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Chapter V

CHAPTER V

Table of Contents

From Tet To Stand-Down

A reconsideration of the Vietnam War in 1968 by the American people and their government led to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from most of Southeast Asia by March 1973. After reports of a vast enemy offensive in South Vietnam in February 1968 reached the American public and the Johnson administration, support for the war, already less than firm, quickly waned. Although the coordinated enemy attacks heavily damaged several allied facilities and caused many casualties, the enemy itself suffered greatly in this futile attempt to topple the American-backed Republic of Vietnam. All in all, 1968 proved to be a near military disaster for the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. But once the United States began to withdraw from South Vietnam by the end of the year, events on the battlefield had less and less influence on the overall American military policy in that country. This last and most trying period of the American experience in Vietnam severely tested the courage and dedication of the U.S. Army's combat troops, including its Dust Off pilots and crews.

Tet - 1968

By the end of 1967 the enemy had staged large attacks on the border areas at Song Be, Loc Ninh, and Dak To. The enemy had done much the same in February 1954, just a month before the open-ing of the final campaign at Dien Bien Phu. Their strategem almost worked again. In early December 1967 Generals Westmoreland and Cao Van Vien, chief of the South Vietnamese joint General Staff, discussed the coming Christmas, New Year, and Lunar New Year (Tet) ceasefires. In a show of confidence on 15 December, Westmoreland transferred the responsibility for defending Saigon to the ARVN forces and began to move large numbers of U.S. troops outside the Saigon area. But in early January the allies intercepted a message instructing the rebel troops to flood the Mekong Delta, attack Saigon, and launch a general offensive and uprising. On 10 January Westmoreland, after hearing the advice of Lt. Gen. Fred Weyand, the commander of II Field Force, Vietnam, began shifting combat units back from the border areas to Saigon. By 20 January U.S.


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strength in Saigon had almost been restored to its previous high level. Westmoreland warned his superiors that the enemy might attack before or after the Tet holiday, which would last seven days starting 30 January, but he doubted that they would violate the traditional holiday truce itself.

On 20 January the enemy started their final diversion: a bombardment of the U.S. Marine Base at Khe Sanh in northern I Corps Zone. This siege continued some eleven weeks, well beyond the collapse of the Tet offensive, and demanded a large-scale rescue effort by U.S. forces in the north. On the morning of 30 January, the start of the Tet holiday, some Viet Cong units prematurely attacked seven cities. The main enemy attacks began the next day throughout the country and continued through 11 February. Although the allied command on 30 January cancelled all holiday leave for military personnel, few soldiers returned to their posts quickly enough to help stem the main attacks. The enemy failed to provoke a national uprising, and suffered heavy losses. But the Tet offensive damaged many allied, especially South Vietnamese, facilities and caused thousands of allied civilian and military casualties.

Enemy attacks on allied bases quickly drew Dust Off into the thick of the fighting. In the north the 43d Medical Group suffered damage to many of its dispersed aircraft. All medical units, both north and south, had been warned at least a few hours in advance to expect heavy casualties, but the offensive still almost swamped all allied hospitals and clinics. On 1 February the 43d Medical Group, with the 44th Brigade's approval, requested a C-141 for a special mission, evacuating as many U.S. casualties as possible from the 6th Convalescent Center, the 8th Field Hospital, and the 91st Evacuation Hospital, to make room for the continuing influx of wounded. CH-47 Chinook helicopters evacuated many patients between hospitals and casualty staging facilities.

On 1 February the 44th Medical Brigade's aviation officer told the various medical groups that all helicopter ambulance detachments were limited to twelve pilots, regardless of any other authorization. Both pilots and machines had become critically short. If any of the 43d's detachments should run into severe problems, it was to turn to the 55th Group and the 498th Medical Company. Later the 43d Group did have to call on the 55th Group for substitute aircraft. Only the somewhat sporadic nature of the fighting allowed the medical system to keep up with the inflow of patients.

At the start of the Tet offensive, the air ambulance detachments in the south were no better prepared for the onslaught of wounded than those in the north. The 44th Brigade began to keep constant watch on the status of the aircraft with each detachment so it could redistribute the flyable aircraft to the detachment in greatest need. But fighting


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soon inflicted a great deal of damage to the Dust Off aircraft throughout South Vietnam.

The problems of the 45th Medical Company and the 57th Detachment, both stationed at Long Binh outside Saigon, were typical. By midday on I February both units had notified the 67th Medical Group that they needed a hospital to receive ARVN patients, but the only one with any beds still open was at Vung Tau, sixty-five kilometers from Saigon on the coast. Since the 45th was down to seven flyable aircraft of its complement of twenty-five, the 44th Brigade gave it two aircraft from the 43d Medical Group. By the time the fighting subsided, twenty-two of the 45th's aircraft had been damaged. Some administrative delays were avoided during the fighting when the 67th and 68th Medical Groups allowed the 45th Company to coordinate directly with the 57th for such mutual support as they needed.

Tet swept through the Delta as it did elsewhere. The 82d Medical Detachment at Soc Trang had to support the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, three ARVN divisions, the 164th Aviation Group, and scattered Special Forces units. In February the pilots evacuated over 1,400 patients. The unit lost three aircraft the first night of the offensive. First up that night, Capt. Harvey Heuter, flew to Can Tho to pick up three casualties, then proceeded to Vinh Long for more, on his way to the 3d Surgical Hospital at Dong Tam, Vinh Long was wrapped in close-up fighting, even on the airstrip. After he left the strip with his first load, Heuter radioed his unit that from the air the friendly soldiers were indistinguishable from the enemy; he recommended the front of the dispensary as the safest place for the next helicopter to land for the rest of the casualties. While gunships orbited and fired when they could clearly see enemy on the ground, another 82d ship, piloted by Capt. Al Nichols, flew into Vinh Long and out again, taking fire both ways. The 82d often had to borrow aircraft, and sometimes it used pilots from other units to keep up with the missions.

Whereas most of the fighting in the Tet offensive lasted only a few days, the fighting in the ancient city of Hue, near the coast in northern I Corps Zone, raged for twenty-five days. The Army's 1st Cavalry Division had started moving north in January to conduct joint operations with the U.S. Marines and possibly to take part in a relief operation toward the Marine base at Khe Sanh. The Air Ambulance Platoon moved with them to the airstrip that served Hue and adjacent Phu Bai. After one night at Phu Bai the Air Ambulance Platoon pitched their tents in an area nearer Hue that they appropriately named "Tombstone"- their base was in a graveyard. The same area later became Camp Eagle when the 101st Airborne set up its division base there. After a few nights at Tombstone, and a few Viet Cong mortar attacks, the platoon moved north with the 1st Cavalry to a new base,


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Camp Evans, a former Marine base along Route 1 toward Quang Tri. The platoon then dispersed its twelve aircraft among five locations.

On the morning of 31 January some seven thousand enemy soldiers, mostly North Vietnamese regulars, swarmed over Hue and seized all of the city except the Imperial Palace and the MACV compound across the Perfume River. Maj. Dorris C. Goodman, the platoon commander, and Capt. Lewis Jones pulled the first evacuation mission out of Hue. They low-leveled down the Perfume River into the city. At the pickup site, they found that the patients were not yet ready. After flying back to the River, they hovered between two gunships until called back in to complete the pickup. They then low-leveled out the way they had come in. Other Medevac ships followed them along the same route in the days of fighting that followed. As in the south, the air ambulances proved how necessary they were. Landing on tops of buildings and in city streets, using their hoists for inaccessible areas, the crews flew round the clock, not only to evacuate the wounded but also to move patients from overcrowded hospitals to other medical facilities. The Air Ambulance Platoon, the 571st Medical Detachment, and elements of the 498th Medical Company took part in Operation PEGASUS, a joint allied operation in early April to relieve the Khe Sanh combat base.

