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Chapter III

Table of Contents

CHAPTER III

The System Matures

Early in 1965 a growing number of Viet Cong attacks on U.S. personnel in South Vietnam prompted President Johnson to order all American dependents out of that country. On 22 February General Westmoreland asked for American combat ground forces to defend allied bases against Viet Cong attacks, and on 25 February Secretary of State Dean Rusk approved. On 8 March the first of these forces, a battalion landing team of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, debarked on the beaches at Da Nang. U.S. officials announced that the new troops would make several key bases more secure, thereby freeing the South Vietnamese forces to press the war more vigorously. But the Viet Cong continued their terrorist campaign. On 30 March they detonated a powerful bomb outside the hotel housing the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The explosion killed twenty-one people, including two Americans, and wounded two hundred others, including fifty-two Americans.

After a lull in the fighting while the Viet Cong waited out the dry season, which favored the superior mobility of the ARVN forces, the countryside erupted in May. A Viet Cong regiment attacked Song Be, the capital of Phuoc Long province in northern III Corps Zone. Soon a more serious blow came when the rebels ambushed an ARVN battalion and destroyed the column sent to its aid. In June the enemy again dealt the ARVN forces a heavy blow at Dong Xoai, ninety-six kilometers northeast of Saigon. June also brought the collapse of the current South Vietnamese governing coalition, and the new rulers, Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, seemed to have little chance of ending the recent years of political instability. In July the fighting shifted to the Central Highlands of II Corps Zone, where the South Vietnamese suffered a series of defeats.

This military and political deterioration in 1965 produced a rapid increase in U.S. aid to South Vietnam. Within a few months of their arrival in March, the first U.S. combat units in South Vietnam began search-and-destroy operations against the Viet Cong near U.S. bases. By the end of the year evidence of increased North Vietnamese infiltration of the South helped General Westmoreland to obtain substantial reinforcements of U.S. combat troops. A U.S. troop buildup continued steadily until March 1968 as the United States ex-


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panded its effort to destroy the political and military influence of the National Liberation Front.

Origins of the Air Ambulance Platoon

As more soldiers arrived, the Army Medical Service began its own buildup, which included an increase in the number of medical evacuation units. During the next three years the Surgeon General of the Army sent two air ambulance companies and six more helicopter ambulance companies to Vietnam. In March 1966 the 44th Medical Brigade, which had been activated in January, assumed control of most Army medical units in Vietnam. Over the next two years the brigade began to coordinate the work of the 68th Medical Group (responsible for III and IV Corps Zones), the 43d Group (South II Corps Zone), the 55th Group (North II Corps Zone), and the 67th Group (I Corps Zone). These medical groups, with the exception of the 55th, which left aeromedical evacuation in its area to the 43d Group, commanded all the nondivisional air ambulances-the companies and detachments. In late 1965, with the Surgeon General's permission, American combat forces also brought in Medical Service Corps pilots to man the aircraft of a new form of medical evacuation unit: the air ambulance platoon. Unlike the air ambulance units of the 44th Brigade, it would depend on its combat assault division for command and supply.

The platoon owed its existence to the creation of the first airmobile division in the U.S. Army, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). In August 1962 the U.S. Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, chaired by Lt. Gen. Hamilton H. Howze, had recommended the creation of a new airmobile division, which would be served by an air ambulance platoon. Outlining the probable nature of airmobile warfare the Board had assumed that

... all categories of patients within the theater of operations will be evacuated by air. AMEDS aircraft organic to the division will evacuate casualties from forward pickup sites and/or aid stations to clearing stations or Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals. Air Ambulance companies assigned to corps and field Army will evacuate casualties from the clearing stations and surgical hospitals to evacuation hospitals.

Although the air ambulance battalion would use several types of helicopters, the air ambulance platoon would usually consist of only twelve UH-l's.

In early 1963 the Army decided to test the precepts laid out by the Howze Board. On 7 January the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations issued instructions for the creation of an experimental air assault division. The unit was organized in February at Fort Benning, Georgia,


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and named the 11th Air Assault Division (Test). Its commander was Brig. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard.

The division was composed of eight infantry battalions (expanded E3--to nine in Vietnam) organized into three brigades: three battalions each for the 1st and 2d Brigades and two for the 3d Brigade. One brigade had an airborne capability. An artillery battalion in each brigade provided ground-to-ground fire support and an Aerial Rocket Artillery Battery provided air-to-ground support. The thirty-six UH-1B's of the aerial rocket battery each carried seventy-two folding fin rockets, and most also carried externally-mounted M60 machine guns. An aviation battery of sixteen light observation helicopters coordinated the division's artillery. Two assault helicopter battalions each had sixty unarmed helicopters, organized into three companies of twenty ships each. Both battalions had an armed helicopter company of twelve UH-1B gunships, each carrying four M60's and fifteen rockets. As the Howze Board had suggested, the Air Ambulance Platoon, a structurally new aeromedical evacuation unit, fell under the division's medical battalion.

Air Assault I, a field exercise held at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in September and October 1963, tested the control capabilities of the air assault battalion and company, and the problems of the air ambulance platoon. This exercise and others held at Forts Benning and Gordon suggested that the platoon could effectively support the Air Assault Division without the benefits of a superior company command. Faulty communications equipment and the limited capacity of the UH-1B's were the only serious problems affecting the platoon's performance.

The experimental 11th Air Assault Division was disbanded soon after the testing in Georgia, but its components and the resources of the 2d Infantry Division at Fort Benning were combined and given the name of the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been on duty in Korea since 1950. The new division, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), had roughly 16,000 men, the standard allotment. But it had 4 1/2 times the standard number of aircraft and one-half the standard number of ground vehicles. It acquired almost one thousand aviators and two thousand aviation mechanics. The creation of this division opened a new phase in U.S. Army warfare.

The Air Ambulance Platoon, which consisted of twelve helicopters and their crews, was an integral part of the new division, and deployed with it to the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam in August 1965. It served as part of the divisions 15th Medical Battalion. It not only offered medical evacuation to wounded soldiers of the 1st Cavalry but also had the equipment to rescue pilots of crashed and burning aircraft. It consisted of a medical evacuation section of eight helicopters and a crash rescue section of four helicopters. It also had three Kaman "Sputnik" fire suppression systems to enable the


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crash rescue teams to enter burning aircraft. Unfortunately, if the aircraft fitted with the Sputnik system also carried its full complement of two firemen, a crew chief, a medical corpsman, and two pilots, it could not lift off unless the crew had drained the fuel tanks to 400 pounds or less. After its arrival in Vietnam the platoon found that maintenance problems, general aircraft shortages, and regular evacuation missions made it impossible to keep four of its aircraft ready at all times for crash rescue missions.

