Lang Vei Special Forces Camp in I Corps to the north. The North Vietnam Army recently had overrun the camp. One of Wally’s friends, Captain Bill Crenshaw, and his executive officer had been killed in the attack.
The chaplain told Wally he had been at Lang Vei shortly after the attack. “He said he was told the attack started within the camp,” Wally said.
|Wally Johnson after war|
“Within a few minutes of that conversation, all ‘heck’ broke loose. Our guys had come under attack by an unknown North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong unit about 4 kilometers from the camp. It was later determined to be a regimental-size unit of between 600 and 700 enemy combatants,” Wally recalled.
“I’m not sure of the exact radio conversation with Gibson, but I am clear he said Dan Lawler and Doug Lloyd had been hit and they were still alive, informing me that the wounds looked pretty bad,” Wally said. “I felt that we had little time to get them out of there and get medical attention to Doug and Dan.
“I remember grabbing my weapon and web gear and heading toward the one helicopter sitting on the field with Special Forces medic Jim Dopp. I asked the pilots, Tom Baca and Larry Liss, to help with the medevac. They immediately volunteered, even though I noticed their aircraft was an unarmed, VIP aircraft. There was no hesitation
“At the ambush site, Gibson continued to adjust artillery support. I think 8-inch howitzer support came from Quan Loi and airstrikes in the target area were provided by A-1E aircraft,” Wally recalled. “The aircraft had been dropping bombs and strafing the enemy area while the helicopter I was in maneuvered around the incoming bombings. During the initial extraction, I called off the artillery and airstrikes due to the closeness of the NVA to our troops.
“The pilots — Tom Baca on the initial run — successfully created a makeshift landing zone close to Gibson’s position by forcing the helicopter down through the bamboo forest,” Wally said. “About 15 minutes prior to that another helicopter had attempted a similar landing on the trail, but damaged its tail rotor blade and had to withdraw to a safer position.”
He said Tom and Larry’s helicopter was able to extract 6 CIDG troops during the medical evacuation from the battlefield before returning to Cau Song Be “to figure out how to get closer to Gibson and Lloyd and the rest of the Civilian Irregulars, which numbered about 100.
“We arrived back at Cau Song Be (Chi Linh) and, as we landed, we saw the paymaster’s helicopter, piloted by Jack Swickard, had also landed on our airstrip.
“The pilots began coordinating how to extract the remaining forces. I elected to stay back to coordinate what I knew would have to be the total extraction of our entire unit,” Wally said.
I remember a Special Forces major rushed to my helicopter as soon as we landed at Cau Song Be and told me through the cockpit window he needed help extracting a company of CIDG troops ambushed by a large force of North Vietnamese soldiers. “I’ve called for an airstrike,” the major told me.
Tom landed behind me during my conversation with the major. I wrote an FM radio frequency on a piece of paper and asked Lieutenant Al Croteau to deliver it to the pilot of the Huey on the airstrip behind us. A short time later, Tom Baca’s voice came over the radio.
|WO1 Jack Swickard|
We took our flight maps, left our helicopters and held an impromptu meeting with the major along the side of the runway. Because Tom and Larry were flying an unarmed helicopter, it was decided I would take off first. Tom and Larry would fly close formation on my Huey, which was armed with 2 M-60 machine guns.
During our meeting, the major showed us on the maps where the CIDG soldiers and Special Forces advisors were fighting for their lives. The ambush had been sprung along a narrow road linked to the Special Forces camp. We estimated the fighting was a 10-minute flight from the camp. Fortunately, Tom and I had refueled our helicopters before landing at Cau Song Be, so we could stay on station for about 2.5 hours.
Our meeting completed, we returned to the helicopters. The major boarded my Huey and sat in a seat behind me. I handed him a headset, which he plugged into the radio and intercom system.
Our helicopters took off in trail formation and turned south, crossing National Highway 14 and flying into War Zone D. There were trees as far as I could see. As we flew along the narrow road running to the ambush, the major described how the airstrike he had ordered would clear the area of enemy so our helicopters could land and extract the allied troops.
We circled near the ambush site, waiting for the FAC — or forward air controller — to arrive in an Air Force observation plane. The FAC would direct the jets making the airstrikes.
The FAC arrived several minutes later and began circling above the ambushed soldiers. Our Hueys were flying a circular pattern nearby and about 500 feet above the FAC.
