A Covert Helicopter Mission into Cambodia Goes Wrong During the Vietnam War.
The above photo was taken by the right door gunner of one of our gunships that was following us down. My bird is in the distance, on fire and trailing smoke as we auto-rotated to the ground over Cambodia.
Jim Burns was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK .
In October 1967 I was flying on a U.S.A.F., UH-1F helicopter, as a flight mechanic/gunner with the 20th Helicopter Squadron “Green Hornets”. We were the only U.S.A.F. UH-1 “Huey” helicopter unit in the Vietnam War.
During my second tour from June 1967 to March 1968 we were assigned directly to the highly classified special operations group, MACV SOG, and operated out of forward operating bases (FOBs) at Kontum and Ban Me Thuot, in South Vietnam.
The FOB at Kontum was a camp to the south of the town, situated on both sides of the dirt road that ran from Kontum to the town of Pleiku.
There was nothing fancy about the camp, the west side of it was where all the helicopters operated from the dirt (mud when it rained) parking areas and contained the few shacks and buildings were we slept and ate our meals. The ‘outhouse’ and the showers were on the east side of the road and you had to go through both the west and east security gates to go back and forth.
The FOB at Ban Me Thuot was located next to the Ban Me Thout East airport, which is where we parked our helicopters. When we first moved to this FOB, we lived in tents, with the shower tent being the first one put up and in use.
Both of these FOB’s were carved out of dirt and were dust bowls in the dry seasons and mud holes in the wet seasons. I liked operating out of the FOBs rather than our home base at Nha Trang air base in South Vietnam, because at these camps we had hot water showers and hot meals, with fresh made bread and hot rolls made for each meal we ate in the camp. Usually our lunch meals were “C” Rations at a bare base close to where our teams were operating, as we’d be on standby.
At our home base, we seldom got a hot shower and the meals were terrible. Security at both camps was provided by Montagnard mercenaries and nearby Army of Vietnam forces.
This day began, like many others, at the MACV SOG camp at FOB Kontum. I had completed my pre-flight checks on my bird and we received our mission briefing for the day.
Our mission was to insert a six man team (two Americans & four Montagnard ‘mercenaries’) into a landing zone (LZ) along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia, near the tri-border area of South Viet Nam, Laos & Cambodia.
For this insert my bird was designated as “low bird”, which meant we would be carrying the team and making the insert. Our ‘gaggle’ consisted of three Air Force UH-1F helicopters (‘Slicks”), four Air Force UH-1P gunships, two Army UH-1B gunships, an 0-1 “Birddog” Forward Air Controller (FAC) and a couple of A-1 Skyraider fighters.
The A-1’s were not allowed to cross into Cambodia so once we crossed the border they stayed behind in South Vietnamese airspace.
My pilot was Capt. John Fiser, Co-Pilot was 1st Lt. Graham, my left door gunner was Sgt. O’Leary and I was on the right door gun. We loaded up the Special Operations team we were going to insert and took off, heading for the LZ in Cambodia.
That day, our slicks had M-60 machine guns mounted in the cabin door and each crew member carried an M-16 automatic rifle, a .38 cal. revolver side arm, a survival vest and a set of chest armor plate.
Both Sgt. O’leary and I wore ‘gunner’s belts’, which was a belt, buckled around our waist with a strap that was attached to a tie down ring in the cabin floor by a buckle. We wore the gunners belts to keep us from falling out of the open cabin doors during evasive maneuvering or if were hit by enemy fire, so that we wouldn’t become separated from the helicopter. The length of the strap allowed us to move about freely in the cabin and to stand outside the cabin on the landing skids, when required, while still being secured to the helicopter.
None of us wore the armor plate, aka “chicken plate” which was a ‘bullet proof’ ceramic chest and back plate inside a canvas like material with Velcro straps. We didn’t wear them because these “chicken plates” were fairly heavy and somewhat restricted our movements.
The pilots placed their chicken plates in the cockpit chin windows (the small lower window on the front of the helicopter cockpit-below the rudder pedals) and us guys in back (GIB’s) sat on ours. I think we all felt this would provide us with some protection from getting hit by small arms fire coming up from the ground and while in a hover in a LZ we needed to have the freedom from the bulk and weight of the “chicken plates” that somewhat restricted our movement if we wore them.
On my slick we had eight of us in the cabin and two pilots in the front. One of the other two slicks had just the two pilots and two gunners and the other slick had two pilots, two gunners and a Special Forces medic and each slick was armed with an M-60 NATO 7.62 mm machine gun in each cabin door.
The gunships all carried the basic four man crew and were armed with a NATO 7.62 mm GE GAU-2B/A Pintle mounted Mini-guns, with up to a total of 12,000 rounds, in each cabin door and a rocket pod mounted on rocket mounts on each side of the cabin, each pod armed with seven 2.75 inch Folding Fin Aerial Rockets.
Thing were going quite smoothly as we crossed the border into Cambodia and we were cruising along at about 1,000 feet and making preparations to begin our descent and dash to the LZ.
We were about ten minutes away from our intended LZ, when suddenly there was a loud “bang” or explosion that came for the engine area and we lost all engine power to the transmission and rotors.
Capt. Fiser immediately entered an auto-rotation and called out that we had lost power and we were going down. He called out a “may-day” as we started down.