One of the most dramatic Dust Off missions in the north came shortly after a platoon of the 101st Airborne on the night of 3 April set up camp about five miles southeast of fire support base Bastogne on Highway 547 west of Hue. The mountains around them were dark, drenched with rain, and covered in fog. About 0100 the enemy probed the camp's perimeter with automatic weapons fire, then launched a ground attack. It was quickly beaten off, but two U.S. soldiers were critically wounded. The platoon leader called for Dust Off and specified that the mission required a hoist. The 101st Brigade Surgeon monitored the call and advised Dust Off to wait until daybreak to attempt the mission, since to fly that night with no visibility would court disaster. Lieutenants Michael M. Meyer and Benjamin M Knisely cranked as soon as the mission request came through again at dawn. They set up a high orbit while waiting for the C-model gunships to fly out from Hue to cover them, but the gunships radioed they could not get out because of the fog. Meyer made a low pass over the area and, although the platoon leader did not mark his position with smoke, Meyer's crew made a fairly good identification by radio. The ground unit told Dust Off they had received a few rockets and considerable small arms fire, and they suggested he wait for guns to cover the mission. Meyer returned to Phu Bai to refuel and get his gun team.

At noon the Dust Off ship started out again to pull the two original casualties and three newly wounded soldiers, but this time with two UH-1C gunships alongside. Once in the area, the gunships made


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several passes in the vicinity of the platoon to draw fire, but they took none. Meyer shot his approach up the valley and came to a hover. The medical corpsman and crew chief had trouble seeing down through the trees. Finally the corpsman said he could see people on the ground and started the hoist cable on its way down. just then the gun team leader saw a trail of white smoke streaking toward the red cross on the fully opened cargo door, but before he could radio a warning a rocket struck and exploded. The aircraft, engulfed in flames, half flew, half bounced almost a quarter of a mile down the tree-covered hillside. The last thing Knisely remembered was the cargo door flying past his window. His helmeted head struck the door jamb and he passed out. The burning ship crashed down through the trees and came to rest on its left side. Meyer climbed out of the ship and started running, but stopped when he heard screaming, and returned. He kicked out the windshield, reached in, and unbuckled the unconscious Knisely who fell forward against the instrument panel. As he did so, a fuel cell in the belly of the ship exploded and blew Meyer away from it. He returned a second time, removed Knisely's helmet and pulled him from the ship. With his bare hands he patted out the burning jungle fatigues and then dragged his inert pilot a safe distance away. Before he could return to see if the crew were still alive, machine gun rounds started cooking off and the ship completely burned, an inferno of magnesium and synthetics. Later that afternoon Knisely regained consciousness, but neither of the pilots wanted to move very far. The ship was no more than a pile of ashes.

About 1700, hearing sounds of people approaching, Meyer and Knisely, both injured and unarmed, could do no more than crawl further under the bushes. From the voices, they immediately decided their visitors were not of English extraction. Just as the North Vietnamese troops arrived, an American rescue party also appeared and a skirmish broke out. For twenty minutes bullets whizzed and whined overhead and around the smoldering ashes of the Dust Off ship. The North Vietnamese finally broke contact and escaped down the hill.

The downed crew heard voices calling out in English. They were still afraid to answer but Meyer finally called out. The patrol was from the platoon-a lieutenant, a radioman, a medical corpsman, and several soldiers who had volunteered to work their way down the hill to the crash site and to rescue any survivors. They had not expected to run into the North Vietnamese patrol. It had taken them five hours to get to Meyer and Knisely. The corpsman checked them both over carefully: both of Meyer's hands were burned and one was broken, and Knisely had third-degree burns on one arm, lesser burns on his face, and a broken ankle. The trip back up the hill to the defensive perimeter was torturous for all concerned. Knisely, only intermittently conscious, could not walk and had to be carried or dragged.


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The group made only a few hundred meters that first night. While clambering up the hill the next morning, they heard shouting from overhead. They looked up a nearby tree and saw the medical corpsman, who had been thrown from the aircraft as it careened down the hillside. The party got him down and found that he had a broken hip and various bruises and contusions, but altogether he was a very lucky lad. The crewchief, Sp4c. James E. Richardson, had perished in the inferno of the crash. Early that afternoon, the rescue party and the three Dust Off survivors rejoined the platoon where they learned that one of the gunshot victims had died. Because the enemy was still around in force, Dust Off could not get into the area without hazarding another loss. The downed crew told the ships overhead that it was not really urgent to get them out. They spent a second night on the ground.

Next day, when Lt. Col. Byron P. Howlett, Jr., the 498th's commander, heard of the crash, he and one of the platoon leaders jumped into an aircraft and flew the three hours from Qui Nhon to Phu Bai to hasten the extraction. Once there, Colonel Howlett declared that he was going to pull the mission no matter what. The next morning, he flew out and orbited the area with several gunship escorts to protect the attempt. One of the gunships dropped several blocks of plastic explosive so that the platoon below could blast out a landing zone. But the trees proved too dense to clear much more than a 30-by-30-foot area, far too small for a Huey to land in. By noon all the platoon and the crew were in the middle of the clearing. A Skyraider made several passes on the hill near the clearing, followed by Huey gunships. Then Dust Off, piloted by Howlett, flew in, hoisted out the three most serious casualties, all from the 101st, and evacuated them to the clearing station at Bastogne. A 571st ship flew in next, hoisted out several more wounded, and departed. On the third extraction, Colonel Howlett pulled Meyer and Knisely. The two ships had hoisted twenty-three wounded.

The Drawdown Begins

The war changed considerably after the enemy defeat during the Tet Offensive of 1968. By the end of the year many North Vietnamese units had withdrawn to Cambodia and Laos, leaving behind smaller units to harass the allied forces. The Military Assistance Command responded by adopting new tactics for its ground forces, using small units against precise objectives rather than large forces on area sweeps. These changes, however, did not immediately affect the well-established system of medical evacuation. By the end of the year air ambulance coverage was at its peak. Though the 50th Detachment was deactivated on 1 July, it soon reappeared as the twelve-helicopter


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Air Ambulance Platoon of the 326th Medical Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), in northern I Corps Zone. The platoon quickly became known as Eagle Dust Off, the second air ambulance platoon in South Vietnam, joining the Medevac platoon of the 1st Cavalry.

In 1969 the war changed in several important ways. The diplomats in Paris conducting peace negotiations, which had begun after Tet, put procedural questions aside and began to concentrate on substantive issues. Ho Chi Minh died and was replaced by a collective leadership in North Vietnam. In the United States, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, facing ever stronger domestic opposition to the war, announced the first of a series of withdrawals of U.S. troops from Vietnam. In March 1969, U.S. forces in Vietnam totaled 541,000, the peak level of American involvement. But in June, September, and December, President Nixon announced phased withdrawals of 110,000 U.S. personnel. The United States told the Republic of Vietnam that eventually it would have to defend itself without the aid of American ground combat forces.

The changes in the war produced changes in the Army's system of medical care. In the summer of 1969, the 44th Medical Brigade was removed from the 1st Logistical Command and assigned directly to U.S. Army, Vietnam. Eliminating that link in the chain of command greatly increased the brigade's influence. As combat and support units began to leave South Vietnam, U.S. troop locations and assignments changed rapidly, demanding equally rapid reassessments and readjustments of the medical support structure. Hospitals closed, reduced their holding capacity, or relocated. Coordination at the MACV level and between the various service components became vital.

