Cutting the Jungle Trail:

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.

Great 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, 1970.
     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.

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Editor John S Goulet

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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