September 22, 1969 - Republished
By Colonel Johnnie B. Hitt, US Army Retired
Rattler 16 & 3 1969-1970
On September 22, 1969, I was a no-time-in-grade junior Captain in the U. S. Army flying with the 71st Aviation Company (Assault Helicopter), Americal Division, in Chu Lai, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). I was promoted to Captain on September 14, 1969. Not only was I the newest Captain in the Company, I was also very new to the Army and the horrifying effects of war. From a draftee, I had worked my way up through the ranks and had only been in the Army for 2 years, 11 months and 350 days. I had been in officer candidate school and flight school for over half of that time. I was also very naive about flying in Vietnam since I had arrived in the company only twelve days earlier. I still had a lot to learn about the Army and War. Little did I know that this day would change my life forever…and I was not the only one.
On the surface, the day started just as any other day in the company. The only difference to me that day was that it was my 2nd wedding anniversary. I had been married to my wife, Ila, for two wonderful years. My wife and my life back in the “world” dominated my thoughts the day and night before and for the first few minutes of September 22, 1969. As I dressed and moved toward the flight line, my thoughts began to concentrate on what happened last night and what we would be doing today.
Since I made Captain, I had been assisting and mostly observing the flight crew scheduling process so I would be able to schedule crews in the near future. I did not know that I would come to hate that job so much. The process consisted of receiving missions for the next day from the 14th Aviation Battalion through the company operations. The two lift platoon leaders and the firebird platoon leader would assign crews, both an aircraft commander and a pilot, to each mission. Company maintenance would assign the aircraft flyable for the next day. The platoon sergeants assigned the aircraft crews, one crew chief and one door gunner, based on which aircraft would be flying. The operations officer had the final approval of the assignments and made the decision if there were any conflicts or shortages. The company commander very seldom got involved in the nightly scheduling unless we could not fulfill the missions given to us by battalion.
During the scheduling session the night before September 22nd, a chain of events occurred that would affect many of our lives. The company had been flying a tremendous number of hours because of the increased action in the area of operation (AO). We had suffered six crewmembers killed in action (KIA) since May, four of them lost in the last 30 days. In addition, several aircraft had been destroyed. The company’s losses were the reason several crewmembers, including myself, were assigned to the 71st on September 10th.
An Aircraft Commander (AC) was required for each aircraft and was “The Captain” of the helicopter when it was flying. The AC’s were responsible for all decisions concerning the flight. These pilots were the best of the best. They were trained and molded from the time they entered the company until they proved their worthiness, were tested and approved for service as Aircraft Commanders. The pilot accompanying the AC in each aircraft was affectionately known as the “peter pilot” (PP). The night of September 21st, we were short the number of AC’s and helicopters required to fly the assigned missions.
The platoon leaders and operations officer discussed the situation and decided to ask Battalion to provide the AC for the “high ship” from a sister company just for the combat assault the next morning. In addition, they decided to require some of the AC’s to fly that were listed as “not available”. The “not available” status usually meant that they were sick, flown over their allowable hours, or were within two weeks of going home. The decision was made to require Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Barry Kenneth Alexander to fly the combat assault the next morning. Barry was within two weeks of going home and this would have normally placed him in a “not available” status for combat assaults and other dangerous missions.
Barry was one of the most experienced and well-liked men in the company. WO William “Whiz” Broome, one of Barry’s closest friends and hooch mate, along with WO Eric Kilmer, another friend and hooch mate, decided to give Barry a birthday party on September 21st. Barry had just turned 22 on September 11th. He had been flying almost every day so his hooch mates had delayed his party until a night where he did not have to fly the next day.
Barry and Eric were notified that they had to fly the next day by their platoon leader. Needless to say, Barry was very upset. The party continued with champagne furnished by an unknown person. Whiz and Eric toasted Barry on his birthday and his “short timer” status. Barry, Whiz and Eric laughed and drank most of the evening away. They cursed the platoon leader and operations officer throughout the evening for making Barry fly the next day. Barry kept saying that he did his time, got his helicopter shot on numerous occasions and swore he was told that the last two weeks in country were “safety” or “not available” weeks. He was so upset that no amount of drinking or joking could change his mood or his utter disdain for those who seemingly played with his life as it suited them. Even though Barry fussed and cussed all night about having to fly the next day, all through the evening Whiz taunted him about having the next day off, laughing and joking about what he would do while Barry flew. At that time Whiz could not know that he would also be flying the next day…a flight that would help change his life forever.
After the platoon leaders notified enough crewmembers to fill the mission, their attention was focused on the combat assault (CA) that had been assigned to the company. A plan was developed based on the available information. The CA was to be conducted in support of the 3/21st Infantry Battalion located at Fire Support Base (FSB) Center. The Battalion was one of four we normally supported from the 196th Infantry Brigade. Since we knew the Battalion and the AO, the plan would be simple to construct. Intelligence reported to the Infantry Battalion Commander indicated that no enemy contact was anticipated in the designated Landing Zone (LZ) which was a place called Nui Lam on our AO maps. The Battalion Commander agreed with the assessment since the proposed LZ was in plain line-of-sight view of FSB Center. He also assumed that no Viet Cong (VC) or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units would establish positions so close to FSB Center and risk detection. This turned out to be the worst assumption he ever made.
The operations order was developed and published by the operations officer and platoon leaders with the company commander’s approval. The mission was to pick up the infantry soldiers at the designated Pickup Zone (PZ), which was FSB Center’s lower pad, and insert them in the LZ identified near Nui Lam. The plan called for six lift ships and one high ship. The high ship would be used for limited command and control and recovery as necessary since it was from a sister unit, the 174th Aviation Company (Assault Helicopter). There would be no artillery or Firebird (Gunship) preparation of the LZ. There would be a light team (two aircraft) of Firebirds to escort the flight. The CA almost became an administrative move in the eyes of the aviation and infantry commanders. This would be a costly mistake. (Author’s Note: There is some disagreement about the preparation of the LZ because the people I talked to all had different memories and I just don’t remember. If there was a preparation of the LZ, it was Artillery only and a very small amount of that. I do know that there was no preparation on the second LZ.) The scheme of maneuver was to have six lift ships pick up infantry soldiers from the 3/21st at FSB Center’s lower landing pad. A total of three aircraft in a V formation could fit into the Pickup Zone (PZ). Although we had six aircraft, this would not be a problem because the designated LZ would only accommodate three helicopters at one time. The flight of six had to be separated into two flights of three choppers each. The LZ time for the first flight of three was 1100 on 22 September 1969. The first flight would depart the PZ at 1045. The second flight would depart at 1055. Each flight of three would continue this daisy chain until all of the infantry had been inserted into the LZ. At that time all aircraft would be released to continue their routine missions in the AO.
