Knife Tales - The Vietnam Center and Archive

"Knife Tales"
21 Special Operations Squadron
Nakon Phanom, AB, Thailand
Robert R. Arnau
July 5,2005
The following are my recollections of operations of the 21 st Special Operations
Squadron, S(jh Special Operations Wing, Nakon Phanom Air Base, Thailand from
March 1969 to February 1970, extracted from my e-mail to other squadron members.
Also included and extracted from their past e-mail are the memories of squadron mates
John Holt, Jay Merz, Jerry Kibby, Jerry Bucknall and of Bill Shelton, the MACVSOG
detachment commander at NKP.
(During the Vietnam War, it was Air Force policy to avoid sending aircrew
members to a second non-voluntary SEA tour. By the late 1960's, most of the Air
Force's relatively small number of helicopter pilots had served a tour in SEA.
Consequently, the Air Force initiated an extensive program to transition fixed-wing pilots
to helicopters for service in Vietnam. When I completed a 3 year overseas tour of duty
in Europe in 1968, I was a bit surprised to find that my assignment to SEA was in CH3E helicopters. I not only didn't know how to fly a helicopter, I'd never even had a ride
in one! However, I went to a three month helicopter conversion course at Sheppard
AFB enroute to SEA. Nearly everyone in my class had just retumed from USA FE. Most
of us were Majors and Lt. Colonels with a few Captains thrown in. We initially trained in
UH-1 "Hueys" then went on to the much larger, two-engine, CH-3E (identical to the Jolly
Green HH-3 but without the refueling boom). After training, I went to the 21 st Special
Operations Squadron at NKP. By the time I had been there 6 months, all the "old
heads" had rotated, and I was one of the more experienced helicopter instructor pilots in
the squadron!)
Prairie Fire
The 21 st SOS was initially sent to NKP to place electronic sensors in Laos along
the routes and areas used by the North Vietnamese Army to move men and materials to
South Vietnam. These sensors were to be part of what was then known as
"McNamara's Line". When sensor placement was begun using CH-3E's early in 1968, it
soon became apparent that the areas were too heavily defended to permit sensor
placement by slow moving helicopters. After several helicopters were lost to enemy fire,
the sensor placement mission was transferred to fighters. At that time, one of the 21 st
50S prime missions became the support of Operation Prairie Fire.
Prairie Fire was a top-secret operation run by MACVSOG at Saigon to gather
intelligence by inserting Special Operations teams into Laos along the "Trail". (These
missions were codenamed "Shining Brass", prior to 1967.) MACVSOG was not under
MACV but was under the command of and reported directly to the JCS! During the
Vietnam monsoon (the dry season in Thailand & Laos), Army helicopters had great
difficulty infiltrating I exfiltrating the teams due to weather. In 1968, the 21st was
assigned the task of getting teams in and out during the Vietnam monsoon season.
A MACVSOG detachment named "Heavy Hook", was established at NKP to run the
The team to be inserted was flown into NKP on a "black" MC-130 from Nha
Trang. Teams were normally comprised of two Special Forces troops (Green Berets)
and four Montagnard "mercenaries". This whole operation was so covert that our
mission "frag" orders were top secret as were the mission briefings! We inserted the
teams into very remote, small LZ's which were usually in rugged karst areas near the
Trail. The LZ altitudes and temperatures gave us some real density altitude vs weight
problems. Often, the LZ density altitudes were such that you could not hover out of
ground-effect. A Heavy Hook member riding with a Nail FAC selected, reconnoitered
and photographed the potential LZ's. Those pictures as well as the Heavy Hook and
Nail opinions were damned important at the mission briefings in determining whether or
not you could get low enough in the LZ to hover in ground-effect! (I "fell through" once,
unable to hover out of ground-effect, going into a very tight LZ. I probably bent the
"collective" I was pulling up so hard on it. What a horrible feeling as you lose
translational lift and sink through a hole in the upper jungle canopy with the collective
full up! Thank God we got into ground effect before we hit any of the lower trees. After
that, I was more choosy about accepting an LZ at high density altitudes unless the
performance charts clearly showed that we could hover out of ground-effect.)
The mission was flown with three CH-3's and four A-1 escorts. A Nail 0-2 with
Heavy Hook rider would meet us in the area to guide us into the LZ. The "low I lead"
helicopter, Knife 51, was the air mission commander. The six team members were
normally all on Knife 51. On arrival at the LZ area, Knife 52 & 53 would remain high
while Knife 51 took the team in. (The rationale for using three helicopters ----- at the
high denSity altitudes we were operating at, we were usually just able to hover out of
ground effect with the six man team on board even after dumping fuel. If we were shot
down or crashed, there would be 10 people --- team & crew --- to rescue. That would
exceed the capability of a single helicopter hovering out of ground-effect, thus two backups were used.)
After infil, the team would immediately depart the LZ (as every Gomer within
miles could hear the CH-3 when you unloaded the blades to descend). In theory, the
team was to be picked up at another predetermined LZ a few days later. However,
during my tenure, we rarely made a "normal ex-fil". Every Prairie Fire exfil that I made
was an "emergency ex-fil" with the team in contact with the NVA. After all, we were
putting them in near the "Trail" to gather info and that entire portion of Laos was full of
NVA! The Special Forces men that served with MACSOG were as brave as they come!
The emergency ex-fils were something else! Usually the team would have been
in a running firefight throughout the night and we launched ASAP in the morning. Flying
to their location, you would listen to the Nail FAC with Heavy Hook rider directing air
strikes around the team. It sometimes sounded like the entire air strike capability in
SEA was being used to keep the Gomers off the team. (This raised the "pucker factor"
several notches enroute.) On arrival at the location, the Nail would lead us into the
team's approximate position and the team would pop smoke (predetermined color so
the enemy couldn't lure us into a trap). Rarely, was the team able to get to a clear spot
during the emergency ex-fils so the jungle penetrator had to be used. (Fortunately, we
had the CH-3E's with the door mounted hoist motor and not the cabin hoist "jury rigged"
with pulleys found on the older models.) As you hovered near the smoke, the FE, had
to spot the team through the trees, then "talk you" to a position over them and guide the
penetrator down through the trees. An important job made more interesting for the FE
by having to continuously lean out of the door of a helicopter that people are shooting
at! While hovering in the treetops, it seemed like it took that cable at least a half-hour to
make one trip down and back up and it usually took three cycles to get the six men with
their equipment. (If it seemed that long from the air, it must have seemed a helluva lot
longer to the guys on the ground!! Again, I can't praise the guts of those SOG team
members enough!)
In the summer of 1969, we had a big turnover of people and lost most of our
crewmembers with Prairie Fire experience from the previous dry season. By October,
we were down to only four qualified "low 1 lead" aircraft commanders. Then on October
6th, one of those, Phil Conran, was shot down and wounded in the ensuing ground
battle when we lost two helicopters in a "trap" on a 7/13 AF-DOSA mission on the
Bolivens Plateau in Laos. That left three of us (low 1 leads) making it a very interesting
October and November!
In summary, "Prairie Fire" was a Special Forces mission in which we (21st SOS"Knives) played a small but important part. I am very proud that our squadron did not
lose a team that we inserted during my tenure. (Primarily due to the teams' warrior
skills but our guys always "hacked" the emergency exfils!)
Before the 21 st SOS became involved in SOG missions, the 20th SOS "Green
Hornets" flying Huey's (at Nha Trang) built an outstanding record flying SOG missions.
Their primary mission was supporting SOG teams operating in Cambodia under the
codename "Daniel Boone". One Green Hornet, Jim Fleming, received the Medal of
Honor for getting a SOG team out under extremely heavy, point-blank fire.
Prairie Fire Emergency Exfil-18 Nov 69
One Prairie Fire emergency exfil that I vividly recall occurred on 18 Nov 1969. Jerry
Kibby was my co-pilot two FE's Idoor gunners were SSgt Jim Burns and SSgt Charles
Hill. The SOG team had come into contact with the NVA close to "The Trail" during
the night. After a running battle, they were surrounded and under attack. Of the six
team members (two Americans & four indigenous), one had been killed and two others
were wounded. Unfortunately, the weather in the area was terrible; low clouds, poor
visibility and severe turbulence. We launched ASAP from NKP with three CH-3s
and four A-1 escorts. On arrival in the area, we made contact with the NAIL
FAC who had a Heavy Hook (SOG) rider with him. I was pleased to discover
that the NAIL was 1/Lt Hank Haden, an outstanding young FAC from NKP with
whom I had worked other emergency exfils.
Hank was below the overcast and, despite the fact the clouds were almost on
the karst tops, was directing air strikes against the enemy. He advised us
that the turbulence in the area was quite severe and that our planned
approach route to the team was unusable due to the low clouds. The good news
was that there was a small hole in the undercast that we could descend through.
The bad news was that the hole was over a known 23 mm NVA gun.
