Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 46

CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — At the time, each of us saw and heard only a part of the mission.

It was 41 years before I learned Tom Baca and Larry Liss had landed at Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp before me. On the few occasions Tom and I discussed the rescue over the years, he referred several times to landing first. I knew this wasn’t the case. I clearly remembered Tom and Larry landing behind my Huey just before we began the extraction of the CIDG company.

I didn’t consider it important, so I never corrected Tom. Then, one day, I did. We were discussing our upcoming meeting with Richard Max and Bernadette Ross of Windfall Films. Tom again mentioned landing first. Richard and Bernie were about to interview us for the documentary so I thought it important to set the record straight.

“Tom, I clearly remember you landing behind me on the airstrip,” I said.

Driving to site of 1967 extraction 41 years later.
“We landed behind you after dropping off wounded at the camp hospital. Larry and I did a medevac before you arrived,” Tom said.

Clarity exploded in my mind. I recalled something about a medevac, but I had always thought Tom was describing one of the five times we each flew into the landing zone to extract the South Vietnamese CIDG soldiers and U.S. advisors.

A year later in Ho Chi Minh City — the official name given to Saigon after reunification — Al Croteau told me how he had agonized for 42 years about “leaving someone behind.”

“Wait, Al. What are you talking about? We didn’t leave anyone behind,” I told him.

Seated at a café table over lunch, Al described seeing a lone CIDG soldier in a circular firing pit each time we left with our helicopter loaded with his compatriots.

I was stunned. I had never heard this before. How could I have left someone behind? What could I have done to get that last man out? What happened to him after we left that last time?

To Al’s great relief, we would learn several days later Tom and Larry had picked up this lone soldier on their final trip out of the landing zone.

These and other recollections showed me how segmented each of our roles had been during the extraction of the CIDG soldiers. Each crewmember was focused on what he needed to do to survive and get the soldiers to safety. We didn’t allow ourselves the luxury of distraction. Had we done so, our minds might have been overpowered by the battle raging around us.

I remember looking around after our first landing to see how many CIDG soldiers had boarded my Huey. When I saw people being shot in the back of the helicopter I turned back around and began monitoring the instruments. My job was to fly the soldiers out of the battle. I couldn’t risk becoming rattled by the sight of the dead and wounded.


That day — May 14, 1967 — we were able to fly 102 CIDG soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor to safety. Of these, 15 South Vietnamese soldiers and the Special Forces non-commissioned officer were wounded in the battle.

The dead included 2 Special Forces NCOs and 5 CIDG soldiers.

Before the extraction, Tom and Larry airlifted 6 wounded CIDG troops out of the battle on a medical evacuation flight.

Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson, A Team commander at Cau Song Be, reported that during the firefight, 5 or 6 CIDG soldiers who “got separated during a firefight walked back into camp” the next day. He said the CIDG companies averaged 120-125 soldiers.

Over the years, I thought more of the soldiers had been killed. I’m glad the number was lower. We extracted them shortly after the ambush was sprung and the fighting began, which probably contributed to the relatively low number of troops killed in action.


The crews of the 2 helicopters were unique for the mission we ended up flying.

Tom Baca and Larry Liss had never flown together before May 14. The two pilots did not even know each other until that day.

On the other hand, Tom and I knew each other, though we were flying in different units. Furthermore, I had known Tom’s brother before joining the Army.

My copilot, Ken Dolan, had only been flying in Vietnam about a month; I had been in-country 3 months. Tom only had 12 days left on his combat tour on May 14.

Al Croteau was substituting for the regular doorgunner that day, having volunteered the evening before to fly the mission with Ken and me.

Our 2 Hueys arrived at Cau Song Be on different missions. Tom and Larry were flying a Roman Catholic chaplain to various Special Forces camps in the III Corps; Ken, Al and I were carrying the Special Forces paymaster.


I returned to Cau Song Be on November 21, 2010. The Special Forces camp was long gone. It did not survive the war in Southeast Asia. I would never have found the camp’s site had it not been for my Vietnamese guides — one a former Vet Cong soldier and the other a retired North Vietnam Army officer.

