The System Matures
Early in 1965 a growing number of Viet Cong attacks on U.S. personnelin South Vietnam prompted President Johnson to order all American dependentsout of that country. On 22 February General Westmoreland asked for Americancombat ground forces to defend allied bases against Viet Cong attacks,and on 25 February Secretary of State Dean Rusk approved. On 8 March thefirst of these forces, a battalion landing team of the 9th Marine ExpeditionaryBrigade, debarked on the beaches at Da Nang. U.S. officials announced thatthe new troops would make several key bases more secure, thereby freeingthe South Vietnamese forces to press the war more vigorously. But the VietCong continued their terrorist campaign. On 30 March they detonated a powerfulbomb outside the hotel housing the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The explosionkilled twenty-one people, including two Americans, and wounded two hundredothers, including fifty-two Americans.
After a lull in the fighting while the Viet Cong waited out the dryseason, which favored the superior mobility of the ARVN forces, the countrysideerupted in May. A Viet Cong regiment attacked Song Be, the capital of PhuocLong province in northern III Corps Zone. Soon a more serious blow camewhen the rebels ambushed an ARVN battalion and destroyed the column sentto its aid. In June the enemy again dealt the ARVN forces a heavy blowat Dong Xoai, ninety-six kilometers northeast of Saigon. June also broughtthe collapse of the current South Vietnamese governing coalition, and thenew rulers, Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, seemed to havelittle chance of ending the recent years of political instability. In Julythe fighting shifted to the Central Highlands of II Corps Zone, where theSouth Vietnamese suffered a series of defeats.
This military and political deterioration in 1965 produced a rapid increasein U.S. aid to South Vietnam. Within a few months of their arrival in March,the first U.S. combat units in South Vietnam began search-and-destroy operationsagainst the Viet Cong near U.S. bases. By the end of the year evidenceof increased North Vietnamese infiltration of the South helped GeneralWestmoreland to obtain substantial reinforcements of U.S. combat troops.A U.S. troop buildup continued steadily until March 1968 as the UnitedStates ex-
panded its effort to destroy the political and military influence ofthe National Liberation Front.
Origins of the Air Ambulance Platoon
As more soldiers arrived, the Army Medical Service began its own buildup,which included an increase in the number of medical evacuation units. Duringthe next three years the Surgeon General of the Army sent two air ambulancecompanies and six more helicopter ambulance companies to Vietnam. In March1966 the 44th Medical Brigade, which had been activated in January, assumedcontrol of most Army medical units in Vietnam. Over the next two yearsthe brigade began to coordinate the work of the 68th Medical Group (responsiblefor III and IV Corps Zones), the 43d Group (South II Corps Zone), the 55thGroup (North II Corps Zone), and the 67th Group (I Corps Zone). These medicalgroups, with the exception of the 55th, which left aeromedical evacuationin its area to the 43d Group, commanded all the nondivisional air ambulances-thecompanies and detachments. In late 1965, with the Surgeon General's permission,American combat forces also brought in Medical Service Corps pilots toman the aircraft of a new form of medical evacuation unit: the air ambulanceplatoon. Unlike the air ambulance units of the 44th Brigade, it would dependon its combat assault division for command and supply.
The platoon owed its existence to the creation of the first airmobiledivision in the U.S. Army, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). In August1962 the U.S. Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, chaired by Lt.Gen. Hamilton H. Howze, had recommended the creation of a new airmobiledivision, which would be served by an air ambulance platoon. Outliningthe probable nature of airmobile warfare the Board had assumed that
... all categories of patients within the theater of operationswill be evacuated by air. AMEDS aircraft organic to the division will evacuatecasualties from forward pickup sites and/or aid stations to clearing stationsor Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals. Air Ambulance companies assigned tocorps and field Army will evacuate casualties from the clearing stationsand surgical hospitals to evacuation hospitals.
Although the air ambulance battalion would use several types of helicopters,the air ambulance platoon would usually consist of only twelve UH-l's.
In early 1963 the Army decided to test the precepts laid out by theHowze Board. On 7 January the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations issuedinstructions for the creation of an experimental air assault division.The unit was organized in February at Fort Benning, Georgia,
and named the 11th Air Assault Division (Test). Its commander was Brig.Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard.
The division was composed of eight infantry battalions (expanded E3--tonine in Vietnam) organized into three brigades: three battalions each forthe 1st and 2d Brigades and two for the 3d Brigade. One brigade had anairborne capability. An artillery battalion in each brigade provided ground-to-groundfire support and an Aerial Rocket Artillery Battery provided air-to-groundsupport. The thirty-six UH-1B's of the aerial rocket battery each carriedseventy-two folding fin rockets, and most also carried externally-mountedM60 machine guns. An aviation battery of sixteen light observation helicopterscoordinated the division's artillery. Two assault helicopter battalionseach had sixty unarmed helicopters, organized into three companies of twentyships each. Both battalions had an armed helicopter company of twelve UH-1Bgunships, each carrying four M60's and fifteen rockets. As the Howze Boardhad suggested, the Air Ambulance Platoon, a structurally new aeromedicalevacuation unit, fell under the division's medical battalion.
Air Assault I, a field exercise held at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in Septemberand October 1963, tested the control capabilities of the air assault battalionand company, and the problems of the air ambulance platoon. This exerciseand others held at Forts Benning and Gordon suggested that the platooncould effectively support the Air Assault Division without the benefitsof a superior company command. Faulty communications equipment and thelimited capacity of the UH-1B's were the only serious problems affectingthe platoon's performance.
The experimental 11th Air Assault Division was disbanded soon afterthe testing in Georgia, but its components and the resources of the 2dInfantry Division at Fort Benning were combined and given the name of the1st Cavalry Division, which had been on duty in Korea since 1950. The newdivision, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), had roughly 16,000 men,the standard allotment. But it had 4 1/2 times the standard number of aircraftand one-half the standard number of ground vehicles. It acquired almostone thousand aviators and two thousand aviation mechanics. The creationof this division opened a new phase in U.S. Army warfare.
The Air Ambulance Platoon, which consisted of twelve helicopters andtheir crews, was an integral part of the new division, and deployed withit to the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam in August 1965.It served as part of the divisions 15th Medical Battalion. It not onlyoffered medical evacuation to wounded soldiers of the 1st Cavalry but alsohad the equipment to rescue pilots of crashed and burning aircraft. Itconsisted of a medical evacuation section of eight helicopters and a crashrescue section of four helicopters. It also had three Kaman "Sputnik"fire suppression systems to enable the
crash rescue teams to enter burning aircraft. Unfortunately, if theaircraft fitted with the Sputnik system also carried its full complementof two firemen, a crew chief, a medical corpsman, and two pilots, it couldnot lift off unless the crew had drained the fuel tanks to 400 pounds orless. After its arrival in Vietnam the platoon found that maintenance problems,general aircraft shortages, and regular evacuation missions made it impossibleto keep four of its aircraft ready at all times for crash rescue missions.
