How 9th Cavalry Hueys Saved a Downed Crew at An Loc

The Lockheed C-130E Hercules transport airplane flew south towards Saigon with its proper wing low and its No. 3 engine trailing smoke and flame. The plane was shedding altitude quick and wouldn’t get again to Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It was taking place. In the meantime, Saber Flight from Troop F, 1st Squadron, ninth Cavalry Regiment, was headed towards its Lai Khe staging base after a reconnaissance mission north of An Loc on April 18, 1972. Because the crippled C-130 handed in entrance of his Huey, Capt. Robert Frank (name signal Saber 32), air mission commander, turned to his pilot in command, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Monette (Saber 20), and exclaimed, “Wow! That appears like a foul day!” It was a traditional understatement. Issues have been about to worsen.

A end result of circumstances over the previous few weeks had put the Hercules and Huey crews on this unhealthy spot. On Thursday, March 30, Easter weekend, North Vietnamese Military troops swarmed into South Vietnam as they moved throughout the Demilitarized Zone and superior eastward from Laos within the largest offensive at that time within the conflict. The Easter Offensive’s thrust into South Vietnam from the north was accompanied by assaults from Laos into the middle of the nation and from Cambodia into the southern area, threatening the capital at Saigon. The first goal within the southern space was An Loc, about 65 miles from Saigon.

Many of the combat in opposition to the communist invasion at An Loc and elsewhere in the course of the Easter Offensive was waged by the Military of the Republic of Vietnam as a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization coverage applied in 1969. Vietnamization regularly transferred accountability for fight operations to the South Vietnamese as American items have been withdrawn. U.S. air help for South Vietnam continued, nevertheless.

In spring 1972, most Individuals in floor fight roles have been navy advisers serving with South Vietnamese items. Solely two huge U.S. floor fight organizations remained in South Vietnam—the 196th Gentle Infantry Brigade at Da Nang in northern South Vietnam and the third Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), within the space between Saigon and Cambodia. Many of the 1st Cav had left Vietnam a yr earlier, on March 26, 1971, and moved to Fort Hood, Texas.

By April 1, 1972, the third Brigade consisted of three battalions of airmobile infantry, one battalion of 105 mm howitzers, beefed up with an additional battery of 105 mm howitzers, and a battery of rocket-armed helicopters from the 77th Subject Artillery Regiment (Aviation) and the 2nd Squadron, eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment, which would depart Vietnam on April 6.

South Vietnamese troopers with M72 mild anti-tank weapons monitor destroyed North Vietnamese T-54 tanks on a avenue in An Loc in 1972. Communist forces attacking websites throughout South Vietnam in spring 1972 hit An Loc on April 13. (Nationwide Archives)

The third Brigade additionally contained the 229th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter), together with Troop F, 1st Squadron, ninth Cavalry; helicopter Battery F, 79th Subject Artillery Regiment (aerial rocket artillery); and 362nd Aviation Firm (air assault). F Troop helicopters have been assigned to carry out reconnaissance missions north of their staging space, Ahead Assist Base Lai Khe, between Saigon to the south and An Loc to the north. These missions have been performed by means of two subunits. Pink Groups and Blue Groups.

Pink Groups had two parts. The primary was one low-flying scout helicopter that looked for communist forces or tried to attract hearth that exposed the enemy’s location. If the scout was fired upon, the second Pink Group ingredient’s two helicopter gunships have been known as in to return hearth. If the scenario warranted it, the troop commander deployed Blue Groups of airmobile infantry to destroy the enemy in floor fight. This modernized model of the standard horse cavalry offered unprecedented mobility and firepower.

On the time of the Easter Offensive, Pink Group scouts have been flying UH-1 Hueys. Earlier than the first Cavalry Division stood down, these crews have been in OH-6A Cayuse mild remark helicopters. A Pink Group scout ingredient aboard a UH-1 consisted of a pilot, an plane commander and two door gunners/observers. The second Pink Group ingredient flew two AH-1G Cobra gunships. The Blue Group troops have been aboard UH-1 Hueys.

