Wadena man’s account of a helicopter mission in South Vietnam
Chief Warrant Officer Paul Sailer in an OH-58 Kiowa at Castle Airfield, Vietnam, 1971. Photo contributed by Paul Sailer
“We’re hit! We’re hit! Crash! Crash!” screamed the Navy aircraft commander as his low-flying helicopter gunship plowed into the shoreline of a small lake in South Vietnam. A shiver ran up my spine as I listened to his transmission over the emergency radio frequency (Guard). A moment later I heard the stressed voice of an Army Medivac pilot at the scene requesting assistance in rescuing the wounded. The Navy had two gunships seriously damaged from Communist machine-gun fire. Our Army UH-1D Huey air crew had been monitoring Guard while moving supplies between a military base at Binh Tuy in IV Corps and the village of Dam Doi. It was late afternoon, and we were returning home with an empty helicopter. Fellow Americans were in serious trouble.
Our mission on Sept. 15, 1970, had begun at 0800 when our Huey lifted off Castle Airfield at Bien Hoa, the home of the 20th Engineer Brigade’s Aviation Detachment. I had joined the unit five weeks earlier. I was the co-pilot on the utility helicopter. Two crewmembers manned the M-60 machine guns, one on each side of the aircraft. First Lt. James Ellsworth, a former Medivac pilot, was the aircraft commander. He was on the short-side of an 18-month tour. Lt. Elsworth’s character and flying experience commanded respect. I had full confidence in his judgment.
Like all military personnel, our air crew had been trained from the time we were basic recruits to work as a team, to respond to orders without hesitation, and to support our comrades at all costs.
After departing Castle Airfield, we skirted Bien Hoa Air Force Base and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Once clear of these congested areas we climbed to 3,000 feet to avoid small arms fire. As we moved south, the vast Mekong River delta and numerous manmade canals spread before us. The low-lying land produced abundant crops of rice. The waterways provided a means for merchants to transport goods. They also were used by the enemy to move supplies and personnel. Interdiction by Navy Swift Boat crewmen slowed this activity. They were supported by the Seawolves of Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron Three.
We arrived in Binh Tuy after an hour-and-a-half flight, picked up our first of two loads of cargo, and then continued on to a desolate Engineer outpost at Dam Doi. Off to the east lay the shimmering South China Sea, and to the west, the enchanting waters of the Gulf of Siam. The peaceful scene along our one-hour flight path was deceptive. We knew that the enemy lurked beneath us.
We tried to hurry the loading and unloading of supplies, but circumstances beyond our control slowed the process. Lt. Ellsworth did not want us returning home in the evening, as we would be confronted by potentially violent monsoon weather, a predictable daily occurrence six months of the year in Southeast Asia.
By late afternoon we were outbound from Dam Doi with an empty aircraft low on fuel when we heard distress calls over the Guard frequency. An Army Medivac helicopter was under attack while attempting to remove wounded South Vietnamese (ARVN) infantry 20 miles from our position. Four escorting Navy gunships had also been caught in the withering crossfire. One Navy Huey was already down in a shallow lake when we heard a second Seawolf pilot’s urgent transmission that his aircraft was crashing along the water’s edge. Lt. Elsworth responded immediately to a plea from the Medivac pilot for extra help in extracting wounded Navy flight crews and ARVN soldiers. He radioed the Medivac pilot that our ship would be available as soon as we refueled at an airfield 10 miles distant. When we landed a few minutes later the place hummed with activity. As a door gunner topped off a Navy gunship with jet fuel, a bearded pilot ran over to our aircraft for an update on the fighting. Their craft soon thundered away. We followed in its wake moments later. Once airborne we could again pick up Guard transmissions. When Lt. Ellsworth contacted the Medivac pilot he was told that other helicopters had already arrived at the scene and that we were no longer needed.
Like their forefathers in other wars, the Army and Navy crewmembers had responded instinctively to rescue those in danger. Although Lt. Ellsworth’s desire to help would have put our crew and aircraft at serious risk, it was the right thing to do. The tension of impending combat that I had been feeling subsided, but not the anxiety for those injured.
The Vietnam edition of the Stars and Stripes later reported that eight helicopters had been damaged in the battle and two destroyed “in one of the worst attacks on U.S. aircraft this year.” More importantly, three Seawolf crewmembers were wounded and two were killed: Lt. Junior Grade, William A. Pederson, of La Canada, Calif., and Petty Officer 3rd Class Jose Pablo Ramos, of McAllen, Texas.
Our mission did not end until well after dark on that fateful day. Heavy rain and lightning bursts forced us to vector by radio signal to reach Castle Airfield. We had flown over nine hours. For me, I had experienced the first sensation of the true meaning of comradeship, that stirring emotion servicemen and women feel for a person wearing the same uniform. I would experience it again and again in Vietnam.
Paul Sailer is the author of a new book: I Had a Comrade – Stories about the Bravery, Comradeship, and Commitment of Individual Participants in WWII (www.lodenbooks.com).