Unlike the helicopter detachments and companies of the 44th MedicalBrigade, the platoon's pilots used "Medevac" as their call sign.However, they resembled the pilots of the older units in their methods,training, and outlook. Like the commissioned Dust Off pilots, the platoon'sofficer pilots had graduated from the helicopter program of the U. S. ArmyAviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama and had been trained in emergencyresuscitative medicine by the Army Medical Department.
The Air Ambulance Platoon Goes to Work
After the 1st Cavalry began to dig in on the An Khe plain in early September1965 the platoon's pilots flew their first missions and quickly tastedsome Viet Cong resistance. To protect the platoon's aircraft, the divisionbegan keeping gunships on call for escort. The platoon's pilots, however,thought that traveling with the slower, heavier gunships wasted preciousminutes of response time.
During the next three years, a period of large search-and-destroy operations,medical aircraft often accompanied ARVN and U.S. forces to the battlefield.In the remote Central Highlands the 1st Cavalry's air ambulance platoonfound it wise to conform to the Howze Board report by evacuating its patientsonly as far as the battalion aid stations or division clearing stations.Nonorganic air ambulances commanded by medical authorities would then backhaulthe casualties to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku or to hospitalsfurther away, on the coast. Later in the war, when the 1st Cavalry movedto III Corps Zone, the platoon itself began to make evacuation flightsfrom the site of wounding directly to hospitals.
In time the platoon would prove its value, but some of its early experienceswere not encouraging. On 19 September four of the platoon's ships supportedan early 1st Cavalry operation. Because of poor coordination and misplacedconcern on the part of ground personnel, the transport helicopters carriedout the casualties and the air ambulances carried out the dead.
On 10 October one of the platoon's pilots, Capt. Guy Kimsey, answeredan evacuation request from a ground unit sixty kilometers east of An Khe.While Kimsey loaded his ship, a Viet Cong round hit
the engine and shut down the aircraft. Another helicopter flew the crewand patients back to An Khe, where Kimsey told the 15th TransportationBattalion that he had a downed ship. The maintenance unit sent out an aircraftrecovery team the same day, but the team could not find the ship and accusedthe pilot of giving them the wrong coordinates. Rankled, Kimsey climbedinto the recovery aircraft and flew the team chief on the spot. At first,as they approached the area at some distance, Kimsey thought the chiefmight be right. But as he drew nearer he saw the outline of a helicopteron the ground. They landed. All that he could find of his ship was partof the tail rotor. He checked with the ground troops in the area who hadcalled in the evacuation request. From them he learned that when the VietCong had earlier tried to overrun the position, the U.S. troops had calledin friendly artillery. One of the rounds had scored a direct hit on thedisabled helicopter.
Misfortune struck again on 10 October during Operation SHINY BAYONETnear An Khe. Three of the platoon's ships flew out to evacuate eleven seriouslywounded soldiers from the 3d Brigade. As they approached the landing zoneat 1630, they saw the fires from Air Force tactical strikes still burning.A firefight also raged, and the ground commander radioed that the landingzone was insecure. The senior pilot elected to stay at high altitude withhis Huey gunship escort and one other Medevac ship while the third shipmade a low approach to the pickup zone. As he took his aircraft in, thepilot of the third ship, Capt. Charles F. Kane, Jr., was struck in thehead by an enemy bullet. His copilot flew the aircraft to the 85th EvacuationHospital, where Kane became the platoon's first fatality.
By mid-October the North Vietnamese Army had begun its drive againstallied forces in the Central Highlands. In supporting the ARVN forces thattried to repulse this attack, the 1st Cavalry and its Air Ambulance Platoonreceived their first severe test. By early October the 32d and 33dNorth Vietnamese Regiments had infiltrated western Pleiku Provincebetween the Cambodian border and Plei Me, a Special Forces base camp forty-threekilometers south of Pleiku. Route 6C stretched north from Plei Me towardPleiku. A third unit, the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment, was soonto arrive.
On 20 October the 33d North Vietnamese Regiment attacked fourSouth Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) companies at PleiMe. The North Vietnamese 32d Regiment lay in ambush for the ARVNforces expected to move south from Pleiku. On 23 October the ARVN armoredrelief force left Pleiku and marched south toward Plei Me, covered by theartillery of the 1st Cavalry Division. On the afternoon of the 24th, AirAmbulance Platoon helicopters carried an artillery liaison party into thecolumn and returned with some noncombat-injured soldiers. At 1750 the Communistambush struck
the convoy, but the ARVN troops broke out and reached the beseiged campthe following day.
Over the next month the 1st Cavalry Division and ARVN forces continuedto fight over this territory in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. On 27October General Westmoreland ordered Maj. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard, lstCavalry Division commander, to conduct search-and-destroy operations inwestern Pleiku Province. For the first time the division's mission wasunlimited offense.
In this battle the Air Ambulance Platoon proved its worth. Early inNovember Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore took his cavalry battalion by helicopterinto a landing zone near the Cambodian border. The newly arrived 66thRegiment and the remnants of the 33d Regiment waited on a mountainoverlooking the landing zone. Heavy enemy fire from these regiments restrictedhelicopter approaches and departures, and friendly casualties began tomount. The battalion surgeon, with medical supplies and four medical corpsmen,flew in under heavy enemy fire on an Air Ambulance Platoon ship and immediatelybegan treating the casualties. This saved the lives of many soldiers whocould not have survived a long wait for evacuation. By that night the AirAmbulance Platoon and returning gunships had evacuated all the wounded.Although the gunships had helped, the brunt of the evacuation burden hadfallen on the Air Ambulance Platoon, which had performed superbly. At thestart of the Ia Drang campaign the Air Ambulance Platoon operated twelveaircraft. One was destroyed on 10 October 1965, four were usually downfor maintenance, two were required for division base coverage at An Khe,and two supported the operations of the Republic of Korea (ROK) forceseast of An Khe. To support the nearly three thousand men of a reinforcedbrigade, which was the average strength committed at any one time to theIa Drang, the 15th Medical Battalion now had only three aircraft to siteforward. The casualties varied, but averaged 70 to 80 a day, with 280 onthe worst day. Fortunately the troop ships carried the less criticallyinjured men from the landing zones, easing the platoon's load.
In his after-action report, Colonel Moore described another problemhe had met in his medical evacuation: the heavy enemy fire and the dense100-foot high trees had prevented the platoon from evacuating men fromthe spot where they were wounded. The ground troops had had to move manyof the wounded to a single secure landing zone. Moore reported: "Ilost many leaders killed and wounded while recovering casualties. Woundedmust be pulled back to some type of covered position and then treated.Troops must not get so concerned with casualties that they forget the enemyand their mission. Attempting to carry a man requires up to four men asbearers which can hurt a unit at a critical time." The solution, whichcame later, involved a
technical innovation rather than restraining the soldier's natural concernfor his wounded comrades. By mid-November the 15th Medical Battalion andits Air Ambulance Platoon were short five pilots and fifty-six enlistedmen. Of the twelve Medical Service Corps pilots authorized the platoon,one was dead, one was injured, and the battalion commander had placed twoon his staff and had reassigned another who had only four months remainingin his tour of duty. The commander asked for replacements, but none couldbe found because all units were short of men.