Unlike the helicopter detachments and companies of the 44th Medical Brigade, the platoon's pilots used "Medevac" as their call sign. However, they resembled the pilots of the older units in their methods, training, and outlook. Like the commissioned Dust Off pilots, the platoon's officer pilots had graduated from the helicopter program of the U. S. Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama and had been trained in emergency resuscitative medicine by the Army Medical Department.

The Air Ambulance Platoon Goes to Work

After the 1st Cavalry began to dig in on the An Khe plain in early September 1965 the platoon's pilots flew their first missions and quickly tasted some Viet Cong resistance. To protect the platoon's aircraft, the division began keeping gunships on call for escort. The platoon's pilots, however, thought that traveling with the slower, heavier gunships wasted precious minutes of response time.

During the next three years, a period of large search-and-destroy operations, medical aircraft often accompanied ARVN and U.S. forces to the battlefield. In the remote Central Highlands the 1st Cavalry's air ambulance platoon found it wise to conform to the Howze Board report by evacuating its patients only as far as the battalion aid stations or division clearing stations. Nonorganic air ambulances commanded by medical authorities would then backhaul the casualties to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku or to hospitals further away, on the coast. Later in the war, when the 1st Cavalry moved to III Corps Zone, the platoon itself began to make evacuation flights from the site of wounding directly to hospitals.

In time the platoon would prove its value, but some of its early experiences were not encouraging. On 19 September four of the platoon's ships supported an early 1st Cavalry operation. Because of poor coordination and misplaced concern on the part of ground personnel, the transport helicopters carried out the casualties and the air ambulances carried out the dead.

On 10 October one of the platoon's pilots, Capt. Guy Kimsey, answered an evacuation request from a ground unit sixty kilometers east of An Khe. While Kimsey loaded his ship, a Viet Cong round hit


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the engine and shut down the aircraft. Another helicopter flew the crew and patients back to An Khe, where Kimsey told the 15th Transportation Battalion that he had a downed ship. The maintenance unit sent out an aircraft recovery team the same day, but the team could not find the ship and accused the pilot of giving them the wrong coordinates. Rankled, Kimsey climbed into the recovery aircraft and flew the team chief on the spot. At first, as they approached the area at some distance, Kimsey thought the chief might be right. But as he drew nearer he saw the outline of a helicopter on the ground. They landed. All that he could find of his ship was part of the tail rotor. He checked with the ground troops in the area who had called in the evacuation request. From them he learned that when the Viet Cong had earlier tried to overrun the position, the U.S. troops had called in friendly artillery. One of the rounds had scored a direct hit on the disabled helicopter.

Misfortune struck again on 10 October during Operation SHINY BAYONET near An Khe. Three of the platoon's ships flew out to evacuate eleven seriously wounded soldiers from the 3d Brigade. As they approached the landing zone at 1630, they saw the fires from Air Force tactical strikes still burning. A firefight also raged, and the ground commander radioed that the landing zone was insecure. The senior pilot elected to stay at high altitude with his Huey gunship escort and one other Medevac ship while the third ship made a low approach to the pickup zone. As he took his aircraft in, the pilot of the third ship, Capt. Charles F. Kane, Jr., was struck in the head by an enemy bullet. His copilot flew the aircraft to the 85th Evacuation Hospital, where Kane became the platoon's first fatality.

By mid-October the North Vietnamese Army had begun its drive against allied forces in the Central Highlands. In supporting the ARVN forces that tried to repulse this attack, the 1st Cavalry and its Air Ambulance Platoon received their first severe test. By early October the 32d and 33d North Vietnamese Regiments had infiltrated western Pleiku Province between the Cambodian border and Plei Me, a Special Forces base camp forty-three kilometers south of Pleiku. Route 6C stretched north from Plei Me toward Pleiku. A third unit, the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment, was soon to arrive.

On 20 October the 33d North Vietnamese Regiment attacked four South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) companies at Plei Me. The North Vietnamese 32d Regiment lay in ambush for the ARVN forces expected to move south from Pleiku. On 23 October the ARVN armored relief force left Pleiku and marched south toward Plei Me, covered by the artillery of the 1st Cavalry Division. On the afternoon of the 24th, Air Ambulance Platoon helicopters carried an artillery liaison party into the column and returned with some noncombat-injured soldiers. At 1750 the Communist ambush struck


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the convoy, but the ARVN troops broke out and reached the beseiged camp the following day.

Over the next month the 1st Cavalry Division and ARVN forces continued to fight over this territory in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. On 27 October General Westmoreland ordered Maj. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard, lst Cavalry Division commander, to conduct search-and-destroy operations in western Pleiku Province. For the first time the division's mission was unlimited offense.

In this battle the Air Ambulance Platoon proved its worth. Early in November Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore took his cavalry battalion by helicopter into a landing zone near the Cambodian border. The newly arrived 66th Regiment and the remnants of the 33d Regiment waited on a mountain overlooking the landing zone. Heavy enemy fire from these regiments restricted helicopter approaches and departures, and friendly casualties began to mount. The battalion surgeon, with medical supplies and four medical corpsmen, flew in under heavy enemy fire on an Air Ambulance Platoon ship and immediately began treating the casualties. This saved the lives of many soldiers who could not have survived a long wait for evacuation. By that night the Air Ambulance Platoon and returning gunships had evacuated all the wounded. Although the gunships had helped, the brunt of the evacuation burden had fallen on the Air Ambulance Platoon, which had performed superbly. At the start of the Ia Drang campaign the Air Ambulance Platoon operated twelve aircraft. One was destroyed on 10 October 1965, four were usually down for maintenance, two were required for division base coverage at An Khe, and two supported the operations of the Republic of Korea (ROK) forces east of An Khe. To support the nearly three thousand men of a reinforced brigade, which was the average strength committed at any one time to the Ia Drang, the 15th Medical Battalion now had only three aircraft to site forward. The casualties varied, but averaged 70 to 80 a day, with 280 on the worst day. Fortunately the troop ships carried the less critically injured men from the landing zones, easing the platoon's load.

In his after-action report, Colonel Moore described another problem he had met in his medical evacuation: the heavy enemy fire and the dense 100-foot high trees had prevented the platoon from evacuating men from the spot where they were wounded. The ground troops had had to move many of the wounded to a single secure landing zone. Moore reported: "I lost many leaders killed and wounded while recovering casualties. Wounded must be pulled back to some type of covered position and then treated. Troops must not get so concerned with casualties that they forget the enemy and their mission. Attempting to carry a man requires up to four men as bearers which can hurt a unit at a critical time." The solution, which came later, involved a


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technical innovation rather than restraining the soldier's natural concern for his wounded comrades. By mid-November the 15th Medical Battalion and its Air Ambulance Platoon were short five pilots and fifty-six enlisted men. Of the twelve Medical Service Corps pilots authorized the platoon, one was dead, one was injured, and the battalion commander had placed two on his staff and had reassigned another who had only four months remaining in his tour of duty. The commander asked for replacements, but none could be found because all units were short of men.

