THE RESCUE OF SABER 6
By Johnnie B. Hitt (Rattler 3)
March 17, 1970 somewhere from the helicopter skies near Chu Lai, Viet Nam; "Chu Lai GCA
this is Skater 67, descending to 1500..." The airways went silent. The helicopter blades
no longer whipped the air into submission. That high frequency turbine engine whine that
deafens all helicopter pilots was no more. The machine was now quiet but the jungle was not.
The birds and animals were fleeing frantically from their normally quiet homes in the jungle
canopy. They were desperately trying to escape from the uncontrolled rolling mass of what was
once a flying UH-1H IROQUIS helicopter.
"Skater 67, this is Chu Lai GCA, say your intentions, over." Pause...Silence...
"Skater 67, this is Chu Lai GCA, please say intentions, over." Silence..." Any
aircraft, this is Chu Lai GCA, do you have contact with Skater 67? Over." Pause...The
Ground Controlled Radar (GCA) operator at the Chu Lai airfield was a seasoned Air Force veteran
who knew he had a problem. With the known deteriorating weather conditions in the entire AO
(area of operation), it was not a good time to lose contact with any helicopter but especially
not this one. The controller knew from somewhere in the back of his mind that this call sign
was familiar. He didn't know who it was but he did know the call sign was special.
"Chu Lai Tower, this is GCA." "Tower..." "This is GCA, lost radio
contact with Skater 67 at 1559 (3:59 P.M.) local time. Do you have a strip on him?" A
"strip" is Air Traffic Controller (ATC) talk for a small strip of white paper with
abbreviated information from the flight plan. Each crew was required to file a complete flight
plan with their company operations or the Chu Lai airfield operations. "This is tower, yes
we have it! That aircraft is carrying a code 5, that's why we have it." A "code"
is ATC language for the passenger being the rank of Major General of equivalent. The ATC coding
systems starts with the President of the United States (or any other head-of-state) as a code
1, vice president as code 2, General (four star) as code 3, Lieutenant General (three star) as
a 4, etc. The code systems goes to Colonel rank which is a code 7.
"Skater 67, this is Chu Lai tower, over." Long pause..."Skater 67, this is...
" The tower controller attempted to make contact with Skater 67 several times but was
unsuccessful. Without delay, he picked up the crash rescue line which alerted all of the
operations centers throughout Chu Lai. This immediate action taken by the Air Force ATC
controller and the tower operator began a sequence of professionally executed and heroic
events. These actions would be executed to perfection by a team of Army and Air Force
professionals who had the brotherhood of war as their primary motivation.
The 71st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) Headquarters was located on the South China Sea
beach in Chu Lai about two miles south of the Chu Lai East runway. This assault company was
better known for their Rattler and Firebird call signs. Rattler call signs were used by the
"slick driver" or the UH-1H (Iroquois) helicopter pilots who few missions which
included command and control (C&C), re-supply of the 23rd Infantry Division (better known as
the Americal Division) soldiers, medivac (medical evacuation) and combat assaults. The pilots
of the infamous helicopter gun platoon of the 71st were known throughout the Division AO by the
call sign Firebird. This small but lethal platoon of UH-1C (Charlie Model) gun ships were the
best and most responsive team to ever support the American soldier. Chu Lai air base complex
consisted of two roughly parallel runways oriented generally north (320 degrees) and south (140
degrees). Chu Lai West runway was located furthest west from the beach while Chu Lai East which
was basically a heliport (700 feet x 200 feet) was only a few hundred yards inland from the
ocean. The Air Force and Army jointly operated the entire facility but the US. Air Force fast
movers (jets) launched and recovered exclusively from Chu Lai West. This left Chu Lai East
solely for helicopters.
The 71st AHC operations was located adjacent to Chu Lai East. Collocated with operations was
aircraft maintenance, the Firebird alert hooch where crews were on 24 hour standby and the
flight line which was respectfully known as the snake pit. Of course, the maintenance crews'
call sign was Snake Doctor, what else?