Saturday, 18 December, was another dark day for the Air Ambulance Platoon.Capt. Walter L. Berry, Jr., pilot, and W01 George W. Rice, copilot, hadjust settled to the ground at a pickup site to evacuate two 1st Cavalrywounded when an enemy soldier opened fire on the helicopter from the left.One bullet, entering through the open cargo door, struck Rice in the head.Another hit the crew chief in the hand. Berry raced to the nearest clearingstation, but Rice died there within an hour, the first warrant officerin the Medical Service Corps Aviation Program to be killed in action. TheMedevac ship had been unescorted and unarmed. Shortly thereafter the platooncommander, Maj. Carl J. Bobay, wrote: "Within three months of operationsin Vietnam, two pilots have been killed, one enlisted man wounded, andnine helicopters shot up, all due to enemy action. Believe me ... we arenot proud of these statistics. What the next eight months may hold in storefor us is too much to even consider."
During this period more of the regular medical detachments were deployingin the two southern Corps Zones. The 283d Medical Detachment (HelicopterAmbulance), activated at Fort Lewis, Washington, landed at Saigon on 1September 1965 and started to help the 57th cover III Corps Zone. In November1965, the 254th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) also arrivedat Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon. The two ships that had sailed from Tacoma,Washington, with all the 254th's equipment, reached the South Vietnamesecoast on 29 October but could not be unloaded until mid-January becauseof the congestion in the ports. Until then some of the 254th's pilots workedwith the 283d and 57th. The 254th declared itself operational on 1 Februaryat Long Binh with the primary mission of direct support for the 173d AirborneBrigade on its sweep operations in III Corps Zone. The 57th and 283d supportedthe other allied units in the sector.
The Medical Company (Air Ambulance)
In September 1965 another new type of medical evacuation unit deployedin Vietnam-the medical company (air ambulance). The 1959 table of standardequipment for such a unit provided for twenty-
four two-patient helicopters, served by twenty-eight officers and alarger group of enlisted men. In September 1964 the 498th Medical Company(Air Ambulance) was activated at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where it servedin a standby utility capacity until June 1965. That month the company receivedtwenty-five new UH-1D's fresh from the Bell Helicopter Plant, and the pilotsset to work learning the new machine.
At Camp Bullis, a subpost of Fort Sam Houston nineteen miles northwestof San Antonio, the company conducted instrument training and practicedthe tactics of day and night flying. On most days the flight crews andtheir instructors took off at 0600 and were still out flying at 2100. Allcrew members also had some target practice with the M14 rifle and the .45-caliberpistol. Grew chiefs and medical corpsmen practiced firing from the opencargo doors of an airborne helicopter. Most of the flight practice simulatedthe low-level navigation and approaches that the instructors had learnedflying over the Delta in South Vietnam. Because of the varied militaryoccupational specialties of the enlisted men, Lt. Col. Joseph P. Madrano,commander of the 498th, convinced Maj. Gen. William Harris, the post commander,to let the 498th tailor its own unit training program. General Harris notonly agreed but also had his staff prepare training aids, and he himselfvisited the unit almost daily to see if he could do more to help.
On 24 July 1965 a Department of Army message arrived assigning the 498thto U.S. Army, Pacific, destination unstated. Last minute efforts to obtainand pack supplies, aided greatly by General Harris, drew to a close. The498th planned a well-deserved party for the men and their families at SaladoCreek Park in Fort Sam Houston. General Harris, whom they invited, firstsuggested then insisted that the unit find a civilian UH-1. He wanted thefamilies to have at least one flight in a Huey to see the aircraft thattheir fathers, sons, and husbands flew. The Bell Helicopter Corporationcooperated and everyone got to ride in a helicopter. Shortly after he flewinto Nha Trang with the advance party the 498th, Colonel Madrano went toSaigon where the Surgeon of the U.S. Army, Vietnam (USARV) told him thatthe company would cover the entire II Corps Zone from a base or bases ofMadrano's choosing. In the early fall of 1965 the only American combatunit in II Corps Zone was the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division(Airmobile), which usually operated north of Qui Nhon. Several SpecialForces camps monitored the border and a few ARVN units also worked thearea. But these forces grew quickly after the arrival of the 1st Cavalry.
The company organization for air ambulances was unprecedented in Vietnam.The only other experience of an air ambulance company
the 498th could draw on was that of the 421st Medical Company in Europe,which had its platoons, each consisting of six ships, scattered at fourbases. Some pilots of the 498th wanted a similar dispersion while otherspreferred a centralized operation. Colonel Madrano told the Surgeon thathe wanted to place a platoon each at Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Pleiku, and BanMe Thuot, the only secure bases in II Corps Zone that could possibly supportthem. All had inadequate resources to accept the entire company. Madranosoon dispersed his unit: 1 1/2 platoons at Qui Nhon; 1 1/2 platoons nearthe 52d Aviation Battalion at Pleiku; and the fourth platoon, along withthe company headquarters, maintenance section, and operations section,at Nha Trang. Since the Qui Nhon contingent shared its compound with the117th Aviation Company, some of the platoon's Medical Service Corps pilotshad an opportunity to fly a few assault missions and learn about life ascombat pilots. The technique the 117th taught was to fly out high, circledown steeply to the landing zone, and always keep the target in sight.This was a radical contrast to the techniques the 498th had practiced inTexas. The low-level approaches they had practiced at Camp Bullis had ill-preparedthem for work in the mountainous Central Highlands of II Corps Zone.
When it first became operational on 20 September, the 498th was authorizedonly one-half the pilots it needed, so the USARV Surgeon and the 1st LogisticalCommand pitched in to help. Nonmedical commissioned and warrant officerpilots were sent on temporary duty to the 498th. Some of these men wereat first reluctant to leave their gunships and transports, but toward theend of their term with the 498th most wanted to stay longer.
The distance of the deployed 498th platoons from their control headquartersin Saigon, the 1st Logistics Command, helped create a familiar problem.Each commander in II Corps Zone thought that some or all of the air ambulancesbelonged to him. Each thought that the authority to dispatch a flight shouldbe his and that his isolated posts deserved individual Dust Off coverage.The problem was not alleviated by the assignment in late September of the498th to the 43d Medical Group. Madrano had to exercise firmness to preservethe 498th's independence.
The disposition of his platoons compounded Madrano's problem of controllinghis company. While the dispersion provided excellent air ambulance supportto tactical combat units, it also created monumental problems for the company.Maintenance had to be carried on at three sites while the entire maintenanceplatoon was stationed at Nha Trang. Madrano was in the air constantly,visiting platoons or field sites, coordinating operations, and often flyinghot missions from his three bases.
