U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Skip to main content
Return to topReturn to top

Table of Contents


Birth Of A Tradition

The lay of the land and the guerrilla nature of Viet Cong warfare inSouth Vietnam demanded that the American forces stationed there from theearly 1960s through March 1973 again use the medical helicopter. In a countryof mountains, jungles, and marshy plains, with few passable roads and serviceablerailroads, the allied forces waged a frontless war against a seldom seenenemy. Even more than in Korea, helicopter evacuation proved to be bothvaluable and dangerous.

South Vietnam consists of three major geographic features. A coastalplain, varying in width from fifteen to forty kilometers, extends alongmost of the 1,400 kilometers of the coast. This plain abuts the secondfeature-the southeastern edge of the Annamite Mountain Chain, known inSouth Vietnam as the Central Highlands, which run from the northern borderalong the old Demilitarized Zone south to within eighty kilometers of Saigon.The Central Highlands are mostly steep-sloped, sharp-crested mountainsvarying in height from 5,000 to 8,000 feet, covered with tangled junglesand broken by many narrow passes. The southern third of the country consistsalmost entirely of an arable delta.

These three geographical features helped shape the four military zonesof South Vietnam. The northern zone, or I Corps Zone, which ran from theDemilitarized Zone down to Kontum and Binh Dinh provinces, consisted almostentirely of high mountains and dense jungles. At several points the Annamitescut the narrow coastal plain and extend to the South China Sea. II CorpsZone ran from I Corps Zone south to the southern foothills of the CentralHighlands, about one hundred kilometers north of Saigon. It consisted ofa long stretch of the coastal plain, the highest portion of the CentralHighlands, and the Kontum and Darlac Plateaus. III Corps Zone ran fromII Corps Zone southwest to a line forty kilometers below the capital, Saigon.This was an intermediate geographic region, containing the southern foothillsof the Central Highlands; a few large, dry plains; some thick, triple-canopyjungle along the Cambodian border; and the northern stretches of the deltaformed by the Mekong River to the south. IV Corps Zone consisted almostentirely of this delta, which has no forests except for dense mangroveswamps at the southernmost tip and forested areas just north and southeastof Saigon. Seldom more than


twenty feet above sea level, the delta is covered with rice fields separatedby earthen dikes. During the rainy season the paddies are marshy, makinghelicopter landings and vehicular troop transport extremely difficult.Hamlets straddle the rivers and canals, and larger villages (up to 10,000people) and cities lie at tile junctions of the waterways. Bamboo brakesand tropical trees grow around the villages and usually extend from 50to 300 meters back on either side of the canal or hamlet.

The entire country lies below the Tropic of Cancer, between the 8thand 17th parallels. The climate is generally hot and humid the year round.In winter the country lies under a high pressure system that causes a dryseason in the south. In the summer, however, rains fall heavily, varyingfrom torrential downpours to steady mists. The northern region of SouthVietnam has the most rain, averaging 128 inches, while the Saigon regionaverages 80 inches. In the northern region and the Central Highlands, wheremost of the fighting by U.S. troops during the war occurred, dense fogand low clouds often grounded all aircraft. About ten times a year, usuallybetween July and November, typhoons blow in from the South China Sea, soakingSouth Vietnam with heavy rains and lashing it with fierce winds.

Although the climate and terrain exacerbated the technical problemsof medical evacuation by helicopter in South Vietnam, the air ambulancepilots who worked there worried as much or more about the dangers thatstemmed from the enemy's frequent use of guerrilla tactics. The Viet Congwere wily, elusive, and intensely motivated. They usually had no respectfor the red crosses on the doors of the air ambulance helicopters. Likelyto be annihilated in a large-scale, head-on clash with the immense firepowerof American troops', they usually struck only in raids and ambushes ofAmerican and South Vietnamese patrols. To perform their missions the airambulance pilots often had to fly into areas subject to intense enemy smallarms fire. Later in the war the pilots encountered more formidable obstacles,such as Russian- and Chinese-made ground-to-air missiles. No air ambulancepilot could depend on a ground commander's assurance that a pickup zonewas secure. Mortar and small arms fire often found a zone just as the helicoptertouched down. Enemy soldiers were known to patiently hide for hours aroundan ambushed patrol, looking for the inevitable rescue helicopter.

In these conditions the modern techniques of aeromedical evacuationdeveloped and matured. The obstacles of mountain, jungle, and floodplaincould be overcome only by helicopters. The frontless nature of the waralso made necessary the helicopter for medical evacuation. Air ambulanceunits found ever wider employment as the helicopter-used both as a fightingmachine and as a transport vehicle-came to dominate many phases of thewar.


The Struggle Begins

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy took the first of a number of measuresthat over the next four years drew the United States deep into the stormypolitics of Southeast Asia. In May, Kennedy publicly repeated a pledge,first made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, of U.S. support forthe government of the Republic of Vietnam. Kennedy had the Department ofState adopt a less demanding diplomacy in its dealings with the troubledregime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The department tried to coax Diem intomaking urgently needed political, economic, and military reforms, but hedallied, and the Viet Cong summer campaign of 1961 further weakened histenuous hold on the country. U.S. officials knew that he was losing controlrapidly when, in September, the rebels captured a provincial capital onlyninety kilometers from Saigon.

President Kennedy now believed that he had to decide whether to watcha U.S. ally collapse or to find some way of helping Diem fight the VietCong. In October 1961 Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, the President' s personalmilitary adviser, and Dr. Walt W. Rostow, one of the President's aides,recommended that the United States commit some of its combat troops toDiem's defense. But Kennedy turned down this proposal. Instead he persuadedDiem to agree to a program of broad reforms, in return for the deploymentof more U.S. military advisers and military equipment to support the combatoperations of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

On 11 December 1961 Saigon saw the arrival of the first direct U.S.military support for South Vietnam-the 8th Transportation Company fromFort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 57th Transportation Company from FortLewis, Washington. Both were light helicopter units. The two companiesconsisted of 400 pilots, crews, and technicians, with thirty-three U.S.Army H-21 Shawnee helicopters. The aircraft carrier that brought them,the U.S.S. Core, also brought four T-28 single-engine, propelleraircraft en route to the Vietnamese National Air Force (VNAF). With itsdeck towering over hundreds of nearby junks, the Core edged up theSaigon River to a pier in front of the Majestic Hotel. Thousands of Vietnameselined the riverbanks and watched the start of a new phase in the war dividingtheir country.

