Medical evacuation helicopters were the lifeline of the Vietnam War. Affectionately known as medevacs or dustoffs–a nickname originally taken from the radio call sign of Army chopper pilot Major Charles L. Kelly, who was killed in action on July 1, 1964–these Bell UH-1 Huey airborne ambulances and their brave crews saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers.
The 101st Airborne Division’s 326th Medical Battalion formed an air ambulance platoon known as ‘Eagle Dustoff’ that was responsible for aerial medical evacuation of casualties in its area of operations, including some of the most infamous hot spots in all of Southeast Asia. In the spring of 1969 that area included the rugged A Shau Valley, on the western edge of Thua Thien province near Laos, which remained a Communist stronghold throughout the war. Eagle Dustoff crews also evacuated casualties from the mountain known as ‘Hamburger Hill,’ where elements of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne and two battalions of the 29th NVA Regiment engaged in a bloody 10-day slugfest in May 1969 that resulted in 446 American casualties. In early 1972 the 326th’s medevacs provided support for South Vietnamese forces engaged in Operation Lam Son 719, during which ARVN troops invaded Laos to disrupt NVA supply lines and destroy base camps.
The A Shau Valley, April 22, 1969
Even though he enjoyed flying over the wild terrain of the A Shau Valley–sometimes called the ‘valley of death’–Larry Wagoner, the crew chief of Dustoff 99, had a bad feeling about the mission on April 22.
The aircraft commander, Warrant Officer 1st Class Max E. Tucker, affectionately known as ‘Fat Albert,’ was trying to get a picture of what was happening on the ground along the mountain ridge bordering the western side of the valley and Laos. Via radio, he learned all he could about the multiple casualties waiting for his crew and about the enemy positions up ahead. Tucker had already called for an artillery shut-off in the immediate area.
Wagoner was working the radio. His chopper crew included medics Tony T. ‘Doc’ Burdo and Garry Bryant, the latter on his first dustoff mission. The co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class William A. Tiffany, was flying the chopper, scanning the rugged ring of mountains for signs of AAA fire as they approached the pickup point.
The red crosses on the nose and sides of the chopper were no guarantee of safe passage. Neither were the empty M-60 machine-gun positions in the ‘hell holes’ (rearmost seats). Firepower and protection were supplied by Bell AH-1G Cobra gunships from the division’s air assault battalion. Two of the’snakes’ raced alongside the airborne ambulance or darted back and forth, looking for things to kill.
As the chopper got closer to the pickup point, the main rotors beat the treetops back and forth, affording Wagoner glimpses of the ground. The red-haired crew chief hung out of the right cargo bay door, letting the cable attached to the jungle penetrator slide through his left fist as the device dropped straight down. Below, troops of the 101st Airborne Division were guarding their wounded, waiting for help to arrive.
Suddenly a burst of fire raked the helicopter and slugs tore through the bird. The chopper started bucking, shaking and vibrating. Paint chips flipped through the air. Bits of aluminum, steel-mesh webbing, dust and debris blew around the cabin and flight deck. Four of the five radios took hits and died. Fuel lines ruptured. More rounds stitched holes along the length of one main blade, going through it like butter, while leaving the other blade unscathed.
Small-arms fire came through Tucker’s right door, just below the window, smacked into his armored chair, the armor plates in front of his face, and on up through the overhead ‘greenhouse’ window. For the crew, time slowed down–everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Then something hit Wagoner square in the back. His feet flew up, and he crashed onto the steel deck. The crew chief rolled over onto his side and scrambled to get the cable and penetrator back inside.
As the helicopter spooled up along the treetops, Tiffany, the pilot, looked for an escape route. He aimed the chopper up the nearby ridge, hoping to survive by putting some terrain between his helicopter and the nest of ambushers.
Meanwhile, as the penetrator cable whipped through the jungle below them, Wagoner tried to get into his specially rigged scout seat armor, which he had installed near the right door. When he found that he could not move the armor, he gave up and concentrated on recovering the cable, hoping to keep the steel rope from snagging on something and pulling the chopper into the ground. ‘The pilot or I could have blown the cable,’ Wagoner later recalled of that tense moment. ‘There was one charge and a button for each of us. That would have been the last resort. I had no intention of doing that. In truth, I didn’t tell anybody the penetrator was near the ground. Another thing was, against regs, we ran the cable down and up at max full speed! Sometimes I would have the basket or penetrator on the ground before we came to a complete stop; we would work it down through the trees. We had to hurry up the people on the ground. It was a life or death situation for all of us because Charlie could hit you at any time with anything from small arms to heavy AAA and even missiles.’