In the summer of 1969, the 44th Medical Brigade deactivated the 55th Medical Group, which had never commanded aeromedical evacuation units, and thereby reduced its groups in Vietnam to three: the 67th in I Corps Zone, the 43d in II Corps Zone, and the 68th in III and IV Corps Zones. On 15 January 1970 the 44th Brigade further reduced its medical groups by deactivating the 43d at Nha Trang. The 67th Group at Da Nang then assumed control of I Corps Zone and the northern half of II Corps Zone; the 68th Group at Bien Hoa took the southern half of II Corps Zone along with III and IV Corps Zones. At that time the 44th Brigade exercised command and control over all U.S. Army medical resources in South Vietnam, except for those organic to combat units. The USARV Surgeon General's office existed as a separate staff element under USARV headquarters. Since this produced much duplication of function and effort, on 1 March 1970 the headquarters of the 44th Medical Brigade and the USARV Surgeon's office merged to form the U.S. Army Medical


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Command, Vietnam (Provisional) (MEDCOM). The MEDCOM commander, Brig. Gen. David E. Thomas, also held the position of USARV Surgeon.

A Second Medal of Honor

Even as the drawdown got under way, in October 1969 Dust Off showed that its pilots could be heroes in times of withdrawal. CW3 Michael J. Novosel, a pilot of the 82d Medical Detachment, 45th Medical Company, 68th Medical Group, stationed at Binh Thuy in the Delta, seemed an unlikely hero. Forty-eight years old and a father of four, he was in his second tour of duty in Vietnam. In 1964 he had abandoned a lucrative pilot's job with Southern Airways and the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve to serve as an Army pilot in Vietnam, where he joined the Dust Off team. Four times a day he applied medication to his eyes to treat the glaucoma whose onset had recently prevented him from returning to work as a civilian airline pilot. Only because the Army had granted him a waiver for his condition was he now back in Vietnam, again serving as a Dust Off pilot. Standing only five feet four inches, weighing less than 150 pounds, he lacked the physical characteristics of the stereotypical military hero. But he possessed qualities that were more important than physical prowess.

On the morning of 2 October 1969 the right flank of a three-company ARVN force came under intense fire as it moved into an enemy training ground right on the Cambodian border in the Delta province of Kien Tuong. During the next six hours U.S. Air Force tactical air support and Army gunships tried several times to enable the stranded soldiers to escape. Most of the uninjured soldiers managed to retreat some two thousand meters south, but others, finding their retreat blocked by high waters in swamps and rice paddies, could not get out. Several who had been wounded lay scattered about where they had been hit, near a group of bunkers and two forts used by the enemy in training exercises for simulated attacks on South Vietnamese installations.

In the midafternoon a U.S. Army command- and- control helicopter above the battleground radioed for a Dust Off ship. Operations control of the 82d Detachment relayed the request to Dust Off 88, whose aircraft commander, Mr. Novosel, and pilot, W01 Tyrone Chamberlain, had already flown seven hours of missions that day. The crew chief was Sp4c. Joseph Horvath and the medical corpsman was Sp4c. Herbert Heinold. Novosel immediately headed toward the border. Since the wounded ARVN soldiers did not show themselves on his first two hotly contested approaches to the area, Novosel circled at a safer range to signal the wounded to prepare for an evacuation.


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Finally one soldier had the nerve to stand up in elephant grass and wave his shirt overhead. Novosel dropped his ship into the area again and skidded along the ground toward him. The crew scooped the soldier up and took off.

After that, by ones and twos, the ARVN soldiers waved to the circling helicopter that continued to draw enemy fire. Four soldiers stood up and Dust Off 88 picked them all up on one approach. Enemy machine guns killed at least one other soldier as he signaled. At 1730, Dust Off 88 dropped the first load of casualties off at the Special Forces camp at Moc Hoa, refueled, and headed back to the fray. While Chamberlain monitored the instruments and tried to spot the casualties, Horvath and Heinold hung out both sides of the aircraft on the skids, grabbing people when they could and pulling them inside the ship. Where the elephant grass was so tall that it prevented landing, Horvath and Heinold hung onto litter straps to reach far enough down to grab the men below.

During the second series of lifts, while Novosel hovered at a safe range, Air Force F-100's roared down on the enemy, dropping 500-pound bombs and firing 20-mm. cannon. But when Dust Off 88 went back in for the wounded, enemy fire was still extremely intense.

The second group of ARVN soldiers were seriously wounded. One had a hand blown apart; another had lost part of his intestines; another was shot in the nose and mouth. As soon as the ship left the area for Moc Hoa, Heinold began tending the more seriously injured, applying basic lifesaving first aid, to make sure the wounded were breathing and that the bleeding was momentarily stanched. During the fifteen minute flight back he also managed to start intravenous injections on those he thought were low on blood or going into shock..

Although the enemy fire knocked out the VHF radio and airspeed indicator early in the mission, Novosel continued to fly. At least six times enemy fire forced him out of the area. Each time he came back in from another direction, searching for gaps in the enemy's fixed field of fire from the fort and numerous bunkers. Between his three trips to the area Novosel used his craft to guide the withdrawal of stragglers around the swamps and rice paddies.

On the last of his trips, with dusk approaching, a pair of AH-lG Cobra gunships gave the helicopter some covering fire. At 1900, when nine casualties were already on board, Horvath told Novosel that a man close to a bunker was waving to them. Suspecting that something was awry, Novosel told his crew to stay low in the ship while he hovered backwards toward the man, putting as much of the airframe as possible between the bunker and his men. As soon as the soldier was close enough, Horvath grabbed his hand and started pulling him into the ship. Before he could get him in, an enemy soldier stood up in the grass about thirty feet in front of the ship. He opened fire with his


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AK47, aiming directly at Novosel. Bullets passed on either side of him. One deflected off the sole of his shoe, and plexiglass fragments from the windshield hit his right hand. Shrapnel and plexiglass buried in his right calf and thigh. Both in pain and disgust, and to warn the copilot, Novosel shouted, "Aw hell, I'm hit." The aircraft momentarily went out of control and leaped sixty feet into the air. The ARVN soldier Horvath had been pulling aboard slipped off the ship, but Horvath kept his grip and pulled him back in. As he did so, he fell backwards on some of the men already there and cut his neck on their equipment. Chamberlain got on the aircraft controls with Novosel and they flew back to Moc Hoa. They shut down the engine, unloaded the wounded, and inspected their ship. Despite several hits to the rotor system and the cockpit, the aircraft could fly. The crew returned to Binh Thuy, ending their work after eleven hours in the air. They had evacuated twenty-nine wounded ARVN soldiers, only one of whom died. For this, Novosel was awarded the Medal of Honor.

VNAF Dust Off

In spite of the bravery of Army Dust Off pilots like Mr. Novosel the Vietnamization of the war required that the South Vietnamese Army rapidly develop its own Dust Off system. The United States in May 1956 had taken responsibility for training and advising the South Vietnamese Air Force. The United States soon supplied the Vietnamese with H-19 helicopters, and later replaced them with H-34's. In August 1965 the Vietnamese Air Force received U.S.-made B-57 Canberra bombers, its first jet aircraft. In October of the same year it received its first UH-1B's. By the end of 1972, as a result of Vietnamization, it owned 500 new helicopters, organized in eighteen squadrons-"one of the largest, costliest, and most modern helicopter fleets in the world." By July 1972 U.S. flight schools in the continental United States had graduated 1,642 South Vietnamese helicopter pilots. No materiel or personnel shortages prevented the creation of an effective VNAF Dust Off system.

