The following article was written in response to a request from Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association Historian, Mike Sloniker in 2000. The VHPA was attempting to document units who operated in I Corps. The 281st involvement with Project Delta in I Corps and a series of events that occurred during Operation Pirous was documented and published with the VHPA Historical data for Helicopter Operations in I Corps Tactical Zone.
VHPA member Bob Mitchell and the 281st AHC Association took
the time to compile their history. This
unit was all over Vietnam supporting the 5th Special Forces Group,
(Airborne) with many operations in I Corps.
Their story follows.
281st Assault Helicopter Company
The 281st Assault Helicopter Company began its tour in Vietnam as the 145th Aviation Platoon, “Iroquois” and later known as “Mardi Gras.” The 145th was later consolidated with the 2nd Platoon, 171st Aviation Company after it combined its assets with the 6th Aviation Platoon “Fangs.” The 281st Aviation Company (Air Mobile Light) landed at Nha Trang, RVN in June 1966 and immediately absorbed the existing assets and mission of the predecessor units and became known as the “Intruders”. The primary mission was to support 5th Special Forces Group (Abn), more specifically Detachment B-52 Project DELTA and the MACV RECONDO School, all headquartered at Nha Trang. Project DELTA was a clandestine operational unit that conducted covert operations within the country of Vietnam. B-52 was normally attached to a Division or higher Headquarters for the specific purpose of conducting reconnaissance in enemy held territories or areas of operation that required Special Operations techniques and tactics that conventional forces could not perform. The 281st AHC “Intruders” was placed under Operational Control of 5th SFG and Det B-52 for the purposes of these operations.
The 281st AHC and Project DELTA first came to the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) for Operation 4-66, returned for Operation 5-66, again for Operation 13-66, Operation PIROUS, Operations SAMURAI I, II, III, IV, V, Operation WARBONNET, Operations CASS PARK I, II and the last time conducted Operations TROJAN HORSE I, II. According to official After Action Reports (AAR) the 281st AHC lost a total of 17 aircraft during these operations and suffered 8 KIA, 27 WIA, and 5 MIA. Some of these casualty figures have been revised and reclassified since the initial reports. Some KIAs reported on the AARs are actually KIA BNR (Body Not Recovered) and were considered as MIA in later official reporting. The single most costly operation for the 281st in terms of lost aircraft was SAMURAI IV which was conducted in the A Shau Valley. The unit lost seven (7) aircraft to enemy fire in the Valley. With regard to loss of personnel SAMURAI V, again in the A Shau Valley, was the most costly with 4 KIA and 3 WIA. Operation 13-66 at Khe Sanh was also very costly with 4 KIA. Overall the 281st had five (5) separate operations in the A Shau Valley, probably the hottest spot in I CTZ for enemy infiltration. The unit worked the Khe Sanh area on three (3) operations, another main infiltration area for NVA troops.
The following chart shows the Project DELTA Operation, Forward Operating Base (FOB) location, Tactical Area of Responsibility (TOAR) and supported Major Command (MACOM):
04-66 031366-033166 Hue A Shau Valley CG 3rd MAF
05-66 041366-043066 Chu Lai Tra Bong Valley CG 3rd MAF
13-66 101466-111866 Khe Sanh Laotian Brdr Area CG 3rd MAF
PIROUS 041067-061667 Phu Bai A Shau Valley CG 3rd MAF
SAMURAI 071067-081667 An Hoa Happy Valley CG I CTZ
SAMURAI II 091867- An Hoa Happy Valley CG I CTZ
SAMURAI III -103167 An Hoa Happy Valley CG I CTZ
SAMURAI IV 030468-040468 Phu Bai A Shau Valley CG 3rd MAF
SAMURAI V 042068-052068 Phu Bai A Shau Valley CG 3rd MAF
WARBONNET 101368-111468 An Hoa An Hoa Basin CG 3rd MAF/CG I CTZ
CASS PARK I 032969-042569 Phu Bai A Shau Valley CG 101st ABN DIV
CASS PARK II 050269-070269 An Hoa Area 20 KM SW CG AMERICAL DIV
TROJAN HORSE I 080469-100169 Mai Loc W Quang Tri Prov CG 3rd MARINE DIV
TROJAN HORSE II 101369-110969 Mai Loc N Quang Tri Prov CG 101st ABN DIV
Operation PIROUS the 281st and Project DELTA were operating in the A
Shau Valley. The following is a
synopsis of key events that occurred during that operation conducted between
April and June 1967:
and the 281st were just off Operation 4-67 at An Khe and had been on
a seven day stand-down. Initially
the FOB for Operation 5-67 (Codename PIROUS) was planned for Khe Sanh but was
changed to Phu Bai just prior to execution.
