From the book "Into Laos," Chapter 13: Victory provides some background information about the renewed offensive operations. Briefly, the ARVNs had decided to renew their offensive with the objective to reach Tchepone with their armored and air assaulted forces and then to start withdrawing. The plan called for assaulting three new LZs named after movie stars (Gina Lolabrigda--LOLO, Sophia Loren--SOPHIA, and Elizabeth Taylor--LIZ) on the southern escarpment, and then one more (HOPE) near Tchepone. The plan also called for using infantry from the 1st ARVN (Army of [South] Vietnam) Div., already in Laos, to conduct these assaults and to replace these troops with elements from the South Vietnamese Marine Corps Division. One brigade is inserted near FB (Fire Base) HOTEL, and another around FB DELTA. Additionally the 2d Regt., 1st ARVN Inf. Div. with five battalions was made available from eastern Quang Tri because the American 3d Bde., 101st Abn., and the 11th Bde., 23 Inf., replaced them in their OA (Operational Area). Depending on your point of view, there would be three or eight assaults into LOLO.
The first assault was scheduled as a 40-ship assault for 1000 hours. The 223rd CAB provided the leadership for the assault with LTC Kirklighter, the Bn, CO (Commanding Officer), and MAJ Klose, the Bn S-3 (Operations Officer), flying in the same ship as AMC. The 71st AHC (Assault Helicopter Company), from the 14th CAB (Combat Aviation Battalion), was the lead company. As best we know it, the 71st AHC chalks (a “chalk” is an aircraft position within a formation) were: CPT Dan Grigsby, lead; WO Gary Arne, Chalk 2, WO Doug Womack, Chalk 3; Jesse Dize, Chalk ?; LT. Kerry McMahon, Chalk ?, and WO Ed Albrick, Chalk ?. Next came the A/101st AHB (Assault Helicopter Battalion) Comancheros. MAJ Bob Clewell and CPT Peter Federovich, Chalk 11; WO Robert Morris, Chalk 17; WO John Gale and CPT Gerald Crews, Chalk 18; and Steve Diehl, Chalk 19. Next came five ships from B/158. The only B/158 AC (Aircraft Commander) currently known was WO Manuel Catzoela. The remaining 15 ships planned for the initial assault are not currently known. The PZ (Pickup Zone) is still marked on Dan Grigsby's map at XD607317, to the northeast of LZ DELTA.
The 71st AHC's OPERATIONAL REPORT LESSONS LEARNED (ORLL) reported the lose of helicopter #67-17269 to numerous hits with all major components incapacitated by intense fire at 30 feet and 10 knots, and #69-15358 also took an insurmountable amount of hits, incapacitating all components of the aircraft. Both aircraft crashed and were not recovered. Also at 30 feet and 10 knots, #68-16426 took 3 hits in the fuel compartment and #68-16383 took 6 hits, that struck his transmission, while attempting to land.
I was a Rattler Platoon Leader at that time and most of the way through my second tour in Vietnam, all with AHCs. The tactical briefing for the CA into LOLO was conducted by the 101st Div. at Khe Sanh. I believe the briefing was for all ACs involved in the assault. I also believe that a Brigadier General from the 101st was either in attendance or gave part of the briefing (BG Sidney Berry).
The briefing officer noted that LOLO was to be an LZ on the escarpment south of QL9 (highway-9, a dirt road) at XD432372, and once secured would be built into an FSB (Fire Support Base). The ARVN troops for the assault were already in Laos and the PZ was at XD607317. The briefing officer stated that the LZ would be single ship and that the lead ship would be picked up by the AMC a mile or so from the LZ to receive final directions to the LZ.
I listened very carefully to this because the Rattlers would be the lead flight and I figured I'd be leading the company. Someone asked a question about gun cover and the briefing officer stated that there would be none... the LZ had been Arc-Lighted (meaning it had received a B-52 bomb strike) the night before so there should be no problem. On the morning of the 3rd, as best as I can recall, we left Khe Sanh in a very loose trail formation, but after crossing the fence (the border), we went down on the deck (tree-top level).
My co-pilot was a major from battalion headquarters because our company had a pilot shortage. This was his second tour in Vietnam--his first was in a fixed wing. This was early in his second tour and his first CA (combat assault). I asked him if he thought he could navigate to the PZ, low level, and he said yes. As I flew low level toward the PZ, he followed on the map. I can only thank whoever the Rattler was behind me who came on the radio and said, "Lead, the PZ is at nine o'clock."
The pick up must have been uneventful because I don't remember it. After leaving the PZ the flight formed up with about thirty second separation in loose trail as we headed toward LOLO. I made contact with the AMC (Air Mission Commander), RED OAK DRAGON 20. I'll never forget that call sign. He said he would pick us up and direct us in. About a mile out and after some confusion, we finally made eye contact with one another and he headed for the LZ. He was at a much higher altitude than we were and made a high pass over the intended LZ. He either threw out a smoke, described the LZ, or gave me headings to the LZ. Or all three.
At any rate, I identified where the LZ was and headed on in. As we got within about 150 to 200 yards of the LZ, my door gunners (one was Bob Vandenbos) went hot and we started taking fire. I'm not sure if this is the exact sequence by my recollection is that everyone quickly understood this was going to be trouble, and I was impressed they didn't need to be told to start shooting. It may be what they saw on the ground. At any rate, as we approached the LZ the fire became more intense.
I was coming in fairly hot and flared, looking for a touchdown spot. The LZ was lousy under the very best of conditions and under fire it was terrible. I picked a spot, brought the aircraft to a hover, and when the troops were off grabbed a bunch of collective to get the hell out of there.
