Cutting the Jungle
Flying Assault Helicopter in Laos
How to Grow up
in Sixty Days or Less
A story about the BlueStars
(48th AHC) in Vietnam and the Vietnamese
invasion into Laos in 1971 to cut the supply line on
the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
guys and a fun place. That was my first impression of the 48th Assault
Helicopter Company when I arrived in Ninh Hoa, Vietnam in early January,
I had been to Vietnam before, with the 1st
Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in 1966 and 1967 as a grunt, and although
it was a tough year, I survived without getting too messed up. Now I was
looking forward to this Ninh Hoa tour as a new chapter in my life, and I
intended to take full advantage of it. I had just graduated from flight
school and was looking for some excitement. When I was fifteen growing up
in New York I was arrested for stealing a car and incarcerated. That was
juvenile. I needed to grow up. Maybe this would be the time. Just maybe.
After all, I was going to be a helicopter
pilot in charge of my own aircraft. Little did I know that, for better or
for worse, for all the fun times, for all my personal ups and downs, I
would have some of the best times of my life intermixed with many of the
worst nightmares believable while flying in the 48th Assault Helicopter
Company. My memories of that time are events mixed with images and I
remember some better than others.
Oh yes, I remember that highly flammable
BlueStar special (a mixture of various types of alcohol served in a very
large glass) that first night with the company when Randy (another new
guy) and I were on stage at the officer's club in Ninh Hoa. Randy chugged
his drink without stopping and then vomited on the stage - and I remember
how everyone thought that was very funny. So did I. I finished mine too,
and minutes later left the bar to do the same thing.
I remember my engine failure in aircraft
#388 in the cemetery south of the Ninh Hoa refueling point which they
coined "A Grave Incident." I recall the Bob Hope
"flyover" in Da Nang and how the general got pissed off that we
did it. Of course, the fight with the Air Cav in the club at Marble
Mountain. And yes, we did win that fight; just ask any BlueStar that was
there. I remember the day when Rogers was severely hurt after his Joker
helicopter gunship went down, and how some of us visited him in the
hospital the next day. He was in a coma. His co-pilot was there too, but
due to a massive back injury, he was suspended on some kind of gismo where
he could only look at the floor. He was in such pain and couldn't say much
except "thanks for coming guys, thanks for coming". Rogers died
later that night. I only recently learned his first name was Tom.
I remember all the fun. Like enjoying
several conversations with Fred Cristman in the bar at Ninh Hoa. Fred
later went "Missing in Action" Or like flying as a Peter Pilot
(a brand new helicopter pilot) with an Aircraft Commander that liked to
chase birds and kill them with the rotor blades. Or the time we landed in
the rice paddies southwest of Tuy Hoa to check out the rice harvester's ID
cards. All this we did just for the fun of it. Kind of like taking the
family out for a Sunday afternoon drive. We were very young then and
thought we were so immortal.
But all that changed soon thereafter. As a
grunt with the 101st I remember there were some very horrific times
especially during my last month there in May (29th), 1967, when half of my
platoon was killed in action when we got ambushed on some godforsaken
ridge line west of Duc Pho. But little did I expect that sad times would
return again, just at a different time and at a different place. The winds
of war were about to change and not for the better either.
We were going to Dong Ha - and then into
Laos for Operation Lam Son 719, the bold Vietnamese incursion into Laos to
cut the supply line on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The operation started on
February 8th, 1971.
I won't go into all the incidents that me
and other crews experienced during that operation for there are literally
hundreds of them. I do remember a lot and want to tell all the stories
someday, but for now I do want to tell one story. It's a story that
reveals a little about the character of the Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and
Gunners in the 48th AHC. We were nothing special then. Just ordinary
helicopter crews, like all other crews in the US Army in Vietnam. It could
have happened to other guys, and if it did then the names and faces of
those crews would have been different, but the character of those crews
would have been the same as well as the heroics. I am absolutely sure of
that. It was just our turn. That's all.
It was February 28, 1971, a morning just
like all other mornings at Dong Ha. An early wake-up, putting on a jacket
because of the cold, a crapola breakfast, and an early takeoff to Pickup
Zone Kilo just south of Khe Sanh. We would shut down at the PZ most days
then stand around in small groups telling jokes to keep our minds off what
was yet to come. There were other guys that just lay in their helicopters
staring at the roof. I knew what they were thinking, we all did. Many of
the guys had already been shot down at least once before.
Just then, as usually happened, we got our
mission for the morning. We were to cross the border, fly into Laos and
extract about eighty ARVN (South Vietnamese) dead and wounded soldiers
from a PZ somewhere west of LZ (landing zone) Blue. This PZ was supposedly
surrounded. Oh shit, here we go again.
Well, off we went, trying not to think about
what was ahead of us and trying to concentrate on staying alive. The
aircraft was 276, I was the Aircraft Commander and Major Bunting was in
the right seat (and of course in total command of the operation).
Everybody liked Major Bunting, he was a great leader at a time when we
needed a great leader. Specialist Sauer was the Gunner and the Crew Chief
was, well, I think his last name was Thomas but I just don't remember his
first name. The Major and I had been shot down on February 8, 1971, and I
was very worried about his magnetism. Maybe he was worried about mine as
well. It was kind of tense.