Obviously, there was no choice and we went through the hole. Once the
formation was below the cloud layer, following standard tactics the other two
helicopters held clear (while keeping us in sight) as we followed the FAC
into the team's location.
We spotted the team's smoke on a steep ridge line that was covered with tall elephant
grass. They were under small arms and automatic weapon fire and our escorting A-1 s
were delivering protective ordnance. The steep slope of the ridge prevented a landing
so we hovered with the nose wheel on the ground and the main gear in the air over
the precipice. The wind turbulence coming over the edge of the ridge was indeed
severe and the CH-3 was bucking wildly as we hovered.
Despite the 30 years that have elapsed, I clearly recall my initial glimpse
of the team as they came into the area of elephant grass blown flat by the
rotor downwash. The first two team members were dragging their dead comrade
by his boots. With the helicopter bucking like a rodeo bull, the team had
difficulty getting the body on board and it seemed like an eternity before
all were finally on board. The A-1s continued to lay down protective fire as
we came safely off the ridge line.
After the exfil, we had the privilege of having a beer with the surviving
team members at the SOG Heavy Hook compound at NKP. At that time, I asked
the Heavy Hook commander, Major Bill Shelton, why, since they were under
fire, didn't the team leave the body. He explained to me the importance to
the Nungsl Vietnamese of returning the body of the team member to his home
village for a proper Buddhist funeral. That the SOG Special Forces members
would go to that extent (recovering the body while under fire and managing to
get it aboard a nearly out of control helicopter) to assure the loyalty and
future support of their indigenous troops, made me respect them more than
ever! Those guys were unbelievable!
Before sending the narration regarding this mission to other squadron members, I ran it
by Bill Shelton (Heavy Hook detachment commander) and Jerry Kibby for their
comments andlor additions. Jerry sent me his following interesting comments about the
mission: "If you don't mind my "view from the other seat': I would like to add the
The A-1 s which were providing close air support for the mission were unable to work in
their usual way, i.e., near vertical descent firing/dropping weapons followed by a near
vertical climb-out and tum back for another near vertical pass at the target area. The
combination of low clouds and high terrain forced them to stay under the clouds in order
to be of use and they had to make long horizontal passes at the target area, during
which they strafed with their 20 mm cannons for as much of the pass as they COUld.
After passing the target area, they had to remain under the clouds with the ground still
in sight and fly a horizontal loop back to the target area for another pass - and while
they were doing this, they had to avoid the high terrain, each other and the two other
CH-3s on the mission. The result of this was a lot less supporting fire on the
target than would have been possible in different meteorological conditions.
When the team came into sight (popped up out of the elephant grass, by my
observation), they were (as you said, Bob) dragging the dead team member.
This was my first time as copilot in the "low bird': and I was backing up Bob
on the controls in a non-interfering way. He was having to fight the winds to try to keep
the nose gear on the top of the peak, and I don't think he noticed that the heavy head
winds had resulted in the rotor blades being so low in front of the helicopter that they
were almost at belt-level with the approaching team members. There was not time, as
the team approached, pulling their dead mate, to tell Bob about the problem. I
pulled back on the collective slightly, which caused two things (maybe three,
if you count pissing off Bob to an extent), it raised the path of the rotor
blades and it caused us to back-off slightly. But it also allowed the team
to move under the blade path while it was higher than it had been initially.
When we had the team on board, Bob tumed us to face down-hill and we
accelerated just above ground level down the hill as fast as we could go. As
we went down, and prior to pulling into the clouds, we passed right over a
manned anti-aircraft position - which did not have time to come to bear on
our aircraft. I also recall a sudden sickening feeling as we ran down the
hill - smoke in the aircraft. I recognized the source within a second or
less as the smoke from our own machine guns. Our FE's were putting out all of
the fire they could from our M-60s, and the shape of the CH-3 causes a
reverse airflow, pulling air (and gun smoke) from the back up to the front
and out the windows.
I met one of the team members we pulled out that day at a bar-b-que at the
NKP Heavy Hook detachment some time after this mission. He sat across from
me while we ate and told the story of his last mission as a team lead, the
one which made him decide he had had enough of that for a while. As he
described the mission, I thought it sounded familiar and I asked some
specifics that confirmed it was the mssion which Bob has described. That SpeCial
Forces NCO, once he knew I was part of the crew that got him and his team
out, tried to give me anything and everything of value that he had - which in
the situation of the day was mostly weapons. I declined his offers, as
we were all well provided with personal firearms. He did tell me some things
I had not known about the mission. One was that the wounded in their group
were wounded by their own grenades, which they had to lay down in a
short-long pattem to try to keep the enemy off of them. The other thing he
told me that I did not know before was that our helicopter, as it sat there
with the nose gear on the karst to pick them up, was actually on top of some
of the NVA surrounding them.! sure hope he made it through the rest of the war.
Anyway, these are some of my recollections about the day in addition to what
you wrote already. Use them or don't use them as you see fit.
Well that's it --- as Jerry and I remember it.
Bob Arnau
The Evacuation of Muong Soui, Laos
Early on the morning of June 27, 1969, all available 21st SOS (NKP) and 20th
SOS (Udorn) CH-3E helicopters assembled at Long Tieng, Laos (LS 20A) , Gen Vang
Pao's HQ and home of the Raven FAC's, about 40 miles SW of the Plain of Jars (POJ)
for a potential evacuation mission. We were joined there by a few Air America H-34's
and by a couple of Jolly's (which must have taken very high level approval as the Jolly's
normally weren't involved in special operations!).
There were approximately 350 Thai Army troops under attack by a large force of
the North Vietnamese Army in Muong Soui, a key town at the west end of the POJ on
Route 7, the main east-west road that ran through the POJ to North Vietnam. We sat
on the ground at Long Tieng for several hours drinking the Raven's coffee, while Vang
Pao, the American Air Attache and the CIA folks decided whether the Thai's could hold
that key position.
As weather deteriorated and a low ceiling made air strikes in support of theThai's
impossible, the decision to pull the troops was made. As we arrived in trail a couple of
minutes apart, Muong Soui looked like a scene from an old war movie. Fires burning all
over the place and sporadic mortar explosions occurring. The HLZ was in a large open
field but surrounded by flooded rice paddies. I clearly remember that the Thai troops
were very well disciplined and stood in ranks awaiting their turn to load despite mortar
explosions not very far away. We landed into the wind but had to takeoff down-wind as
the enemy fire was coming from the up-wind direction. I was flying as co-pilot that day
with Bill Knapp. (Believe me, flying as a co-pilot when you're being shot at REALLY
sucks! There's not much to do but sit there and be scared!) When we were full with
troops, Bill turned the helicopter downwind and started to takeoff. We were overloaded
and barely had enough power to hover. Because of the downwind takeoff, we were
unable to get into translational lift. We staggered along above the flooded paddy
headed directly toward a large bamboo hootch. With little else to do at the time except
watch the hootch grow larger in the windscreen, I hit the fuel dump switch. At the last
minute Bill pulled all the pitch that he had and we just cleared the hootch top then fell
(and I do mean fell!) with a huge splash into the flooded rice paddy on the far side.
(Thank God it was the wet season as we all know how hard a dry rice paddy is!)
Unbelievably, we had no damage. I signaled to the Thai NCO holding up four fingers
and pointing to the door. He immediately ordered four of his troops to get out which
they promptly did--- without argument much to my amazement!. We were then able to
takeoff and made it back to Long Tieng. (One of the other 21st SOS CH-3s crashed into
this same paddy when shot down a few minutes later! The pilots were Majors Henery &
Mattos.) The four Thai's waded back to the HLZ and eventually all the Thai's and our
downed aircrew were evacuated.
Epilogue: The next day the Bangkok Post had a large front page story stating
that there was absolutely no truth to rumors that Thai forces were involved in the war in
The evacuation of Muong Soui is described in a book that the Air Force History
Office published in 1983 titled, "The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia - Tactical
Airlift", by Ray L. Bowers. It is a large volume, approximately 900 pages, and has one
entire chapter, "Airlift In Irregular Warfare", that is primarily about the 20th and 21st
"Friendly" Fire --- Isn't!
Throughout my tour, the 21 SOS flew a nightly reconnaissance mission around
the base and along the Mekong River at random times for base security. Besides the
usual crew of pilot, co-pilot and two FE/gunners, on these missions we usually carried a
couple of Security Police troops with "starlight scopes". Since there was some
insurgent activity in northeast Thailand at that time, the mission made sense but was
usually quite boring. The toughest part was staying awake! (The only time I would eat
pizza from the NKP "0" Club was on a night that I was scheduled for night recce --- the
inevitable indigestion that ensued was bound to keep you awake!)