A lot of things happened in those few seconds that are forever burned in my mind. Out of my peripheral vision I saw muzzle flashes to the front, left, and right. I noticed NVA (North Vietnamese Army soldiers) running in a crouch to the left-front of the aircraft. I also noticed my co-pilot's head bobbing and weaving as if he were dodging bullets.
I glanced at the instruments--without really seeing anything--and pulled pitch. I don't see any way the ARVN who got off my ship ever made it to the trees. As I was pulling out, I called RED OAK DRAGON 20 and told him (I may very well have screamed it) that the LZ was surrounded, we were taking heavy fire, the LZ was for $@, and that we needed to move the LZ or cancel the assault--or words to that effect. His response was, "Negative, Negative.” ---- or words to that effect.
It didn't take long for all hell to break loose. I took off to the left, cleared the trees and stayed on the deck until we were out of the area. I climbed to altitude and headed back toward the PZ. I tried to light a cigarette by keeping the cyclic between my knees but my hands were shaking so bad that I couldn't. I asked the co-pilot to take the controls.
After I finally lit the cigarette, I took back the controls and started to decelerate our airspeed. When I pulled back on the cyclic, it wouldn't move. I told the co-pilot there was something binding the cyclic. He looked down and said there wasn't. I thought to myself, "Christ, what now?" I looked in the back and saw some blood stained bullet holes in the floor. I was petrified. I was sure a push-pull tube had been shot through and that we could lose it at any moment. I headed for Khe Sanh. Since I couldn't reduce the airspeed below 90 knots, I decided to shoot a running landing at Khe Sanh.
I recall when reporting a mile final for a straight in, the tower acknowledge, "Roger 26, you'll be emergency number three following the aircraft burning on short final." When I got to a quarter mile, another aircraft declared a very frantic emergency and I told the tower I could probably put the aircraft on the ground next to the runway. This was an incredibly stupid idea coming in at 90 knots and the tower acknowledged it by stating, "&*%$# 26, put the &*%$# thing on the &*%$# runway! That's what it's there for! We'll get you off!" Sure enough, before the blades came to a stop, they'd slung a chain around the cross tubes and jerked the Huey off the runway with a tug. I was impressed.
After we shut it down and opened up the panels, we found that a round had come through the transmission fire wall and a piece of shrapnel had lodged in a bell crank. This caused the cyclic binding. I went and found our company's maintenance aircraft and continued flying sorties, because I logged nine hours that day.
During the briefing the night before at Khe Sanh, I remember this colonel telling us that this was a secure LZ, a piece of cake mission. There was a general in the briefing as well. We were also told there would be no gun cover for the insert because it was a secure LZ. Several crews even talked about not wearing chicken plates. We hadn't flown in Laos before, so we didn't know any better.
I decided that we would wear our plates and we'd be prepared for the worst. I'm alive today because of the chicken plate. I flew Chalk 2 with a captain from our company named Jones, I think. He had been with us for 10 months. He was from the other platoon; a nice guy. He had no desire to be an aircraft commander but he was a good pilot.
I agree with Dan, we picked up the ARVNs in Laos and formed up the flight. We stayed low-level most of the time. I remember making two false inserts. I think the first few ships were involved in these. Then we got down to the real thing. I listened to Dan talk with the C&C (Command and Control helicopter--also called the AMC) until he finally identified the LZ. No smoke to identify a secure LZ. I remember thinking, "That briefing was bogus!"
I told my co-pilot to get on the controls with me in case things got bad. I watched Dan go in but didn't see him take any fire. I was 20 to 30 seconds behind him. Just as he was leaving and starting to talk on the radio, we got real busy! We were about 100 feet up when the windshield explodes and I take three rounds in the chicken plate and three more in the sliding armored plate on my seat. They continue to rake the left side of the Huey.
The crew chief, Johnny Blackburn, yells that he has been hit! Next the tail rotor gets shot out because we start to spin, not fast but we were spinning. I decided that we'd try to fly back to Khe Sanh rather than attempt to land in the LZ without a tail rotor. So I set up to keep flying rather than touch down. Just as we pass over the LZ, the hydraulics go out. I was glad the co-pilot was on the controls with me. We picked up a little airspeed, maybe 40 knots and the tail is starting to streamline some when the engine quits. With only jungle to the front, we give it hard left cyclic to try to get back near the LZ. We were coming in about 45 degrees to the LZ and were getting low, maybe 10 feet or so, when the transmission seized. We fell the rest of the way and the ship crashed on its side. The co-pilot and I climbed out through the back.
I expected to see a few ARVN in the ship someplace but there were none, and that surprised me. The (door) gunner joined us behind a log. We counted noses, then I went back and got the crew chief. We dressed his leg wound. He had been hit below the left knee. We could see NVA running off the LZ in all directions. We couldn't see any ARVN but we were some distance from where they were going in. We only had one weapon, the 38 (pistol) the co-pilot was carrying. I left the shotgun I carried in the ship.
Not long after that an NVA started running from the LZ and literally jumped over our log. He had an AK and the co-pilot started shooting at him with the 38. I grabbed his arm and said "What are you doing?" "Trying to kill the sucker. Isn't that what we are supposed to do?" "Don't attract any attention--he has an AK and can kill us all in a minute!"
We stayed behind the log for about an hour, then started moving up toward the LZ. We got part way and stayed behind another log for another hour. The ARVN threw a lot of grenades as they expanded their perimeter. One went off about 10 feet from us but didn't hurt us.
After the third hour we saw these Vietnamese waving at us to come up to them. We couldn't tell if they were ARVN or NVA, but we went anyway because we couldn't have gotten away. I remember there was an American captain (CPT Jerry Crews, A/101 AHB) using a radio to call in artillery and doing a WONDERFUL JOB! He knew what he was doing on the ground but we didn't. He must have been part of the crew of another ship that was shot down. He and this ARVN major argued a lot. That Army captain was a hero in my book.