On April 5, communist forces in Cambodia drove into Binh Lengthy province and attacked Loc Ninh, 12 miles from the border. The enemy drive included the Viet Cong fifth and ninth divisions, the NVA seventh Division, the twenty fourth and 271st unbiased regiments, the 69th Artillery Division, two battalions of the 203rd Tank Regiment and a part of the 202nd Particular Weapons Tank Regiment. The attacking drive in Binh Lengthy province aiming for An Loc had greater than 35 maneuver battalions. Becoming a member of the invasion have been armored autos, heavy anti-aircraft weapons and surface-to-air missiles.

South Vietnamese forces astride Freeway 13 at Loc Ninh have been no match for the enemy’s overwhelming numbers. After a decided however unsuccessful protection, they have been overrun on April 7. The ARVN commander had hesitated indecisively and neither bolstered his Loc Ninh forces nor withdrew them to bolster An Loc. Few survived. All seven U.S. advisers at Loc Ninh have been killed or captured. Defeat of ARVN forces at Loc Ninh meant that the street to An Loc was large open and Saigon was inside attain. An Loc rapidly grew to become a “should win” battle for each side.

The communists concentrated sufficient forces to satisfy or exceed the classical attackers-to-defenders ratio of 3-to-1. The wild card within the battle was the air energy offered by the South Vietnamese and U.S. air forces. Their energy ought to have drastically improved the chances for An Loc’s defenders; nevertheless, the communists had realized pricey classes concerning the vulnerability of floor forces to air assault and delivered to the battle weapons that improved their standing.

The NVA 69th Artillery Division may simply outmatch ARVN forces in ground-launched hearth from each tube and rocket artillery. The division’s 271st Anti-Plane Regiment lowered the benefit of U.S. and South Vietnamese air energy with 12.7 mm, 23 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft weapons and the ZSU-57/2, a Soviet anti-aircraft automobile with a pair of 57 mm cannons mounted on a T-54 tank chassis. The NVA additionally had a brand new anti-aircraft weapon, the SA-7 Strela shoulder-launched, heat-seeking guided missile. An Loc was a particularly harmful place for U.S. and South Vietnamese planes.

Early within the siege, NVA forces minimize off resupply from the south by severing Freeway 13, the one viable street into the town. On April 8, they captured the Quan Loi airstrip, instantly to the northeast. An Loc was fully surrounded. Resupply from airplane landings was not an choice, and helicopter landings have been very dangerous. On April 12, a South Vietnamese CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter on a provide mission to An Loc was shot down. Airdrops grew to become the one possible approach to get provides to floor forces.

On the morning of April 13, An Loc was hit with heavy artillery shelling adopted by a serious NVA infantry assault, the start of a monthslong defensive wrestle that ended when the communists lastly gave up and South Vietnam declared the siege over on June 18.

From April 12 to 18, the South Vietnamese air drive, outfitted with C-119 Flying Boxcar and C-123 Supplier transport planes, tried to resupply An Loc by airdrop however had little success. Intense groundfire made low-level drops at 700 ft too harmful, and drops from 5,000 ft too typically missed the goal. The An Loc drop zone was about 800-by-1,000 yards, with the town’s soccer area at its middle.

From April 12 to 14, South Vietnamese plane flew 27 sorties attempting to ship 135 tons of provides to An Loc’s beleaguered defenders. Solely 34 tons reached pleasant forces. The remaining fell into enemy arms. One C-123 was misplaced to groundfire on April 14 and one other on April 19. The U.S. Air Power 374th Tactical Airlift Wing’s Detachment 1 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base additionally participated within the resupply missions. Its first operation happened on April 15, when a C-130 delivered its load on the soccer stadium’s drop zone. Nevertheless, that supply required the plane to fly on the low degree of 600 ft, effectively throughout the vary of enemy anti-aircraft hearth.