Major William (Bill) M. Price was our company commander. He was designated as lead aircraft for the CA. The known crew assignments including the initial CA plus the crews for the remainder of the day were:
KNOWN AIRCRAFT CREW ASSIGNMENTS
INCLUDING ALL CREWS THAT SUPPORTED THE INITIAL CA PLUS THOSE THAT SUPORTED THE REMAINDER OF THE DAY
|Call Sign||Name and Rank||Position||Gen Order||Award||Status||Unit|
|Rattler 21||C &C Helicopter @ LZ Center||AC|
|Rattler 6||MAJ Price, William||DG||AC||71st AHC|
|SP5 May, John L||CC||11547||AMV 3rd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Deahl, Michael D||DG||11546||AMV||WIA||71st AHC|
|Rattler XX||CW2 Alaxander, Barry||AC||NA||KIA||71st AHC|
|1LT Gates, Thomas H||P||11235||AMV 3rd Awd||WIA||71st AHC|
|SP4 Brown, Thomas O||CC||11236||Silver Star||WIA||71st AHC|
|SP5 Williams, Johnnie Lee Jr.||DG||NA||71st AHC|
|Rattler 13||WO1 Curtis, Michael D||AC||10346||DFC||71st AHC|
|WO1 Eden, Thomas G||P||12053||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Weese, Terry C||CC||12054||AMV 2nd Awd||WIA||71st AHC|
|PFC Wessels, Ronald L||DG||12055||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|Rattler 14||WO1 Kilmer, Eric S||AC||11334||DFC||WIA||71st AHC|
|CPT Hitt, Johnnie B||P||11333||AMV||WIA||71st AHC|
|SP4 Davenport, Richard D||CC||11335||AMV 2nd Awd/PH||WIA||71st AHC|
|SP4 Harris, David L||DG||11336||AMV||WIA||71st AHC|
|Rattler 20||WO1 Desert, Thomas T||AC||10347||DFC||71st AHC|
|WO1 Biglow, William W||P||12050||AMV||71st AHC|
|SP4 Parkansky, Steven||CC||12051||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Smith, Bernard||DG||12052||AMV 11th Awd||WIA||71st AHC|
|Rattler||WO1 Morreall, Fredrick T||AC||10349||DFC||71st AHC|
|WO1 Hill, Steven E||P||11782||DFC||176th AHC|
|PFC Melson, Rhett E||CC||11783||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Hobbs, Roger A||DG||11784||AMV||71st AHC|
|NA||CPT Ingram, Earl II||AC||12033||DFC 2nd OLC/PH-1OLC||WIA||HHC 14th CAB|
|WO1 Bernard, Stephen N||P||12030||AMV 5th Awd||71st AHC AHC|
|SP4 Kotecki, Gene J||CC||12032||AMV 2nd Awd/PH||WIA||71st AHC|
|PFC Hockensmith, Bernard J||DG||12031||AMV||71st AHC|
|Firebird 94||WO1 Lard, William R||AC||12046||DFC||71st AHC|
|WO1 Blakeley, John A Jr||P||12047||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP5 Coffia, Ernest C||CC||12048||AMV 4th Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Waldrip, Gene P||DG||12049||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|Rattler xx||WO1 Jackson, David R||AC||10369||Silver Star||71st AHC|
|WO1 Ecker, Leonard R||P||638||AMV||NA|
|PFC Jones, Rolf R||CC||639||AMV||NA|
|SP4 Moore, Roger L||DG||640||AMV 2nd Awd||NA|
|Rattler 16||CPT Adams, James J||AC||11329||DFC||71st AHC|
|CPT Miskesell, James G||P||11330||AMV||71st AHC|
|SP4 Petrie, Bruce M||CC||11332||AMV 3rd Awd||71st AHC|
|SP4 Moore, Roger L||DG||640||AMV 2nd Awd||71st AHC|
|Minuteman 25||WO1 Wheary, Dennis G||AC||10348||DFC||176th AHC|
|Rattler 27||WO1 Honda, Wallace T||AC||176th AHC|
|WO1 Broome, William||P||71st AHC|
|Minuteman 13||WO1 Barthel, Charles||AC||2338||DFC 1stOLC||WIA||176th AHC|
|1LT Lovrine, Theodore||P||2339||AMV 2nd Awd||WIA||176th AHC|
|SP5 Chatham, Charles||CC||2340||AMV 2nd Awd||176th AHC|
|Musket 30||WO1 Barrett, Daniel L???||AC||NA||176th AHC|
|NA||1LT Mattice, Thomas W||NA||9760||PH||WIA||176th AHC|
|Blue Ghost 28||NA|
Note 1: PP: Executive Officer (XO) (Name Unknown), 14 th Aviation Battalion (Combat) Note: I do not know why the XO was flying except that we short on pilots and needed someone to fill the seat. It was not unusual for Battalion Staff to fly routine missions with us to get their required flight time.
As we all know, a plan is usually only good until the first bullet is fired. The first bullets fired in the LZ on September 22nd not only changed the plan but also dramatically changed the lives of every Rattler and Firebird.
I remembered that the planning and scheduling had been done and all we had to do was wait for the dreaded morning to come as it always did. I was jolted back to reality when the truck hit a large pothole in the road from the company area to the flight line. I realized it was time for all of us to do our job.
Because of the recent combat damage and combat losses, maintenance could only provide 13 UH-1D/H (Huey) lift helicopters and 4 UH-1C (Huey) Gunships on September 22nd. The Company had a total of 22 Lift Hueys and 9 Gunships.