The Air Force pilot called the senior Special Forces NCO with the CIDG troops and told him to “pop smoke.” Nine pillars of colored smoke began rising from beneath the trees and surrounding brush. The FAC asked the NCO the color of the smoke grenade he had thrown. “Green,” came the reply.
“I have 2 green smokes,” the FAC said. “Give me your location.” A brief radio description followed.
“I can’t put in an airstrike,” the FAC told the advisor. “You have enemy within 5 meters of you in all directions. If we put in an airstrike, we’ll kill all of you.”
The mission appeared to be over. Our 2 helicopters flew back to the Cau Song Be airstrip. The Special Forces major got out of my Huey and walked to my window.
“I can’t ask you to go in without air cover, but I’d appreciate whatever you can do,” the major told me.
“We’ll see what we can do,” I replied. Then I keyed the intercom and said, “Al, you don’t have to go in with us, if you don’t want to.” I knew we would be lucky to pull off an extraction without air cover. There was a good chance we would be wounded or killed.
“I’m staying with you,” Al answered.
“Two gunships will accompany you,” the major said before we headed back to our Hueys.
Lieutenant Al Croteau said, “I remember the major talking to Jack.”
“The way I remember it is when we landed, the major came over to Jack and said, ‘We’ve got this problem,’ and Jack said to me, ‘Should we go?’ And I said, ‘I got to go where you go.’”
The 2 helicopters took off together a second time, heading toward the ambush.
After takeoff, I looked to my left and saw the 2 UH-1C Huey gunships keeping pace with us. Then we began descending. To gain surprise, we flew as low as we could. For most of the flight in, the helicopters’ fuselage was below the tops of the trees and directly over the narrow, dirt road leading to the ambush.
|WO1 Ken Dolan in 1967|
If we had come in high, we would have had to descend above the enemy soldiers. We knew we would be easy targets. If we flew in low, we figured the enemy wouldn’t hear us until it was too late to get off a good shot. Moreover, by flying in low, we would appear to be flying faster and be more difficult to hit.
However, by flying low it was impossible to navigate. We knew the CIDG troops were on the road ahead of us, but so was the enemy. Additionally, we would have to begin decelerating in time to land in the midst of the friendly troops. That would make us easy targets.
Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, flying as my copilot that day, kept his hands and feet near our Huey's controls in case something happened to me during the flight into the landing zone.
When I figured we were near the CIDG troops, I keyed my radio. “When you hear us coming, throw a smoke grenade into the middle of the road,” I told the Special Forces sergeant.
“Roger,” he replied.
About 60 seconds later I saw green smoke rising from the middle of the road. “Tally-ho, green smoke,” I told the advisor over the radio as I pulled up the nose of my helicopter to prepare to land. Tom and Larry were flying closely behind us.
“Negative! Negative!” the advisor shouted back. “Do not land at the green smoke!”
Tom and I shoved the noses of our Hueys down and pulled pitch to regain our airspeed. We flew past the green smoke at about 60 knots. Seconds later I saw a cloud of purple smoke up the road. The Special Forces advisor confirmed this was the color he had thrown.
|Lt. Al Croteau|
Lieutenant Al Croteau said, “When we were coming in, Jack was talking to the ground. I distinctly remember him saying, ‘Pop smoke.’ They set out the smoke. I was listening to the radio, and Jack said, ‘I’ve got green smoke,’ and the advisor came back and said, ‘No, that’s not the right color. That’s not my smoke.’
“I said, ‘I hope Jack gets the right color because, if he doesn’t, we’re going to be landing in the wrong place.’
“The purple smoke wasn’t that far in front of us. We were right on it,” Al said, estimating the helicopter landed 50-60 yards past the green smoke, which had been thrown by the enemy to lure the helicopters into a trap.
Forty-one years later I would learn during a casual conversation with Tom he and Larry had landed at Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp, medically evacuated the 6 CIDG soldiers from the ambush, and then delivered them to the camp hospital in the care of Jim Dopp.
Until that conversation in 2008, I had thought Ken Dolan, Al Croteau and I had landed at Cau Song Be first. After taking the wounded to the hospital, Tom and Larry had flown around the airfield traffic pattern, and landed behind me.
We all would learn we focused on different elements of the mission on the sunny afternoon of May 14, 1967.