The Spring of 69 was an exciting time to be a Coma-Coma-Comanchero!!
2nd platoon leader
My life as a Comanchero began in mid February of 1969, when I transferred over from D/101 since I was not Cobra qualified at the time. A/101 was commanded by Maj Ken Wall and was highly regarded throughout the division After I joined the unit, I found out why. What a collection of talented "characters." Members of the unit as I remember included; Dave Fouche (XO) later replaced by Bob Dalton, Al Dreves (OpsOff), Randy Lasater(1st Plt Ldr), Mike Gouch, John Bednarz, Andre Thomas, John Shirley, Harold Smith, Jim Vick, Steve Demers, Larry Herring, Rich Thompson, Eddie White, Mike Alford, Bruce McMorris, Ron Carl, Jim Furman, Ken Roach, Greg Fuchs(infused from the 158th), Ed Sholar, John Rizzo, Jim Andresen, Earl Graffius, Tom Carlson and two gents whose first names have escaped me after 30 years, a WO1 Dellazoppa and a CPT Haskins who was the maintenance officer. There were others as well but unfortunately I canít remember their names after all these years. The company operated out of the "Hideout" on the northeast side of Camp Eagle.
The weather in February, March and early April that year was horrible. Cold, rainy, low ceilings and plenty of fog in the valleys. Anyone who says it never got cold in Vietnam, never spent any time in northern I Corps in the winter and early spring months. I remember flying with a flight jacket and aircraft heater on and still being cold because of the dampness. It was really miserable for the crew chiefs and door gunners!! Had my wife send me an electric space heater for our hooch. I remember giving it to someone when I DEROSed and he laughed at me. Bet he wasnít laughing the six or seven months later.
In March, Rich Thompson left 2nd platoon to go to battalion or group HQ and I moved over to 2nd platoon. Our missions consisted mainly of CAs and log missions, for the 1st Brigade in the southern part of the 101st AO. Also, we got a regular rotation of CCN missions flown out FOB 3 at Quang Tri. These could be particularly eventful because of where we flew and the circumstances of the mission. One in particular stands out. In late March, we had been at QT all day on standby and finally got released just before dark to head back to Eagle. As we were passing LZ Nancy heading south along QL1, a SOG team in the southern end of the DMZ called a "Prairie Fire" emergency and FOB 3 called us back with instructions to land at QT and rig up for Maguire rigs. By the time we got rigged it was dark and I was sure the mission would be scrubbed. How wrong I was. We headed out to the teamís location, northwest of Con Thien and contacted them on the radio. They were more than ready for extraction. We identified the teamís position, turned off the position and anti-collision light and started our approach. As we came to a hover over the trees and kicked out the ropes, the sound of the firefight below us could be heard. Then the tracers began sailing past us as we hovered there while the FOB team got in the ropes. I guess they were just shooting at the sound but it had my adrenaline level elevated as we sat there at a hover. I remember the instrument lights seemed very bright and I wondered if the NVA could see them through the open doors so I had the peter pilot dim them. As the team called and said they were in the seats, there was a loud explosion in the tree tops about 50 to 100 meters to our left. We never did figure out what it was, but it served to tighten my grip on the cyclic and collective. We pulled them up, cleared the area and climbed out, heading south as the second bird went in to pickup the rest of the team. They got in and out with basically the same type experience that we had. After we had cleared the DMZ, I gave the controls to the peter pilot and tried to light up a cigarette. What a bummer coming off an adrenaline high. We landed at Dong Ha and got our 4 pax inside for the remainder of the flight back to Quang Tri. We flew back to Eagle as a flight of two after the debriefing and I donít think there were two words spoken all the way back. Flew more CCN missions after that one but never had any that were as eventful as that one.
In April we began conducting CAs to reestablish the firebases along Hwy 547, LZ Veghel, Zon, Berchesgarden, Rendevous and the Eagleís Nest. It was evident to all of us that the division was headed back into the A Shau valley. The weather was still marginal most of the time. On one of the CAs, the 160th Group commander, Ted Crozier (callsign Wild Turkey) tried to lead one of the flights of five in and led them into a blind draw under a low ceiling in the mountains near LZ Veghel. I still can see six loaded Hueys trying to turn around in that tight little draw. The rest of the CA went off without a hitch.