One night, during a night recce mission, NKP approach control advised us that
they had an unknown, slow-moving, westbound target crossing the Mekong from Laos
northeast of the base and asked us to check it out. It was a clear night and we were
flying at about 500 ft. AGL over the Mekong, southeast of the base. We followed
approach control vectors which took us in a large circling path north of the base as we
tried to intercept the "bogie". After several minutes we were approximately 10 to 15
miles west of the base, still at 500 feet, when all hell broke loose! We were suddenly
taking heavy ground fire from directly beneath us with tracers passing very close to the
front and both sides of the helicopter. (The FEs later said that tracers were also
passing close behind us.) I started evasive action and the co-pilot doused our
navigation lights. Somehow, we managed to escape with no damage and returned to
base. (We never did see the bogie although approach control said we were close.)
The next day, after investigating the incident, the local OSI agents advised me
that we had flown directly over a Thai Army base and they had fired on us with quadmounted 50 cal machine guns "seeking monetary rewards"! (Thai military officials,
aware of clandestine flights from Laos that may have been supporting Thai insurgents,
had authorized attacks on unidentified helicopters and offered monetary rewards.
Apparently, the base was alerted by the bogie we were chasing and the Thai gunners
were "cocked and primed" when we came over!) Unbelievably, the information that Thai
officials had placed a "bounty" on low flying helicopters had never been passed to those
of us in the Air Force who were flying helicopters!! From then on, night recce stayed
closer to the base!
Two other "night recce" incidents from squadron mate, John Holt:
"The first time I received ground fire at NKP was on my first night recon mission. i was
behind an A-26 on downwind when we had several large bursts of tracers that went
between the A-26 and our H-3. That was probably in September of 68. Downwind on
this occasion I think was towards the river so the ground fire was coming from inside
"Later in 1968, I had another unusual experience on a night recon mission in the NKP
area. There was a high overcast but visibility was good. It was around midnight and
we were just tooling around the base at around 3000 feet. I noticed a red light moving
around the base. We watched him for about 10 minutes. I asked tower if they had traffic
and did they see the light or aircraft or whatever. They responded they had no traffic.
We proceeded to move towards the circling "bogie". Tower at this time called and said
they could now see the light and also see us and asked us to investigate as there was
not supposed to be any traffic in the area. It is hard to judge distances but when we
were about 112 mile or so from the object when the object/aircraft began a slow climb.
We followed. Still could not see an outline only the light(s). We had closed a little closer
when he really started a rapid climb which left us in the dust. He turned off his lights and
was headed across the fence (Mekong) into Laos when we last saw him. Invert never
could paint him on radar but had us .. I've always wondered what or who that could have
been. Not many airfields near NKP that could handle night takeoffs and landings.
Note: Reports of insurgent flights from Laos and incidents of Thai forces firing on
USAF aircraft are discussed in Chapter 16, Airlift in Irregular Warfare, "US Air Force in
Southeast Asia, Tactical Airlift" -- published by the Office of Air Force History. In August
1970 several months after my departure, one of our CH-3s on a routine daytime flight
was shot down in Thailand near Ubon by insurgents. Four of the five crewmen were
killed including the pilot, Captain AI Cheeseman, who had flown several missions as my
"Bad News" on the POJ
.On January 17, 1970, TS 609, an A-1H named "Bad News, assigned to the 22nd
SOS, Zorros and flown by Captain Terry Bolstad had its engine shot out near the Plain
of Jars. Bolstad was near an old WWII Japanese airfield (and sometimes Lima site) on
the POJ so he made a dead stick landing into it with the gear down. After touch down,
he saw that the PSP was missing ahead and retracted the gear before hitting the dirt
and the aircraft slid to a stop on its belly. Captain Bolstad was quickly picked up by a
Jolly who was on SAR orbit in the area.
The next day, I was fragged to lead a flight of two CH-3E helicopters with an A-1
escort to the POJ site of the forced landing. We carried a maintenance officer and NCO
who were to determine if the A-1 could be recovered. The only problem was that no
one knew whether the area belonged to the North Vietnamese or Gen Vang Pao. 56th
SOW Intell could only state that the situation was "fluid"! (As it usually was at that time
of year on the POJ!)
As we got near the Plain of Jars, I inquired on the Air America common freq if
anyone had been in the area recently. One Air America pilot indicated that he had
taken fire there the previous day (rather obvious since the A-1 had been shot down
there!). Another suggested that we try it and if no one shot at us it was OK! That was
really a lot of help!
On arrival we saw troops on the ground and one of the A-1 's "trolled" the area.
No one shot at him so we decided they were friendly! While the second helicopter held
high, we landed, the maintenance guys safetied the guns and ejection seat, quickly
assessed the damage and we departed. A maintenance team came in the next day and
the A-1 was sling loaded into Long Tieng and eventually returned to full status at NKP.
Combined 7/13AF OOSA Mission
Shortly after I arrived at NKP, the squadron was involved in a large combined
operation with the 20th SOS and Air America. This March 25, 1969 mission is
described in Chapter 16, Airlift in Irregular Warfare, "US Air Force in Southeast Asia,
Tactical Airlift" -- published by the Office of Air Force History. The mission was in the
north end of the Laotian panhandle. The book describes it as follows: "Ten Air Force
and eight Air America helicopters successfully inserted the 200 man Laotian assault
force, but strong enemy reaction necessitated an unplanned withdrawal. Air America
helicopters picked up some of the troops but the Air Force CH-3's met heavy fire. Five
were hit, two lost engines and one pilot was wounded. The withdrawal was stopped
and the helicopters returned home. The withdrawal was completed the next day by CH3's and H-34's with fire support by A-!'s."
I watched that mission on the radar screen and listened to the radio chatter at our
area radar unit, Invert. For an FNG, which I was at the time, it was one hell of an
indoctrination! It sounded even worse on the radio than it was. As I recall, one of the
damaged CH-3's started vibrating so badly that the crew had to put it down about half
way back. They were picked up by another crew and the aircraft was destroyed.
The following comments from squadron mate John Holt, who flew on this
We used al/ of the 21 st SOS helicopters, the CH-3's from the 2dh SOS at Udom,
and some Air America H-34's. We were pulling out what appeared to be a battalion of
Lao troops who were under siege. I think I was the first CH-3 in after two Air America
H-34's. The Lao troops panicked when the first H-34 landed and it took off with some
troops hanging onto the landing gear. The only Lao radio man on the ground got
aboard that H-34 and they had to go back, land and throw him out. When I came in the
troops appeared to be orderly but then rushed our aircraft. I told the flight engineer to
count about 60 people and we were then coming out of there. They were coming in
through both the ramp and the door with wounded and dead. Outside my cockpit
window a Lao officer was trying to restore order and I watched him split a guy's head
open with his pistol butt. When we were at about 2000 ft climbing out after we picked
up the troops, we heard a loud bang undemeath the aircraft and I thought we had been
hit. After landing back at NKP, I found a large hole about a foot in diameter under the
helicopter. When going in to pick up the Laos, I had landed on a stump and it had
lodged in the bottom of the fuselage. As we climbed out, it broke loose causing a loud
thumping sound. John Holt
As the helicopters were returning across Laos, a fast-mover (F-100 I believe)
went down, the pilot safely ejected and landed near their return route in Laos. The
downed pilot contacted one of the "Pony" (20th 808) CH-3E's on his survival radio and
they went in to pick him up. He was in a jungle area and the Pony hovered in the tree
tops and lowered the penetrator to him. While the downed pilot was being brought up
through the trees on the penetrator, the helicopter began to vibrate intensely. To
maintain control, the Pony pilot was forced to start forward out of the hover. A tree limb
apparently knocked the downed pilot off of the seat. Although he had failed to put the
penetrator harness on, he was hanging onto the seat. He was within a few feet of the
helicopter door when he could no longer hold on and fell several hundred feet to his
Helicopter Trap
In October 1969, we lost two CH-3E's on the Bolivens Plateau in a helicopter trap set by
a company size force of the North Vietnamese Army. This was on one of the 7th/13th
AF/D08A missions that we flew in support of the CIA efforts in the Laotian panhandle. I
was in the 8AR center in the command post throughout that day with the DCO. Eight
CH-3 crewmembers with the 50 Laotian troops they were inserting were pinned down in
a small depression in an open area. (The lead helicopter was on the ground and the
second just about to touchdown when the NV opened fire.)
Their A-1 escorts provided support but the NV were well dug in. Several attempts were
made throughout a very long day by HH-53 Jollys to pick them up. However, each time
the Jolly's had to abort with battle damage (several damaged HH-53's landed at NKP).
Finally at dusk, the wind dropped off and the A-1 's delivered "Peanuts" (non-lethal
debilitating gas) which allowed two HH-53's to make the pickup. Six of our
crewmembers and 49 Laotians got on the first Jolly leaving two lonely 21 st SOS
crewmembers on the ground. However, # 2 Jolly was right behind and picked them up.
