November 27, 1968, is my Day of Infamy©
The following is an extract from a statement that I wrote in 2003 with additional clarifying information from Tom Tesmar, flight lead, and Ron Hopkins, aircraft commander/check pilot, and Jim Gaffney, Crusader Six company commander for the 187th Assault Helicopter Company and air mission commander.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, in 1968. On that day I flew 15 hours and 45 minutes. I was being checked out as new fireteam leader for the Rat Pack, our gun platoon for the 187th Assault Helicopter Company based in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. I was recently assigned as the assistant platoon leader (Rat Pack 5), but as most know, rank has no privilege in the air. You have to earn your position. In a gun platoon, the fireteam leader directs his team and helps direct the slick platoon flight. All of our experienced fireteam leaders were getting ready to rotate back to the states and I was being “expedited.” I had been flying flight lead for many months, so getting the hang of it was not too difficult. It was just a different aircraft with a different view.
That day, as a fireteam leader flying a C-model gunship, I flew out to meet the flight of nine troop carrying slicks and lead them into the landing zone (LZ). I was approximately half a mile in front of the flight laying smoke grenades to mark the flight’s touchdown position in the lz. After my crew tossed the yellow marker smokes, I made a hard break to the left to take up my racetrack position with the other two gunships of a heavy fire-team. We would provide suppressive fire during the flight’s landing and debarking. The lz was heavily prepped with artillery and six 500 pound high explosive bombs before I led the flight in. I was less than a quarter mile out on my approach when the last 8” artillery rounds impacted. I received no hostile fire.
Rotating duties, I turned the aircraft over to my co-pilot/check-pilot, CW2 Jim Souders, to get prepared for our first rocket run. I had only been in the gun platoon for a few weeks and my attention was out my right door watching the flight -- in particular the last grouping of aircraft. It was the 1st platoon.
I had been their section leader and then platoon leader for the last seven months. After months of flying together the 1st platoon aircraft commanders had grown close. As a flight team, we prided ourselves on flying tight formations that moved as one. Bob Trezona was the aircraft commander on the trail ship. I was watching him in especially. I loved flying with Bob. He was an outstanding “pilot’s pilot.” He was training a new lieutenant and section leader, Tom Pienta, in formation flight – new guys to the rear. Their aircraft was not as close to the formation as it should have been. They were a little behind which put them in an extremely vulnerable position – a sitting duck. I remember thinking “tuck it up Bob.”
While the flight was on short final, all hell broke loose. The lz was hot with automatic and machine gun fire. Just as Souders was ready to nose over and start his rocket run, the radios erupted from formation pilots announcing “receiving fire!” It was from all directions. Approximately 100 feet off the ground, “trail” was hit in the fuel cell by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade). The aircraft looked completely engulfed in an orange ball of flame and was falling out of the sky.
As reported later from unclassified after action reports, we had landed in the middle of a meticulously planned ambush of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regulars.
A common adage, but religiously adhered to by the 187th is “nobody is left behind.” Someone had to extract our survivors.
While under intense enemy fire, both severely burned pilots and the gunner were recovered by CWO Ron Timberlake, my partner since flight school. The crew chief, James Brady, was killed in the explosion. Timberlake was shot down on the recovery take-off but landed in a field far enough away from the action for others to complete their safe extraction.
Ron received the Silver Star for his heroism. Trezona and Pienta’s day was over; my day and the rest of the crew’s had just begun.
By mid-afternoon, CW2 Souders had to return to base for non-combat related medical reasons and was replaced by CW2 Ron Hopkins, also a “short-timer”. For maintenance reasons only, we would go through two more gunships before we called it a day. Flying in three aircraft, we never took an enemy hit.
For the rest of the day we continued to provide covering fire for additional troop reinforcement landings and suppressive fire for the troops already on the ground. Each insertion was “hot.” Late in the evening one of our ships was loaded with thirty parachute flares to provide night illumination for the reinforcing ground troops. Due to combat injuries, the 187th was short crews and the most experienced flareship pilot, Tom Tesmar, was flying flight lead that day. Allen Duneman, Tesmar’s roommate, would be the flareship commander; his co-pilot, Lt. August Ritzau, returned to fly after being treated for shrapnel wounds to the hand during the initial insertion.
In a combat situation, though everyone says they would not want to be there, when the bell rang it was usually a dog fight to see who got to fly. This day maybe changed that desire forever.
As I was taking off after refueling and rearming, I heard a desperation call from the flareship. A flare had gone off at the bottom of the stack. At two million candle power each, it is completely impossible to see anything which includes your instruments. It would be like trying to fly through the sun. Flares are magnesium based and generate their own oxygen; they cannot be extinguished once lit.
