Rattler/Firebird Association



A veteran – whether active duty, retired, national guard or reserve – is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to “The United States of America,” for an amount of “up to and including my life.”

“Like the book said, we may be through with the past but the past is not through with us!”


On Friday, November 13th, the local ABC affiliate in the Dallas area ran a story on tail rotor chain bracelets and how much they mean to Huey crewmen of the Vietnam War era. A place in Washington State was making them and when word got out about this they received 300 orders. So far they have produced about 80 and only have chain for 5 more bracelets. When they said that, I turned to Kay and said, “We’ve got more chain than they do!”

This is what will blow your mind about the whole story. They are selling the bracelets for $700 each.

If you have a bracelet, by all means tell your family what it is worth. If you have no one to leave it to, send it to us and we will see that it stays in our Association with someone who would appreciate it.

The column by Kay Seabolt was written in November. Her condition has deteriorated at a slow pace since that time. We expect this will be her last contribution. Thank all of you who supported her with your nice comments through the years as she has done this.


The 2016 Reunion will be held once again at the Marriott DFW Airport South located at 4151 Centreport Boulevard, Ft. Worth, TX 76155. This location is directly south of the DFW Airport one block east of Highway 360 and Trinity Blvd There is shuttle service from the hotel to the airport.

If you are driving in from the southeast (Interstate 20) disregard any instructions that take you through or near downtown Dallas or around North Dallas. Stay on I-20 all the way to Highway 360 and go north to Trinity Blvd. and you are there with about 25% of the traffic.

Our reunion dates are Wednesday, May 18th to Sunday, May 22nd. The Sunday date is generally the go home date.

The room rate is $109 per night which includes a very nice private full buffet breakfast in the Atrium each morning. With applicable state and local taxes the total per night is a dab over $125.00

Our Association will again be furnishing cold luncheon items daily plus free beverages throughout the reunion. There are about a dozen eating places within a two block area of the hotel, many of which are fast food places.

Our Saturday night banquet is the capstone of the reunion and we have been requesting anyone who can still get into your old (or new) uniform to please wear it to the banquet.

Our speaker for this year’s reunion has not been determined at press time.

Firebirds Free-Fire Golf Outing

Date: Friday May 20th Tee Time: 2pm Location: Bear Creek Golf Course (same as last reunion, not far from hotel) Cost: $40 (very reasonable) Registration/Information Contact: Eric Kilmer,[email protected] or 989-550-7361 You can register as an individual or as foursomes.

Our format will be 'Best Ball'. Tom Knapp, (PGA Senior Tour, winner of 2002 South Florida Open, 2005 Treasure Coast Senior Tour, as well as a stellar amateur career), will explain how it is played. In addition Tom has graciously volunteered to give a free 20 minute lesson to the group prior to the 2pm tee time.


Johnnie Hitt Remembers A Day's Mission With Spudich

I did know and fly with Phil Spudich. We got shot down while flying aircraft 298 (Company Commander’s Aircraft) into a hot LZ. We were lead of a flight of ten on Dec 3, 1969 and flew into a helicopter ambush. Captain James Duke and his Snakedoctor crew rescued us after about 15 horrifying minutes on the ground. We went to Hawk Hill, debriefed, borrowed an aircraft from the 176th ( I think) and flew the remainder of the battalion into the LZ. Phil and I flew 13 Hours straight hours that day. We were beat and got an Ass Chewing from the flight surgeon because we flew before we got clearance from him after being shot down and crashing.

A Tribute to Firebird Shawn Hannah

By Ray Foley (EM 67-68)

While serving as a crew chief in the Firebirds in late 1967, I was on a mission with gunner Jaak Sepp, Copilot Shawn Hannah and Aircraft Commander Andy Sutton. We had been scrambled from Hill 35 to assist a company of the 196 in heavy contact in the valley. Once on station, we were instructed to orbit about a mile from the battle as a FAC was on station and F-4 Phantoms were bombing the western edge of the battle area. I knew the area well from previous missions and the hundreds of 51 caliber gun positions that I called donuts. The NVA did not camouflage the positions unless there was a gun sitting in their center. I always tried to be vigilant, so as we started our orbit at 1,000 feet, I studied the terrain. During the first circle I spotted what appeared to be bad guys rushing toward the battle area. The jungle canopy was dense enough to create doubt of what I was seeing. Two of the individuals were carrying long black tube-like items and 5 others were humping burlap bags. Then I realized that two of them were wearing pith helmets, which quickly identified them as enemy soldiers. I told Mr. Sutton that we had NVA under us and they were rushing toward the back side of the Infantry Company. He asked if I was sure, I responded in the affirmative and he instructed me to drop a smoke grenade in the area when we came back around. As we flew over that spot I could not see them, but knew they were hiding so I tossed the smoke anyway. Almost instantly there were numerous automatic weapons firing at us and I was busy returning fire when suddenly the helicopter banked hard left and skidded (nose left) throwing me out of the door opening. I realized in a terrifying instant that I had not connected my bungee strap to the aircraft and was going head-first into the jungle. There I was, outside of the aircraft with my boots still making contact with the edge of the aircraft floor. Amazingly, the recoil from my free M-60 held me in place, but the firing cycle rate was slowing because I was too far from my ammo box! The next thing I knew, I was on my butt in the middle of the floor with my M-60 in my hands. Mr. Sutton had been struck by enemy fire, which caused him to lose control of the aircraft. Mr. Hannah immediately took the controls and righted the helicopter. Without his decisive action I know I would have fallen to my death. The incident created a close bond between Shawn and me. I looked forward to the Christmas cards he sent me over the years because they gave me joy knowing that we were still connected. I will miss Firebird Shawn Hannah, but know that other warriors, gone before and after him, are enjoying his company. Firebird Shawn Hannah will always be a hero in my eyes. He was a good man.