I did the pre-flight that morning since I was the PP. My AC, Eric, was the most experienced. The flight of six formed on Chu Lai East runway as we did for every CA originating at Chu Lai. Since Eric and I were chalk three of the second flight of three, we were trail aircraft for the entire flight of six. We called flight lead with an “up” as the flight lifted off from the runway. The 45-minute flight to the AO was routine but to a new guy like me, nothing was routine about going into an LZ in enemy territory and I continuously contemplated what I needed to do during the mission. I am sure everyone was hoping the same thing that I was that it would be another routine and “cold” combat assault because we all heard the briefing officer say that the infantry expected no resistance. The briefer continued to say that we were going to “surprise the enemy.” Mike Curtis said later, “It was a surprise alright, we didn’t know they were there, and they didn’t know we were coming.”
The first flight of three led by Rattler 6 arrived at the PZ on time, picked up the waiting infantry soldiers and departed toward the designated landing zone. Our flight was in the PZ immediately behind the departing flight. CWO Tom Desert was our flight lead. Tom was a great leader. He was very experienced and a detail person when it came to doing everything right. I knew this because Tom had given me my first check ride when I joined the company. He was an instructor pilot and knew the Huey inside and out. I felt very safe with him in the lead aircraft controlling our flight of three. Eric called the flight ready (all infantry aboard) and all three simultaneously lifted off. Eric and I had flown together before so our cockpit coordination was very smooth and this also made me feel very confident and safe. Everything was going as planned, so for…
We now had a total of about 40 infantrymen aboard the six Hueys. Twenty were in each flight of three. The infantry seemed to be as relaxed and calm as you could possibly be when you are about to step off into enemy territory not knowing what is going to happen next. I believe they got the same briefing we did!
Just as we were gaining altitude, I could see the first flight on long final approach from east to west into the LZ. Everyone was just doing his job.
We were following Tom on his right side (chalk 3) as he maneuvered to line up on final approach. When we leveled out on long final, the first flight had reached the LZ. The events that unfolded in the next few minutes were all in slow motion.
The radios were still silent and calm but the action in the LZ was unbelievable. Bill Price was beginning to terminate his approach at a hover when all hell broke loss. The flight had landed directly on top of a dug-in North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) infantry unit. The enemy was firing all types and calibers of weapons from every angle. Price’s aircraft immediately began taking hits from all sides. The door gunners had been cleared “hot” on short final which meant they could engage any enemy they saw. The volume of firing was initially intense but seemed to be coming from the gunners. This was not the case. The volume of fire rapidly increased to a horrifying level. By this time most of it was coming from the enemy bunkers and foxholes because Price’s gunner, Michael Diehl, on the right side of the chopper had been severely wounded by four or five bullets that penetrated his chest and right side. Michael was limp and hanging outside of the helicopter with only his seat belt or “monkey strap” preventing him form falling out. Some of the same bullets that hit Michael also punctured the right-side fuel cell of the aircraft and did sheet metal damage to the floor and side.
Price realized someone was wounded when blood splashed on the windscreen of the cockpit. The CE, John May, in the left gun well was doing his best to provide suppressive fire with his M-60 and was not exposed to what was happening to Michael. Once Price determined that Michael was hit, he alerted John. John, without any thought of his own safety, unbuckled from his seat belt, moved in front of the transmission housing and across the inside of the helicopter and pulled Michael into his seat. Price immediately turned the chopper East toward the shortest distance to escape the deadly enemy fire.
Even though we had been observing the action in the LZ, we had no way of knowing how bad it really was. The first radio call we heard was from Bill Price who said, “Taking fire, I have wounded aboard, am returning to aid station.”
Barry Alexander and his crew, in the Chalk 2 position, were not as fortunate. Barry’s helicopter landed in the most dangerous spot in the LZ and was in the direct line of fire for all the NVA weapon systems. Barry, his crew and helicopter took the blunt of the enemy’s firepower. He landed in the middle of the enemy’s “kill zone.” The aircraft was peppered with bullets from the right side and right front. Unfortunately, that day Barry was flying in the right seat even though he was the AC. (AC’s always flew in the left seat). Barry had a premonition that morning and he asked Tom Gates to fly in the left seat. Tom said yes…
Barry was immediately shot numerous times and slumped motionless over the cyclic control. Johnnie Williams was the right door gunner and took several rounds as soon as the helicopter came to a hover. No one knows what happened to Barry and Johnnie in the next few seconds and minutes. We do know that 1LT Tom Gates, the “PP”, was immediately shot while getting out of the aircraft. A round went under his armor chest plate and hit him in one of his lungs. The NVA were in a hole directly beside the ship and shot him as he jumped out of the aircraft. Tom Brown, the CE, fought his way out of the aircraft and stayed with the wounded Lieutenant until help arrived. (Author’s Note: Mike Curtis observed Barry’s helicopter sitting on the ground when he checked on him while preparing for departure. He said there was a small fire in the engine area just aft of the mast and the rotor blades were slowly turning down.)
Mike Curtis (Rattler 13) and his crew remember being Chalk 3 in the first flight and being on final approach where everything was quiet and normal until about 200 yards from the touchdown area. Mike stated that all Hell broke loose and you could hear small arms fire hitting the aircraft. He said it sounded like a brown paper bag you blow up and then pop with your hands. Mike said on short final, about 30 yards, you could actually see the bad guys in the LZ as they ran for cover and this was the first of only three times that he actually saw the enemy in 1,303 hours of combat flight time in Vietnam.