From the very first years of Dust Off in Vietnam, Army regulations specified that the primary responsibility for aeromedical evacuation of ARVN casualties lay with the South Vietnamese Air Force. ARVN officers were supposed to refer missions to the U.S. medical regulators only when their Air Force could not fly the mission. But in practice this regulation was often ignored. In November 1968 the USARV commanding general cabled all Army commands in the country: "Attempts to supplant VNAF with USARV resources or to allow requests for medevac of ARVN troops to go directly to USARV elements without first asking for VNAF precludes the RVN from developing effective aeromedical evacuation capabilities. Commanders are enjoined to prohibit such attempts."


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Medical Command, Vietnam, responded to this directive by changing several elements of USARV Regulation 40-10, concerning aeromedical evacuation, to try to prevent Dust Off from accepting Vietnamese missions except when the case was urgent and the RVN Air Force fully committed elsewhere. The only civilians to be evacuated were those in the Civilian War Casualty Program. But the problem would not go away. A MEDCOM staff officer wrote to the Surgeon General's office: "It is definitely an uphill fight mainly because VNAF controls the aircraft and our USAF are their advisors. Our USAF has gone on record stating that dedicated aircraft for battlefield evacuation is ridiculous and a waste of assets. This policy has made it impossible to get our foot in the door thus far."

In February and March 1969 several U.S. commanders in Vietnam urged the creation of a Dust Off training program for VNAF pilots and medical corpsmen. One commander even suggested giving the RVN Air Force thirty-six new helicopters if they would promise to dedicate them exclusively to air ambulance missions. Over the next two years several attempts to work out a plan for attaching VNAF pilots and medical corpsmen to American Dust Off units failed because of disputes between the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force over the concept of dedicated aircraft, because of the seemingly intractable nature of the language barrier, and because of the reluctance of the RVN Air Force to accept responsibility for its own Dust Off program.

Finally on 3 March 1971, after almost two years of talks and four months of preparation, the 57th and 82d Medical Detachments in IV Corps Zone started a Dust Off training program for VNAF helicopter pilots and crews. The Americans soon observed that the VNAF pilots learned faster than was expected. The two detachments arranged a rest area for the VNAF crews, allowed them to eat at U.S. Army mess halls, but flew them back to their base at Binh Thuy, near Can Tho, at the end of the day. On 21 March the first all-VNAF crew flew out of Binh Thuy on a Dust Off pickup. By September the program had trained some fifty VNAF pilots and crews in Dust Off procedures. Similar efforts in the other Corps Zones were also successful. Between late May and the end of October a similar program at Long Binh could graduate only nine of the twenty VNAF pilots who started. Three of those who graduated, however, started training other VNAF pilots; so by the end of November VNAF Dust Off crews were flying 70 percent of the patients in III Corps Zone. Similar programs in I and II Corps Zones ended in early 1972 with good results. By January 1972 all four programs had trained eighty-three VNAF pilots, twenty-one crew chiefs, and twenty-eight medical corpsmen, all of whom were considered fully qualified.

In addition to this training program, the MACV Surgeon's office saw that the number of VNAF Dust Off aircraft increased in step with


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Vietnamization. From 1 November 1971 to 30 April 1972, as a part of the overall U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. Army gave the South Vietnamese armed forces 270 UH-1H utility helicopters, 101 O-1G light observation helicopters, and 16 CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters. The MACV Surgeon's office tried to ensure that about 6.5 percent of VNAF helicopters would be permanently dedicated medical evacuation ships. MACV planners fully realized that this minimal allocation would be inadequate to cover civilian casualties and nonurgent military casualties as well as urgent military casualties. But they considered it the best they could hope for.

During this period of rapidly dwindling resources, the U.S. Army Dust Off program experimented with a new form of organization-the medical evacuation battalion-that proved to be more successful than the medical evacuation company. Plans for such a unit originated in July 1969, just as the first stand-downs from Vietnamization began to take place in the 9th Division. On 1 August, the 54th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) at Chu Lai created a similar unit by taking over the operational control of a dental service team, a preventive medical team, a veterinary detachment, and the 566th Medical Company (Ambulance). Although this new organization provided professional services other than medical transportation, it foreshadowed the medical evacuation battalion by combining surface and air evacuation assets.

In February 1970 the 44th Medical Brigade started to convert the 61st Medical Battalion at Cam Ranh Bay into just such a battalion. The brigade stripped the 61st of its responsibility for treating patients, then relocated it northward to Qui Nhon. When it became operational on 26 February 1970, the 61st started to control all nondivisional ambulances in the northern half of South Vietnam. The mission of the battalion was considerably broader than that of a detachment or company; it had to provide ground as well as air transport, and move not only patients but also medical personnel, supplies, and equipment.

To accomplish this mission, the battalion had six helicopter ambulance detachments, two ground ambulance detachments, one bus ambulance detachment, and one air ambulance company-a total of sixty-one UH-lH helicopters, eighty-seven 3/4-ton ambulances, and three bus ambulances. To improve the command structure of the battalion, its commander formed smaller air ambulance "detachment groups." A MEDCOM aviation officer explained the rationale behind the action:

We are paying some high penalties because of the lack of experienced aviators. We just do not have enough second-tour types to provide a commander for each unit. Our average for both commissioned and warrant second tours is far below the USARV average. In an effort to compensate for


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this lack of experience "Detachment Groups" have been formed, where two or more detachments are located in close proximity, with the senior aviator assigned controlling and coordinating activities. We hope this will give us better control and take maximum advantage of the experience we do have.

The 283d air ambulance detachment was put under the 498th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), the 236th and 237th air ambulance detachments under the 571st air ambulance detachment, and the 68th air ambulance detachment under the 54th air ambulance detachment.

The 61st Medical Evacuation Battalion proved successful. Aircraft availability rates increased 20 percent and the battalion's units passed their command inspections with flying colors. Plans were made for a second battalion. On 1 May 1970 the 58th Medical Battalion became the 58th Medical Evacuation Battalion, with its headquarters at Long Binh. Its mission was to provide coverage for southern II Corps Zone, and III and IV Corps Zones. The battalion had fifty-five UH-lH helicopters to support this area.

For a year the two evacuation battalions performed their tasks very well. But by the spring of 1971 the declining personnel ceilings in Vietnam had made the battalions an unaffordable luxury. Medical Command, Vietnam, prepared to deactivate the battalions and transfer many of their functions to the staff of the 67th and 68th Medical Groups. On 10 June both battalions totally disbanded.

Cambodia

From the early 1960s the North Vietnamese Army had brought supplies and troops into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail running south through the Laotian panhandle and eastern Cambodia, and along the trails running northeast from the Cambodian coast on the Gulf of Thailand. In 1967 the United States began covert operations, code-named SALEM HOUSE, against these enemy supply routes. Although limited in size and scope-each incursion team had a maximum of twelve allied soldiers, including three American soldiers, and a maximum penetration of twenty kilometers into Cambodia-some 1,400 SALEM HOUSE missions took place from 1967 through 1970.

In early 1970 the U.S. military leaders in Vietnam saw the need for larger strikes against the supply routes. Insurgents in Cambodia were stepping up their campaign against the new anti-Communist Cambodian government of Lt. Gen. Lon Nol, and Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, was soon isolated. On 1 April the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces began to clear a corridor ten to fifteen miles wide along the border all the way from the Gulf of Thailand to the


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Fish Hook region north-northwest of Saigon, threatening III and IV Corps Zones in South Vietnam.