The second plane on the identical mission, following not far behind on the equivalent route, was much less lucky. NVA anti-aircraft gunners have been ready. Earlier than the second plane may attain the supply-release level, it was plastered by enemy hearth within the cockpit and cargo maintain. The co-pilot and navigator have been injured. The flight engineer was killed. Incendiary rounds exploded ammunition within the cargo maintain.

Loadmasters tried to extinguish the fireplace however have been unsuccessful. They minimize free the load of ammunition and jettisoned it. Simply in time—two pallets exploded in midair. The C-130 managed to return to Tan Son Nhut on two engines and crash-landed. The South Vietnamese had misplaced two C-123s, and the U.S. had one C-130 so badly broken that it was questionable whether or not the airplane would ever fly once more.

After the rescue of the C-130 crew by Frank’s Huey crew, Capt. Ron Timberlake in a Cobra gunship fired 2.75-inch rockets, proven above, on the deserted wreck to disclaim the North Vietnamese entry to delicate tools and intelligence that is perhaps on the plane. (Ron Timberlake/Courtesy Thomas Ward)

Low-level supply wasn’t deserted instantly, however different mission elements modified. Routes to the drop zone have been altered. Plane not flew instantly up Freeway 13 from the south. U.S. Air Power planners developed six completely different approaches to the drop zone, and “ahead air controllers,” spotters flying forward in small propeller-driven planes, suggested the inbound provide planes on which route appeared much less threatening.

Moreover, plane would not method straight and degree at 600 ft and about 150 mph. They’d are available at excessive pace (practically 300 mph) at treetop degree, then execute a pop-up maneuver to 600 ft whereas bleeding off airspeed to allow launch of a parachuted load. After launch, the plane would speed up and dive again to treetop degree on the way in which house. The primary try utilizing the brand new ways on April 16 missed the drop zone.

The following try was April 18 in a C-130 piloted by Capt. Don “Doc” Jensen and Maj. Leigh Pratt. Different crew members have been Maj. Robert Kirkpatrick, navigator; Tech Sgt. Ralph Kent, flight engineer; Workers Sgt. Ralph Bemis, loadmaster; Sgt. Charles Armistead, assistant loadmaster (airdrops required two loadmasters); and ARVN Sgt. Nguyen Kiem. Jensen and Kent have been a part of the plane’s common crew. Pratt and Bemis have been members of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing’s “standardization analysis” crew, which licensed new crews and periodically renewed certifications for skilled crews. Kirkpatrick was a “visitor navigator” appearing as substitute for an everyday in Hong Kong on R&R. Kiem was aboard to watch supply of provides to ARVN forces.

Early that morning riggers at Tan Son Nhut ready ammunition masses, and loadmasters secured the availability bundles in Jensen’s C-130, tail quantity 63-7775, name signal Manta 75. The crew was quickly airborne on its approach to An Loc with the badly wanted ammunition.

Takeoff at runway 24 Proper was regular, however Kirkpatrick couldn’t lock-on the navigation alerts from Tan Son Nhut and close by Bien Hoa Air Base. Thankfully, there was a distinguishable mountain peak north of An Loc that offered radar navigation landmark. Approaching An Loc, the crewmen performed their ordinary 20-minute, 10-minute and 6-minute pre-drop checklists.

It was time to examine in with the ahead air controller, name signal “Sundog.” Surprisingly, he didn’t know concerning the mission. The Manta 75 crew had been advised in a briefing that the C-130 flight would happen after a Boeing B-52 bombing mission, scheduled for midday. Sundog was busy coordinating that operation and different site visitors. He lastly cleared Manta 75 for a drop at 12:30 p.m., specifying a southeast to northwest method.

Jensen descended to treetop degree and maintained 300 mph to the “preliminary level,” the beginning of the run for the airdrop, the place he executed the pop-up maneuver to 600 ft and decelerated to 150 mph.

This run-in included a surreal second—the C-130 crewmen noticed an NVA tank commander wave at them as they screamed over his head. They waved again.

On the 1-mile level, 30 seconds from the goal, anti-aircraft hearth pounded the ammunition and explosives-laden plane. The airplane shuddered and caught hearth. Bemis and Armistead, the loadmasters, scrambled to find out the harm. Armistead had been shot by means of the left arm however didn’t but understand it.

