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"A version of this story was published in VIETNAM Magazine in October 2003"

AN LAO VALLEY INCIDENT

Date of Incident: Saturday, January 29, 1966
Binh Dinh Province, South Vietnam
Early stages of Operation “Masher”


The 145th Airlift Platoon had been working for several days out of Bong Son Special Forces (SF) Camp in support of Project Delta which was conducting Recon missions in the An Lao Valley. I was the Crew Chief of a troop carrying “slick”, tail number 62045, call sign “Mardi Gras 6”. The gunner was a Californian named Russell Issacs. Nine of the ten helicopters in the Platoon were on the mission, six slicks, two gunships, and a “Hog,” while our tenth helicopter was back at our home base in Nha Trang undergoing maintenance. Our mission, as I understood it, was to quietly insert the Delta teams into the valley, provide air cover with our gunships, and pick them up on demand. Delta was to locate a large VC/NVA force in the valley then a Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, which was operating nearby in the Bong Son plain, would come in immediately, and destroy them.

The Delta teams in the valley were compromised almost from the start and I got an Air Medal for Valor for a ladder drop and covering fire during a five-man pickup on the side of a ridge on January 28th. On the morning of January 29th, most of the Platoon was out flying Direct Support or Combat Assault missions in or around the An Lao valley. Major Kevin Murphy, the Platoon Commander had gone off to the SF Camp to meet with Major Charlie Beckwith and other Delta operations staff. 045 was parked nearby in an adjacent graveyard where we had bivouacked the last few nights and Issacs and I were doing routine maintenance on the ship and our weapons. All of a sudden, Major Murphy came running out and told us to “saddle up.” One of the Recon teams was in contact and needed immediate pickup. Major Beckwith arrived with three other Delta people (a First Sergeant, a radioman, and another Officer, I believe). We immediately started the engine and Major Murphy got into radio contact with the rest of the Platoon. They had either just landed or were on their way back to refuel and rearm at the camp airstrip and could not join up with us right away. A quick decision was made for 045 to leave immediately in advance of the rest of the Platoon and to quickly locate the team. We would then act as the Command & Control aircraft while the others made the pickup and delivered any required aerial gun support. We took off with a crew of four (Aircraft Commander was Major Murphy, Co-pilot was CWO Southwell, Issacs and myself) and the four Delta members.

The weather was awful. At that point it was cold, there was low cloud cover with a ceiling below 1,000 feet, and rain was falling. I think that the best description of weather of that kind was in a Boston Publishing Co. book called “The Vietnam Experience/A Contagion of War.” It noted “that a season of “crachin,” which is French for “spit” was prevalent in the area. It described “crachin” as “A constant drizzle that could lighten to a mist or fall more heavily, crachin drifted down from slate gray clouds seldom higher than 3,000 feet. Visibility usually extended no more than three miles. In the early morning hours, low stratus clouds dropped below a 1,000 foot ceiling, and the fog that resulted lifted slowly, dissipating by middle-to-late morning. Frequently, the fog persisted in the valleys, obscuring mountain ridges and peaks and creating perilous flying conditions.”

Since the ceiling was so low, we flew at an altitude of approximately 300 to 400 feet over the area just outside the SF camp and then over some farms, picking up speed as we flew. Sitting in the open cargo door (pilot’s side), I was wearing my field jacket under my flak jacket and chicken plate and I had the visor down on my helmet in an attempt to stay warm and shield myself from the rain. Each drop of rain that hit you hurt. Even with this protection, the rain was still impacting on my hands and chin while water ran down my helmet visor, my neck, and inside my jacket. The visibility was not good, but I could see fairly well along the ground from that altitude. Few people were in view, but those I could see looked like farmers on their way somewhere. Not far from the Bong Son airfield and before we had gotten to the narrow part of the valley, we suddenly broke into the open over some rice paddies. Our altitude was still only a few hundred feet and in front of us and slightly to the left was a paddy dike lined with tall palm trees with another dike off to the far left. I saw no people.

Almost immediately, I heard the sharp, sub-sonic cracking of small arms and automatic weapons and I realized that we were taking fire from the tree line along the paddy dike that we were flying towards at about a 30-degree angle (my side of the helicopter). I started to deliver some suppressive fire from my M-60 into the tree line, working from the right to the left. Major Beckwith, who was sitting next to me, began firing his M-16 over my right shoulder and the First Sergeant, who was sitting on the floor in front of me, also began firing. I was leaning forward in my seat, holding the 60 with both hands, my right elbow resting on my right knee and my left hand under the weapon to steady it as I fired. I only got off about 20 or 30 rounds when WHAM! I had my right hand literally blown off the M-60's pistol grip and felt an almost equal impact on my right thigh. The world seemed full of red dots while the pain was beyond my powers of description. At that moment, time seemed to slip into slow motion.