It was unbelievably hot on the ground and we didn't have any water. When I removed my chicken plate, there were the three armored bullets just sticking through the back side. I was one lucky soul! I later learned that another ship from our company had been shot down after us but the crew was picked up soon. There was plenty of war on the LZ. AK (Communist automatic assault rifle) and 51 cal. fire went over our heads constantly. The LZ was being mortared. You didn't want to be on the LZ itself, just on the periphery.
I watched a Huey come into the LZ on fire. They landed fine and everyone got out but the co-pilot forgot to duck. He was hit in the head by the (still turning) blade and died. I had the unpleasant task of retrieving his dog tags.
I watched several medevac ships come and go. They were doing a good job. Finally, it was our turn. I helped my crew chief onto the ship and jumped on myself. We hadn't been in the air long when the pilot turned and said someone from my company wanted to talk to me on the radio. I borrowed a helmet and told him this was RATTLER 25, this is the story about us, and this is where they need air strikes on LOLO.
When I got back to camp, they had already rolled up my bedroll and tagged my stuff to be shipped out. I guess one of the DUSTOFF ships had relayed information that we couldn't have survived that crash. The next morning I went to the hospital and ended up sleeping for three days.
I was the AC in Chalk 3 that morning flying my usual ship, #68-16383. My platoon leader, CPT Dan Grigsby, normally Rattler 26, but for the operation we used the call sign “Benign Fires”, was lead in #68-16426. WO1 Gary Arne was the AC in Chalk 2 flying #67-17269. I don't recall the order or the names of the others in the flight, but I know that LT Kerry McMahon and WO1 Ed Albrick were some place behind me.
What the official records don't mention is that there were at least three major screw-ups before we even got our first ships near the LZ.
First, the LZ had been blown by a Daisy Cutter (a several-thousand-pound bomb that explodes just above the ground, leveling everything within a radius of many meters) and prepped the day before; so the NVA had one evening, one night, and part of this morning to prepare their defenses. These included not only anti-aircraft weapons but also spider holes (small single-person holes dug to offer protection for enemy soldiers) actually on the LZ!
Second, we saw no prep (artillery or gunship “preparation”) that morning. When we arrived, the only smoke coming from the area was a marker thrown from the Battalion C&C bird.
Third, we had no gun cover.
By way of background information, I'd like to mention two other points. First, while the 71st had been at Quang Tri since the second week of February, principally it had supported Dewey Canyon II, especially the 1/5th Mech. We spent little time in Laos prior to this time. We were involved in the efforts to extract LZs 30 and 31 as I mentioned earlier, but most of our support across the border in February went to the USMC ARVN Marine advisor, MAJ Fred Tolleson, for numerous VRs (visual recons). This was because the 14th CAB had been assigned responsibility for air support of the ARVN Marines.
Second, prior to our assignment to support Dewey Canyon II, and unknown to us, the 71st was slated to stand down (meaning the unit was being deactivated). As a result, we received few replacements and we were especially short pilots and maintenance specialists.
On the 3rd, some of the right seats (co-pilots) were occupied by rear echelon pilots from the 14th CAB for the day. I take considerable exception to “Into Laos” page 261, second paragraph, where he talks about Cobras firing and then maintaining a scouting orbit while the first slicks landed, and how the first few Hueys went in and out without difficulty.
That morning the 174th had been flying resupply missions to the eastern ARVN FSBs in Laos. There was a "general recall" and we assembled into a flight of ten for a CA into LOLO. I believe the other 174th ACs were CPT Bishop, LT Wayne Mullally, LT Miller, CPT Charles Johnson, WO Guy "Cowboy" Martin and WO Neal "Duke" Varner. We were briefed about the aircraft losses from earlier in the morning and went to the PZ.
I remember the PZ was cold, but the flight from the PZ to LOLO was utter chaos! I was Chalk 8, but I believe I ended up being the first 174th aircraft to land on LOLO. Chalk 4 was CPT Bishop. I heard him ask for a smoke on the LZ and soon he said, "I've got Mellow Yellow," then his aircraft, #68-15639, was shot down.
They were landing to a smoke in an LZ between DELTA and LOLO, thrown by the NVA who were obviously monitoring the radio. Their gunner, CPL Gary T. Padilla, died on his gun. The crew chief, Rhodes, survived the landing of the burning aircraft and stayed with Bishop. The co-pilot, LT Carl Flemer, got out of the aircraft and E&E'd (escaped-and-evaded on foot) all the way back to an ARVN FSB near the border.
LT Mullally was the AC of Chalk 5 behind Bishop. I don't know if he made it to LOLO or not. When we got to LOLO, I remember RED DRAGON 09 telling us to "land to the burning aircraft." (Editor's note: This could have been John Gale's Comanchero or Will Fortenberry's Rattler ship.) I also remember a 51 cal. firing at us from what looked like the LZ itself. We took heavy fire all the way in.
We called the AMC when we were about four minutes out and told him of our intentions. It was then we learned about the 174th AHC's assault, so we joined it. As we flew towards LOLO, we passed an area that was about 1600 meters long and 800 meters wide. It must have contained a well organized NVA force, maybe a full battalion, because it erupted with small arms fire as I have never seen in my entire life!
The Cobras pulled up and put themselves between us and this rectangle of fire. I was impressed that they would do that--draw the fire away from us. Finally about 3 or 4Ks (kilometers) from LOLO we were just receiving normal small arms fire, and that actually felt better! I was flying with WO Wallace, an extremely good Comanchero AC, as the first ship from our "reorganized assault".
After the ARVN got out (one stayed because he received a bad leg wound from the fire we took en route), we hovered over the LZ to see if we could get our people. But we couldn't see them. Things were just too hot and I believe they were still in the trench. It wasn't long after this that one of the Lancer ships was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) in the rear and crashed just in front of the Huey that wasn't burning. (Bob Morris' ship did not burn.)