Tom Baca had found a map showing Chi Linh — the name given to Cau Song Be to avoid confusing it with the nearby provincial capital of Song Be — on Highway 14, between its junction with Highway 13 and Dong Xoai to the east. Highway 13 runs due north from Ho Chi Minh City. Our map was rough and gave a general location for Chi Linh.

I rode with my guides, Tran Van Thanh and Dinh Ngoc Truc, in a small, sport utility vehicle from Ho Chi Minh City to Chon Thanh, where we turned east on Highway 14. The map showed Chi Linh near the third bridge we would cross. We soon saw not all the Highway 14 bridges were marked on Tom’s map.

Our driver, Nguyen Tuan Nghia, stopped at various points along the highway so Thanh and Truc could ask local residents about a military camp that existed more than 40 years earlier. One resident told of a military cemetery farther down the highway.

We arrived at a large, stone bridge over the Song Be River about 15 kilometers east of Chon Thanh. This looked like the third bridge on our map. After crossing the bridge — or cau — we stopped in the small village of Nha Bich. Thanh, a retired NVA colonel, and Truc, who had served in the Viet Cong, began visiting with people in the village.

Ken, Thanh, Jack and Truc at camp site.
Thanh pointed out a rustic, outdoor restaurant where we could sit and compare notes. He ordered a glass of fresh coconut milk for himself; Ken Fritz, a friend from the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association; and me. Soon Truc and Nghia joined us. A villager had recalled hearing of the military camp many years before.

We got back in the SUV, drove back across the bridge and turned north onto a dirt road. After encountering a dead end, we found another dirt road that went north. We passed a group of men holding flowers at a house being constructed. After driving a short distance past the group, we stopped. Thanh and I walked forward to a short cliff that overlooked the Song be Rubber Plantation. In the distance, I saw a familiar sight: Tall rubber trees in a line reminiscent of the trees that grew along the Cau Song Be airstrip. Could this be the former Special Forces camp?

As Thanh and I walked back to the SUV to visit with the others, I heard a conversation in Vietnamese and laughter. Truc and Ken had stopped to visit with the men at the house being built. Ken climbed aboard one of their motorcycles, gunned the engine, and took off down the road. He returned minutes later in a cloud of dust. The Vietnamese men had not expected the American to ride the motorcycle and they were enjoying the sight.

Ken and Truc told me they would ride several kilometers on Highway 14 with the Vietnamese men to a turnoff to the old military camp. The men had told Truc they had visited the old camp and knew its location. Nghia, Thanh and I followed the motorcyclists. Truc sat on one bike, facing backwards to film Ken riding down the highway.

When the motorcycles stopped, Ken and Truc dismounted to handshakes and laughter, then they boarded the SUV. We turned north onto another dirt road and drove a short distance. To our left was the site of the former Special Forces camp and CIDG base.

A farmer lived nearby. I asked Truc if the man might remember the camp or know someone in the area who did. “He’s a newcomer,” said Truc, who already had visited with him.

I had hoped to find a one of the CIDG soldiers extracted on May 14, 1967. That would not be the case. The camp was a settlement dedicated to war. After the fighting ended, it had no reason to exist and the soldiers stationed there had no reason to stay.

Only rubber trees — standing in formation as they did in 1967 — remain today.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 45

BIEN HOA AIRFIELD, South Vietnam — Daylight was fading fast as I shot my approach to the Birdcage.

By the time I hovered the Huey into a revetment it was dark. All the helicopter’s crewmembers were exhausted. The adrenalin charge we had on takeoff from the Cau Song Be airstrip had disappeared 50 kilometers earlier.

Jack Swickard
The main rotors spooled to a gradual stop after the engine had been shut down. I wanted to look at the blades to see how much damage they had suffered during the 5 extractions. After the crew chief tied down the rotors, I looked up. I couldn’t see anything but shadows. I took a flashlight and ran its beam along the blades. I didn’t see anything unusual.

If there were damage, the crew chief would catch it on his inspection later that night. He would get a closer look when he climbed to the helicopter’s roof to wipe down the rotorhead and mast.