Mike was another very experienced and professional Warrant Officer who I flew with many times. Mike taught me several things that kept me alive while flying in Vietnam. The following account of what happened in the LZ is in Mike’s words:
“All three ships touched down or hovered at just about the same time and the troopers climbed out into the air that was filled with tracers of all colors. Troops away, Price called that “He was taking fire and had wounded onboard”. As we lifted and followed Price out of the LZ, I looked to my left to confirm Alexander’s position. I observed his aircraft sitting on the ground with a small fire in the engine area just aft of the mast and the rotor appeared to be turning down. Upon taking off, I pulled the aircraft into a hard left turn and circled counterclockwise to rejoin a short final to attempt to pick up the (Alexander’s) crew. The approach was fast and the decelerating attitude was aggressive. I lowered the nose and came to a hover 20 yards from Barry’s aircraft. By now the aircraft fire was larger and I observed no crew or troops on, in or around the aircraft. The rotor as almost stopped. We remained in a hover for what seemed like an eternity, actually 3 to 5 seconds, when the instrument panel exploded showering the co-pilot and I with glass and metal. Two rounds had come through the rotor and engine tachometer exiting at about the 5 o’clock position on the instrument panel then continuing up and over the top right side of my helmet before going out through the sheet metal aft of the green house on the aircraft’s left side. I remember that a couple of rounds came through the chin bubble on the PP’s side and might have nicked the heel of his boot. One of the most remarkable experiences of my entire tour happened at this moment, the entire interior of the helicopter was splattered with blood. I mean it was running down the windshield like a garden sprinkler had been set loose on the inside of the cabin. At this point we executed a “Let’s get the Hell out of here” take-off. After escaping the immediate terror, I asked, “Who is shot?” I told the “P” to check himself while I had the controls and called the gunner to do the same. My crew chief was Terry Weese and I couldn’t get him to answer on the intercom. The “P” said he wasn’t shot and I asked the gunner to climb over and check Terry. The “P” took the controls and I checked myself. The gunner came up on the intercom and said Weese had been shot in the face. The round had entered Terry’s right cheek knocking out several teeth, spun his head to the left and exited the front of his mouth knocking out several more teeth and blowing off his helmet’s microphone boom. I elected to go straight to the 2/1st Battalion Aide Station at Hawk Hill for Terry’s sake and proceeded direct.”
I was watching this horrifying chapter in Rattler history with total disbelief while on short final into harm’s way. The radios crackled with Rattler 6 telling our flight of three to abort and return to FSB Center, which we did. When we landed at center, the infantry commander, trying to decide what to do next, filled the radios with orders and counter orders. Although our flight was safely down at FSB Center, other aircraft and people were still in the heat of this long and deadly battle.
One of those aircraft was flown by Captain Earl Ingram II from our sister company the 174th Aviation Company (Assault Helicopter). Earl had been flying high ship and observing what was happening. He had been recruited to fly with us on September 22 because we were short of AC’s even though he had only 10 days remaining before he returned to the States. When he realized that we had one crew still in the LZ, he immediately descended to pick them up. Of course, the remaining crew was Barry Alexander’s and at this point we can assume that Barry and Johnnie Williams were dead or dying still in their aircraft. Tom Gates and Tom Brown were the only survivors and LT Gates was badly wounded. Earl Ingram quickly came to a hover in the hot LZ. Bullets were still flying. Tom Brown helped Tom Gates to his feet and assisted him in the 50-yard dash to Earl Ingram’s awaiting aircraft. Tom Brown was hit in the heel as he helped Tom Gates to the rescue aircraft. Tom Gates admits that he does not remember anything after boarding Ingram’s aircraft. Earl was forced to remain at a hover in the LZ while the wounded were placed aboard. This time allowed the enemy to hit the aircraft several times with various weapons. Earl’s 71st Peter Pilot was wounded in the legs while they were sitting in the LZ. The transmission was hit along with several other vital components of the aircraft. The transmission was about to freeze up but Captain Ingram decided to risk it and fly it out of the enemy’s kill zone. A good decision and he was able to dive off the hill and land into a rice patty a few hundred yards away before the aircraft quit. They were now “sitting ducks” because they were still in bad guy territory and receiving extremely accurate enemy fire. A Firebird Gunship Crew observed the action, heard the radio calls and decided to attempt a rescue of their comrades-in-arms. The Firebird AC jettisoned his external rocket and gun pods and quickly descended to a landing in the rice patty. Not wanting to leave anyone behind, Tom Brown picked up Tom Gates and carried him to the Firebird Aircraft and finally…safety after having two aircraft shot from beneath them. They successfully departed without further damage. Tom Brown received a Silver Star for his heroism that day. That was the first and last time Earl Ingram flew with the Rattlers in our Area of Operation. He went home 10 days after “Black Monday”.
For now, the combat assault for the first flight of three Rattlers into the first “Cold” (HA!) LZ is complete. What were the results and what is the current status of the mission? At this point, we had:
- A flight of three Rattlers (Desert, Morreall, Kilmer) sitting on the lower re-supply pad at FSB Center with engines running and loaded with US infantry soldiers.
- Two aircraft (Alexander’s and Ingram’s) sitting in or near the first LZ, permanently disabled by enemy weapon systems. Alexander’s aircraft is burning.
- Two soldiers Missing In Action (MIA) (Alexander and Williams) who were later confirmed as killed in action (KIA) and six wounded in action (WIA) out to the initial 12 crewmembers in the first lift.
- One Rattler (Price) desperately trying to get his wounded crewmember to the aid station at FSB Center. During this time, Price made a radio call to Division Headquarters explaining the situation and requested all available gunship support. This call resulted in several senior commanders in the Division coming out to see what was happening.
- One Rattler (Curtis) limping his badly damaged aircraft to the Hawk Hill Aid Station to obtain emergency medical care for his wounded crewmembers. His aircraft would not fly again after he landed.
- One Firebird (Unknown), with his crew of four plus a crew of four (at least one wounded) from Ingram’s aircraft plus the wounded Gates and Brown from Alexander’s aircraft, was skillfully flying his grossly overloaded gunship to safety and medical aid. A total of 10 aboard a gunship built for four.
- One infantry unit of 20 or so soldiers now in the first LZ in the middle of a critical firefight for their lives with an overwhelming enemy force. We can only guess how many of them were immediately killed or wounded since they dismounted the helicopters directly onto the enemy.
- An Infantry Battalion Commander who is screaming for more helicopters and for more people to be placed into the meat grinder.
- A beehive of activity taking place in the Rattler Company Area as crews and helicopters are being prepared and dispatched to assist.
- Gunships from the Sharks are scrambled to the area.
- Out of the initial 12 crewmembers committed to the first LZ, we had 2 KIA and 6 WIA.
I remember sitting on the pad at Center with engines running thinking that I might die today because I just knew that we were going right back into the same place to face death just like the first flight did. This feeling was almost overwhelming and I didn’t even know all the gory details of the carnage at that time. I also knew that I had to stay calm and do my job-no matter what happened.