I looked down at my hand and I could see smoke coming out of the hole in the top. I glanced at Beckwith and I could immediately tell that he had a gut wound and was hurt much worse than I was. I then looked up at the First Sergeant and the look of absolute total surprise on his face; combined with the red spots all over his face and head made me start laughing, more in pain than in mirth. I held out my arm to him because I wanted him to stop the bleeding. I’m sure that he had no idea why I was doing this, but eventually he clamped down on my arm and slowed the blood loss.

It then began to get confusing for me. There was a lot of smoke and confusion in the helicopter and a very active radio net assessing the situation. I thought that Southwell got hit in the butt with shrapnel when something came up through the floor, but I'm not exactly sure what happened after I was hit. The helicopter was shaking furiously as we continued on, banking somewhat to the right. I could hear Isaac’s M-60 working and the pain in my hand and the fear of getting hit again or worse yet crashing, made me decide to keep at it. I took my weapon in my left hand and starting firing again, one-handed, toward the base of the treeline, which was now very close to us. As we banked over the tree line along the paddy dike, I could see people in uniform tracking us with their weapons. All of us were firing furiously, aiming at anything that moved. Beckwith was half lying on the seat and in a lot more pain than I was, and I could hear his staff telling him to hold on. The SF Officer told him, “Hold on Boss, you’re hit pretty bad. We’re going to have to get you back.” He then got on the radio and he and Major Murphy decided to abort and go directly back to the SF compound.

The fight seemed to last a very long time but I’m sure that it was only seconds. We flew back to Bong Son and landed just outside the perimeter wire of the SF camp. They unloaded Beckwith, and Issacs came over to my side of the helicopter and held me up, putting my left arm over his shoulders. He carried me over to the narrow path leading through the wire where we encountered a journalist who was blocking the way. Russell starting yelling at him to get out of the way, but the guy was just standing there with his mouth open, fumbling at his camera equipment, trying to get it out and take a picture, I guess. When we got to him, Russell shoved him over the roll of barbed wire, where he landed on his back on top of more wire and fell to the ground. I don’t think that he ever said a word to us.

Issacs then took me into the aid station and stayed with me for a bit while a medic gave me some morphine. Things began to get hazy for me and I remember that they were working furiously on Beckwith. After a while I heard Major Murphy start yelling. It sounded like he was getting really angry because they were not working on me, and the Dustoff chopper was not there yet. I also remember someone trying to calm him down. Eventually, a medivac chopper picked me up and took me to the Hospital in Qui Nhon.

When I woke up from my surgery, Col. McKean, the Commander of 5th SF, was sitting on the bed next to mine while members of his staff circled in the background. I was pretty groggy but what I remember of the conversation was that the 145th had done a good job and recovered the survivors of the team that we were after. Overall casualties among the teams inserted into the valley were heavy but that they had found a large number of VC and that McKean had requested that a B-52 strike take place before the enemy had time to flee. When I asked him where the backup we were promised was, he told me that the 1st Cavalry was unable to carry out their end of the mission because they were bogged down in a fight elsewhere. I also remember asking him about certain Delta members and expressing a great deal of anger over taking these kinds of casualties to find an enemy who was then allowed to get away.

Later on, I decided that I really appreciated his visit. He made me feel like I had contributed to an important mission and that I had the respect of people that I thought of as among the bravest people that I had ever met. It was also the only time in that war that anyone ever took the time to give me an explanation of how our efforts fit into the larger campaign picture and why it was worth it.

To this day, I still do not know what I was hit with! In the hospital, Russell Issacs told me that it was a .30 caliber armor piercing round and that it had been given to Beckwith. Since Beckwith was sitting right behind me, firing over my shoulder and the round went through my hand and then nicked my right leg, it had to have been the same round that hit him in the stomach. We were both hit at exactly the same time and in his book, Charlie said that he was hit with a .51 caliber round. The round made an M-16 size hole in the back of my hand and larger exit wound in my wrist. If it was a .51 caliber, then it seems like I should have lost my entire hand.

Even though it has been a while since this incident, I still think about it often. I spent a year at Madigan Army Hospital in Tacoma, Washington getting my hand repaired. I then went back to college, graduated, went to work, got married and had kids. Life has been good for me, but every day I remember the men I served with in the 145th Airlift Platoon.

Reconstructed from 35 year-old memories
By former PFC Duane D. Vincent
November 19, 2000