November 27, 1968 - Crusaders Under Fire
There are three accounts for what occurred November 27, 1968, the day before Thanksgiving, for the Crusaders of the 187th AHC. First Account - Things started out badly and ended the same way. On one of the first insertions, the enemy was waiting in the LZ for the flight to come in. They opened up with heavy small arms and anti-aircraft fire while the flight was on short final. The trail ship was hit by an RPG and went down in flames, killing one crewmember and seriously wounding the rest of the crew. The ship that came back in to pick up the downed crew received so many hits that it too went down about one mile out of the LZ. No one was injured in this forced landing. Total casualties for the one LZ were one KIA, and 10 WIA's. Out of the flight of 10 ships only one or two escaped without taking hits. Two ships had too many hits to even try and count them. Although hit hard, the Crusaders lived up to their reputation and continued to fly support for the ground unit until late that night when the second tragedy struck. A Crusader flare ship, UH-1H #65-09620 went down in flames, killing all five people on board. When the flight finally came home, there were only five ships left in it. Second Account - After arriving on station with 26 flares on board, the aircraft, U.S. Army helicopter UH-1H tail number 65-09620 began an orbit to the right at approximately 2000 feet altitude and 60 knots. The crew included aircraft commander WO1 Allen E. Duneman, pilot 1LT August K. Ritzau, crew chief SP4 Fredrick Frazer, gunner SP5 David D. Creel, and SGT Jerome D. Chandler. Flares were called for and the dropping was initiated at this time. After one flare was dropped, a distress call was heard, to the effect of, 'This is 29, I have a flare on fire in the aircraft'. The pilot of the distressed aircraft made another call stating, 'He could not read his instruments, someone give me my altitude'. Altitudes were given at 800 feet and 100 feet. The flare ship was descending at a fast rate with a slight nose-low attitude. No yawing or rolling of the aircraft was observed during descent. A bright glow was observed in the aircraft during descent. At approximately 500-800 feet the aircraft appeared to assume a level attitude momentarily, then again assumed a low nose attitude and was observed in this attitude until descending into the trees on a heading of approximately 200 degrees. First contact with the trees was at 50 feet, cutting off a tree that was approximately 9' in diameter with the main rotor blades. This caused about 4' of each blade to be cut off, causing immediate severe lateral vibrations and the aircraft to begin a slight roll to the right. Immediately after this, the main rotor blades struck a large tree, leaving a large cut in the tree. This caused the aircraft to make a definite roll to the right; throwing SP5 Creel out of the right side of the aircraft. It is believed that SP5 Creel had gotten up from his seat and tried to help SP4 Frazer get the flare out of the aircraft. A short distance later, down the flight path, the left skid caught onto the trees which caused the aircraft to yaw to the left in addition to the right roll it was already in. It is just beyond this point where the aircraft made first contact with the ground, with the main rotor striking the ground first, immediately followed by the body of the aircraft and the tremendous explosion. At this point the main rotor hub and blades separated from the mast, and the main body of the aircraft continued forward due to the speed and impact at which it hit the ground. During initial impact, the engine and transmission mounts were broken and the force of the impact caused the transmission to be thrust forward of the main wreckage. Third Account - Everybody that I talked to who participated in the events of November 27, 1968 has their own version. Some are much more amazing than mine. Here's mine: November 27, 1968. It was the day before Thanksgiving. On that day I flew 15 hours and 45 minutes. It was my first day being checked out as the fire-team leader for the Rat Pack, our gun platoon for the 187th Assault Helicopter Company based in Tay Ninh, Vietnam. As fire-team leader flying a C-model gunship, I led our flight of nine slicks with troops on board into the landing zone. I was approximately a half a mile in front of the flight trailing smoke grenades to mark the flight's touchdown position. After my crew tossed the smokes, I made a hard break to the left to take up my racetrack position with the other two gunships. We would provide suppressive fire during the flight's landing and debarking that would take place. I can't remember if the landing zone was prepped with artillery before I led the flight in. Regardless, I was about a quarter mile in front of the flight out on my approach. I received no fire. I turned the aircraft over to my co-pilotAC Jimmy Souders to get prepared for our first rocket run. I had only been in the gun platoon for a few weeks and my attention was out my right door watching the flight, and in particular the last grouping of aircraft. It was the 1st platoon. I had been their section leader, then platoon leader for the last seven months. We were all very close, and, as a flight, moved like one. Bob Trezona was the aircraft commander on the trail ship and I was watching him in particular. He was training a new lieutenant, Tom Pienta, in formation flight. They were not as close to the formation as I thought they should have been. They were a little behind and in a vulnerable position. As the flight was on short final, all hell broke loose. The LZ was hot with automatic and machine gun fire. Just as my co-pilot was ready to nose over and start his rocket run, the radios were alive with formation pilots calling 'receiving fire.' It was from all directions. Approximately 100 feet off the ground, 'trail' was hit with and RPG (rocket propelled grenade) in the fuel cell. I saw the aircraft one second, and then instantaneously I saw an orange ball of flame. They were completely engulfed and falling out of the sky. We had been looking for COSVIN headquarters (the Viet Cong’s clandestine government and military organization for the south) for months and it appeared that we had just landed right in the middle of it. Whether it was or wasn't, at a minimum, it was a trap set up by a chieu hoi (Viet