Operations told me the company commander wanted to visit with me about the mission. A Jeep had been sent to take Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, my copilot; Lieutenant Al Croteau, my doorgunner for the day; and me to our villa on Cong Ly Street downtown.

Major Howard Hostler, who had taken command of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company the month before, and other pilots in the unit had learned of our mission while flying combat assaults that afternoon. Ken, Al and I had drawn one of the few missions that morning because of a general stand down of U.S. helicopters in the III Corps. While we were performing the extraction, the Thunderbirds had been called into action. Once airborne, the other aircrews could hear us communicating with Warrant Officer Tom Baca and Captain Larry Liss on the Thunderbird radio frequency.

Our calls had piqued Major Hostler’s interest in the extraction, so he wanted to visit. We wasted no time getting back to the villa for my meeting with the commander.

I found him in the Officers Club. “Let’s sit over here,” the major said, motioning toward a table. I described the mission in detail for about an hour. Hostler kept buying me beers and asking questions.

Then I saw a figure moving toward our table with papers in his hand. An operations officer threw the paper on the table in front of me.

“What are those?” Hostler asked.

“Orders relieving Mr. Swickard as an aircraft commander,” the ops officer replied. “You should have seen the condition of his aircraft’s rotor blades … and they weren’t written up.”

Hostler became angry. He ordered the operations officer to return to the airfield and immediately cut orders rescinding the ones he had thrown on the table.

I didn’t hear any more about the mission until a week later, when 5th Special Forces asked me for a narrative about the extraction.

Four months later — in September 1967 — I would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. Each of the other members of my crew would receive the Air Medal with “V” for valor.


Lieutenant Al Croteau recalled, “When we got back to Bien Hoa that night, I didn’t even give it a second thought. I went back to my office. We never even talked about it the next day. We never talked about it at all.

Al Croteau
“I got to see the rotors, of course. I got to see the whole aircraft the next day. That’s when they told me they were going to court-martial you,” Al said.

“This guy ruins 2 rotors, they’re $10,000 apiece, we’re going to court-martial that guy,” Al said he was told by a maintenance officer.

“I think we were so tired, so mentally and physically exhausted, that we didn’t want to talk about it. Then the next day, of course, it’s a new day and you get busy doing something else. I don’t think we thought it was anything special.”

“There were so many stories in Vietnam and people who did similar things that we did, we just never bothered,” Al said.

Ken Dolan

Warrant Officer Ken Dolan said, “I recall having maintenance personnel ‘eyeballs’ on me for a couple of weeks after the mission, but no retribution. I think I went out the next day on a mission or combat assault and didn’t think much more about the 14th until the awards ceremony.”


Warrant Officer Tom Baca would return to the United States 12 days after the extraction. He would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at his next duty station, Fort Wolters, Texas, where he was a helicopter instructor pilot.

Before he departed for home, his commanding officer assembled the detachment’s pilots in formation and told them not to fly combat missions with the unit’s VIP helicopters.

After the formation, Tom told the commander, “If the same mission came up tomorrow, I would fly it.”
Tom Baca

The commanding officer told Tom: “Well, you would, but you are going home.”

Years later Tom said he checked his Officer Efficiency Report written by the commander for the time of the Cau Song Be rescue. Tom said the report was career enhancing and did not mention the May 14 mission. Tom said he never held any negative feelings about his commander and was unaware of the encounter his copilot had with the senior officer.

Tom described the appearance of his helicopter’s main rotor blades after the mission. “There were 20-30 penetrations of each rotor blade along the outer 5 feet. The widest was about 1.5 to 2 inches. They penetrated the blades about one-half to three-quarters of an inch,” he said.


Captain Larry Liss, Tom’s copilot during the mission, reported being strongly taken to task for his role in the mission by the same commanding officer.

Larry said he previously was severely criticized by the commander after rescuing a downed helicopter crew with one of the detachment’s VIP Hueys. Larry said he was threatened with being kicked out of the Army for violating verbal and written orders forbidding the use of a VIP aircraft in combat.
Larry Liss

After returning from the Cau Song Be mission, Larry said the commanding officer became very angry with him and, during a meeting in the commander’s office, he fell over a chair after being pushed. Larry said he then punched the commander. Headquarters staff officers broke up the fracas, Larry said.