Responding to these threats, the allied forces decided to openly assist the new Cambodian government. In mid-April ARVN forces conducted a limited cross-border raid near the Parrot's Beak region, south of the Fish Hook region. At the same time U.S. and ARVN staffs started planning for a joint operation against several enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia, especially in the Fish Hook region, and on 28 April President Nixon approved the final plan. From early May to the end of June elements of several large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam-the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment-took part in these joint strikes at suspected Viet Cong bases over the border. USAF B-52 tactical bomb strikes and large-scale U.S. helilifts and helicopter gunship strikes prepared the way for the ground forces.

Dust Off and Medevac helicopters supported both South Vietnamese and American soldiers in this operation. During May the 1st Cavalry's Air Ambulance Platoon supporting the attack flew 1,042 missions (307 in Cambodia) and evacuated 1,600 patients (946 from Cambodia). The dense jungle and forests along the border resulted in eighty hoist missions for 182 patients. Although constituting only 7.6 percent of the total missions for May, hoist missions accounted for 53 percent of the ships hit by enemy fire that month. In May four ships were destroyed and eleven damaged. Ten crewmen were wounded and one killed. In June deeper penetrations into Cambodia increased flying time for the pilots and crews, even while the number of missions declined as the fighting tapered off. The crews flew 682 missions (199 in Cambodia) and evacuated 1,056 patients (397 from Cambodia). They also extracted 185 patients in ninety-one hoist missions. The 45th Medical Company and the 159th Medical Detachment helped the Air Ambulance Platoon by backhauling many patients to hospitals around Saigon. Because the Viet Cong had been warned of the foray and had fled the area, casualties were far below the April estimates. What had loomed as a severe test for the Dust Off system proved to be largely routine work, except for the dangerous hoist missions over triple-canopy jungle and forest.

A Medevac in Peril

One of these hoist missions during the Cambodian operation demonstrated that the air ambulance pilots had no monopoly on heroism among the U.S. Army medical personnel in Vietnam. On the morning of 24 May 1970 a helicopter of the Air Ambulance Platoon was ferrying S. Sgt. Louis R. Rocco, the medical adviser of a MACV advisory team stationed at Katum. Since December 1969


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Sergeant Rocco had served as liaison to the 1st ARVN Airborne Division's medical battalion. He had trained ARVN personnel on mission requests, use of the hoist, the forest penetrator, and the semi-rigid litter, and he also had presented classes on basic first aid. Whenever his duties allowed him the time, Rocco rode the medical helicopters on live missions to help the medical corpsmen and to practice some "hands on" medicine himself.

At 1100 on 24 May, Medevac 2 with Sergeant Rocco on board flew toward its base at Katum, in northern Tay Ninh province along the Cambodian border. A request for a pickup came in through the radio of a command-and-control helicopter flying overhead. The call was on behalf of eight urgent patients of the 1st ARVN Airborne Division. Two of the division's companies, the 61st and 63d, were on a sweep operation five miles inside the Cambodian border. The day before, the two companies had made contact with a North Vietnamese force that broke off and withdrew. The commander of the 61st Company had the small task force dig in for the night. The enemy attacked at dawn on the twenty-fourth but was repulsed by the defenders. In pursuing the North Vietnamese the ARVN soldiers took eight casualties. The U.S. advisers to the 61st and 63d Companies radioed their evacuation request through Maj. Jesse W. Myers, Jr., senior battalion adviser, who was overhead in a command-and-control helicopter. The pilot of Medevac 2, 1st Lt. Stephen F. Modica, radioed that he would take the mission as soon as he dropped off a load of supplies. At Katum, the crew threw the beer and sodas onto the pad, grabbed an extra chest protector for Rocco, and took off again. Regulations of the 1st Cavalry required gunship cover for evacuation missions if a unit had been in contact with the enemy within the past twenty-four hours. Usually C Battery, 2d Battalion, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery-the "Blue Max"-provided this cover by orbiting a team of two AH-1G Cobras, one high and one at treetop level. Medevac 2 had already learned from the U.S. adviser with the ARVN companies that the last contact had been to the north two hours earlier. Soon the Blue Max gun team arrived on station; Modica briefed them on the situation and said he would shoot his approach from the south. When the helicopter dropped to the landing zone, North Vietnamese hidden in the trees and along the ridge line opened fire with small arms and automatic weapons. The lower gunbird opened fire at the muzzle flashes in the trees. On its second pass it used its grenade launcher; the enemy redirected some of its fire and the gunship took its first hit. On its next run it again took enemy fire.

Just before the Medevac landed, two enemy rounds hit Modica in the chest protector and one passed through his left knee and lodged against the femur. As soon as the aircraft bumped down, the copilot


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turned to kid Modica that he ought to practice his landings. When he saw Modica's wounds, he took the controls and pulled the ship out of the landing zone. The aircraft rose fifty feet into the air before the engine stalled and the aircraft crashed back to the ground. Major Myers later described what he saw from above in his command-and-control ship: "The [Medevac] ship seemed to land, then shot up in the air, and then fell to the ground rolling over on its side, thrashing around like a wounded insect.... Smoke was pouring out of the ship by this time...." The two gunships made low firing passes to give the Medevac crew a chance to get out, if any still lived. One Cobra gunship came to a high hover over the burning Medevac, spinning and firing at the North Vietnamese. The gunship took twenty-nine hits before its ammunition ran out, forcing it to depart. The pilot transmitted a Mayday for the downed Medevac, giving its location and identification, and then called Medevac Operations to repeat the information.

All the Medevac crew were stunned at first and unable to move. Finally Rocco dragged himself out and crawled away. He had a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back. As soon as he realized that the crew was still inside, he went back. He pulled Modica through the shattered windshield and carried him across twenty meters of exposed terrain to the ARVN perimeter. One by one he brought the unconscious crew out. All were in bad shape. Modica had his serious leg wound. The copilot, 1st Lt. Leroy G. Cauberreaux, had a broken collar bone and fractured ribs. Sp5c. Terry Burdette, the medical corpsman, had a broken shoulder and a broken leg. The gunner, Sp4c. Gary Taylor, who sat in the right door, was crushed and burned when the ship crashed and rolled, and Rocco severely burned his hands trying to find him. The nearby ARVN soldiers could not help because the enemy was shooting at anyone who moved. The two bullets that hit Cauberreaux in the chest protector as Rocco carried him toward the ARVN perimeter did no further damage. Rocco had saved his three comrades from certain death.

At Quan Loi, the Air Ambulance Platoon's base, Capt. Henry O. Tuell III, aircraft commander of Medevac 1, yelled to his pilot, 1st Lt. Howard Elliot, that Modica had been shot down. Elliot was in the shower; he grabbed a towel and ran to get his clothes, scattering soapy lather as he went. By the time he had thrown his clothes on, Tuell had already cranked the aircraft; off they flew, Elliot lacing boots and fastening zippers. Although several other aircraft were in the area, Medevac 1 was the first evacuation ship on the scene. Medevac 2 was still burning, throwing off blankets of black smoke, Medevac 1 made its approach straight in and the enemy tried for another score. On each side of Medevac 1 two Cobras fired flechettes, machine guns, grenades, and rockets; but enemy rounds still hit the ship. One came through the left door and hit the armored seat just below Tuell's hand.


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Shrapnel and shattered porcelain from the seat peppered his hand and wrist. Elliot took the controls and nursed the ship back to Quan Loi where a doctor cleaned, stitched, and dressed Tuell's injuries.

