A Vietnam Retrospective
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On Saturday, February 20th, we were all flying in and out of Khe Sanh. I logged 6 hours of
combat assaults (ARVN troop movements) and almost continuous dustoff cover. By this time,
there were all these little firebases dotted north and south of and extending west along
QL-9 from Khe Sanh. The NVA would pick out one and start lobbing shit relentlessly into it,
causing panic and death to the ARVN's within. When the C&C (command and control aircraft)
would start scrambling resources to the embattled victims, the dinks would simultaneously
strike another firebase and surround it with fire.
*Note: The next eighteen photos
are from Fred's slides in Feb 1971, during Lam Son 719, at Khe Sanh. Again, the captions are from Fred's
Above: A view to the north from the flight/slick loading pad
(notice the 5th Mechanized
movement all around the perimeter) The gunship pad can be seen on the other side
(look just above the fuselage of the slick in the foreground).
Grooms (Dolphin 13),
Varner (Dolphin 19), Marshall
(Shark 15), unidentified, and Reaves (Shark 55) discussing what we where "up against" so far. Notice the
seriousness in the faces.
Another group discussion. Grooms (Dolphin 13) is far right.
NVA mortar hole in the PSP (perforated steel planking) plate just underneath the tail boom of the "Surfer," Shark
UH-1C 66-15161. It was a dud and didn't explode.
A mortar round hit just below Shark 161. This one hit just to the left of the 40mm turret.
Amazingly enough, the PSP absorbed blast and the Surfer was untouched!
NVA rockets can rip through the steel planking like cardboard
(notice the unexploded mortar next to the planking)! During this particular barrage,
we (the Shark teams) were forewarned of the attack coming from the west to us. The
NVA were walking the rockets & mortars down the slick pads and towards the
gunship pad. Many aircraft got off the ground and circled Khe Sanh. Some of us didn't
have the opportunity and huddled in a nearby sand bag bunker. One of these such
incidents was audio recorded on reel-to-reel tape.
UH-1C 65-09540 - Shark 540, the "Grim Reaper"
Two Charlie-model Shark teams at the ready (rotors are turning). Left-to-right above:
UH-1C 65-09507 "Battlin' Bitch," UH-1C 65-09540 "Grim Reaper," UH-1C 66-15161 "Surfer," and
64-14170 "Ace of Spades." Of these four, only Shark 540 survived Lam son 719!
An M-551 points to the South. The photo enlarged shows
several fresh NVA mortar and rocket craters.
An AH-1G Cobra gunship that was sling-loaded in... Didn't
look good for any survivors of the aircraft.
Shark 161 lifting off from Khe Sanh for a gun mission in Laos. At this time all Charlie gunship
support pads were in the red dirt (as opposed to PSP) and created a dust bowl (not good for helicopter engines). You can notice
that in many these photos the cargo doors are closed to reduce the dust inside the helicopter (NOT the normal daytime procedure for a gunship).
Shark 540 and several other Sharks preparing to depart the dust bowl at Khe Sanh.
(Left-to-right) Shark crew members Tom Taggart, Bill Wilder, Cliff Stepp, and Yogi Reaves "teeter tottering" on a piece of bent PSP.
That's Tom Taggart underneath Shark 540, catching a rare snooze.
Both photos above show the red dust bowl. It seems like we were either cold, and
socked in by fog, or we had to deal with heat and the dirt dust.
A truck delivering road tar on the dirt pads.
A huge gathering of everything flyable (it seems like) to make extractions of the ARVN in Laos.
Whenever the dustoff's would land at these LZ's to pick up the wounded, it was a physical
battle for their crews just to get to the wounded and then have to fight off the panicked
deserters who were trying to escape the siege and force themselves on the helicopters.
They'd rush the aircraft, desperately trying to get in or grab onto the skids. The pilots
would have to lift off, and we'd watch in horror as these poor souls would fall from the
skids, often hundreds of feet into the rugged terrain below, to their certain deaths.
It would become common for these aircraft to grease the skids so they couldn't get an
initial hand hold.
During the course of this day, WO Mike Phillips (pictured left) was doing a re-supply of an LZ just west
of LZ Scotch when mortars hit all around him as he was about to lift off. He got that
aircraft back to Quang Tri with almost 100 holes in it, yet not one injury to either a
crewmember or the packs.------------------------
That night I had contact with WO Howard Modjeski who told me that dustoff pilot WO
John Rauen crashed at Khe Sanh. He'd been trying to land his crippled aircraft.
All were killed and it took hours to remove the debris from the active runway.
John was another of our flight school classmates. I would find out years later that
his co-pilot was John Souther. John and I went through Cub Scouts, Weblos and Boy Scouts
together. He had lived about 1/2 a mile from my house and we'd gone to all the same schools. He and Pete Goodnight both had lived on Montague Street, in Pacoima, CA.