When they started the assault again, a couple more ships got in. They were from B/158, the Lancers. We watched the troops get off this one, and a second or two after he started to leave the LZ we heard this big WHAM, and he comes crashing to the ground. It might have been an RPG--I don't know.
Anyway, the Huey lands in some soft dirt, not far from our trench, and the front of the Huey sinks in. LT Charles R. Anderson didn't take this into consideration when he got out of the ship and started running toward the trench. He was hit in the head by the main rotor and died on the spot. The AC was WO Manuel Catzoela. Their CE, a tall good looking man, had taken an AK round in the head with no exit wound. (His name might be SP4 Paul Sgambati because he died either that day or the next from injuries he received on the 3rd.) He was not conscious but was still alive.
We took the door off one of the Hueys to make a stretcher for him and tried to help him by putting water on him. I remember thinking that the wound was pretty bad and I didn't believe he would live. John Gale's ship took a few hours to burn completely. During that time I took Super 8 movies with my camera. That assault ended and they put in some F-4s (USAF F-4 Phantom fighters). I remember being in the trench and watching these big black bombs cruise over our heads into the trees. That finally chased the NVA and we didn't have that much trouble after that.
There was a lull in the firing and we actually started walking about some. Tom and I both remember Jones coming back to us all excited because the gunner had just killed an NVA. They were walking around the trench when suddenly they see this NVA walking toward them. Both men stopped, looked and raised their rifles to shoot. The M-16 beat the AK-47.
A little later in the afternoon, we thought that the hill might provide enough of a mask from the NVA that we could get a ship in to get the wounded CE out. Several of us carried him down the hill. I left all my stuff in the trench. It was extremely hot. I was exhausted. We were all just beat, especially working with the wounded man.
A Huey came in but couldn't get low enough to the ground--maybe his tail rotor or main rotor was about to hit something. They were still 5 or 6 feet above us. When we held the door up over our heads so they could pull him in, he fell off and landed on the ground. We felt badly but we were doing our best. Anyway, we put him back on the door and lifted him up a second time. This time the guys in the Huey were able to get him into the ship. We were so happy that they hadn't been shot at and that they had the wounded man on board that we started motioning for them to get the heck out of there. But they motioned for us to climb in.
We looked around to determine who should go--there was only six of us, so we helped each other in. I was too weak to climb in and only had my arms on the skid. He started to take off and they kept yelling "Get in! Get in!" but I just couldn't. Finally, the pilot moved the ship over to a place where I could get my feet on the ground again. With a jump, I got into the Huey. I remember thinking - my camera, flight bag, and helmet were all up in the trench. To heck with it; I need to get out of here!
I believe it was about 4 p.m. when we got back to Khe Sanh. I got the next day off. But a day or two later I started talking about my camera and equipment. One of the guys from my unit had been back to LOLO on a resupply and said that the ARVN who guided the helicopters in was wearing a flight helmet!
I remember another interesting thing about those times. There was this civilian guy who came to the officers' club sometimes after we had been involved in some serious stuff. He had a tape recorder and would interview various guys. Usually a day or two after the action, he would just show up in the evening and ask the first pilot he saw, "Were you involved with such and such?" We'd point out the guy he should talk to and he would start talking with the guy. Not long after LOLO, he interviewed me. I can remember drawing a map of the trench system and other details about the events of the 3rd. We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he left. I think he was under contract with the government to gather this info. He certainly wasn't from the news media. So who knows... maybe if we dig long enough we can find all that stuff. Then we could compare the war stories as we told them then to the ones we are telling now and see which ones we like better!!
CPT Jerry Crews was the co-pilot, SP4 Boop the CE, and SP4 Johnson was the gunner. We took heavy fire going in and caught fire. The ARVN got off and initially we didn't think things were too bad. We landed to the left of the ship that wasn't burning. On the other side of it there was a burning Huey. I got out of the aircraft with just my survival gear and 38 pistol. Realizing that I wanted more fire power, I got an M-16 and one magazine from a severely wounded ARVN.
Jerry Crews was on his second tour. During his first in 1967-68 he was with a Special Forces "A" team at Lang Vei. He was in the vicinity of Lang Vei when it was overrun by (Soviet) PT-76 tanks in Feb 1968, at the beginning of the TET offensive. Now, in the third week of his second tour, he would use his infantry ground combat experience to work.
Jerry realized the ARVN defensive positions were not making the best use of the terrain and fields of fire. He began arranging the defenses by positioning the ARVN into the empty NVA bunkers and trenches on LOLO. The NVA not only were firing on the approaching aircraft, but also were in position to put low grazing fire into the vicinity of the aircraft crews. The deafening roar of weapons firing was unbelievable, the equivalent of all the rifle ranges at Ft Polk (Louisiana) firing at once. It was mostly AK-47 fire, but when aircraft were near we thought we heard 51 cal's. We definitely took cover because of 82mm mortar fire.
There seemed to be no concern by the NVA of having enough ammunition. I watched another Huey go down. The AC was WO Manuel Catzoela, from B/158th, and a WORWAC 70-7 classmate of mine, so we had this impromptu class reunion in the trench in front of these burning Hueys. The co-pilot was a big lieutenant named Charles Anderson.
The crew chief was a tall good looking young man who was hit in the back of the head by an AK round. Although mortally wounded, he did not die on LOLO, but at the Evac hospital in Quang Tri. Anderson's last moments were running from the aircraft. He was hit in the head by the main rotor, during egress, and died on the spot. The ARVN covered the body with ponchos and had great difficulty moving his body, because of his size. Their ship might have been hit by a mortar round, because it was destroyed by fire quicker than the others.