Wagoner gasped over the intercom that he had been hit just as small-arms fire sawed into the left side of the ship. At that same instant, Doc Burdo screamed that he, too, had been shot. Rounds popped through the deck around Wagoner’s feet. He was amazed to see AK-47 slugs cutting through the flooring, then twisting around to lodge, rear ends protruding, out of the deck. The crew chief could have picked them out by hand. Plexiglas splinters cascaded across the instrument panel and caught Bill Tiffany in the face and eyes. Somehow the penetrator slipped up and out of the trees as Wagoner reeled it in.
The Huey crested the ridge and dived over, and the firing stopped. FSB Whip was three miles away, baking in the midday sun. On the way there, Wagoner and Bryant worked on Burdo, who had been seriously wounded in the knee, forehead and groin.
‘If there were any missions that I would like to forget, this one would be on the top of my list,’ Tiffany later recalled. ‘It was a disaster. On leaving the pickup site, one round hit the bundle of commo wire for my side of the aircraft, so I never heard anything. I did not know that we were hit in the fuel cell.’ Tiffany also did not know that jet fuel had sprayed out of the main gas lines.
Wagoner was scared and shaking but still able to help Burdo. He was thankful a second medic was aboard. Fortunately, the flight to the support base did not take long. Five minutes after the chopper was first hit, the skids of Dustoff 99 plowed down the LZ at FSB Whip–just as the fuel pumps spat the last of the JP-4 out of the holed fuel lines and sucked the cells dry.
Dustoff 93, a backup Eagle Dustoff sister ship flown by Irv Reid, touched down alongside the chopper within minutes of 99’s arrival. Meanwhile, Burdo’s crew gently rolled the medic over and slid him out the door. For a second Burdo was snagged on his twisted ‘monkey strap’ umbilical cord, which was still attached to the chopper, and Wagoner had to jerk the harness clear by unsnapping the end clamp from the cargo ring on the deck. There was just enough time to remove the medic’s hel-met before he was loaded onto Dustoff 93 for the flight to the hospital. Dustoff 93 then headed for the coast. That crew had completed the hoist mission and recovered all the wounded and dead Americans at the LZ.
Wagoner trotted around his pilot’s door and, with shaking hands, fumbled for the fire extinguisher. As he worked, he noticed an odd tear in his ‘chicken skin’ armored vest, which was lying on the cargo floor. A white piece of material peeked out from a hole two inches from the bottom end. Wagoner set the extinguisher down and began probing inside the guts of the vest. With an index finger he plucked out a copper-colored, beat-up AK-47 slug. The vest had clearly saved Wagoner’s life, but fragments and splinters of the bullet’s jacket had bitten into the young crew chief’s rear.
Dustoff 99 had a holed tail boom, loose AK-47 rounds were scattered across the engine compartment floor, and every red cross on the chopper had been punctured. She had been hit 37 times.
Doc Burdo ended up in a one-piece body cast on one of the hospital ships off Hue. He was later shipped home to recover from his injuries. Wagoner and the injured pilot, Bill Tiffany, were flown to the 85th Evacuation Hospital and USS Repose, respectively. Wagoner got a tetanus shot, a big bandage on his rear, and more missions to fly that same day, once he thumbed a ride back to Camp Eagle.
Hamburger Hill, May 13, 1969
The 3rd Battalion, 187th Airborne Infantry (3/187), known as the ‘Rakassans,’ had been storming the NVA support base at Dong Ap Bia–dubbed ‘Hamburger Hill’ by the Americans–for three days. Delta Company of the Rakassans had tried to sneak down a side ravine and assault back up the hill. They never made it past a small river at the northern base of Hill 937.
NVA scouts and snipers tracked Delta Company down and unleashed a vicious ambush. Rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s ripped into the Airborne troops, who were already exhausted from the murderous descent down the jungle precipice.