From Tom Griffith (OF 65-66)

This project started about 3 years ago and I keep putting it aside because I get frustrated. This time I am going to see it through.

In March 1966 Maj Don Farnham asked for volunteers to go to Vung Tau TDY 30-60 days to fly gunship support (Task Force SeaWolf) for the US Navy's riverine forces. The Navy didn't have armed helicopters at that time. I went as part of that detachment. Bill Burgner was also a part of it. I also think Charlie Bogle and Rob Eggleston were part of it. We also had crews and choppers from the 118th and the 120th. We flew out of Vung Tau and off LSTs and LSDs out in the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea.

I visited the USS Midway several years ago, which is permanently docked here in San Diego, and has become one of the top tourist attractions. I was up on the flight deck looking at all the aircraft and noticed a UH-1B tucked away over on the side. The placard in front of it said that it was a US Navy helicopter that flew as part of TF SeaWolf. There was no mention of the US Army. I told the docent that the placard was incomplete; that the US Army started TF SeaWolf, and four months later checked out the Navy crews and maintenance personnel. Then we gave the UH-1Bs to the Navy and we got new UH-1Cs. The docent gave me the name of a retired CPO who is president of the SeaWolf Association. I got in touch with him. He told me he had been trying for years to contact any Army members who flew SeaWolf. We now stay in touch regularly. As a result of that conversation, the placard in front of the UH-1B on the USS Midway has been changed to reflect the US Army's part in TF SeaWolf.

I remember when we first arrived in Vung Tau, the Navy LtCmdr in charge told me that our first mission the next day was to fly out to the LSD and deliver mail and spare parts. I told him I had no training to land on ships. He told me I could just take all my men and helicopters and go back to Bien Hoa. I told him to hang on a minute while I checked with my commander. I called Maj. Farnham and told him they wanted us to fly out and land on a ship. His response was "What's your problem Griff?" So, the next morning we became ship landing qualified.

The most interesting operation that we took part in while we were in Vung Tau was Operation Jackstay. It started with us providing a light fire team covering a SEAL Team for several nights in a row as they went into the Rung Sat Special Zone to locate a large VC complex. The SEAL Team located the complex, and on 27 March 1966 Operation Jackstay began. We were on station at 0530 just in time to hear "Attention in the area, attention in the area, heavy artillery falling from 24,000 feet in the following area......." It was a flight of three B-52s dropping bombs into the area where the SEAL Team had been going. Next was a naval gunfire barrage that lasted about 30 minutes. By that time it was daylight and we could see ships all around us. Our mission that day was to escort eight LCMs on what was the one and only US Marine amphibious landing in III Corps. We supported the operation until the Marines were extracted about 10 days later.

I am trying to find information about the SEAL Team and the B-52 crews. The US Navy and US Marine historical documents are almost totally void of any information about the SEALs, the B-52s or the US Army armed helicopters (Firebirds). My goal is to correct all those documents, and to tell the complete story of the most complex and successful joint operation that I witnessed in my 2 years in Vietnam. Operation Jackstay had forces from the US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Army, US Air Force, US Coast Guard, RVN Navy and RVN Marines.

Tom Griffith phones: 858-792-5117 (Home) 619-892-2964 (Cell)


Over the past few months, the issue of Individual Unemployability (IU) has been both a topic of discussion and one of rising concern for the Disabled American Veterans and its members. A hearing regarding IU was held before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs on July 15, 2015.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for eligibility to IU, a veteran must be unable to maintain substantially gainful employment as a result of his or her service-connected disabilities. Marginal employment, such as an odd job, is not considered "substantial gainful employment" for VA purposes. In addition to the employment barrier, a veteran eligible for IU must have one service-connected condition ratable at 60 percent or more disabling, or two or more service-connected disabilities, at least one condition that is ratable at 40 percent or more disabling, with a combined rating of 70 percent or more disabled.