Within the operations building, a communications center was manned by Specialist Fifth Class
Roger H. Doyea from Tacoma, Washington. The air-to-air communications suite consisted of one FM
and one UHF radio. A lonely black dial telephone sat on the operations desk. Next to it was a
TA-312 field telephone connected to the Firebirds.
Specialist Doyea answers the black phone on the first ring, "Rattler operations"
"Yes, Captain Hitt is here, just a minute." "Sir, its for you, Battalion"
"Hello, this is Captain Hitt." Captain Johnnie B. Hitt (Rattler 3) from Wills Point,
Texas is the company operations officer with about 7 months of his 12 month tour complete.
"I understand sir and we will comply, out!" Captain Hitt picks up the phone and from
memory quickly dials the Company Commander's number. "Major James!" was the immediate
Major Tommie P. James (Rattler 6) was 34 and hailed from Bixby, Oklahoma. He had
successfully commanded the company for four months but his biggest challenge was yet to come.
James had been flying in Vietnam since he arrived in July, 1969. "Sir, this is Captain
Hitt." Tommy James knew that Captain Hitt's calls were usually not social. "Sir, we
have a helicopter down but it is not one of ours. Battalion was notified by the tower and
suspects the downed chopper is carrying a general officer. Battalion commander requests you
proceed to the area and coordinate the search and rescue (S & R) operations. I'll have a bird
and crew ready to go when you get here. I'll try to get more detail." James responded
simply, "Roger out." Captain Hitt immediately phoned maintenance while simultaneously
giving Doyea details of which crew members to alert for an immediate mission. "Jim this is
Johnnie, what bird do you have ready for an immediate takeoff for the old man? We have a bird
down, but it's not ours!" "You can have 69-23248, I'll get it ready." "
Captain James (Jim) Duke (call sign-snake doctor) from Dallas, Texas and his maintenance
crew always had one more helicopter available when the chips were down. They had the best
maintenance record of any company in the Battalion. Even if 80% or 90% of the company's fleet
of 22 UH-1H's was committed, Rattler maintenance always had one more to fly and they could
produce it immediately when a life was at stake.
Jim Duke and Johnnie Hitt had a special relationship that few people get a chance to
experience and most hope they never do. While under intense enemy fire, Jim risked his life to
land and rescued Johnnie and his crew after they were shot down and crashed in the rice patties
not too far from Chu Lai. When Jim called Johnnie or vice versa there was no questioning of
what was being asked. There was an understanding you can have only when you have saved a fellow
This short story is only an example of what went on daily in the 71st AHC. The dependence on
the professionalism, bravery, and confidence of every member of the company was never
questioned and never failed. Every soldier did their job and took care of each other. When
someone was in trouble, he was never alone. Fellow Rattlers would be there.
Captain Hitt's next call was to the Firebirds. "This is operations. Aircraft down. Not
ours. Six is going out to C & C the search and rescue. Heads up. Do not crank. Want to conserve
fuel. Will reposition you when I get a general location." Firebirds, "Roger, out!
Black phone again. "Battalion, this is Rattler operations. Do you have a general
location yet based on the flight plan?" "Best guess is that he is down somewhere near
Tam Ky." "Roger, Rattler 6 will be airborne in 10 minutes. Will keep you informed.
Out!" "Johnnie?" "Yes." "We are pretty sure that Saber 6, the
Division Commanding General, is on that helicopter!" A long pause ensued. "Thanks,
operations out!" Captain Hitt put down the phone and stood motionless. It was like someone
had tied weights to his legs. He wanted to move and continue the frantic pace necessary to
launch an aircraft quickly but he couldn't. The division commander. That is a two star general
in charge of the entire Americal Division.