Saturday, 18 December, was another dark day for the Air Ambulance Platoon. Capt. Walter L. Berry, Jr., pilot, and W01 George W. Rice, copilot, had just settled to the ground at a pickup site to evacuate two 1st Cavalry wounded when an enemy soldier opened fire on the helicopter from the left. One bullet, entering through the open cargo door, struck Rice in the head. Another hit the crew chief in the hand. Berry raced to the nearest clearing station, but Rice died there within an hour, the first warrant officer in the Medical Service Corps Aviation Program to be killed in action. The Medevac ship had been unescorted and unarmed. Shortly thereafter the platoon commander, Maj. Carl J. Bobay, wrote: "Within three months of operations in Vietnam, two pilots have been killed, one enlisted man wounded, and nine helicopters shot up, all due to enemy action. Believe me ... we are not proud of these statistics. What the next eight months may hold in store for us is too much to even consider."

During this period more of the regular medical detachments were deploying in the two southern Corps Zones. The 283d Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), activated at Fort Lewis, Washington, landed at Saigon on 1 September 1965 and started to help the 57th cover III Corps Zone. In November 1965, the 254th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) also arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon. The two ships that had sailed from Tacoma, Washington, with all the 254th's equipment, reached the South Vietnamese coast on 29 October but could not be unloaded until mid-January because of the congestion in the ports. Until then some of the 254th's pilots worked with the 283d and 57th. The 254th declared itself operational on 1 February at Long Binh with the primary mission of direct support for the 173d Airborne Brigade on its sweep operations in III Corps Zone. The 57th and 283d supported the other allied units in the sector.

The Medical Company (Air Ambulance)

In September 1965 another new type of medical evacuation unit deployed in Vietnam-the medical company (air ambulance). The 1959 table of standard equipment for such a unit provided for twenty-


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four two-patient helicopters, served by twenty-eight officers and a larger group of enlisted men. In September 1964 the 498th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) was activated at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where it served in a standby utility capacity until June 1965. That month the company received twenty-five new UH-1D's fresh from the Bell Helicopter Plant, and the pilots set to work learning the new machine.

At Camp Bullis, a subpost of Fort Sam Houston nineteen miles northwest of San Antonio, the company conducted instrument training and practiced the tactics of day and night flying. On most days the flight crews and their instructors took off at 0600 and were still out flying at 2100. All crew members also had some target practice with the M14 rifle and the .45-caliber pistol. Grew chiefs and medical corpsmen practiced firing from the open cargo doors of an airborne helicopter. Most of the flight practice simulated the low-level navigation and approaches that the instructors had learned flying over the Delta in South Vietnam. Because of the varied military occupational specialties of the enlisted men, Lt. Col. Joseph P. Madrano, commander of the 498th, convinced Maj. Gen. William Harris, the post commander, to let the 498th tailor its own unit training program. General Harris not only agreed but also had his staff prepare training aids, and he himself visited the unit almost daily to see if he could do more to help.

On 24 July 1965 a Department of Army message arrived assigning the 498th to U.S. Army, Pacific, destination unstated. Last minute efforts to obtain and pack supplies, aided greatly by General Harris, drew to a close. The 498th planned a well-deserved party for the men and their families at Salado Creek Park in Fort Sam Houston. General Harris, whom they invited, first suggested then insisted that the unit find a civilian UH-1. He wanted the families to have at least one flight in a Huey to see the aircraft that their fathers, sons, and husbands flew. The Bell Helicopter Corporation cooperated and everyone got to ride in a helicopter. Shortly after he flew into Nha Trang with the advance party the 498th, Colonel Madrano went to Saigon where the Surgeon of the U.S. Army, Vietnam (USARV) told him that the company would cover the entire II Corps Zone from a base or bases of Madrano's choosing. In the early fall of 1965 the only American combat unit in II Corps Zone was the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), which usually operated north of Qui Nhon. Several Special Forces camps monitored the border and a few ARVN units also worked the area. But these forces grew quickly after the arrival of the 1st Cavalry.

The company organization for air ambulances was unprecedented in Vietnam. The only other experience of an air ambulance company


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the 498th could draw on was that of the 421st Medical Company in Europe, which had its platoons, each consisting of six ships, scattered at four bases. Some pilots of the 498th wanted a similar dispersion while others preferred a centralized operation. Colonel Madrano told the Surgeon that he wanted to place a platoon each at Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot, the only secure bases in II Corps Zone that could possibly support them. All had inadequate resources to accept the entire company. Madrano soon dispersed his unit: 1 1/2 platoons at Qui Nhon; 1 1/2 platoons near the 52d Aviation Battalion at Pleiku; and the fourth platoon, along with the company headquarters, maintenance section, and operations section, at Nha Trang. Since the Qui Nhon contingent shared its compound with the 117th Aviation Company, some of the platoon's Medical Service Corps pilots had an opportunity to fly a few assault missions and learn about life as combat pilots. The technique the 117th taught was to fly out high, circle down steeply to the landing zone, and always keep the target in sight. This was a radical contrast to the techniques the 498th had practiced in Texas. The low-level approaches they had practiced at Camp Bullis had ill-prepared them for work in the mountainous Central Highlands of II Corps Zone.

When it first became operational on 20 September, the 498th was authorized only one-half the pilots it needed, so the USARV Surgeon and the 1st Logistical Command pitched in to help. Nonmedical commissioned and warrant officer pilots were sent on temporary duty to the 498th. Some of these men were at first reluctant to leave their gunships and transports, but toward the end of their term with the 498th most wanted to stay longer.

The distance of the deployed 498th platoons from their control headquarters in Saigon, the 1st Logistics Command, helped create a familiar problem. Each commander in II Corps Zone thought that some or all of the air ambulances belonged to him. Each thought that the authority to dispatch a flight should be his and that his isolated posts deserved individual Dust Off coverage. The problem was not alleviated by the assignment in late September of the 498th to the 43d Medical Group. Madrano had to exercise firmness to preserve the 498th's independence.

The disposition of his platoons compounded Madrano's problem of controlling his company. While the dispersion provided excellent air ambulance support to tactical combat units, it also created monumental problems for the company. Maintenance had to be carried on at three sites while the entire maintenance platoon was stationed at Nha Trang. Madrano was in the air constantly, visiting platoons or field sites, coordinating operations, and often flying hot missions from his three bases.

