FLYING IN VIETNAM
This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri September 26th 2018. If you would like to see the current articles as they are published, you may subscribe to The Belle Banner by calling 573-859-3328, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to The Belle Banner, PO Box 711, Belle, MO 65013. Subscription rates are; Maries, Osage, and Gasconade County = $23.55 per year, elsewhere in Missouri = $26.77, outside Missouri = $27.00, and foreign countries = $40.00.
After last weeks’ article about Army Aviation I’ve been prompted and prodded with stories and memories of flying in Vietnam. This started with a post from a facebook friend. Mike Long and I were in the same Rifle Company, in the same platoon in the 82nd Airborne Division, before Vietnam. Mike doesn’t really remember me, but when he posted a picture of himself in uniform in 1962 I remembered him. I was a new private only there a couple weeks before Mike left. Mike is only a year older than me, but at 19 he was already a Sergeant on his way to officer candidate school to become an artillery officer. Artillery doesn’t walk in the woods – right? Well, because Mike had been an infantry Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division he was assigned as an advisor to a South Vietnamese army infantry unit. Mike posted that every September 16th he remembers “meeting” Huey pilot Jerry King who flew into his bomb crater position to pick up the wounded.
There are hundreds of stories of helicopter heroism in Vietnam. Here are a couple.
The war in Vietnam was poorly managed from the start. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara did not understand war or Vietnam and were convinced in late 1965 that they could not win, but continued anyway. By the start of 1969 public sentiment, as well as a growing number of Congressmen of both parties, was against continuing the war. When Richard Nixon was sworn in as President in January 1969, he announced a policy of “Vietnamization” where the South Vietnamese military would be built up and the war gradually turned over to them, while the US military would gradually withdraw.
In 1971, Operation Lam Son 719 was in keeping with that policy. In that operation the South Vietnamese Army was going into southern Laos to cut off the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) supply route to South Vietnam, known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. No Americans were to be on the ground in Laos, but US Army helicopters were to fly the South Vietnam troops into battle, resupply them, evacuate casualties, and pick them up when necessary. At that time it was the largest airmobile operation in history. Most all of the 101st Airborne Division’s helicopters were used. The 101st was actually “airmobile” (helicopters) at that time. Americans did end up on the ground in Laos, not intentionally. In January 1971 an Operations Center was setup at Khe Sanh to control the Lam Son 719 activities. The 237th Medical Detachment stationed at Phu Bai which was a Dust Off (helicopter medical evacuation) unit was moved to Khe Sanh. The operation started on February 8th 1971.
A South Vietnam Army Ranger battalion had set up a firebase nine kilometers inside Laos right on the Ho Chi Minh trail, it was called Ranger North. Another ranger battalion established another firebase four kilometers south, called Ranger South. Both were soon surrounded by North Vietnam Regular Army regiments. By February 18th they had been severely mauled. Around 11:30 AM on the 18th Ranger North requested evacuation of their severely wounded. A Huey Dust Off helicopter with CW2 (Chief Warrant Officer-2) Joseph Brown pilot, CW2 Darrel Monteith co-pilot, SP5 (Specialist five) Dennis Fujii crew chief, and two medics, SP4’s James Costello and Paul Simcoe, took off from Khe Sanh heading to Ranger North. Two Cobra gunships were along for cover fire. In an interview, in later years, Dennis Fujii said; “As soon as we crossed the border into Laos the ground fire became more intense than anything I had experienced. You could hear and feel the rounds hitting the bottom of the aircraft and then the blades started whistling. At about 3 or 4 kliks (kilometers) in we started receiving actual anti-aircraft fire designed to shoot down jets and we were in helicopters. I could see a lot of helicopter wrecks on the ground. The Cobras were firing at the gun emplacements on the ground, which was using up their ammunition. As we were approaching the firebase, I told the pilot that the ship was becoming so badly damaged I was afraid it wouldn’t be able to fly. So he informed the Cobra Leader that we were aborting the mission and returning to base. The Cobra Leader said that they would return to Khe Sanh, fuel and rearm and would be on call to cover us if we decided to try again. When the Cobras left, the pilot didn’t say a word, he just turned around and headed back down onto the firebase. You could see the NVA soldiers all around the firebase. They weren’t trying to hide, they were everywhere. I don’t know how we got in, but we did, and as soon as we touched down the mortar rounds started landing all over the place. We didn’t want to be on the ground more than 15 or 20 seconds, so we just grabbed the wounded and threw them on board. As we were taking off a mortar round landed directly in front of the chopper and blew out the canopy and instrument panel, and another landed under the tail rotor, so we went down. The co-pilot, Mr. Monteith, had a massive wound under his backside and was paralyzed from the waist down, we had to drag him out onto the ground. The pilot, Mr Brown, who was a big guy and mortar rounds were landing all around, stood up and popped open the front panel on the helicopter. There was a transmitter in there that was classified. He would get hit and knocked down and get up, finally he didn’t get up anymore. We dragged the pilots to a ditch for some cover. The three of us ran through exploding mortar rounds for a bunker. I got hit in the shoulder and Costello got knocked down, but his breast plate saved him.