In early May, we went to battalion headquarters for a special mission briefing and our suspicions were confirmed. We were headed back to the A Shau. They put the flight leads in the front seat of a Cobra and we made a "casual" flyby recon of the LZs that were to be used. I had a hard time locating the second LZ near Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill) because there was nothing big enough for 5 ships to land at the coordinates I had been given for the LZ. Figured my map reading must have been faulty and since the Kingsmen were to be flight lead for that LZ, it wasnít a problem. At the final mission briefing the tension was high. Someone brought up the fact that LZ 2 wasnít big enough for 5 ships. The answer was a classic, the Air Force was going to blow the LZ with daisy cutters just prior to the prep. Not knowing any better, I accepted this as a reasonable response. Radio security and brevity were stressed during the briefing. Each flight lead was assigned a color and number (Red 1, Red 2, Yellow 1, etc). We were to call off the PZ and out of the LZ only, all other voice traffic was prohibited. That way we could maintain the element of surprise. Imagine this, we were going to sneak up on the NVA with 80+ helicopters in the air at any given time. Then came the day of the CA, 10 May 1969, I believe it was. The Comancheros put up two flights of 5 as did all the other lift companies in the division. Ken Wall and I flew lead for the initial insertion on the west side of the valley, west of TaBat near the Laotian border. This insertion went off without incident and we made several round trips from the PZ at LZ Birmingham into the valley with only minimal ground fire. The second CA began as planned and we were the sixth flight of five as we lifted off from Birmingham enroute to the valley. Then the "RF" began. Each flight had 30 second separation between it and the flight it was following as was customary for the division. As we were enroute, the AMC announced that LZ 2 was not big enough for 5 ships but three could get in with no problem so we were to break up into flights of 3 and maintain our interval. Now picture the sight of 60 Hueys in flights of 5 trying to break up into flights of 3 enroute to the LZ. As I said before, a real "RF." But it gets better, the LZ was not a 3 ship LZ but rather 3 bomb craters in close proximity. Whats more, the 30 second interval was way too close for each flight to get in, off load and get out. About every second or third flight would get in and the next one or two would go around and head to the end of the daisy chain and try again. We were fortunate and were able to get our flight of 3 in on the first pass. On our way back to the PZ, I heard someone call "taking fire". Apparently, they marked the fire with a red smoke grenade because the UHF lit up with traffic from Wild Turkey as he berated the guilty crew for using red smoke rather than white smoke to mark the fire as was called for in the SOP. So much for radio security! From that point on no one could get a word in edgewise because of all the traffic between the various C&C birds. I often wished that I had a tape of the radio traffic from that operation. The rest of the day was spent lifting the remainder of the 3/187th Rakassans into that LZ for their assault up "Hamburger Hill". We continued to fly a lot of log missions into the valley during the following days.