Reports published by the Congressional Budget Office in August 2014 and the General Accountability Office in June 2015 made recommendations for substantial changes to the IU program. If implemented, these changes would cause significant financial harm to wounded, ill and injured veterans, their survivors and dependents.

Many of the views expressed within these reports are quite troubling, particularly the notions of restricting, limiting, or eliminating entitlement to IU on the basis of age and offsetting IU benefits when veterans are in receipt of other earned federal benefits such as military compensation or Social Security benefits ; concepts that DAV vehemently opposes.

No legislation has been introduced to address IU, but discussions are underway. DAV wants the voice of DAV members, the auxiliary and other DAV supporters who are concerned about the preservation of veterans' benefits to be part of this discussion. DAV asks you to contact your elected officials with the letter provided, or please write your own letter for the same purpose.


The veteran in the article was getting nowhere with the VA. All kinds of run arounds on his claims for hearing loss and Agent Orange related illness. He wrote a letter to the President of the United States and copied it to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Within a week he had more appointments and examinations than he has had in the last three years. One VA worker pulled up his file and told him, “This came from the President’s office and also the Secretary of the VA.”

Contact the president at: whitehouse.gov/contact/ Copy to Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Robert A. McDonald, 810 Vermont Ave., Washington, D.C. 20420. What have you got to lose?


From John Bley (WO 67-68)

Yes, that’s what we were. People look at us with thoughts in mind like brave, lots of guts, yes patriotic, skillful, intelligent and so on. Different assessments which correspond to their individual personalities. Yet, thoughts that I many times interpreted as not really describing us at all.

Jay Leno is seen driving $300,000 cars with effervesce of WOW…look at me. Yet I flew aircraft with an equipped cost of over ten million dollars. I don’t know their exact cost, none of them came with a price tag on the windshield. Like any responsible person, I periodically thought…what am I going to do if I break this damn thing. I had three of them that broke on me; an engine failure, sprag clutch lockup and a total hydraulic failure. I brought all three of them back without any further damage.

We got to drive them for free. We even got paid for it. Wait a minute…what cost did we truly pay?

I recently saw the movie RUSH, by Ron Howard. It was about two formula one race car drivers that were rivals upon first meeting and in the end exposed to each other their total respect. They say it is a true story. In this movie James Hunt described his mental position like this; “The closer you come to death…the more alive you feel”. That sounds heroic and scripted for a movie, but that is not the way it is. Actually, the closer you come to death…the more fearful you become and realize how permanent the consequences can be. This was a thought that I was not often exposed to, simply because the helicopter required so much concentration to fly it. I was glad for that.

When I first started flying…I couldn’t fly worth a darn. I was terrible. I suppose a lot of beginners experience the same thing. To begin with you are so damn stiff that you can hardly do anything. When I first hovered the helicopter the sweat was rolling off my forehead. The instructor pilot asked me what 2 plus 3 was…I could not answer. I found out later this was their standard thing to do. It requires so much concentration and all your muscles are so stiff you can’t do anything else.

One time after I first soloed, I was supposed to fly west of our base and make a few landings to pinnacles that had been established in the area. These were really simple areas to land at compared to what we had to do in Vietnam. Anyway, I went to the area and made 3 or 4 attempts to land in a couple of these spots. I could not bring the helicopter down…I would repeatedly pass over the area and never did land. My time soon ran out and I returned to base. On approach in I thought…what if I can’t land the stupid thing here. I almost panicked, but you can’t do that when you have only yourself to rely on. Well, I landed successfully, just like a pro and all the landings afterward.

I did a few awkward and idiotic things. Shortly after arriving in Vietnam I was flying to meet up with a flight, probably about 10 or so aircraft that were already en route to an assigned troop pickup zone. I don’t remember why we were late for the lift and in the process of catch up. The group was flying at 80 knots and I was pushing 100 knots to catch them. Upon reaching the element I did not slow down soon enough and flared at the last moment, only to pop up in the air about 200 feet above them (it seemed like about half a mile). I had very little time in country and was a very inexperienced peter pilot. The aircraft commander did not take the controls, nor did he say anything. He was absolutely silent and sat motionless in his seat. I continued to fly and finally nested into the flight group without incident and flew for about the next 2 hours…all while feeling embarrassed and completely lacking any ability to fly this machine. The AC’s silence and reaction was probably one of the greatest training exercises in my life. He was a very experienced pilot and about to rotate out of country. I cannot remember his name.

For me beginning as a pilot was very stressful, but it was too soon replaced with overconfidence. I simply do not know which phase of flying was more dangerous. A solo flight with limited experience or some crazy maneuvers performed with much more time at the controls.