The ammunition was on hearth. Pilot Jensen’s connection to the airplane’s inside cellphone system was shot away, however the co-pilot, the navigator and the 2 loadmasters have been nonetheless capable of talk by means of the interphone. “Maintain on,” navigator Kirkpatrick shouted. “We’re virtually on the launch level!” Bemis responded, “Load clear!”

With 15 tons of ammunition gone, the cockpit crew turned the airplane south towards Tan Son Nhut. The loadmasters began assessing the situation of the stricken Hercules. Tan Son Nhut was 60 miles away, simply quarter-hour of flight time. Bemis and Armistead may see that the nacelle enclosing the No. 3 engine had three .51-caliber holes, and engine oil was pouring out of them. The C-130 had taken not less than one bigger caliber spherical the place the pylon-
mounted gas tank would usually be. In the precise wheel effectively was a hydraulic fluid hearth that the 2 loadmasters have been unable to extinguish.

They scrambled to the again and appeared out the window on the right-side bounce door the place they noticed the wing and No. 3 engine on hearth. They watched the precise flap separate from the wing and fall away. As they scurried ahead once more, an oxygen bottle exploded, as did the tires on the precise touchdown gear. They advised Pratt, the co-pilot, concerning the airplane’s situation, nevertheless it was apparent the C-130 was not going to remain airborne for lengthy. The cockpit crew struggled to maintain the plane alive because it tried to claw its approach to a safer altitude.

Jensen summed up the plane’s scenario in a 2018 Stars and Stripes article: “Throughout the pull up simply previous to dropping our cargo, we began taking floor hearth and our proper wing caught hearth. The bottom-fire depth we encountered—approaching and departing—the An Loc space was unbelievable… We have been combating an in-flight hearth, engine hearth warnings, bodily lack of flight management surfaces, electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic failures.”

Precedence shifted from saving the plane to saving the crew, however all exits appropriate for parachuting have been jammed or engulfed in flames. Jensen must discover someplace to place the airplane down. An Loc was surrounded by the enemy and ringed by rubber plantations the place no clearings have been giant sufficient to land a C-130.

Jensen headed the airplane towards Lai Khe, 20 miles to the south. However Manta 75, on hearth and shedding altitude, couldn’t make it to the airfield. The lack of hydraulic and pneumatic energy may trigger full lack of management, or the precise wing spar may fail attributable to hearth harm.

After the crew members have been delivered to security, Capt. Ron Timberlake destroyed the stays of the C-130 to forestall North Vietnamese troops closing in on the location from having access to expertise or data. (Courtesy Thomas Ward)

A clearing got here into view. It might be an in depth name, however Jensen and Pratt felt they’d no selection. No less than the realm was largely open. Due to the harm to the interphone, the pilot and co-pilot communicated by way of hand alerts. Jensen held full left rudder and aileron. Landing in a degree place was vital to forestall cartwheeling uncontrollably if the precise wingtip dug in. Simply previous to landing, Pratt retarded the throttles for engines 1 and a couple of and utilized full energy to the No. 4 engine to raise the precise wing. The peerlessly timed touchdown was degree however violent.

The plane hit a tree and spun round 180 levels with the nostril pointing again alongside its flight path. The ahead three quarters of the fuselage had separated from the tail part because the airplane plowed by means of a area, spreading hearth alongside the way in which. The C-130 lastly stopped after a wild slide of about 1,000 yards. Flames surrounded the damaged fuselage part.

Upon influence, the “canine trough”—the tray that ran alongside the highest of the cargo space to carry radios—broke free and struck Bemis, breaking his left arm and ankle and trapping him beneath a pile of particles on the partition separating the cargo space from the flight deck. Armistead rode out the crash on the buffer cease for the cargo and didn’t maintain any additional accidents.