Two hours later, after several air and artillery strikes around the perimeter, the pilot of Medevac 12, Lt. John Read, had his gunship escort lay down a heavy rocket preparation as he tried a highspeed, low-level approach to Medevac 2. The North Vietnamese, still safely bunkered behind 1 1/2 feet of concrete, blasted Medevac 12 out of the area before it could land. Bullets punctured the fuel cells and disabled the engine. With his tachometer falling, Lt. Read managed to land his ship safely in a nearby clearing, where the crew was immediately picked up.

Back at the crash site Modica remained conscious despite loss of much blood, and talked to the aircraft orbiting helplessly overhead. The American adviser with the ARVN forces, S. Sgt. Louis Clason, told him that the ARVN soldiers had not been resupplied in two days and were running out of everything, including water. Modica told him, "Hey, listen. We have one case of beer in the tail boom of the aircraft. You run out there -at least that's something to drink." Clason told him, "Lieutenant, you don't even know what your aircraft looks like. It is burned completely to the ground." About 1800, Modica radioed the nearby aircraft that the ARVN defenders might not be able to hold on through the night. After an hour of continuous friendly shelling around the allied perimeter, Medevac 21, piloted by CWO Raymond Zepp and covered by gunships, made the third attempt to reach the downed aircraft. The Cobra fired a 360º pattern with rockets and miniguns, but enemy fire still riddled the Medevac, knocking out its radios and starting an electrical fire. Like Medevac 12, Medevac 21 landed in a field 500 meters to the west; its crew was quickly pulled out. Nightfall prevented any further rescue attempts.

During the long hours of darkness, the enemy launched three assaults on the small perimeter. Flares overhead illuminated the area and allowed the Americans to call in artillery and gunships to break up the ground attacks. By nightfall Rocco's injuries had immobilized him. After pulling his crew from the burning ship, he had treated their injuries and the ARVN casualties he could get to. Soon his injured hip and hand stiffened, making any effort to move excruciatingly painful. Finally he passed out. Modica's leg swelled to twice its normal size and the pain immobilized him too. Cauberreaux moved about and lit cigarettes for the men, but with his crushed right side he could do little else. Since they had no morphine or other painkiller, they had to suffer.

At Quan Loi, planning for an all-out rescue attempt continued well into the night. The plan called for two Medevacs to go in and evacuate Modica's crew and any South Vietnamese possible. A third


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would hover nearby to extricate the crews if trouble developed and to evacuate any remaining ARVN casualties. Since all their Medevacs were shot up, destroyed, or committed elsewhere, the 1st Cavalry had to borrow three nondivisional Dust Off helicopters. At 0930 next morning ARVN and American howitzer batteries started laying a barrage of smoke rounds in the area to create a screen for the upcoming rescue. just before the operation began, four Cobras fired more smoke rounds. At 1145 the flight of three Medevacs with three cobras on each side started into the area. The first ship in loaded Modica and his crew and flew out. The second extracted several ARVN wounded and also safely left the area. An enemy rocket hit the third ship as it took off with two remaining ARVN casualties, but the crew brought the ship down without further injuries and was quickly rescued. The next day nine pilots and crewmen involved in this rescue received Silver Stars. Sergeant Rocco won a Medal of Honor for his part in saving Modica and most of his crew.

Laos

By October 1970 allied intelligence clearly showed two very disturbing facts. After recovering from the setback inflicted by the allied attack in Cambodia, the enemy was making plans to strangle Phnom Penh, depose the Lon Nol government, and reopen their southern supply routes by retaking the port of Kompong Som on the Gulf of Thailand. Also, the North Vietnamese Army was improving its road nets in Laos, building up supplies, and sending reinforcements, all apparently in preparation for large-scale offensives, in I Corps Zone. Starting in early January 1971 the U.S. XXIV Corps and the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff began planning for a preventive strike on the enemy bases and lines of communication between the northwest border of I Corps Zone and the Laotian city of Muang Xepon. In keeping with President Nixon's Vietnamization program, the South Vietnamese Army was to supply the ground combat forces while the United States supplied air and artillery support. U.S. forces were forbidden to set foot on Laotian soil.

Laos turned into Dust Off's greatest test in the Vietnam war. The complexity and offensive character of the operation presented the allies a new problem: the helicopter transport and evacuation of large forces in rapidly changing tactical situations. From 8 February through 9 April 1971 U.S. aircraft, including Air Force B-52's and some 650 Army helicopters, transported ARVN troops into Laos, gave them covering fire, and evacuated their wounded and dead. The U.S. units involved were reinforced contingents from the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), and


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23d ("Americal") Infantry Division. All operated under the command of Headquarters, XXIV Corps. The offensive accomplished one objective: it delayed the enemy at least several months. But it showed that even with U.S. support the ARVN forces lacked the leadership to prevent heavy losses-approximately 50 percent casualties.

The ARVN part of this joint, four-phased operation was called LAM SON 719; the U.S. part, DEWEY CANYON II. Between 30 January and 7 February the allies were to clear western Quang Tri Province and the east-west Route 9 as far west as the Laotian border, establishing forward U.S. bases at the abandoned Khe Sanh combat base and fire support base Vandegrift. In Phase II between 8 February and 6 March the South Vietnamese would cross the border into Laos, establish fire support bases, and press on to Muang Xepon. During the next three days, or Phase III, the South Vietnamese would locate and destroy enemy caches and installations in and around Muang Xepon. In Phase IV all forces would gradually withdraw from Laos either along Route 9 or along a more southern route.

All of this information was so tightly held for security reasons that medical planners were unaware of the impending operation until the last few days of January. Finally the XXIV Corps Surgeon, the senior medical adviser in I Corps Zone, and the commander of the ARVN 71st Medical Group received a partial briefing on the objectives and plan of execution. They set to work immediately, realizing that plans for medical support had to be hastily drawn up. Fortunately, both the ARVN and U.S. medical units had stockpiled considerable reserves of supplies in anticipation of a 1971 Tet offensive. Because of the paucity of information, casualty estimates had to be extremely rough. In fact, because of the minimal resistance expected from the supposedly rearguard enemy troops in the area, first predictions were for low casualties.

After the first briefings, the 67th Medical Group immediately began to give South Vietnamese units additional training in the use of U.S. medical evacuation. The ARVN interpreters assigned to work with the Dust Off crews were given as much training as the week's busy schedule permitted. After the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division, completed its two-pronged drive west to Khe Sanh, it dug in at that base with two 101st Airborne Eagle Dust Off helicopters standing by. Khe Sanh served as the forwardmost site of medical support for the eleven U.S. battalions working between there and the border. The Dust Off helicopters also stood ready to assist the forty-two South Vietnamese maneuver battalions assigned to the operation. Dust Off helicopters backhauled U.S. casualties to the 18th Surgical Hospital at Quang Tri once they were able to travel. Two other Dust Off aircraft stationed at the 18th were to cover the land north to the Demilitarized Zone and west to the base named Rock Pile on Route 9. All four of these ships were committed to area sup-


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port. On 5 February the 67th Medical Group put a liaison officer at the 18th Surgical to respond better to the needs of the U.S. forces.

Meanwhile the ARVN medical service set up its hospital eight kilometers south of Khe Sanh at Bach Son. The South Vietnamese set up tents and excavated bunkers. The facilities included two operating rooms, an X-ray room, and fifty underground beds. The main Vietnamese hospital for LAM SON 719 was near the coast, at Dong Ha, at the intersection of Routes 1 and 9.

