Lam Son 719

Lam Son 719 That Day I had just returned from the states to report to my new assignment with the 48th AHC. When I arrived back in country fellow aviators had somber faces when I expressed that I was en route to the 48th to finish out my remaining 4 months in my tour. I had little faith in Army rumors, but on reporting in I noticed that the entire company was packing and Major Bunting saying that "we need a lot of pilots like you where we are going." In the camp the rumors were rapid. Jesse Diaz was confident that we were going to stage a major attempt to free prisoners out of North Vietnam. Others were sure of an all out attack of the North. No one had any idea of how big an attack or exactly what we were going to do. That evening the Major had a meeting to explain that we were headed to Dong Ha, a deserted Marine Base just south of the DMZ. When we had previously flown out of the Central Highlands around Ban Me Thuot this abbreviation was not one you desired to see. Usually the Army valued their $ 250,000 choppers and wanted them in a secure area at night. The next day we took off towards the north with frequent stops to refuel the hungry Hueys (115 gallons per hour). As we stopped many other flights requested permission to refuel using the last digits of their tail numbers. We were instructed to use no call signs. The high command felt "Charlie" might get an advantage if he knew where all the aviation equipment had come from. Upon hearing and seeing all the helicopters we began to realize the scope of this operation. None of us realized that the Army had this many Slicks, Gunships, Chinooks and Cranes in country. I remember WO Childs saying he felt like this was the start of World War III. We still had not been told exactly what we were going to do. That night we pitched a 30X40 Army tent and slept on the ground. Hey, we were pilots and we were supposed to have decent quarters! We continued to set up the camp the next day and then we were briefed on the invasion into Laos or LAM SON 719. Since I had just reported in, I did not fly the first day into enemy territory, but my fellow pilots did and said that you could tell right where the border was as the VC fired immediately. Needless to say the Company quickly gave me a check ride so that I could join in the fun. I have been asked to report my memories of this operation. There are many as the action was so intense. That day a slick pilot reported air bursts to the CC ship flying at 10,000 feet. The Colonel said "Young man you have watched too many World War II movies. There is nothing out here like that." Then about two minutes later the Colonel reported air bursts and advised that everyone should return to Khe Sanh, the staging area. That day we inserted troops into a hot LZ just as a B-52 had hit. Smoke from the bombs filled the area, but the VC quickly emerged to fill the air with bullets. I thought that these little guys really have a cause to go through an arc light attack and to come out firing. During the same day we took a round through the windshield on the co-pilot right side during the second sortie. My co-pilot, Capt. Nichols, momentarily froze on the controls as I anxiously monitored the torque as we were to start a departure. I did not realize the situation as I felt something hit my shoulder. I initially thought that a round had come in from behind and had glanced off my upper arm. As we climbed to altitude I noticed the green house window was fluttering in the breeze. I then realized why Nichols had frozen on the controls. The bullet had gone right over his head and the pieces of plexiglass had peppered his sunglasses in an instant. A quick check of the aircraft revealed no major problems and we quickly rejoined the flight for another insertion. I am sure Captain Nichols would have preferred to have called it a day. That day we were resupplying the South Vietnamese troops and the fast movers were working over the LZ. I felt a false sense of security knowing that this would be relatively safe after they unloaded all of their ordinance. Then as I was feeling confident, the Air Force pilot asked where the flight of five north bound Hueys was headed. The lead ship responded with the same sense of confidence and told him we planned to resupply an LZ close to the area where the Phantoms were working. The Air Force FAC quickly replied" "There are fifty-five cal. positions here and we can't knock them out. What the hell do you think you guys are going to do?" Lead made a decision to abort the mission as there was no way we could be successful. For that matter, I would not have had the opportunity to write about this day. That day we started an extraction of the ARVNS and we had a lift of 40 Slicks. By the day's end we had 10 Slicks left and only three were legally flyable. One of them was mine. I started the day as Chalk 12. Each time we went to pick up the troops the mission would be aborted due to extreme enemy fire. That day the ship ahead of me would go down and I would follow them down and load up the crew to return to Khe Sanh. Of course, we were not supposed to rescue fellow pilots as we were to continue with the mission, but we had all agreed that we were going to do whatever it took to retrieve each other when possible to enhance the odds of returning of returning safely. When we became Chalk 3, we made it in to the LZ to begin the extraction on the third attempt. We approached the side of a hill with a gun escort on both sides. The pattern was in and out the same way. Arriving at the LZ we saw a large human dog pile as the ARVNS were in a panic to leave the AO. I instructed my crew that once we had three climbing aboard on each side, I would pull pitch to leave so that we did not become