He said the detachment commander wanted to prefer charges against him, but the commanding general of II Field Force Vietnam calmed down the situation.

Larry said the general told him, “It was a bad thing that you did, disobeying a direct order. What you guys did was exceptional, extraordinary.”

He later described the appearance of the main rotor blades as looking “like a giant cat had scraped the cover off and underneath was the honeycomb. That aircraft was a mess.”

Like Tom, Larry would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the Cau Song Be mission.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 44

WAR ZONE D, South Vietnam — Tom Baca and Larry Liss used the main rotor blades of their helicopter to chop down through the bamboo and into the battle raging along the narrow road below.

It was their second trip into the battle and the second time they used the Huey’s rotors like a “Weed Whacker” to clear a 20-foot descent to the ground. Twenty minutes earlier they had rescued 6 wounded CIDG soldiers from the road.

Tom and Larry landed three helicopter lengths behind my Huey. Before we had taken off to extract the survivors of the CIDG company, Tom and I agreed my helicopter would fly first, with Tom and Larry following closely in formation. The decision was based on the weapons aboard each Huey. Mine carried two M-60 machine guns, Tom and Larry’s aircraft was equipped for VIP missions and had no mounted weapons. Aside from sidearms carried by the crew, their Huey was unarmed.

Tom and Larry knew what they were getting into as they chopped through the bamboo.

“You don’t have a chance to play it out on the first time in because you don’t know how bad it is. The second time around, you know how bad it is, and then you know the opportunity of continued existence … the odds are shrinking, dramatically,” Larry later would say in a television documentary about the mission. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure the perimeter has to shrink and ultimately you have to be left with no perimeter, and ultimately you have to be left with little or no odds.”

Before taking off from Cau Song Be to begin the extraction of the CIDG company, Tom had considered shutting down his helicopter’s engine to examine the main rotor blades, which were making an unusual, whistling sound. He knew the descent through the bamboo on the medical evacuation flight had damaged the rotors, but he did not know how severely.

“I kind of looked up at the blades and I thought, ‘Do I really want to look at those? I wonder if I really need to shut down the engine and take a look at those?’ But we didn’t have time,” Tom said years later during filming of the documentary.

Documentary cameraman Stuart Dunn attaches a
wireless microphone to Tom Baca in landing zone
41 years later.
After descending to the road on the medical evacuation, Tom recalled “hearing the blades whistling right after we landed.”

He also made certain he centered his helicopter’s tail rotor over the middle of the road. “My margin of error on knocking that tail rotor off was maybe a 15- or 20-degree turn in either direction. It was that narrow. Had we lost that tail rotor, we would have lost the aircraft.”

Tom thought his chance of surviving the rescue was slim.

Larry remembered the look on Tom’s face when he told the Special Forces officer he would attempt the extraction, which Larry described as a “suicide” mission. “Tom had the look of death on his face, like he knew he would die.”

However, Larry said Tom’s facial expression changed within seconds to a look of “commitment to the mission, even though he knew he had only a few days left in country.”

On the ground, the scene was chaotic. Tom and Larry saw CIDG soldiers in the back of their Huey being shot to death. To help the soldiers board quicker, Larry got out of the cockpit and began pushing them into the rear of the helicopter.

Larry said he was concerned he would be shot in the back, “live and become a paraplegic.”

Years later, Larry said, “Coming up on 70 years of age, I had to ask myself where the hell did I ever get the energy and certainty to fly that mission and jump in and out of the helicopter, gathering together the remaining soldiers, so that we could save as many as possible before the NVA got one or all of us.”

The crews of the two helicopters, knowing they had little chance of surviving the extraction, flew their Hueys loaded with survivors back to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp. After carrying 24 CIDG soldiers to safety, they would return to the battle four more times that afternoon.

During filming of the documentary in the landing zone, Tom said he sat behind his helicopter’s controls on the ground, “just waiting to die,” while Larry was outside helping the CIDG soldiers climb aboard and defending the perimeter.