In the wee hours of the morning on 15 May, the CQ from operations woke me and told me to report to operations immediately because something big was happening. I reported to operations and there was great speculation on what was coming down. It turns out that the Americal Division (23rd ID) had run into a buzz saw west of Tam Ky and the 1st Brigade of the 101st augmented by the Comancheros, along with a gun platoon from D/101, B/2-17 Cav, A/4-77 ARA and a section of Chinooks from the 159th were to deploy to Tam Ky and commence combat operations. Later I found out that the official name for this operation was Operation Lamar Plain. We loaded our aircraft and deployed that day. We moved in with the 176th AHC at Chu Lai while the Brigade moved into Tam Ky. We pitched our GP medium tents right in the middle of the 176th company area, next to the mess hall as I recall. We spent the rest of that day pitching tents and filling sandbags. The next morning, Ken Wall, Al Dreves, Randy Lasater and I went to the brigade TOC at Tam Ky and got a mission to conduct a CA into the new AO that afternoon. We immediately made a recon of the AO and the planned LZs. As I recall, we took fire everywhere we went in the AO during that flight. That afternoon we lifted an infantry battalion into the valley north of LZ Professional and east of Tien Phouc. Donít know what the formal name of the valley was but it became known as the "Valley of Death". A few days before we arrived, a CH-47 had been clobbered by a .51 cal as it sat on the log pad at LZ Professional. After the initial insertion, our missions were primarily log missions for the units on the ground in the valley of death. Rarely did we go in without taking groundfire. This was the highest exposure to .51 cal that we had experienced other than CCN missions. On the morning of 20 May, a medevac bird from the Americal Division was shot down and all on board were killed. On 23 May, Jim Furman was wounded going in on a log mission. He was hospitalized and evacuated out of country. On 25 May, Jim Andresen was wounded in the leg by a .51 while flying as my peter pilot. We were headed into an LZ in the valley in a descending left hand turn when there was an explosion behind my seat. Scared the Hell out of me. I remember looking at the instruments and seeing that everything was okay. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Jimís leg. The bottom of his thigh had a gaping hole in it. He reached down with his hand and his glove came up with blood and flesh all over it. I called the ground unit and told them we had been hit, had wounded on board and were heading for the hospital at Chu Lai. The crew chief came forward with a compression bandage from the first aid kit and put it on Jimís leg to slow the bleeding. As we headed for Chu Lai, Jim said that it didnít hurt much but then as we got closer to the hospital he retracted that statement. He stayed in good humor all the way to the hospital. A few days later, he too was evacuated out of country.
After those two incidents, we decided that we would fly no more single ship log missions into the "valley of death." All missions from then on would be at least a flight of two. We continued to fly CAs and two ship log missions without anybody else getting hurt until 4 June. Bad day at Black Rock! Greg Fuchs and Ed Sholar were flying 819 and Eddie White and Steve Demers were flying the other half of that two ship log mission. Greg and Ed were orbitting near Firebase Young, while Eddie and Steve flew a load into the valley. 819 crashed with no survivors. When I arrived at the crash site the aircraft had almost completely burned and the magnesium in the transmission was still burning white hot. The sight of those bodies was permanently etched in my mind. Evidence at the crash site indicated that a frag grenade had gone off in the cabin area followed by rotor separation. The strongest evidence of this was the chicken plate of the crew chief or door gunner, I am not sure which, that had a distinct circular fragmentation pattern. I can still see that chicken plate in my mind today.
We continued to fly log missions and CAs for the 1st Brigade for the rest of June. As time went on the incidence of ground fire, particularly the heavy stuff diminished. One day during this period, we were laying around in our tent at Chu Lai when a burst of 20mm came through the area right outside our sandbag wall. We all hit the floor bewildered. It seems a Marine aircraft returning from up north was damaged and the pilot ejected over the South China Sea east of Chu Lai. After the pilot ejected, the aircraft turned on its own and headed for Chu Lai airbase, so the wingman tried to shoot it down before it got to the base. Unfortunately, we were on the gun target line but nobody got hurt. In another incident, one our aircraft took a hit in the fuel control. I believe Andre Thomas was flying the aircraft and he managed to get it back to Tam Ky South on manual throttle. Maintenance decided to rig the aircraft and have it lifted back to Chu Lai by our brethren from Playtex or Varsity, not sure which. We were standing on the flightline at Chu Lai watching the Chinook bring it in when it separated and made a less than graceful gliding flight into the South China Sea.
On the 6 July, we got word that we were being replaced by the Kingsmen. They arrived the next day and after some orientation briefings for them we departed in a company formation headed back to Camp Eagle. Even the flight back became exciting when we ran into a rain squall south of Danang that reduced visibility to nearly zero. We landed in formation on the beach just south of Marble Mountain and waited for the rain to slacken enough to continue. We sat on the beach for what seemed an eternity at flight idle, all the guns on the left side trained on the dunes waiting for the attack that never came. Finally, the rain slackened and we took off and returned to Camp Eagle without further incident. Sure was glad to see Augie behind the bar that night.
We had a change of command for MAJ Wall a couple of days later and he headed south for his DEROS. Then it was my turn a few days later. My year had finally come to an end and was I ever happy. Ecstatic would probably be a better description. My tour with the Comancheros is filled with fond memories of the times and the great people that I served with in the Spring of 69.
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