overloaded and were forced to stay for the duration. We were loaded almost instantly when I came to a 20-foot hover. With all guns still blazing we started a normal climb out of the LZ. We were meeting Slicks as they were still coming inbound. Then in a defeated voice the CC ship said that we should call it a day and return to Khe Sanh. We had finally begun to start the extraction that we had been working on all day and now we quit? When we did return to the staging area, I asked a fellow aviator why we had stopped. He said, "Dale, didn't you see the incoming Slick blown completely out of the sky?" I had met that Slick just before the explosion. That day we returned to Dong Ha to realize that the entire platoon of Gunships had been wiped out. After having an intense day of action we would attend a funeral for a fellow aviator. On one such occasion we were all very misty-eyed when the Major calmly said, "Men, we have had several rough days, but we will have to go again." Simple words but in some way they were reassuring, since the CO was a true leader. We all respected this man greatly. Once he was shot down in the lead ship, but he continued as he took over the co-pilots seat of Chalk two. He was always 100 per cent behind his aviators no matter what. When the Jokers, the C Model Gunships of the 48th, returned some so-called friendly fire, the high command was very upset and wanted to discipline the pilots. The Major said that if that was the case don't bother to call us if you want gun support in the future. That was the end of that conversation. Previously, we all had heard the gun pilot request permission to fire, only to be denied and without exception ended in losses. The "Gunnies" were deeply respected by all Slick pilots as these guys would always take considerable risk to protect the somewhat vulnerable Hueys. Often their 20 minute fuel warning lights were on for an extended period so that a safe escort was accomplished. The night that we were awakened at midnight to make an emergency resupply of the ARVNS in Laos will always be remembered. The attempted mission was to drop a sling of water and ammo on an ARVN base camp that was being over run by human wave assaults. The Air Force was going to pinpoint the drop zone and provide preparation with "Spooky", the C-130 gun ship. Upon picking up the slings and circling around Laos in the middle of the night (of course with lights out) the Air Force FAC advised us that he was unable to pinpoint the exact location of the area. The plan was to have the ARVNS flash a strobe light where they wanted the slings dropped. At this point in the battle the NVA had captured many radios so when the FAC asked for the strobe light the whole mountain would light up. The two gunships providing escort services advised me that they were low on fuel and if we were going to drop our loads we needed to do it ASAP. This was relayed to the FAC and he advised us to return with guns and two slicks back to Khe Sanh for fuel. Upon refueling, my sister ship reported that too much fuel was taken on and the Huey could not lift the load. I informed them to burn off fuel and meanwhile I would fly out into Laos and establish radio contact with the FAC. Unfortunately a lot of time had elapsed and the weather was closing in on us. We had been trained to advise the co-pilot to be on the instruments in case we would fly into a cloud. As the ceiling lowered we had to make a quick decision to prevent the sling from hitting the trees and to avoid the mountains on both sides of the aircraft. The co-pilot turned on the landing light and promptly armed the sling so that I could punch off the load. Then I immediately placed the aircraft in a hard left bank applying every ounce of power. This maneuver was not taught in flight school. At any rate, this does some strange things to an aircraft and the pilot. I experienced my first case of vertigo which I had thought would never effect me. My co-pilot, Captain Smith, was on the instruments as I had instructed him and was quick to inform me of my condition. I simply said, "You got it." In the clouds at night knowing that high mountains were nearby is not a comfortable feeling. Thinking all was under control, I noticed that the airspeed was decreasing. My co-pilot did not respond as he had frozen at the controls. I said "I got it" and attempted to push the nose over to gain airspeed. This was a difficult task as the co-pilot had not fully released the controls. As we started to gain speed we broke out on top, a beautiful sight with the moon shining and the stars twinkling. The Air Force FAC was on the radio wanting to know our situation. I advised him that we had encountered some weather problems and we were looking for a hole to come down in. He advised that we wait and he would get the radar people out of bed and give a ground approach into Khe Sanh. I at first said that was not necessary, but quickly changed my mind and moments later we were safely on the ground at Khe Sanh which was totally fogged in by then and the mission was scratched. Yes, we all fought on a losing team, but we were all winners as we learned countless valuable lessons of team work. It's hard to express in words the camaraderie that we all shared, but there are feelings for you fellow pilots that will always be there. There are many other stories that came about during this operation. Although many did not live to tell their stories it's incredible how many of us had many close calls. Although the war was not popular in the states we all gave it our best, we learned to survive and to be grateful for the wonderful life we all enjoy, knowing we were on that team. Blue Star 86 Dale McClure While with the 155th AHC, Dale McClure was a Stagecoach pilot in '70