One Laotian had been killed but everyone else got out. (Phil Conran, aircraft
commander of one of the downed Knife CH-3s, returned to one of the aircraft under
heavy fire to recover an M-60 machine gun and ammunition to assist in their defense.
Phil was recommended for the Medal of Honor and received the Air Force Cross -the
Nation's second highest award for valor -for his actions in recovering the machine gun
and leading the downed group's defense throughout the day even after being wounded.
Ted Silva, the squadron commander, flying as Phil's co-pilot, received a deep crease in
his back from a round. As I recall, several Laotians were also wounded.)
This incident and the fact that Phil Conran was nominated for the Medal of Honor
is mentioned in the book, "US Air Force in Southeast Asia, Tactical Airlift", mentioned
above. (Phil was awarded the Air Force Cross, the Nation's second highest award for
valor, for his actions that day.)
One thing that I also remember about that day in the SAR Center relates to the
MIA notices that were not sent. The personnel folks prepared miSSing in action (MIA)
messages on our eight crewmembers and the Chief of Personnel advised the Wing
Commander that they were supposed to be sent to AF HQ after personnel were downed
and not recovered within 2 hours. My boss the DCa, Colonel Ransom, and the Wing
Commander, Colonel Crosby, told personnel, "Not no, but HELL no!!". Throughout the
long day, the personnel folks kept telling the Wing Commander that regulations required
that the messages be sent. Thank God he had the wisdom not to comply with the
regulations or eight wives would have been notified during that day that their husbands
were MIA!
Another Helicopter Trap
Jerry Bucknall (21 st SOS Flight Engineer I gunner)
On 15 January 69, I was flying with Maj. Henery and Capt Adams on a fateful
mission. As I remember it, we were coming out of Nam from an over night stay due to a
long mission the day before. We were a three bird gaggle and we were the low (lead)
bird. We had no real data pertaining to angels or anything ---- no current codes
because we were not on a mission, only dead heading home. It might have been a
FAC but not sure who flagged us to help out in a pick up of a downed pilot. Understand,
we were just RTB, when we got a call to assist. After minimal coordination we decided
to give it a try and we wound up in a trap. VC machine guns were at the spot we were
vectored into. Within seconds our number two engine, control tubes and hydraulic
accumulators were gone. I remember the red mist in the cabin from the compressed air
and hydraulic fluid. Rounds came up through the floors and in through the door.
Everything seemed to be coming from the right side. We banked up and to the left
(uncontrolled flight) did a 360 and went in hard. I remember everything flying around the
cabin it felt as if we were almost inverted. After we hit we exited with our weapons and
gear and set up a perimeter off the nose of the ship. Maj Henerey got on the radio and
started calling for assistance. Since we were in direct sight of our sister ships we had
no trouble correlating our position. We all had our radios out but only Gerry talked. If I
remember correctly, Capt Adams was badly hurt. I remember I had my M-60 and the
M-79 grenade launcher along with ammo. I looked back at the ship and it looked like a
big spider with smoke coming out of the engine areas. The tail boom was broken and
leaning off to the side, the front cockpit windows shattered and the electronics
compartment door was pushed up to the window areas. The spider effect came from
the blades, broken and hanging down. From the front it looked like a big dark spider
smoking from its head. That particular sight remains in my memory till this day.
Anyway, the attempt was made to get a Jolly Green to assist, they seemed to be in the
area, not sure why. It was determined the area was too hot, VC were said to be on the
ground and coming our way, Jolly Green did not want to come in at that time. Number
two bird (I believe it was Capt Shetter, not sure about the name) said we are not leaving
our own down there and came in and picked us up. An experience I'll never
forget. Things could have been quite different had it not been for the courage of our
brothers on the number two ship. Evidently we did everything right as we were referred
to at the jungle school in the P.I. after that as part of the references of what to do in the
event you get shot down. Anyway, memories do flood back with the appropriate stimuli,
sometimes vague but always there. If my recollection is inaccurate in any way, it's mine
and I'll stay with it.
Gerard (Jerry) Bucknall
Note: Jerry Henery's description to me in 1969 of the ·shoot-down" was quite similar to
Jerry Bucknall's. Henery recalled that when the CH-3 was hit, the controls were
completely shot out and the uncontrolled helicopter went into a big loop which it
completed just before impacting with the ground. The crew was indeed fortunate to just
sUNive the impact of the crash!. Capt Dave Shetter was awarded the Silver Star for his
rescue action on that day. Jerry Henery was shot down for the second time during the
evacuation of Muong Soui, Laos on June 27, 1969. In that joint USAF / Air America
operation (described elsewhere, herein), Henery's CH-3 was coming out of the LZ,
which was under attack by North Vietnamese Army regulars, when automatic weapons
fire brought him down into a flooded rice paddy. I'm glad to say, that he went home in
one piece after that one! Bob Amau
Heavy Hook
(MACSOG Prairie Fire Detachment at NKP)
Bill Shelton (Detachment Commander)
SOG reconnaissance teams performed missions "across the fence" from various
locations in SVN, and Thailand. SOG stood for Studies and Observations Group, part of
MACV. The HQ was located in Saigon, with Command and Control detachments at:
Danang, C&C North or CCN; Kontum, C&C Central or CCC; and Ban Me Thuot, C&C
South or CCS. Prairie Fire was the code name for the SOG ops in the northern half of
the AO, while Daniel Boone was the code name for the southern AO.
Our unit was the "back door" launch/recovery site for SOG Ops. We used 56th SOW
assets, fragged to us daily from 7I13th AF. The package consisted of 2 FACs from 23d
TASS, 3 H3s (later H53s) from the 21 st SOS, and 4 A 1s from the 3 sqdns of the 56th}.
On some of the "troops in contact" emergencies, we used Army and USMC assets that
would hear our plight and "wander" into the AO with their gunships.
Targets were assigned to a recon team (RT) by MACSOG, Saigon. A 6km X 6km "no
strike" box was put on the center of the target, before the team was inserted. Several
days before insert, one of my troops would fly out with the FAC, taking
35mm hand held photos of the route to the target, the target HLZ, and the planned"
route back. The film was developed immediately in our small photo lab, made into
slides. The mission FAC and team were briefed as soon as possible. On the day of the
insert, one of us would brief the aircrews at 56th, showing the slides, and make final
preps. We had even developed a "silent" insert technique, where no radio xmsn took
place from take off until the team was on the ground and broke squelch to let the insert
AJC know they were OK. CPT Jay Merz of the 21 st SOS flew lead helo on the first of
this type insert. I think I was in the FAC, and we were orbiting several miles away from
the HLZ. The 21 sl birds were in and out of the HLZ before I could get back to the actual
Heavy Hook personnel wore camo fatigues, and a black baseball cap. No rank, no US
Army, and no name tags. (plausible denial). Once on the ground, teams did their jobs.
Our FACs monitored daily, but at night, the teams only had contact via survival radio
with the ABCCC birds, or with the BAT CATS. Any of the 23d or 20th TASS FACs who
were flying night missions could also monitor and assist the teams. It happened with
some regularity. Our teams were almost always outside the range of friendly artillery. so
USAF assets were essential in keeping our guys alive, and bringing them home. There
were so many acts of bravery on the part of these aircrews, that it would take pages to
relate the stories. Jim Henthorn has some of the info, Bob Noe of the Special
Operations Association has some, and lots of us have them in our failing memories.
(Bob Noe's site contains chrono lists by year of casualties, all services, for SOG
missions. As folks like me wander into the site, they send Bob updates. (Very teresting
On completion of the RT mission, or after they made contact, an exfiltration would be
called for. Most were done under fire. Bob Arnau can attest to the "intensity" of these.
There were no easy ones. After a successful exfil, the RTs were usually brought back to
the Hook, for initial debrief. After that, a party ensued. In the Hook bar, the RT members
(US only) could quaff a few, and swap stories with the air crews. (The indigenous team
members were required by treaty, to remain in the back room. We sent food and drink
so they could have their own small celebration of life in a more subdued and dignified
manner.) The next a.m., the "Blackbird" C130 would arrive and take the RT back to their
home base where they were further debriefed.
Unusual Night Rescues
The following recollection is from my squadron mate John Holt
In 1969 while I was on night recon an F4 crashed on the runway at Ubon. The wingman
of the crashed F4 could not land because the runway was closed. He headed for Udom.
We heard him on guard call for a tanker as he did not think he had enough fuel to make
it. I proceeded towards his flight path. About 50 or so miles west of the base the pilot
and observer ejected when they ran out of fuel. Rescue helicopters were scrambled
from Udom. I arrived in the general area about 10 minutes after they punched out. It
was a vel}' hilly area and dark night but I located both crewmembers by of all things
their "strobe lights". I got permission to proceed with the rescue as the choppers at
Udom were not even airborne. When we came to a hover over the pilot the dam hoist
failed to work. We then found a clearing where we could land about 1 mile from the
downed crewmembers. We sent out two of our crew on foot to tl}' and find them. About
45 minutes later they returned with both crewmembers from the F4 without a scratch on
them. We flew back to NKP. No one met us so we all went to the 0 Club and had some
drinks. I filled out my reports and never heard a thing about the incident again. Last year
I told the stOI}' to one of the F4 pilots on their website and he promptly told me who the
F4 crew was and what happened from their end.