Based upon the OPORD the 281st was to close on the FOB NLT 12
April 1967. The assigned TAOR was
the A Shau Valley. The FOB was
established and operational at DTG 160930 April 1967 at Dong Ha Training Center,
Phu Bai, VIC YD844152. The 281st would stage out of the FOB and support Project DELTA with helicopter
infiltration and extraction of the Recon Teams (three U.S. Special Forces
“USSF” and three Vietnamese Special Forces “VNSF”), Roadrunner Teams
(normally six VNSF dressed in NVA uniforms), the 91st Airborne Ranger
Battalion (ARVN) and the Reactionary Force (Chinese Nungs).
Additionally it would provide helicopter gunship (Wolfpack Platoon)
support on order. The initial
Visual Recon (VR) of the Area of Operation (AO) was conducted shortly after the
FOB was operational. The aircraft
drew light small arms and automatic weapons (SA/AW) fire during the course of
the fly over but received no hits.
The first 10
days of operation were without significant incident.
Recon Teams (RT) and Roadrunner Teams (RR T) were infiltrated into the AO
exfiltrated and then debriefed. Enemy
activity was, however, evident and considerable intelligence was gathered.
On 27 April RT 9 reported being pursued by 10-15 enemy personnel and
requested immediate extraction VIC YD289109.
The first recovery ship extracted two VNSF by hoist.
The second recovery ship was shot down by SA/AW fire and crashed into the
LZ. There were no crewmembers
wounded or injured in the subsequent crash.
The M60D’s, radios and ammo were removed from the ship and the crew
linked up with the remainder of RT 9. Three
USMC CH-46s departed the FOB with the 5th Ranger Company, 91st Airborne Ranger BN (ARVN). Two of
the CH-46s landed VIC YD289113 and received small arms fire during their
approach. The third CH-46 was shot
down and crashed VIC YD293111. One
of the Rangers suffered minor injuries. After
the crew removed the weapons and radios from the downed aircraft they affected
link up with the rest of the ground elements.
TAC air was on station by now suppressing the heavy ground fire.
Two additional CH-46s were requested from 1st MAW and after
arrival extracted all elements that were on the ground.
TAC Air destroyed the downed UH-1 and the CH-46 was recovered at a later
date. Roadrunner Team 101 remained in the Recon Zone and had negative further
enemy contact or sightings.
next two weeks the 281st AHC made many successful insertions and
extractions of Recon Teams, Roadrunner Teams and elements of the 91st Ranger BN (ARVN). Most of these
missions were made under light to heavy enemy fire.
On 14 May after extracting RT 3 and RR T 101 and infiltrating RR T 107
without incident a UH-1D, tail number 191, flown by Aircraft Commander (AC) WO
Gary Omdahl and Pilot (P) WO Ken Johnson [the Crewchief (CE) and Door Gunner
(DG) are unknown] was shot down by SA/AW fire and crashed VIC YD588815. The downed crew and a portion of RR T 107 were extracted
shortly after nightfall. The second
recovery ship UH-1D, tail number 136, flown by WO Steve Robertson (the rest of
the crew is unknown) crashed into the same LZ while attempting to extract the
remainder of RR T 107. Wolfpack
UH-1 gunships, Spooky and two USAF F4s
controlled by Project DELTA’s FAC provided suppressive fire and illumination
as the downed crew and remainder of the team were extracted at 2130.
There were no fatalities and only two individuals suffered minor
injuries. Due to darkness, terrain
and enemy situation both UH-1Ds were left in place with all equipment onboard
and destroyed by TAC Air.
On 21 May
while attempting the extraction of RR T 107 the recovery aircraft took two hits
from SA/AW. The AC, WO Jerry
Montoya, (other crewmembers unknown) was hit in the head and the Recovery NCO
was hit in the arm. The aircraft
continued flight and returned to the FOB with the wounded.
