From Tet To Stand-Down
A reconsideration of the Vietnam War in 1968 by the American peopleand their government led to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from mostof Southeast Asia by March 1973. After reports of a vast enemy offensivein South Vietnam in February 1968 reached the American public and the Johnsonadministration, support for the war, already less than firm, quickly waned.Although the coordinated enemy attacks heavily damaged several allied facilitiesand caused many casualties, the enemy itself suffered greatly in this futileattempt to topple the American-backed Republic of Vietnam. All in all,1968 proved to be a near military disaster for the Viet Cong and theirNorth Vietnamese allies. But once the United States began to withdraw fromSouth Vietnam by the end of the year, events on the battlefield had lessand less influence on the overall American military policy in that country.This last and most trying period of the American experience in Vietnamseverely tested the courage and dedication of the U.S. Army's combat troops,including its Dust Off pilots and crews.
Tet - 1968
By the end of 1967 the enemy had staged large attacks on the borderareas at Song Be, Loc Ninh, and Dak To. The enemy had done much the samein February 1954, just a month before the open-ing of the final campaignat Dien Bien Phu. Their strategem almost worked again. In early December1967 Generals Westmoreland and Cao Van Vien, chief of the South Vietnamesejoint General Staff, discussed the coming Christmas, New Year, and LunarNew Year (Tet) ceasefires. In a show of confidence on 15 December, Westmorelandtransferred the responsibility for defending Saigon to the ARVN forcesand began to move large numbers of U.S. troops outside the Saigon area.But in early January the allies intercepted a message instructing the rebeltroops to flood the Mekong Delta, attack Saigon, and launch a general offensiveand uprising. On 10 January Westmoreland, after hearing the advice of Lt.Gen. Fred Weyand, the commander of II Field Force, Vietnam, began shiftingcombat units back from the border areas to Saigon. By 20 January U.S.
strength in Saigon had almost been restored to its previous high level.Westmoreland warned his superiors that the enemy might attack before orafter the Tet holiday, which would last seven days starting 30 January,but he doubted that they would violate the traditional holiday truce itself.
On 20 January the enemy started their final diversion: a bombardmentof the U.S. Marine Base at Khe Sanh in northern I Corps Zone. This siegecontinued some eleven weeks, well beyond the collapse of the Tet offensive,and demanded a large-scale rescue effort by U.S. forces in the north. Onthe morning of 30 January, the start of the Tet holiday, some Viet Congunits prematurely attacked seven cities. The main enemy attacks began thenext day throughout the country and continued through 11 February. Althoughthe allied command on 30 January cancelled all holiday leave for militarypersonnel, few soldiers returned to their posts quickly enough to helpstem the main attacks. The enemy failed to provoke a national uprising,and suffered heavy losses. But the Tet offensive damaged many allied, especiallySouth Vietnamese, facilities and caused thousands of allied civilian andmilitary casualties.
Enemy attacks on allied bases quickly drew Dust Off into the thick ofthe fighting. In the north the 43d Medical Group suffered damage to manyof its dispersed aircraft. All medical units, both north and south, hadbeen warned at least a few hours in advance to expect heavy casualties,but the offensive still almost swamped all allied hospitals and clinics.On 1 February the 43d Medical Group, with the 44th Brigade's approval,requested a C-141 for a special mission, evacuating as many U.S. casualtiesas possible from the 6th Convalescent Center, the 8th Field Hospital, andthe 91st Evacuation Hospital, to make room for the continuing influx ofwounded. CH-47 Chinook helicopters evacuated many patients between hospitalsand casualty staging facilities.
On 1 February the 44th Medical Brigade's aviation officer told the variousmedical groups that all helicopter ambulance detachments were limited totwelve pilots, regardless of any other authorization. Both pilots and machineshad become critically short. If any of the 43d's detachments should runinto severe problems, it was to turn to the 55th Group and the 498th MedicalCompany. Later the 43d Group did have to call on the 55th Group for substituteaircraft. Only the somewhat sporadic nature of the fighting allowed themedical system to keep up with the inflow of patients.
At the start of the Tet offensive, the air ambulance detachments inthe south were no better prepared for the onslaught of wounded than thosein the north. The 44th Brigade began to keep constant watch on the statusof the aircraft with each detachment so it could redistribute the flyableaircraft to the detachment in greatest need. But fighting
soon inflicted a great deal of damage to the Dust Off aircraft throughoutSouth Vietnam.
The problems of the 45th Medical Company and the 57th Detachment, bothstationed at Long Binh outside Saigon, were typical. By midday on I Februaryboth units had notified the 67th Medical Group that they needed a hospitalto receive ARVN patients, but the only one with any beds still open wasat Vung Tau, sixty-five kilometers from Saigon on the coast. Since the45th was down to seven flyable aircraft of its complement of twenty-five,the 44th Brigade gave it two aircraft from the 43d Medical Group. By thetime the fighting subsided, twenty-two of the 45th's aircraft had beendamaged. Some administrative delays were avoided during the fighting whenthe 67th and 68th Medical Groups allowed the 45th Company to coordinatedirectly with the 57th for such mutual support as they needed.
Tet swept through the Delta as it did elsewhere. The 82d Medical Detachmentat Soc Trang had to support the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, three ARVNdivisions, the 164th Aviation Group, and scattered Special Forces units.In February the pilots evacuated over 1,400 patients. The unit lost threeaircraft the first night of the offensive. First up that night, Capt. HarveyHeuter, flew to Can Tho to pick up three casualties, then proceeded toVinh Long for more, on his way to the 3d Surgical Hospital at Dong Tam,Vinh Long was wrapped in close-up fighting, even on the airstrip. Afterhe left the strip with his first load, Heuter radioed his unit that fromthe air the friendly soldiers were indistinguishable from the enemy; herecommended the front of the dispensary as the safest place for the nexthelicopter to land for the rest of the casualties. While gunships orbitedand fired when they could clearly see enemy on the ground, another 82dship, piloted by Capt. Al Nichols, flew into Vinh Long and out again, takingfire both ways. The 82d often had to borrow aircraft, and sometimes itused pilots from other units to keep up with the missions.
Whereas most of the fighting in the Tet offensive lasted only a fewdays, the fighting in the ancient city of Hue, near the coast in northernI Corps Zone, raged for twenty-five days. The Army's 1st Cavalry Divisionhad started moving north in January to conduct joint operations with theU.S. Marines and possibly to take part in a relief operation toward theMarine base at Khe Sanh. The Air Ambulance Platoon moved with them to theairstrip that served Hue and adjacent Phu Bai. After one night at Phu Baithe Air Ambulance Platoon pitched their tents in an area nearer Hue thatthey appropriately named "Tombstone"- their base was in a graveyard.The same area later became Camp Eagle when the 101st Airborne set up itsdivision base there. After a few nights at Tombstone, and a few Viet Congmortar attacks, the platoon moved north with the 1st Cavalry to a new base,
Camp Evans, a former Marine base along Route 1 toward Quang Tri. Theplatoon then dispersed its twelve aircraft among five locations.
On the morning of 31 January some seven thousand enemy soldiers, mostlyNorth Vietnamese regulars, swarmed over Hue and seized all of the cityexcept the Imperial Palace and the MACV compound across the Perfume River.Maj. Dorris C. Goodman, the platoon commander, and Capt. Lewis Jones pulledthe first evacuation mission out of Hue. They low-leveled down the PerfumeRiver into the city. At the pickup site, they found that the patients werenot yet ready. After flying back to the River, they hovered between twogunships until called back in to complete the pickup. They then low-leveledout the way they had come in. Other Medevac ships followed them along thesame route in the days of fighting that followed. As in the south, theair ambulances proved how necessary they were. Landing on tops of buildingsand in city streets, using their hoists for inaccessible areas, the crewsflew round the clock, not only to evacuate the wounded but also to movepatients from overcrowded hospitals to other medical facilities. The AirAmbulance Platoon, the 571st Medical Detachment, and elements of the 498thMedical Company took part in Operation PEGASUS, a joint allied operationin early April to relieve the Khe Sanh combat base.