Larry said after the mission his assault rifle was empty, though he did not remember firing any rounds during the medical evacuation and the subsequent 5 flights to extract survivors of the company.

Tom clearly recalled the wives and mothers of the CIDG soldiers waiting at the Cau Song Be airstrip when the two helicopters returned with each load of rescued troops. As the soldiers were lifted from his helicopter, Tom watched the family members searching for loved ones.


After the 2 helicopters extracted the first 24 troops from the landing zone, the aircrews knew they would have to return for the remainder of the survivors.

“During the second evacuation and through the fourth sortie, it was becoming apparent the perimeter at the LZ was becoming untenable,” Tom said. “Due to the friendly troops’ movement, we had to cut through new bamboo to land close to them and remain inside the shrinking perimeter. Conditions were difficult, with enemy forces barely 50 yards from our aircraft.

“Intense, small-arms fire, panicked troops, poor communications, lack of tactical air or artillery support, and continuing damage to the main rotors challenged us on each subsequent return to the LZ,” Tom said. “Each approach to the LZ was more dangerous due to a shrinking perimeter and fewer troops to defend the LZ.”


Two UH-1C helicopter gunships escorted us on the first 2 extractions. As we were carrying our second load of CIDG soldiers back to Cau Song Be, the gunship team leader called me on the radio.

“We have to break off and fly to Tay Ninh to refuel and rearm,” he told me.

Now we would be completely on our own.


Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson, Special Forces A Team commander at Cau Song Be, said, “We totally lost communication between the second and third extraction.”

He said, “The pilots, Baca, Liss, Swickard and Dolan managed to fly 5 or 6 sorties each while extracting our entire CIDG company and 2 U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Each time that they returned, the pilot flying that particular sortie had to again use his rotor blades to make more room to maneuver to get close enough to our remaining forces. The enemy force that our folks encountered that Sunday afternoon was much larger and more determined than any other VC/NVA force we had met on previous missions.

“The pilots and crew members of those two helicopters were extremely brave and demonstrated extraordinary heroism by flying a non-medevac and unarmed helicopter into the midst of an intense firefight that resulted in saving 80 or more lives with no fire support from gunships, artillery or A-IE aircraft support.”

Wally said, “had it not been for the heroic efforts of the helicopter pilots and their crews, the entire team of close to 100 would have been killed or captured and Camp Cau Song Be/Chi Linh, underequipped on that day, would surely have been overrun.”

The A Team commander and camp medic James “Jim” Dopp had flown on the medevac mission with Tom and Larry.

“What we were looking at was a medevac-type operation when there was a hell of a lot more than that going on,” Wally said. “Then, when we started to get some of the wounded back, Dopp stayed back to tend them and then it was in the hands of Jack and Tom. You all were going in and out.

“That particular operation, I was trying to block a lot of it out of my memory. Maybe I did that subconsciously because we’d been so successful on all the other operations up until that time. We got 1 or 2 people wounded, but we’d never had so many people killed, so many people shot up,” Wally said. “Two Americans and 5 Vietnamese were killed and 15 were wounded. It was pretty tough.”


Jim Dopp said, “By the end of May, the 1st Division had moved several battalions into the area adjacent to Cau Song Be. They determined that COSVN (The North Vietnam Army’s Central Office for South Vietnam) had been moved to the other side of the Song Be River during this time, and that the force encountered by the helicopter crews doing the extractions was battalion size or greater.”

Camp medic Jim Dopp in 2008.
Jim would say in the television documentary this force numbered 500-600 soldiers. Wally said the NVA battalion was augmented by about 100 Viet Cong troops, bringing the total number of enemy soldiers to 600-700.

“With the exception of the protracted engagement at the Special Forces Camp Loc Ninh in October 1967, the level of fire was the most intense I encountered during the war. What was most remarkable was the willingness of the helicopter pilots to work in an area with such dense cover, such poor landing conditions and so much concentrated firepower. On other occasions I experienced having pilots decline to even set down in areas far less hostile,” Jim said.

