Contributed by Jim Gaffney (Crusader 5 5/68-8/68 & Crusader 6 8/68-2/69)
Pat Dougan has been after me for some time to record my recollections of November 27, 1968 from the perspective of the Crusader Command and Control aircraft. Until now I have avoided doing so, most likely resisting revisiting difficult memories.
The day began just like any other in the 187th with a preflight by flashlight after picking up maps and code book from operations. It was different in one respect; rather than supporting LTC Alex Hunt’s 3/22 “Regulars” as we had habitually, we would be working with 2/22 and an attached company from 4/9 “Manchu’s”. I cannot recall who was assigned as “Peter Pilot” on the day, nor do I remember who was serving as gunner. Dave “Doc” Brown, the C&C crew chief was in his normal seat and the bird was completely ready, as usual. I would be surprised if Doc didn’t get more blade time than anyone else in the company.
After picking up the C&C party, we were briefed that a Choui Hoi had stated that there was a large NVA force in the area of the “Little Rubber” – a Michelin plantation just off Highway 22 between Go Dau Ha and Tayninh City. (It was called the “Little Rubber” to contrast it with the “Big Rubber”, the large Michelin plantation north of Dau Tieng.) An insertion was to be made in that area after an aerial reconnaissance and appropriate preparation by fire.
No ground activity was observed during the aerial reconnaissance. The area was prepped by at least eight 500 pound bombs dropped by “fast movers” under the control of the Fire Support Coordinator in the C&C party. While the Crusader flight was enroute, this was followed by an artillery prep of numerous volleys – coming, I believe, from a Fire Base in the Go Dau Ha area. Timing of the approach appeared good with lead (Tom Tesmar) reporting inbound as the last rounds were in the air. The RatPack picked up the fire and marked the LZ as the artillery prep ended and the slicks were given clearance for full suppression. The “Little Rubber” was not a great LZ, the stumps from rubber trees made picking touchdown spots challenging. Just as the trail aircraft completed approach, the LZ became very hot, with virtually all aircraft reporting taking heavy fire. In moments, trail was hit by an RPG round apparently striking the fuel cell and erupting in a fireball reminiscent of a napalm strike. At this point, the LZ was a chaos. The flight, with virtually all aircraft taking hits, began liftoff. “Doc” Brown said on the intercom that he had spotted enemy positions and asked to open up from the C&C. Fearing hits to the RatPack who were working below the C&C, I denied the request. Ron Timberlake in chalk 6 called directly to the C&C, bypassing normal command channels and asked for permission to pick up the surviving crew from trail. Thankful for his bravery, I immediately granted clearance and silently prayed for his safe success. Activity in the C&C aircraft at the moment was chaotic, with the Infantry C&C party in the back seat working to rally their forces – the Crusaders were not the only ones with casualties. I watched chalk 6 safely depart the LZ, though moments later the aircraft suffered power loss and made an emergency landing several miles north of the LZ. The crew and its passengers (including the survivors from trail) were picked up by other aircraft and returned to Tayninh.
The next minutes and hours are something of a blur. I know that after returning to Tayninh, refueling and checking damage, the flight was able to regroup, and switch to backup aircraft where required. Two or more additional insertions were flown to reinforce the soldiers landing in the first wave. Folks back at the “Holy Land” were responding magnificently, supporting the ground forces in spite of one hell of a lot of combat damage.
Support for 2/22 continued until after dark when I expected to receive a release for the flight and return to Tayninh to get a handle on what the damages/casualties to the Crusaders were. This was not to be, however. Black Baron operations assigned night support of the 1/27 Infantry. The operation was to be an insertion from Dau Tieng into the Hobo Woods/Mushroom area.
The insertion started normally enough with the Crusader flare ship on station to provide illumination. As memory serves, about three magnesium (Mark 7?) flares had been dropped when I received a frantic radio call the AC Al Duneman that a flare has ignited inside the aircraft. The only thing I could think of was to instruct the already obvious step of attempting to get all the flares out of the aircraft. I watched helplessly as the aircraft pitched over to about a 45 degree nose-down angle from a position above the C&C into a final, fatal, glowing dive. Without doubt, the intense internal glare blinded the crew which had been working in “red light” conditions. Several aircraft in the flight attempted to radio instructions as to how much and when to apply aft cyclic to level the aircraft prior to impact. It was, however, for naught. Radios were stony silent until a member of the flight volunteered to check the crash site for survivors. A report came back that there could be no survivors – crash destruction was complete. The insertion was completed without illumination and with cold in our hearts knowing that we had just witnessed the deaths of several of our comrades in arms.
We returned to Tayninh and shut down. The C&C had logged 16 hours and 45 minutes flight time on the day. On entering Crusader Ops, I was met by Ops officer Joe Saunders, Flight Surgeon Jim Soileau, and 269th CAB chaplain Sparkman. Someone put a beer in my hand, though I had no taste for drinking it. I learned that there had been one fatality on the bird hit by the RPG – the crew chief Jim Brady. The other members of that crew --AC Bob Trezona, Pilot Tom Pienta and Gunner Steve Toppi -- though badly burned, had survived the explosion. I further learned that the flare ship had been crewed by a hastily assembled group of volunteers consisting of AC Al Duneman, recently arrived Pilot August Ritzau (who had been wounded earlier in the day), Crew chief Fred Frazier (who had just returned from leave) and communication personnel Jerry Chandler and Dave Creel. Their can-do/support-the-troops attitude had cost them all their lives.
The next day was Thanksgiving and while the mess hall did their best, few had a taste for a holiday dinner. The flare ship aircraft and its crew where recovered by daylight. It was also the occasion for a visit by 12th CAG commander COL Jack Lambert (BlackJack6). The apparent principal purpose of his visit was to point out to me that someone on his safety staff had designed a flare carrier made out of half a 55-gallon drum which attached to the skid and kept the flares outside the aircraft. I had failed to receive the bulletin and have the device locally fabricated. (I wonder what would have happened if that device had come loose and gone through the rotor(s)?) I knew it was a “cover my ass” move, but I really didn’t need accusations at the moment.
Writing letters to the next-of-kin was among the hardest jobs in my life. Complicating the task was instructions from higher that I had to say that members of the flare ship crew were missing in action until graves registration had positively identified each of the victims. Know that the “missing” terminology would give false hope to families tore at my insides. If an aircraft with a known crew crashes and burns, there isn’t much doubt about who perished.
When years later I talked to Bob Trezona and apologized for not visiting him in the hospital before he was medically evacuated, he corrected me – saying that I had. I can only believe that I operated as an automaton for some period after “Black Wednesday”.
On the occasion of my first visit to “The Wall”, I was deeply troubled when I could not recall from memory the names of each of the six brave young men who had surrendered their lives for their country on November 27, 1968. That situation has been corrected. One day I hope to see them again and personally thank them for their sacrifice.
Webmaster note: A chronology of this day through the eyes of the 4/9 Manchus (who were being supported) may be found at http://www.manchu.org/country/black_virgin/
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