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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.