One of the most dramatic Dust Off missions in the north came shortlyafter a platoon of the 101st Airborne on the night of 3 April set up campabout five miles southeast of fire support base Bastogne on Highway 547west of Hue. The mountains around them were dark, drenched with rain, andcovered in fog. About 0100 the enemy probed the camp's perimeter with automaticweapons fire, then launched a ground attack. It was quickly beaten off,but two U.S. soldiers were critically wounded. The platoon leader calledfor Dust Off and specified that the mission required a hoist. The 101stBrigade Surgeon monitored the call and advised Dust Off to wait until daybreakto attempt the mission, since to fly that night with no visibility wouldcourt disaster. Lieutenants Michael M. Meyer and Benjamin M Knisely crankedas soon as the mission request came through again at dawn. They set upa high orbit while waiting for the C-model gunships to fly out from Hueto cover them, but the gunships radioed they could not get out becauseof the fog. Meyer made a low pass over the area and, although the platoonleader did not mark his position with smoke, Meyer's crew made a fairlygood identification by radio. The ground unit told Dust Off they had receiveda few rockets and considerable small arms fire, and they suggested he waitfor guns to cover the mission. Meyer returned to Phu Bai to refuel andget his gun team.
At noon the Dust Off ship started out again to pull the two originalcasualties and three newly wounded soldiers, but this time with two UH-1Cgunships alongside. Once in the area, the gunships made
several passes in the vicinity of the platoon to draw fire, but theytook none. Meyer shot his approach up the valley and came to a hover. Themedical corpsman and crew chief had trouble seeing down through the trees.Finally the corpsman said he could see people on the ground and startedthe hoist cable on its way down. just then the gun team leader saw a trailof white smoke streaking toward the red cross on the fully opened cargodoor, but before he could radio a warning a rocket struck and exploded.The aircraft, engulfed in flames, half flew, half bounced almost a quarterof a mile down the tree-covered hillside. The last thing Knisely rememberedwas the cargo door flying past his window. His helmeted head struck thedoor jamb and he passed out. The burning ship crashed down through thetrees and came to rest on its left side. Meyer climbed out of the shipand started running, but stopped when he heard screaming, and returned.He kicked out the windshield, reached in, and unbuckled the unconsciousKnisely who fell forward against the instrument panel. As he did so, afuel cell in the belly of the ship exploded and blew Meyer away from it.He returned a second time, removed Knisely's helmet and pulled him fromthe ship. With his bare hands he patted out the burning jungle fatiguesand then dragged his inert pilot a safe distance away. Before he couldreturn to see if the crew were still alive, machine gun rounds startedcooking off and the ship completely burned, an inferno of magnesium andsynthetics. Later that afternoon Knisely regained consciousness, but neitherof the pilots wanted to move very far. The ship was no more than a pileof ashes.
About 1700, hearing sounds of people approaching, Meyer and Knisely,both injured and unarmed, could do no more than crawl further under thebushes. From the voices, they immediately decided their visitors were notof English extraction. Just as the North Vietnamese troops arrived, anAmerican rescue party also appeared and a skirmish broke out. For twentyminutes bullets whizzed and whined overhead and around the smoldering ashesof the Dust Off ship. The North Vietnamese finally broke contact and escapeddown the hill.
The downed crew heard voices calling out in English. They were stillafraid to answer but Meyer finally called out. The patrol was from theplatoon-a lieutenant, a radioman, a medical corpsman, and several soldierswho had volunteered to work their way down the hill to the crash site andto rescue any survivors. They had not expected to run into the North Vietnamesepatrol. It had taken them five hours to get to Meyer and Knisely. The corpsmanchecked them both over carefully: both of Meyer's hands were burned andone was broken, and Knisely had third-degree burns on one arm, lesser burnson his face, and a broken ankle. The trip back up the hill to the defensiveperimeter was torturous for all concerned. Knisely, only intermittentlyconscious, could not walk and had to be carried or dragged.
The group made only a few hundred meters that first night. While clamberingup the hill the next morning, they heard shouting from overhead. They lookedup a nearby tree and saw the medical corpsman, who had been thrown fromthe aircraft as it careened down the hillside. The party got him down andfound that he had a broken hip and various bruises and contusions, butaltogether he was a very lucky lad. The crewchief, Sp4c. James E. Richardson,had perished in the inferno of the crash. Early that afternoon, the rescueparty and the three Dust Off survivors rejoined the platoon where theylearned that one of the gunshot victims had died. Because the enemy wasstill around in force, Dust Off could not get into the area without hazardinganother loss. The downed crew told the ships overhead that it was not reallyurgent to get them out. They spent a second night on the ground.
Next day, when Lt. Col. Byron P. Howlett, Jr., the 498th's commander,heard of the crash, he and one of the platoon leaders jumped into an aircraftand flew the three hours from Qui Nhon to Phu Bai to hasten the extraction.Once there, Colonel Howlett declared that he was going to pull the missionno matter what. The next morning, he flew out and orbited the area withseveral gunship escorts to protect the attempt. One of the gunships droppedseveral blocks of plastic explosive so that the platoon below could blastout a landing zone. But the trees proved too dense to clear much more thana 30-by-30-foot area, far too small for a Huey to land in. By noon allthe platoon and the crew were in the middle of the clearing. A Skyraidermade several passes on the hill near the clearing, followed by Huey gunships.Then Dust Off, piloted by Howlett, flew in, hoisted out the three mostserious casualties, all from the 101st, and evacuated them to the clearingstation at Bastogne. A 571st ship flew in next, hoisted out several morewounded, and departed. On the third extraction, Colonel Howlett pulledMeyer and Knisely. The two ships had hoisted twenty-three wounded.
The Drawdown Begins
The war changed considerably after the enemy defeat during the Tet Offensiveof 1968. By the end of the year many North Vietnamese units had withdrawnto Cambodia and Laos, leaving behind smaller units to harass the alliedforces. The Military Assistance Command responded by adopting new tacticsfor its ground forces, using small units against precise objectives ratherthan large forces on area sweeps. These changes, however, did not immediatelyaffect the well-established system of medical evacuation. By the end ofthe year air ambulance coverage was at its peak. Though the 50th Detachmentwas deactivated on 1 July, it soon reappeared as the twelve-helicopter
Air Ambulance Platoon of the 326th Medical Battalion, 101st AirborneDivision (Airmobile), in northern I Corps Zone. The platoon quickly becameknown as Eagle Dust Off, the second air ambulance platoon in South Vietnam,joining the Medevac platoon of the 1st Cavalry.
In 1969 the war changed in several important ways. The diplomats inParis conducting peace negotiations, which had begun after Tet, put proceduralquestions aside and began to concentrate on substantive issues. Ho ChiMinh died and was replaced by a collective leadership in North Vietnam.In the United States, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon,facing ever stronger domestic opposition to the war, announced the firstof a series of withdrawals of U.S. troops from Vietnam. In March 1969,U.S. forces in Vietnam totaled 541,000, the peak level of American involvement.But in June, September, and December, President Nixon announced phasedwithdrawals of 110,000 U.S. personnel. The United States told the Republicof Vietnam that eventually it would have to defend itself without the aidof American ground combat forces.
The changes in the war produced changes in the Army's system of medicalcare. In the summer of 1969, the 44th Medical Brigade was removed fromthe 1st Logistical Command and assigned directly to U.S. Army, Vietnam.Eliminating that link in the chain of command greatly increased the brigade'sinfluence. As combat and support units began to leave South Vietnam, U.S.troop locations and assignments changed rapidly, demanding equally rapidreassessments and readjustments of the medical support structure. Hospitalsclosed, reduced their holding capacity, or relocated. Coordination at theMACV level and between the various service components became vital.