The CAs into LOLO were stopped again. Jerry Crews controlled the airstrikes on the ground by talking to the FAC (Forward Air Controller) using an ARVN PC-25 radio. The F-4's put in a mixed load of cluster bombs and napalm. The Phantoms came in low and close to Lolo, and delivered their ordnance 100-200 meters from us. I remember looking up to see fins deployed from the bombs and how close they were. When the Phantoms made their attack, the NVA did not fire. As the F-4's climbed out in full afterburner, every available NVA AK-47 poured fire into the sky.
The heavy enemy fire stopped for a long time after the F-4's delivered the napalm. I recall that for the first time, we could stand up on LOLO. This place really had a chilling effect on me. This was NOT business as usual. The NVA were not using their usual tactics of firing and hiding. They were staying put and fighting with great confidence. During the lull, I started working with an ARVN major to clear another LZ on the northern tip of LOLO with claymores that were knocking down the trees. I got extremely thirsty and didn't have any water. The ARVN give me a little. Later I had a two-week bout with dysentery that most likely came from this water.
The “1300 assault” did get a few more ARVNs into LOLO, and only had that one ship shot down with an RPG. After our part of the assault, we spent some time looking for the 174th "Mellow Yellow guy" (the lead Dolphin who was shot down) with negative results.
Back at Khe Sanh, we were reinforced by several more Lancers. I remember Jim Lloyd (the CO of the Phoenix) joined us and that was good. We were about 26 ships strong at this point. We each made two sorties that afternoon in what is sometimes called the "1530 assault" without loosing any more aircraft. We took a different approach this time. We avoided that "fire rectangle" I described earlier and basically came down the valley at about 2,500 to 3,000 AGL. Then we just turned left from the road and flew almost straight and level onto LOLO on the crest of the escarpment. This way the NVA to the rear couldn't see us coming. We didn't take that much fire from the northern face of the escarpment.
I was flying with CW2 Michael Victory during this period. After we were released, Mike and I went back into LOLO to get Anderson's body. He was a big man and the ARVN couldn't lift him, so our two guys went and helped get him into our ship. We took him to the Khe Sahn surgical pad.
I remember this sergeant came out with a litter to meet the aircraft. He motioned for two guys to come help him and they took Anderson over to the side. He worked with the ponchos covering him for a few seconds, then he stood up and saluted this dead officer.
That was a very moving sight!
After that I got into another Huey with CPT Peter Federeovich again. We were about to leave for the base camp when we were given this Tac E (Tactical Emergency) mission to go rescue some folks on FSB DELTA 1. We had a hard time finding the place and I remember thinking to heck with this. Then Peter says: "Well, we've come all this way--we might as well go get them."
We didn't have any gun cover and the place had been taking incoming for some time. We ended up picking up Kevin Buckley, the Saigon bureau chief for Newsweek, Rod Ridenhour, a freelance journalist, and Mark Frankland, a Brit with the London Observer. I was upset because we were all tired and I didn't think this mission was necessary at this time, especially since the flight crews had been directed not to take the media into Laos. I understand some VNAF unit had brought them out to the base.
The reporters, however, were delighted to be on an American helicopter heading back to Vietnam. I remember Buckley kept saying. "Who are you guys?" My parting words were, "Just say it was the Comancheros." And that is what appeared in the March 15, 1971 issue of Newsweek with "The Helicopter War" on the cover page.
What really happened was that there was no gun cover and our approach path was parallel to the river and onto the escarpment. Dan Grigsby takes all sorts of fire on the way into the LZ. As was normal for any recently blown LZ, the tree stumps are still sticking up several feet into the air. While he is in the LZ, he takes three hits in the fuel compartment. As he is leaving he takes more hits because he reported having no aft- cyclic control.
Chalk 2 lost his tail rotor and hydraulics to enemy fire as he pulled power to get away. This caused the ship to spin wildly, and we saw the ARVN falling out like rag dolls. I later learned that the guys in the back wrapped mic (microphone) cords around some to keep them from falling out. We watch him spin in.
Dan's making radio calls to the commanders to cancel the CA. At this point I do a 360 (a 360-degree turn) to see what the C&C would say. Dan lifts out of the LZ and there is silence from the commanders, so we can only guess that the assault is still on.
One of the guys behind me calls to ask if I'm going in, I say "Yeah, I'm going in," and start in with a steep approach. I had flown #68-16383 enough that I knew what the systems would do, so I kept my eyes outside the cockpit most of the time. My poor peter pilot (co-pilot) was scared--hell, I was scared! I was so scared that even to this day I can distinctly remember that the time continuum slowed down during that approach. I could literally watch each turn of the rotor blade! The co-pilot tried to talk to me but couldn't, so he ended up pointing a lot. We were building (main rotor blade) RPM like mad at the bottom of the approach. I knew it, and he was pointing it out to me.
We weren't hit on the way in, but took a lot of damage in the LZ itself. The way I know this is because the entry and exit holes were on the same level. I remember the ship rocking in the LZ and I thought it was just the CG changes because of the ARVN jumping off; but it was really bullets hitting hard points. We took one on a skid, one into the frame, one on the gunner's machine gun mount that certainly saved his life, the fuel filler cap had shrapnel all around it, a round passed just to the left of the gunner's head into the transmission, and we later found that one of the main rotor blades had an entry and exit hole two feet apart but the main spar wasn't hurt.
When the troops were out of the ship, I just starting putting the collective under my arm pit until the systems started talking about the strain and my peter pilot was pointing at the torque. As we cleared the trees, nosed over and reduced collective, I looked at the instruments and saw the transmission oil pressure fluctuating wildly. I broke left, using the trees for cover, and headed for Khe Sanh, making a minimum number of power changes. I remember looking back because I could hear the transmission making an unfamiliar sound.