We flew west. It was a clear day, except for
some type of thin reddish "clouds" on the horizon. It seemed
like these clouds formed at the border of Laos and Vietnam. And they sure
did. When we approached these clouds, we found them be made out of vapor
and dust particles mixed with gunpowder, napalm and other ordnance
expended from the day before. It was a terrible smell, but it was the
smell of reality, a smell of what was yet to come. Everybody who flew into
Laos remembers that smell. It was there day after day.
There must have been at least 15 helicopters
flying that day in trail formation. As we approached the PZ, there was a
strange and tense calm. I mean nobody was shooting at us. How cool! What
the heck was going on? We set down quickly in the PZ. I could see the
wounded ARVN soldiers being carried to our chopper. Their bodies were so
mangled and bloody. Just as they approached, a mortar round exploded at
our 2 o'clock position about fifteen to twenty meters away. We were hit.
It was a trap.
There was a lot of chaos on our intercom.
Some yelling and some screaming (the type of screaming that goes on after
people are wounded). I knew we were hit bad. "Let's get the frick out
of here" I said to myself. As I took off and headed past the tree
line all hell broke loose. We were hit by multiple rounds. I remember some
coming through the chin bubble and hitting the bottom of my armored seat.
The incoming fire knocked the machine gun out of the Crew Chief's hand. I
turned right. We took more fire. Sauer was hit and the Major had a piece
of shrapnel in his right leg. Cliff Whiting, Steve Williams and crew were
in Chalk 2 and right behind us. They told us that we were on fire and to
set it down. I remember over and over how they said, "Dan, you're on
fire, put it down, put it down". Well, off we went limping to a
clearing not more than a mile from the PZ. It was perfect. It must have
been put there by God; it was the only clearing around. I set down on a
terrible slope. Somehow I just knew that Cliff and crew would pick us up.
I just was so sure of that. I knew Cliff.
We hurriedly exited the helicopter as the
Joker gunships were tearing up the treelines all around us with their
UH-1C helicopters. Wow, I felt like we might actually make it out of here.
It was a very secure feeling. Rockets were exploding everywhere. Joker
machine gun fire never ceased and they kept on coming, flying low over us
and causing havoc everywhere, and all the while taking fire as they
covered our rescue. And guess what? Cliff and crew were already hovering
right next to us. How did they get there so fast, I thought?
I remember running towards their helicopter
but his crew chief pointed to something behind me. It was Sauer limping
and clawing his way out of our downed aircraft. I went back for him.
Cliff's Crew Chief and Gunner helped us into their chopper. I don't know
how they did it. Their helicopter was at a high hover due to the high
bushes, trees, and high grass in the LZ. But, they managed to haul us up
and lift us in. We were not exactly small guys. Thanks guys, thanks.
After we boarded, I remember looking at
Steve William's face. He was smiling. A type of smile that made me feel
that I was back amongst friends. Cliff hauled ass out of there with no
delay. Sauer was bleeding profusely from his groin area. We ripped the
first aid kit off the wall behind Steve's seat. We tried to stop the
bleeding, but there was just so much blood. We tried, but could not find
the wound. We were flown to Khe Sanh and to the field hospital there. We
made it. Wow, we made it out of there once more.
Later that afternoon, we all returned to
Dong Ha. I went to bed early that night. I certainly, didn't feel like
discussing the day's event with anyone. It was just another day anyway.
Tomorrow would be another day with other horrors. All the crews had a day
like I had, all of them. The stories were different, but everyone went
through their own private hell over there.
I never saw Sauer again. He did live, but I
never heard anything about him. I do know he was hurt badly. And guess
what? I never knew his first name either. And I never asked who Cliff's
Crew Chief and Gunner were that day. I feel ashamed about that.
In the days that followed more BlueStar
aircraft (slicks and gunships) were shot down. People were killed and
crews were MIA. Some 25 BlueStar and Joker helicopters of the 48th went
down during that operation, and many, many more were shot up. More friends
and brave people lost their lives. That's the way it was. It went on day
after day with no letup for almost sixty days.
I learned a lot that day and in the days
that followed. I learned about people and friends. And I learned that
being an Army aviator meant helping your buddies when they need help.
Learning that most people when faced by extraordinary events turn out to
be extraordinary. I learned to remember people's first names, and to trust
people with whom I work. But most of all I learned that you can always
count on the helicopters that are behind you and the courageous crews that
fly them. No matter where you are. The pilots and crew will always be
there for you.
Yes, I finally grew up. Today I live with my
two sons in southeast Florida. Life has been kind to me, but when I am
faced with tough times, I think back to those days in Laos and the 48th
Assault Helicopter Company, and the guys with whom I served. I realize
that my current problems are very small compared to what we all went
through in Laos. Everything that comes my way nowadays I consider to be
gravy for me. And I mean "ALL GRAVY".
Note from the Editor.
Story by Dan (Danny) Grossman (CW2, BlueStar 16; Vietnam Jan 70 - Feb 72.)
Dan worked for Pan African Airlines in the jungles of West Africa,
flying as an offshore helicopter pilot for Chevron. You can contact him
directly at Dan5016@aol.com to see what he is up to now.
Use the attitude indicator as your guide back to Friends.
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Editor John S Goulet
Last modified on
March 05, 2006 .
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