In the summer of 1969, the 44th Medical Brigade deactivated the 55thMedical Group, which had never commanded aeromedical evacuation units,and thereby reduced its groups in Vietnam to three: the 67th in I CorpsZone, the 43d in II Corps Zone, and the 68th in III and IV Corps Zones.On 15 January 1970 the 44th Brigade further reduced its medical groupsby deactivating the 43d at Nha Trang. The 67th Group at Da Nang then assumedcontrol of I Corps Zone and the northern half of II Corps Zone; the 68thGroup at Bien Hoa took the southern half of II Corps Zone along with IIIand IV Corps Zones. At that time the 44th Brigade exercised command andcontrol over all U.S. Army medical resources in South Vietnam, except forthose organic to combat units. The USARV Surgeon General's office existedas a separate staff element under USARV headquarters. Since this producedmuch duplication of function and effort, on 1 March 1970 the headquartersof the 44th Medical Brigade and the USARV Surgeon's office merged to formthe U.S. Army Medical
Command, Vietnam (Provisional) (MEDCOM). The MEDCOM commander, Brig.Gen. David E. Thomas, also held the position of USARV Surgeon.
A Second Medal of Honor
Even as the drawdown got under way, in October 1969 Dust Off showedthat its pilots could be heroes in times of withdrawal. CW3 Michael J.Novosel, a pilot of the 82d Medical Detachment, 45th Medical Company, 68thMedical Group, stationed at Binh Thuy in the Delta, seemed an unlikelyhero. Forty-eight years old and a father of four, he was in his secondtour of duty in Vietnam. In 1964 he had abandoned a lucrative pilot's jobwith Southern Airways and the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air ForceReserve to serve as an Army pilot in Vietnam, where he joined the DustOff team. Four times a day he applied medication to his eyes to treat theglaucoma whose onset had recently prevented him from returning to workas a civilian airline pilot. Only because the Army had granted him a waiverfor his condition was he now back in Vietnam, again serving as a Dust Offpilot. Standing only five feet four inches, weighing less than 150 pounds,he lacked the physical characteristics of the stereotypical military hero.But he possessed qualities that were more important than physical prowess.
On the morning of 2 October 1969 the right flank of a three-companyARVN force came under intense fire as it moved into an enemy training groundright on the Cambodian border in the Delta province of Kien Tuong. Duringthe next six hours U.S. Air Force tactical air support and Army gunshipstried several times to enable the stranded soldiers to escape. Most ofthe uninjured soldiers managed to retreat some two thousand meters south,but others, finding their retreat blocked by high waters in swamps andrice paddies, could not get out. Several who had been wounded lay scatteredabout where they had been hit, near a group of bunkers and two forts usedby the enemy in training exercises for simulated attacks on South Vietnameseinstallations.
In the midafternoon a U.S. Army command- and- control helicopter abovethe battleground radioed for a Dust Off ship. Operations control of the82d Detachment relayed the request to Dust Off 88, whose aircraft commander,Mr. Novosel, and pilot, W01 Tyrone Chamberlain, had already flown sevenhours of missions that day. The crew chief was Sp4c. Joseph Horvath andthe medical corpsman was Sp4c. Herbert Heinold. Novosel immediately headedtoward the border. Since the wounded ARVN soldiers did not show themselveson his first two hotly contested approaches to the area, Novosel circledat a safer range to signal the wounded to prepare for an evacuation.
Finally one soldier had the nerve to stand up in elephant grass andwave his shirt overhead. Novosel dropped his ship into the area again andskidded along the ground toward him. The crew scooped the soldier up andtook off.
After that, by ones and twos, the ARVN soldiers waved to the circlinghelicopter that continued to draw enemy fire. Four soldiers stood up andDust Off 88 picked them all up on one approach. Enemy machine guns killedat least one other soldier as he signaled. At 1730, Dust Off 88 droppedthe first load of casualties off at the Special Forces camp at Moc Hoa,refueled, and headed back to the fray. While Chamberlain monitored theinstruments and tried to spot the casualties, Horvath and Heinold hungout both sides of the aircraft on the skids, grabbing people when theycould and pulling them inside the ship. Where the elephant grass was sotall that it prevented landing, Horvath and Heinold hung onto litter strapsto reach far enough down to grab the men below.
During the second series of lifts, while Novosel hovered at a safe range,Air Force F-100's roared down on the enemy, dropping 500-pound bombs andfiring 20-mm. cannon. But when Dust Off 88 went back in for the wounded,enemy fire was still extremely intense.
The second group of ARVN soldiers were seriously wounded. One had ahand blown apart; another had lost part of his intestines; another wasshot in the nose and mouth. As soon as the ship left the area for Moc Hoa,Heinold began tending the more seriously injured, applying basic lifesavingfirst aid, to make sure the wounded were breathing and that the bleedingwas momentarily stanched. During the fifteen minute flight back he alsomanaged to start intravenous injections on those he thought were low onblood or going into shock..
Although the enemy fire knocked out the VHF radio and airspeed indicatorearly in the mission, Novosel continued to fly. At least six times enemyfire forced him out of the area. Each time he came back in from anotherdirection, searching for gaps in the enemy's fixed field of fire from thefort and numerous bunkers. Between his three trips to the area Novoselused his craft to guide the withdrawal of stragglers around the swampsand rice paddies.
On the last of his trips, with dusk approaching, a pair of AH-lG Cobragunships gave the helicopter some covering fire. At 1900, when nine casualtieswere already on board, Horvath told Novosel that a man close to a bunkerwas waving to them. Suspecting that something was awry, Novosel told hiscrew to stay low in the ship while he hovered backwards toward the man,putting as much of the airframe as possible between the bunker and hismen. As soon as the soldier was close enough, Horvath grabbed his handand started pulling him into the ship. Before he could get him in, an enemysoldier stood up in the grass about thirty feet in front of the ship. Heopened fire with his
AK47, aiming directly at Novosel. Bullets passed on either side of him.One deflected off the sole of his shoe, and plexiglass fragments from thewindshield hit his right hand. Shrapnel and plexiglass buried in his rightcalf and thigh. Both in pain and disgust, and to warn the copilot, Novoselshouted, "Aw hell, I'm hit." The aircraft momentarily went outof control and leaped sixty feet into the air. The ARVN soldier Horvathhad been pulling aboard slipped off the ship, but Horvath kept his gripand pulled him back in. As he did so, he fell backwards on some of themen already there and cut his neck on their equipment. Chamberlain goton the aircraft controls with Novosel and they flew back to Moc Hoa. Theyshut down the engine, unloaded the wounded, and inspected their ship. Despiteseveral hits to the rotor system and the cockpit, the aircraft could fly.The crew returned to Binh Thuy, ending their work after eleven hours inthe air. They had evacuated twenty-nine wounded ARVN soldiers, only oneof whom died. For this, Novosel was awarded the Medal of Honor.
VNAF Dust Off
In spite of the bravery of Army Dust Off pilots like Mr. Novosel theVietnamization of the war required that the South Vietnamese Army rapidlydevelop its own Dust Off system. The United States in May 1956 had takenresponsibility for training and advising the South Vietnamese Air Force.The United States soon supplied the Vietnamese with H-19 helicopters, andlater replaced them with H-34's. In August 1965 the Vietnamese Air Forcereceived U.S.-made B-57 Canberra bombers, its first jet aircraft. In Octoberof the same year it received its first UH-1B's. By the end of 1972, asa result of Vietnamization, it owned 500 new helicopters, organized ineighteen squadrons-"one of the largest, costliest, and most modernhelicopter fleets in the world." By July 1972 U.S. flight schoolsin the continental United States had graduated 1,642 South Vietnamese helicopterpilots. No materiel or personnel shortages prevented the creation of aneffective VNAF Dust Off system.