Cong defector). Both pilots and gunner were recovered by my flight school partner, WO1 Ron Timberlake. The CE SP4 James Brady, was killed in the explosion. Timberlake received the Silver Star for his heroism and was shot down on the emergency rescue and take-off, but landed in a field far enough away from the action for others to complete the recovery action. Trezona and Pienta's day was over; my day and the rest of the flight crews had just begun. For the rest of the day we continued to provide covering fire for additional troop landings and suppressive fire for the troops already on the ground. Late in the evening, one of our ships was loaded with thirty parachute flares to provide night illumination. Due to combat injuries, the unit was short crews and the flare ship co-pilot, 1LT August K. Ritzau just returned to flight after being treated for shrapnel wound to the hand. As I was taking off from refueling and rearming, I heard a desperation call from the flareship. A flare had gone off at the bottom of the stack. At two million candle power each, it is completely impossible to see or fly if a flare is ignited inside the aircraft. The pilot WO1 Allen E. Duneman was screaming over the radio for help...flight direction, altitude, air speed or anything that could be of help. There was nothing anyone could do. I remember someone talking to him, probably our CO, MAJ Gaffney. The other flares started going off. I could see the glow, like a shooting star from fifteen clicks away. They impacted at a 45 degree angle, killing all aboard. The radio silence afterward was almost surreal. Everyone was in shock. Life as we knew it was sucked out of all of us that day. By midnight, the beginning of Thanksgiving, I had gone through three aircraft and two co-pilots. Virtually every ship in the unit was damaged or flown beyond limits. Six crew members were killed and many others wounded. Our company commander lost the effectiveness of his aviation unit. There were only three aircraft certified flyable for the next day, not to mention crew availability. Nobody said, but so many had that 'thousand mile stare' the next day, and I know many were still in shock. The infantry unit we inserted was decimated. They sustained 27 KIA and over 50 wounded. All day we flew cover for our own aircraft providing insertions and medical extractions, as Medevac would not land in a hot LZ. MAJ Gaffney, Ron Timberlake, and I with a few others (don't remember who) took one of the remaining helicopters to fly to Saigon on Thanksgiving to check on the two burned pilots and gunner. By the time I got there, their swelling had already started. Each was three times or more their normal size. Both pilots had 3rd degree burns over 50+ of their bodies. The swelling was so severe that their throats were beginning to close. The nurse didn't expect them to live although they both did, each tremendously scarred, both physically and emotionally. Their unique story, written by Tom Pienta, is available on the 187th website (187thahc.org under Crusader Down). This was the feature article and cover story in the December 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine. The cover photo for the magazine and pictured at the 187th website was done by Joe Kline. I purchased the original oil painting from him and have it hanging at the house. Depending on whether or not the Mineral Wells museum ever gets built, it will probably be donated to them. If not, it will eventually end up at the Vietnam museum at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. Everybody that I knew, some that I loved, most that I had personally trained, were either wounded or killed that day. And though I flew all day long, covered virtually every insertion, extraction, and medical recovery, my aircraft was never hit by hostile fire. I remember Frank Cozart's (DAT) slick had 118 hits after the first insertion. The enemy was so heavily fortified (bunkered-in,) we never actually saw one enemy in the open. That still frustrates John Broome, my crew chief, to this day. It was one of the most helpless and frustrating feelings one can have to be so incapable of assisting while watching friends and troops die or get wounded. Thanksgiving Day has never been the same for me. This year was particularly bad as the day and date coincided with 1968. Jim Ray, Asa Vest and I got together at the San Jose reunion and we rehashed the whole day. It was amazing. There were three completely different stories. All of us flying on the same gun team and, though similar, our visions as to what happened and what we were thinking was like reading three different novels. It would be interesting if those two, Vince Tortalono, Jimmy Souders, and Ronnie Hopkins (the rest of the gun team pilots) would do their own version of that day. For that matter, anyone who flew that day should contribute. I'd like to see a historical compendium. It would make a great, albeit depressing book. (From Pat Dougan) [Taken from vhpa.org and 187ahc.net]
"If you are able, save for them a place inside of you....and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.....Be not ashamed to say you loved them....
Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own....And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind...."
Quote from a letter home by Maj. Michael Davis O'Donnell
KIA 24 March 1970. Distinguished Flying Cross: Shot down and Killed while attempting to rescue 8 fellow soldiers surrounded by attacking enemy forces.
We Nam Brothers pause to give a backward glance, and post this remembrance to you , one of the gentle heroes and patriots lost to the War in Vietnam:
Slip off that pack. Set it down by the crooked trail. Drop your steel pot alongside. Shed those magazine-ladened bandoliers away from your sweat-soaked shirt. Lay that silent weapon down and step out of the heat. Feel the soothing cool breeze right down to your soul ... and rest forever in the shade of our love, brother.
From your Nam-Band-Of-Brothers
Our class in Gridley Illinois is doing a Gridley High School posting project to honor all the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for our country and what it stands for. When Americans look back on history, we remember you and your selfless sacrifice. You will never be forgotten, but thought of with respect as a brave American Hero. Thank you! God Bless you and your loved ones!