Jim Burns: A Ho Chi Minh Trail Troop Insertion During The Vietnam War.
Above Photo: Approaching a short Laotian airstrip during the Vietnam War (Micky Finn)
Jim Burns was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK.
On 18 September 1969 Jim was flying on a USAF CH-3E helicopter belonging to the 21st Special Operations Squadron out of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, performing as a Flight Engineer/Gunner. They were part of a six helicopter flight, and his crew consisted of a pilot and co-pilot, TSgt. Adron Ratliff (the other flight engineer/gunner) and him.
Jim’s crew position for this mission was at the right cabin door, where he was responsible for keeping the right side of the helicopter clear of any trees or obstructions and to man the 7.62mm, M-60 machine gun mounted in the door.
PAL: What was the mission that day?
JB: Our mission was to move a large force of friendly Laotian troops into a landing zone (LZ) near the Ho Chi Minh Trail (HCMT) in Laos. Our flight had loaded up with the first load of troops (about fifteen in each bird) and we took off for the area of operation, which was roughly south-south-east of the Muang Phin area, somewhere around Mouang Tourmian in southern Laos.
The LZ was a short abandoned airstrip that was large enough for all our six birds to land at once and let the troops get off. A Forward Air Controller (FAC) had been flying over the LZ, scouting it out to see if there was any enemy activity that we might encounter during our landing. The FAC reported the area as appearing safe and cleared us into land and discharge the troops.
We had a 1 hour flight to the pickup location and then a 15-20 minute flight to the drop off point where the fighting was taking place.
PAL: Would the NVA often lie low to lull FACs and helicopter crews into a false sense of security on these missions?
JB: The NVA, VC and Pathet Lao all seemed to know and use the tactic of holding off any firing while the FAC’s and even the A-1’s would make low passes trolling for any ground fire and wait until the helicopters showed up and then they would open up on us.
They were so disciplined at their tactics that they would wait until the helicopters got into a hover or had landed until they would open up. One tactic they got very good at was waiting until the helicopter came to a hover and lowered their hoist to pick up someone and then they would open up.
PAL: Did you often encounter ground fire when you flew over or near the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
JB: Most of our flights in areas west of the HCMT were flown between 2,000-5,000 feet altitude to stay above small arms fire and this was the case on this mission. We always tried to vary our route to and from ‘work sites’, by not going over the same areas on the way out and back. On missions where we were close to or crossing the HCMT we would climb to the highest altitude we could reach, usually between 8,000-12,000 feet. We generally didn’t receive much small arms ground fire when we flew at the 2,000-5,000 feet range, but would occasionally receive some .50 cal., 23mm or 37mm AAA fire, and we would often receive 23mm or 37mm AAA fire crossing the HCMT.
One of our birds one day was hit by a 37mm round over the HCMT, near the town of Xepon, Laos, that blew a hole out the side of ramp area, but the bird was able to recover back at NKP (I was not on that bird).
PAL: Did you have any tactics for flying over the HCMT, given the presence of enemy troops and anti-aircraft guns?
JB: We would try to pick HCMT crossing points that intelligence indicted had the least amount of big guns and when flying on the west side of the HCMT area we also tried to not fly over areas of known enemy troop concentrations or known AAA weapons, however at times, due to mission requirements or unknown troop or AAA locations we would end up flying near or over them and take fire.
Personally, I liked the very low level “tree top” high speed flying as I felt that by the time the bad guys heard us coming and tried to take a shot at us we would already have gone over them and be gone out of sight in the trees. Just didn’t think it gave them much time to draw a bead on us. Plus I never relished the thought of bailing out and would have rather taken my chances with a low level crash landing as I felt we could always have a chance to slow down and make a controlled crash landing.
Our M-60’s were always ready and loaded once we left Thailand, however we rarely returned fire while cruising along as it was hard to determine exactly where the ground fire may be coming from, but all we had to do was step behind the gun, take the safety off and pull the trigger.
PAL: What happened as you approached the LZ on this mission?
JB: The flight to the LZ had been thankfully uneventful.
As I remember, my helicopter was the first one in the formation, dropping down from our cruse altitude of about 2,000 ft. and just as we were beginning our approach at about 1,000 feet altitude, the enemy North Vietnamese Army troops, who had been hidden along the airstrip, opened up on us at about 500 ft. altitude, with automatic weapons fire. My helicopter was raked from the nose to the tail and took several hits from their automatic weapons. One of the Lao troops was hit in the buttocks and another in the leg.
PAL: What were you thinking when this was happening?
JB: I don’t remember any specific thoughts I had at the time, but our training just kicked in (I’m sure there must have also been some adrenalin involved as well) and we continued on with our duties, adding the return fire. TSgt. Ratliff and I immediately began returning fire with our M-60 machine guns as we continued down to our landing, while we were off-loading the troops, taking off and departing the airstrip.
While on the ground we were firing at the enemy who were hiding less than 30 yards away in the tree line along the airstrip.
The pilots concentrated on flying the helicopter, making the landing and keeping their eyes on the aircraft systems gauges to make sure everything was still operating normally, while keeping the FAC and the other helicopters informed of our status by radio, as we returned fire.
Our return fire seemed to be effective, at least to the point that we did not receive any more hits while on the ground or on any of the other shuttles we made back and forth during the mission, even though we could hear the ground fire going on almost continually.
PAL: How accurate were AK-47s when fired at distance at approaching helicopters?
