Last Combat Flight

LAST COMBAT FLIGHT As many helicopter crewmembers may remember, the last combat flight during a tour of duty was no doubt one of the hardest. Luckily it was probably uneventful for most people, but for some it may have been horrific. I will never forget my last combat flight on October 21, 1968. I had just completed over 1,100 combat flight hours in Vietnam and the last 200 had been with the 155th Assault Helicopter Company flying out of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands. Most of those 200 hours had been logged in support of combat operations near Duc Lap. Parts of the 173rd Abn, MACV, Special Forces, and RVN units had taken quite a pounding from the North Vietnamese Army since the middle of August 1968. The 155th had lost its share of aircraft and crewmembers during this period. Our platoon leader had promised that once a crewmember had less than ten days left in country, their combat missions would be over. As a single digit midget (less than 10 days left before departure from Vietnam), I wanted to stop flying as early as possible. Wouldn't you know, only seven days until DEROS (date eligible for return from overseas) and I was the only Aircraft Commander left available for a mission this day. I tried to talk my way out of it, but my platoon leader reminded me that it was not a combat mission, it was a support mission, just a "milk run". The mission was to support the MACV (Military Advisory Command Vietnam) compound at Gia Nghia where things had been relatively quiet for the past week. After completing the pre-flight inspection of the aircraft, taking off, and flying towards our destination I began to feel that this wouldn't be so bad after all. I had an experienced crew chief and gunner, a good aircraft, and a new co-pilot who seemed fairly calm. The weather was great and we had no suspicion or anticipation of anything bad happening. Upon landing at Gia Nghia we shut down the aircraft and reported to the operations shack to receive a briefing on the day's activities. I figured that this would be a typical MACV mission where we would do a little aerial reconnaissance of the area, carry a few supplies, and transport people from place to place. No one seemed in a hurry so we went to the mess hall to drink a little coffee while waiting for orders. Suddenly a Sergeant came running in the door and informed us that a "hot" mission had developed and we were needed at the MACV compound in Duc Lap. The only information available was that we were needed there ASAP (As soon as possible). The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I couldn't believe that this was happening to me! We quickly ran to the helipad , started the ship, made a hasty takeoff and flew towards Duc Lap with no idea of what was in store for us. All my previous landings there had been at the Special Forces camp, next to the airfield. I had never landed at the MACV compound. It had almost been overrun just a few days before, but was now safe and in friendly hands. Upon arrival, we were briefed that the ARVN (Vietnamese Army) outpost just southwest of Duc Lap had been under siege for a week, without any re-supply. The soldiers were holed up in their bunkers and desperate for ammunition, food, and water. Because of enemy activity, MACV had requested a helicopter gun-ship escort for us and sure enough two of the 155th AHC Falcons showed up. Due to the enemy situation and after talking to the Falcons, I decided that the best flight in would be a low-level approach with one gun-ship leading ahead and the other following behind to provide any required fire support during landing. Then the gun-ships would fly in a daisy chain pattern left to protect us from possible enemy fire coming off the "volcano" (a small hilltop to the left of the compound). I was very apprehensive, but calm with knowing that I had the combat experience to be able to react quickly if necessary. After takeoff, the five-minute flight from the MACV compound to the outpost went by very quickly and the approach to landing was unbelievably smooth. Falcon Lead fired several rockets both left and right of the compound. We touched down just in front of the compound's closed gate. There were no visible signs of activity inside the perimeter. The crew began to unload the ammo boxes, I transferred the controls of the aircraft to the copilot , and I watched out to the left side of the aircraft. Suddenly, two VC (Viet Cong) soldiers stood up near the top of the volcano and pointed a 60mm mortar at us. I could see a round being dropped in the tube and then it fired out. The round impacted and exploded about 15 yards to our left front. Without warning, my copilot (two weeks in country) pulled the collective pitch control full up under his armpit and pushed the cyclic stick to the front stop! The ship lunged off the ground and began to wallow like a fat hog. The Low RPM audio alarm was blaring in our helmets and I saw 5600 RPM on the engine gauge. Normal flight RPM was 6400 to 6600. Grabbing the controls, I lowered the collective, pulled back the cyclic and somehow we stayed in the air. We began a slow right turn and small arms fire was heard from below and right. The Falcons destroyed the mortar crew with rockets and my crew chief and gunner used their machine guns to return the small arms fire. We flew back to MACV helipad and after landing the sergeant that had gone with us let me know that we had landed in a minefield at the outpost. We did a quick inspection of the aircraft and found no evidence of hits. The MACV commander asked us to make one more trip to the outpost in hopes of getting some ammo inside the compound. After discussion with the Falcons, we decided to use the same route back in without making a landing. My crew chief and gunner stacked the ammo boxes in the doorway on each side of the ship. Falcon Lead once again led the flight with rockets blazing and as we flew low level, high speed directly over the compound, the crew kicked out the boxes. "BULLS EYE". The ammo landed exactly where needed. Falcon Wing followed and protected us on the way out. I guess that the bad guys had enough that day as they left us alone this time. This was the end of my combat flying. It was the only mission that I flew where I was provided two gun-ships for a single slick. The Falcons were "outstanding" and to this day I thank them. Wish I could remember who they were (Can't Remember S...) Jim Koch Stagecoach 13 Aug 68/ Oct 68