Indeed the Division Commander was a major general (two star) and he was the sole individual
in charge of the 23rd Infantry Division. Major General Lloyd B. Ramsey assumed command of the
division in June of 1969 just two short years after the division was activated in Viet Nam on
the 25th of September 1967. It was the largest division in Viet Nam. Most divisions consisted
of nine maneuver battalions but the Americal had 10. Those battalions were distributed three
each in the 11th and 198th Infantry Brigades and four to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
General Ramsey had been visiting this brigade. The 71st AHC habitually supported the 196th
although they did combat assault missions throughout the AO as part of the 14th Aviation
Battalion. The 14th was responsible for providing combat aviation support throughout the
division sector. The 14th battalion commander was the individual who directed Rattler 6 to take
charge of the search and rescue. The Commanding General (CG) was not flying one of the
battalion's helicopters but there were indications that he was down in their territory. The
CG's command and control helicopter was provided by A Company, 123rd Aviation Battalion
(Airmoble). This battalion provided all general support aviation to the division.
On the day of the crash MG Ramsey had been on a series of visits to the infantry battalions
in the field. He had departed Fire Support Base (FSB) Center enroute to Hawk Hill. He was
flying with a substitute Aircraft Commander (AC), Skater 67, because his regular AC had been
grounded. Most pilots immediately wonder why he was grounded because just the use of the word
generates a negative connotation. The flight surgeon in this case directed the grounding
because he had flown seven days in a row without the proper rest. A regulatory amount of crew
rest is mandated for all crew members. MG Ramsey was quite comfortable with Skater 67 and
toward the end of the day had complete confidence in his flying ability. The CG had a meeting
at division headquarters in Chu Lai which he was trying desperately to make on time. He had to
stop at FSB Hawk Hill to briefly visit a battalion commander. Aviation fuel was readily
available at this FSB but not at others. Hawk Hill was a staging area for the Firebirds. The
Firebirds maintained a 24 hour crew at Hawk Hill. This forward positioning cut the reaction
time to support the infantry by at least 30 minutes. General Ramsey knew fuel was available but
specifically instructed his crew not to refuel the helicopter. Normally the CG mandated that
the chopper be topped off (refueled) at every stop where fuel was available. He was in a hurry
to get to his meeting so he did not want to wait for the refueling operation. This decision
resulted in the helicopter having almost empty fuel tanks by the time it arrived in the
vicinity of Tam Ky.
MG Ramsey quickly met with the battalion commander and immediately proceeded to his waiting
chopper. As he strapped into his large armored seat, he remembered the day, shortly after
taking command of the division, his AC brought an aircraft maintenance technician over to the
aircraft. The enthusiastic soldier convinced the CG that he needed an armored seat for
protection. The UH-1H helicopter is outfitted with two armored seats as standard equipment, one
for the AC and one for the pilot. These armored seats saved many aviators' lives but provided
no protection for the passengers. Reluctantly, the CG agreed to have an armored seat installed
on the right side of the cargo compartment facing forward. He had reservations about how the
seat would be secured to the floor, however, the soldier persuaded him the seat would be secure
and would not come loose in a crash. When he finished strapping into his seat, the helicopter
immediately departed Hawk Hill for Chu Lai. The helicopter climbed to altitude slower than
normal. The CG became concerned about being late for his meeting. He leaned against the seat
belt across his midsection and placed the radio earphones over his head and adjusted each ear
cup over one ear at a time. He then turned the FM (Frequency Modulated) radio switch to the on
position. The crew had already applied power to the AN/ASC-10 command and control console
securely fastened to the floor of the helicopter. The AN/ASC-10 was made up entirely of
airborne radios which gave the CG a variety of radios for command and control in a relative
compact area. It measured 32 1/2 inches long, 17 1/2 inches wide and 33 1/2 inches high and
weighed about 280 pounds. The console was heavy , big, solid, and very unattractive but it
provided the CG with FM radio contact with his division headquarters using an AN/ARC-54 FM
radio. General Ramsey started to depress the push-to-talk button to transmit a message to his
headquarters when the crew chief leaned over him from his position on the right side of the
aircraft and behind the CG's armored seat and flipped up the aircraft UHF (ultra high
frequency) radio receiver switch.
Crew Chief Ray Murphy of Connersville, Indiana was a dedicated Specialist Fourth Class and
very intuitive about keeping the CG in the loop on what was happening inside and outside the
aircraft. He had been doing it for a while and he took pride in making sure everything in his
aircraft was in perfect condition for his CG.