November turned out to be an especially trying month for


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everyone in the 498th-pilots, crews, and maintenance men. On 1 November one of the aircraft flew from Qui Nhon to pick up a wounded South Korean soldier. At the landing zone, just as the medical corpsman finished loading the patient, enemy soldiers opened fire on the aircraft; one round hit the pilot in the neck. The copilot looked to his left, saw the pilot's bloody wound, and grabbed the controls. By now the North Vietnamese had begun to surround the aircraft. Drawing on all the power he could, with no regard for the torque meter, the copilot made a low-level takeoff straight at the enemy. The crew chief leaned out the open cargo door and used an M14 as a club. The aircraft returned to Qui Nhon and the pilot was rushed to an emergency room. He survived, and later returned to the United States to recover.

On the night of 11 November an aircraft of the 4th Platoon responded to an evacuation request from a South Korean unit west of Qui Nhon. Once over the landing zone they descended rapidly. Near the ground the windshield suddenly fogged over and neither pilot could see outside the cockpit. Before they could reorient themselves and halt their descent the helicopter crashed on a mountain and burst into flames. The copilot managed to pull the pilot from the wreck but the other crewmen perished. Both pilots suffered serious burns and were evacuated to Japan. The next morning a ground ambulance evacuated the Korean casualties.

The 436th Medical Company (Provisional)

The next air ambulance company set up in South Vietnam was drawn mainly from detachments already in the country. In April 1965 Lt. Col. James W. Blunt, the Surgeon of the U.S. Army Support Command, Vietnam, complained about the common practice of casualty evacuation by nonmedical aircraft. He planned an increase of at least two more air ambulance detachments in Vietnam to help counter this practice. The commander of the new 82d Medical Detachment suggested that he also create a control unit, possibly a provisional company, to command the proposed four air ambulance detachments. Later in the year Col. Ralph E. Conant, Colonel Blunts successor, decided that such a control unit would indeed reduce the current confusion in III and IV Corp Zone medical evacuation caused by the wide dispersion of the four detachments and by their erratic communications. By November he had started planning for a provisional air ambulance company composed of four detachments, analogous to the four decentralized platoons of the 498th Medical Company.

On 1 December 1965 the Medical Company (Air Ambulance) (Provisional) was created from the old 57th and 82d Detachments,


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and the new 254th and 283d Detachments. The 43d Medical Group, which already commanded the 498th Medical Company, now took control of the provisional company. The company's mission was to supervise all aeromedical evacuation in III and IV Corps Zones. The unit's first commander, Maj. Glenn Williams, immediately asserted his authority by having the 57th Detachment removed from the operational control of the 145th Aviation Battalion and the 82d Detachment from the 13th Aviation Battalion. Believing his first complement of personnel inadequate to supervise four widely separated detachments, Williams pushed his superiors to expand his staff. On 1 April he received permission to form a company headquarters of two officers and six enlisted men, who would supervise 46 officers and 114 enlisted men. The company operated twenty-two helicopters (five each for the 57th and 82d Detachments, and six each for the 254th and 283d Detachments).

The creation of the provisional company was expected to improve the coordination of the air ambulance detachments. But company newsletters and personal letters from its men show that the new unit was not a success. Each detachment retained its own identity and tended to regard the company as just another headquarters in the chain of command. Major Williams also found, as had Colonel Madrano in the 498th, that the unique mission and problems of the air ambulance units required a battalion-size staff instead of a company headquarters. No doubt more lives could have been saved if an aggressive battalion safety officer had been available. More helicopters could have flown if a battalion maintenance officer had been able to coordinate and supervise the work of the young detachment maintenance officers. Although U.S. warehouses were full of the latest flight and safety equipment, the pilots and crew members were seldom able to obtain it, since a young officer with no supply training, representing a small detachment, had little chance of finding his way through the maze of supply channels.

But Major Williams was unable to set up more than a small provisional company headquarters. In September 1966 the Provisional Company was renamed the 436th Medical Detachment (Company Headquarters) (Air Ambulance) and attached to the 68th Medical Group, which had become operational in Vietnam on 1 March. This name lasted until May 1967 when the 436th was renamed the 658th Medical Company. With the arrival of the 45th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) in July 1967, the 658th was deactivated and the 57th and 82d Detachments were attached to the 45th. The 283d moved to Pleiku and the 254th to Nha Trang. Overall, the experiment had failed.

ATTLEBORO

In late 1966 Operation ATTLEBORO, the largest combined


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U.S.-South Vietnamese operation since the start of the war, gave the medical evacuation system its severest test so far in Vietnam. Over as 20,000 allied soldiers were embroiled in a struggle with a large enemy force moving against objectives in Tay Ninh Province.

In October 1966 the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment and two regiments of the 9th Viet Cong Division began to move east from their sanctuaries along the Cambodian border. One of the regiments aimed at the Special Forces camp at Suoi Da, hoping to draw allied units into an ambush by the other 9th Division regiments. By the end of November the 1st Infantry Division, the 173d Airborne Brigade, and elements of the 4th and 25th Infantry Divisions entered the struggle. Even while dealing the Communist forces a severe setback the allied forces suffered heavy casualties. Friendly losses were 155 killed and 494 wounded.

During ATTLEBORO the 436th Medical Company flew continuous missions. In two of the battles all the company's aircraft were in action. By the end of November the Dust Off helicopters had brought some 3,000 wounded, injured, and sick soldiers in from the field, aided for the first time by newly-installed hoists: winches that allowed soldiers to be lifted to hovering aircraft. In the month-long operation the enemy hit fourteen Dust Off helicopters, heavily damaged seven, and destroyed one.

One serious problem in the coverage by the air ambulances marred an otherwise impressive performance. Each of the four U.S. combat units in ATTLEBORO controlled its own Dust Off aircraft.1 Since the medical regulating officers with each combat unit rarely coordinated their unit's Dust Off missions with the other dispatchers, the air ambulance with a unit in battle flew a great deal while the other aircraft flew very little or not at all. Corrections were clearly in order.

The Dust Off system soon, almost too soon, had a chance to show what it had learned in ATTLEBORO. On 8 January 1967 twenty U.S. and ARVN units launched Operation CEDAR FALLS by penetrating the Iron Triangle northwest of Saigon. Over the next nineteen days the allied combat units sealed off, searched out, and destroyed Communist camps and troop concentrations throughout the area, killing 720 enemy soldiers.

During the planning stages of the operation the commander of the 436th had talked with Army staff about the medical evacuation problems he had seen during ATTLEBORO. With the staff's help he was able to establish a control net for dispatching and following all the Dust Off aircraft in CEDAR FALLS. All Dust Off requests during the operation funneled through two central dispatch agencies. Two Dust Off detachments then divided the battlefield, each supporting the units

    1See Chapter IV for a description of the hoist and various litters.


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within its area. Between flights, pilots regularly stayed some time at the regulating sites to help coordinate missions. Much wasteful duplication of effort was eliminated; the Dust Off system had been further improved.