In January and February 1962 two more helicopter companies, the 93dTransportation and the 18th Aviation, arrived in Saigon. The city struggledto find room for several thousand personnel from helicopter companies,Air Force training groups, engineer detachments, the Seventh Fleet, andsundry advisory units. The South Vietnamese Army, equipped with Americanarmored personnel carriers and backed by the new American helicopters,began to show a


more aggressive spirit. Accompanied by U.S. advisers, it attacked previouslyinviolate Viet Cong strongholds, such as War Zone D north of Saigon, andthe U Minh Forest in the southern Mekong Delta.

The First Air Ambulance Unit in Vietnam

Despite their early successes in 1962, both the South Vietnamese andtheir American advisers suffered growing numbers of casualties. By theend of the year the medical part of the Vietnam troop list had expandedto encompass units able to provide a full range of medical services fora planned eight thousand U.S. military personnel. In Washington, Maj. Gen.James H. Forsee, Chief of Professional Services at Walter Reed, and Col.James T. McGibony, Chief of the Medical Plans and Operations Division,assured the Surgeon General that the medical units assigned to Vietnamwould supply fully integrated health care. Forsee and McGibony designatedthe first Army medical units that would go to Vietnam to support the U.S.buildup: the 8th Field Hospital; medical detachments for dental, thoracic,orthopedic, and neurosurgical care; and the 57th Medical Detachment (HelicopterAmbulance). Arriving in April 1962, the 57th remained there throughoutthe next eleven years of American military involvement in that country.

This long ordeal began for the air ambulance pilots and crews in lateFebruary 1962, when Headquarters of the U.S. Second Army ordered the 57th,stationed at Fort George Meade, Maryland, for a permanent assignment tothe U.S. Army, Pacific. A frenzied logistical effort began. Since the 57thwas not authorized a cook, the commander, Capt. John Temperelli, Jr., obtaineda six months supply of C-rations. Since they had no survival equipment,the unit's men hastily made up their kits from local stores. The typicalkit, stored in a parachute bag, contained a machete, canned water, C-rations,a lensatic compass, extra ammunition, a signaling mirror, and sundry itemsthe men thought they might need in a crisis. When they arrived in Vietnamin late April, the pilots had five "Hueys," as their UH-1 helicopterswere nicknamed. Along with the 8th Field Hospital and the other medicaldetachments, the 57th set itself up in the seaside town of Nha Trang, 320kilometers northeast of overcrowded Saigon. The assignment of U.S. Armymedical units to Nha Trang prevented a worsen-ing of the logistics problemin Saigon, but it placed medical support far from most of the U.S. militaryunits in the country.

On its first mission the 57th evacuated a U.S. Army captain advisingthe ARVN forces. An evacuation request came on 12 May from Tuy Hoa, sixty-fivekilometers up the coast from Nha Trang. The captain, suffering from anextremely high fever, was carried to the 8th


Field Hospital. Soon after, the 57th began to evacuate ARVN soldiersas well, even from combat. Although the U.S. Military Assistance AdvisoryGroup (MAAG) prohibited the 57th from evacuating Vietnamese soldiers andcivilians, Captain Temperelli found this policy to be unrealistic. He hadto work closely with local Vietnamese officials to set up designated evacuationsites in secure areas and to improve the communication nets that relayedthe 57th's evacuation requests. Forced to use the ARVN radio channels,the 57th was obliged to honor requests for evacuation of Vietnamese casualties.In the years ahead the air ambulances carried the wounded of all nationalities,even those of the enemy.

As yet, however, the 57th was a new unit, little known, and with littleto do. It spent most of that summer sitting in Nha Trang, unable to getto the fighting. By the end of June the detachment had evacuated only twelveAmerican and fourteen ARVN personnel. In an attempt to increase his rangeof action, Temperelli assigned two of his Hueys to Qui Nhon, another coastaltown some 160 kilometers to the north. Neither base had refueling sitesin its area. The radius of action from each was only 140 kilometers, andmost of the fighting was at least 200 kilometers to the south. Hoping toadd an extra fifty-five minutes flying time to each helicopter, Temperelliasked for permission to replace the unnecessary cockpit heaters with auxiliaryfuel cells; but he never received approval for the change. He also triedto have the helicopters' JP-4 fuel stored in certain critical inland areas,but was only partially successful. He could also obtain no favorable responseto his several requests for permission to move the unit to Saigon or theDelta.

Early in July 1962 all commanders of U.S. Army aviation units in SouthVietnam met in Saigon to discuss the possibility of the extensive use ofArmy aviation in support of South Vietnamese counterinsurgency operations.Briefing officers told the commanders that greater American military involvementwould probably require Army aviation to assume many duties formerly assignedto armor, ground transport, and the infantry. Captain Temperelli left thisconference angered that, in spite of the predicted growth of Army aviationin Vietnam, the Army Medical Service had so far furnished only limitedresources to his unit. The reluctance of the Vietnamese Air Force to respondto many evacuation requests convinced him that the burden of medical evacuationin this war would have to fall on U.S. Army helicopter ambulance units.Yet so far the Surgeon General had sent no representative to the 57th tosee what its problems were.

In fact, the logistics problems of the 57th were only a small part ofthe shortages that hindered all Army aviation units in the first yearsof the war. Deficiencies and excesses in the authorized lists of equipment


too often appeared only after units were committed to combat. Many ofthe aviation units carried unnecessary heaters and winter clothing withthem to Vietnam simply because the standard equipment list called for them.Red tape compounded equipment problems. At first the aviation units senttheir orders for parts directly to the U.S. Army on Okinawa, but Okinawaoften returned the paperwork for corrections to comply with directivesthat the forces in Vietnam had never heard of. Only after several monthsof logistical chaos did the Army Support Group, Vietnam (USASGV) beginto coordinate the requisition of parts.

In this first year of operations Army supply depots in the Pacific couldfill only three-fourths of the aviation orders from Vietnam. This problemarose partly from the unusual role of the Army aviation units there. Armyhelicopters used in support of ARVN operations flew far more hours andwore out much faster than peacetime supply estimates provided for. By November1962 the Army had thirteen aviation units flying 199 aircraft of eighttypes at ten places in Vietnam. Multiple bases for several units addedto the units' supply needs.