November turned out to be an especially trying month for
everyone in the 498th-pilots, crews, and maintenance men. On 1 Novemberone of the aircraft flew from Qui Nhon to pick up a wounded South Koreansoldier. At the landing zone, just as the medical corpsman finished loadingthe patient, enemy soldiers opened fire on the aircraft; one round hitthe pilot in the neck. The copilot looked to his left, saw the pilot'sbloody wound, and grabbed the controls. By now the North Vietnamese hadbegun to surround the aircraft. Drawing on all the power he could, withno regard for the torque meter, the copilot made a low-level takeoff straightat the enemy. The crew chief leaned out the open cargo door and used anM14 as a club. The aircraft returned to Qui Nhon and the pilot was rushedto an emergency room. He survived, and later returned to the United Statesto recover.
On the night of 11 November an aircraft of the 4th Platoon respondedto an evacuation request from a South Korean unit west of Qui Nhon. Onceover the landing zone they descended rapidly. Near the ground the windshieldsuddenly fogged over and neither pilot could see outside the cockpit. Beforethey could reorient themselves and halt their descent the helicopter crashedon a mountain and burst into flames. The copilot managed to pull the pilotfrom the wreck but the other crewmen perished. Both pilots suffered seriousburns and were evacuated to Japan. The next morning a ground ambulanceevacuated the Korean casualties.
The 436th Medical Company (Provisional)
The next air ambulance company set up in South Vietnam was drawn mainlyfrom detachments already in the country. In April 1965 Lt. Col. James W.Blunt, the Surgeon of the U.S. Army Support Command, Vietnam, complainedabout the common practice of casualty evacuation by nonmedical aircraft.He planned an increase of at least two more air ambulance detachments inVietnam to help counter this practice. The commander of the new 82d MedicalDetachment suggested that he also create a control unit, possibly a provisionalcompany, to command the proposed four air ambulance detachments. Laterin the year Col. Ralph E. Conant, Colonel Blunts successor, decided thatsuch a control unit would indeed reduce the current confusion in III andIV Corp Zone medical evacuation caused by the wide dispersion of the fourdetachments and by their erratic communications. By November he had startedplanning for a provisional air ambulance company composed of four detachments,analogous to the four decentralized platoons of the 498th Medical Company.
On 1 December 1965 the Medical Company (Air Ambulance) (Provisional)was created from the old 57th and 82d Detachments,
and the new 254th and 283d Detachments. The 43d Medical Group, whichalready commanded the 498th Medical Company, now took control of the provisionalcompany. The company's mission was to supervise all aeromedical evacuationin III and IV Corps Zones. The unit's first commander, Maj. Glenn Williams,immediately asserted his authority by having the 57th Detachment removedfrom the operational control of the 145th Aviation Battalion and the 82dDetachment from the 13th Aviation Battalion. Believing his first complementof personnel inadequate to supervise four widely separated detachments,Williams pushed his superiors to expand his staff. On 1 April he receivedpermission to form a company headquarters of two officers and six enlistedmen, who would supervise 46 officers and 114 enlisted men. The companyoperated twenty-two helicopters (five each for the 57th and 82d Detachments,and six each for the 254th and 283d Detachments).
The creation of the provisional company was expected to improve thecoordination of the air ambulance detachments. But company newslettersand personal letters from its men show that the new unit was not a success.Each detachment retained its own identity and tended to regard the companyas just another headquarters in the chain of command. Major Williams alsofound, as had Colonel Madrano in the 498th, that the unique mission andproblems of the air ambulance units required a battalion-size staff insteadof a company headquarters. No doubt more lives could have been saved ifan aggressive battalion safety officer had been available. More helicopterscould have flown if a battalion maintenance officer had been able to coordinateand supervise the work of the young detachment maintenance officers. AlthoughU.S. warehouses were full of the latest flight and safety equipment, thepilots and crew members were seldom able to obtain it, since a young officerwith no supply training, representing a small detachment, had little chanceof finding his way through the maze of supply channels.
But Major Williams was unable to set up more than a small provisionalcompany headquarters. In September 1966 the Provisional Company was renamedthe 436th Medical Detachment (Company Headquarters) (Air Ambulance) andattached to the 68th Medical Group, which had become operational in Vietnamon 1 March. This name lasted until May 1967 when the 436th was renamedthe 658th Medical Company. With the arrival of the 45th Medical Company(Air Ambulance) in July 1967, the 658th was deactivated and the 57th and82d Detachments were attached to the 45th. The 283d moved to Pleiku andthe 254th to Nha Trang. Overall, the experiment had failed.
In late 1966 Operation ATTLEBORO, the largest combined
U.S.-South Vietnamese operation since the start of the war, gave themedical evacuation system its severest test so far in Vietnam. Over as20,000 allied soldiers were embroiled in a struggle with a large enemyforce moving against objectives in Tay Ninh Province.
In October 1966 the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment and two regimentsof the 9th Viet Cong Division began to move east from their sanctuariesalong the Cambodian border. One of the regiments aimed at the Special Forcescamp at Suoi Da, hoping to draw allied units into an ambush by the other9th Division regiments. By the end of November the 1st InfantryDivision, the 173d Airborne Brigade, and elements of the 4th and 25th InfantryDivisions entered the struggle. Even while dealing the Communist forcesa severe setback the allied forces suffered heavy casualties. Friendlylosses were 155 killed and 494 wounded.
During ATTLEBORO the 436th Medical Company flew continuous missions.In two of the battles all the company's aircraft were in action. By theend of November the Dust Off helicopters had brought some 3,000 wounded,injured, and sick soldiers in from the field, aided for the first timeby newly-installed hoists: winches that allowed soldiers to be lifted tohovering aircraft. In the month-long operation the enemy hit fourteen DustOff helicopters, heavily damaged seven, and destroyed one.
One serious problem in the coverage by the air ambulances marred anotherwise impressive performance. Each of the four U.S. combat units inATTLEBORO controlled its own Dust Off aircraft.1 Since the medicalregulating officers with each combat unit rarely coordinated their unit'sDust Off missions with the other dispatchers, the air ambulance with aunit in battle flew a great deal while the other aircraft flew very littleor not at all. Corrections were clearly in order.
The Dust Off system soon, almost too soon, had a chance to show whatit had learned in ATTLEBORO. On 8 January 1967 twenty U.S. and ARVN unitslaunched Operation CEDAR FALLS by penetrating the Iron Triangle northwestof Saigon. Over the next nineteen days the allied combat units sealed off,searched out, and destroyed Communist camps and troop concentrations throughoutthe area, killing 720 enemy soldiers.
During the planning stages of the operation the commander of the 436thhad talked with Army staff about the medical evacuation problems he hadseen during ATTLEBORO. With the staff's help he was able to establish acontrol net for dispatching and following all the Dust Off aircraft inCEDAR FALLS. All Dust Off requests during the operation funneled throughtwo central dispatch agencies. Two Dust Off detachments then divided thebattlefield, each supporting the units
1See Chapter IV for a description of the hoistand various litters.
within its area. Between flights, pilots regularly stayed some timeat the regulating sites to help coordinate missions. Much wasteful duplicationof effort was eliminated; the Dust Off system had been further improved.