The 45th Medical Company

During 1967 a new medical company, the 45th, brought in new equipment and pilots. In July 1966 the 44th Medical Brigade, which had become operational 1 May, asked the U.S. Army, Vietnam, to deploy another air ambulance company. Col. Ray L. Miller, brigade commander, noted that since January monthly medical evacuations in South Vietnam had risen from three thousand to over five thousand. Combat damage was taking a heavy toll on the Dust Off aircraft. But Miller's superiors decided to wait for the arrival of some new air ambulance units already scheduled for Vietnam. As an interim measure they assigned six nonmedical helicopters to the evacuation units, three for each of the two air ambulance companies. The 45th's deployment was postponed a year.

In March 1967 General Westmoreland told the Commander in Chief, U.S. Army, Pacific, that his theater needed 120 air ambulances but had only 64 on hand. Even if he received forty-nine more, to which the approved troop list entitled him, he would lack seven aircraft. In April the U.S. Army, Vietnam, informed U.S. Army, Pacific, that in light of its growing forces, it had taken several steps to reduce the shortage of air ambulances. Its stopgap measures included giving the 498th and 436th air ambulance companies more nonmedical aircraft, giving basic medical training to those assault and transport crewmen who might find themselves evacuating the wounded, and even designating certain aircraft in the airmobile assault units to carry a medical corpsman during attacks. Since he thought that these measures were makeshifts only, Westmoreland urged that the new air ambulance company and four detachments be shipped to South Vietnam as soon as possible.

By mid-1967 U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam approached 450,000, and General Westmoreland was asking for even more soldiers. U.S. Army, Vietnam, at last asked for another air ambulance company and four more helicopter ambulance detachments. If granted, this request would place a total of 109 air ambulance helicopters in South Vietnam.

In late May 1967 the 45th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, received notice that it would soon leave for Vietnam. It had been on deferred status since 1965 with twenty-five obsolete H-19 helicopters. Since the company was unable to acquire its last twelve authorized pilots before departure, it deployed without the pilots for one entire flight platoon; too many aviation units were forming


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and deploying for all to have their full complement of pilots. Before departing, the unit picked up twenty-five new UH-1H's with powerful Lycoming L-13 engines. These aircraft could be fitted with hoists for in-flight loading of the wounded, and they also carried new DECCA navigational kits. By 13 September the 45th was fully operational at Long Binh, about twenty kilometers northeast of Saigon. The airfield section leader kept some of his men busy building a heliport tower, and proved adept at scrounging. His crash rescue team soon had a bright red fire truck. He liberated a 3,000-gallon fuel bladder for JP-4 helicopter fuel and another with pumps for the aircraft washrack.

The 45th soon committed itself to giving twenty-four hour standbys at several bases around Saigon. One aircraft also gave daylight support to the Australians in the Saigon area. At Long Binh the company kept three standby aircraft for nearby evacuations and another for VIP or medical administration missions. From June through September alone, nine of the aircraft were damaged in combat. In October the 93d Evacuation Hospital started using the 45th to transfer most of its patients to a casualty staging facility near Tan Son Nhut, saving the injured the discomfort of riding in ground ambulances over the congested and dusty streets of Saigon.

The Buildup of 1967

Overall, this was a year of massive buildup for U.S. Army forces in Vietnam. Parts of I Corps Zone, until then a U.S. Marine Corps responsibility, went Army. U.S. Army, Vietnam, received not only the 45th Medical Company, but also four new air ambulance detachments. The Dust Off units already in Vietnam were moved to obtain better coverage for the newly deployed troops. The 54th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived at Chu Lai in the southern I Corps Zone in August, immediately began combat training with the 498th Medical Company, and became operational on 25 September 1967. It supported the Americal. Division, the Army's largest. The southern I Corps Zone proved to be one of the most hotly contested in South Vietnam, and the 54th soon amassed an enviable record of honorable and dedicated support.

Other medical units followed. In October the 159th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived in Cu Chi, twenty kilometers northwest of Saigon with a mission to support all units in the area, but primarily the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. In November the 571st Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) joined the 254th at Nha Trang. It did not become operational until 2 January 1968, because the congestion in the ports delayed the unloading of its equipment. In December the 50th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived at its base at Phu Hiep, in the southwestern II


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Corps Zone, and assumed responsibility for the 173d Airborne Brigade, the 28th ROK Regiment, and all other forces in the vicinity. The day after its helicopters arrived, the 50th went into action. By the end of December it had evacuated 644 patients, including 100 Koreans.

One of the more dramatic missions flown in this buildup phase of the war occurred on 18 October 1966 when a Dust Off craft from the 82d Detachment flew a hot mission near Vi Thanh in the Delta. As the crew approached the landing zone and slowed their ship, the enemy opened up with heavy and light automatic weapons fire from three sides. The ship broke off its approach and went around for another try. On the second attempt it took several more hits, some in the fuel cells. Its fuel quantity gauge registered zero and it departed for a safer landing site. After the first Dust Off had cleared the area, a transport helicopter tried to get in and pull out the casualties. As soon as it neared the ground the enemy took it under fire, killing the pilot outright. The aircraft crashed in some trees at the edge of the landing zone.

When they saw how hot the pickup site was, a second Dust Off crew decided to land some two hundred meters from the crashed transport. As they neared their new site they took one hit in the fuel cell. Another round hit the electronics compartment, popped half the overhead circuit breakers, destroyed the compass, and lit up the master warning lights. The crew landed anyway, but the patients would not come out to the ship since mortar rounds began hitting the area. So Dust Off flew out and struggled back to Vi Thanh for maintenance work.

A third Dust Off crew radioed a nearby gunship that they would like to follow him in after he prepared the landing zone to make the Viet Cong keep their heads down. The gunship started in with Dust Off following. Enemy fire wounded both crew members on the armed UH-1C, nicknamed the "Huey Hog," but Dust Off continued in and this time managed to land. As soon as they touched down the crew chief and medical corpsman jumped out and started loading casualties, even though the enemy harassed them with rifle and mortar fire. They loaded four litter and eleven ambulatory patients, and signaled the pilots to take off. The pilot drew on his maximum power as they flew out to safety.

Riverine Operations

Apart from the drama of even routine evacuations, the Dust Off pilots working the Delta in this phase of the war had to cope with a new problem-furnishing medical evacuation for the joint riverine operations conducted by the U.S. Navy's River Assault Flotilla One, Task Force 117, and the 2d Brigade of the Army's 9th Infantry Division. Medical support for waterborne forces usually went with them


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down the rivers. One company of the 9th Medical Battalion staffed an armored riverine landing craft that was specially fitted with five bunks for patients. A helipad on the troop carrier consisted of little more than steel runway matting welded over a framework of pipe. Starting in May 1967 similar armored troop carriers, besides their six Navy crewmen, housed a medical team consisting of a battalion surgeon, medical assistants, and a radio-telephone operator. The normal route of evacuation was from the battlefield to the troop carrier by helicopter, then further evacuation by helicopter to a surgical or evacuation hospital. So the armored troop carrier with its medical complement was similar to a battalion aid station, except that space on board the ship was extremely limited. The craft usually could not hold a patient more than thirty minutes, and only one of these medical troop carriers supported each battalion committed to action.