From the very first years of Dust Off in Vietnam, Army regulations specifiedthat the primary responsibility for aeromedical evacuation of ARVN casualtieslay with the South Vietnamese Air Force. ARVN officers were supposed torefer missions to the U.S. medical regulators only when their Air Forcecould not fly the mission. But in practice this regulation was often ignored.In November 1968 the USARV commanding general cabled all Army commandsin the country: "Attempts to supplant VNAF with USARV resources orto allow requests for medevac of ARVN troops to go directly to USARV elementswithout first asking for VNAF precludes the RVN from developing effectiveaeromedical evacuation capabilities. Commanders are enjoined to prohibitsuch attempts."
Medical Command, Vietnam, responded to this directive by changing severalelements of USARV Regulation 40-10, concerning aeromedical evacuation,to try to prevent Dust Off from accepting Vietnamese missions except whenthe case was urgent and the RVN Air Force fully committed elsewhere. Theonly civilians to be evacuated were those in the Civilian War CasualtyProgram. But the problem would not go away. A MEDCOM staff officer wroteto the Surgeon General's office: "It is definitely an uphill fightmainly because VNAF controls the aircraft and our USAF are their advisors.Our USAF has gone on record stating that dedicated aircraft for battlefieldevacuation is ridiculous and a waste of assets. This policy has made itimpossible to get our foot in the door thus far."
In February and March 1969 several U.S. commanders in Vietnam urgedthe creation of a Dust Off training program for VNAF pilots and medicalcorpsmen. One commander even suggested giving the RVN Air Force thirty-sixnew helicopters if they would promise to dedicate them exclusively to airambulance missions. Over the next two years several attempts to work outa plan for attaching VNAF pilots and medical corpsmen to American DustOff units failed because of disputes between the U.S. Army and U.S. AirForce over the concept of dedicated aircraft, because of the seeminglyintractable nature of the language barrier, and because of the reluctanceof the RVN Air Force to accept responsibility for its own Dust Off program.
Finally on 3 March 1971, after almost two years of talks and four monthsof preparation, the 57th and 82d Medical Detachments in IV Corps Zone starteda Dust Off training program for VNAF helicopter pilots and crews. The Americanssoon observed that the VNAF pilots learned faster than was expected. Thetwo detachments arranged a rest area for the VNAF crews, allowed them toeat at U.S. Army mess halls, but flew them back to their base at Binh Thuy,near Can Tho, at the end of the day. On 21 March the first all-VNAF crewflew out of Binh Thuy on a Dust Off pickup. By September the program hadtrained some fifty VNAF pilots and crews in Dust Off procedures. Similarefforts in the other Corps Zones were also successful. Between late Mayand the end of October a similar program at Long Binh could graduate onlynine of the twenty VNAF pilots who started. Three of those who graduated,however, started training other VNAF pilots; so by the end of NovemberVNAF Dust Off crews were flying 70 percent of the patients in III CorpsZone. Similar programs in I and II Corps Zones ended in early 1972 withgood results. By January 1972 all four programs had trained eighty-threeVNAF pilots, twenty-one crew chiefs, and twenty-eight medical corpsmen,all of whom were considered fully qualified.
In addition to this training program, the MACV Surgeon's office sawthat the number of VNAF Dust Off aircraft increased in step with
Vietnamization. From 1 November 1971 to 30 April 1972, as a part ofthe overall U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. Army gave the South Vietnamese armedforces 270 UH-1H utility helicopters, 101 O-1G light observation helicopters,and 16 CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters. The MACV Surgeon's office triedto ensure that about 6.5 percent of VNAF helicopters would be permanentlydedicated medical evacuation ships. MACV planners fully realized that thisminimal allocation would be inadequate to cover civilian casualties andnonurgent military casualties as well as urgent military casualties. Butthey considered it the best they could hope for.
During this period of rapidly dwindling resources, the U.S. Army DustOff program experimented with a new form of organization-the medical evacuationbattalion-that proved to be more successful than the medical evacuationcompany. Plans for such a unit originated in July 1969, just as the firststand-downs from Vietnamization began to take place in the 9th Division.On 1 August, the 54th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) at ChuLai created a similar unit by taking over the operational control of adental service team, a preventive medical team, a veterinary detachment,and the 566th Medical Company (Ambulance). Although this new organizationprovided professional services other than medical transportation, it foreshadowedthe medical evacuation battalion by combining surface and air evacuationassets.
In February 1970 the 44th Medical Brigade started to convert the 61stMedical Battalion at Cam Ranh Bay into just such a battalion. The brigadestripped the 61st of its responsibility for treating patients, then relocatedit northward to Qui Nhon. When it became operational on 26 February 1970,the 61st started to control all nondivisional ambulances in the northernhalf of South Vietnam. The mission of the battalion was considerably broaderthan that of a detachment or company; it had to provide ground as wellas air transport, and move not only patients but also medical personnel,supplies, and equipment.
To accomplish this mission, the battalion had six helicopter ambulancedetachments, two ground ambulance detachments, one bus ambulance detachment,and one air ambulance company-a total of sixty-one UH-lH helicopters, eighty-seven3/4-ton ambulances, and three bus ambulances. To improve the command structureof the battalion, its commander formed smaller air ambulance "detachmentgroups." A MEDCOM aviation officer explained the rationale behindthe action:
We are paying some high penalties because of the lackof experienced aviators. We just do not have enough second-tour types toprovide a commander for each unit. Our average for both commissioned andwarrant second tours is far below the USARV average. In an effort to compensatefor
this lack of experience "Detachment Groups"have been formed, where two or more detachments are located in close proximity,with the senior aviator assigned controlling and coordinating activities.We hope this will give us better control and take maximum advantage ofthe experience we do have.
The 283d air ambulance detachment was put under the 498th Medical Company(Air Ambulance), the 236th and 237th air ambulance detachments under the571st air ambulance detachment, and the 68th air ambulance detachment underthe 54th air ambulance detachment.
The 61st Medical Evacuation Battalion proved successful. Aircraft availabilityrates increased 20 percent and the battalion's units passed their commandinspections with flying colors. Plans were made for a second battalion.On 1 May 1970 the 58th Medical Battalion became the 58th Medical EvacuationBattalion, with its headquarters at Long Binh. Its mission was to providecoverage for southern II Corps Zone, and III and IV Corps Zones. The battalionhad fifty-five UH-lH helicopters to support this area.
For a year the two evacuation battalions performed their tasks verywell. But by the spring of 1971 the declining personnel ceilings in Vietnamhad made the battalions an unaffordable luxury. Medical Command, Vietnam,prepared to deactivate the battalions and transfer many of their functionsto the staff of the 67th and 68th Medical Groups. On 10 June both battalionstotally disbanded.
From the early 1960s the North Vietnamese Army had brought suppliesand troops into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail running souththrough the Laotian panhandle and eastern Cambodia, and along the trailsrunning northeast from the Cambodian coast on the Gulf of Thailand. In1967 the United States began covert operations, code-named SALEM HOUSE,against these enemy supply routes. Although limited in size and scope-eachincursion team had a maximum of twelve allied soldiers, including threeAmerican soldiers, and a maximum penetration of twenty kilometers intoCambodia-some 1,400 SALEM HOUSE missions took place from 1967 through 1970.
In early 1970 the U.S. military leaders in Vietnam saw the need forlarger strikes against the supply routes. Insurgents in Cambodia were steppingup their campaign against the new anti-Communist Cambodian government ofLt. Gen. Lon Nol, and Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, was soon isolated.On 1 April the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces began to clear a corridorten to fifteen miles wide along the border all the way from the Gulf ofThailand to the
Fish Hook region north-northwest of Saigon, threatening III and IV CorpsZones in South Vietnam.