Ray Murphy's action allowed the CG to monitor the crew's radio conversation. "Chu Lai
weather, this is Skater 67. What is current weather in Chu Lai?" "This is Chu Lai
weather, Currently 1500 feet overcast with one mile visibility outside of the clouds. Over.
" "This is Skater 67, roger, thanks." "Chu Lai approach control, this is
Skater 67, over." "Skater 67, this is Chu Lai." "Chu Lai, Skater 67 is a
UH-1, climbing to 3000 feet, request GCA." "Skater 67, say position." "This
is 67, off Hawk Hill, heading 090 degrees." "Roger 67, turn right for identification.
" Pause..."Chu Lai GCA, this is Blue 24, west of Hawk Hill at 3100 feet, in the
clouds, request GCA, over." "Blue 24, this is Chu Lai approach control, please
contact Chu Lai GCA on UHF frequency 285.8, over." "This is blue 24, roger, out."
"Skater 67, this is Chu Lai approach, stop turn. Radar contact west of Hawk Hill. Turn to
heading 090. If you want to expedite, I can let you down over the water and you should break
out at 1500 feet." "This is Skater 67, roger, we will take that procedure, over."
"This is Chu Lai, maintain 090 heading and I will take you out another 2 miles so you
will be 5 miles out over water." "Skater 67, Roger." The CG listened intently
and he was pleased the AC chose to expedite the procedure. "Skater 67, descend to 1500
feet, call me when you are VFR." "Skater 67, Roger." The AC noted the time at
1556 and began his descent. General Ramsey along with all other passengers that ride in a
helicopter when they are flying in the clouds noted how much the outside looked like the inside
of a milk bottle. It was all white and seemed to be motionless. While observing the milk bottle
effect out the front window of the helicopter, he noticed Robert J. Thomas of Reston, Virginia.
He made a mental note that this had been a good day for the newly assigned Lieutenant Colonel.
Suddenly, out the front windscreen, the CG first saw light, then green, then trees. All of
this happened in moments. At the same time Chief Warrant Officer two Stephen C. Pike (Skater
67) yelled, "Trees!" He decelerated the helicopter by swiftly pulling the cyclic back
into his gut...too late! The tail rotor caught the trees and the helicopter mushroomed into the
jungle canopy separating the tail rotor and then the complete tail boom as the forward force
carried the disintegrating chopper into the side of the mountain. The impact continued through
the canopy and into the mountain. One of the two rotor blades struck the upside of the mountain
while the blade was traveling toward the tail of the aircraft. The sudden stop of the rotor
blade, traveling at 324 revolutions per minute, ripped the transmission out of it's support and
flung it into the living space of the passenger compartment brining the engine with it. This
mass of heavy components killed Specialist Murphy as he sat in his crew chief seat. The flying
hunk of metals tore through the back of the passenger seats and bounced off the CG's armored
seat continued around the seat and crashed forward. The mass continued its forward motion from
the outside in killing LTC Thomas as it crushed him into the command and control console. The
armored seat had saved General Ramsey's life but it could not prevent the resulting serious
injuries. He was knocked unconscious during the crash and would remain so almost throughout his
Deathly quiet followed. The breaking of Plexiglas, tearing of sheet metal, and the
continuous whine of the turbine engine were no more. Wreckage, crew members and passengers,
were scattered everywhere. Dazed and hurt, the survivors struggled to assess what had happened
and, more importantly, the current situation? Enemy territory..did they hear us crash? Will
they come for use? Who is alive? Who can fight? What do we have to fight with? Captain John P.
Tucker from Lima, Ohio felt for his .45 caliber pistol. The action was more out of habit than
intention. Little did he realize that out of the two M-60 machine guns which were mounted as
door guns, four M-16 rifles, and various hand guns, his .45 was the only weapon recovered. The
remaining arsenal was somewhere in the twisted wreckage, in the jungle canopy, in the valley
below or on the jungle floor. Wherever the weapons were located, they could not be immediately
found by the shocked and wounded crew and passengers. No time to worry about it. How do we get
out of here?