On 3 April 1967 representatives of the 44th Medical Brigade, the 9th Infantry Division Medical Battalion, the U.S. Navy Task Force 117, and the 436th Medical Detachment (Company Headquarters) met aboard the U.S. S. Montrose, the flagship of the Mobile Riverine Force, to discuss medical care and evacuation. The participants started to work out standard operating procedures for riverine aeromedical evacuations. One of the biggest early problems was evacuation of soldiers who were wounded on boats. Col. Robert M. Hall, MACV Surgeon, advocated a floating litter that one or two soldiers could propel through the water to move a casualty to a helicopter landing area on the riverbanks. Hoists could also be used to lift the patients directly from the assault boats. The Dust Off pilots of the 436th tried both these techniques.

In the summer of 1967 the 45th Medical Company took over from the 436th the direct support of the 9th Division. It also supplied field standby aircraft for the division base at Dong Tam. To control these aircraft effectively, the division designated a Dust Off control officer who monitored radio traffic and regulated the dispatches. The 45th continued this mission until 22 December 1968, when the 247th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived to provide evacuation coverage for the Delta.

By early 1968 Dust Off pilots supporting riverine operations no longer had to land on a postage stamp in the middle of the river. Because of the long evacuation route and scarcity of hospitals deep in the Delta, the 9th Division received permission to make a hospital ship out of a self-propelled barracks ship, the U.S.S. Colleton. In December 1967 the Colleton sailed to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippine Islands, where her sick bay was enlarged. One month later she rejoined the forces in South Vietnam. Topside the ship had a helipad with enough space for one helicopter to land with another parked to the side. Navy radio-telephone operators controlled all ap-


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proaches to this pad. Down a wide ramp was the triage area with six litter stations. On a lower level was the air-conditioned, two table surgical suite. The Colleton proved so successful as a hospital ship that the division got permission to convert a second vessel. In August 1968 the U.S.S. Nueces was outfitted as a 37-bed hospital ship, leaving the Colleton with the surgical mission.

Dak To

Toward the end of 1967, U.S. forces in II Corps Zone fought a series of battles that in retrospect seem to be little more than a prelude to the great Communist offensive in the spring of 1968. But one of them, the battle around Dak To in the Central Highlands, presented the Dust Off pilots and unit commanders with several new problems: coordinating medical evacuations for a rapidly expanding number of allied combat units, arranging for backhauls for the heavy casualties that often swamped the nearby 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, and coping with field pickups in rugged terrain concealed by high, triple-canopy jungle.

In August and September 1967 enemy operations in Pleiku Province had dwindled. The 4th U.S. Infantry Division in the area had experienced only scattered contacts with the enemy since July, an abnormally long lull in the fighting. But in October intelligence had detected large and unusual troop movements near the triborder region, west of the Special Forces camp at Dak To in Kontum Province, to the north of Pleiku Province. The terrain in this southwest portion of Kontum Province is steep, rocky, and covered with heavy bamboo and jungle. Only one second class road, Route 512, extended into this area, and at Fire Support Base Dak To II it became a single-lane, loose-surface trail. Dak To, a small town thirty-seven kilometers up National Highway 14 from Kontum, housed South Vietnamese CIDG forces and their U.S. advisers. Late in October the Special Forces troops were constructing a new base nineteen kilometers west of Dak To along Route 512; a battalion of the 4th Infantry Division furnished screening security. When alerted of the enemy movement, the 4th Division commander, Maj. Gen. William R. Peers, quickly arranged to have his screening battalion reinforced by the 173d Airborne Brigade. He also sent a 4th Infantry brigade headquarters and a second battalion to the area.

In early November North Vietnamese soldiers launched mass attacks on these forces, who retaliating strongly, were further reinforced by the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. While trying to disengage and withdraw, the enemy committed the 174th North Vietnamese Regiment, a reserve unit, to cover their retreat. This resulted in a bloody fight for Hill 875, which the American forces assaulted for four days


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before taking it. By the end of the fighting in the Dak To area on 1 December, the U.S. forces there were supporting six ARVN battalions.

At the start of the fighting on 1 November, a single Dust Off ship from the 283d Medical Detachment evacuated the first casualties from the clearing station of the 4th Medical Battalion at Dak To II back to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku. The radio-telephone operator at the clearing station took evacuation requests over the 1st Brigade's tactical net and relayed them to the Dust Off ship. When the first casualties from a large fight with the enemy took place on 3 and early 4 November, the 283d ship had to call on help from transport helicopters, both for field pickups and the trip to Pleiku. The 283d also quickly field-sited several Hueys at Dak To from its new home at Pleiku Air Force Base. Even the gunships of the 52d Combat Aviation Battalion started flying noncritical patients from Dak To back to Pleiku at the end of the duty day. When the 173d Airborne entered the fighting on 8 November two platoons of the 498th Medical Company (Helicopter Ambulance), twelve helicopters in all, field-sited at Dak To to cover the 173d's casualties.

The surgeons in the six operating rooms of the 71st Evacuation Hospital often could not handle the large number of casualties. Surgical lag time grew dangerously long. On 11, 12, and 21 November an overflow of casualties forced the evacuation of the less seriously wounded to the 67th and 85th Evacuation Hospitals at Qui Nhon. The Air Force offered invaluable backhaul service at these times. After 21 November the Air Force placed its own casualty staging facility at Dak To for evacuation of serious and critical patients to Pleiku.

The mountainous terrain around Dak To and the 200-foot high, triple-canopy jungle made it necessary to use extraordinary methods on many of the field pickups. During the first eight days of November the 283d Detachment flew fifty-nine hoist missions. But the hoists only partly solved the problem; many patients in early November had wounds at least a day old before a doctor saw them. Nurses, corpsmen, and physicians had to quickly relearn the techniques of debriding wounds grown septic through delayed treatment. After the first week in November the ground units began using chain saws and plastic explosives to clear landing zones. Even though the plastic explosives and chain saws reduced the number of hoist missions, just one usually put the pilot and his crew in grave danger. During a night hoist on 13 November southwest of Dak To, one Dust Off aircraft took eighteen hits while at a stationary hover. A night hoist mission was undoubtedly the most unnerving kind of evacuation flight. Even if enemy resistance was slight, the technical problems of such a mission could take a heavy toll on a pilot's physical and mental well-being.

