Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 43

WAR ZONE D, South Vietnam — Our 2 Hueys stopped at a high hover over the bamboo growing along the narrow road.

Smaller branches leaned over the road. Purple smoke was drifting up from the ground, swirling when caught in the rotor wash. This was where we would begin extracting the surviving CIDG troops and their U.S. Special Forces advisors.

Smoke from canisters mark runway in vicinity
of ambush in War Zone D in 1967.
The soldiers had walked into an ambush sprung by a battalion of the 273rd North Vietnam Army Regiment and Viet Cong guerrillas fighting alongside. The enemy force numbered 600-700 soldiers.

Below our Hueys, the fighting raged. Now it was time to land.

I knew we would have to cut our way to the ground. I had nicked leaves with my helicopter’s main rotor blades on previous missions. The rotor blades had a steel leading edge to protect the aluminum body of the blade from debris during normal landings.

I weighed the odds of success, and then contrasted them with what would happen to the soldiers on the ground if we left them behind in the ambush. We had to attempt the rescue.

I held the helicopter as still as I could in a hover 20 feet above the bamboo. Slowly I lowered the collective pitch lever and began the descent. With the foot pedals, I kept the tailboom and the tail rotor at its end centered on the road. If we lost the tail rotor, we would spin out of control.

As the main rotors hit the leaves, I could hear a “tick, tick, tick.” I had heard this before. So far, I wasn’t worried about serious damage to the rotors.

The noise soon would change as the rotors began cutting past the leaves and hammering into the stalk of the bamboo.


Warrant Officer Ken Dolan, flying as my copilot that day, recalled thinking: “He’s not going to use the rotors as a mower, is he?”

“I was a relatively new pilot at the time, about 2 months. I vividly remember using the blades of the Huey as a mower to chop down bamboo to get to the road where the wounded and dead were staged, which didn’t seem like a particularly good idea at the time,” Ken said.

“The noise was almost like a high-pitched whine. It was a singing noise. I knew we had done damage, I just didn’t know what the extent was.” Ken said he also could hear a whistling through the rotor blades as they spun.


During the descent, Lieutenant Al Croteau said, “I just looked down and said, ‘Where are we going to go here? There’s no road, there’s nothing. I could see the people running around. I asked myself, ‘What’s he going to do here? There’s no place to land.’”

Al said he knew the aircraft was going to land. He added that his only fear was “Once we loaded, we weren’t going to get out. That we were going to get out, but then we were going to crash.”

Al was seated behind an M-60 machine gun in the rear of my helicopter, “on the right side of the aircraft, on the copilot’s side.”

As the Huey chopped its way to the ground, it sounded like a whirlwind,” Al said.

“It was an absolutely devastating noise. It was almost like a tornado type of noise. My mind was just picturing those rotor blades. I thought, ‘He’s just destroying this aircraft.’ It was horrifying. The noise was tremendous. And the debris was flying everywhere.”

Earlier, during their approach to the landing zone, Al’s M-60 machine gun had jammed.

“As we were coming in, I was returning fire. I could see the flashes. They were firing at us and I was returning fire,” Al said.

After his machine gun had jammed, Al emptied his .45-caliber automatic pistol, firing at the enemy. He later would describe it “as a useless gesture.”

“I said, ‘Jack, the gun’s jammed,’ and Jack said, ‘Well, take pictures.’

It was clear to me the CIDG soldiers were stretched out along both sides of the road. The defense perimeter was no wider than the span of our main rotor blades. I knew we could not fire any of our weapons on the ground without hitting a CIDG soldier.

After the helicopters touched down, the soldiers began rushing toward our cargo doors. I turned around to see how long until we had a full load of soldiers so we could take off.

I could see Al helping the soldiers board our helicopter. The troops already on board were reaching out to their comrades as they, too, climbed aboard our Huey.

Then I saw soldiers begin to collapse onto the floor of the helicopter in pools of blood. More began to drop onto the floor. The enemy was shooting the soldiers after they had boarded our chopper.

To make room for the living, the CIDG troops began throwing the bodies of the dead out both cargo doors. No one was safe in the helicopter.

I turned around in my seat and began reading the instruments on the dash, waiting for Tom Baca to tell me his helicopter was fully loaded so we could depart for Cau Song Be.

I made a conscious effort not to watch the soldiers in the rear of the helicopter. I tried to tune out the killing in the rear so I wouldn’t panic and lose my wits. The takeoff would require considerable finesse.

Ken Dolan and I had ceramic armor protecting our upper bodies on both sides. The enemy had a clear shot at us front on, and our heads were exposed above the armor. The shots raking through the helicopter’s open cargo doors were from the side.

I knew the enemy marksmen soon would get off a successful headshot. I waited for the shot.

Carbine Al Croteau took off dead soldier.
In the rear of our Huey, Al remembered “the dead bodies piling up. One guy had lost his head while boarding the helicopter. I grabbed his carbine, wiped his brains off of it, and put it next to me.”

Al said to himself, “We’re going to crash. We are overloaded.”

“I actually can picture it in my mind. I said, ‘We’re going to come out, we’re going to turn, and when we make that turn, we’re going to go down.’ I knew when we made the turn we were going to lose lift. I said, ‘That’s when we’re going to crash. We’re going to go down, and all I’ve got is this goddamned carbine.’ And I said, ‘I really don’t have any combat training,’” Al recalled.

“As long as we’re in the airplane, Jack’s in command, but the minute we hit the ground, I am in command,” Al remembered thinking. “We don’t really want to do this, but we’re going to crash.”

Tom came over the radio. “We’re up,” which meant his helicopter was loaded and ready to take off from the battlefield.

Al and Jack knew their helicopter was overweight as it hovered back up through the hole the rotors had cut in the bamboo on the descent.

Al said he “had counted the CIDG soldiers on board the Huey. I knew we were overweight. I said, ‘We’re overloaded.’ I knew we weren’t getting a running start. I had flown enough to know what was supposed to happen. I knew we were not going to make it. But we did.”


Overhead Al said he “saw the jets coming in. It was a pretty sight, they came in, they did a run, but they didn’t let go of any ordnance, of course. Then they winged off. All they did was a show. They came in low.”

The 2 UH-1C Huey gunships flew over the battlefield. Like the Air Force jets, they could not fire on the enemy without hitting the CIDG soldiers and their Special Forces advisors.


On the ground, Al remained busy with the Vietnamese soldiers. It never occurred to him he would be hit by enemy gunfire. “I never had a fear of being hit, only the fear of crashing,” he said.

“What I was doing was almost mechanical,” Al remembered. “There wasn’t much thought. Get the people in, get back in the aircraft, and tell Jack we were all set to go.”

Al recalled when he was younger he wondered how he would react in combat. “I wondered what would happen; would I go into shock and not perform?”

“It was like running a fast film. I didn’t have time to think about it,” Al said.

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