Since the 57th Medical Detachment had the only UH-1's in Vietnam sofar, it could draw on no pool of replacement parts. Instead, it had tocannibalize one of its own helicopters to keep the others flying. WhenGen. Paul D. Harkins, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam(MACV), and Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, Army Chief of Staff, visited Nha Trangin August 1962, they saw two of the 57th's UH-1's sitting on a ramp, withno rotor blades. The 57th had no spares.

Then combat aviation units began to demand the 57th's few remainingparts. In November, feeling confident after an influx of new infantry equipmentfrom the United States, the South Vietnamese Army planned a large scalecombat assault into the "Iron Triangle," a Viet Cong strongholdnorthwest of Saigon. Armed Huey UH-1's were to cover the CH-21's carryingARVN troops to the landing zones. Since several of the Hueys had bad tailrotor gear boxes and faulty starter generators, the 57th received instructionsto bring all its starter generators to Saigon. Plainly, the unit's craftwere about to be cannibalized.

To head off the danger, Temperelli accompanied the generators to Saigonand reported to Brig. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, commander of the Army SupportGroup, Vietnam. Noting that the absence of the generators on the 57th'saircraft would leave South Vietnam without air evacuation coverage, Temperellisuggested that the 57th might fly down to support the ARVN assault. ButStilwell said no. Temperelli handed over the generators and left, takingwith him a promise that they would be returned after the operation. Onlyone ever made it


back, and the 57th was totally grounded from 17 November to 15 December.When he recovered the one generator, Temperelli shifted the 57th's oneflying aircraft back and forth between Nha Trang and Qui Nhon to providesome coverage at each location.

A graver danger to the 57th's independence developed out of its medicalmission. For most of the Korean War, Army ambulance helicopters had servedunder the aegis of the Army Medical Service, attached to the hospitalsbehind the corps areas. But in September 1962 General Stilwell consideredending this policy in Vietnam by transferring the 57th from the MedicalService to the Army Transportation Corps, which then controlled all otherArmy helicopters in Vietnam. Temperelli, accompanied by Lt. Col. Carl A.Fischer, USASGV Surgeon and commander of the 8th Field Hospital, againwent to Saigon. This time he was more successful, convincing Stilwell tomaintain the old policy.

Temperelli also deflected other attacks on the 57th's integrity. Becauseof the relatively few hours flown by the pilots in their first year inVietnam, other Army aviators there argued against dedicating any helicoptersto medical evacuation. Some suggested removing the red crosses from medicalhelicopters and assigning general support tasks to any idle medical aircraft.In another attempt to coopt the 57th's resources, the senior MAAG advisorin Qui Nhon tried several times to commandeer a standby evacuation ship;but each time the 57th told him that he could have priority on the craftonly if he were a casualty. All in all, 1962 was not a good year for theair ambulance unit and its pilots.

Early in January 1963, however, an ARVN assault in the Delta convincedmany skeptics that the 57th ought to be brought closer to the scene ofbattle. South Vietnamese intelligence had heard of an enemy radio stationoperating near the village of Ap Bac in the Plain of Reeds. Fifty U.S.advisers and 400 men of the ARVN 7th Infantry Division flew ten CH-21 Shawneehelicopters to the area. Five armed UH-l's that would serve as close aircover escorted the convoy.

The first three waves of helicopters dropped their troops into the landingzone without difficulty. But just as the fourth wave was touching down,Viet Cong opened fire with automatic weapons and shot down four of theCH-21's. A U.S: Army UH-1B moved into the face of the enemy fire to tryto rescue one of the downed crews. It too crashed-the first UH-1B destroyedby the enemy in the Vietnam War. The other four UH-1's suppressed the VietCong fire, allowing the remaining Shawnees to leave the hotly contestedarea without further loss.

Other than for the unusually large number of forces involved, the battlewas. typical for this period: in the ground fight that followed, the SouthVietnamese infantry failed to surround the Viet Cong, who


escaped under cover of night. Three American advisers and sixty-fiveARVN soldiers were killed. The 57th Medical Detachment, still stationedat Nha Trang and Qui Nhon, far to the north, could not help evacuate thewounded.

The losses suffered at Ap Bac impressed on Army commanders that theair ambulances might be best employed near the fighting. On 16 Januarythe Support Group ordered the 57th to move to Saigon. By this time the57th had only one flyable aircraft, at Qui Nhon. But Support Group toldCaptain Temperelli that new UH-1B's were on the way. On 30 January the57th arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.

Dust Off Takes Form

The pilots and crews found Saigon much different from Qui Nhon and NhaTrang. Here they enjoyed access to a large, fully stocked post exchangeand commissary. Local Vietnamese stores sold French wines, liqueurs, andchampagnes, and the post exchange sold popular American spirits. The ArmedForces Radio Station broadcast the latest American music and reported ballgame scores. The officers had clubs in the Brink and Rex Hotels, and theFive Oceans Club in the Cholon Officers' Open Mess. The French-sponsoredCercle Sportif provided the officers swimming and tennis, and the ClubNautique offered water-skiing, rowing, and motorboating. Also availablewere the Saigon Tennis Club, the Saigon Golf Club, and the Cercle Hippiquefor horseback riding. The city even boasted a six-lane bowling alley. Someof the pilots frequented cafes like the Riverboat Restaurant, and one evensang for a while in a downtown nightclub.

The veterans had little time to enjoy such amenities. In late February1963 Captain Temperelli passed the reins of the 57th to a new commander,Maj. Lloyd E. Spencer. The veteran pilots rotated out of Vietnam and theirreplacements arrived. Shortly after Spencer arrived in Saigon, GeneralStilwell called him in for an interview. Slapping at a map of South Vietnam,Stilwell asked Spencer how he proposed to cover all the country with onlyfive aircraft. All that Spencer could say was that the 57th would do itsbest. After a lengthy discussion of problems, Stilwell again promised the57th the first five new UH-1B's in South Vietnam. On 11 March the unitsigned over the last of its grounded UH-1A's for return to the States.The next day Support Group issued the detachment five new UH-1B's thatwere still on a ship in the Saigon Harbor. On 23 March the 57th declareditself fully operational again.