Responding to these threats, the allied forces decided to openly assistthe new Cambodian government. In mid-April ARVN forces conducted a limitedcross-border raid near the Parrot's Beak region, south of the Fish Hookregion. At the same time U.S. and ARVN staffs started planning for a jointoperation against several enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia, especially inthe Fish Hook region, and on 28 April President Nixon approved the finalplan. From early May to the end of June elements of several large U.S.combat units in South Vietnam-the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st CavalryDivision, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment-took part in these jointstrikes at suspected Viet Cong bases over the border. USAF B-52 tacticalbomb strikes and large-scale U.S. helilifts and helicopter gunship strikesprepared the way for the ground forces.
Dust Off and Medevac helicopters supported both South Vietnamese andAmerican soldiers in this operation. During May the 1st Cavalry's Air AmbulancePlatoon supporting the attack flew 1,042 missions (307 in Cambodia) andevacuated 1,600 patients (946 from Cambodia). The dense jungle and forestsalong the border resulted in eighty hoist missions for 182 patients. Althoughconstituting only 7.6 percent of the total missions for May, hoist missionsaccounted for 53 percent of the ships hit by enemy fire that month. InMay four ships were destroyed and eleven damaged. Ten crewmen were woundedand one killed. In June deeper penetrations into Cambodia increased flyingtime for the pilots and crews, even while the number of missions declinedas the fighting tapered off. The crews flew 682 missions (199 in Cambodia)and evacuated 1,056 patients (397 from Cambodia). They also extracted 185patients in ninety-one hoist missions. The 45th Medical Company and the159th Medical Detachment helped the Air Ambulance Platoon by backhaulingmany patients to hospitals around Saigon. Because the Viet Cong had beenwarned of the foray and had fled the area, casualties were far below theApril estimates. What had loomed as a severe test for the Dust Off systemproved to be largely routine work, except for the dangerous hoist missionsover triple-canopy jungle and forest.
A Medevac in Peril
One of these hoist missions during the Cambodian operation demonstratedthat the air ambulance pilots had no monopoly on heroism among the U.S.Army medical personnel in Vietnam. On the morning of 24 May 1970 a helicopterof the Air Ambulance Platoon was ferrying S. Sgt. Louis R. Rocco, the medicaladviser of a MACV advisory team stationed at Katum. Since December 1969
Sergeant Rocco had served as liaison to the 1st ARVN Airborne Division'smedical battalion. He had trained ARVN personnel on mission requests, useof the hoist, the forest penetrator, and the semi-rigid litter, and healso had presented classes on basic first aid. Whenever his duties allowedhim the time, Rocco rode the medical helicopters on live missions to helpthe medical corpsmen and to practice some "hands on" medicinehimself.
At 1100 on 24 May, Medevac 2 with Sergeant Rocco on board flew towardits base at Katum, in northern Tay Ninh province along the Cambodian border.A request for a pickup came in through the radio of a command-and-controlhelicopter flying overhead. The call was on behalf of eight urgent patientsof the 1st ARVN Airborne Division. Two of the division's companies, the61st and 63d, were on a sweep operation five miles inside the Cambodianborder. The day before, the two companies had made contact with a NorthVietnamese force that broke off and withdrew. The commander of the 61stCompany had the small task force dig in for the night. The enemy attackedat dawn on the twenty-fourth but was repulsed by the defenders. In pursuingthe North Vietnamese the ARVN soldiers took eight casualties. The U.S.advisers to the 61st and 63d Companies radioed their evacuation requestthrough Maj. Jesse W. Myers, Jr., senior battalion adviser, who was overheadin a command-and-control helicopter. The pilot of Medevac 2, 1st Lt. StephenF. Modica, radioed that he would take the mission as soon as he droppedoff a load of supplies. At Katum, the crew threw the beer and sodas ontothe pad, grabbed an extra chest protector for Rocco, and took off again.Regulations of the 1st Cavalry required gunship cover for evacuation missionsif a unit had been in contact with the enemy within the past twenty-fourhours. Usually C Battery, 2d Battalion, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery-the"Blue Max"-provided this cover by orbiting a team of two AH-1GCobras, one high and one at treetop level. Medevac 2 had already learnedfrom the U.S. adviser with the ARVN companies that the last contact hadbeen to the north two hours earlier. Soon the Blue Max gun team arrivedon station; Modica briefed them on the situation and said he would shoothis approach from the south. When the helicopter dropped to the landingzone, North Vietnamese hidden in the trees and along the ridge line openedfire with small arms and automatic weapons. The lower gunbird opened fireat the muzzle flashes in the trees. On its second pass it used its grenadelauncher; the enemy redirected some of its fire and the gunship took itsfirst hit. On its next run it again took enemy fire.
Just before the Medevac landed, two enemy rounds hit Modica in the chestprotector and one passed through his left knee and lodged against the femur.As soon as the aircraft bumped down, the copilot
turned to kid Modica that he ought to practice his landings. When hesaw Modica's wounds, he took the controls and pulled the ship out of thelanding zone. The aircraft rose fifty feet into the air before the enginestalled and the aircraft crashed back to the ground. Major Myers laterdescribed what he saw from above in his command-and-control ship: "The[Medevac] ship seemed to land, then shot up in the air, and then fell tothe ground rolling over on its side, thrashing around like a wounded insect....Smoke was pouring out of the ship by this time...." The two gunshipsmade low firing passes to give the Medevac crew a chance to get out, ifany still lived. One Cobra gunship came to a high hover over the burningMedevac, spinning and firing at the North Vietnamese. The gunship tooktwenty-nine hits before its ammunition ran out, forcing it to depart. Thepilot transmitted a Mayday for the downed Medevac, giving its locationand identification, and then called Medevac Operations to repeat the information.
All the Medevac crew were stunned at first and unable to move. FinallyRocco dragged himself out and crawled away. He had a fractured wrist andhip and a severely bruised back. As soon as he realized that the crew wasstill inside, he went back. He pulled Modica through the shattered windshieldand carried him across twenty meters of exposed terrain to the ARVN perimeter.One by one he brought the unconscious crew out. All were in bad shape.Modica had his serious leg wound. The copilot, 1st Lt. Leroy G. Cauberreaux,had a broken collar bone and fractured ribs. Sp5c. Terry Burdette, themedical corpsman, had a broken shoulder and a broken leg. The gunner, Sp4c.Gary Taylor, who sat in the right door, was crushed and burned when theship crashed and rolled, and Rocco severely burned his hands trying tofind him. The nearby ARVN soldiers could not help because the enemy wasshooting at anyone who moved. The two bullets that hit Cauberreaux in thechest protector as Rocco carried him toward the ARVN perimeter did no furtherdamage. Rocco had saved his three comrades from certain death.
At Quan Loi, the Air Ambulance Platoon's base, Capt. Henry O. TuellIII, aircraft commander of Medevac 1, yelled to his pilot, 1st Lt. HowardElliot, that Modica had been shot down. Elliot was in the shower; he grabbeda towel and ran to get his clothes, scattering soapy lather as he went.By the time he had thrown his clothes on, Tuell had already cranked theaircraft; off they flew, Elliot lacing boots and fastening zippers. Althoughseveral other aircraft were in the area, Medevac 1 was the first evacuationship on the scene. Medevac 2 was still burning, throwing off blankets ofblack smoke, Medevac 1 made its approach straight in and the enemy triedfor another score. On each side of Medevac 1 two Cobras fired flechettes,machine guns, grenades, and rockets; but enemy rounds still hit the ship.One came through the left door and hit the armored seat just below Tuell'shand.