John Mateyko

I have a dim memory of picking up a LRRP somewhere near the Cambodian border where the troops had to climb trees and then climb aboard the copter at a hover.

Dick Birnbach


All I have is a civilian log book with tail numbers and a few notations. Those notations bring back the ''little film clips" we all have in our minds.

One such 'clip' is from November 2. I was in the left seat with Dorsey. We were flying low level circles around a slick that was lowering himself into the trees making leaves fly everywhere and painting his main blades green. I asked Dorsey, "Does he know what he's doing?" Jim replied, "Yes he does, that's Birnbach." At the villa I asked you why you did it and you replied, "They were stuck and somebody had to get them out."


I remember the incident. I found out about it when I got back from my own mission that day. I do not have much recall of the details of each incident that happened in Viet Nam. Did you keep a journal?

Dick B

On 11/08/15, John Mateyko<[email protected]> wrote:

I was flying left seat (Peter Pilot, co-pilot or whatever you want to name it) and Pat Gwaltney was the aircraft commander in 64-13925 which was a B model Huey with two flex guns and a rocket pod with seven tubes on each side.

For ready reference, B models had two counterweights at the highest point of the helicopter with a stabilizer bar between the counterweights and the main blades. I am not sure who our wing man was, may have been Rob Eggleston. Our first mission of the day was to escort a USAF HH-43 Husky on a med evac mission.

After that we went OpCon to the 173rd Brigade who were beginning Operation Hump about 20 miles north of Bien Hoa. While flying at 500 feet over some of the most beautiful jungle in the world, we took a round through a bolt which held one of the counterweights. Reconstructing what happened, we think the bolt was severed and the counterweight dropped into the plane of the stabilizer bar. It was hit by one side of the bar (which bent the bar) and deflected outward into the plane of the main rotor blades. Flat like a hockey puck, it was hit by one of the blades about four feet from the tip. The force was such that it took about 40% of the main spar and was thrown clear of the aircraft. The IMMEDIATE effect was a severe lateral vibration. In flight school we were taught to always have a landing site in mind. We needed one right now! The aircraft was shaking so bad the instruments were not readable. Pat and I both saw a wide dirt path through the lower part of the wind shield. No option other than the trees. Pat was sending the SOS and setting up the landing. We landed a little bit hard as 500 feet of altitude went by very fast.

I wore a two holster cowboy style gun belt with my .45 in the right holster and an M-60 trigger housing group in the left holster. As soon as we were on the ground, the gunner removed one of the flex guns from the armament system, attached my trigger housing group so we now had three machine guns and a bunch of ammo.

Pat stayed in the helicopter until our wing man contacted our maintenance department (call sign Snake Doctor). Very quickly the local FAC had a flight of four A-1s circling us at about 3,000', a flight of four F-4s at about 8,000' and another flight of four above the flight using 8,000. They sure looked good.

Snake Doctor landed behind us with a replacement blade and while removing the damaged main blade learned the stabilizer bar needed to be replaced and we were missing one set of counter weights and its bolt(pin) They returned to the Snake Pit for more parts. Captain King was Snake Doctor and had newly arrived Major Petersen with him in the cockpit. Within an hour they were back with us. During that time a long range recon patrol (LRRP) found us and through the brush yelled, "Americans, coming through. Do not shoot." We didn't and soon saw about ten of the grungiest men I have ever seen.

I don't know how long they had been in the jungle, but they were good to see. They told us they would set up a perimeter about 50 yards out.

Our helicopter was flyable just as the sun set. Captain King and Pat would fly the gun ship and I'd fly the maintenance ship. By the time we got the tools and mechanics in the Snake Doctor helicopter, King and Gwaltney had their blades turning. I didn't want to over fly them, so I did a backwards take off. Petersen was nervous all day long and that take off didn't do anything to calm his nerves.

The night flight to Bien Hoa was uneventful although without tracking the blades 925 must have vibrated quite a bit.

That is one of those, "There but for the grace of God" moments.


By Kay Seabolt

I was going to attempt to write a short article for this newsletter, but I’ve lost the ability to use a keyboard. So rather than use one finger I will let Ron do the typing for me.

This journey with brain cancer has been a challenge. I want to personally thank all of you who have prayed for me over the last few months. I love the prayers. I feel them and they have sustained me. God has given me peace in my heart. I will take each day as it comes and enjoy it to the fullest.

There are a lot of things that my brain cancer has taken from me, but there are also things that it has not taken from me.

I say all the time, “I miss my brain.” I miss being able to think clearly. I miss my memory and the ability to follow through on a task. If you were to walk through my house you could tell where I’ve been. Drawers and cabinet doors are left standing open. Sometimes water is running in the kitchen sink. Microwave open, refrigerator door might be open. Ron quietly comes behind me and closes things.