It looked as if the ship was bleeding, the (red) transmission fluid was streaming through the cracks in the inspection panel. That was very gut-wrenching for me because I knew with that sort of damage, I couldn't risk picking up Arne and his crew. I couldn't see him anyway. He had crashed on what was our right side and just on the other side of a small rise. My peter pilot either didn't see that or wasn't looking for him.
I remembered that we had been taught that the transmission will start to come apart when you lowered the collective; so we shouldn't autorotate. Just as I lowered the collective on final, the pressure dropped to zero. I made a power-on landing to the "hook out pad".
Dan Grigsby made a running landing, and soon Ed Albrick came in with damage to his particle separator screens. We took the parts off #68-16383 to fix his ship right away. He had a new-guy peter pilot and this kid was in shock. We literally had to lift him out of his seat and take him to the medics. I flew with Ed in his ship to pick up another sortie.
I remember the next day the maintenance guys just overfilled the transmission in #68- 16383 and flew it back to Quang Tri. That didn't seem too smart to me. You could almost put your fist in the hole in the transmission housing, so the metal from that plus the bullet had to be inside someplace. That ship actually made it back to the States before me. It was repaired and returned to operations, but during a later inspection the bent frame was discovered. We all received impact awards of DFCs (Distinguished Flying Crosses) and Gary Arne received a Silver Star for calling in air strikes before he was extracted.
The 48th left Dong Ha about 6:30 that morning and moved to Ham Ne, right on the border. Only our company and some ARVNs were there, plus a few VNAF aircraft. I had traded in the "Old Dog." That day I was in the left seat of 177. We had just received it from the 189th AHC and it still had 189 painted on its doors. 177 filled in for the "Old Dog" and spared her an ignoble death as a burnt and twisted pile of junk at the bottom of a gully in Laos.
WO1 Semore, the co-pilot, was in the right pilot's seat. SP4 Hickman, the crewchief, was in the right crew/gunner's well. PV2 Taigre (sp?) was the gunner and seated in the left crew/gunner's well. We were flying in our usual flight position of chalk-last.
About 8 a.m. the flight was in route to the PZ, cruising at 4000 feet when Flight Lead report receiving fire. We may have been part of the lift going to LOLO, I am not certain. The flight immediately started doing "S" turns. About 15 seconds later 177 shuttered, bucked upward, staggered to the right, and finally stabilized with a slight nose down attitude.
The crewchief, SP4 Hickman, screamed that we were on fire!
A second later, burning fuel ran under my feet and into the chin-bubble. The cockpit started to fill with smoke. I rammed the collective down, kicked in left pedal, and applied right cyclic. This was a tactic that we used in the mountains for rapid descents through enemy fire when going into valleys or bowl-type LZs.
The aircraft was now falling like a rock in a tight left descending turn. We were about 3200 feet AGL (above-ground-level) and we needed to get down fast. The cockpit was filled with smoke, I could only see out of the door window, breathing was becoming difficult, and I could feel the heat.
In an attempt to get air and clear out the smoke, I tried jettisoning my door. That turned out to be a futile maneuver. The door never left the aircraft. Kicking the aircraft out trim to the left caused the burning fuel to run over to left forward section, my corner, of the aircraft. It was a hot time for me but took the flames away from the rest of the crew. I can assure you, I am not a masochist and I was not trying to be a hero. My only goal was to get to the ground and away from the fire.
We had more troubles than just a fire. It seemed like all the warning and all the caution lights were dimly lit with their light filtered by the smoke. I did some things that I should not have done like telling Semore, turn of the fuel while I shut down the engine. Should have kept it running, crashing power on is better then crashing power off.
This was probably only an academic question anyway. I cannot say for certain what the engine's condition was after we were hit . The last thing on my mind was reading those little engine instructions, the N1 (turbine speed), the EGT (exhause-gas-temperature), and the torque. The big main rotor RPM gage was the only thing that I was concern with and it was difficult to read because of the smoke.
Later, Hickman stated that on the way down he remembered thinking how odd it was to be able to see engine from the crewchief's seat. The two are normally separated by a firewall.
When I tried to roll out of the turn, I had trouble moving the cyclic. It resisted every input with pounding feed back. When I tried to pull up on the collective it would at first resist then break loose, move too far upward, and repeat the process when I tried to push it down. Semore, got on the controls with me and together we were able to gain control of the aircraft.
We were trying to make an LZ that was to the east of us. I seem to remember that it was LZ Brown, but old age has dulled my memory. We crashed a little short--about a half mile short. I can remember looking through the smoke and seeing what I thought was flat ground slopping up toward the LZ.
At what looked to be about 100 feet, we pulled aft cyclic and entered a flare. At what looked to be about 20 feet, we pulled up on the collective as hard as we could. And then surprise, surprise, surprise. As we went through what I thought was zero feet AGL, the LZ disappear behind that flat piece of ground. I was landing us in a gully and had been using its left (north) ridgeline as my visual reference.
The Huey impacted at mid-slop on the left side of the gully. We had zero'ed our airspeed and hit straight down with no forward movement. The left skid hit first and broke off. The aircraft rolled over to the right, shedding its main rotor and tail-boom. The aircraft came to rest on its back with the left side down slope from right side. The left side was now on the right and was at the very bottom of the gully smothered by small trees. The tailboom was broken off and twisted with the tail fin lying to the right and partially under the main fuselage. The main rotor, with its broken blades, was lying to the right and up slope from the up-side-down fuselage.
The flames were gone from cockpit but I could hear their crackle and roar behind me. I was hanging up-side-down in my seatbelt and shoulder harness. I pulled the seat belt release. My body doubled over and my feet fell onto the windshield, but I could not get my upper body separated from the shoulder straps. The left shoulder strap's adjustment mechanism was tangle in my survival vest and the inertial reel was locked. I could not move my upper body.