Shrapnel and shattered porcelain from the seat peppered his hand andwrist. Elliot took the controls and nursed the ship back to Quan Loi wherea doctor cleaned, stitched, and dressed Tuell's injuries.
Two hours later, after several air and artillery strikes around theperimeter, the pilot of Medevac 12, Lt. John Read, had his gunship escortlay down a heavy rocket preparation as he tried a highspeed, low-levelapproach to Medevac 2. The North Vietnamese, still safely bunkered behind1 1/2 feet of concrete, blasted Medevac 12 out of the area before it couldland. Bullets punctured the fuel cells and disabled the engine. With histachometer falling, Lt. Read managed to land his ship safely in a nearbyclearing, where the crew was immediately picked up.
Back at the crash site Modica remained conscious despite loss of muchblood, and talked to the aircraft orbiting helplessly overhead. The Americanadviser with the ARVN forces, S. Sgt. Louis Clason, told him that the ARVNsoldiers had not been resupplied in two days and were running out of everything,including water. Modica told him, "Hey, listen. We have one case ofbeer in the tail boom of the aircraft. You run out there -at least that'ssomething to drink." Clason told him, "Lieutenant, you don'teven know what your aircraft looks like. It is burned completely to theground." About 1800, Modica radioed the nearby aircraft that the ARVNdefenders might not be able to hold on through the night. After an hourof continuous friendly shelling around the allied perimeter, Medevac 21,piloted by CWO Raymond Zepp and covered by gunships, made the third attemptto reach the downed aircraft. The Cobra fired a 360º pattern withrockets and miniguns, but enemy fire still riddled the Medevac, knockingout its radios and starting an electrical fire. Like Medevac 12, Medevac21 landed in a field 500 meters to the west; its crew was quickly pulledout. Nightfall prevented any further rescue attempts.
During the long hours of darkness, the enemy launched three assaultson the small perimeter. Flares overhead illuminated the area and allowedthe Americans to call in artillery and gunships to break up the groundattacks. By nightfall Rocco's injuries had immobilized him. After pullinghis crew from the burning ship, he had treated their injuries and the ARVNcasualties he could get to. Soon his injured hip and hand stiffened, makingany effort to move excruciatingly painful. Finally he passed out. Modica'sleg swelled to twice its normal size and the pain immobilized him too.Cauberreaux moved about and lit cigarettes for the men, but with his crushedright side he could do little else. Since they had no morphine or otherpainkiller, they had to suffer.
At Quan Loi, planning for an all-out rescue attempt continued well intothe night. The plan called for two Medevacs to go in and evacuate Modica'screw and any South Vietnamese possible. A third
would hover nearby to extricate the crews if trouble developed and toevacuate any remaining ARVN casualties. Since all their Medevacs were shotup, destroyed, or committed elsewhere, the 1st Cavalry had to borrow threenondivisional Dust Off helicopters. At 0930 next morning ARVN and Americanhowitzer batteries started laying a barrage of smoke rounds in the areato create a screen for the upcoming rescue. just before the operation began,four Cobras fired more smoke rounds. At 1145 the flight of three Medevacswith three cobras on each side started into the area. The first ship inloaded Modica and his crew and flew out. The second extracted several ARVNwounded and also safely left the area. An enemy rocket hit the third shipas it took off with two remaining ARVN casualties, but the crew broughtthe ship down without further injuries and was quickly rescued. The nextday nine pilots and crewmen involved in this rescue received Silver Stars.Sergeant Rocco won a Medal of Honor for his part in saving Modica and mostof his crew.
By October 1970 allied intelligence clearly showed two very disturbingfacts. After recovering from the setback inflicted by the allied attackin Cambodia, the enemy was making plans to strangle Phnom Penh, deposethe Lon Nol government, and reopen their southern supply routes by retakingthe port of Kompong Som on the Gulf of Thailand. Also, the North VietnameseArmy was improving its road nets in Laos, building up supplies, and sendingreinforcements, all apparently in preparation for large-scale offensives,in I Corps Zone. Starting in early January 1971 the U.S. XXIV Corps andthe South Vietnamese Joint General Staff began planning for a preventivestrike on the enemy bases and lines of communication between the northwestborder of I Corps Zone and the Laotian city of Muang Xepon. In keepingwith President Nixon's Vietnamization program, the South Vietnamese Armywas to supply the ground combat forces while the United States suppliedair and artillery support. U.S. forces were forbidden to set foot on Laotiansoil.
Laos turned into Dust Off's greatest test in the Vietnam war. The complexityand offensive character of the operation presented the allies a new problem:the helicopter transport and evacuation of large forces in rapidly changingtactical situations. From 8 February through 9 April 1971 U.S. aircraft,including Air Force B-52's and some 650 Army helicopters, transported ARVNtroops into Laos, gave them covering fire, and evacuated their woundedand dead. The U.S. units involved were reinforced contingents from the101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized),and
23d ("Americal") Infantry Division. All operated under thecommand of Headquarters, XXIV Corps. The offensive accomplished one objective:it delayed the enemy at least several months. But it showed that even withU.S. support the ARVN forces lacked the leadership to prevent heavy losses-approximately50 percent casualties.
The ARVN part of this joint, four-phased operation was called LAM SON719; the U.S. part, DEWEY CANYON II. Between 30 January and 7 Februarythe allies were to clear western Quang Tri Province and the east-west Route9 as far west as the Laotian border, establishing forward U.S. bases atthe abandoned Khe Sanh combat base and fire support base Vandegrift. InPhase II between 8 February and 6 March the South Vietnamese would crossthe border into Laos, establish fire support bases, and press on to MuangXepon. During the next three days, or Phase III, the South Vietnamese wouldlocate and destroy enemy caches and installations in and around Muang Xepon.In Phase IV all forces would gradually withdraw from Laos either alongRoute 9 or along a more southern route.
All of this information was so tightly held for security reasons thatmedical planners were unaware of the impending operation until the lastfew days of January. Finally the XXIV Corps Surgeon, the senior medicaladviser in I Corps Zone, and the commander of the ARVN 71st Medical Groupreceived a partial briefing on the objectives and plan of execution. Theyset to work immediately, realizing that plans for medical support had tobe hastily drawn up. Fortunately, both the ARVN and U.S. medical unitshad stockpiled considerable reserves of supplies in anticipation of a 1971Tet offensive. Because of the paucity of information, casualty estimateshad to be extremely rough. In fact, because of the minimal resistance expectedfrom the supposedly rearguard enemy troops in the area, first predictionswere for low casualties.
After the first briefings, the 67th Medical Group immediately beganto give South Vietnamese units additional training in the use of U.S. medicalevacuation. The ARVN interpreters assigned to work with the Dust Off crewswere given as much training as the week's busy schedule permitted. Afterthe 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division, completed its two-pronged drivewest to Khe Sanh, it dug in at that base with two 101st Airborne EagleDust Off helicopters standing by. Khe Sanh served as the forwardmost siteof medical support for the eleven U.S. battalions working between thereand the border. The Dust Off helicopters also stood ready to assist theforty-two South Vietnamese maneuver battalions assigned to the operation.Dust Off helicopters backhauled U.S. casualties to the 18th Surgical Hospitalat Quang Tri once they were able to travel. Two other Dust Off aircraftstationed at the 18th were to cover the land north to the DemilitarizedZone and west to the base named Rock Pile on Route 9. All four of theseships were committed to area sup-
port. On 5 February the 67th Medical Group put a liaison officer atthe 18th Surgical to respond better to the needs of the U.S. forces.
Meanwhile the ARVN medical service set up its hospital eight kilometerssouth of Khe Sanh at Bach Son. The South Vietnamese set up tents and excavatedbunkers. The facilities included two operating rooms, an X-ray room, andfifty underground beds. The main Vietnamese hospital for LAM SON 719 wasnear the coast, at Dong Ha, at the intersection of Routes 1 and 9.