But Saigon brought its own problems. The 57th's assigned parking areaat Tan Son Nhut Airport was directly behind the area where the VietnameseAir Force pilots parked their C-47 Dakotas. When


the VNAF pilots started their planes, always parked with the tails towardsthe 57th's area, the engines spattered oil all over the bubbles, windows,and windshields of the Hueys. Several times the 57th's crews asked theVietnamese to park the C-47's facing another direction, but the pilotsrefused. The 57th's solution to the problem, while it did not foster alliedharmony, was effective. Spencer explained: "When you fly a helicopterover the tail of a C-47 it really plays hell with the plane's rear elevators;so the Vietnamese got the message and moved the C-47's."

In April, part of the 57th's pilots and crews bade farewell to the comfortsof Saigon when two of the aircraft went on a semipermanent standby to thetown of Pleiku, some 120 kilometers northwest of the 57th's old base atQui Nhon. Pleiku lies in Vietnam's Annamite mountain chain. That montha 57th helicopter at Pleiku joined a search and rescue mission for a B-26that had crashed while covering a combat assault. The crew found the B-26lying on a pinnacle, but could not land because of the stunted trees andother growth that covered the peak. While the pilot hovered as low as possible,the crew chief and the medical corpsman leaped from the Huey to the ground,where they cut out a landing area. The Huey landed and the men removedthe B-26's .50-caliber machine guns and the bodies of its three Air Forcecrewmen.

The 57th's two units in the north stood duty round the clock, untiltheir operational commanders canceled night missions after a transportaircraft went down on a flight in darkness over the South China Sea. Mostof their missions were to small U.S. Army Special Forces teams scatteredamong the Montagnard villages in the wild highlands. The Viet Cong therehad none of the sophisticated weapons used by their compatriots in thesouth. The air ambulances at Pleiku contended with only homemade guns,crossbows, and a few firearms the Viet Cong had captured from ARVN troops.

In late June, one of the Hueys at Pleiku moved to Qui Nhon to resumecoverage of that sector. In I Corps Zone to the north, U.S. Marine H-34helicopters furnished both combat aviation support and medical evacuation.The 57th's aircraft at Pleiku and Qui Nhon covered II Corps Zone, and thethree in Saigon covered III and IV Corps Zones. Although all the four corpsregions of South Vietnam had some form of medical evacuation, it was thinlyspread.

For the past year the 57th had worked without a tactical call sign,simply using "Army" and the tail number of the aircraft. Forexample, if a pilot were flying a helicopter with the serial number 62-12345,his call sign would be "Army 12345." The 57th communicated internallyon any vacant frequency it could find. Major Spencer decided that thisslapdash system had to go. In Saigon he visited Navy Support Activity,which controlled all the call words in South Vietnam. He


received a Signal Operations Instructions book that listed all the unusedcall words. Most, like "Bandit," were more suitable for assaultunits than for medical evacuation units. But one entry, "Dust Off,"epitomized the 57th's medical evacuation missions. Since the countrysidethen was dry and dusty, helicopter pickups in the fields often blew dust,dirt, blankets, and shelter halves all over the men on the ground. By adopting"Dust Off," Spencer found for Army aeromedical evacuation inVietnam a name that lasted the rest of the war.

Even though distinguished by its own name, the 57th still had no formalmission statement. Its pilots worked on the assumption that their mainpurpose was to evacuate wounded and injured U.S. civilians and militarypersonnel. It continued to provide this service to the Vietnamese as wellwhen resources permitted. Like Captain Temperelli, Major Spencer also feltpressure to allow ground commanders to use Dust Off aircraft for routineadministrative flights, but with General Stilwell's support he kept the57th focused on its medical mission. If the 57th had already scheduledone of its aircraft for a routine flight, it sometimes accepted healthypassengers on a space-available basis, with the proviso that the passengersmight have to leave the ship in the middle of nowhere if the pilot receiveda Dust Off request while in the air.

As the year went on, the 57th flew Dust Off missions more often. Onone day alone, 10 September 1963, it evacuated 197 Vietnamese from theDelta, where large Viet Cong forces had virtually destroyed three settlements.That day Dust Off helicopters made flights with Vietnamese jammed intothe passenger compartment and standing on the skids. The last flight outtook place at night, and the three aircraft flew near a firefight on theground. After a few tracer rounds arced up toward their helicopters, thepilots blacked out their ships and flew on to Saigon.

The first nine months of the year had brought important changes. DustOff had a name, solid support from above, a mission-though no mission statement-anda great deal more business. Its problems reflected its new-found popularity.

Relations with the South Vietnamese

Although the number of Vietnamese casualties rose in 1963, the SouthVietnamese military refused to set up its own aeromedical evacuation unit.The VNAF response to requests for medical evacuation depended on aircraftavailability, the security of the landing zone, and the mood and temperamentof the VNAF pilots. If the South Vietnamese had no on-duty or standby aircraftready to fly a medical evacuation mission they passed the request on tothe 57th.


Even when they accepted the mission themselves, their response usuallysuffered from a lack of leadership and poor organization. Since South Vietnameseair mission commanders rarely flew with their flights, the persons responsiblefor deciding whether to abort a mission often lacked the requisite experience.As a MACV summary said: "Usually the decision was made to abort, andthe air mission commander could do nothing about it. When an aggressivepilot was in the lead ship, the aircraft came through despite the firing.American advisers reported that on two occasions only the first one ortwo helicopters landed; the rest hovered out of reach of the wounded whoneeded to get aboard."

An example of the poor quality of VNAF medical evacuation occurred inlate October 1963, when the ARVN 2d Battalion, 14th Regiment, conductedOperation LONG HUU II near O Lac in the Delta. At dawn the battalion beganits advance. Shortly after they moved out, the Viet Cong ambushed them,opening fire from three sides with automatic weapons and 81 -mm. mortars.At 0700 casualty reports started coming into the battalion command post.The battalion commander sent his first casualty report to the regimentalheadquarters at 0800: one ARVN soldier dead and twelve wounded, with morecasualties in the paddies. He then requested medical evacuation helicopters.By 0845 the casualty count had risen to seventeen lightly wounded, fourteenseriously wounded, and four dead. He sent out another urgent call for helicopters.The battalion executive officer and the American adviser prepared two landingzones, one marked by green smoke for the seriously wounded and a secondby yellow smoke for the less seriously wounded. Not until 1215 did threeVNAF H-34's arrive over O Lac to carry out the wounded and dead. Duringthe delay the ARVN battalion stayed in place to protect their casualtiesrather than pursue the retreating enemy. The American adviser wrote later:"It is common that, when casualties are sustained, the advance haltswhile awaiting evacuation. Either the reaction time for helicopter evacuationmust be improved, or some plan must be made for troops in the battalionrear to provide security for the evacuation and care of casualties."