The weather continued to deteriorate as Rattler 6 hovered onto Chu Lai East. "Rattler
operations, this is Rattler 6, taxing, will be off in two minutes. Any update?" "Six,
this is Rattler operations, nothing new. Plan on Tam Ky. Tell me when you want the Firebirds,
over." "Six, roger, out." James hovered the UH-1 as though it was molded around
him like a custom fit suit. As James prepared to take the active for takeoff, he responded with
an affirmative as he executed each maneuver. He could see the bad weather and wanted to make
sure that everything worked if he needed to fly in the clouds. Even though this took precious
time, it was better to be sure than to have another UH-1 and crew crashed on a mountain. After
a very short run-up and obtaining clearance from the tower, Rattler 6 and his crew were off on
what would become one of the biggest challenges of their lives.
Tam Ky was located about 20 nautical miles (NM) northwest of Chu Lai. James turned to a
heading of 130 degrees which would place him about halfway between Hawk Hill and Tam Ky. Hawk
Hill was 26 NM from Chu Lai on a heading of 122. East of Tam Ky was flat land and then the
coast. The mountainous terrain started just west of Tam Ky. The weather was going down so the
intent was to make sure he had Hawk Hill on the left for reference and Tam Ky on the right.
Closer to Tam Ky he would turn east toward the hamlet. This plan would provide for the most
coverage of the suspected crash site area. It would also allow for maintaining a good visual
reference by using known land marks while trying to stay oriented in the terrible weather
conditions. The cloud ceiling continued to come down.
His plan worked. About 3 NM southeast prior to reaching Tam Ky, Rattler 6 began receiving a
beeper single on the UHF emergency frequency 243.0. Skater 67 was transmitting the emergency
signal using his AN/URC-68 survival radio. The URC-68 is a compact, personal emergency
transceiver that provides two-way, ground-to-ground or ground-to-air communications. It is
compact and lightweight (32 oz) and slightly larger than a can of pipe tobacco. It is very
convenient to carry and easy to operate. The radio, not like the weapons, was tucked neatly
into Skater 67's flight suit. His only link to rescuers was the radio. This small but vital
radio is invaluable to the aviator when all two-way radio capability is destroyed in a crash.
Skater 67 was operating the radio in the "G" (Guard) position which meant that a
beeper signal was automatically transmitted on the emergency frequency. In this selected
channel position, Skater 67 could hear but could not transmit by voice. When Rattler 6 heard
the beeper, he turned his UHF radio selector switch to the preset guard channel thereby
enabling him to transmit voice by using the push-to-talk button on his cyclic control hand
grip. He immediately pushed the button and transmitted "Beeper, Beeper, come up voice!
" These are the international words used to signal a distressed caller to switch his radio
to voice transmission. It is also the sweetest sound you can ever hear. Skater 67 immediately
switched the radio control knob to the "PPT" position which stands for push-to-talk.
"any aircraft this is Skater 6.." His voice faded out as Rattler 6 made a turn to
avoid the ever menacing clouds that were now almost surrounding him. He had to fly the
helicopter, give directions to the crew, and try to establish radio contact while staying clear
of the clouds. The cockpit got real busy. Six's crew was assisting every second by doing their
job and responding to their CO (commanding officer). "Skater 6, this is Rattler 6, over.
" "This is Skater 62, over." At least that is what Rattler 6 thought he heard.
"Skater 62, this is Rattler, do you know your approximate location? Over." "This
is Skater 67, believe we are near LZ Pineapple, over" "Roger Skater 67, this is 6,
By this time, the Joint Rescue Command and control (JRCC) element, responsible for search
and rescue operations throughout Southeast Asia, from the 3rd Aerospace Rescue and Recovery
Group (ARRGP) (USAF) had been alerted. One of the Group's HC-130 aircraft was on station and
close enough to monitor the emergency transmissions. At least one and usually two of the HC-130
aircraft were in the air at all times and went by the call sign "King." King 6 was
the call sign on this particular day. In addition, one USAF Forward Air Controller (FAC) was on
station and went by call sign Jake. Jake was under the command and control of King 6.
Rattler 6 informed King 6 of the message from Skater 67 while heading toward LZ Pineapple.