Another portion of this phenomenal operation that really likened it to living in hell was the fact that, as the ARVN moved westbound into Laos, they set fires to clear LZ's. They set fire to everything. The smoke blew back to the east with the prevailing winds and gave the entire sky the appearance of a reddish brown steel town, or Los Angeles on the worst of smog days. The smell of burning and smoke was a condition that could not be escaped in the air or while on the ground. Everyone just simply had to adapt. I'd never witnessed anything like it, before or since and care not to.
There was more of a health risk here than just getting shot at. It reflected in the moods of all the crews and I recall pulling horrendous objects (things) from out my nose that looked like they'd been pulled from a clogged shower drain. The terror and fear were not limited to flights over the fence. In haste, aircraft were colliding (or locking horns) with each other at re-fueling points and re-arms and totally self-destructing before they hit the ground.
On Sunday February 21st, we were back out at Khe Sanh flying "hot" dustoff covers throughout the early part of the day. I was flying with Gary Harter with a crew of Bill Wilder and Pat Wade in Shark 470. Gary had been a gunship aircraft commander with the "Thunderchickens" down south, before coming to our unit. He was an extremely knowledgeable and confident pilot to fly with. We were from the same part of the country and communicated better than a lot of teams.
We were Bruce Marshall's wingman this day, who had a crew of Captain Jimmy Souders, CE Bert Adams and gunner Bob Jansen. Adams was a black man and had been a third string running back for the Chicago Bears. He was one of the most imposing looking guys I had ever encountered. When he left football, he entered the Army and ended up flying with us. Bruce and Jim were flying 161, the Surfer, and we'd flown a couple of dustoff covers, not far out from Khe Sanh.
In the early afternoon we got a mission to contact "Dust Off 13" and escort him about ten miles south of the Escarpment, to pick up some wounded. As opposed to the previous weeks with weather of rain and fog, this day was dry and hot. Upon contacting Dust Off, I recognized the New Jersey accent as that of WO Howard "Mo" Modjeski. Mo and I had not only been classmates, but had been in the same flight. I'd had contact with him the night before when he filled me in on John Rauen's fatal crash.
With the heat and the altitude, we experienced difficulty in keeping up with the empty H-model. I was in the left seat on the flex system as Gary followed Bruce and Souders. We were about 150 yards behind him when suddenly it appears like their aircraft lifts about ten feet and turns slightly to the right. Simultaneously, glittering metal fragments, like chafe, go blasting up through their rotors appearing like a trail of aluminum confetti.
We heard Bruce scream that he was taking fire and he'd been hit. I could see the aircraft go out of and back into trim as Jim obviously got on the controls. He navigated about 45 degrees to the west to evade the continuous fire. As they turned, Gary immediately started punching off rockets to suppress the dink guns. As he'd finish shooting, I was spraying the entire area with the mini guns. After the three second bursts, I kept reactivating the guns but this killed his ability to put down the rockets. He starts yelling at me and I finally realize I got to give it a break so we can put down maximum ordinance.
Anyway, we lit the area up pretty good and continued behind Marshall's aircraft for almost a half a mile, when Souders tells us he's got to put it down because everything's starting to freeze up. He's gliding along at maybe thirty knots and only ten feet above the brush and bamboo. He slows it to a hover and lets it settle through the brush below. As he does, brush and bamboo comes flying off the blade tips as he cuts his own LZ. Once he's down, we did some figure eight's and shot up everything around him.
When he first got shot up, the last thing we saw of Mo was that he was south bound and outta sight. It wasn't long before we had expended the rockets and the entire mini gun. Just about thirty meters south of the Surfer was a pretty large bomb crater. We made an immediate decision to try and get the crew out as we had apparently lost contact with the dust off. Gary did an approach to the crater but had to hold it at a hover as the walls of the hole were too steep and the brush and bamboo were all ready at the level of the rotor head. With Gary on the controls, Wade was still almost twenty feet off the ground (to the bottom of the crater).
Wilder and I were right at the edge of the crater, so we baled out to attempt to locate the crew. Once out, we both headed to the rear of the aircraft where we thought the Surfer lay. I guess we got about six feet into that brush before we realized we physically couldn't get through the shit, even on our hands and knees. It was so thick that not only could we not move through it, we couldn't even see the Surfer, or even be sure we were going in the right direction.
The other after thought was that, if we could get through the underbrush, what would prevent Adams and Jansen from wasting us with their 60's, thinking we were bad guys coming up on them.
My heart sank as I realized I was completely ill equipped to rescue my buddies. We returned to our ship. Once in, Gary told me he'd re-established contact with Mo and he was homing in on our location. It was at this point that we both realized what a pig our aircraft was. Gary had been balancing our ship at a hover for nearly five minutes but even expended, he couldn't lift it over the eye level brush. It was at this point we jettisoned the empty rocket tubes and then tried to punch off the mini guns too. The guns fell from the aircraft, but the ammo chutes were still attached. They just sort of dangled there from the skids. Our only recourse was to await Mo's arrival and burn off some fuel. It was times like these that you could almost blind yourself with the salted sweat from your forehead. It wasn't long before Gary PT'd our ship out of the crater and we again became airborne.
End of Part 15 of 20 Parts.
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