I can no longer go to the grocery store and push a cart. I am now one of the little old ladies riding the electric carts, and to be honest I’m not a very good driver.

Ron has been such a good care giver to me. He fixes my breakfast every morning. I now wear a police whistle around my neck for use when Ron is in the house. We communicate through walkie talkies if he goes outside. Sometimes I’ll be in the back of the house and I’ll hear, “Kay are you okay?” I’ll catch myself yelling to the radio before I remember I have to push the darn button down, then realize he’s in the house. Speaking of that button, I have a hard time holding it down so I get frustrated when I have answered Ron three times but have not transmitted a single time. I have to be able to laugh at myself or I would go crazy.

It’s been five months (June 1st) since my surgery. I am beginning to have trouble dressing myself again. I can get myself tangled up in my own clothes – how does that happen? Ron has to help me get under the covers at night because I get tangled up in them.

Day to day living is an adventure around here. Sometimes he has to get me out of the bathtub, and I’m not a lightweight. In fact I’ve put on 30 pounds since my surgery – round face and belly (from steroids).

This morning I sat down on our ottoman that’s on wheels and it slipped out from under me and down I went. At least I didn’t fall far. Lots of padding on my rear end now!


My hair, ability to drive, my balance, my physical strength, my ability to go for a walk, Ability to cook, my memory, my independence, my depth perception, ability to use a keyboard, ability to balance my checkbook, ability to fold sheets and other large items, ability to fasten my jewelry, ability to push a shopping cart, ability to garden, quilt & do other crafts, ability to walk unaided, and hand-eye coordination.


My faith, my sense of humor, my peace, my desire to try, my desire to learn, my ability to read, my desire to go to new places, my inner strength, friends & family who pray for me, pleasure I get from little things daily, my appetite (LOL), my ability to laugh at myself, to hope, my love of life, and the enjoyment I get from accomplishing the smallest of tasks. I can still tie my shoelaces although it might take a few tries.

Valorous Unit Award (part one)

By Wally Honda

The Rattlers and Firebirds of A Company 501st Aviation Battalion, 71st Assault Helicopter Company during service in Vietnam from 2 December 1964 through 30 September 1971 earned two Presidential Unit Citations (one Navy); three Valorous Unit Awards; five RVN Gallantry Crosses; and the RVN Civil Action Honor Medal.

One of the awards earned by the Rattlers and Firebirds was the Valorous Unit Award for action in support of the 196th Infantry Brigade during the combat engagement from 11 August to 31 August 1969. The citation reads as follows: The 196th Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry Division (Americal) and its assigned and attached units distinguished themselves through extraordinary heroism from 11 August to 31 August 1969 in Quang Tin Province, Republic of Vietnam. During the cited period unit personnel repeatedly engaged two well-trained and well-equipped enemy regiments in fierce, close fighting near the junction of the Hiep Duc and Song Chang Valleys. Seizing the initiative, the members of the 196th Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry Division (Americal) frequently assaulted strongly fortified positions and successfully inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy at every encounter. Through their great personal fortitude, and valorous efforts, the officers and men of the brigade drove the enemy from his sanctuaries, uncovered numerous caches of weapons and ammunition, and halted enemy attempts to mass troops in the area for the purpose of launching large-scale attacks upon the civilian populace. Demonstrating gallant fighting spirit, the unit destroyed the combat effectiveness of the 2d North Vietnamese Army Division, thus immeasurably advancing the Free World military effort in the Republic of Vietnam. The extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty displayed by the members of the 196th Infantry Brigade, 23d infantry Division (Americal) are in keeping with the highest tradition of the military service and reflect distinct credit upon themselves, their unit and the Armed Forces of the United States.

The late Keith Nolan in his book Death Valley - The Summer Offensive I Corps, August 1969 does a credible job describing the ground action of the 196th LIB and the 1st Marine Division. I was able to get names and dates of specific actions during this period to help me with my recollections of events. I highly recommend all who participated during this action read this book.

The 71st Assault Helicopter Company was one of the “assigned and attached units” mentioned in the citation earning the award. Also, in my view, the citation does not adequately reflect the sacrifices and contributions of the Rattlers and Firebirds during this period.

I reviewed my flight records for August 1969 and found that I flew a total of 154 combat flying hours that month. There were many back to back 13 hour flying days. Almost all air crews logged similar flight times and some substantially more. The regulations for standing down pilots after reaching a maximum of 100 flying hours were obviously ignored.