The battle for Hill 875 accounted for many of the casualties evacuated by Dust Off. For sixty hours only a few aircraft could reach


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the ground forces. In the middle of that period, Lt. Col. Byron P. Howlett, Jr., had four Air Force fighters and four helicopter gunships cover his approach to a small landing zone on the hill. He landed safely and loaded casualties, but on the way out with five seriously injured soldiers his ship took a hit in the rotor head. The ship struggled back to the 173d's clearing station and could not be flown out. After Colonel Howlett left the area, Maj. William R. Hill tried to get into the same landing zone but took fourteen hits and had to abort the mission. The next day the 173d secured the area around the landing zone and Dust Off evacuated 160 casualties. All in all, the Dust Off units had four aircraft shot up and five crewmen wounded while evacuating 1,100 patients. The system had proven resourceful enough to solve several new and perplexing problems.

The 54th and the Kelly Tradition

Pilots in any war consider themselves an elite group, and this was no less true for the Dust Off pilots in Vietnam than for the combat pilots. The Lafayette Escadrille of American pilots in France in World War I had set the pattern-a high life style and the esprit de corps possible in a small unit of highly skilled fighting men, in control of the most advanced technology. The dramatic entries of Dust Off ships into combat zones, usually unarmed and often unescorted, gave the pilots and crews a publicity that only heightened their sense of camaraderie. In the Korean War well-defined battle lines had permitted most helicopter medical evacuations to originate behind friendly lines. But the frontless nature of the guerrilla war in Vietnam demanded a novel marriage of the dash of the combat pilot with the often unheralded courage of the Army medical corpsman.

Maj. Charles L. Kelly was the first Dust Off pilot to exploit fully the possibilities of the medical helicopters. Not all Medevac and Dust Off pilots who arrived after his death tried to emulate his daring, but all fully understood that they could fly few of their missions without a good dose of raw courage. No Dust Off unit came closer to combining the Kelly tradition and the legacy of the Lafayette Escadrille than the 54th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) stationed at Chu Lai, a port city on the southern coast of I Corps Zone.

In June 1967 the 54th was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, providing evacuation coverage for its Infantry, Airborne, and Ranger Schools. That month when the unit received an alert notice for deployment to Southeast Asia, only three of its members were eligible to go: Capt. Patrick H. Brady and two enlisted men. As new personnel began to filter into the unit, it also received six new UH-1H's straight from the Bell plant.

Captain Brady, who had flown with Kelly in 1964 and assumed


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command of Detachment A at Soc Trang after his death, began training the new pilots. All the new warrant officer pilots came from the same flight school class that had graduated 6 June. All but one of their names began with "S." The Army had taken an entire alphabetical block out of the class and assigned it to the 54th. After introducing the pilots to the aircraft, Brady stressed his technique of tactical flying, which involved close analysis of the terrain to find the best approach to a hot landing zone.

The advance party, led by Brady, flew over to Vietnam early in August and reported to the 44th Medical Brigade at Long Binh. He was instructed to take his unit to Chu Lai in I Corps Zone. Flying north along the coast, they stopped off for a night to visit friends at the 498th Medical Company at Qui Nhon. Maj. Paul A. Bloomquist, commander, was not able to add much to the scanty information the 54th already had about its new assignment. At Chu Lai, Brady went to the 2d Surgical Hospital, which offered him a plot of land near the airfield. Most of the personnel and equipment of the 54th flew over on a USAF C-141 and arrived on 23 August. The 44th Medical Brigade assigned the 54th to the 55th Medical Group, which, in turn, gave operational control of the 54th to the 498th Medical Company.

As soon as all the men arrived, everyone pitched in to build a living area. Thanks to their industry and Brady's determination, they soon had a home. They obtained the first flush toilets in the Chu Lai area, even before the commanding general. Each man had a private room. They also built hot-water showers, a necessity in an area covered with red clay and dust. The enlisted men had a two-story rock-faced billet, which also contained the unit's music room, steam room, bar, and air-conditioned library, stocked by Captain Brady with 5,000 volumes. Outside was a pond, lined with palm trees and spanned by a wooden bridge. The unit's pets included several ducks, Gertrude the goose, Super Oink the pig, and Frances the monkey. Most of the men found themselves bicycles, and when Frances fell off one of them and hurt herself, the nearby 2d Surgical Hospital gladly restored her to health, For rest and relaxation, most of the men liked to go out to an island named Cu Lao Re, an extinct volcano that Navy men also used for scuba diving, fishing, and sunning.

When the U.S.N.S. Card, carrying the unit's helicopters and spare parts, arrived at Vung Tau, a port at the mouth of the Saigon River on 24 September, the 54th's commander, Maj. Robert D. McWilliam, sent crews down to accept them, inspect them, and ferry them back to Chu Lai. The next day the unit became totally operational. To stagger personnel departure dates and provide some personnel continuity, it was customary to infuse a new unit in Vietnam with men who had already been in the country a few months, shifting some of the new men to older units. But the 54th resisted attempts to


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break up its original team. McWilliam and Brady knew the value of unit cohesion. They also instilled in their pilots the attitude that every mission, day or night, was urgent and should be treated as such, whether the patient was a papa-san with worms or an American soldier bleeding to death.

One day of the unit's work impressed all the people in the Chu Lai area. Friday, 29 September, became embedded in the memories of the 54th as "Black Friday." The day started out as usual-the crews eating breakfast, preflighting their ships, and then flying a couple of routine missions. But by that evening all six of the unit's aircraft had been subjected to intense enemy fire at various landing zones, and all had been damaged. Three crewmen had been wounded. This was a true baptism of fire for the fledgling unit. That night most of them looked out at the twelve months that stretched before them, and thought that it would be a very long year. In fact, twenty-two of the crewmen would be wounded during that year, but none killed.

Dust Off Wins Its First Medal of Honor

As Dust Off flew more and more missions the bravery of its pilots and crews became evident to all who fought in South Vietnam. While each of these pilots returned from a Dust Off mission something of a hero, some pilots distinguished themselves more than others. On the night of 5 January 1968 a South Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol left its camp in a heavily forested valley surrounded by mountains west of Chu Lai. An enemy force soon hit the patrol and inflicted several casualties. When the patrol limped back into camp with its wounded, Sgt. Robert E. Cashon, the senior Special Forces medical specialist at the base, tended to two critical patients and radioed his headquarters for a Dust Off ship. Soon the aircraft arrived overhead and tried several times to land in the camp. The pilot finally had to leave because fog and darkness obscured the ground. The monsoon season had enshrouded the mountains in soft, marshmallow clouds and fog several hundred feet thick. The clouds and fog extended east all the way to the flatlands between the mountain chain and the South China Sea.