The ARVN medical services also proved inadequate to handle the largenumbers of casualties. In the Delta, ARVN patients were usually taken tothe Vietnamese Provincial Hospital at Can Tho. As the main treatment centerfor the Delta, it often had a backlog of patients. At night only one doctorwas on duty, for the ARVN medical service lacked physicians. If Dust Offflew in a large number of casualties, that doctor normally treated as manyas he could; but he rarely called in any of his fellow doctors to help.In return they would not call him on his night off. Many times at nightDust Off pilots would have to make several flights into Can Tho. On returnflights the pilots often


found loads of injured ARVN soldiers lying on the landing pad wherethey had been left some hours earlier. After several such flights few pilotscould sustain any enthusiasm for night missions.

Another problem was that the ARVN officers sometimes bowed to the sentimentsof their soldiers, many of whom believed that the soul lingers betweenthis world and the next if the body is not properly buried. They insistedthat Dust Off ships fly out dead bodies, especially if there were no seriouslywounded waiting for treatment. Once, after landing at a pickup site northof Saigon, a Dust Off crew saw many ARVN wounded lying on the ground. Butthe other ARVN soldiers brought bodies to the helicopter to be evacuatedfirst. As the soldiers loaded the dead in one side of the ship, a DustOff medical corpsman pulled the bodies out the other side. The pilot steppedout of the helicopter to explain in halting French to the ARVN commanderthat his orders were to carry out only the wounded. But an ARVN soldiermanning a .50-caliber machine gun on a nearby armored personnel carriersuddenly pointed his weapon at the Huey. This convinced the Dust Off crewto fly out the bodies. They carried out one load but did not return foranother.

Kelly and the Dust Off Mystique

Early in 1964 the growing burden of aeromedical evacuation fell on the57th's third group of new pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel. Thehelicopters were still the 1963 UH-1B models, but most of the new pilotswere fresh from flight school. The new commander, Maj. Charles L. Kelly,from Georgia, was a gruff, stubborn, dedicated soldier who let few obstaclesprevent him from finishing a task. Within six months he set an exampleof courage and hard work that Dust Off pilots emulated for the rest ofthe war.

Kelly quickly took advantage of the 57th's belated move to the fightingin the south. On 1 March 1964 Support Group ordered the aircraft at Pleikuand Qui Nhon to move to the Delta. Two helicopters and five pilots, nowcalled Detachment A, 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), Provisional,flew to the U.S. base at Soc Trang. Once a fighter base for both the Frenchand the Japanese, Soc Trang was a compound roughly 1,000 by 3,000 feet,surrounded by rice paddies.

Unit statistics soon proved the wisdom of the move south: the numberof evacuees climbed from 193 in February to 416 in March. Detachment Acontinued its coverage of combat in the Delta until October 1964, whenanother helicopter ambulance detachment from the States took over thatarea. Major Kelly, who had taken command of the 57th on 11 January, movedsouth with Detachment A, preferring the field and flying to ground dutyin Saigon.


Detachment A in Soc Trang lived in crude "Southeast Asia"huts with sandbags and bunkers for protection against enemy mortar andground attack. The rest of the 57th in Saigon struggled along with airconditioning, private baths, a mess hall, and a bar in their living quarters.In spite of the contrast, most pilots preferred Soc Trang. It was therethat Major Kelly and his pilots forged the Dust Off tradition of valorousand dedicated service.

Major Kelly and his teams also benefited from two years of growing Americaninvolvement in Vietnam. By the spring of 1964 the United States had 16,000military personnel in South Vietnam (3,700 officers and 12,300 enlistedmen). The Army, which accounted for 10, 100 of these, had increased itsaircraft in South Vietnam from 40 in December 1961 to 370 in December 1963.For the first time since its arrival two years ago the 57th was receivingenough Dust Off requests to keep all its pilots busy.

But Major Kelly faced one big problem when he arrived: the helicoptersthat the 57th had received the year before were showing signs of age anduse, and General Stilwell, the Support Group commander, could find no newaircraft for the detachment. Average flight time on the old UH-1B's was800 hours. But this did not deter the new pilots from each flying morethan 100 hours a month in medical evacuations. Some of them stopped loggingtheir flight time at 140 hours, so that the flight surgeon would not groundthem for exceeding the monthly ceiling.

The new team continued and even stepped up night operations. In April1963 the detachment flew 110 hours at night while evacuating ninety-ninepatients. To aid their night missions in the Delta the pilots made a fewspecial plotting flights, during which they sketched charts of the possiblelanding zones, outlined any readily identifiable terrain features, andnoted whether radio navigational aid could be received. During one suchflight Major Kelly and his copilot heard on their radio that a VNAF T-28,a fixed-wing plane, had gone down. After joining the search, Kelly soonlocated the plane. While he and his crew circled the area trying to decidehow to approach the landing zone, the Viet Cong below opened fire on thehelicopter. One round passed up through the open cargo door and slammedinto the ceiling. Unfazed, Kelly shot a landing to the T-28, taking firefrom all sides. Once down, he, his crew chief, and his medical corpsmanjumped out and sprayed submachine gun fire at the Viet Cong while helpingthe VNAF pilot destroy his radios and pull the M60 machine guns from hisplane. Kelly left the area without further damage and returned the VNAFpilot to his unit. Kelly and his Dust Off crew flew more than 500 milesthat day.

On 2 April one of the Detachment A crews flying to Saigon from Soc Trangreceived a radio call that a village northwest of them had


been overrun. Flying up to the area where the Mekong River flows intoSouth Vietnam from Cambodia, they landed at the village of Cai Cai, whereduring the night Viet Cong had killed or wounded all the people. Soldierslay at their battle stations where they had fallen, women and childrenwhere they had been shot. The Dust Off teams worked the rest of the dayflying out the dead and wounded, putting two or three children on eachlitter.