The Laotian operation presented the problem of suddenly coordinating aeromedical evacuation units whose work so far had usually been at scattered sites and, especially in the detachments, under only tenuous control by superior organizations. Because of the dangers of the missions and the direct involvement of most of the resources of two air ambulance detachments-the 237th and the 571st-Col. Richard E. Bentley, commander of the 61st Medical Battalion and aviation staff officer of the 67th Medical Group, ordered that either the commander or operations officer of the 571st be physically present at the Khe Sanh operations bunker to help regulate both the 237th and 571st. This order stood until the difficulty of controlling both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft and coordinating them with artillery strikes, bombing, and ground maneuvers finally forced the XXIV Corps to request the 67th Medical Group for operational control of the two detachments. The 67th con-sented. The XXIV Corps assigned operational control of the detach-ments to the 326th Medical Battalion of the 101st Airborne, which then controlled the operations of all evacuation helicopters at Khe Sanh and Quang Tri. Two other MEDCOM Dust Off units, the 236th Detachment and the 498th Medical Company, also furnished general support for northern I Corps and helped backhaul patients from the 18th Surgical Hospital at Quang Tri and the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Phu Bai to the 95th Evacuation Hospital at Da Nang.

When Phase II of the operation began, two MEDCOM Dust Offs joined the Medevacs and Eagle Dust Offs camped at Khe Sanh to support the invasion. Two of the four ships were put under the operational control of the 101st Combat Aviation Group, primarily to cover combat assaults and pull downed crews from Laos. The U.S. medical staff quickly set up a few standard procedures for the incursion. Since no U.S. advisers would accompany the ARVN ground troops into Laos, all medical evacuation missions across the border had to have an ARVN interpreter on the aircraft. Once the heavy enemy antiaircraft defenses in Laos became apparent, the staff decided that gunships would have to cover the air ambulances once they crossed the border. Finally, all evacuation requests would have to pass through a tactical operations center, preferably that of the ARVN I Corps, rather than go directly to the aircraft commanders. During the first three weeks of the operation, the air ambulance


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crews complained vociferously. The larger concept of the operation had not been made clear to them, and the lack of gunship cover, the poor communications, and the false information on area security and casualties suggested to them that the operation was a mess. The further the South Vietnamese penetrated into Laos, the more intense became the antiaircraft fire and the indirect fire on the landing zones. As Phase II drew to a close, however, some of the operating procedures smoothed out. Dust Off representatives now sat in the divisional tactical operations centers; ground commanders overcame much of their reluctance to talk with helicopters; and gunship cover became routinely available. Coordination of divisional and nondivisional air ambulances improved markedly once the evacuation requests were funneled to a single Dust Off operations center at Khe Sanh.

Efficiency suffered most of all from the bad weather. The area east of the mountains was still in the winter monsoon season. At the same time, the weather at Khe Sanh and to the west would often be flyable. Since it was on a high plateau, Khe Sanh itself often required instrument flight while the nearby areas were under visual flight rules. Often an aircraft took off from Khe Sanh in the late afternoon, flew a pickup from Laos, and then had to fly all the way back to Quang Tri to land because of poor visibility and low ceilings at Khe Sanh. On twenty-four of forty-four days of the Laos operation, low ceilings and reduced visibility delayed flight schedules. On some days there were no flights at all because of the weather.

Efficiency also suffered from the poor arrangements for backhauls. During Phase I of the operation, patients at Khe Sanh were placed on fixed-wing resupply ships for medically unattended flights south to Da Nang or Tan Son Nhut. But this practice was not sanctioned and ceased early. On 12 February at the request of the Surgeon of the U.S. XXIV Corps, the 101st Combat Aviation Group began furnishing two CH-47's each day to backhaul routine cases from the ARVN hospital at Bach Son. But this was inadequate; Dust Off aircraft at Khe Sanh still had to backhaul emergency cases to Dong Ha. As casualties mounted, the backhauls impaired Khe Sanh's ability to respond rapidly to requests for field evacuation. The medical system had control of too few aircraft to discharge all of its responsibilities.

Poor coordination of gunship support also became a key obstacle to air ambulance missions. On 24 February, mission response time rose to seven hours because of delayed gunship protection. Finally, after several complaints by the air ambulance crews, the 101st Airborne and the XXIV Corps agreed to dedicate some gunships to air ambulance coverage. When an air ambulance launched from Khe Sanh, the 101st Combat Aviation Group had gunships primed to go with it;


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two teams were on standby during the day and one at night. The 101st Group also had a fire team positioned at Dong Ha for Dust off protection. But gunship support for all the missions into Laos was still impossible, since there were not enough gunships available to satisfy all the high priority combat and medical missions. The problem continued until 25 February, when the XXIV Corps gave Dust Off the highest priority for gunship support regardless of the tactical situation or other requests. Even so, the enemy antiaircraft fire was so intense and the flight routes so restricted by weather and geography that many Dust Off crews resumed the old practice of flying all missions in pairs, to allow one crew to immediately recover its downed teammate.

North Vietnamese intelligence had given the enemy ample time to deploy an extensive, well integrated, and highly mobile air defense system throughout the Xe Pon area of Laos. Many enemy antiaircraft weapons were radar-controlled, and Dust Off pilots monitoring their VHF radios came to recognize the "wheep wheep" of the radar sweeps and take evasive action. But the North Vietnamese had spread some 750 medium caliber antiaircraft machine guns along Route 9 and the valley of the Xe Pon River leading west to Muang Xepon. The North Vietnamese relocated most of their antiaircraft weapons daily, making their detection and destruction a difficult task.

The North Vietnamese also placed mortar, artillery, and rocket fire on every potential landing zone. Each zone was assigned a heavily armed team of ten to twelve men. Every airmobile operation, including what normally were single ship Dust Off missions, had to be worked out and coordinated, with fire support, armed escort, and a recovery plan. As soon as a mission request came in, a command and-control ship, gunships, and the air ambulance would crank and launch. This medical evacuation package would rendezvous near the Laotian border and fly across. En route to the pickup, the command ship helped with navigation and steered the group around the antiaircraft sites. As it neared the destination, the air ambulance would thread its way through a corridor of friendly artillery, tactical air support, and gunships. While the ambulance was on final approach, on the ground, and departing, the gunships would circle overhead, giving nearly continuous protective fire. After the pickup, the group flew a different corridor back to Khe Sanh.

Papa Whiskey

One Dust Off mission during the Laos operation illustrated both its chaotic finale and the bravery of a Dust Off crewman. On 18 February a North Vietnamese regiment assaulted fire support base Ranger North, nine kilometers inside Laos. About 1130 the South Vietnamese 39th Ranger Battalion holding the base asked the Dust


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Off operations center at Khe Sanh to evacuate its many seriously wounded. A Dust Off aircraft, with a crew from both the 237th and 571st Detachments, took off and headed west. On their first attempt to land they took such heavy fire that the commander, CW2 Joseph G. Brown, aborted his approach. A second time around he tried a high speed descent and made it in. just before the ship touched down the enemy opened fire again and continued firing while the crew loaded the wounded Rangers. Uninjured Rangers trying to escape the base also poured into the ship, and Brown had trouble lifting it off. just as he cleared the ground, a mortar round exploded in front of the cockpit, shattering the console and wounding him. The ship crashed. Rangers scattered from the wreck and the Dust Off crew dragged Brown to a ditch for temporary shelter. Leaving him with his pilot, CW2 Darrel O. Monteith, the crew chief and two medical corpsmen started running toward a bunker. A mortar round exploded and blew one corpsman, Sp4c. James C. Costello, to the ground. His chest protector had saved his life, and he stood up, shaken but uninjured. The same explosion blew shrapnel into the back and left shoulder of the crew chief, Sp4c. Dennis M. Fujii. A second mortar round wounded the other corpsman, Sp4c. Paul A. Simcoe. The three men staggered into the bunker. Shortly before 1400 an Eagle Dust Off ship tried to rescue them, but automatic weapons fire drove it off, wounding its pilot. At 1500 another Eagle Dust Off ship landed under heavy gunship cover. The wounded Dust Off crew, except for Fujii, raced to the Eagle ship. A mortar barrage falling around it kept him pinned in his bunker, where he waved off his rescuers. To escape the enemy fire the Eagle pilot had to take off, leaving Fujii as the sole American on the fire base, which was . now surrounded by two North Vietnamese regiments. Another Dust Off ship soon arrived to pick up Fujii, but enemy fire forced it to return to Khe Sanh.