My roommate crashed on a night recon around Xmas 68 when he was hovering over a
burning A 1 that had crashed. He got vertigo while looking at the fire. One Thai Guard
was killed.
John Holt's recollection regarding the F-4 crew reminded me of similar nighttime
incident. I hadn't been at NKP very long and was still flying as co-pilot. I had flown night
recce with Bud Kerr and we thought we were through for the night. Around 0300, we
were awakened and told to launch ASAP as an A-1 was headed back from the "Barrel
Roll" (northern Laos) with a chip light illuminated and a rough running engine. We were
airborne within minutes headed north. Shortly after we were in the air, we heard from
the A-1 's wingman that the rough engine had quit and the pilot had punched out just as
they crossed over the Mekong from Laos (up near Grove Jones as I recall). The pilot
had landed OK not far from the river on the Thailand side. We were shortly in the area,
guided by the fire of the crashed A-1 on the ground. We were able to contact the
downed A-1 driver on his survival radio (URC-64?). He said he heard distant groundfire, thought it was probably the 20MM cooking off from his crashed "Spad" but wasn't
sure. (He was on the Thai side of the river but none of us were all that sure of the
safety of that remote area with known insurgents.) At any rate, he said that he was in a
dry rice paddy and asked us to pick him up if we could. It was a very dark night but the
wingman said he had one flare left. In hindsight, making a night, remote area approach
under those conditions was certainly questionable, but we weren't about to leave the
guy on the ground for a couple of hours until daylight after he asked to be picked up!
The A-1 dropped his flare on target and we started our approach. Bud told me to stay
on instruments in case the flare went out. Sure enough, the flare went out when we
were a couple of hundred feet AGL. I took control and continued a slow descent on
instruments until we were low enough for the searchlight to give Bud enough light to go
visual. We touched down and a very happy A-1 driver quickly came aboard. We got
back to NKP well before daylight.
Like I said, I hadn't been at NKP very long, so I don't recall which 0-6 met us when we
landed. I do recall that first, "unofficially" ----- he thanked us for bringing the pilot home,
then ----- "officially", chewed our ass a wee bit for making an unauthorized night pickup.
(Unfortunately, we had been "unable" to contact the command post. That had been one
of those cases where "you don't ask a question if you can't stand a no answer"!) Like
John Holt, we heard nothing more about our incident. (Thankfully, so!)
Last Sensor Drop CH-3 Loss
John Holt has the dubious distinction of being the pilot of the last CH-3 shot down on a
sensor drop mission (Feb 1969). (After his "shoot-down", the last of several such
losses, the AF decided that placing sensors with helicopters wasn't viable, and
transferred the mission to the F-4s. Since 7th AF didn't want us to be bored, they
replaced the sensor drop mission with MACSOG "Prairie Fire"! The "Heavy Hook" SF
guys were far more interesting than sensors. The only catch was that, unlike the
sensors, you had to go retrieve them after they had done their job!) This is John's
memory of that fateful sensor drop mission:
I well remember the day we went down. John Hughes was my copilot and C.F.
Hill and w.J. Smith were the FE / gunners. While we were dropping a string of sensors
near the "Trail~ ground fire knocked out one of our engines. We were unable to climb
on one engine and steadily getting closer to the trees. As we were circling around while
receiving ground fire I saw what appeared to be heavy tracer fire directly in front of me
and we were going to fly straight into it. I thought we are dead for sure. As we entered
the zone it turned out to be leaflets dropped by a psyops Litterbug flying overhead at
about 10,000 feet. As the leaflets fluttered in the sun they sparkled and gave the
appearance of heavy ground fire. (This is confirmed on the "Waterboy Radar" rescue
tape when the Litterbug reported in on the radio. Is war crazy or what - people getting
shot at while leaflets are raining from the sky!)
I finally decided we could no longer fly. The remaining engine's temp was well
over the red line and we were unable to dump fuel -- we had a bird without fuel dump
capability! I recall Jim Dunn, flying #2, saying on the radio, "You better think about it
hoss - trying to get over those mountains on one engine ". Colonel White, the sFfh
SQW Wing Commander was the lead Hobo (A-1 escorts). He transmitted that I should
head south as there was a gun behind me firing at us. There were some flat rice
paddies to the southwest but I figured we would be in the open there and very subject
to getting our butts shot. So I elected to land on top of a hill in some trees and brush.
John Hughes reminded me on approach that we would not be able to hover which was
good thinking and I elected to go in gear down to absorb the shock. When we hit
(smooth landing of course) we were cutting down trees all over the place and the
chopper was really shaking but we stayed upright. It was only minutes until the bombs
from the A-1's were exploding (at least that is what I thought the concussions were). I
was concerned that #2 could not see us on the ground but alas, Jim Dunn and crew
soon showed up. (You know, I was never really scared until the next flight a few weeks
later but that passed when the mission began. You are just too busy in those situations
to be scared.) I always wondered what was going through the crews mind in back as I
don't think they could hear all the radio chatter. They could see a lot of fuel coming out
of the engine and smell it so I guess they had a right to be scared. Thanks to the skill
and guts of Jim Dunn and the crew of #2, we were picked up under "trying"
circumstances. Only those who were involved know just how trying those
circumstances were!
Tactics, History etc
More recollections by John Holt:
When I arrived at NKP in August 1968, the original group of pilots that came with
the 21 from the States were still there. I believe nearly all them were converted fixedwing pilots. This original cadre had established tactics for sensor string drops which
used two CH-3s, a high bird and a low bird. They had the high bird fly down with the low
bird to perhaps 1000 feet AGL or lower. I think I was the first lead pilot to have my
second helicopter stay high out of small arms range so we would not both be shot down
at once. I understand that the tactics were later changed to use two high birds. We
only used one high bird during my tour.
The group of pilots that arrived with me in 1968 to replace the initial cadre were
very experienced in flying helicopters. Many had been instructors at the conversion
school at Shepherd AFB. Our new commander, Lt Col Welch, was one of them. He had
given me my final check ride a couple of years earlier when I went through the
helicopter conversion school. (I was in the first group of fixed wing pilots to go through
the conversion school. That was around 1966 as I recalL) Although I was former fixed
wing, when I arrived at NKP I was an experienced helicopter pilot with around 2000
hours of helicopter time in UH-1 's and the H-43B. I was lead qualified after just one
mission. At one point, the squadron considered allowing only Instructor Pilots to become
leads I really was not too happy about that as only a few of us were IPs. Wisely, they
did not do that as nearly all the unit pilots at that time had a lot of helicopter experience.
The pilots of the first three helicopter losses that the squadron suffered had all
lived in the same room in the squadron hooch, Tryon Lindabury, myself and one
of the pilots from the original group. What are the odds on that? I carved a note to that
effect in the wall over my bed so the next guy sleeping there would have something to
think about.
I flew a mission to an unused airstrip in Laos to sling load out a large
special bomb that was still on an A-1 that had to make an emergency landing there.
The A-1 had landed on an abandoned runway and the pilot had no injuries.
Unfortunately, he had hit one or two water buffalo that were accompanied by some
young people. (I did not witness this but was told about it prior to my mission) I don't
know the nomenclature of the bomb we picked up but it was being tested for clearing
jungle areas by spreading a combustible vapor that then exploded. It was very large and
almost touched the ground when hung under an A-1. The bombs were being tested at
NKP (I only saw them a few times during the test) and there was a high priority placed
on getting the unused one back from Laos. On my way to the bomb a formation of
T-28's made a fighter type pass and scared the hell out of us. Undoubtedly some Thai
or Lao pilots having fun, probably out of Udorn AB.
During our spare time, we began building a party hooch in back of our sleeping
hooch. It was about half complete with the roof and walls up when without warning,
it totally collapsed. Fortunately no one was inside. I guess we were better at flying than
The first mission for all of us was an orientation flight with a Nail FAC putting in
strikes to give us a good look at the terrain in Laos. I flew in an 0-2. We found no
targets in our area and all we did that day was bob and weave at low level. He did fire
off some smoke rockets to show me how that worked.
About half way though my tour we got a new Wing Director of Maintenance. He
came though our squadron office on a visit and recognized me as former head of the
A & E Squadron at Turner AFB which maintained the avionics on B-52s and KC-135's.
Our unit had won the award for the outstanding A & E Squadron in the Air Force during
my tenure. Consequently, he requested that I be made commander of the A & E unit at
NKP. I was given the choice of taking the job or not. I would certainly have liked the job
but turned it down. I guess I was afraid I would be viewed as Chicken Little so I stayed
with the 21 SOS. Looking back I am glad I did.