One night that spring Detachment A pilots Capt. Patrick H. Brady and2d Lt. Ernest J. Sylvester were on duty when a call came in that an A1-ESkyraider, a fixed-wing plane, had gone down near the town of Rach Gia.Flying west to the site, they radioed the Air Force radar controller, whoguided them to the landing zone and warned them of Viet Cong antiaircraftguns. As the Dust Off ship drew near the landing zone, which was plainlymarked by the burning A1-E, the pilot of another nearby Al-E radioed thathe had already knocked out the Viet Cong machine guns. But when Brady andSylvester approached the zone the Viet Cong opened fire. Bullets crashedinto the cockpit and the pilots lost control of the aircraft. Neither wasseriously wounded and they managed to regain control and hurry out of thearea. Viet Cong fire then brought down the second Al-E. A third arrivedshortly and finally suppressed the enemy fire, allowing a second Dust Offship from Soc Trang to land in the zone. The crew chief and medical corpsmanfound what they guessed was the dead pilot of the downed aircraft, thenfound the pilot of the second, who had bailed out, and flew him back toSoc Trang.

A short time later Brady accompanied an ARVN combat assault missionnear Phan Thiet, northeast of Saigon. While Brady's Dust Off ship circledout of range of enemy ground fire, the transport helicopters landed andthe troops moved out into a wooded area heavily defended by the Viet Cong.The ARVN soldiers immediately suffered several casualties and called forDust Off. Brady's aircraft took hits going into and leaving the landingzone, but he managed to fly out the wounded. In Phan Thiet, while he wasassessing the damage to his aircraft, an American adviser asked him ifhe would take ammunition back to the embattled ARVN unit when he returnedfor the next load of wounded. After discussing the propriety of carryingammunition in an aircraft marked with red crosses, Brady and his pilotsdecided to consider the ammunition as "preventive medicine" andfly it in to the ARVN troops. Back at the landing zone Brady found thatViet Cong fire had downed an L-19 observation plane. Brady ran to the crashsite but both the American pilot and the observer had been killed. Themedical corpsman and crew chief pulled the bodies from the wreckage andloaded them on the helicopter. Brady left the ammunition and flew out withthe dead.

By the time the helicopter had finished its mission and returned to


Tan Son Nhut, most of the 57th were waiting. News of an American deathtraveled quickly in those early days of the war. Later, reflecting on theincident, Kelly praised his pilots for bringing the bodies back even thoughthe 57th's mission statement said nothing about moving the dead. But hevoiced renewed doubts about the ferrying of ammunition.

In fact, the Dust Off mission was again under attack. When Support Commandbegan to pressure the 57th to place removable red crosses on the aircraftand begin accepting general purpose missions, Kelly stepped up unit operations.Knowing that removable red crosses had already been placed on transportand assault helicopters in the north, Kelly told his men that the 57thmust prove its worth-and by implication the value of dedicated medicalhelicopters-beyond any shadow of doubt.

Whereas the 57th before had flown missions only in response to a request,it now began to seek missions. Kelly himself flew almost every night. Asdusk came, he and his crew would depart Soc Trang and head southwest forthe marshes and Bac Lieu, home of a team from the 73d Aviation Companyand detachments from two signal units, then further south to Ca Mau, anold haunt of the Viet Minh, whom the French had never been able to dislodgefrom its forested swamps. Next they would fly south almost to the tip ofCa Mau Peninsula, then at Nam Can reverse their course toward the SevenCanals area. After a check for casualties there at Vi Thanh, they turnednorthwest up to Rach Gia on the Gulf of Siam, then on to the Seven Mountainsregion on the Cambodian border. From there they came back to Can Tho, thehome of fourteen small American units, then up to Vinh Long on the MekongRiver, home of the 114th Airmobile Company. Next they flew due east toTruc Giang, south to the few American advisers at Phu Vinh, then home toSoc Trang. The entire circuit was 720 kilometers.

If any of the stops had patients to be evacuated, Kelly's crew loadedthem on the aircraft and continued on course, unless a patient's conditionwarranted returning immediately to Soc Trang. After delivering the patients,they would sometimes resume the circuit. Many nights they carried ten tofifteen patients who otherwise would have had to wait until daylight toreceive the care they needed. In March this flying from outpost to outpost,known as "scarfing," resulted in seventy-four hours of nightflying that evacuated nearly one-fourth of that month's 450 evacuees. Thestrategem worked; General Stilwell dropped the idea of having the 57thuse removable red crosses.

Although most of Dust Off's work in the Delta was over flat, marshyland, Detachment A sometimes had to work the difficult mountainous areasnear the Cambodian border. Late on the after-


noon of 11 April Kelly received a mission request to evacuate two woundedARVN soldiers from Phnom Kto Mountain of the Seven Mountains of An GiangProvince. When he arrived he found that the only landing zone near theground troops was a small area surrounded by high trees below some higherground held by the Viet Cong. Despite the updrafts common to mountain flying,the mists, and the approaching darkness, Kelly shot an approach to thearea The enemy opened fire and kept firing until Kelly's ship dropped belowthe treetops into the landing zone. Kelly could set the aircraft down ononly one skid; the slope was too steep. Since only one of the wounded wasat the landing zone, Kelly and his crew had to balance the ship precariouslywhile waiting for the ARVN troops to carry the other casualty up the mountain.With both patients finally on board, Kelly took off and again flew throughenemy fire. The medical corpsman promptly began working on the Vietnamese,one of whom had been wounded in five places. Both casualties survived.

When Kelly flew such a mission he rarely let bad weather darkness, orthe enemy stop him from completing it. He fought his way to the casualtiesand brought them out. On one mission the enemy forced him away from thelanding zone before he could place the patients on board. An hour laterhe tried to land exactly the same way, through enemy fire, and this timehe managed to load the patients safely. The Viet Cong showed their indifferenceto the red crosses on the aircraft by trying to destroy it with small arms,automatic weapons, and mortars, even while the medical corpsman and crewchief loaded the patients. One round hit the main fuel drain valve andJP-4 fuel started spewing. Kelly elected to fly out anyway, practicingwhat he had preached since he arrived in Vietnam by putting the patientsabove all else and hurrying them off the battlefield. He radioed the SocTrang tower that his ship was leaking fuel and did not have much left,and that he wanted priority on landing. The tower operator answered thatKelly had priority and asked whether he needed anything else. Kelly said,"Yes, bring me some ice cream." just after he landed on the runwaythe engine quit, fuel tanks empty. Crash trucks surrounded the helicopter.The base commander drove up, walked over to Kelly, and handed him a quartof ice cream.

