A Company, 101st Aviation Battalion
Camp Eagle, Republic of Vietnam
August 9, 1968
The day began like a habit that could not be broken, an endless succession of broken parts, contaminated fuel, leaking seals, a hot start and poor avionics. 0445 had come rapidly on the heels of an all night magic act requiring cannibalization and other efforts to have all unit aircraft ready for a 0520 PZ east of Camp Evans. Something big was in the offing. Big enough that the Assistant Division Commander held an after dinner briefing with only the aircraft maintenance officers at division the previous evening. The subject was the same as it had been for the past several weeks: aircraft availability. At Camp Eagle you didn't need a special sales pitch on aircraft availability. If the sun came up and you had 25 UH-1s, division wanted them in the air. Life was truly simple.
By 0505 the crew chiefs and service platoon maintenance personnel had everything on track and the flight commanders were in the air with 23 UH-1H's. Normally, the maintenance crews did their work before or after the heat of the day. We were preparing for a pre-IG Inspection and those not in the air were slated to work on unit administration, vehicle and weapons maintenance and living areas. We were not deficient in these areas but the newly formed aviation group needed to know if we could pass muster.... After ten months as platoon leader, and serving as acting company commander five times, these distractions had become a way of life since becoming an airmobile organization--strange for professionals to think that with one third the number of personnel and equipment we could duplicate the 1st Cavalry Division. I was off at 0530 enroute to a location just north of a multiple lift LZ near the Laotian border. The division air calvary squadron was out in force and had started to orbit suspected enemy sanctuaries. There had not been artillery, air or naval preparation although we were within range of all three.
After watching things for one plus forty, I was confident that we would get through the morning. About that time CW2 Larry Willer arrived on station and I headed back to Camp Eagle. After refuel, I repositioned to the A Company maintenance area to pick-up items for a pre-assigned ash-and-trash run to Da Nang. Before I could get away the Battalion S-3 radioed me that Group had a high priority mission. They wanted me to strip out the passenger seats, door guns, cargo doors and sound proofing, etc., from my aircraft and verify that the cargo hook was operable. As an aircraft test pilot, I was accustomed to single pilot missions and so far no one had mentioned that I would fly any further than the 160th Aviation Group. Frequently equipment and personnel were moved from unit to unit to make-up for the unexpected. Loaning aircraft was done every day and, in many cases, our aircraft didn't have many of the items they didn't want.
When I landed at the 160th, a pathfinder team of three got on board. Their OIC had been in B Company and I knew one of the sergeants. After briefing me on the mission and providing me with a revised intelligence update we got airborne. The three of them rigged my aircraft enroute and got ready to descend through the jungle canopy. The site frequency was being monitored and the radio operator gave me a good run down on how they had organized. The unit securing the site was coordinating their new mission with his operations and was waiting for me to insert the pathfinder team to rig a small cargo net for extraction and then they would redeploy with the infantry. The belly man would return to Camp Eagle with things that they could recover in the net.
Above the jungle clearing it was difficult for me to determine how far down the pathfinders would have to slide but it was more than 100 feet because the ropes didn't touch the ground. As I positioned into the wind the gun ships were attacking toward the southwest and an Air Force FAC had positioned himself to coordinate ordnance from several fast movers returning to Da Nang near our location. The ground commander had done an excellent job of organizing the site and his personnel were ready to get on with their day. No sooner had I established a good hover when the pathfinders cleared the door. The cabin was suddenly filled with exploding bits of metal and the crackle of shattering aircraft skin. The belly man, who had been partially exposed, started screaming about fuel in the cabin area. The ground radioman could hear the exploding rounds and was ordering me to abort. Aborting, while a consideration, was the last thing on my mind! The pathfinders had frozen their descent about 70 feet off the ground and I was settling into the trees pulling about 48 PSI. On the trees the power stabilized and the pathfinders continued to lower themselves. Whatever had us in its sights could no longer see well enough to fire accurately; however, the weapons firing intensified throwing debris up into the rotor, causing a great cloud.
The guns roared by us with lots of smoke and metal. The belly man had recovered his lines and we slid down through the trees to a clearing about 200 yards from the recovery site. Once down, the belly man bolted from the helicopter to rejoin his team and accomplish their mission. Other than lots of caution and warning lights my UH-1 was running fine except for the fuel leak which was draining below the filler cap. I returned to A Company maintenance area to access the damage.
I logged four plus thirty before my trip to the 101st Aviation Battalion Aid Station around 1100 to have shrapnel removed from my arm, back and head. As for the remainder of A Company, both insertions went very well and little else happened. After supper we had a few hard landing inspections to complete and some vibrations to work out before going to work on 10 August 1968.
At my going away party party on 27 November 1968, LTC Snyder said "I put you in for an award for your actions in the A Shau." True to his word, when I arrived at Long Binh, MG Melvin Zais presented me with the first oak leaf cluster to the Bronze Star, an Air Medal and the first oak leaf cluster to the Army Commendation Medal. The Purple Heart had been awarded 10 August 1968 at a company formation by MAJ Mendez, former A Company commander, who had assumed duties as the 160th Aviation Group, Aviation Safety Officer.
My Distinguished Flying Cross was presented during a Post Awards Ceremony at Fort Eustis, Virginia, 17 January 1969. I was surprised when notified to report to the ceremony as an awardee. After all, I had been extensively decorated before departing Vietnam. At the same ceremony, I was also awarded the first through tenth oak leaf clusters to the Air Medal.