CHARLES HERBERT SMITH
CHARLES H SMITH
Remembering An American Hero
As an American, I would like to thank you for your service and for your sacrifice made on behalf of our wonderful country. The youth of today could gain much by learning of heroes such as yourself, men and women whose courage and heart can never be questioned.
May God allow you to read this, and may He allow me to someday shake your hand when I get to Heaven to personally thank you. May he also allow my father to find you and shake your hand now to say thank you; for America, and for those who love you.
With respect, and the best salute a civilian can muster for you, Sir
Crash Information on U.S. Marine Corps helicopter CH-53A tail number 153710
The aircraft crashed into mountain during IFR flight. There were no survivors. The five crewmen included aircraft commander CAPT Frederick L. Schram, pilot CAPT John T. Chapman, crew chief CPL Philip S. Strand Jr., and gunners SSGT Bennett W. Olson and CPL Vernon B. Venegas. There were also 41 passengers aboard the aircraft: COL George W. Ellis, CAPT Ewald Zirfas, CPL Gary P. Dietz, 1LT Leonard E. Dornak, SMAJ Lawrence J. Cyr, SGT Daniel R. Fulwider, SGT Vicente Garza, SSGT Thomas A. Grimes, 2LT Michael J. Hall, LCPL Ronald L. Hetland, PFC Kenneth D. Barry, PFC Hovey R. Curry, SGT Michael R. Day, PFC Daniel Diaz, PFC Ishmell Eaddy, PFC Alton J. Fennell, LCPL Ronald L. Fox, PVT Stephen B. Kirschner, LCPL Craig N. May, LCPL James I. Miller, CPL David D. Nicholson, PFC Jerry Patrick, LCPL James A. Pintar, WO1 Millard E. Price, LCPL Guy J. Protano Jr., CPL Richard A. Rumley, LCPL Louis L. Schautteet Jr., SGT Harold W. Sigmon, LCPL Charles H. Smith, LCPL Gary A. Teeter, PFC John J. Ugino, LCPL Michael E. Vaught, LCPL Craig P. White, PFC Raymond White, 1LT Alan J. Bardach, CPL Glenn W. Freeman, HM3 Donney L. Jackson, HM2 Halcott P. Jones Jr., HM3 Wallace C. Shaffer Jr., PFC Robert C. Wilson, and SGT Orval H. Skarman. The MAG-16 Command Chronology for January 8, 1968 reads: 'At 1915H one HMH-463 CH-53A (YH-37 Bureau Number 153710) was declared overdue and missing after disappearing during an IFR flight. Search and rescue operations commenced.' On the 9th and 10th, 'The search for the missing CH-53A aircraft continued with negative sightings and search operations hampered by inclement weather.' On the 11th, 'The wreckage of the missing CH-53A aircraft was sighted by search aircraft at coordinate YD234260, with no apparent survivors. Adverse weather conditions precluded a search of the crash site until January 19th when a recon team was inserted. The aircraft suffered severe burn damage and there was no possibility of survivors.' In the casualties (hostile) section, the names of the five crew members are listed and the place is described at 18 miles south of Dong Ha, RVN. Personal account of the incident: Ray Kelley's request for details on (aircraft commander) CAPT Frederick L. Schram's helicopter crash definitely gave me goose bumps in terms of a 30-year flashback. I have been to the mass grave site at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside of St. Louis several times and I have spent time both at the grave marker for Fred's crash, as well as at the grave marker for Bill Dietz and Lou Tessier's crash. This area of the cemetery is reserved for mass graves, primarily crashes from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As you may recall, I grew up in St. Louis and my folks retired to Columbia, Missouri. So when I flew into St. Louis to visit them periodically, while they were still living, prior to starting the several hour drive to Columbia, I sometimes took a detour to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery to spend some time in quiet revere before I went on to visit my folks. Each time that experience provoked for me a lot of the same reactions that I have when I visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. Hearing that Ron Fox's mother and sister have been wondering what the details of the crash were for over 30 years gave me goose bumps from a slightly different perspective. Fred Schram's dad was a captain for United Airlines, whom I never met. However, since Fred and I were the closest of friends and lived in the same hooch in Vietnam (together with Ben Collins, Jerry McClees and later Rich Carlson), our adjutant, Bill Arnold, asked me to write the letter to Fred's parents after the crash. After I got back from Vietnam, I always felt I owed it to Fred's dad, as a fellow aviator, to sit down and go through the details of the crash with him, thinking it would weigh heavily on my mind if I had a son who died flying. As Dante said, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions;' inasmuch as I never had Fred's dad's address or phone number, I never made the connection with him and I presume he is no longer alive. So to find out someone was still out there who cared about the details of the crash was a little eerie for me. With that said, I guess Ray Kelley's inquiry offers me the opportunity for a piece of atonement for someone else's piece of mind vis-a-vis the accident. The cause of the accident, in my mind, would be attributable to 'multiple factors', including poor ground communications, poor aircraft antenna design, combat environment, weather and, most regrettably, pilot error. It pains me to say the last, as Fred was my great friend and companion but, nonetheless, it is regrettably true. The story unfolded