I was trapped.
My only option was to cut the strap with my knife. It seem to take an eternity to remove the knife from the scabbard, saw through the strap, and return the knife to the scabbard. I have no idea why I bothered to re-sheath the knife. I had the feeling that I was locked-up in a half size phone booth. The cockpit door was still on the aircraft.
The door was either jammed or blocked by the bushes. I kicked out the window. By this time, Semore, who had not had any escape difficulties, had come around the aircraft and helped me through the window. Hickman was standing up-slope from the aircraft. Tiagre (sp?) the gunner, was nowhere to be seen.
The aircraft was burning, with flames shooting from both cargo door openings. The gunners station was in the left well on the same side with the aircraft commander. This area was jammed against the south slop and was totally engulfed in flames.
Against the orders of the AMC, Keith Wyson broke formation and followed us down. He was hovering at the top of the north slop waiting for us.
Noting that there was nothing any of us could do, Hickman, Semore, and I clambered up the slope and crawled into his Huey. We probably owe our lives to Wysong. As I was climbing up the slope, I noticed that Wysong's crewchief was working out with his 60 and that the co-pilot was waving frantically for us to get on board. But in my dazed state, I could not interpret or connect the two actions. Later, Wysong told me that they saw bad guys making their way toward the crash site.
The story does have a happy ending. Tiagre (sp?) the gunner, was not burned up in the crash as we first feared. He was the first one out of the crash. He may have even been thrown from the helicopter when it was rolling down the slope. He had burns and a broken arm. In his dazed and shocked state, he apparently, started running to get away from the burning aircraft and kept running until he collapsed, several hundred meters from the crash. Somehow, a medevac helicopter spotted and retrieved him about two hours later. He was off loaded at the Khe Sahn aid station just as we were leaving.
His rescue made our day. He was medevaced to the states for burn treatment. I saw him once several months later at Fort Lewis. He was doing fine. He had received the proverbial million-dollar wound.
There were several unique things about the shooting down of 177. I know of no other helicopter ever shot down from that high of an altitude. At least not with a crew that lived to tell about it. I know of no other helicopter that had experienced ruptured fuel cells together with burning fuel flowing in the aircraft. Again, at least not with a crew that lived to tell about it.
The crew's injuries were also strange. I was in the left front of the aircraft. I had a minor back bone (coccyx) broken and second and first degree burns. The gunner in the left crew well had broken bones and second and some third degree burns. The crewchief, in the right crew well, had only minor first degree burns and some abrasions. But the co-pilot had no injuries at all and was flying the next day. Finally, I never heard of another helicopter being shot down in route to a PZ. Sort of like being thrown out of the game before entering the stadium.
When I was released from Quang Tri Army Hospital a couple of days later, I found myself to be the blunt of ribbing because of my radio procedures. It seems that my mighty and powerful index finger had squeezed the life out of the cyclic transmit trigger and the whole world knew of my plight and every thing that I said to the crew. I was told that the beginning of my transmission was quite cool, calm and professional and went something like this, "Lead, seven seven. I've taken a hit. Breaking formation for LZ Brown. The chief says we have a fire. GOD DAMN WE'RE ON FIRE." My professional decorum was down hill from that point on with every word out of my month being transmitted.
Our loses had a strange pattern. We had plenty of wounded. I think my Purple Heart was the 33rd (for the unit).
Bob Clewell was the company commander. He and CPT Peter Federeovich flew Chalk 11 (the lead Comanchero) into Lolo with SSG Miguel as the CE and SP4 Glenn Nichol as the gunner.
By the time the Comancheros started loading troops in the PZ, it was getting hot. I remember mortar fire and believe this is what attracted the gunships. By way of background information, Cobras had been in short supply for the last few days. They were parceled out with great care by the controllers. I had spent the night at Khe Sanh and attended the briefing. Most of my company had flown up that morning, so we briefed them just before the mission. After we were loaded, we formed up our own flight and headed east. I believe the Rattlers flew past the LZ during the time they were working with the AMC to identify it. The Rattlers flew a corkscrew approach to the LZ.
Between the time that Chalk 2 crashed, and Chalk 3 started his assault (he really did become the leader of what was the second assault onto LOLO), a set of (Shark) Charlie-Model guns from the 174th made a firing pass over the LZ. I believe during their second firing pass one or both were shot down. One crashed on the escarpment not too far from the LZ. ( All crews were rescued with no fatalities).
Chalk 3 then continued the assault. Chalk 4, another Rattler, was shot down in the LZ. (This was UH-1H #69-15358. The CE was Will Fortenberry. The names of the rest of the crew are not currently known.) Another Rattler ship may have gone in. Things were very chaotic.
We set up our flight to go in using our standard, straight-in, mutually supporting, 30-second separation tactics. At that point we were mixing Rattler and Comanchero chalks because I believe we were the fifth or sixth ship to get in. No one told us that you physically couldn't land to the first bomb crater. The slope was too steep. The photo doesn't show it clearly but there are tall rocks between the two craters.
Our gunners in the back saw NVA all over the place in camouflaged positions. They were like ants coming out of the ground. As we hovered over the rocks to get to the next crater, I remember this one fellow coming out of the rocks to shoot at us. We took at least one hit in the engine access area. As we moved by him, our gunner was winning the duel with that NVA. Our ARVN got off quickly and we departed. Since we had battle damage we headed back to Khe Sanh listening to the aircraft in our company as we went.
I was Comanchero 30. Tom O'Daniel (later he was Comanchero 13) was my co-pilot and a guy named SP4 T. Jones was the CE. Jones was from Oologah, OK and we all remember kidding him about that. I don't remember the gunner's name. I don't remember where the PZ was, but I do remember some ships taking fire from these grass huts and the area around the troops we were picking up. I remembering thinking "Come on--this isn't a good way to start this mission!" Sure enough, it got worse!
