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.