John Holt
Bob's comments: The use of three CH-3s - one low, two high - was adopted
when the sensor drop missions were eliminated and replaced with Prairie Fire. Prairie
Fire infils / exfils were consistently at high density altitudes near the Trail. To make
matters worse, nearly all exfils were emergencies and usually required out-of-groundeffect hoist recoveries. Even after dumping fuel, we were often damned close to max
power in the hover while recovering the last members of the team. Had we gone down
at one of those locations, there would have then been 10 people to pick up rather than
6, an impossible task for a single CH-3 at those high density altitudes. Two high birds
were definitely required. On one such emergency recovery with the team under fire, I
was hovering in the tops of tall trees. (/ can still envision the tree top against my
windshield that I was using as a reference point to hold my hover position over the
team.) We had to lower the penetrator three times to get all six men. As the penetrator
was coming up the first time, an engine compartment fire waming light came on. Since
we had a slight tailwind, I optimistically ignored the light. The second time the hook was
coming up, the other engine fire warning light also came on. I now had both engine fire
lights on and two team members still on the ground. I suppose that I should have pulled
off and called #2 in - - - but there was no way I could leave those two guys on the
ground alone. We got them up on the third cycle of the penetrator and fortunately the
fire lights went out after I got translational lift and was able to reduce power.
Keeping the low helicopter in sight from the high birds was often difficult. (The
helicopters had camouflage paint that worked the way it was intended blending into the
dense jungle backdrop,) Someone came up with an excellent solution painting a
portion of the top of one rotor blade with white paint. That greatly aided us in keeping
sight of the low bird from above.
The orientation FAC mission was still the policy when i arrived. I went with an
o V-1 a Nail. (The back seat of an 0 V-1 a is one of the most uncomfortable rides I've
ever had. The prop tips come within inches of your head and the noise / vibration levels
are awful. Of course, adding to my discomfort was the fact that it was the first time I had
been shot at!) We put several strikes in that day including one of Navy birds dropping
miines of some sort in a narrow river. On one of the strikes on a "suspected truck park"
we got some pretty large secondary explosions. A very interesting mission.
Throughout my tour, I was continually impressed with the outstanding leadership
and maturity displayed by the FACs, most of who were young captains and lieutenants.
Their ability to keep track of multiple flights of fighters, assign priorities based on the fuel
state / ordnance loads of each flight and ability to remain calm under great pressure
was truly impressive. I remain an ardent admirer of the SEA FACs and particularly of
those Nails (with the MACSOG Covey rider) who coordinated the fighter / helicopter
efforts on Prairie Fire emergency exfils. They saved a lot of lives.
Bob Arnau
8-52 Arc Light - Up Close
I had the unwanted opportunity to observe a B-52 Arc Light strike from a too close
vantage point in 1969. We had "infilled" a MACSOG "Prairie Fire" team near the trail in
Laos just south of the DMZ and landed at Quang Tri to refuel. While leading the flight as
we climbed out of Quang Tri on our return to NKP, I called every air and ground control
unit in the book for clearance through the area to avoid air strikes and artillery. (Friendly,
outbound artillery shells go quite high and always win mid-airs with helicopters!) I was
leading the flight of 3 CH-3E's and 4 A-1 escorts and we were still climbing, headed
west about 4,000' AGL when the ground at our 1 o'clock position about a mile away
started erupting! Between curses, I had the flight break hard left. Looking up, we could
hardly see the Buffs high above through the haze. As we watched what looked like
Armageddon below, I remember feeling sorry for the poor SOBs on the ground! It was
truly awesome! I don't care how deep they were dug in, if the "Gomers" were there,
they were dead! The psychological impact of Arc Lights on the enemy had to have
been sign ificant.
The following are recollections of another squadron mate, Jay Merz. They are
taken from Jay's e-mails.
Long Tieng, Laos (Lima 20A)
Who remembers the green and red plywood and machine gun tower signals for road
traffic at Long Tieng?
The runway at Long Tieng in Northern Laos was unusual to say the least.The
west end "barrier" was a karst (black larva rock) mountain that formed a vertical wall at
the end of the pavement. All fixed wing traffic landed west and departed east without
regard for the wind. The west third of the runway had a hump that prevented aircraft on
one end from seeing aircraft on the other end. There was a heavily used municipal
street that crossed near the middle of the runway. The tower operators would pull in a
green and slide out a red sheet of plywood to stop road traffic when an aircraft was
departing or arriving. If their signal was ignored by the road traffic the tower operator
would step out and fire a machine gun into the air. That happened several times a day
and it usually stopped the road traffic. All this is background for a couple of short
stories. If they put this stuff in a war movie everybody would think it could never happen
that way.
#1. We parked our two H-3's on the north gravel apron near the east end of the
runway at Long Tien. A CIA pilot came down in an old Dodge six passenger truck to
take us to a weather brief at the west end. Half way up the runway we pulled off to the
side because the tower put out the red signal for a departing Air America C-123. We
could just see the tail of the C-123 at the west end. A Laotian captain had just parked
his T-28 and he was also heading for a weather brief while his aircraft was re-armed.
He was stopped in front of us on a red motor cycle impatiently waiting for clearance
from the tower. Several minutes and much motor cycle engine revving went by. The C123 was not moving. The Laotian pilot started up the runway with his white scarf
flapping in the wind. He waved for us to follow him. As we passed in front of the tower
the tower operator stepped out and started firing his machine gun into the air. The
Laotian pilot took his 38 out and emptied it into the air while racing up the runway one
handed. Our truck was in close trail. We made it before the C-123 departed.
#2. One of our CH-3's split away from a refugee shuttle with a maintenance
problem. He landed at Long Tieng. The tower operators sometimes had problems with
English. Our pilot was cleared to hover taxi across the runway to the south apron. A
departing armed T-28 struck the helicopter on the right main gear and the electronics
compartment nose door. The T-28 pilot ejected and landed with a serious head injury.
The H-3 lost the nose door, the pilots lower right window and the right main gear
scissors was broken. After "expedient" repairs (duct tape) at Long Tieng, I escorted the
CH-3 (at 40 knots) that night to Udorn for repairs. The boat hull made the H-3 a tough
Guests of the General
The 21 SOS was on one of the major mission (of two that occurred during my first
tour at NKP, Aug 59-Aug 70) to northern Laos to relocate refugees for General Vang
Pao. All ten of the squadrons HH-3E's had been picking up refugees from an LZ just
West of North Vietnam (north of the PDJ) and very close the Laos/China border. We
normally spent the night in Thailand because a lot of H-3's spending the night in Laos
were too attractive a target for a night attack. Two days into the shuttle bad weather
was forcing us back to Lima Site 20A. We made it in through the "back door" under the
capable guidance of one of our CIA friends. A gaggle of 10 H-3's in trail in a narrow
winding series of valleys with very limited visibility was not much fun. We planned an
early morning stage out for the relocation of thousands more Mao Tribesmen and their
families. I was the lead aircraft commander with our Squadron Commander as my
copilot. We were to restart the shuttle of refugees following an early morning
coordinated join up with our NKP A-1 escorts. We were met at 20A by another CIA
escort who set up rooms for the crews in their little BOQ/Club hooch.
The Sq.lCC and I were surprised when he and I were invited to dinner at General
Vang Pao's Headquarters. We were escorted by our CIA host who served as our
interpreter. It was late afternoon and the three of us were standing with some of the
General's staff along the wall of a large meeting room. The general was seated at the
end of the room. Several armed guards physically drug a very distraught uniformed
Laotian Captain into the room for a hearing before the general. Our interpreter provided
a brief summary. The Captain was being accused of being less than aggressive in
leading his men in the defense of a hilltop position. He was declared guilty and
sentenced to time in an underground tiger pit. This was not considered a good
sentence by the captain. His legs collapsed and he was carried protesting from the
room. My boss was called forward by the general and presented with a Mao antique
rifle (I believe it was a muzzle loader with a pistol grip stock). We adjourned to the next
room for drinks followed by dinner. The three of us were the only non Laotians of about
20 at the table. Everybody was provided with a water glass that was 'Yo filled with
Napoleon Brandy. The General was very gracious and pleased to be offering us an
excellent brandy. Serving plates were passed with rice, with a vegetable that looked
like spinach and two sauce and meat and or vegetable dishes. I did not know it but my
squadron commander and I were about to provide our escort with his entertainment for
the evening. I started with a small bite of the spinach. It was absolutely the second
hottest (peppery) thing that I have ever put into my mouth. My mouth was on fire.
Tears were welling up in my eyes. The only drink on the table was brandy and I was
afraid that it would not provide me with any relief. I did not want to create a scene so I
sought out a large fork full of the rice dish to quell the fire. The harmless and familiar
looking rice was far spicier than the spinach. It was absolutely the hottest (peppery)
thing that I have ever put in my mouth. Our escort sitting to my left was nearly in
stitches. He had seen this before. My boss to my right was whispering something
along the line of "what is your problem?" I grabbed for the brandy. My boss was next.