On entering the valley that runs east and west just north of LZ Pineapple, the signal from
Skater 67 became stronger as he proceeded up the valley in a westerly direction. The signal
began to fade as Rattler 6 passed north of the LZ. by using this build and fade technique, six
determined that 67 was located somewhere east of LZ Pineapple. Rattler 6 turned east returned
down the valley until they were just to the northeast of Pineapple. The signal from 67 was very
clear and strong at this specific location.
Six turned south and proceeded up a small valley that runs north and south, east of the LZ.
"Rattler 6, this is 67, I hear you approaching, over." This was good news and bad
news. The good news was that Rattler 6 had quickly zeroed in on the approximate location of the
crash site. The bad news was the weather. The cloud ceiling had dropped from 1500 feet to about
1050 feet and was solid overcast. Rattler 6 cautiously continued up the valley to a ground
elevation of 1000 feet. By the time they reached this elevation, they were not flying, they
were hovering. Hovering at tree top level just below the clouds. It was like being a piece of
meat between two slices of bread, nowhere to go. The solid cloud layer was directly overhead
and the treetops were almost brushing the tail boom.
James carefully hovered back and forth while getting directions from Skater 67. The
directions were confusing. At one time while hovering up a small draw, 67 indicated that the
sound was coming closer. James could not see good enough to continue at this point. The fog was
getting thicker by the minute. He slowly started back out of the draw. During this maneuver,
Skater continued to say that the sound was coming closer. After two more such confusing
directions from Skater, James determined it was not his aircraft that was near the location.
James informed King 6 of his analysis. King immediately informed James that a small opening in
the clouds was now available southwest of the downed aircraft.
The opening was not large enough for the Jolly Green Giant to get through. Jolly Green Giant
was the call sign for the Air Force HH-53E search and rescue helicopter. These helicopters were
part of the 3rd Group and were under the command and control of King 6. This specific one was
on station from the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (ARRS) stationed at Da Nang
which was only about 30 NM away. The HH-53E is large compared to the UH-1 flown by Major James.
It is fully equipped with a hoist, stretchers, and trained Air Force medics.
Rattler 6 notified King he was going to climb out through the clouds to VFR (Visual Flight
Rules) conditions on top (above the cloud layer). He requested King give him directions to the
opening when he broke through the clouds. Rattler 6 started a slow ascent into the fog and
clouds. He was fixed on the cockpit instruments because they were now the only method to keep
the aircraft level and in forward motion. There was no visual reference. It was "milk
bottle effect" all over again. When he broke out on top, King turned him over to the Jolly
Green who directed them to the opening.
James descended down through the hole to tree top level and began hovering to the northeast.
After approximately 15 minutes, they came to the top of a small ridge and could go no further.
They could not make contact with Skater 67. The crew chief told James that he could not see the
tail boom through the fog. The weather had gradually moved in behind them. Once again, James
climbed IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) through the clouds to visual flight on top. They broke
out at 3500 feet.
James proceeded east toward the coast. He contacted King and informed him that they were
unable to contact 67 while on the south side of the mountain. James determined the crash
location must be on the north side of the major ridge line. Just short of the coast and
approximately six miles from the crash site, James again let down through an opening in the
clouds. After getting under the clouds, he proceeded back to the vicinity of LZ Pineapple. A
definite decrease was noted in Skater's radio signal after passing northwest of the LZ, further
confirming James' suspicion the crash site was on the east side of Pineapple.
James proceeded east down the valley to a point just northeast of the LZ and turned south up
the small north, south valley. Skater 67 confirmed that an aircraft was approaching his
position. James continued up the valley as far as possible, turned 180 degrees and came out.
Skater 67 confirmed an aircraft was departing the area. Again James flew into the valley.
Skater 67 confirmed an aircraft approaching. James was now certain from Skater's confirmations
and the increase strength from the radio signal they were at the correct location. He hovered
just over the trees at the south end of the valley at about 1000 feet elevation.