I was but only one of 100 pilots and crew members flying with the Rattlers and Firebirds during this period. There are many more stories that can and should be told. This is a small sampling of my recollection and experiences during that period flying with the Rattlers after more than 45 years:

Things were relatively quiet in the 196th AO (196th Light Infantry Brigade Area of Operations) during July 1969. I was still a Peter Pilot but well past the FNG stage. By the first week in August, I had two months in Vietnam. There may be arguments on my use of the term “quiet.” For the individual or unit engaged in a fire fight during July will disagree with me. For me, the intensity out in the AO had subsided from my first month of combat flying in June. I remember the buzz around the company area on the day of my arrival on June 11 with the Rattlers of the 71st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). LZ East out in the 196th AO was over-run killing 15 troops from the 3rd Bn. 21st Inf. (3-21). And, earning the Gallantry Cross with many in the unit for action in support of the 5th ARVN Regiment the following day through the 19th of June.

There would be no disagreement about the combat intensity in August for the 196th LIB or for the 71st AHC.

My first inkling of the AO getting hot again was during the second week in August. While I was pre-flighting the helicopter in the early morning darkness at the “Snake Pit” (nickname of 71st AHC refueling area), two cheerful bright eyed “Donut Dollies” were looking for a ride to LZ West. The Donut Dollies in their powder blue dresses were Red Cross volunteers who were deployed to the field as moral boosters for the troops. Operations had directed them to our helicopter as we were assigned to be the Command and Control (C&C) helicopter in support of the 4th Bn. 31st Inf. (4-31) headquartered on top of LZ West, a 400 meter high hilltop overlooking the surrounding valleys. Transporting the Donut Dollies was a welcomed diversion from the usual activities. This was the first time that I transported anything other than combat troops or ammunition and supplies.

We departed Chu Lai following Highway 1 (The main road running north and south from the DMZ through Saigon along the coast of Vietnam) 25 miles north to LZ West. As usual we turned to a westerly heading past the town of Tam Ky. The sun was just rising when we were near LZ East. We started to take small arms fire from the valley. I always associated LZ East as being a dangerous area. I was remembering that it was overrun by the NVA on my day of arrival to the company. The sporadic gunfire was a little unusual. I had not remembered taking fire in this area in weeks, but at the time, it did not concern me very much.

The closer we got to LZ West, the flashes from the AK-47’s intensified. As we turned north for a final approach to LZ West, a Quad 50 (a four barrel .50 caliber machine gun) on top of the LZ opened fire. Without warning, a nerve shattering river of .50 caliber tracer rounds came streaming directly towards us. It was unexpected and unnerving. The eyes of the Donut Dollies got much brighter and larger as did mine.

Evidently, the gunners on top of LZ West were giving us covering fire protecting our approach to the helipad. The Quad .50 was returning fire from the rounds coming at us from the valley below. I have to give a lot of credit to the Donut Dollies for volunteering. The Donut Dollies are not sent to an unsecured or dangerous area, but going to the field is never completely safe. This morning was the start of a long and deadly 20 days in what had been a relatively quiet Song Chang Valley.

For the next several days, LZ Siberia, located just to the west of LZ West was under periodic mortar attack. The NVA had the helipad zeroed in. The hot topic at the Officers Club was that a soldier on the helipad took a direct hit while unloading supplies from a helicopter. There was little left of the body to recover. After that incident, everyone flying into or near LZ Siberia was a little spooked.

LZ Karen was a small outpost adjacent to LZ Siberia separated only by the river fork of the Song Chang and Song Thu Bon Rivers. On one flight re-supplying LZ Siberia, the AC that I was flying with got cute by a half. To avoid potentially getting blown up while sitting on LZ Siberia, he made a deceptive normal approach to LZ Karen. Just before touchdown to the helipad, he continued on and flew down the back side of LZ Karen. He flew low level across the river to LZ Siberia and quickly touched down and delivered the cargo before the enemy was able to potentially target LZ Siberia. I remember the irate RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) at LZ Karen who was not informed of the clever maneuver. They did not appreciate running to the exposed helipad for supplies that were meant for LZ Siberia. Fortunately, no mortar rounds impacted either helipad. The subsequent re-supply flights were changed to just fly at tree top level and pop up quickly to the intended LZs.

On the night of August 11, elements of the 2nd NVA division were spotted in the wire on the north hillside of LZ West. All night long, the LZ fired everything they had directly down into the hillside. I can only imagine the fireworks display. In the early morning, the grunts on the hill policed up 59 NVA bodies and took six wounded prisoners.

The following morning, division and brigade brass, reporters, and the curious were all descending onto LZ West. I was assigned as the Peter Pilot flying C&C for 3-21 on LZ Center. I was one of the curious that flew across the valley to be part of the excitement. By the time I arrived, the 59 bodies were piled up in a large heap. I had never witnessed anything like it; Just a pile of bodies and dismembered parts of bodies thrown on a cargo net.