something like this: Fred and his co-pilot, CAPT John T. Chapman, were flying a reasonably routine logistics flight. As I recall, they had had a mission flying out of Dong Ha for the day with resupplies to the Demilitarized Zone andor Khe Sahn. In the afternoon, at the end of their mission, they were returning to Danang from Dong Ha and were requested to take a load of passengers from Dong Ha to Phu Bai. It was monsoon season and the weather was overcast with the ceiling at approximately 1,000 feet. The Marine Corps insisted on proving its full capabilities by running air traffic control for all of I Corps and refused to turn air traffic control over to the Air Force, even though the Air Force wanted to take over the job and had the communications and personnel to do the job properly. One result of having Marine Corps air traffic control was that they could only communicate within one sector and had no land line communications to the next sector. Therefore, when we took off IFR (instrument flight rules), we did not have a through clearance to our destination, as we normally would have, if we were flying IFR in the United States or any place else in the world. In other words, you had a flight clearance to the end of a sector, then you had to call the next sector after you were already airborne IFR to tell them where you were and to get flight clearance into the next sector. Thus, for Fred's flight from Dong Ha, he would have anticipated receiving a clearance from Dong Ha departure control for their area, and a second clearance from Hue approach control for clearance into the Phu Bai airport for landing. On the flight from Dong Ha to Phu Bai (based on my discussions with Paul Walton , who was our squadron's safety officer and who did the accident investigation), the tapes showed that Fred was cleared out of Dong Ha on the 180° radial at 2,000 feet for 10 miles, with instructions to contact Hue approachcontrol for further clearance. Fred took off at 16:40 (local time) and flew the route for which they had been cleared. (I have checked my Vietnam diary notes to verify Fred's take off time, radials, DME's and some of the other details). Once they were airborne, they called Hue approach control for further clearance. (They were IFR in the clouds at this time and unable to see the ground). They reported into Hue approach control on the 310° radial of the Phu Bai tacan at 21 miles. Hue approach control cleared them for IFR flight and an approach to the Phu Bai airport, but instructed them to remain clear of various 'save-a-planes'. ('save-a-planes'are live artillery firings which are underway in an area and approach control would give us the location from which artillery was firing, the height of the firing and the impact of the firing or, alternatively, give us designated radials to fly to avoid the artillery). According to the tapes of the conversations, the save-a-planes apparently were complicated and it took some time for Fred and John to read them back to make sure they had them correct. In the process of continuing to communicate with Hue approach control (and presumably because they already had a flight clearance in hand), they continued past the 10-mile flight clearance limit which Dong Ha had given them and continued to fly on the same heading and altitude. Dong Ha approach control was tracking them as they flew. When they did not change heading and apparently had not started to climb, Dong Ha approach attempted to call them on 'guard' (emergency) frequency to warn them that they were approaching mountainous terrain. As you may recall, on the CH 53A's which we were flying, there was only one UHF antenna and it was located in front of the 'dog house' (the Plexiglas area that surrounds the hydraulics in front of the rotor mast). As a result of the location of the antenna, if a ground station was calling you from directly on your tail (which was Dong Ha departure control's location relative to Fred's aircraft), you often could not hear the transmission. You would have to turn 30° in order to allow the antenna to receive the message. This was a reasonably well known phenomenon amongst those of us in HMH 463 and the Naval Systems Command had ordered a fix, with a second antenna to be installed on the horizontal stabilizer. While some of the aircraft on the mainland had been retrofitted to solve this problem, none of our aircraft in Vietnam had been retrofitted as of January 1968. As a result, despite repeated calls from Dong Ha departure control, attempting to warn Fred of the hazard, Fred and John apparently heard none of their transmissions. Dong Ha departure control lost radar contact with the aircraft on the Dong Ha 190° radial at 17 miles. As you know, at our normal cruise speed in the CH 53 we flew about 2-12 miles per minute, so the time involved to go from 10 nautical miles to 17 nautical miles would have been a little less than 3 minutes. Although Fred reported into Hue approach control on the 310° radial at 21 miles, Hue never made radar contact with Fred. Fred never canceled his instrument flight plan, never landed at Phu Bai and Hue approach never reported them missing. When Fred's helicopter did not return to Marble Mountain, the squadron tried to locate him. Jerry McClees was the operations duty officer that day. When I heard Fred was overdue, initially, I was not too concerned. However, as the evening wore on without any word from his flight, I went down to the ready