By hovering back and forth and talking to Skater 67, James was trying to more accurately
pinpoint the crash site. Skater 67 was not able to tell James the direction they were from the
crash site. He could only tell them when they were closer to his position. After five or so
minutes of this routine, James felt he had pinpointed 67's location. He began hovering up the
hill with Skater giving him directions by saying if they were getting closer or further away.
Again the fog was so thick the crew chief and gunner could not see the tail rotor which was
only 25 feet from their position. James had to stop several times for as long as five minutes
to allow the fog to clear before continuing the slow hover. The visibility was at best 40 feet
and as low as 10 feet at several points. He was only able to maintain visual contact with the
tree tops by looking out the right window. So far, so good.
Suddenly the aircraft began to lose engine power. The UH-1H does funny things when the
engine power is fluctuating. The nose of the aircraft goes left, then right, then back left. A
challenge when you can see the ground but horrifying when near treetop and almost in the
clouds. James suspected the decrease in power was caused by the increase in altitude to about
1600 feet. The higher an aircraft climbs, the more power is required of the engine especially
when hovering. James would find out later the aircraft had a compressor stall and the engine
had to be replaced. For now though, James thought it was the weight and ordered the crew chief
and gunner to dump at least half of their M-60 machine gun ammunition to lighten the load. A
total of 4000 rounds was carried, 2000 per machine gun. This action decreased the weight enough
for James to continue the mission. The aircraft performed flawlessly after this.
James requested Jolly Green to steer him toward Skater's location using his radio direction
finder. The direction finder was standard equipment on the HH-53E but was not installed in the
UH-1H aircraft. Jolly Green attempted to fulfill the request but the results were poor. Finally
at 1750 feet, James determined he had passed the crash site based on his verbal conversations
with Skater 67.
Time, daylight, and most importantly, fuel were running out. James only had enough fuel
remaining for 10 minutes of station time and a quick flight to Chu Lai for refueling. James
again elected to make an instrument take off and climb to VFR conditions on top. He very
carefully explained his intentions to Jolly Green and asked for a recommended heading to get
him safely out of the area. He was given a heading of 330. James was not able to turn the
aircraft to this heading while hovering because of the inability to clear the tail rotor. He
departed on a heading of 270 and turned as soon as it was safe to the 330 heading. James
climbed at an airspeed of 30 knots to expedite the ascent. The preferred climb airspeed in
instrument conditions is at least 60 knots. The UH-1H is much more difficult to handle at this
Shortly after takeoff, Skater 67 informed James that it sounded like an aircraft had just
passed over his position. James broke out of the clouds at 3000 feet and turned directly to Chu
Lai. On the way to the Snake Pit, Rattler Operations informed James that ground troops from the
Infantry Battalion were on the way to the crash site by foot. James was directed not to make
another attempt to reach the crash site because of the poor visibility and approaching
darkness. He did not particularly like the decision because he felt with a little more
daylight, he could locate the crash site. Rational thought prevailed. The orders were logical.
He did not want to risk another crew in the dark and bad weather. At this time the crash site
could not be pinpointed.
The intense activity did not stop during the night of March 17th. The division operations
center buzzed throughout the night executing the plan they had developed while planning for
March 18th. The 71st AHC also planned for the next day. In coordination with Battalion,
missions were assigned to each crew and the aircraft were assigned. Rattler maintenance
assigned the snake doctor UH-1H to Rattler 6 for the next days' mission. The Aviation Battalion
Commander would fly with Major James. Everyone in the company wanted the mission to go without
a hitch. Check and double check was the theme for the night.
Through the 196th Brigade, the 1st of the 6th Infantry Battalion had been given the mission
that day to move to and secure the crash site. Lieutenant Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf (who
most people know as General Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm fame) commanded the 1/6th Infantry. A
Company from the 1/6th had been breaking bush since early evening. They would move all night
one inch, one foot at a time through the thick jungle and bad weather with no food or rest.