The 45th Medical Company
During 1967 a new medical company, the 45th, brought in new equipmentand pilots. In July 1966 the 44th Medical Brigade, which had become operational1 May, asked the U.S. Army, Vietnam, to deploy another air ambulance company.Col. Ray L. Miller, brigade commander, noted that since January monthlymedical evacuations in South Vietnam had risen from three thousand to overfive thousand. Combat damage was taking a heavy toll on the Dust Off aircraft.But Miller's superiors decided to wait for the arrival of some new airambulance units already scheduled for Vietnam. As an interim measure theyassigned six nonmedical helicopters to the evacuation units, three foreach of the two air ambulance companies. The 45th's deployment was postponeda year.
In March 1967 General Westmoreland told the Commander in Chief, U.S.Army, Pacific, that his theater needed 120 air ambulances but had only64 on hand. Even if he received forty-nine more, to which the approvedtroop list entitled him, he would lack seven aircraft. In April the U.S.Army, Vietnam, informed U.S. Army, Pacific, that in light of its growingforces, it had taken several steps to reduce the shortage of air ambulances.Its stopgap measures included giving the 498th and 436th air ambulancecompanies more nonmedical aircraft, giving basic medical training to thoseassault and transport crewmen who might find themselves evacuating thewounded, and even designating certain aircraft in the airmobile assaultunits to carry a medical corpsman during attacks. Since he thought thatthese measures were makeshifts only, Westmoreland urged that the new airambulance company and four detachments be shipped to South Vietnam as soonas possible.
By mid-1967 U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam approached 450,000,and General Westmoreland was asking for even more soldiers. U.S. Army,Vietnam, at last asked for another air ambulance company and four morehelicopter ambulance detachments. If granted, this request would placea total of 109 air ambulance helicopters in South Vietnam.
In late May 1967 the 45th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), stationedat Fort Bragg, North Carolina, received notice that it would soon leavefor Vietnam. It had been on deferred status since 1965 with twenty-fiveobsolete H-19 helicopters. Since the company was unable to acquire itslast twelve authorized pilots before departure, it deployed without thepilots for one entire flight platoon; too many aviation units were forming
and deploying for all to have their full complement of pilots. Beforedeparting, the unit picked up twenty-five new UH-1H's with powerful LycomingL-13 engines. These aircraft could be fitted with hoists for in-flightloading of the wounded, and they also carried new DECCA navigational kits.By 13 September the 45th was fully operational at Long Binh, about twentykilometers northeast of Saigon. The airfield section leader kept some ofhis men busy building a heliport tower, and proved adept at scrounging.His crash rescue team soon had a bright red fire truck. He liberated a3,000-gallon fuel bladder for JP-4 helicopter fuel and another with pumpsfor the aircraft washrack.
The 45th soon committed itself to giving twenty-four hour standbys atseveral bases around Saigon. One aircraft also gave daylight support tothe Australians in the Saigon area. At Long Binh the company kept threestandby aircraft for nearby evacuations and another for VIP or medicaladministration missions. From June through September alone, nine of theaircraft were damaged in combat. In October the 93d Evacuation Hospitalstarted using the 45th to transfer most of its patients to a casualty stagingfacility near Tan Son Nhut, saving the injured the discomfort of ridingin ground ambulances over the congested and dusty streets of Saigon.
The Buildup of 1967
Overall, this was a year of massive buildup for U.S. Army forces inVietnam. Parts of I Corps Zone, until then a U.S. Marine Corps responsibility,went Army. U.S. Army, Vietnam, received not only the 45th Medical Company,but also four new air ambulance detachments. The Dust Off units alreadyin Vietnam were moved to obtain better coverage for the newly deployedtroops. The 54th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived at ChuLai in the southern I Corps Zone in August, immediately began combat trainingwith the 498th Medical Company, and became operational on 25 September1967. It supported the Americal. Division, the Army's largest. The southernI Corps Zone proved to be one of the most hotly contested in South Vietnam,and the 54th soon amassed an enviable record of honorable and dedicatedsupport.
Other medical units followed. In October the 159th Medical Detachment(Helicopter Ambulance) arrived in Cu Chi, twenty kilometers northwest ofSaigon with a mission to support all units in the area, but primarily theU.S. 25th Infantry Division. In November the 571st Medical Detachment (HelicopterAmbulance) joined the 254th at Nha Trang. It did not become operationaluntil 2 January 1968, because the congestion in the ports delayed the unloadingof its equipment. In December the 50th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance)arrived at its base at Phu Hiep, in the southwestern II
Corps Zone, and assumed responsibility for the 173d Airborne Brigade,the 28th ROK Regiment, and all other forces in the vicinity. The day afterits helicopters arrived, the 50th went into action. By the end of Decemberit had evacuated 644 patients, including 100 Koreans.
One of the more dramatic missions flown in this buildup phase of thewar occurred on 18 October 1966 when a Dust Off craft from the 82d Detachmentflew a hot mission near Vi Thanh in the Delta. As the crew approached thelanding zone and slowed their ship, the enemy opened up with heavy andlight automatic weapons fire from three sides. The ship broke off its approachand went around for another try. On the second attempt it took severalmore hits, some in the fuel cells. Its fuel quantity gauge registered zeroand it departed for a safer landing site. After the first Dust Off hadcleared the area, a transport helicopter tried to get in and pull out thecasualties. As soon as it neared the ground the enemy took it under fire,killing the pilot outright. The aircraft crashed in some trees at the edgeof the landing zone.
When they saw how hot the pickup site was, a second Dust Off crew decidedto land some two hundred meters from the crashed transport. As they nearedtheir new site they took one hit in the fuel cell. Another round hit theelectronics compartment, popped half the overhead circuit breakers, destroyedthe compass, and lit up the master warning lights. The crew landed anyway,but the patients would not come out to the ship since mortar rounds beganhitting the area. So Dust Off flew out and struggled back to Vi Thanh formaintenance work.
A third Dust Off crew radioed a nearby gunship that they would liketo follow him in after he prepared the landing zone to make the Viet Congkeep their heads down. The gunship started in with Dust Off following.Enemy fire wounded both crew members on the armed UH-1C, nicknamed the"Huey Hog," but Dust Off continued in and this time managed toland. As soon as they touched down the crew chief and medical corpsmanjumped out and started loading casualties, even though the enemy harassedthem with rifle and mortar fire. They loaded four litter and eleven ambulatorypatients, and signaled the pilots to take off. The pilot drew on his maximumpower as they flew out to safety.
Apart from the drama of even routine evacuations, the Dust Off pilotsworking the Delta in this phase of the war had to cope with a new problem-furnishingmedical evacuation for the joint riverine operations conducted by the U.S.Navy's River Assault Flotilla One, Task Force 117, and the 2d Brigade ofthe Army's 9th Infantry Division. Medical support for waterborne forcesusually went with them
down the rivers. One company of the 9th Medical Battalion staffed anarmored riverine landing craft that was specially fitted with five bunksfor patients. A helipad on the troop carrier consisted of little more thansteel runway matting welded over a framework of pipe. Starting in May 1967similar armored troop carriers, besides their six Navy crewmen, houseda medical team consisting of a battalion surgeon, medical assistants, anda radio-telephone operator. The normal route of evacuation was from thebattlefield to the troop carrier by helicopter, then further evacuationby helicopter to a surgical or evacuation hospital. So the armored troopcarrier with its medical complement was similar to a battalion aid station,except that space on board the ship was extremely limited. The craft usuallycould not hold a patient more than thirty minutes, and only one of thesemedical troop carriers supported each battalion committed to action.