Allen was screaming over the radio for help. As I broke out of refueling and reestablished radio contact I heard Allen call out, “Someone give me my altitude!”
The flares were stored directly above the fuel cell and Allen was nose diving his helicopter to the ground before the flares burned though the floor board (a magnesium aluminum composite) and exploded the fuel. Duneman needed audible flight direction, altitude, air speed or anything that could be of help.
There was nothing anyone could do. Diving at 145 knots from 3500 feet, it would be over in a matter of seconds
The other flares started going off. Climbing in the air through 500 feet, I could see their glow, like a huge shooting star, from fifteen kilometers away.
Finally, someone yelled over the radio “400 feet! .. pull up .. PULL UP!” They impacted at a 45 degree angle killing all on board.
The radio silence afterward was surreal. Finally someone uttered, “Fuck this shit!” and all radios remained eerily dead. Everyone was in a state of shock. Life as we knew it was sucked out of all of us that day.
A few minutes later, the lifeless radio silence was broken by Hawk Six, the 1st Aviation Brigade commander. The general had flown up from Long Binh when told of what was happening. Breaking protocol, Hawk Six called the flight lead directly, “Crusader lead, take them home; you are done for tonight.”
Of the two key players that day, Tesmar had just seen his roommate killed; Timberlake saw his roommate burned beyond recognition. Everyone was ready to go home … all the way home.
At midnight, the beginning of Thanksgiving, Crusader Six, Major Jim Gaffney, our company commander called me while we were shutting down. He had been directing the company flight operations all day. Though I can’t remember the exact words, it was something like this, “Those were the worst 16 hours in my life.” I acknowledged with, “And 15:45 for me.”
I had gone through three aircraft and two co-pilots. Virtually every ship in the unit was damaged or flown beyond its limits. Six crewmembers were killed more than twenty were wounded. Our company commander lost the effectiveness of his aviation unit. There were only three aircraft certified flyable for the next day, not to mention the lack of crew availability. Our unit did not fly for three days. Worse yet, the modification work order giving instructions on how to affix a container of flares to the outside of the helicopter was still unread in the maintenance office inbox. This would have allowed the jettison of all flares
The infantry unit we inserted was decimated. According to the unclassified After Action report, they sustained 27 KIA and almost 60 wounded. All day we flew cover for our own aircraft who were providing insertions and medical extractions as unarmed Medevacs were not allowed to land in a hot LZ.
“No one left behind” -- someone had to do it.
On Thanksgiving Day the company commander, Timberlake, platoon sergeants and I flew one of the remaining helicopters to the evacuation hospital in Saigon. We went to check on the two burned pilots and gunner. [Gaffney to this day does not remember the trip, and he flew the helicopter] By the time we got there, the post-burn edema for the three had already started. The swelling was so severe that their throats were closing and they were on respirators. It was getting grotesque.
Bob, who was always thin as a rail was swollen to three times his normal size. He looked like a darkened watermelon at harvest. Both pilots had 3rd degree burns over 50% of their bodies and would suffer greatly over the ensuing months and years. Neither was expected to live. Both did survive, however, though each tremendously scarred both physically and emotionally.
Their story can be found listed as a link at the end of this story, Trial By Fire, by Tom Pienta. His story was the feature article and cover story in the December 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
Everybody that I knew in Vietnam, some that I loved as my brothers, and many that I had personally trained were either wounded or killed that day. Though I flew all day long and covered virtually every insertion, extraction, and medical recovery, my aircraft was never hit by hostile fire. The NVA were so fortified, we never saw them.
To be completely incapable of assisting while watching friends and troops die is one of the most helpless, frustrating, and anger inducing feelings that one can experience. It might have been easier to deal with had the enemy been focused on the gun teams as they usually did. Their intent that day was to execute mayhem on the ground troops. It was as we were never there.
After forty six years, I am still learning to deal with this day and subsequent operations from two years and 2,000 combat hours. Novembers are particularly hard, especially when Thanksgiving falls in the last week of the month.
A person is never really gone until no one remembers them anymore; I will never forget.
Below are some supporting links and a book giving other people’s perspectives from this day. Everyone remembers things differently especially in crisis situations. No one is lying; it is a matter of perspective and maybe what they want to remember or the way they wanted it to be.
At a reunion in 1997, three of us from the gun team were sitting around a table with my wife as an innocent bystander. To my wife, What was discussed at that table sounded like three different stories from three different events leaving us all thinking, “Was I even there?”.
Jim Gaffney, Crusader 6
John Broome, my crew chief that day
Shannon Tilton (son of a Manchu) third party account
Tom Tesmar, flight lead, his book on the day and follow up
Crusader 23, I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Good” at www.blurb.com
Tom Pienta, co-pilot
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