The Laotian operation presented the problem of suddenly coordinatingaeromedical evacuation units whose work so far had usually been at scatteredsites and, especially in the detachments, under only tenuous control bysuperior organizations. Because of the dangers of the missions and thedirect involvement of most of the resources of two air ambulance detachments-the237th and the 571st-Col. Richard E. Bentley, commander of the 61st MedicalBattalion and aviation staff officer of the 67th Medical Group, orderedthat either the commander or operations officer of the 571st be physicallypresent at the Khe Sanh operations bunker to help regulate both the 237thand 571st. This order stood until the difficulty of controlling both fixedand rotary-wing aircraft and coordinating them with artillery strikes,bombing, and ground maneuvers finally forced the XXIV Corps to requestthe 67th Medical Group for operational control of the two detachments.The 67th con-sented. The XXIV Corps assigned operational control of thedetach-ments to the 326th Medical Battalion of the 101st Airborne, whichthen controlled the operations of all evacuation helicopters at Khe Sanhand Quang Tri. Two other MEDCOM Dust Off units, the 236th Detachment andthe 498th Medical Company, also furnished general support for northernI Corps and helped backhaul patients from the 18th Surgical Hospital atQuang Tri and the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Phu Bai to the 95th EvacuationHospital at Da Nang.
When Phase II of the operation began, two MEDCOM Dust Offs joined theMedevacs and Eagle Dust Offs camped at Khe Sanh to support the invasion.Two of the four ships were put under the operational control of the 101stCombat Aviation Group, primarily to cover combat assaults and pull downedcrews from Laos. The U.S. medical staff quickly set up a few standard proceduresfor the incursion. Since no U.S. advisers would accompany the ARVN groundtroops into Laos, all medical evacuation missions across the border hadto have an ARVN interpreter on the aircraft. Once the heavy enemy antiaircraftdefenses in Laos became apparent, the staff decided that gunships wouldhave to cover the air ambulances once they crossed the border. Finally,all evacuation requests would have to pass through a tactical operationscenter, preferably that of the ARVN I Corps, rather than go directly tothe aircraft commanders. During the first three weeks of the operation,the air ambulance
crews complained vociferously. The larger concept of the operation hadnot been made clear to them, and the lack of gunship cover, the poor communications,and the false information on area security and casualties suggested tothem that the operation was a mess. The further the South Vietnamese penetratedinto Laos, the more intense became the antiaircraft fire and the indirectfire on the landing zones. As Phase II drew to a close, however, some ofthe operating procedures smoothed out. Dust Off representatives now satin the divisional tactical operations centers; ground commanders overcamemuch of their reluctance to talk with helicopters; and gunship cover becameroutinely available. Coordination of divisional and nondivisional air ambulancesimproved markedly once the evacuation requests were funneled to a singleDust Off operations center at Khe Sanh.
Efficiency suffered most of all from the bad weather. The area eastof the mountains was still in the winter monsoon season. At the same time,the weather at Khe Sanh and to the west would often be flyable. Since itwas on a high plateau, Khe Sanh itself often required instrument flightwhile the nearby areas were under visual flight rules. Often an aircrafttook off from Khe Sanh in the late afternoon, flew a pickup from Laos,and then had to fly all the way back to Quang Tri to land because of poorvisibility and low ceilings at Khe Sanh. On twenty-four of forty-four daysof the Laos operation, low ceilings and reduced visibility delayed flightschedules. On some days there were no flights at all because of the weather.
Efficiency also suffered from the poor arrangements for backhauls. DuringPhase I of the operation, patients at Khe Sanh were placed on fixed-wingresupply ships for medically unattended flights south to Da Nang or TanSon Nhut. But this practice was not sanctioned and ceased early. On 12February at the request of the Surgeon of the U.S. XXIV Corps, the 101stCombat Aviation Group began furnishing two CH-47's each day to backhaulroutine cases from the ARVN hospital at Bach Son. But this was inadequate;Dust Off aircraft at Khe Sanh still had to backhaul emergency cases toDong Ha. As casualties mounted, the backhauls impaired Khe Sanh's abilityto respond rapidly to requests for field evacuation. The medical systemhad control of too few aircraft to discharge all of its responsibilities.
Poor coordination of gunship support also became a key obstacle to airambulance missions. On 24 February, mission response time rose to sevenhours because of delayed gunship protection. Finally, after several complaintsby the air ambulance crews, the 101st Airborne and the XXIV Corps agreedto dedicate some gunships to air ambulance coverage. When an air ambulancelaunched from Khe Sanh, the 101st Combat Aviation Group had gunships primedto go with it;
two teams were on standby during the day and one at night. The 101stGroup also had a fire team positioned at Dong Ha for Dust off protection.But gunship support for all the missions into Laos was still impossible,since there were not enough gunships available to satisfy all the highpriority combat and medical missions. The problem continued until 25 February,when the XXIV Corps gave Dust Off the highest priority for gunship supportregardless of the tactical situation or other requests. Even so, the enemyantiaircraft fire was so intense and the flight routes so restricted byweather and geography that many Dust Off crews resumed the old practiceof flying all missions in pairs, to allow one crew to immediately recoverits downed teammate.
North Vietnamese intelligence had given the enemy ample time to deployan extensive, well integrated, and highly mobile air defense system throughoutthe Xe Pon area of Laos. Many enemy antiaircraft weapons were radar-controlled,and Dust Off pilots monitoring their VHF radios came to recognize the "wheepwheep" of the radar sweeps and take evasive action. But the NorthVietnamese had spread some 750 medium caliber antiaircraft machine gunsalong Route 9 and the valley of the Xe Pon River leading west to MuangXepon. The North Vietnamese relocated most of their antiaircraft weaponsdaily, making their detection and destruction a difficult task.
The North Vietnamese also placed mortar, artillery, and rocket fireon every potential landing zone. Each zone was assigned a heavily armedteam of ten to twelve men. Every airmobile operation, including what normallywere single ship Dust Off missions, had to be worked out and coordinated,with fire support, armed escort, and a recovery plan. As soon as a missionrequest came in, a command and-control ship, gunships, and the air ambulancewould crank and launch. This medical evacuation package would rendezvousnear the Laotian border and fly across. En route to the pickup, the commandship helped with navigation and steered the group around the antiaircraftsites. As it neared the destination, the air ambulance would thread itsway through a corridor of friendly artillery, tactical air support, andgunships. While the ambulance was on final approach, on the ground, anddeparting, the gunships would circle overhead, giving nearly continuousprotective fire. After the pickup, the group flew a different corridorback to Khe Sanh.
One Dust Off mission during the Laos operation illustrated both itschaotic finale and the bravery of a Dust Off crewman. On 18 February aNorth Vietnamese regiment assaulted fire support base Ranger North, ninekilometers inside Laos. About 1130 the South Vietnamese 39th Ranger Battalionholding the base asked the Dust
Off operations center at Khe Sanh to evacuate its many seriously wounded.A Dust Off aircraft, with a crew from both the 237th and 571st Detachments,took off and headed west. On their first attempt to land they took suchheavy fire that the commander, CW2 Joseph G. Brown, aborted his approach.A second time around he tried a high speed descent and made it in. justbefore the ship touched down the enemy opened fire again and continuedfiring while the crew loaded the wounded Rangers. Uninjured Rangers tryingto escape the base also poured into the ship, and Brown had trouble liftingit off. just as he cleared the ground, a mortar round exploded in frontof the cockpit, shattering the console and wounding him. The ship crashed.Rangers scattered from the wreck and the Dust Off crew dragged Brown toa ditch for temporary shelter. Leaving him with his pilot, CW2 Darrel O.Monteith, the crew chief and two medical corpsmen started running towarda bunker. A mortar round exploded and blew one corpsman, Sp4c. James C.Costello, to the ground. His chest protector had saved his life, and hestood up, shaken but uninjured. The same explosion blew shrapnel into theback and left shoulder of the crew chief, Sp4c. Dennis M. Fujii. A secondmortar round wounded the other corpsman, Sp4c. Paul A. Simcoe. The threemen staggered into the bunker. Shortly before 1400 an Eagle Dust Off shiptried to rescue them, but automatic weapons fire drove it off, woundingits pilot. At 1500 another Eagle Dust Off ship landed under heavy gunshipcover. The wounded Dust Off crew, except for Fujii, raced to the Eagleship. A mortar barrage falling around it kept him pinned in his bunker,where he waved off his rescuers. To escape the enemy fire the Eagle pilothad to take off, leaving Fujii as the sole American on the fire base, whichwas . now surrounded by two North Vietnamese regiments. Another Dust Offship soon arrived to pick up Fujii, but enemy fire forced it to returnto Khe Sanh.
