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.
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.|
“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 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.