The “Green Hornet” gunships immediately closed in behind us and started following us down. One of the gunships called to us that we were on fire with flames and smoke coming from the engine compartment and were trailing a lot of smoke.
Capt. Fiser said the engine was running just fine…..but we had no power to the rotor. We found out later that the speed reduction gearbox that connects the engine to the main transmission had blown apart and was on fire.
As luck would have it, Capt. Fiser was able to auto-rotate to a soft marshy clearing along what looked like a very shallow stream. He did a great job of setting us down safely (one of the softest landings I could remember) and we all begin to get our gear and exit the bird, which was still on fire.
I knew we were going down in a known North Vietnamese troop infiltration area and that if we were able to safely get on the ground (which we did) that we needed to find immediate cover after we got away from the helicopter and determine if we could be picked up or have to move to a clearer area. Fortunately we had not received any enemy fire as we went down for our landing and I hoped that was a good sign that we had not landed in the middle of an enemy troop encampment.
As soon as we hit the ground the SOG team, Sgt. O’Leary and the co-pilot exited the left side of the bird. One of them grabbed the fire extinguisher and put out the fire in the left side of the engine compartment.
At the same time I was getting my M-60 machine gun off its mount, grabbing my survival vest, M-16 rifle and as much M-60 ammo as I could wrap around my neck. I jumped out and went about a foot before I was yanked to a sudden stop. When I looked back to see what had grabbed me, I realized I had forgot to disconnect my gunners belt, so I was still attached to the bird. I had to turn around, lay down my rifle and my survival vest, to free up a hand, so I could disconnect my gunners belt.
Once this was done, I picked up my rifle and survival vest and started for a large bush a short distance away from the right side of the bird. I glanced back at the bird and saw that Capt. Fiser was still trying to get his cockpit door open.
The armor plate on the seat was making it extremely difficult for him to reach around it and get to the door handle. So I ran back and opened his door. He climbed out, and then both of us headed for a large bush for some cover.
We knew we were in a bad area, but we had not drawn any enemy fire or seen any enemy activity so far. Our gunships were orbiting overhead and after a few minutes I turned to look for Capt. Fiser to tell him that I thought we should move to the other side of the bird and join up with the SOG team and the rest of our crew. I went completely around the bush—Capt. Fiser could not be found!! So… here I am, all alone, in an enemy area.
Needless to say it didn’t take me long to decide to head to the team and the rest of the crew’s location on my own. As I came around the front of the bird, I could not see the team anywhere, but I did see another of our helicopters on the ground, around a little curve in the stream bed, about 30 yards off our nose. So I took off and headed in its direction.
Once I got there and hopped in, there was Capt Fiser, already sitting on the cabin floor. He had thought I’d seen the helicopter landing and had took off and headed that way as soon as he saw it coming in. Because of the noise of our gunships constantly circling overhead I had not heard the slick that had come in and landed. I had not seen it as it had approached its landing area overhead and behind me as I was busy watching the tree line, to our right, for any enemy activity.
With all the noise going on overhead I hadn’t realized that part of it was one of our slicks coming in to get us. At the time I was not in radio contact with anyone (I don’t believe that I had even turned my survival radio on yet.), so even if they were broadcasting on the radio that they were coming in, I still wouldn’t have known it.
We set there for a short time waiting for the rest of the crew and the team to come, until one of our gunships told us to take off and they’d send another slick in to fly right over the team and the rest of the crew, so they would see it land, in order to pick them up. The second bird went in and successfully picked up the rest of the crew and the team and took off.
Then someone who was trying to get a head count to be sure that everyone had got out, called our bird and said for us to go back in because there were two still on the ground.
As we were making our approach, someone did another head count and realized that the two they thought were still on the ground were Capt. Fiser and me. So we broke off the approach, climbed out and headed back to Kontum.
To my knowledge no one on the mission ever received any enemy ground fire flying over us, nor did my crew on the ground. Also I don’t think the recovery crew that pulled my bird out that night received any enemy ground fire either. This has always amazed me, because of the intelligence reports of the number of enemy forces in and around the area where we went down.
Because of the location (namely, inside Cambodia, where we weren’t supposed to be), Saigon wouldn’t let our escort fighters come across the border and bomb our bird to destroy it; they didn’t want any bomb craters in Cambodia at that time.
Also it was about two or three days before Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia and they didn’t want any political fallout to occur. So the decision was made that the bird had to be removed from Cambodia before the end of the day.
An Army CH-47 recovery crew was tasked to go and sling it out. When they found out where it was located, they initially refused to go get it, partly no doubt also concerned that they might by then be flying into an NVA trap.
My understanding was they received a direct call from Gen. Westmoreland, and he ordered them to get it out. He said he didn’t care what they did with it once they were back over South Vietnam airspace, but that they had to get it back across the border that day.
The CH-47 crew did finally get it out, in the dark, and brought it back to Pleiku, in South Vietnam. The next day they brought it back to Kontum, where, after several weeks of repairs, we finally got it back into the air.
While we were listening to the recovery on the radio, one of our gunship gunners who’d followed us down, was telling me how “neat” it was watching us go down. “Flames and smoke trailing behind, it looked just like you would see in the movies”, he said.
I gave him a few choice words and let him know that I didn’t think it was so “neat” and not one damn bit funny.
He filmed us going down and gave me a copy of the film. As I look at it now, it does look just like in the movies.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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