“Later that night I wanted to medevac a CIDG to Saigon. The Vietnamese helicopter slated to do the medevac refused to even fly into our camp that night, based on the earlier reports they had received regarding the intensity of the ground fire. The CIDG died,” Jim said.


Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, my copilot on the mission, years later would hear the same high-pitched sound our helicopter’s main rotor blades made after chopping through the bamboo.

Ken had left active Army duty and joined the Ohio National Guard. “The facility commander wanted to take a flight from where our armory was over to the fairgrounds. We jumped on board and I was flying. About a third of the way there, maybe about half the way there, we were at about 5,000 feet and all of a sudden we got a shudder and a noise. It was like a flashback. It was the same noise I had heard that day at Cau Song Be. He declared an emergency.

“By that time we were almost at the location and we just descended gently and landed at the fairgrounds, shut the engine down, and a big chunk of skin from the blade had come off,” Ken said. “They just flew out some mechanics, put some 100-mile-an-hour tape (duct tape) on it, and said, ‘Fly it back to the armory.’

“I can distinctly remember having the flashback and thinking, ‘Oh shit. I’ve heard that before,’” Ken said.

He remembered the high-pitched noise from the damaged rotor blades was “about the same” during his five flights into the landing zone. “The damage we did was on the first flight in.

“I remember when we flew back that night the back of the aircraft was all blood. There was blood all over the floor in the back,” Ken said.


“On our second sortie into the landing zone, I noticed one soldier manning a circular fire pit. He was dug in the center of a defense position, which appeared to be a pit outlined by a circle of rocks. They looked like rocks, but where he got them, I have no idea. He was within 25 or so feet from where we touched down,” said Lieutenant Al Croteau, who was flying as doorgunner aboard my helicopter.

Al Croteau with Dinh Ngoc Truc, a former Viet
Cong soldier, near landing zone in 2008.
“The individual was returning fire with what looked like an M-1 carbine. It was impressive because he seemed not to notice us, having full concentration on what he was doing. Each time the ship returned, he was still there. He seemed to be in a movie.

“The last trip in finally came. On our approach, I noticed he was still there defending his position. We landed and I loaded the ship to the max, hoping you would be able to lift off. I guess in the moment of high stress and fear I had forgotten Tom’s ship had followed us in. As the ship struggled to get airborne, I glanced back and saw this lone man still defending his position,” Al said.

“My mind yelled out, ‘Oh my God, we left him behind to his death.’ Through the years, I often relived that event, thinking of the one, brave soldier who, by his action, may have saved our lives.

“When we returned to Vietnam to relive the battle, his memory was very much alive.
It was only when Tom spoke of the last extraction and of Larry holding that man against the ship’s outer hull that I asked if anyone had seen that brave soldier. Larry spoke these words: ‘No one alive was left behind. We got them all.’

“I could never put into words the affect those words had on me. For over 40 years, I regretted leaving someone to die. To this day, I still think of that one, brave comrade and how he was willing to give up his life for us. The U.S. Army should award him the Medal of Honor. I have. If there is an afterlife, maybe I can find him,” Al said.


Larry Liss remembered, “clearly seeing the Vietnamese soldier Al was focused on.”

He said the soldier “wound up being the last or second to last to board” the helicopter he and Tom Baca were flying. “He was one of the guys I was holding on to. It could be that Al was distracted with his own loading and didn’t see the guy finally make a run for it.”

On the last flight out of the landing zone, the helicopter flown by Tom and Larry struggled to get airborne, overloaded with the last 18 living soldiers in the landing zone and the Huey’s crew of 4.

A normal, maximum load for UH-1D Huey like those in the Cau Song Be mission was 12 Vietnamese soldiers and a crew of 4.


After the 2 helicopters had brought all the survivors back to Cau Song Be, the crews quickly took off for Bien Hoa Airfield. On the flight home, the Hueys bounced, their main rotor blades screeching.

Tom was concerned about his fuel level, but figured he had enough to return to Bien Hoa. He was right. During engine shutdown, the low fuel warning light lit up the dash of his Huey. The light comes on when there is enough fuel for 20 minutes of flight.

As the adrenalin began to wear off, the crews of the helicopters began to sag from exhaustion.