Frank’s Pink Group from F Troop, operating visible reconnaissance missions in help of the ARVN forces and U.S. advisers in An Loc, had seen the fiery airplane sinking throughout the sky because the crew’s Huey and two Cobras have been winding up their midmorning mission and low on gas.

The Cobras adopted the C-130 and with their better pace have been capable of keep visible contact. Frank’s Huey, with Monette on the controls, turned to comply with the burning plane and decide up the chase whereas the captain, busy with maps and communications tools, tried to contact the airplane on each VHF and UHF frequencies to let its crew know that the helicopters have been shut behind. He didn’t get a solution however acknowledged the Air Power males had their arms full attempting to manage the plane throughout a crash-landing.

In an interview with the writer of this text, Frank stated he appeared on the scene and thought, “There couldn’t be any survivors of a crash of this magnitude.”

However Capt. John Gooch, within the lead Cobra, noticed what appeared like a miracle: males springing out of assorted openings—the pilot’s window, higher cockpit escape hatch, the crew door. As Gooch bought nearer, he picked up the beep of a rescue beacon. In the meantime, Monette landed his Huey to the precise entrance of the cockpit, then repositioned the chopper to the left entrance, nearer the crew door. Two C-130 crew members emerged from the door and approached the Huey. Two extra scrambled up from the bottom. They stated the plane had a crew of seven—six U.S. Air Power and one South Vietnamese.

NVA predators have been already closing in for the kill. A large drive was headed for the helicopter and crash web site. The Huey door gunners, Spc. 4s Leonard Shearer and John Deslauriers, took turns protecting the enemy at bay with M60 machine gun hearth. In the meantime, the 2 Cobras offered suppressive hearth and prevented NVA troops from approaching the wrecked plane. Shearer dismounted to assist the primary two C-130 crew members into the helicopter, whereas Deslauriers saved up his livid M60 hearth. Shearer made a second journey into the burning wreckage for a fifth crew member. That made a full load.

Frank contacted the F Troop operations middle and requested for a medevac to be obtainable at Lai Khe to move the wounded airmen to a hospital. He additionally requested a backup Huey be despatched to the crash web site as a result of his chicken was virtually out of gas. Frank realized {that a} “downed plane restoration crew” in one other Huey had already taken off from Lai Khe. Saber Flight was decided to not go away the crash web site till the DART from Lai Khe radioed that the location was in view and the helicopter was near the touchdown space.

As soon as Frank bought the sign from the DART Huey he reported that his Huey was departing on a 180-degree heading and there have been two C-130 crew members nonetheless to be rescued. The DART crew helped Pratt free Bemis from the particles within the plane and loaded them on the rescue chicken. They flew on to a area hospital.

Many years after the rescue of the downed C-130 crew at An Loc, Robert Frank and his Huey crew acquired Silver Stars. The awards have been offered on April 18, 2017, the forty fifth anniversary of the rescue, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Frank, far left, Robert Monette, Leonard Shearer and John Deslauriers. (Workplace of Congressman French Hill)

Within the second Cobra of the Pink Group, Capt. Ron Timberlake completed the afternoon’s work by destroying the C-130 to forestall enemy intelligence gathering and silence the emergency locator beacon. A salvo of two.75-inch rockets from his Cobra did the trick.

After discharging their grateful passengers at Lai Khe, Frank and his crew flew to the refueling web site. Shearer famous that a number of rounds had hit the Huey in the course of the rescue. As soon as refueled, the Pink Group’s helicopters went again to their reconnaissance missions till darkness fell.

All seven members of the C-130 crew had been rescued from a crash that didn’t seem survivable. They have been additionally saved from virtually sure seize or dying at enemy arms. All seven lived out full lives—aside from one tragic loss. ARVN soldier Kiem recovered from his wounds however died a number of years later in a communist reeducation camp. On April 18, 2017, Frank, Monette, Shearer and Deslauriers have been awarded belated Silver Stars for his or her actions 45 years earlier.

Dr. Thomas Ward is an affiliate professor on the U.S. Command and Normal Workers Faculty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

This text appeared within the June 2022 difficulty of Vietnam journal.