Apart from the Viet Cong, the 57th's greatest problem at that time wasa lack of pilots. After Kelly reached Vietnam he succeeded in having theother nine Medical Service Corps pilots who followed him assigned to the57th. He needed more, but the Surgeon General's Aviation Branch seemedto have little understanding of the rigors of Dust Off flying. In the springof 1964 the Aviation Branch tried to have new Medical Service Corps pilotsassigned to nonmedical helicopter units in Vietnam, assuming that theywould benefit more from combat training than from Dust Off flying. In lateJune Kelly


gave his response:

As for combat experience, the pilots in this unit aregetting as much or more combat-support flying experience than any unitover here. You must understand that everybody wants to get into the AeromedicalEvacuation Business. To send pilots to U.T.T. [a nonmedical unit] or anywhereelse is playing right into their hands. I fully realize that I do not knowmuch about the big program, but our job is evacuation of casualties fromthe battlefield. This we are doing day and night, without escort aircraft,and with only one ship for each mission. The other [nonmedical] units flyin groups, rarely at night, and always heavily armed.

In other words, Kelly thought that his unit had a unique job to do andthat the only effective training for it could be found in the cockpit ofa Dust Off helicopter.

With more and more fighting occurring in the Delta and around Saigon,the 57th could not always honor every evacuation request. U.S. Army helicopterassault companies were forced to keep some of their aircraft on evacuationstandby, but without a medical corpsman or medical equipment. Because ofthe shortage of Army aviators and the priority of armed combat support,the Medical Service Corps did not have enough pilots to staff another DustOff unit in Vietnam. Most Army aeromedical evacuation units elsewhere alreadyworked with less than their permitted number of pilots. Although Army aviationin Vietnam had grown considerably since 1961, by the summer of 1964 itsresources fell short of what it needed to perform its missions, especiallymedical evacuation.

Army commanders, however, seldom have all the men and material theycan use, and Major Kelly knew that he had to do his best with what he had.On the morning of 1 July 1964 Kelly received a mission request from anARVN unit in combat near Vinh Long. An American sergeant, the adviser,had been hit in the leg by shrapnel from a mortar round. Several of theARVN infantry were also wounded. Kelly and his crew flew to the area. TheViet Cong were close in to the ARVN soldiers and the fighting continuedas Kelly's helicopter came in to a hover. Kelly floated his ship back andforth, trying to spot the casualties. The Viet Cong opened fire on hisship. The ARVN soldiers and their American advisers were staying low. Oneadviser radioed Kelly to get out of the area. He answered, "When Ihave your wounded." Many rounds hit his aircraft before one of thempassed through the open side door and pierced his heart. He murmured "MyGod," and died. His ship pitched up, nosed to the right, rolled over,and crashed.

The rest of the crew, shaken but not seriously injured, crawled fromthe wreck and dragged Kelly's body behind a mound of dirt. Dust Off aircraftlater evacuated Kelly's crew and the other casualties.

The United States awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross


posthumously. South Vietnam conferred the Military Order Medal of Vietnam,National Order, Fifth Class, and the Cross of Gallantry with Palm. Farmore important than the medals he earned was his legacy to the hundredsof Dust Off pilots who followed him. His death saddened all who had knownhim, for he had given so much of himself so selflessly. The men of the57th heard that General Stilwell, Kelly's commander for the last six months,wept when he heard of his death.

Capt. Paul A. Bloomquist took command of the 57th Medical Detachmentin Saigon and Capt. Patrick H. Brady moved to Soc Trang to take over DetachmentA. Assuming that the 57th would now select its missions more carefully,the commander of the 13th Aviation Battalion in the Delta called Bradyinto his office. He asked what changes would be made now that Kelly wasgone. Brady told him that the 57th would continue flying missions exactlyas Kelly had taught them, accepting any call for help.

A New Buildup

Kelly's death coincided with an important turning point in U.S. relationswith North and South Vietnam. In the first half of 1964 the new administrationof President Lyndon B. Johnson concluded that the growing political andmilitary disturbances in South Vietnam required a commitment of largerU.S. economic and military resources in the area. In March 1964, aftervisiting South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recommendedthat the United States increase its aid to the Republic of Vietnam. PresidentJohnson immediately increased U.S. aid to South Vietnam by $60 million.He also promised to obtain new equipment for the South Vietnamese Army,to finance a 50,000-man increase in South Vietnamese forces, and to providefunds for the modernization of the country's government. At his requestthe Joint Chiefs of Staff began to draft plans for the retaliatory bombingof North Vietnam. Over the next few months the South Vietnamese governmentof Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh was unable to make good use of the increasedU.S. aid; American advisers in the countryside reported that Khanh's politicalpower was still crumbling. General Khanh and Air Commodore Nguyen Cao Ky,commander of the South Vietnamese Air Force, began a public campaign toplace all blame for the deteriorating conditions on North Vietnam and drawthe United States even further into the conflict.

The United States was already more deeply involved than most Americansknew. For some time United States forces had taken part in clandestineamphibious raids on the North Vietnamese coast to gather intelligence.In the spring of 1964 the Johnson administration publicly stated that theUnited States was stockpiling for the possible deployment of large numbersof American troops in Southeast Asia.


The administration also surrounded with great publicity the dedicationof the new U.S.-built airbase at Da Nang, on the northernmost part of SouthVietnam's coast. These American threats had no effect on the Viet Congor the North Vietnamese, who continued to bring supplies south throughtrails in Laos and to stage daring terrorist raids even in the center ofSaigon. The North Vietnamese Navy openly challenged the United States inearly August 1964 when its torpedo patrol boats attacked two U.S. destroyerssailing in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress, outraged by this seemingly unprovokedattack in international waters, quickly gave President Johnson nearly unanimousapproval to take whatever measures he thought necessary to protect U.S.forces in the area.