On the morning of the 18th, division presented the final briefing in Chu Lai. Major James
attended with the 14th Battalion Commander. Division directed Major James and the Battalion
Commander coordinate the days rescue operations and act as command and control for the air
landing of troops if needed in the vicinity of the downed aircraft. Major James flew directly
from the Snake pit to pick up LTC Schwarzkopf and his battalion surgeon, Captain (Doctor) Luis
A, Oliver. It was important to have the commander of the 1/6th Battalion on board since they
owned the troops moving toward the crash site plus those that were to be airlifted. The weather
was no better than it was the day before, about 1000 feet-overcast. This low ceiling made it
impossible to air land troops near Skater 67 so it was essential for James to continue the
rescue efforts as a single helicopter.
As Major James turned up the small north-south valley east of LZ Pineapple, Skater 67 came
on the radio for the first time in about four hours and confirmed an aircraft was approaching
his location. James hovered just above the trees at an indicated altitude of 1000 feet. He
carefully maneuvered the helicopter to a position about 50 meters to the west of where they had
started up the hill the day before. Skater 67 stated the chopper was very close. James started
up the hill very slowly. The fog and clouds were still hampering their ability to visually
search for the crash site and more importantly was making it very difficult to hover.
James had hovered up the mountain for 15 minutes. Then..., "Rattler 6, this is Skater
67, I see you, turn left!!" "Rattler 6, roger." James cautiously turned the nose
of the aircraft to the left using pressure on the left anti-torque pedal. He continued to hover
at a crawl rate. The weather was deteriorating. James suddenly but slowly decelerated the
aircraft with a light aft cyclic pull. The crashed helicopter was visible about 50 feet in
front of the aircraft nose. It was lying upside down with no blades, no tail rotor, no tail
boom, and very few identifiable features. Skater 67 was standing about 15 feet from the crashed
aircraft on a large rock. He asked James not to come any closer. The fuselage of the crashed
aircraft was very unstable and he was afraid rotor wash from James' aircraft would cause it to
roll down hill. James complied.
Now what? It was impossible to land. near the crash site due to heavy brush and trees. There
were severely wounded soldiers on the ground, medical attention was a priority. James hovered
to a spot he thought he could hold. LTC Schwarzkopf and the crew chief secured a rope to the
floor of the UH-1H and tied the other end around Captain Oliver (the surgeon). He was gently
lowered out of the cargo door, down through the dense canopy to the jungle floor. The crash was
only 20 to 30 feet away from his location. The crew chief and gunner had to direct his every
step using hand and arm signals because of the heavy undergrowth. Even this short distance took
the doctor 10 minutes to navigate. Oliver called for stretchers to be dropped shortly after
reaching the wreckage.
The only possible landing point to pick up survivors was on the wreckage itself. James
briefed King 4, who was the search and rescue for March 18th, it would be necessary to make an
instrument takeoff after pickup and get a radar vector to Chu Lai hospital. King 4 acknowledged
and coordinated the plan with all concerned. The crew chief advised James that the weather was
breaking up in the valley below just as he started forward to land. James informed King 4 and
requested a Jolly Green to make the pickup. King 4 dispatched a Jolly Green but they could not
find the location. James immediately turned and flew to the valley floor where he rendezvoused
with the Jolly Green and led him to the crash site. They anxiously waited. The weather was
still not good enough for the large Jolly Green to maneuver to a pickup point. In a short time
the weather lifted enough to get the Jolly Green over the crash site. The rescue operation was
nearing completion. Air Force Staff Sergeant Jules Smith and Sergeant Stephen Sano were lowered
to assist Captain Oliver. With their expertise on the ground, the rescue operation was
One-by-one, the survivors were hoisted to the Jolly Green. General Ramsey woke in a daze for
the first time since the crash with wind and rain in his face. He quickly sunk back into
unconsciousness and did not wake again until he was in the hospital and the medics were cutting
his clothes off. He was evacuated to Japan and later, on to the states with a mangled and
broken arm and severe back injuries. He served as the Provost Marshall General of the Army
after a recovery period at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was medically retired
about a year after the crash.
James and his illustrious crew returned to the snake pit heroes. To Tommie P. James and his
crew it was just another mission in the land of the Rattlers... "Rattler operations, this
is Rattler 6, we're home, please close out my flight plan, over." "This is Rattler 3,
wilco, welcome home, out.