Awhile later, a CH-47 Chinook flew in and un-ceremonially lifted the cargo net on its hook and departed to the west. When I asked about where the Chinook was taking the bodies, I was told that they were going to “punch off” the load over a known NVA position from altitude. This was to send a message to the NVA. I didn’t know if it was true or not, but I believed the story. At that time, I was still a naïve Peter Pilot and believed just about anything I was told went on in this AO.

Several days later, I was flying with a captain flying as my AC, his name escapes me, on a C&C mission in support of 3-21 out of LZ Center. As we were shutting down the aircraft on LZ Center we started to take incoming mortar rounds. The rounds started impacting the hillside. Everyone quickly departed the helicopter, including me. On board was the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Howard and Sergeant Major Rowell. The colonel and his staff along with the aircraft commander departed to the left to the command bunker. I went to the right to the nearest sandbagged bunker. It wasn’t more than five minutes when I heard the whinning of the helicopter turbine engine starting up.

I went outside towards the helipad. The helicopter was at full operating RPM, with the aircraft commander strapped in and ready to take off. The colonel was in the back seat and SGM Rowell was coming towards me yelling and chewing my ass out. Evidently they were all searching for me. I looked at the colonel and aircraft commander for some kind of support. I was ignored as Rowell continued his tirade. I found out quickly that a Sergeant Major outranks a Peter Pilot.

The entire AO in and around LZ West and LZ Center was hot. We were taking fire on just about every sortie into the field. There were no lulls and no routine “milk runs.” As written by Ted Shulsen and Vic Bandini in the book Rattlers and Firebirds, Carlock and Seabolt – Excuse me, I’ll Take the Next Flight; On evening of the 18th, Lieutenant Shulsen, my platoon leader, call sign Rattler 26, with Warrant Officer Hart flying what was his first combat mission in Vietnam as his Peter Pilot with Privates Marino and Lavigne, was attempting to resupply Delta Company 4-31. Earlier in the day, I was flying with Nate Wilondek as the AC on a C&C mission for 4-31. We delivered an emergency re-supply of ammunition to Delta Company under intense automatic weapons fire. We took several hits but luckily escaped. On board on this mission was the battalion commander, LTC Henry and his sergeant major. Delta Company near Hill 102 was surrounded by enemy troops and under siege. We were fortunate to escape without taking casualties.

As Shulsen made his approach, he came under a barrage of automatic weapons fire. Both Shulsen and Hart were seriously wounded. Despite the head and shoulder wounds, Lieutenant Shulsen managed to make it back to LZ Center. Both Shultsen’s and Hart’s wounds were serious enough to be evacuated to Japan. Shulsen returned to the Rattlers several weeks later but Hart was returned to the States for further medical treatment. Sadly, the crew chief and door gunner, Marino and Lavigne who survived this mission unscathed would both be killed the following day while flying a C&C mission supporting 3-21 out of LZ Center.

On the 19th, I was supporting the 2nd Bn. 1st Inf. out of Hawk Hill northeast of LZs Center and West near Hwy 1. Flying back to Chu Lai in the afternoon with some passengers from Hawk Hill, a mayday call came over the company frequency. “Mayday, Mayday, Ratter 24 going down in flames…” I recognized the crackling voice of my good friend Rocky Cassano. I was distressed to think that Rocky was in serious trouble but wondered why he was using the call sign Rattler 24 instead of his call sign Rattler 25. My AC, I think was Ken Doyle, and I looked at each other and was getting ready to drop off the pax at Tam Ky and head out to LZ Center to attempt a rescue.

Several seconds later, Rocky’s voice came over the radio again in a dejected voice stating that Rattler 24 had crashed and burned. There was no possibility of survivors. Rocky was making the mayday call for Plumber (Rattler 24) and his crew as Rocky and Eric Kilmer as his co-pilot were witnessing the horrific event. I was relieved that Rocky was okay but was saddened to hear about Plummer and Silverstein and his crew of Martino and Lavigne. There was now no reason to go to LZ Center so we headed home to Chu Lai with our passengers.

I found out later that evening that along with WO1 John Plummer, WO1 Gerald Silverstein, PFC Stephen Martino, and PFC Stewart Lavigne from the Rattlers, LTC Eli Howard, SGM Franklin Rowell, SP5 Richard Doria from 3-21 battalion headquarters, and Oliver Noonan, a reporter for the Associated Press were all listed as missing and presumed killed in the crash.

The helicopter under heavy fire, took hits from .51 Cal. anti-aircraft rounds. As the rounds impacted, the aircraft caught fire and both LTC Howard and SGM Rowell either jumped or were thrown out of the helicopter from altitude. The area was so infested with the enemy that it would be several days before a sweep of the area could be made to recover the bodies. The crusty old Sergeant Major Rowell chewing my ass on LZ Center was still fresh on my mind.