Eric Kilmer commented that we were going to be too low on fuel to do anything if they didn’t make a decision soon. I think we finally shut down the engines after running for about 30 minutes sitting on the pad.
Finally the orders came. We were to conduct a combat assault onto a nearby hilltop to allow the infantry we were carrying to walk down the hill and join in the fight with their counterparts. I remember being relieved that we did not have to return to the first LZ. Little did I know that it was going to be the same book, just a different chapter.
The AC’s were given a quick briefing and we cranked for the mission. When Eric returned to the aircraft, he explained to us that we would do a right pedal turn off the pad and we would become lead aircraft. Tom Desert would be chalk 2 and Fred Morreall would be chalk 3. This was just the reverse of the initial formation assigned to us. I was uncomfortable being lead because I did not know what to expect at the new landing zone. Would it be cold and calm or a death trap just like the first one? Little did I know how close I was to predicting the future when I was thinking about a trap. We were now airborne just 45 minutes after we had aborted the first insertion. (It had only been about an hour since the first flight flew into Hell.) I was scared but amazingly calm.
Eric did a great job of getting the flight off and in formation. We only flew less than 5 minutes because the new LZ was very close to FSB Center.
I locked my seat belt and put my seat as low and as far back as I could just like I did before every combat assault. I didn’t have much time to think about anything except doing what I had to do as one of the crewmembers. On short final, I shadowed the controls while Eric flew. We always did this just in case something happened to the aviator that was flying. I was much calmer than I thought I would be. I guess because, so for, everything was going OK and couldn’t imagine that the enemy forces could be strong enough to have a large concentration of forces in two places so close together. There was no artillery or gunship preparation of the LZ so everything was relatively quiet. You could just hear the familiar whine of the Huey turbine vary as Eric adjusted the power for the descent. Everything was going great until we were about 20 feet from our landing spot and then the shit hit the fan.
I could hear the crack of bullets going by and the explosion of some type of munitions. I could not figure out what it was but it was loud. Later I found out it was mortars and M-79 grenades. As we came closer to a hover, I could see an enemy soldier directly to my front about 50 feet away. He was aiming a machine gun directly at me and I just knew I was going to die. He pulled the trigger and my front windscreen popped two times. He hit it with two rounds just far enough apart for one to go on one side of my head and one to the other side. Simultaneously, there was a loud explosion on the left side of the aircraft. It was so close that it kicked dirt and shrapnel into the aircraft. As I looked toward the explosion, I saw the blades of Tom Desert’s aircraft turning down and people running in and around the aircraft (I do not know if I saw good guys or bad guys). At the same time, I felt a sting in my face and then in my left hand and arm which was on the collective. I was jolted forward slightly by an impact from the rear of the aircraft. (I later found out that it was the .50 caliber round that wounded David Harris and then traveled toward the cockpit and hit my seat with shrapnel going into the collective therefore stinging my arm and hand.) Another round came from the back and hit the rear of my armored seat.
Eric was still calmly handling the aircraft although he was getting peppered on the left side as well. He took a round in the cyclic between his legs, which sent shrapnel into his leg. Another round came through the front panel and hit Eric with shrapnel. At this point I knew that Tom Desert and his crew had been shot down and were in the LZ. I also knew that we were taking rounds from the front, rear and sides. There were enemy soldiers everywhere. They came out of holes like ants on an anthill you had stirred with a stick. I had seen all of this with my own eyes but now my brain was processing what I heard.
While seeing all of these things, I could hear the engine starting to wind up, the engine caution panel beep, the two M-60 Machine Guns in the back were no longer firing but…I could hear the pop, pop, pop of a smaller caliber weapon on the right side firing repeatedly. (David Harris was immediately medically evacuated after the mission, so I would not learn until I saw him at our 2000 reunion that the sound I heard was Harris’ 357 Magnum. His machine gun had been shot out of his hands and he was severely wounded. Despite his wounds and no machine gun, he managed to pull his side arm and use it to kill at least one enemy soldier who was approaching the aircraft from the rear. The pop, pop I heard was him defending the aircraft at close range. David Harris probably saved the aircraft and the crew that day because the enemy was trying desperately to board the aircraft or place a grenade inside the crew compartment.) Through my soundproof flight helmet, I could still hear the never-ending crack of bullets in the air. The explosions continued and became more frequent the longer we were in the LZ. I can remember thinking that Eric might wait for Tom Desert’s crew before taking off. I was thinking if we wait any longer we would also be fighting for our lives on the ground because the aircraft is taking a pounding and could not withstand much more damage. I thought, “I am not sure it will fly now…”
Just as the thought of not being able to fly crossed my mind, I could feel the collective go up into my armpit and hear the turbine scream like I have never heard it before. The cyclic went almost full forward at the same time. We immediately gained about three feet of altitude and the nose dumped to a vertical position. (Author’s Note: Just as the aircraft went to a vertical position an enemy soldier fired several deadly accurate rounds directly at Eric. The bullets missed their mark because of the sudden change in attitude of the aircraft. The bullets pierced the aircraft without hitting Eric.) We were flying! I looked at the instrument panel and all the gauges were pegged to the max. I just knew the engine was going to quit but it didn’t. The RPM bled down to about 6300 RPM but by this time we were diving over the pinnacle at the end of the LZ into the mountain valley below. The air speed indicator immediately read 100 Knots and we were still in a full nose down attitude. Another quick glance of the instrument panel told me we were OK and the sound of the enemy firing had faded into the background. I commented to Eric to ease off because we were clear of immediate enemy danger. Eric stabilized the aircraft and turned toward FSB Center. We successfully landed the crippled aircraft on the lower pad at Center. Eric took a quick survey of the crew and saw that Harris was severely wounded. Without hesitation or thought, he brought the aircraft to operating RPM and repositioned to the top pad close to the Battalion Aid Station.
At this point it is important to have Eric Kilmer’s perspective on what he saw, did and felt during this time. The following is what happened paraphrased in Eric’s words:
“The Combat Assault (CA) was a flight of six scheduled to go into a hilltop southwest of FSB Center. The name of the hilltop was “Nui Lam” on our AO maps.