Dawn brought little improvement in the weather. Visibility and ceiling were still zero. The next crew who tried to reach the camp, at 0700, also failed, even though they had been flying in that area for five months. True to the Kelly legacy of unhesitating service, Patrick H. Brady, now a major, and his crew of Dust Off 55 now volunteered for the mission into the fog-wrapped mountains.

They flew from Chu Lai to the mountains at low level just under the cloud base, then turned northward to Phu Tho where a trail wound westward through the mountains to the reconnaissance camp.


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The fog grew so thick that none of the crew would even see the rotor tips of the helicopter. To improve the visibility, Brady lowered his side window and tilted his ship sideways at a sharp angle from the ground. The rotor blades blew enough fog away for him to barely make out the trail below the ship. Hovering slowly along the trail and occasionally drawing startled enemy fire, Dust Off 55 finally reached the valley and the camp. The visibility there was so poor that the ship completely missed the camp's landing zone and set down in a smaller clearing less than twenty meters square between the inner and outer defensive wires of the camp. The outpost had earlier taken mortar rounds and was still under sniper fire. Sergeant Cashon later said that the landing area would have been hazardous even in good weather. But Dust Off 55 loaded up, climbed out through the soup, and flew the two critical patients and four others to surgical care.

Brady's sweat from the first mission was hardly dry when another request chattered in over the 54th's radio. In the late afternoon of the day before, a company of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry Division, operating on the floor of the Hiep Due Valley, came under a concerted attack by six companies of the 2d North Vietnamese Division. For nine hours from their well-fortified positions in the surrounding hills, the North Vietnamese rained mortars and rockets on the Americans. The enemy had covered the likely flight paths into the area with 123-mm. antiaircraft guns. Early in the assault they had shot down two American gunships. Difficult communications and the nearness of the enemy on the night of the fifth had made a Dust Off mission impossible, even though the enemy had inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans. By dawn the company had sixty wounded on its hands.

On the morning of the sixth, a Dust Off pilot WO1 Charles D. Schenck, starting from fire support base West overlooking the valley, tried to fly a medical team out to the company and bring some of the wounded back. But the vertigo he suffered from the zero visibility forced him to abort. Shortly after he returned and told Dust Off Operations Control of his failure, Major Brady and Dust Off 55 began to prepare for flight. Brady, who knew the Hiep Due Valley, listened to Schenck and the other pilots who had tried to reach the stranded company. Then he loaded a medical team in his ship, cranked the engine, and took off. Several miles from the battle area he found a hole in the soupy clouds through which he descended to treetop level. After twenty long minutes of low-level flight, Dust Off 55 neared the stricken company. Brady's surprise approach and the poor visibility threw off the enemy's aim; the helicopter landed safely. Once on the ground the medical team quickly found and loaded the most seriously wounded. Brady made an instrument takeoff through the clouds, flew to fire base West, and delivered his casualties


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to the aid station. He then briefed three other crews on how he would execute his next trip into the area. The three ships tried to follow Brady in, but thick fog and enemy fire made them all climb out and return to West. Brady kept going, landed, picked up a load of wounded, and flew them out to West. Twice more he hovered down the trail and brought out wounded. Although the three other ships again tried to emulate his technique, none could make it all the way. Brady and his crew evacuated eighteen litter and twenty-one ambulatory patients on those four trips. Nine of the soldiers certainly would not have survived the hours which passed before the fog lifted.

As soon as Dust Off 55 refueled, Brady was sent on an urgent mission to evacuate the U.S. soldiers from a unit surrounded by the enemy twenty-six kilometers southeast of Chu Lai. Machine guns swept the landing zone as the North Vietnamese tried to wipe out the remaining American troops. Brady tried another surprise tactic. He low-leveled to the area, dropped in, turned his tail boom toward the heaviest fire to protect his cockpit, and hovered backward toward the pinned soldiers. The ship took rounds going in and once it was on the ground the fire intensified. For fear of being wounded or killed themselves, the friendly forces would not rise up and help load the casualties. Seeing this, Brady took off and circled the area until the ground troops radioed him in a second time. As he repeated his backward hover, the enemy tried once more to destroy the aircraft. But this time the ground troops loaded their comrades, who were soon in the rooms of the 27th Surgical Hospital at Chu Lai.

After four hours of flying that Saturday morning, Brady had to change his aircraft and find a relief copilot. A few hours earlier a platoon of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade on a patrol southeast of Chu Lai had walked into a carefully planned ambush. Automatic weapons and pressure-detonated mines devastated the platoon, killing six soldiers outright and wounding all the others. The platoon leader called for Dust Off. A helicopter soon landed, but took off quickly when a mine detonated close by, killing two more soldiers of the 198th who were crossing the minefield to aid the wounded.

Hearing this, Brady radioed that he would try the mission. The commander of the first aircraft suggested that Brady wait until the enemy broke contact. But Brady immediately flew out and landed on the minefield. Most of the casualties lay scattered around the area where they had fallen. Brady's crew chief and medical corpsman hustled the wounded onto the ship, disregarding the enemy fire and mines. As they neared the ship with one soldier, a mine detonated only five meters away, hurling the men into the air and perforating the aircraft with shrapnel holes. Both crewmen stood up, shaken by the concussion but otherwise unhurt, and placed the casualty on board. With a full load Brady flew out to the nearest hospital.


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When he returned to the Dust Off pad at Chu Lai and delivered his patients, he again traded his ship for another. He flew two more urgent missions before he ended his day of glory well after dark. He had flown three aircraft and evacuated fifty-one wounded soldiers. For this day's work he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dust Off in the Saddle

As this buildup phase of the war ended in early 1968, U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam approached a half million uniformed men and women. By late 1967 the medical support required for this large military force and the supplementary medical support furnished to the South Vietnamese were fairly well-organized. Hospitals were rationally dispersed, and they usually performed their mission competently. Most of the air evacuation units that would serve in Vietnam were already there. Air crew casualties, while certainly disturbing, were not alarmingly high. The air ambulance helicopter had never been better equipped for its work. The advent of the Lycoming L-13 helicopter engine in the UH-1H's had eliminated the problem of the underpowered aircraft that would not always perform. The enemy's antiaircraft threat was still primitive, consisting mainly of eye-sighted small arms. The Army's new radios had smoothed communication difficulties considerably. And the hoist, while creating new dangers, enabled the Dust Off pilots and crews to extract casualties who otherwise would have languished hours before reaching a hospital.

Most important of all, the Kelly tradition had survived in full force in the 54th Detachment, and the pilots of the other detachments, the companies, and the divisional platoons often dared to enter landing zones that they suspected were dangerous. The courage of these pilots, far more than prescribed procedures and rigidly defined channels, had made the Dust Off system an object of reverence in the ever-shifting battlefields of Vietnam.