On 3 April 1967 representatives of the 44th Medical Brigade, the 9thInfantry Division Medical Battalion, the U.S. Navy Task Force 117, andthe 436th Medical Detachment (Company Headquarters) met aboard the U.S.S. Montrose, the flagship of the Mobile Riverine Force, to discussmedical care and evacuation. The participants started to work out standardoperating procedures for riverine aeromedical evacuations. One of the biggestearly problems was evacuation of soldiers who were wounded on boats. Col.Robert M. Hall, MACV Surgeon, advocated a floating litter that one or twosoldiers could propel through the water to move a casualty to a helicopterlanding area on the riverbanks. Hoists could also be used to lift the patientsdirectly from the assault boats. The Dust Off pilots of the 436th triedboth these techniques.
In the summer of 1967 the 45th Medical Company took over from the 436ththe direct support of the 9th Division. It also supplied field standbyaircraft for the division base at Dong Tam. To control these aircraft effectively,the division designated a Dust Off control officer who monitored radiotraffic and regulated the dispatches. The 45th continued this mission until22 December 1968, when the 247th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance)arrived to provide evacuation coverage for the Delta.
By early 1968 Dust Off pilots supporting riverine operations no longerhad to land on a postage stamp in the middle of the river. Because of thelong evacuation route and scarcity of hospitals deep in the Delta, the9th Division received permission to make a hospital ship out of a self-propelledbarracks ship, the U.S.S. Colleton. In December 1967 the Colletonsailed to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippine Islands, where hersick bay was enlarged. One month later she rejoined the forces in SouthVietnam. Topside the ship had a helipad with enough space for one helicopterto land with another parked to the side. Navy radio-telephone operatorscontrolled all ap-
proaches to this pad. Down a wide ramp was the triage area with sixlitter stations. On a lower level was the air-conditioned, two table surgicalsuite. The Colleton proved so successful as a hospital ship thatthe division got permission to convert a second vessel. In August 1968the U.S.S. Nueces was outfitted as a 37-bed hospital ship, leavingthe Colleton with the surgical mission.
Toward the end of 1967, U.S. forces in II Corps Zone fought a seriesof battles that in retrospect seem to be little more than a prelude tothe great Communist offensive in the spring of 1968. But one of them, thebattle around Dak To in the Central Highlands, presented the Dust Off pilotsand unit commanders with several new problems: coordinating medical evacuationsfor a rapidly expanding number of allied combat units, arranging for backhaulsfor the heavy casualties that often swamped the nearby 71st EvacuationHospital at Pleiku, and coping with field pickups in rugged terrain concealedby high, triple-canopy jungle.
In August and September 1967 enemy operations in Pleiku Province haddwindled. The 4th U.S. Infantry Division in the area had experienced onlyscattered contacts with the enemy since July, an abnormally long lull inthe fighting. But in October intelligence had detected large and unusualtroop movements near the triborder region, west of the Special Forces campat Dak To in Kontum Province, to the north of Pleiku Province. The terrainin this southwest portion of Kontum Province is steep, rocky, and coveredwith heavy bamboo and jungle. Only one second class road, Route 512, extendedinto this area, and at Fire Support Base Dak To II it became a single-lane,loose-surface trail. Dak To, a small town thirty-seven kilometers up NationalHighway 14 from Kontum, housed South Vietnamese CIDG forces and their U.S.advisers. Late in October the Special Forces troops were constructing anew base nineteen kilometers west of Dak To along Route 512; a battalionof the 4th Infantry Division furnished screening security. When alertedof the enemy movement, the 4th Division commander, Maj. Gen. William R.Peers, quickly arranged to have his screening battalion reinforced by the173d Airborne Brigade. He also sent a 4th Infantry brigade headquartersand a second battalion to the area.
In early November North Vietnamese soldiers launched mass attacks onthese forces, who retaliating strongly, were further reinforced by the1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. While trying to disengage and withdraw,the enemy committed the 174th North Vietnamese Regiment,a reserve unit, to cover their retreat. This resulted in a bloody fightfor Hill 875, which the American forces assaulted for four days
before taking it. By the end of the fighting in the Dak To area on 1December, the U.S. forces there were supporting six ARVN battalions.
At the start of the fighting on 1 November, a single Dust Off ship fromthe 283d Medical Detachment evacuated the first casualties from the clearingstation of the 4th Medical Battalion at Dak To II back to the 71st EvacuationHospital at Pleiku. The radio-telephone operator at the clearing stationtook evacuation requests over the 1st Brigade's tactical net and relayedthem to the Dust Off ship. When the first casualties from a large fightwith the enemy took place on 3 and early 4 November, the 283d ship hadto call on help from transport helicopters, both for field pickups andthe trip to Pleiku. The 283d also quickly field-sited several Hueys atDak To from its new home at Pleiku Air Force Base. Even the gunships ofthe 52d Combat Aviation Battalion started flying noncritical patients fromDak To back to Pleiku at the end of the duty day. When the 173d Airborneentered the fighting on 8 November two platoons of the 498th Medical Company(Helicopter Ambulance), twelve helicopters in all, field-sited at Dak Toto cover the 173d's casualties.
The surgeons in the six operating rooms of the 71st Evacuation Hospitaloften could not handle the large number of casualties. Surgical lag timegrew dangerously long. On 11, 12, and 21 November an overflow of casualtiesforced the evacuation of the less seriously wounded to the 67th and 85thEvacuation Hospitals at Qui Nhon. The Air Force offered invaluable backhaulservice at these times. After 21 November the Air Force placed its owncasualty staging facility at Dak To for evacuation of serious and criticalpatients to Pleiku.
The mountainous terrain around Dak To and the 200-foot high, triple-canopyjungle made it necessary to use extraordinary methods on many of the fieldpickups. During the first eight days of November the 283d Detachment flewfifty-nine hoist missions. But the hoists only partly solved the problem;many patients in early November had wounds at least a day old before adoctor saw them. Nurses, corpsmen, and physicians had to quickly relearnthe techniques of debriding wounds grown septic through delayed treatment.After the first week in November the ground units began using chain sawsand plastic explosives to clear landing zones. Even though the plasticexplosives and chain saws reduced the number of hoist missions, just oneusually put the pilot and his crew in grave danger. During a night hoiston 13 November southwest of Dak To, one Dust Off aircraft took eighteenhits while at a stationary hover. A night hoist mission was undoubtedlythe most unnerving kind of evacuation flight. Even if enemy resistancewas slight, the technical problems of such a mission could take a heavytoll on a pilot's physical and mental well-being.