We took fire during the final approach. The tree line to the left opened up on us almost as if they were waiting for us to get low and slow. I remember hearing the hits in the tail boom. We dropped off the ARVN and took off. I thought everything was working good--we were OK. Then I heard someone yell, "We're on fire! We're on fire!" I knew it wasn't FM or VHF, but I couldn't tell if it was on UHF or intercom. I called to the CE and asked if we were on fire. He didn't answer. I looked at the gauges - everything was in the green. I called to Jones again but he didn't answer. We must have been about 30 seconds from the LZ when Jones finally comes on the intercom and says "Ah, Mr. Morris, you do know we're on fire!"
I later learned that it was so hot in the CE's well that he had moved. In doing so, he had unplugged, so he didn't hear my questions. I knew there were no friendly bases within miles, so I had no choice but to return to Lolo. On final for the second approach, we took more fire. On short final, a round came through my chin bubble and hit the KY-28 (a classified, encryption-capable radio). That really scared me. I remember thinking, “Wow, the bad guys are right in the LZ with the ARVN!”
We landed back in the LZ. The guys in the back came up quickly and helped us unstrap and get out of our seats. I got out of the Huey, saw a log near-by, and got behind it. I was still really scared because of that round that hit the KY-28. The rest of the crew ran to a trench to the front of the Huey. They called to me and I joined them. The trench was about 2 foot wide and maybe 3 foot deep. I remember part of it was covered with wood and brush. There were ARVN in it and one was even eating rice. One was shot in the middle finger and it wasn't doing too well. I helped bandage his hand. Our Huey was streaming fuel but there was no fire.
To this day I haven't figured it out completely. Tom and I talked this over as we prepared this material for the VHPA (Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association). We believe that either the fire blew out when we picked up speed or we landed pretty hard in the soft dirt. There was enough dust that it might have put the fire out.
We hadn't been on the ground long when John Gale lands just off our left front. We all jumped in his ship. I remember thinking, “This is great, we haven't been here long.” Well, a few seconds later, the CE (crew chief--believe it actually stands for Crew Engineer) jumped out and looked up at the engine area. He started shaking his head so the rest of us got out too. The engine area was on fire; so we went back to the trench.
I had a little survival radio, and CPT Jerry Crews from John's ship got on a radio he borrowed from the ARVN. We told the C&C to halt the assault until we could put an end to the NVA in the trees to the south. We told them it was really a 50 - 50 chance of getting shot down. We were in no immediate personal danger from the NVA, but they had the upper hand on any helicopters landing.
They did stop the assault while some Cobras fired up the tree line to the south. There was a lull in the action at that time. Jones made several trips to our Huey and brought back his M-60, my flight bag with my Super-8 camera, and some other stuff. Not long after this, a crew from a downed UH-1C (gunship) walking into the LZ from the north side. They said the NVA had fired at them as they ran away from the LZ. The Americans were moving toward the LZ and the NVA away from it. After the lull, when the Cobras had fired, we saw another Comanchero ship, Steve Diehl I think, try to get in. He took lots of fire and didn't get in. They halted the assault again and put some more stuff into the trees to the south.
I can't describe the feelings I had listening to my company and the Rattlers get shot to ribbons as we flew back to Khe Sanh. We heard Morris do a forced landing on LOLO and then John Gale with Jerry Crews have to stay on the LZ because their ship is on fire. There are four Hueys down on LOLO plus the two (Shark) Charlie-Model guns! Just as we are getting close to Khe Sanh, and will have to switch to talk to them, we listen to the last of the Comancheros try to get in--Steve Diehl.
They take a lot of fire, their CE sustains a terrible leg wound and Diehl calls "Mayday." Later we learned that the CE was hit in a main artery and sprayed blood all over the inside of the aircraft. The pilots, the ARVN, all were covered with blood. Steve landed to the road (Route 9) where they transfer the wounded CE to a DUSTOFF (medevac helicopter) which races him back to Khe Sanh. He is alive today and doing fine, I'm glad to say.
The ARVN were put in another helicopter; then Steve and his pilot fly their bloody ship back to Khe Sanh. After everyone had refueled and checked or swapped aircraft, we sort of assembled all the Aircraft Commanders from the three or four companies involved in the initial assaults. Let me tell you, there were plenty of ashen faces in that crowd!
The Comancheros had lost an entire crew (CW2 Berg on 18 Feb) during a SOG-CCN mission and we were determined not to loose anyone else. I remember this one tall 1LT who wasn't an AC--he was most emphatic that we go back to put more ARVN in and get our people how. We compared notes and estimated how many ARVN were on LOLO and how many Americans. Chalks 20 and higher still had their ARVN with them. We (the Comancheros) said that we were definitely going back and asked how many would come with us. Everyone was scared to death but we knew we had to do something--we couldn't leave those guys alone for very long or the NVA would have them.
Everyone raised their hands. I'd guess there was at least 15 ships. To this day, I think that was a turning point of sorts for those of us in that battle. We weren't "northern units" and "guys from the south" anymore. (Note: This was a reference to the units being from the northern areas or southern areas of South Vietnam, not individual crewmen from the North or South in America.) One company or even one battalion simply could not "do it all" themselves. We all needed each other to make it--pilots, enlisted, maintenance, AHCs, 101st units--everyone! Anyway, we organized ourselves, loaded with ARVNs, got some Cobras and headed back to LOLO.
All these proceedings took about an hour or more. I'd guess it was about 1220 or so when we checked back in with the ACM. With the initial assault "blown," the AMC had gone to work getting another effort organized. This would be known as the "1300 assault."
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