At 1640 Fujii found a working PRC-25 radio and started broadcasting, using the call sign "Papa Whiskey." He told the pilots high overhead that he wanted no more attempts to rescue him because the base was too hot. Using what medical knowledge he had picked up, he began tending to the wounded Rangers who surrounded him.

That night one of the North Vietnamese regiments, supported by heavy artillery, started to attack the small base. For the next seventeen hours Papa Whiskey was the nerve center of the allied outpost, using his radio to call in and adjust the fire of U.S. Air Force AC-130 flare ships, AC-119 and AC-130 gunships, and jet fighters. Working with the Air Force's forward air controllers, he coordinated the six flareships and seven gunships that were supporting Ranger North. Twice during the night the enemy breached the perimeter, and only then did Fujii stop transmitting to pick up an M16 and join the fight.


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With the Ranger commander's permission, Fujii brought the friendly fire to within twenty meters of the base's perimeter, often leaving the safety of his bunker to get a closer look at the incoming friendly rounds. He worked all night and into the next morning, bringing in more than twenty coordinated gunship assaults.

The next afternoon an all-out rescue attempt began. A fleet of twenty-one helicopters descended on the base, the gunships firing on every possible enemy position. With Fujii also calling in artillery strikes, the allies ringed the camp with continuous fire. Even so hostile fire was so intense that the commander of the rescue fleet, Lt. Col. William Peachey, prepared to send down a single ship rather than risk a formation. Fujii asked that as many of the 150 ARVN casualties as possible be evacuated before him, but Peachey ordered him to jump on the first ship that landed. Maj. James Lloyd and Capt. David Nelson left the formation, descended into the valley, then flew up a slope to the fire base, hugging the trees, and dropped in unharmed. Fujii scrambled on board with fourteen Rangers. Having recovered from their surprise, the enemy opened fire on the ship as it lifted off. Raked with bullets, it caught fire and the cockpit filled with smoke, The pilots headed toward Ranger South, fire base of the 21st Ranger Battalion about four kilometers southwest. They landed and everyone jumped from the burning ship as its M60 rounds started to cook off in the flames. Miraculously, no one was injured. Ranger South itself soon came under heavy enemy attack, but Fujii's work was over. Finally, at 1600 on 22 February, 100 hours after he was wounded, he was admitted to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Phu Bai. He had helped save 122 Rangers. He was quickly awarded a Silver Star, which was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross

Fujii's mission was only part of an operation that had turned into an embarrassing scramble to safety. According to the after action report of the 61st Medical Battalion: "During the last phases of Operation Lam Son 719 enemy activity further intensified. Landing zones were dangerously insecure. Air Ambulances landing to pick up wounded were swarmed with fit and able soldiers seeking a way out of their increasingly precarious position. Medical evacuation pilots reported complete lack of discipline during the last days of the operation coupled with extremely hazardous conditions." Evacuation ships, and indeed any aircraft landing near the South Vietnamese units, were rushed by throngs of able-bodied soldiers trying to escape. One Eagle Dust Off ship, a UH-1H with a normal load of eleven passengers, landed for a pickup and had to take off almost immediately because of small arms fire and mortar rounds in the landing zone After the pilot set his ship down in Khe Sanh, his crew counted thirty-two ARVN soldiers on board, all without weapons or equipment, on-


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ly one of whom was wounded. To prevent ARVN soldiers from hitching a ride back on the sides of the aircraft, some crews resorted to coating the skids with grease.

By early April the Dust Off and Medevac ships had saved hundreds of lives. In the two-month operation they flew some 1,400 missions, evacuating 4,200 patients. Six crewmen were killed and fourteen wounded. Ten air ambulances were destroyed, about one out of every ten aircraft lost in the operation. On 8 April, once the incursion was over, XXIV Corps gave up its operational control of the MEDCOM air ambulances. Dust Off pilots had seen their last major operation of the war.

Stand-Down and Ship Out

The phased withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, begun in the summer of 1968, continued until, on 11 August 1972, the last American ground combat unit stood down at Da Nang. The American venture in this small, remote Asian country had come full circle. More than seven years earlier, on 8 March 1965, the first U.S. ground combat forces had landed on these same beaches. In December 1961 the first U.S. military units, two helicopter companies, had arrived in Saigon to aid the South Vietnamese government. It had been the longest war in United States history, and almost half of it had been devoted to the withdrawal.

The drawdown of medical support paralleled that of combat forces, but lasted a little longer because of continuing medical needs of noncombat U.S. forces in Vietnam. In the early months of 1972 MEDCOM air ambulances decreased from forty-eight to thirty, leaving five detachments: the 57th, 159th, 237th, 247th, and 571st. In June 1972 the Air Ambulance Platoon of the 1st Cavalry stood down, leaving all air ambulance missions to the few remaining nondivisional Dust Off units. In February 1973 three of the last four Dust Off detachments - the 237th, 247th, and 571st - stood down. In February the 57th Detachment, the first to arrive in Vietnam and whose early commander, Maj. Charles Kelly, had created the Dust Off mystique, prepared to become the last to leave, closing down its operations at Tan Son Nhut. On 11 March it flew the last Dust Off mission in Vietnam, for an appendicitis case.

After they turned in their aircraft on 14 March, the few remaining members of the 57th had little to occupy their time. Some simply took pleasure in building their sun tans. A few tried to readjust their daily rhythms to Stateside time; they reset their clocks and began to live at their home hours, though this meant getting up in the dark and sleeping part of the day. Every now and then they had to check on their departure date, but no one demanded any work of them. On 28


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March they received orders to move to Camp Alpha, the personnel staging facility at Tan Son Nhut, where they were restricted to the compound pending their flight out. Finally, at 0100 on the twenty-ninth, they boarded buses for a ride to their C-141 transport. The drivers halted the buses some fifty feet from the floodlighted jet, and kept the bus doors closed while a double file of people formed between the bus and the boarding stairs. The two lines were composed of Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and Viet Cong, all members of the Four Power Joint Military Commission that was supervising the implementation of the peace treaty.

The bus door opened, and one at a time the departing personnel of the 57th marched through this double file. They had been part of the last U.S. Army operational personnel in South Vietnam. The same day the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, lowered its flag and ceased to function for the first time since 1962. The ground war in Vietnam was completely in the hands of the Republic of Vietnam for the first time in twenty-seven years. During a long, cruel, and ultimately losing struggle, Dust Off personnel had comported themselves with courage and honor, proving that a band of brave and dedicated pilots and crewmen could make this new mode of medical evacuation work extremely well, even against well-prepared enemy ground fire.