room. Jerry was there with Vic Lee, our operations officer. They had called every airfield in I Corps and Fred's helicopter had not landed at any of the other airfields. SAR (search and rescue) boats were launched up and down the coast without results. The weather was low overcast with rain and Phu Bai operations deemed the weather conditions too bad to launch SAR flights that night. According to my diary, I checked on the maps in our ready room and determined that in the area where Dong Ha departure control last had contact with Fred, the three highest mountain tops were at 2,800, 3,000 and 3,200 feet. The next day and the day after the weather remained too bad to conduct SAR flights. A number of crashes occurred in Vietnam where the effort to find the wreckage was fairly limited, if the crash site location was not readily ascertainable. For instance, Bill Dietz and Lou Tessier's crash site was not found until several months after they crashed. However, in the case of Fred's crash, with the SAR flights grounded, a force of recon Marines and a Marine engineering company made efforts, on the 9th and 10th of January, to find Fred's crash site from the ground . This amount of effort was unusual. We were later told that the reason for this extraordinary effort was not due to the large number of people who were on board the helicopter, but instead was due to the fact that one of the people on board was the G2 officer for the Third Marine Amphibious Force, a bird colonel, who had a fire proof attaché case with him which contained all of the defensive maps for the entire DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), including the locations for all of the defensive mine fields. This was the reason for the Herculean effort to locate the crash site from the ground during the bad weather. General Walt wanted to know whether the security of the DMZ had been compromised by the North Vietnamese finding the crash site first and getting the maps. On the 11th, the weather improved enough, for intermittent brief periods, so some limited SAR flights could be launched but the crash site was not located. The crash was found on January 12 on the Dong Ha 202° radial at 16 nautical miles at an elevation of 3,100 ft. on the 3,200 ft. mountain. They had just missed clearing the mountain! I flew over the crash site a day or two later. It was clear that there had been a devastating impact and explosion and that everyone must have died instantly. The crash site was clearly visible through the 60-ft. jungle canopy on the mountain. By the way, I understand the recon Marines recovered the Colonel's attaché case with the maps intact. Fred's crash remains one of the worst military helicopter tragedy in the history of the world (the worst being in 2002 when 127 Russian soldiers died in a shoot-down in Chechnya). I guess two other footnotes may be worth mentioning. Because the Marine Corps' terrain maps were designed for the infantry, they were awkward to work with in the cockpit. Fred went over to the Air Force facility at Danang around November or December and acquired Air Force VFR maps for Vietnam which showed both the airways and terrain for all of I Corps in a very usable format. Fred and I had studied these maps, including circling minimum safe altitudes in each quadrant and carried them with us so that if we inadvertently went IFR, we would always know what our minimum safe altitude was. This, of course, turns out to be an ironic initiative, since at the crucial moment, Fred was preoccupied with save-a-planes, as opposed to minimum altitude. I presume this is because he felt he was in an IFR environment, and about to fly a flight clearance which should have protected him from the terrain; as opposed to improvising for minimum safety altitude in an inadvertent IFR situation. I assume, based on his movement from the 180° radial to the 202° radial and his 3,100 ft. altitude at the time of impact, that they had started to climb to a new assigned altitude and were navigating to a new fix assigned by Hue approach. It's hard to know for sure. The other footnote is that we had been flying both VFR and IFR up and down the coast of I Corps for seven months and knew the terrain well. However, I think most of the pilots subconsciously thought of the coastal route as being north-south, which basically it was. However, between Dong Ha and Hai Van Pass, (south of Phu Bai), the coastline compass heading goes slightly northwest-southeast by about 30°. If one remains along the coast, all of the terrain is flat, basically at sea level. After Fred's crash I asked 10 of our squadron pilots, without a map in front of them, what they thought the course heading was up and down the coastline below Dong Ha. Nine out of ten of them replied 'north-south or 360°180°'. That was also my impression prior to Fred's crash. My point is that while Fred had flown over this route for over 7 months, in both VFR and IFR conditions, I believe his mental mindset was that when leaving Dong Ha on the 180° radial he would be flying over the lowlands and rice paddies. I think this mistaken assumption may have meant that clearing terrain was not even a concern in his mind. Obviously, it was a very fatal mistake, one which apparently 9 out of 10 of us might have made. When you're flying, preoccupation with one safety item can cause another one to reach up and grab you with a true vengeance. Semper Fi, February 13, 1998, Peter Starn [Taken from vhpa.org]