On the second extraction attempt a UH-1C 65-09480 (Wolfpack 33) was shot
down and crashed into the side of a hill and caught fire as it rolled into a
small ravine where it exploded. A
signal panel was spotted in the vicinity of the wreckage by the C&C ship.
TAC Air was used to suppress and destroy the enemy positions prior to a
USMC Jolly Green arriving to affect the rescue of the surviving crew members.
The Jolly Green could not touch down or hover in the area of the panel
sighting but was able to reposition to a clearer area and extract RR T 107.
A CH-46 from the 1st MAW was successful in extracting one of
the downed crewmen, SP4 Craig Szwed the CE.
Air elements continued to search for the remaining three crewmen.
A Red panel was spotted and a UH-1D flown by, Aircraft Commander, CPT
William Horton, (other crewmembers unknown) was hit by SA/AW fire as it
attempted to extract two personnel confirmed to be Americans.
PFC Michael P. Gallagher, DG on the recovery ship was hit.
The extraction was aborted due to heavy SA/AW fire and the wounded
aircrewman was evacuated to 3rd Med BN at Phu Bai where he was
pronounced DOA. The decision was
made to abort the SAR due to darkness. The
three remaining crewmembers, AC, WO Donald “Corky” Corkran, P, WO Walter
Wrobleski and DG, SP4 Gary Hall were still on the ground and listed as MIA.
The 1st Ranger Company of the 91st Airborne Ranger BN (ARVN) was inserted at first light on 22 May to attempt a ground search for the MIA crewmembers. The insertion met SA/AW fire in the LZ and a USMC CH-46 was shot down and crashed in the LZ. The crew was immediately extracted. Just prior to the insertion two of the three MIA crewmen were spotted by the C&C aircraft. The 1st Ranger Company stayed in continuous enemy contact while searching for the MIA crewmen. When elements of the 1st Rangers came upon the wreckage of the UH-1C, they made contact with a surviving crewman, SP4 Gary Hall, who stated that he was with the AC, WO Corkran, but they were separated after they were knocked off the jungle penetrator as they were being dragged through the jungle canopy during the aborted rescue attempt by CPT Horton. Hall was extracted and evacuated back to the FOB at Phu Bai. Search of the crash site revealed no human remains and the search for the remaining two crewmen continued into the night. On the morning of 23 May the Ranger Company found the missing AC, WO Corkran but WO Wrobleski, the Pilot, was still missing. The Rangers moved Corkran to a clearing for evacuation, but the extraction was unsuccessful due to extremely heavy SA/AW ground fire. The ground elements moved to another LZ where they were extracted by CH-46s after heavy saturation of the LZ and surrounding area by TAC Air. WO Wrobleski was still MIA and the search continued.
As reconnaissance operations continued, all elements continued to search for WO Wrobleski. On 4 June an F8 from USMC SQDN 235 crashed in the AO due to engine failure, the pilot was located and extracted by a 281st UH-1D at VIC TD8121102 and evacuated to USMC medical facilities. Project DELTA closed operations at the Phu Bai FOB DTG 160305 June 1967 and all elements returned to Nha Trang. WO Walter Wrobleski was never recovered and was declared KIA-BNR on 15 February 1978. He is still considered to be MIA by the members of the 281st AHC Intruders.
The brief review and synopsis of the above actions is representative of the operations that the 281st AHC participated in while operating in I CTZ. Operation PIROUS was one of several incursions into the A Shau Valley and other areas of known or suspected enemy activity in I CTZ. The 281st AHC and Project DELTA unquestionably contributed greatly to the intelligence gathering effort that was of such tremendous value to the Major Commands in I Corps. Without doubt the discoveries and disclosures that were made by these operations contributed to the success of the larger more well know operations that were conducted by the 101st Airborne, the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force and the Americal Division. The 281st and Project DELTA were pioneers in covert operations by means of heliborne insertions and extractions of Reconnaissance Teams, and went about their work both quietly and professionally.
NOTE: The information contained herein was compiled from the Official After Action Reports of 5th SFG, Det B-52, Project DELTA and the 281st AHC, personal interviews of the 281st personnel involved, and the book Silent Birdmen, by Albert Rampone. The operations and missions described were classified at the time of the action but have been declassified per Executive Order 12356, Section 3.3, NND Number NND946706, BYHD Date 060596.