The battle for Hill 875 accounted for many of the casualties evacuatedby Dust Off. For sixty hours only a few aircraft could reach
the ground forces. In the middle of that period, Lt. Col. Byron P. Howlett,Jr., had four Air Force fighters and four helicopter gunships cover hisapproach to a small landing zone on the hill. He landed safely and loadedcasualties, but on the way out with five seriously injured soldiers hisship took a hit in the rotor head. The ship struggled back to the 173d'sclearing station and could not be flown out. After Colonel Howlett leftthe area, Maj. William R. Hill tried to get into the same landing zonebut took fourteen hits and had to abort the mission. The next day the 173dsecured the area around the landing zone and Dust Off evacuated 160 casualties.All in all, the Dust Off units had four aircraft shot up and five crewmenwounded while evacuating 1,100 patients. The system had proven resourcefulenough to solve several new and perplexing problems.
The 54th and the Kelly Tradition
Pilots in any war consider themselves an elite group, and this was noless true for the Dust Off pilots in Vietnam than for the combat pilots.The Lafayette Escadrille of American pilots in France in World War I hadset the pattern-a high life style and the esprit de corps possiblein a small unit of highly skilled fighting men, in control of the mostadvanced technology. The dramatic entries of Dust Off ships into combatzones, usually unarmed and often unescorted, gave the pilots and crewsa publicity that only heightened their sense of camaraderie. In the KoreanWar well-defined battle lines had permitted most helicopter medical evacuationsto originate behind friendly lines. But the frontless nature of the guerrillawar in Vietnam demanded a novel marriage of the dash of the combat pilotwith the often unheralded courage of the Army medical corpsman.
Maj. Charles L. Kelly was the first Dust Off pilot to exploit fullythe possibilities of the medical helicopters. Not all Medevac and DustOff pilots who arrived after his death tried to emulate his daring, butall fully understood that they could fly few of their missions withouta good dose of raw courage. No Dust Off unit came closer to combining theKelly tradition and the legacy of the Lafayette Escadrille than the 54thMedical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) stationed at Chu Lai, a portcity on the southern coast of I Corps Zone.
In June 1967 the 54th was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, providingevacuation coverage for its Infantry, Airborne, and Ranger Schools. Thatmonth when the unit received an alert notice for deployment to SoutheastAsia, only three of its members were eligible to go: Capt. Patrick H. Bradyand two enlisted men. As new personnel began to filter into the unit, italso received six new UH-1H's straight from the Bell plant.
Captain Brady, who had flown with Kelly in 1964 and assumed
command of Detachment A at Soc Trang after his death, began trainingthe new pilots. All the new warrant officer pilots came from the same flightschool class that had graduated 6 June. All but one of their names beganwith "S." The Army had taken an entire alphabetical block outof the class and assigned it to the 54th. After introducing the pilotsto the aircraft, Brady stressed his technique of tactical flying, whichinvolved close analysis of the terrain to find the best approach to a hotlanding zone.
The advance party, led by Brady, flew over to Vietnam early in Augustand reported to the 44th Medical Brigade at Long Binh. He was instructedto take his unit to Chu Lai in I Corps Zone. Flying north along the coast,they stopped off for a night to visit friends at the 498th Medical Companyat Qui Nhon. Maj. Paul A. Bloomquist, commander, was not able to add muchto the scanty information the 54th already had about its new assignment.At Chu Lai, Brady went to the 2d Surgical Hospital, which offered him aplot of land near the airfield. Most of the personnel and equipment ofthe 54th flew over on a USAF C-141 and arrived on 23 August. The 44th MedicalBrigade assigned the 54th to the 55th Medical Group, which, in turn, gaveoperational control of the 54th to the 498th Medical Company.
As soon as all the men arrived, everyone pitched in to build a livingarea. Thanks to their industry and Brady's determination, they soon hada home. They obtained the first flush toilets in the Chu Lai area, evenbefore the commanding general. Each man had a private room. They also builthot-water showers, a necessity in an area covered with red clay and dust.The enlisted men had a two-story rock-faced billet, which also containedthe unit's music room, steam room, bar, and air-conditioned library, stockedby Captain Brady with 5,000 volumes. Outside was a pond, lined with palmtrees and spanned by a wooden bridge. The unit's pets included severalducks, Gertrude the goose, Super Oink the pig, and Frances the monkey.Most of the men found themselves bicycles, and when Frances fell off oneof them and hurt herself, the nearby 2d Surgical Hospital gladly restoredher to health, For rest and relaxation, most of the men liked to go outto an island named Cu Lao Re, an extinct volcano that Navy men also usedfor scuba diving, fishing, and sunning.
When the U.S.N.S. Card, carrying the unit's helicopters and spareparts, arrived at Vung Tau, a port at the mouth of the Saigon River on24 September, the 54th's commander, Maj. Robert D. McWilliam, sent crewsdown to accept them, inspect them, and ferry them back to Chu Lai. Thenext day the unit became totally operational. To stagger personnel departuredates and provide some personnel continuity, it was customary to infusea new unit in Vietnam with men who had already been in the country a fewmonths, shifting some of the new men to older units. But the 54th resistedattempts to
break up its original team. McWilliam and Brady knew the value of unitcohesion. They also instilled in their pilots the attitude that every mission,day or night, was urgent and should be treated as such, whether the patientwas a papa-san with worms or an American soldier bleeding to death.
One day of the unit's work impressed all the people in the Chu Lai area.Friday, 29 September, became embedded in the memories of the 54th as "BlackFriday." The day started out as usual-the crews eating breakfast,preflighting their ships, and then flying a couple of routine missions.But by that evening all six of the unit's aircraft had been subjected tointense enemy fire at various landing zones, and all had been damaged.Three crewmen had been wounded. This was a true baptism of fire for thefledgling unit. That night most of them looked out at the twelve monthsthat stretched before them, and thought that it would be a very long year.In fact, twenty-two of the crewmen would be wounded during that year, butnone killed.
Dust Off Wins Its First Medal of Honor
As Dust Off flew more and more missions the bravery of its pilots andcrews became evident to all who fought in South Vietnam. While each ofthese pilots returned from a Dust Off mission something of a hero, somepilots distinguished themselves more than others. On the night of 5 January1968 a South Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol left its camp in a heavilyforested valley surrounded by mountains west of Chu Lai. An enemy forcesoon hit the patrol and inflicted several casualties. When the patrol limpedback into camp with its wounded, Sgt. Robert E. Cashon, the senior SpecialForces medical specialist at the base, tended to two critical patientsand radioed his headquarters for a Dust Off ship. Soon the aircraft arrivedoverhead and tried several times to land in the camp. The pilot finallyhad to leave because fog and darkness obscured the ground. The monsoonseason had enshrouded the mountains in soft, marshmallow clouds and fogseveral hundred feet thick. The clouds and fog extended east all the wayto the flatlands between the mountain chain and the South China Sea.