As U.S. involvement mounted, the requests made by Kelly and Stilwellfor another air ambulance unit at last took effect. In August the SurgeonGeneral's Office named five more helicopter ambulance detachments for assignmentto Southeast Asia. The 82d Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) atFort Sam Houston, Texas, was alerted for a 1 October move. The other fourdetachments were put on notice without firm departure dates and told tobring their units to full strength.

The advance party of the 82d arrived in Saigon on 5 October, and thenext day Support Group, Vietnam, gave the detachment five new UH-1B's.The rest of the detachment arrived two weeks later. The officers and enlistedmen of the 82d spent their first nights in Saigon billeted with their counterpartsin the 57th. There they heard disturbing war stories from the veterans,then left for their new home in Soc Trang. Most of the detachment traveledby convoy, down Route 4 through the alien Delta countryside. Their firstsight of Soc Trang-a small airstrip with a tiny village at one end, lyingin the middle of rice paddies, with only a triple-stranded concertina wireto protect the perimeter-added to their concern.

To stagger personnel departure dates and help train the new 82d pilotsand crews in Dust Off flying, three of the 57th pilots transferred to the82d, and three from the 82d transferred to the 57th. Mai Henry P. Capozzicommanded the 82d; Maj. Howard H. Huntsman, the 57th. The 82d used the57th's Hueys until it had its own in place and declared itself operationalon 7 November 1964.

The new unit retraced the steps of their predecessors. Soon after theystarted flying evacuation missions the pilots of the 82d had their firsttaste of Viet Cong resistance. On a mission near Bac Lieu on 27 October,one of their new helicopters took three hits during a takeoff with casualtiesaboard. The crew flew back to Soc Trang and found one bullet hole throughthe red cross on one of the cargo doors. One of the ARVN evacuees lay deadfrom an enemy round that had penetrated the aircraft.


The old question of a call sign soon came up. After considering varioussigns, including those used by helicopter ambulance units in Korea, thenew commanders settled on the 57th's sign, "Dust Off." When the82d also adopted the 57th's unit emblem, merely changing the "57th"to "82d," some of the former 57th pilots objected to this piracy.But the policy made sense, since both units performed the same missionand the common symbols helped the ground forces recognize the ambulancehelicopters.

One radical change was the conservative style of Capozzi and Huntsman.Both felt that the "wild and wooly days" ought to end and thatthe pilots of the 57th and 82d ought to temper their flying with cool judgment.They counseled their pilots to accept no missions without direct communicationwith the ground forces requesting the mission, to fly night missions onlyfor extreme emergencies, and never to fly into an insecure landing zone.Despite these orders, the veterans of the 57th at Soc Trang quietly instilledthe old élan in the new pilots, ensuring that the Kelly spirit stayedwith Dust Off until the end of the war.

In one area, however, Capozzi and Huntsman succeeded in ending a Kellypractice. They refused to allow their pilots to fly the Delta looking forpatients. "Shopping for business," they said, "is a wasteof time." They reasoned that the communication net was now secureenough to ensure speedy response to any call. The decision was sound. Withfive new helicopters, Dust Off no longer had to cover 31,000 square kilometerswith only two flyable aircraft. U.S. advisers could call or relay theirmission requests directly to the air ambulance units via FM radio; ARVNunits in the Delta routed their calls through the joint U.S.-ARVN CombatOperations Center at the 13th Aviation Battalion (U.S.). The aircraft pilotsdecided on missions Air Force radar control at Can Tho provided its customaryinvaluable service; the rapport of USAF radar controllers with pilots ofthe 82d was as excellent as it was with those of the 57th.

In other respects, Kelly's teachings lived. As casualties mounted inthe first months of 1965, the pilots of the 82d, despite their commander'scaution, flew many night missions. Since the Viet Cong usually attackedoutposts and villages at night, and both sides patrolled and set ambushesat night, the Dust Off pilots too had to be abroad, seeking the woundedwhere they lay.

The Crisis Deepens

Late in 1964, the 271st and 272d Viet Cong Regiments mergedand equipped themselves with new Chinese and Soviet weapons, forming the9th Viet Cong Division. The 9th Division showed the valueof this change in a battle for Binh Gia, a small Catholic village on Inter-


provincial Route 2, sixty-five kilometers southeast of Saigon. On 28December and over the next three days the Viet Cong ambushed and nearlydestroyed the South Vietnamese 33d Ranger Battalion and 4th Marine Battalion,and inflicted heavy casualties on the armored and mechanized forces thatcame to their rescue. The reorganized and reequipped Viet Cong were soconfident that they stood and fought a four-day pitched battle rather thanemploy their usual hit-and-run tactics. The South Vietnamese suffered over400 casualties and lost more than 200 weapons. Nearly eighty helicopters,including those from the 57th Medical Detachment, took part in the reliefoperations of this battle. During the fighting, Dust Off rescued nine crewmenfrom their downed helicopters and evacuated scores of South Vietnamesetroops.

Assistant Secretary of State William P. Bundy urged President Johnsonto retaliate against North Vietnam. He was seconded by the new commanderof the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, Gen. William C. Westmoreland,and the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor. Westmorelandthought that the Viet Cong seemed to be preparing to move from guerrillatactics to a more conventional war. But President Johnson, ignoring hisadvisers, refused to allow an immediate bombing campaign against NorthVietnam.

Shortly afterward, however, Johnson himself lost confidence in currentU.S. and South Vietnamese policy. On the morning of 7 February the VietCong attacked the U.S. advisers' base and airstrip at Camp Holloway nearPleiku. Mortar fire and demolitions killed several Americans, wounded morethan a hundred, and destroyed five aircraft. Within hours forty-nine U.S.Navy fighter-bombers struck back at a North Vietnamese barracks just abovethe Demilitarized Zone. In his memoirs General Westmoreland called thisstrike a vital juncture in the history of American involvement in SoutheastAsia. Within two days President Johnson approved a policy of "sustainedreprisal" against the North.

Along with the rest of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Dust Off quickly feltthe new surge of America's war effort. From 1962 to early 1965 the DustOff pilots and their crewmen had been at school in Vietnam. Now they wouldhave to show what they had learned, applying on a large scale the traditionof courage and unhesitating service that they had forged in the early years.