At 1640 Fujii found a working PRC-25 radio and started broadcasting,using the call sign "Papa Whiskey." He told the pilots high overheadthat he wanted no more attempts to rescue him because the base was toohot. Using what medical knowledge he had picked up, he began tending tothe wounded Rangers who surrounded him.
That night one of the North Vietnamese regiments, supported by heavyartillery, started to attack the small base. For the next seventeen hoursPapa Whiskey was the nerve center of the allied outpost, using his radioto call in and adjust the fire of U.S. Air Force AC-130 flare ships, AC-119and AC-130 gunships, and jet fighters. Working with the Air Force's forwardair controllers, he coordinated the six flareships and seven gunships thatwere supporting Ranger North. Twice during the night the enemy breachedthe perimeter, and only then did Fujii stop transmitting to pick up anM16 and join the fight.
With the Ranger commander's permission, Fujii brought the friendly fireto within twenty meters of the base's perimeter, often leaving the safetyof his bunker to get a closer look at the incoming friendly rounds. Heworked all night and into the next morning, bringing in more than twentycoordinated gunship assaults.
The next afternoon an all-out rescue attempt began. A fleet of twenty-onehelicopters descended on the base, the gunships firing on every possibleenemy position. With Fujii also calling in artillery strikes, the alliesringed the camp with continuous fire. Even so hostile fire was so intensethat the commander of the rescue fleet, Lt. Col. William Peachey, preparedto send down a single ship rather than risk a formation. Fujii asked thatas many of the 150 ARVN casualties as possible be evacuated before him,but Peachey ordered him to jump on the first ship that landed. Maj. JamesLloyd and Capt. David Nelson left the formation, descended into the valley,then flew up a slope to the fire base, hugging the trees, and dropped inunharmed. Fujii scrambled on board with fourteen Rangers. Having recoveredfrom their surprise, the enemy opened fire on the ship as it lifted off.Raked with bullets, it caught fire and the cockpit filled with smoke, Thepilots headed toward Ranger South, fire base of the 21st Ranger Battalionabout four kilometers southwest. They landed and everyone jumped from theburning ship as its M60 rounds started to cook off in the flames. Miraculously,no one was injured. Ranger South itself soon came under heavy enemy attack,but Fujii's work was over. Finally, at 1600 on 22 February, 100 hours afterhe was wounded, he was admitted to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at PhuBai. He had helped save 122 Rangers. He was quickly awarded a Silver Star,which was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross
Fujii's mission was only part of an operation that had turned into anembarrassing scramble to safety. According to the after action report ofthe 61st Medical Battalion: "During the last phases of Operation LamSon 719 enemy activity further intensified. Landing zones were dangerouslyinsecure. Air Ambulances landing to pick up wounded were swarmed with fitand able soldiers seeking a way out of their increasingly precarious position.Medical evacuation pilots reported complete lack of discipline during thelast days of the operation coupled with extremely hazardous conditions."Evacuation ships, and indeed any aircraft landing near the South Vietnameseunits, were rushed by throngs of able-bodied soldiers trying to escape.One Eagle Dust Off ship, a UH-1H with a normal load of eleven passengers,landed for a pickup and had to take off almost immediately because of smallarms fire and mortar rounds in the landing zone After the pilot set hisship down in Khe Sanh, his crew counted thirty-two ARVN soldiers on board,all without weapons or equipment, on-
ly one of whom was wounded. To prevent ARVN soldiers from hitching aride back on the sides of the aircraft, some crews resorted to coatingthe skids with grease.
By early April the Dust Off and Medevac ships had saved hundreds oflives. In the two-month operation they flew some 1,400 missions, evacuating4,200 patients. Six crewmen were killed and fourteen wounded. Ten air ambulanceswere destroyed, about one out of every ten aircraft lost in the operation.On 8 April, once the incursion was over, XXIV Corps gave up its operationalcontrol of the MEDCOM air ambulances. Dust Off pilots had seen their lastmajor operation of the war.
Stand-Down and Ship Out
The phased withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, begun in thesummer of 1968, continued until, on 11 August 1972, the last American groundcombat unit stood down at Da Nang. The American venture in this small,remote Asian country had come full circle. More than seven years earlier,on 8 March 1965, the first U.S. ground combat forces had landed on thesesame beaches. In December 1961 the first U.S. military units, two helicoptercompanies, had arrived in Saigon to aid the South Vietnamese government.It had been the longest war in United States history, and almost half ofit had been devoted to the withdrawal.
The drawdown of medical support paralleled that of combat forces, butlasted a little longer because of continuing medical needs of noncombatU.S. forces in Vietnam. In the early months of 1972 MEDCOM air ambulancesdecreased from forty-eight to thirty, leaving five detachments: the 57th,159th, 237th, 247th, and 571st. In June 1972 the Air Ambulance Platoonof the 1st Cavalry stood down, leaving all air ambulance missions to thefew remaining nondivisional Dust Off units. In February 1973 three of thelast four Dust Off detachments - the 237th, 247th, and 571st - stood down.In February the 57th Detachment, the first to arrive in Vietnam and whoseearly commander, Maj. Charles Kelly, had created the Dust Off mystique,prepared to become the last to leave, closing down its operations at TanSon Nhut. On 11 March it flew the last Dust Off mission in Vietnam, foran appendicitis case.
After they turned in their aircraft on 14 March, the few remaining membersof the 57th had little to occupy their time. Some simply took pleasurein building their sun tans. A few tried to readjust their daily rhythmsto Stateside time; they reset their clocks and began to live at their homehours, though this meant getting up in the dark and sleeping part of theday. Every now and then they had to check on their departure date, butno one demanded any work of them. On 28
March they received orders to move to Camp Alpha, the personnel stagingfacility at Tan Son Nhut, where they were restricted to the compound pendingtheir flight out. Finally, at 0100 on the twenty-ninth, they boarded busesfor a ride to their C-141 transport. The drivers halted the buses somefifty feet from the floodlighted jet, and kept the bus doors closed whilea double file of people formed between the bus and the boarding stairs.The two lines were composed of Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese,and Viet Cong, all members of the Four Power Joint Military Commissionthat was supervising the implementation of the peace treaty.
The bus door opened, and one at a time the departing personnel of the57th marched through this double file. They had been part of the last U.S.Army operational personnel in South Vietnam. The same day the MilitaryAssistance Command, Vietnam, lowered its flag and ceased to function forthe first time since 1962. The ground war in Vietnam was completely inthe hands of the Republic of Vietnam for the first time in twenty-sevenyears. During a long, cruel, and ultimately losing struggle, Dust Off personnelhad comported themselves with courage and honor, proving that a band ofbrave and dedicated pilots and crewmen could make this new mode of medicalevacuation work extremely well, even against well-prepared enemy groundfire.