Dawn brought little improvement in the weather. Visibility and ceilingwere still zero. The next crew who tried to reach the camp, at 0700, alsofailed, even though they had been flying in that area for five months.True to the Kelly legacy of unhesitating service, Patrick H. Brady, nowa major, and his crew of Dust Off 55 now volunteered for the mission intothe fog-wrapped mountains.
They flew from Chu Lai to the mountains at low level just under thecloud base, then turned northward to Phu Tho where a trail wound westwardthrough the mountains to the reconnaissance camp.
The fog grew so thick that none of the crew would even see the rotortips of the helicopter. To improve the visibility, Brady lowered his sidewindow and tilted his ship sideways at a sharp angle from the ground. Therotor blades blew enough fog away for him to barely make out the trailbelow the ship. Hovering slowly along the trail and occasionally drawingstartled enemy fire, Dust Off 55 finally reached the valley and the camp.The visibility there was so poor that the ship completely missed the camp'slanding zone and set down in a smaller clearing less than twenty meterssquare between the inner and outer defensive wires of the camp. The outposthad earlier taken mortar rounds and was still under sniper fire. SergeantCashon later said that the landing area would have been hazardous evenin good weather. But Dust Off 55 loaded up, climbed out through the soup,and flew the two critical patients and four others to surgical care.
Brady's sweat from the first mission was hardly dry when another requestchattered in over the 54th's radio. In the late afternoon of the day before,a company of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, 23d Infantry Division, operatingon the floor of the Hiep Due Valley, came under a concerted attack by sixcompanies of the 2d North Vietnamese Division. For nine hours fromtheir well-fortified positions in the surrounding hills, the North Vietnameserained mortars and rockets on the Americans. The enemy had covered thelikely flight paths into the area with 123-mm. antiaircraft guns. Earlyin the assault they had shot down two American gunships. Difficult communicationsand the nearness of the enemy on the night of the fifth had made a DustOff mission impossible, even though the enemy had inflicted heavy casualtieson the Americans. By dawn the company had sixty wounded on its hands.
On the morning of the sixth, a Dust Off pilot WO1 Charles D. Schenck,starting from fire support base West overlooking the valley, tried to flya medical team out to the company and bring some of the wounded back. Butthe vertigo he suffered from the zero visibility forced him to abort. Shortlyafter he returned and told Dust Off Operations Control of his failure,Major Brady and Dust Off 55 began to prepare for flight. Brady, who knewthe Hiep Due Valley, listened to Schenck and the other pilots who had triedto reach the stranded company. Then he loaded a medical team in his ship,cranked the engine, and took off. Several miles from the battle area hefound a hole in the soupy clouds through which he descended to treetoplevel. After twenty long minutes of low-level flight, Dust Off 55 nearedthe stricken company. Brady's surprise approach and the poor visibilitythrew off the enemy's aim; the helicopter landed safely. Once on the groundthe medical team quickly found and loaded the most seriously wounded. Bradymade an instrument takeoff through the clouds, flew to fire base West,and delivered his casualties
to the aid station. He then briefed three other crews on how he wouldexecute his next trip into the area. The three ships tried to follow Bradyin, but thick fog and enemy fire made them all climb out and return toWest. Brady kept going, landed, picked up a load of wounded, and flew themout to West. Twice more he hovered down the trail and brought out wounded.Although the three other ships again tried to emulate his technique, nonecould make it all the way. Brady and his crew evacuated eighteen litterand twenty-one ambulatory patients on those four trips. Nine of the soldierscertainly would not have survived the hours which passed before the foglifted.
As soon as Dust Off 55 refueled, Brady was sent on an urgent missionto evacuate the U.S. soldiers from a unit surrounded by the enemy twenty-sixkilometers southeast of Chu Lai. Machine guns swept the landing zone asthe North Vietnamese tried to wipe out the remaining American troops. Bradytried another surprise tactic. He low-leveled to the area, dropped in,turned his tail boom toward the heaviest fire to protect his cockpit, andhovered backward toward the pinned soldiers. The ship took rounds goingin and once it was on the ground the fire intensified. For fear of beingwounded or killed themselves, the friendly forces would not rise up andhelp load the casualties. Seeing this, Brady took off and circled the areauntil the ground troops radioed him in a second time. As he repeated hisbackward hover, the enemy tried once more to destroy the aircraft. Butthis time the ground troops loaded their comrades, who were soon in therooms of the 27th Surgical Hospital at Chu Lai.
After four hours of flying that Saturday morning, Brady had to changehis aircraft and find a relief copilot. A few hours earlier a platoon ofthe 198th Light Infantry Brigade on a patrol southeast of Chu Lai had walkedinto a carefully planned ambush. Automatic weapons and pressure-detonatedmines devastated the platoon, killing six soldiers outright and woundingall the others. The platoon leader called for Dust Off. A helicopter soonlanded, but took off quickly when a mine detonated close by, killing twomore soldiers of the 198th who were crossing the minefield to aid the wounded.
Hearing this, Brady radioed that he would try the mission. The commanderof the first aircraft suggested that Brady wait until the enemy broke contact.But Brady immediately flew out and landed on the minefield. Most of thecasualties lay scattered around the area where they had fallen. Brady'screw chief and medical corpsman hustled the wounded onto the ship, disregardingthe enemy fire and mines. As they neared the ship with one soldier, a minedetonated only five meters away, hurling the men into the air and perforatingthe aircraft with shrapnel holes. Both crewmen stood up, shaken by theconcussion but otherwise unhurt, and placed the casualty on board. Witha full load Brady flew out to the nearest hospital.
When he returned to the Dust Off pad at Chu Lai and delivered his patients,he again traded his ship for another. He flew two more urgent missionsbefore he ended his day of glory well after dark. He had flown three aircraftand evacuated fifty-one wounded soldiers. For this day's work he was awardedthe Medal of Honor.
Dust Off in the Saddle
As this buildup phase of the war ended in early 1968, U.S. troop strengthin South Vietnam approached a half million uniformed men and women. Bylate 1967 the medical support required for this large military force andthe supplementary medical support furnished to the South Vietnamese werefairly well-organized. Hospitals were rationally dispersed, and they usuallyperformed their mission competently. Most of the air evacuation units thatwould serve in Vietnam were already there. Air crew casualties, while certainlydisturbing, were not alarmingly high. The air ambulance helicopter hadnever been better equipped for its work. The advent of the Lycoming L-13helicopter engine in the UH-1H's had eliminated the problem of the underpoweredaircraft that would not always perform. The enemy's antiaircraft threatwas still primitive, consisting mainly of eye-sighted small arms. The Army'snew radios had smoothed communication difficulties considerably. And thehoist, while creating new dangers, enabled the Dust Off pilots and crewsto extract casualties who otherwise would have languished hours beforereaching a hospital.
Most important of all, the Kelly tradition had survived in full forcein the 54th Detachment, and the pilots of the other detachments, the companies,and the divisional platoons often dared to enter landing zones that theysuspected were dangerous. The courage of these pilots, far more than prescribedprocedures and rigidly defined channels, had made the Dust Off system anobject of reverence in the ever-shifting battlefields of Vietnam.