Because of its proximity to Center, it was assumed that no VC or NVA would be so bold as to set up shop and risk detection. (The hilltop was in plain straight-line view from Center.) There was no artillery prep of the LZ.
We were to insert a total of approximately 45 infantry in two three-ship flights, who were then to patrol down the hillside into the valley south of Center, a very active area with a couple of 50’s known to be in operation there. (Earlier in August, we had lost the full crew of Silverstein, Plummer, Martino, and Lavigne just a mile southeast of there. I had witnessed that as a Peter Pilot. It was unbelievable. We saw them take hits from the 50’s, get way out of trim, then do a roll – I swear a full roll – then somebody got back on the controls because there was a last-second flare into a hilltop at 80 knots and a huge fiery explosion on impact. I was so glad my AC, Rocky Cassano, didn’t go down to attempt a rescue. Nobody was alive down there – that was obvious. There was some famous bird colonel on board too, who called everyone “babe”. That night, the Associated Press called our company area asking for details. My AC was so drunk he couldn’t talk, so I tried to explain what I had seen. Plummer and I had graduated flight school together.)
We landed on the lower pads of Center and took on our grunts. We didn’t have any gun ships with us, although Smokey was with us as always on every CA flying high cover and rescue. Everyone assured us this was going to be simple, no fuss. We were short on pilots and CWO Barry Alexander who was due to DROS in 10 days was asked to fly. Something, some premonition, warned Barry not to go out again – it was his birthday besides. Normally, company policy was not to fly guys when they were less than two weeks short, if at all possible. I can still remember Barry almost begging not to be sent out. He had a lengthy conversation with our Operations (OPNS) officer who drew up the flights and assigned the crews. Barry bunked in my hooch, and was very pissed but accepted the duty. The OPNS officer was one of the ones who had himself been given the assurances that this would be a cold (no contact) LZ by the folks at Center. He naturally passed the word on to Barry, telling him everything would be fine.
Time came for us to lift off and begin the CA. Barry was in the first flight of three. I was chalk three in the second flight of three. With me was Captain Johnnie Hitt. Johnnie was in the right seat as my Peter Pilot, still relatively new to the company. I was AC. We were flying aircraft #520, an older UH-1H that had been passed over for newer Hueys by the senior AC’s in the company. I had only been AC since August. Our right door gunner was David Harris and our left door gunner was Rich Davenport. There was a lot of separation between the two flights of three, because this would be a pinnacle landing and we needed time to get the first flight off the hilltop in order to make room for us in the second flight.
As I mentioned earlier, no artillery or gun ship prep of the LZ was done. Like they say when you “ASSUME” something, it usually makes an “ASS out of U and ME” and it did. They were dug in, waiting for us in spider holes with trap doors.
As the first flight went in, I saw Barry’s Huey fail to flare and hover. Instead, it just sort of settled in… We were far enough back that we couldn’t make out the details, but we knew they were getting the hell shot out of them. Radio traffic was strangely quiet. I don’t remember a single transmission. Then we saw the chalk three bird limp out of the LZ and the chalk two bird just sit there with the rotors slowing down. There was no place for our flight to land so we were ordered to “go around” and return to Center. We didn’t know the status of the two crews still in the LZ or the grunts who were now in there too.
We sat at Center at flight idle for what seemed like an eternity (probably 35 or 40 minutes) while the “Powers That Be” tried to decide what to do next. I admit I was thinking if we sit here much longer, our fuel status will decide for us and we will have to scrap the second flight altogether, which would be just fine with me!
Finally, they ordered us to get cranked up and told us we would go into another even smaller hilltop about ¾ of a mile from Nui Lam called Nui Lon. The sight for the LZ was ridiculous; we couldn’t set down but had to hover with our skid against the up-slope and the other one six feet off the hillside, making it almost a nine-foot drop off the left side for the grunts.
This time as we formed up, I wound up in lead with Tom Desert on my left and I don’t remember who on my right. We started in, it was the same song, second verse. They were waiting for us. We began taking very heavy automatic weapons fire while still ¼ mile final approach from the LZ. We were all getting the shit shot out of us. Grunts were being hit before they could even off-load. I slowed down on short final for lack of any place to set the damn thing down. Tom on my left let go an expletive over the radio in comment on my leadership skills and went past me down slope and found a spot (into which to crash I later learned.) The bird on the right slipped in behind me somewhere, and found a spot to off-load.
As we came to a hover, an explosion (RPG?) went off just below and to my left. Plexiglas and metal fragments were sprayed all over the cockpit. A 50 cal. came through the right rear where the firewall and floor intersect by the door gunner. It passed along the long axis of the bird, dragging shrapnel with it and it tore Harris’ back all to hell. There was a mad struggle to get the grunts off, dragging the injured with them (I think they doubted we would ever get out of there and didn’t want the wounded to remain targets) while at the same time they were ripping off clips on full auto as fast as they could. It was chaos. That same 50 passed through the cargo compartment and impacted on the back of Johnnie’s armored seat, throwing him forward in his harness. I could hear that both Harris and Davenport had stopped firing their M60’s. I remember the sound of no more fire coming from us but lots of impacts on us.
To this day I don’t know how or why (God’s mercy I believe) but once I knew we were empty of troops, the cyclic went almost full forward and the collective came way up under my left armpit (I think an angel was on the controls with me for a moment). I don’t think I did that by myself. We literally stood that Huey on her nose and moved a few yards forward. At that very instant, some unfriendly in front of me squeezed off an AK round that was aimed head on into the black nose cover over the chin bubble. It entered right at belly button level (if we had been sitting level) but we were so far out of shape that that round passed through my cyclic and plowed into the floor under my seat. When I trace the angle of entry and the path that slug followed, I can only conclude that the tail of 520 was rotated past vertical and 520 for a moment was more upside down than right side up.
We came clear of the hilltop. I slammed the collective down and we plunged over the side of the mountain. The noise of battle vanished and the rush of acceleration and wind took its place.