In seconds we were both rinsing out our mouths with brandy. Neither of us ate much for
dinner. I was glad to get back to the hooch for a cold beer. So much for that cultural
A short follow on ------the next morning the Long Tieng valley was socked in.
After numerous checks with the weather people at NKP we decided it would be hours
before we could restart the shuttle. My boss took off for the CIA main hooch to wash
some cloths. Minutes later the weather started clearing. I got back together with NKP
weather and their latest data said it was a go. I called for our escorts and sent the
crews the word to crank up. My boss arrived aboard (after some delay) with a great wet
wad of dripping flight suits and underwear. The laundry was plopped down under the
flight engineers seat were it could drip down into the electronics compartment below. I
was leading our ten H-3's, talking up a rendezvous with our escorts coordinating with
the ABCCC and the TUOC at NKP. My boss was ringing out his shorts and tee shirts
and draping them around the cockpit on the seat backs and over the armor plate. I did
insist that he let me uncover the chip lights and some of the other silly things I thought
were important. War is weird.
After a couple of days of this evacuation mission, the first bird into the LZ one
morning had a rocket hit the LZ just outside the rotor disk. It killed and wounded many
people ready to load. The H-3 took over 200 hits. It vaulted into the air and one of the
back enders emptied his M-16 into the source of the rocket smoke at the bottom of the
hill the LZ was on. His BIM light came on and hydraulic fluid started leaking into the
cabin but it turned out to be coming from the rotor brake reservoir. The vault into the air
resulted in a main gear box and double engine change due to over torque and over
temp. Two days later we continued shuttling from another LZ a few miles away. These
LZ's were east of the POJ about 3-4 miles from the N Viet border. We were moving
loads of 50 to 70 pax per bird. I believe these pax were dependents of Gen Vang Pao's
troops trying to get back to a more secure area prior to the start of the rainy season.
Jay Merz H-3 Pilot 21S0S Aug 69-Aug 70.
No Hover, No Go
In April 1970 in Laos the 21st Sp Ops Sq had been conducting emergency
refugee evacuations from a high narrow LZ that was east of the Plain Oe Jars and about
three miles from N Viet Nam. Each of our 10 HH-3E's had been shuttling 50 to 75
refugees per sortie to a base near the POJ for several days from dawn to dusk. Most
armor plate, the refueling probe, seats, forward door, aft ramp and the drop tanks were
removed from all the birds to reduce weight.
One of the newer pilots in the squadron came up to me an told me that we
were right when we told him that if you don't know what you weigh don't take off if you
can't hover. This was his tale:
"Since we were the last bird on the last sorlie of the day, we had the irrigation pump that
had been converled to pump fuel from drums tied down at the back. We dropped off
four Laotian soldiers. The three soldiers whom they relieved and the body of a fourlh
(wrapped in parachute material) were loaded first. The sun was setting and the
refugees were in a panic to escape capture by the N. Vietnamese. They scrambled
aboard in a horde and packed in like sardines. We had no seat belts. The dust chased
the rest away when we tried to hover. It wouldn't hover so we decided to try a running
take off. Our tail rotor just cleared the lip of the LZ. At an optimum climb speed and at
maximum power plus al/ the extra torque that backing out the topping screws would get
us we were still descending at 200-300 FtiMin into a jungle covered valley where we
had drawn fire earlier. Our fuel was already below the level that would dump. We
ordered the flight engineers to reduce our load. They threw out both M-69 machine
guns and the ammo cans. One engineer starled Climbing over the refugees to get
to the back while the other began fighting our passengers for their sacks of pots, rice
and personal belongings. These were going out the front door. The webbing and tie
downs at the back were cut so that the pump, the hoses and the body of the soldier
could be jettisoned. His three friends threw out their weapons and grenades. For a few
seconds they thought they were next. Dumping the pump was the key. We circled the
valley twice while climbing at about 100 FtiMin just to clear the hills. The first time we
came off maximum power was to land at the refugee drop off point. The next time she
won't hover, we don't go. "
Jay Merz H-3 Pilot 21505 Aug 69-Aug 70.
More Prairie Fire
Reading about some of the missions some of you experienced or heard about
brought up some of my memories. One of them follows. This may not be error free. It
has been a few years.
On 21 Apr 1970 I was scheduled for a before dawn get up to be the aircraft
commander of the third (in a Prairie Fire team infiltration gaggle) of three CH-3E's and
four A-1 E's. We had studied the LZ photos and did most of our flight planning the
evening of the 20th. The briefing included six 21505 pilots, four A-1 Hobo pilots and a
Prairie Fire OV-10 FAC with his Army (Heavy Hook) liaison troop in the back seat. The
third helicopter was needed due to the high elevation of the LZ and the size of the team
(two US and six indigenous). We always planned for enough high birds to pull out the
team and the lead helicopter crew when needed. The infiltration point was about 35
miles west of Quang Tri where we planned to hot refuel (one engine and rotors turning)
while our A-1's circled to escort us back to NKP. The LZ was near a nearly bald ridge
near the ankle of a mountain called "the boot." It was in Laos east and a little south of
the Tchepone (Muang Xepon) Pass. The OV-10 reported the weather good in the LZ
area. The black C-130 dropped the black pajama clad team off into Heavy Hook's step
van. The van backed up to the running lead bird. The team loaded and we launched
the gaggle out of NKP. The gaggle drew a lot of AAA ( 23MM) fire from a ridge near our
"safe" trail crossing point just as we started our decent through the scattered clouds.
We were above 23MM range but I marked the muzzle flash points on my map for the
debrief. The lead H-3 and two A-1 's inserted the team while the rest of us stayed above
small arms range just below the clouds. We gassed up at Quang Tri. A check with the
FAC on the way back to NKP established that all was quiet with the team. We placed
our birds on alert by setting all the switches for a scramble start and went to the NKP
club for lunch.
A few hours later we were ordered to scramble for an emergency exfiltration because
our team was in a fire fight and two team members (including the US team leader) were
wounded. The number two H-3 could not launch due to a maintenance problem so I
moved up to the number two position. The team was fighting their way toward a steep
ridge clearing and due to the slope both helicopters would be needed to get the team
out. We drew the same AAA fire at our trail crossing point. The lead H-3 approached
the LZ from the SW where there was a notch in the trees. He reported small arms fire
with no hits during his final approach. The A-1's were working over the area SW of the
team with CBU's (cluster bomb units) and 20MM with fleshettes (small steel darts in the
head of an explosive 20MM machine gun shell).
The indigenous tribes people in Laos practice slash and burn agriculture were the jungle
is cut down and burned free of brush. A crop is planted in the clearing for a year or two
until the poor soil needs to be left for a new site. The ridge top clearing that the team
was trying to reach was fairly flat. The team was exhausted and couldn't make it to
the top carrying the wounded. The steep slope were the lead bird hovered over the
team was covered with 6 ft tall stumps that had been cut by somebody standing on the
uphill side of the trees. There was no ground cushion due to the steep grade of the
slope. The lead bird hoist loaded the two US troops and the wounded indigenous troop.
He drew fire with no hits going out of the LZ and reported that he had over temped
both engines and he had over torqued his main gear box picking up the three team
members. He departed for the hospital and fuel at Quang Tri.
We always gave the lightest H-3 to the flight lead. I was now heading into the LZ to pick
up five exhausted team members with a heavier H-3 and no high bird. The A-1's
worked over the SWapproach route but we still drew fire from troops in the jungle along
the approach course. They probably were shooting at our noise because the tree cover
below the LZ area was too thick to see us. We could tell were the bad guys were by
the direction that the team was firing. I came to a hover over the team with my rotor
blades about a foot from the tall stumps in the front. The team was about 25 feet below
the front (rescue hoist) door.
I was using all available power just to hold that hover. If we had tried to hoist the team
aboard the weight would force us down into the tree stumps off our nose and rolled us
down the hill on top of them. I moved up the hill to the level clearing and landed. We
told the OV-10 that the team would have to come up where we were because we could
not pick them up off the slope. We later learned that there was an enemy command
post a click (1000 meters) south of our position. The A-1's continued to make strafing
passes (below were we were sitting) to the south to help keep heads down. Our
backenders were watching the tree lines for bad guys. We were very low on fuel
because we always dumped to lighten our load on the way into an LZ. It took the team
what seemed like forever to move up the hill. It probably was about ten minutes.