JB: I’m not sure just how accurate AK-47s are and I always had the feeling that when we were hit it was because the shooter was just spraying the air with bullets on automatic. The reason I had this feeling is because of the many times we would be being fired at and not hit, it was like they were not taking aim because if they were aiming, I could not understand why we weren’t hit more often.
Maybe on the first burst they would take aim and then after that it was just ‘spray and duck, spray and duck’.
PAL: Did you have any gunship or fighter cover for this insert?
JB: On the first landing (the one we were hit on) we didn’t have any fighter cover as the FAC had determined that it was a ‘safe landing strip’, but on the rest of the shuttles back and forth the FAC had called in some A-1 fighters to strafe and bomb along the tree lines beside the airstrip.
During my tour with the 21st we never had any helicopter gunship support – either our own or from other units. Since 99% of our missions were in Laos and North Vietnam (we weren’t ever there, of course!) the Army gunships couldn’t support us and we didn’t have our own gunships, like we had when I was with the 20th HS in Vietnam.
PAL: On this mission, what happened next?
JB: We completed our landing still under fire, although we were only hit while we were in the air just before we touched down. We then discharged all the troops except for the two wounded. Off-loading the troops at the airstrip took less than a minute (picking troops up would be accomplished in less than three or four minutes, although, while we were in the middle of this, it seemed like it was taking forever!)
It was then that I discovered that one of the enemy automatic weapons rounds had entered the cabin ceiling about 2 inches above my head and just below the engine….that was real close.
As we were taking off and clearing the LZ the pilots were reporting that all instruments and controls seemed normal. TSgt. Ratliff and I checked the cabin over, and other than a lot of new holes in the skin of the helicopter, everything seemed to be functioning normally. Once we were sure the helicopter was still safe to fly, we returned the wounded troops back to the original pick up location and took on another load of troops.
PAL: So by the time you returned, the friendly Laotian troops had secured the landing zone?
JB: Yes, they seemed to have got things quieted down somewhat.
We could hear the ground fire going on each trip we made, but we were only hit when we were making our first landing. We did fire into the tree line each time as we landed and took off from the airstrip. However by the time we made our last trip the ground fire had greatly diminished, I think mostly due to the A-1’s doing their thing and the Lao troops fighting with the NVA.
Eventually, we all dropped another load of troops into the LZ to help the ones already on the ground, then, if I recall correctly, we all brought in a third load of troops to the LZ.
PAL: What happened next?
JB: Shortly after departing the LZ, after dropping off the third load, the FAC called for us to go back in and pick up all the troops we had just dropped off.
He told us that the friendly Lao troops were under heavy attack by a large enemy NVA force and that he had also spotted an additional large force of NVA troops moving toward the LZ. He wanted us to try and get the friendly Lao troops out before this much larger force could join the battle.
PAL: What was the general reaction to this in the chopper – just business as usual?
JB: Mostly just business as usual, although I’m sure there would have been some choice (mostly unprintable) words expressed back and forth on the helicopter intercom…
PAL: If the FAC could see large numbers of enemy troops, why not call in air support on them? Would that have been permissible under whatever rules of engagement were governing incursions into Laos at that time?
JB: I’m not positive of what type of rules of engagement the FAC’s operated under so I don’t know for sure if the FAC could have called in a strike on the large number of troops. If I remember correctly, the FAC had released his assigned fighters to other missions because he felt the airstrip was safe and free of enemy troops for our mission.
I’m assuming that once he released his assigned fighters he would have had to go through command channels to make a strike on the large troop concentration. He may very well have had some of the fighters he got back (to aid our recovery of the Lao troops we’d just dropped off) strike the enemy troops concentration as well as the enemy troops along the airstrip. I just don’t remember for sure.
However, once it became a search and/or rescue (SAR) mission, which is what it turned into, the FAC would have priority for air strikes. I’m not sure what level of priority he would have had for rescuing Lao troops vs. U.S. personnel. Keep in mind that this was a Lao mission and it seemed that everything that went on in Laos had to not only go through military command channels, but also had to be approved by the U.S. Ambassador to Laos. Hell-of-a-way to run a war!
PAL: So what happened when you were told to go back and pick up all the troops you’d just dropped off?
JB: We returned repeatedly to pick up the Lao troops and bring them to safety. There were several wounded, but they were all able to scramble onto the helicopter on their own as TSgt. Ratliff and I manned our M-60 machine guns and returned the enemy fire during each landing, loading and take-off. Once we were on the ground the NVA were less than thirty yards away from us.
My helicopter picked up over seventy troops in the three trips we made back into the LZ. We had spent over three hours hauling the troops in and then out of the LZ, receiving enemy automatic weapons fire as we approached and departed the LZ on each occasion.
Incredibly, at the end of this day, all of our flight crews safely returned to our base at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, tired, drained of our adrenaline but thankfully unwounded.
PAL: What about damage to the chopper?
JB: My helicopter did not fare so well. Once we shut down and the crew chief finished counting, we found she had over eighty new holes in her.
That it wasn’t worse was due to the A-1s strafing the tree lines along the airstrip, which did a great job of keeping the NVA from taking aim at any of us. They had been reduced to just shooting off rounds in our direction and hoping to hit something and they were also doing battle with the Lao troops we had brought in.
PAL: Were you commended in any way for this mission?
JB: As a result of our actions on this mission TSgt. Ratliff and I were awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. I’m pretty sure the pilot and co-pilot also received a decoration for this action, but I’m not sure what it was, but most likely it was also The Distinguished Flying Cross.
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.
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
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