I was numb with adrenaline, so intense were those last moments. I was in shock. It felt like my heart had stopped beating and I had stopped breathing. We were falling but time had stopped. The base of the little mountain was rushing up at us with incredible speed and I didn’t know if we had the power to get out of the dive down its side. I pulled all the torque I could and pulled hard back on the cyclic. The overworked turbine was screaming and we slowly came out of our fall. We must have been well in excess of 100 knots, and I remember Johnnie saying over the intercom to ease off, because I was still pulling the guts out of that thing trying to get as far away from that abortion as fast as I could. Slowly, the realization dawned that we were still alive and flying, and I began to breathe again, but didn’t have a clue as to the rest of the flight.
We flew a big right 360° turn, slowly climbing back to Center. Desert and his crew were still in the LZ. Later we learned Smokey got them out. God bless him. I felt it was my fault for Tom being shot down because of our slow short final. I was thankful he and his crew escaped with their lives.
As we landed at Center, I asked Harris and Davenport if they were okay. Davenport had badly burned his hands when his M-60 jammed on him. He tried to clear it and grabbed the red-hot barrel.
I turned and looked over my right shoulder to see Harris. His face was twisted in pain and he was leaning forward trying to hold his hand against the severe wounds in his back. Johnnie had blood on his face from Plexiglas shards.
When I saw Harris was in bad shape, I brought the RPMs back up on the turbine, lifted up to a 70-foot hover and flew sideways from the cargo pad up to the Medi-Vac and C & C pad on the top of the hill where there was an aid station. We shut down there and Harris was carried on a stretcher to the aid station. Davenport also went to get treated. I discovered my own face was bleeding and I had shrapnel in my left shin sticking out, all pretty superficial!
Johnnie and I started looking at 520 and then I felt really stupid. We were all shot up and had holes through everything, including push-pull flight control rods. One was just hanging by a thread of metal. It was foolish of me to lift off the lower pad to get Harris help, but I didn’t know how close we were to not being flyable. We Red-X’d 520 right there on the upper pad, (which pissed off somebody, I’m sure).
Slowly, the news of Barry Alexander and his door gunner, Johnnie Williams, being killed came back to us. Six ships went off that morning. Three never came back from those two little mountaintops. None of us ever came back to the young men we were that morning.
In general, it was one big f.u. mess for which the standard Army response was to give out a bunch of medals with words on the orders which read “Their courageous and timely actions were instrumental in the over all success of the mission …” What a crock.
520 went back to Chu Lai under the belly of a Chinook as a sling load. I still have the cyclic with the AK round tumbling as a silhouette going through it.
The Army never told Mr. and Mrs. Alexander just how Barry was killed, but 30 years later, a few of us were contacted through our Company Association and put in touch with Mrs. Alexander. She was so grateful to learn a little about Barry’s last days on earth.
I remember that night lying in my bed listening to the sound of our OPS officer sobbing in the hooch kitty-corner from mine.”
Johnnie Hitt continues…
After landing at the C & C pad on FSB Center, I begin to feel weak as I observed the medics and Eric taking care of Harris and Davenport. The adrenalin was gone and the incredible sinking feeling that follows began to set in. Eric told me to shut it down and he jumped out concerned about his crew. He didn’t even think about his own wounds. As the rotors turned down, it was deadly silent. Everyone was in or around the aid station and I was sitting in the aircraft all alone. After I secured the aircraft, I sat on the toe of the front right skid too weak in my knees to stand on my own. I placed my head between my legs trying not to faint. It was still…quiet. A hand gently touched my shoulder. I looked up to see a young medic asking if I was OK. I said yes although I am not sure if I meant it or not. He said let me be the judge of that. He proceeded to take cotton swabs and other things out of his medical bag. He cleaned the blood from my face and everywhere else he could find it. I can remember how gentle and understanding he was. He quietly went about his business. He picked the Plexiglas out of my face and checked my arm and hand where the shrapnel had hit it. I was in good shape compared to the rest of the crew and I knew it. I didn’t want him spending time with me when they were so much worse. He didn’t comment except to say that the rest of his team was taking great care of the crew. When he was finished, he starting writing on a pad. I answered his questions like name, rank and serial number. I figured it was just another Army requirement for statistics. After writing down the information on his pad, he tore off one cardboard copy and attempted to tie it to my flight suit. I asked him what it was and he explained that it was a Purple Heart Tag that showed that I had been wounded due to enemy action and that I would receive the Purple Heart Medal. I almost got mad because I did not consider myself deserving after seeing the pain and suffering on Harris’ face as they carted him away on a stretcher. About this time, Eric came out of the aid station. I quickly jerked the tag off and put it in my pocket. (Author’s Note: I would not receive or wear the Purple Heart that I got that day until almost 28 years later at my retirement ceremony. I could never bring myself to receive or wear it on active duty because of the others that were killed and severely wounded in action that “Black Monday” day.)
Eric and I did post flight the aircraft where we found 45 holes of all different sizes, positions and locations. The maintenance officer that showed up shortly thereafter agreed with Eric and grounded the aircraft. We caught a ride back to Chu Lai sometimes later that day with the maintenance aircraft. I never liked riding in the back of a Huey because I didn’t like not having access to the controls if something happened. That day I sat in the gun well motionless and starred out into space continuously reliving the horrifying seconds of that horrible day. I did not know at that time what had happened to the others in our flight. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. I prayed that they were OK.
The following information about what happened to Desert and Morreall and what happened the remainder of the day comes from what I saw, heard and was reported to me by the people that were there.
As I said, Tom Desert was chalk 2 and I saw his rotor blades turning down in the LZ before we departed. What happened to Tom and his crew is best presented in his paraphrased words:
Tom starts by reflecting back to the first LZ that morning where Barry was killed.
“My memories seem to be very hazy, but I do remember the fear as we watched the aircraft ahead of us, in the LZ being pelted and disabled, and listening to the radio traffic describing the enemy fire and confusion. (All of this coming from the cold LZ, no prepping necessary mission briefing that we received.) I remember wondering if we, the next fight of three, were going to end up the same way. Then the call finally came from the C&C, to break it off and return to Center. I don’t remember exactly how long we waited on Center as the Commanders gathered their thoughts and strategized a new plan. What seriously seemed like an eternity was way to soon. The new plan was formulated and the 2nd and only remaining flight of three received new coordinates to insert their troops. This was to be another easy insertion, just off the eastern edge of FSB Center, a small hilltop that would accommodate the skids of three UH-1s. (What a joke!)