They finally made it most of the way up to us to an area that had shorter stumps and
that was not so steep. Just as we lifted off and hovered over to the team a cobra
gunship arrived over the LZ and circled the area. We didn't know it, but the Heavy Hook
liaison troop in the OV-10 had been working the army net to get us some cover. We
picked up three team members on the first hoist lift and two on the second. I hover
taxied up to the flat area and dove off the hill to the Sw. We drew small arms again
from the same SW source. Two team members lying on their stomachs at the door and
both of our gunners fired into the jungle to keep heads down as we departed. We made
it to Quang Tri to drop off the team on fumes with an in-commission H-3. While we
were hot refueling we got an HF radio call from the 21S0S Ops Officer at NKP. He
directed that we switch aircraft. They wanted our more experienced crew to stay in Viet
Nam to test hop the broken H-3. The first crew took off in our bird and joined the four
waiting A-1 's for the flight to NKP and a great party.
We spent four wonderful nights in Quang Tri putting two new engines and a new main
gear box on the H-3. Quang Tri is on the ocean and very sandy. We could walk from
our hooch to the latrine, to the little PX and to the dining hall without stepping off of a
rotor blade. The whole base used damaged UH-1 rotor blades for sidewalks. We flew
down to Da Nang for some technical assistance from the Jolly Green H-3 maintenance
unit there. The next day we joined up with a Lt. in a lone NKP A-1 that had just received
a new engine at Da Nang. We all tested out our new engines while flying over the Ho
Chi Minh Trail back to NKP.
Jay Merz, 21 SOS, NKP Aug 69 to Aug 70.
(I ended up with 1000 hours in the H-19 and almost 3500 hours in the H-3. I was a
captain with about 3000 helicopter hours at the time of this 1970 story.)
The following are some of my recollections of our efforts to improve the success of our
SOG teams and some one or two of a kind missions that I remember.
False Infiltration: We had experienced several missions where our road watch teams
were being pursued or harassed almost as soon as we put them in. Somebody came
up with the idea of using one of the high H-3's and their escorts to confuse the troops
on the ground. The formation would split up after crossing the trail. While the team was
being inserted on the planned LZ or ridge line with an H-3 and two A-1's and an OV-10
on another nearby ridge or clearing an empty H-3 would hover for a minute or two with
A-1 's passing nearby to confuse any forces assigned to pursue or investigate a possible
team. It is very difficult to pinpoint where helicopter rotor noise is coming from when
heavy vegetation obstructs your view. I recall participating in several false infiltration's
in order to improved the chances that our teams would be able to accomplish their
missions .
. Radio Silent Infiltration: We decided that some reduced success of some of our teams
may have been caused by enemy monitoring of our routine radio traffic to air traffic
control agencies, command posts, FAC's, escorts and wingmen. We pre-briefed and
pre-coordinated several radio silent mission. I recall one mission where it worked too
well. I was the lead H-3. We arrived over the LZ. We split away from our high birds.
We passed by the FAC and inserted the team. We rejoined our high birds and departed
for Quang Tri for a hot refueling. Probably due to low clouds the FAC had totally missed
the infiltration and our entire gaggle. The first time they new that they had missed the team
insertion was when the team call in from the ground that all was quiet. Sometimes special
tactiCS fake out more people than intended .
. Snatch Missions: I recall pulling a special two man team out that had only been in one
or two days. The team consisted of a blue eyed American NCO with dyed black hair
and one local troop. They came out with three people. The third was snatched to
provide some current intelligence. That same NCO on another mission ejected from the
back seat of an OV-10 and was the sole survivor of shoot down near the DMZ hat
caused some very sad days at NKP for us all.
Jay Merz, H-3 pilot, 21 SOS, Aug 69-Aug 70
Cambodia Missions
Cambodia infiltration: This mission turned out to be a leaming experience for a young
A-1 driver. I was one of the high birds on a four H-3, four A-1 long range mission way
south to west central Cambodia. It was a six man team with no Americans. About 2030 miles into Cambodia and not far from the LZ my H-3 developed a serious problem
that was a clear indication that I needed to head for a friendly base. We tumed for
Korat with one of the A-1 'so The team was inserted without incident without us. The
weather at Korat was tuming bad. There was a mean looking thunderstorm just west of
the base. The wind was out of the east so all traffic (a Specter C-130 gun-ship and
several Wolf, F-4's) was landing to the east. The east half of the base was clear and
VFR. At about ten miles I asked for a special VFR. I was cleared in special VFR and
tumed over to the tower. The A-1 liked the sound of that clearance but they ignored his
request for it. He was vectored to a downwind that took him right into the storm. He
landed about 30 minutes after we had shutdown. He described a harrowing radar
vectored trip through the storm with turbulence, hail, heavy rain and lightening. It did
not sound like fun. He asked me what was that" special VFR." I had to explain to him
that they wouldn't give it to him because it was a helicopter only clearance .
. Cambodia exfiltration: The same team above had been in for a week and I was the
lead H-3 on the exfil. The LZ area was covered with low (40'to 50') thinly spaced trees
that were just thick enough to prevent landing so we started a penetrator and hoist exfil.
The team had apparently never seen a penetrator. They fiddled with it to a point
where my hoist operator saw the need to pull it back up. He folded down the seats and
sent it back down so they could see how to use it. Two got on and we almost lost one
of them during boarding because they failed to use the nylon strap. The hoist operator
pulled out the straps and showed them to the rest of the team. The second time three
team members boarded the penetrator. One on a seat with straps properly under his
arms and around his back the third was standing on the seat holding on to that cable
two feet above the penetrator with no safety strap. The third was hanging below the
seats with a safety strap on. We just barely managed to get them aboard without
dropping them. The last team member came up alone without incident. This three ring
circus penetrator exfil that almost resulted in dropping two of the team took about three
times as long as it should have. The team is lucky my hoist operator didn't kill them all
after he got them aboard. When we got back to NKP I put a penetrator over my
shoulder and marched off for a discussion with Bill Shelton at Heavy Hook. I
respectfully asked that they hang the jungle penetrator in their briefing room so we
would never have to pull out a team that had never seen one.
Jay Merz, 21 st SOS, CH-3 Pilot, Aug 1969-70
Colonel Robert R. Amau, USAF (Ret)
1423 Timberlane Drive
Riverside, CA 92506
ABC Evening News, Feb 16, 1971 ------- Commentary by Harry Reasoner
You can't help but have the feeling that there will come a future generation of
men - - if there are any future generations of men - - who will look at old pictures of
helicopters and say - - "You've got to be kidding".
Helicopters have that look that certain machines have in historical drawings - machines or devices that came just before a major breakthrough - - record changers
just before the lightweight vinyl LP, for instance.
Mark Twain once noted that he lost belief in the conventional pictures of angels
of his boyhood. when a scientist calculated that for a 150 pound man to fly like a bird he
would have to have a breastbone 15 feet wide supporting wings in proportion.
That's sort of the way a helicopter looks. The thing is, helicopters are different
from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly
by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly.
A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces
and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in the
delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is not
such thing as a gliding helicopter.
This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot,
and why, in generality, airplane pilots are: "Open, clear-eyed buoyant extroverts" and
helicopter pilots "are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. "
They know if something bad has not happened, it is about to.
All of this, of course, is greatly complicated by being shot at. American helicopter
crews are being shot at more often and more accurately these days from North Vietnam
to Khe Sanh to Tchepone, than at almost any other time in this whole war. It has been a
helicopter war all along - - and the strange, ungainly, unlovable craft have reached the
peak of being needed and the peak of being vulnerable at the same moment.
Everyone who has flown over combat zones in Vietnam in a helicopter knows the
heart-stopping feeling you get when you have to go below 2 thousand feet: the men
going in and out of Laos and North Vietnam rarely get a chance to fly that high. They
must be very brave men indeed.
This is a war we could not have considered without our helicopters. The pilots
and crewmembers are beginning to feel like Mark Twain's man who was tarred and
feathered: "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, they would just as soon have
missed it."
. . . . . . . .-<>----
21 st Special Operations Squadron
Aug 31,2002
Tail number
survived I destroyed
destroyed, 6 Nov 69
destroyed, 13 Aug 70
no info
no info
destroyed, 26 Feb 69
66-13294 ***
no info
destroyed, 15 Jan 69
Wright-Patt AF Museum
ground fire near Ubon, Thailand
last sensor drop mission loss
24 Oct 70
3 Feb 69
Tunisian AF
30 Mar 68
23 May 68
Warner Robbins AFB Museum
Desert Storm, Tunisian AF
* Arnau Form 5
** Kibby Form 5
*** Squadron yearbook
Survived/destroyed info from Jolly Green list at: htto:/lwww.jollygreen.orglhh-3e.htm
And from Jim Henthorne's list at:
AF records indicate that during 1969, seven CH-3s were lost to ground fire in SEA.
Among these, on 27 June 69, one CH-3E was lost to ground fire during evacuation of
Muong Soui, Laos (Hennery & Mattos). On 6 Oct 69, two CH-3Es were lost while
inserting Laotian SGUs near Muong Phine, Laos in a helicopter trap set by the NVA.
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