In a recent correspondence, Eric Kilmer gave me some details of the incident:

The colonel in charge wanted to be taken down to the unit in contact with the enemy. Silverstein warned the colonel that the area was not secure; they had been taking fire earlier during a resupply mission. Despite the warning, the colonel insisted in going into the hot LZ. Silverstein radioed Rattler 25 (Rocky Cassano and Eric Kilmer), who was flying in support of nearby LZ East and asked if they could assist in flying as “high ship.” (The job of the high ship was to rescue the helicopter crew in the event of a forced landing). Silverstein was an experienced AC and knew what was waiting ahead of him during this hot LZ insertion. It took about 20 minutes for Rocky to get on station.

Silverstein was flying a high downwind approach up the valley probably 500 feet above the ground about to make a defending left turn onto a final approach. They radioed that they were receiving heavy fire. Suddenly the Huey swerved way out of trim. The helicopter was sliding sideways through the air. The nose of the helicopter dropped and the helicopter actually did a complete barrel roll tumbling through the air along its nose to tail axis. Somehow the Huey at the last moment began to regain control and initiated a flair maneuver to slow the aircraft down before it slammed into the side of mountain exploding on impact in a huge ball of fire. It was clear to Rocky and Eric that no one could have survived the crash and fire. That evening, Rocky got completely drunk and it was up to Eric to talk to the Associated Press on a long distance telephone call.

Somehow I must have drawn the short straw. I was part of having the grim task of picking up and delivering two KIAs to grave registration. I learned from reading Kieth Nolan’s book that the bodies were that of the Alpha Company 3-21 platoon leader, Lieutenant Dan Kirchgesler and his squad leader Sergeant Pitts. Kirchgesler was killed on the 21st and Pitts was killed on the next day trying to recover Kirchgesler’s body. Because of the heavy NVA presence, both bodies had to be left in the field. Another aircrew would recover the bodies of the Rattler 24, the crew, and passengers.

The bodies had been exposed to the heat and humidity of the jungle for three days. The distended and bloated figures were unrecognizable as human beings. The bodies were so bloated that if touched, I thought they would explode. I felt sorry for the grunts that had to put their bodies into the body bags.

We initially landed to the recovery site and dropped off a number of body bags and departed back to LZ Center until getting the word that the bodies were bagged. We did not want to wait around in the area in case there were still snipers in the area. After returning to the recovery site and receiving the bodies we flew out towards grave registration. I remember flying deliberately out of trim at a 45 degree angle from the direction of flight in order to allow the wind to flow through my side window. I was physically choking and thought I was going to be sick. It was the first time that I was part of recovering bodies that were left out in the field. I will never forget the sight and smell of that task. After the drop off, I saw the crew chief and door gunner dousing the cargo bay down with JP-4 (Jet Fuel), trying to get rid of the fluids and odor that leaked out of the body bags. It was a thankless job.

I tried to stay personally detached from the KIAs. I just looked at the task as having to do a crappy job and just wanted to get it over with. I recently found out while researching the events leading to the loss of Ratter 24, that one of the bodies I helped transport to the grave registration had a name, a face, and a story. Lieutenant Dan Kirchgesler was married and graduated at the top of his class from the University of South Dakota with what would have been a bright future. I am sure that the aircrew that recovered the bodies of the Rattler 24 crew could not stay emotionally detached.

The action in the 196th AO during this two week period was widely reported. There was the article in the Pacific Stars and Stripes, “GIs Battling for Hill 102.” With the death of Oliver Noonan, reporters were everywhere. The biggest story was when some disgruntled troops from Alpha Company 3-21, reportedly refused an order to move out against Hill 102. Alpha Company had taken over 50 percent casualties since taking to the field and had just lost eight KIA. The matter was dealt with quickly but with reporters intercepting the radio message while on LZ Center, made headlines in Time Magazine. When I heard the story, I was miffed that it was such big news. What was the big deal about disgruntled troops. The vast majority of the troops at the time were draftees just putting in their time and trying to stay alive. GIs not complaining would have been a bigger story.

For the two battalions on LZ Center and LZ West, and the Rattlers and Firebirds that supported them, there was no denying that the AO was no longer quiet. The 4th Battalion of LZ West alone lost 39 KIA and 204 WIA in the 20 day battle. The battalion for their actions was awarded a well-deserved Presidential Unit Citation.

The AO would become quiet again until “Black Monday,” September 22, 1969 when the Rattlers and Firebirds would again engage the 2nd NVA division on a combat assault supporting LZ Center. This memorable event would become my first combat assault mission as a brand new aircraft commander. The intensity in the AO for me would continue to seesaw back and forth until it was my time to leave the quiet 196th AO for good.

(part two will appear in the May 2016 newsletter)