The radio conversations in the air around the firebase immediately turned to “We’ve got to get them out of there.” One of the most fearless medivac pilots in the 101st was on station and said “It can’t be done right now.” Every attempt to get close to the firebase was met with a hail of gun fire. Listening to the radio traffic was Major James T Newman, Commander of Troop C 2nd Squadron 17th Cavalry of the 101st, who was on a reconnaissance flight nearby. Major Newman was already a legend among aviators in Vietnam. He once landed his Huey in the trees, chopping saplings with his rotor blades, to pick up two downed pilots who were about to be captured. Major Newman said; “I’ll pick them up.” With no gunship cover, he dropped down to grass level right on the top of the brush, put the nose down at full throttle, flew right over the enemy regiment firing at him and dropped onto the firebase. Mortar rounds immediately started falling. I talked to pilots who were in the air over the firebase and one had recorded the radio traffic, which I got to hear. What got their attention most was Major Newman’s voice. He was known as the coolest character in the world under fire. I don’t remember everything verbatim, but his first words were; “Get them in here!” The three ran from the bunker, but a mortar round landed in front of Fujii and blurred his vision for a few seconds so he stayed at the bunker. The two wounded pilots, who would die of their wounds, had to be carried on board, and the two medics got on board. With mortar rounds landing between the helicopter and Fujii he waved them to go on. All during this time Major Newman was saying; “We’re taking fire, get them in here.” As the seconds drug on and the mortar rounds got closer, Major Newman’s voice started to break; “We’re taking fire, we’re taking fire, get them in here!”. As the Huey lifted off, mortar rounds landed where it had been sitting.
Specialist Five Dennis Fuji, helicopter crew chief, was the lone American on the ground in Laos. He found a radio in the bunker and using the call sign “Papa Whiskey” warned helicopters in the area not to try to pick him up, it was just too hot. Then the Vietnamese battalion commander came to him and ask for his help. Dennis Fujii was no ordinary helicopter crew chief. He had enlisted as an infantryman, completed infantry training and airborne school and spent nine months on the ground, as a grunt, in Vietnam, then reenlisted to be a helicopter door gunner. He had learned the helicopter so well that he was offered a job as crew chief in the medical unit. That night a North Vietnamese Regiment attacked the firebase. For the next 17 hours Dennis Fujii, as Papa Whiskey, became the nerve center of the firebase, coordinating six Air Force flareships and seven Air Force gunships, only pausing to pickup an M-16 and go to the wire to help stop the enemy from penetrating the perimeter. I was at Phu Bai at that time and we thought Fujii was a medic, since it was a Dust Off bird.
The next day getting Fujii out of Laos was the number one priority of the United States. That afternoon 21 helicopters descended on Ranger North, ten Hueys and eleven Cobras. While they fired up the perimeter, Major Jim Lloyd and Captain David Nelson dropped their Huey out of formation, and using the tactic of Major Newman, hugged the ground and trees and sat down on the firebase. Fujii ran and dived into the bird. It caught the NVA be surprise, but when they realized what was happening the Huey received so many hits that it was on fire by the time Fujii got on board. Major Lloyd managed to get it in the air and get four kilometers to Ranger South. When it touched down everyone jumped out and ran because its machinegun ammo was starting to cook off in the flames. Again everyone got picked up but Fujii who volunteered to stay and help Ranger South which was also under attack. Finally, at 4:00 PM on February 22nd, 100 hours after he was wounded, Fujii was admitted to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Phu Bai. He had helped save 122 South Vietnamese Rangers. He was quickly awarded a Silver Star, which was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross
We had 168 helicopters destroyed and 618 damaged during operation Lam Son 719 and the South Vietnamese Army withdrew from Laos bloodied.