Somewhere around about 100 ft. on short final, all heck broke loose. I think we all can remember the metallic clinking sound of the Huey’s skin being pierced by small arms and the horrific feeling of terror when catching a glimpse of the big green tracers coming at you. That’s when I remember everything going to pot inside the cockpit. The master caution panel lit up like a Christmas tree and the audio was sounding in the head set. The flight school training paid off. We autorotated smoothly onto what appeared to be the only level piece if ground on the hilltop, still listening to the metallic sounds of rounds hitting the aircraft. I remember exiting the aircraft and landing on the ground next to the left hand skid, face to face with my CE Piper and I just cannot for the life of me remember who my Peter Pilot was. But, somehow, he too was on our side of the helicopter. Then we realized that we didn’t see Smitty, our door gunner. Piper crawled under the aircraft and found him still sitting in the gunner’s well. He had been hit in the shoulder. Piper unbuckled him and pulled him out of his seat and over to our side of the aircraft.
It was at this time that I realized that the other two aircraft had departed leaving their PAX (passengers), along with my crew and our PAX. I believe about 21 crunchies (infantryman) and us were left to defend this secure, no problem, and cold piece of ground. The sound of gunfire going out and coming into the area left me with a sick feeling as I looked at my .38 and wondered just exactly what was I was going to do with it and the small amount of extra ammo I had tucked away in my pistol belt.
After what seemed like an eternity, (I’m sure now not more than 20 minutes or so had passed.) a beautiful “Slick” arrived, a Minuteman from down the beach, placing a skid into the hillside as we helped Smitty on and flattened ourselves to the floor for the short trip back to Center. Whoever it was, THANKS! I never did find out who it was, but I do remember that it was a Minuteman as reflected by the radio compartment door logo.
I remember sitting on a sandbag outside Center’s S-3 TOC and asking myself what was I doing there? I just couldn’t remember volunteering for this kind of stuff. I also remember talking with Maj. James that afternoon and letting him know that I really had better things to do with my life and that I had no desire to do anything remotely close to that again. But Tommie P. James was a special kind of Commander, because somehow he convinced me to fly back out to Center with him and the next thing, I knew we were running re-supply to the troops on the ground in the same areas we had just been in earlier that morning.”
(Author’s Note: Major Tommie P. James became the commander of our company after Black Monday but he was the aviation officer for the 196th Infantry Brigade during this time. I suspect that Tom did talk to Major James and did fly with him that afternoon but did not do so as James the commander but did talk and fly with him as James the Brigade Aviation Officer.)
We now still have one more story about what happened to Fred Morreall and his crew to finish out the saga of the initial seven aircraft on September 22, 1969. Unfortunately, I do not know a lot of details about what happened to them because I was not able to contact him. I did talk to Specialist Roger A. “Short Round” Hobbs who was the gunner on Fred’s aircraft. Roger said that he took a round in the LZ through his flight helmet that went in the front and came out the back. (Roger donated that helmet to the 71st Association and it can be seen on display) He said on that day, he was glad that he was short in stature. His nickname was “Short Round”. He doesn’t remember a lot about the specifics in the LZ but he does know that it was the hottest LZ that he had ever been in. They took a lot of rounds and the aircraft was crippled so bad that they could not land at any of the FSB’s. They went to Hawk Hill and found enough space to do a running landing with no hydraulics. Apparently, Fred got his hydraulic system shot out in the LZ along with several other vital parts of the Aircraft. Despite the severe damage, Fred was successful in nursing his wounded aircraft back to safety without further incident. Roger did say that the aircraft quit after the landing. They had no hydraulic, engine or transmission fluid when the engine quit. Somehow Roger joined up with Bill Price and flew the rest of the day command and control and on combat assaults back into the same area in Price’s aircraft (298). He replaced the wounded door gunner, Michael Diehl. Roger, Price and John May confirmed that aircraft 298 was shot up bad that morning during the first insertion to include a bullet hole high in the fuel cell. Despite the damage, aircraft 298 was the only aircraft left flying that day from the original seven from that morning. John said that they could only take on three quarters of a tank each time they refueled. Any more than that in the fuel cell caused it to leak.
In summary of the initial combat assault the morning of September 22, 1969, out of 28 crewmembers, we had two KIA and fourteen or so WIA. Of the seven initial aircraft, only one was flyable.
The remainder of that black Monday in our Rattler History is best told by words from the people that participated. I did not return to the AO once I arrived in the company area sometime in the afternoon.
After Mike Curtis successfully dropped his wounded crew chief, Weese, at Hawk Hill, he stated:
“Our Huey was unserviceable with hits in the main rotor blades, right chin bubble, instrument panel, belly and tail boom. The crew, without Terry, caught a ride back to the Snake Pit and picked up another crew chief and aircraft. We got back to Hawk Hill about 2 or 3 hours later. I can’t say much about what happened during the time we were gone.
I think it was Price that held a post action brief right there in POL at Hawk Hill and said that we needed to go back for the troops and nay survivors. Price asked for volunteers to lead the extraction and I felt so bad about not having any success in getting Alexander and the crew out the first time, I held a crew meeting and we decided to go in as lead. I remember that as we led that trail formation into a second LZ in close proximity to the first, “ Samson couldn’t have driven a greased hatpin up my A__ with a hand sledge.” I don’t remember that second PZ being that hot, although the formation went in hot and took fire, the flight made the pick up with only minimal excitement, and returned the troops to FSB Center.”
Captain James (Jim) Adams, 1st Platoon Leader, wrote that on Black Monday he and Captain Gregory (Greg) Mikesell flew reinforcements into a very bad area near the first two landing zones. He stated that one of the best pilots in the company, CWO David Rolland Jackson (KIA, September 25, 1969), was his wingman that day. During the operation, Jim’s aircraft was disabled by a .51 caliber round that took out the aircraft’s ceiling, circuit breakers, and antennas. They managed to set down on FSB West before the engine died.
The best account of Black Monday was written by then WO William “Whiz” Broom with notes supplied by WO Wally Honda. Whiz tells the rest of the story about the night before and what happened after the two initial assaults the morning of September 22, 1969. This is his story.