Aircraft commander 1st Lt. Gerald M. Torba (call sign ‘Dustoff 927’), co-pilot 1st Lt. Jerry T. Lee, crew chief James R. Walters and medic James A. Margro took off to rescue the beleaguered company. By now the 326th medevac crews were all aware that something out of the ordinary was taking place in the western A Shau, on a group of small mountains butted up against the Laotian border.
Captain Luther (Lee) Sanders, Delta Company commander, called in the medevac. As related in the book Hamburger Hill, by Samuel Zaffiri, Sanders then slogged uphill to try to secure the high ground for the chopper. When the flying ambulance found Delta Company, the story goes, Sanders warned Torba to hold off landing until the overlooking terrain was under American control. However–as in civilian aviation–the pilot in command makes all the final decisions and can ignore advice or deviate from rules and regulations for safety reasons in an emergency.
Lieutenant Torba had a heavy burden at that moment. He knew that NVA must be in the area. He also figured that most of an entire rifle company was fanning out under him; some of the company were already dead or dying below, sheltered near the logjams and rocks and under the trees along the river’s banks. What to do was Torba’s call–he faced a terrible choice between protecting the lives of his crew and saving the lives of the paratroopers.
Torba quickly made up his mind and took the chopper in. Walters and Torba worked together as they neared the pickup point, lowering a Stokes litter wire basket for a typically treacherous recovery in tall trees. The most seriously wounded soldier below them, Pfc George Pickel, was placed in the basket, and the Rakassan medics signaled Walters to lift off.
The basket swung free and Walters barked, ‘Breaking ground, sir!’ as he punched the winch into fast rewind. When the basket was approaching the halfway point, an NVA soldier aimed his rocket launcher at the chopper. He pulled the trigger and a miniature SAM struck the main rotor disk of the aircraft, robbing the chopper of lift and showering its crew with shrapnel–in addition to momentarily stunning them with a blinding white light.
The pranged bird picked up speed–headed straight down–and crashed directly on top of Pfc Pickel. As the rotor blades came off, the decking flew up, breaking the backs of many of the crew members. Torba’s left leg was ripped, burned and bleeding from a shrapnel wound, and his survival knife hit him in the teeth and mouth as he landed. A radio telephone operator and another grunt who had guided the ship in were mowed down by flying main rotor blades.
The surviving paratroopers rushed toward the twisted wreckage and pulled Torba from the cockpit. The rest of the crew was trapped in the bent aluminum and steel, and before they could be cut loose the wreck exploded in a horrific conflagration. The co-pilot and all the enlisted crewmen perished in the fire.
With what seemed like half the NVA off the hill breaking through the surrounding brush and closing in on Delta Company, Captain Sanders mustered his exhausted and demoralized men and grabbed their seven remaining wounded, leaving seven dead men behind for later retrieval. He then attempted to retreat back up the ravine. In the course of what surely ranks as one of the most difficult retreats in 101st Airborne history, Lieutenant Torba was lugged up a muddy, sniper-infested, 45-degree forested slope. Then, after spending a miserably cold night, the pilot was placed on a pile of dead men toward the top of Hamburger Hill.
Seventeen hours after he was abandoned in the mud and rain on Hamburger Hill, another group of American troops found Torba there–still alive. He later lost his left leg below the knee, but he recovered from his wounds and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1992.
Khe Sanh, 1971
Hell was on the march in early 1971. The old Marine firebase at Khe Sanh was again in danger. This time it seemed the entire NVA army was rolling down Route 9 toward the staging area for Lam Son 719, the ARVN incursion into Laos. The base was clobbered by 800 shells in the first two weeks of March.
Months before, a major portion of the military might of South Vietnam and its allies had saddled up for an invasion to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Aircraft from across the Pacific were routed into Vietnam and toward the I Corps. South Vietnam fielded the infantry.
The 101st Airborne Division’s six-battalion air force did most of the flying into the boonies for the ARVN during the Lam Son operation. During a typical flight on February 8, pilots like Alan Fisher watched a lift bird get its rudder controls shot up by AAA, then saw another ship crash and burn with no survivors. And that was just on the way in to the pickup zone.
The South Vietnamese had made it to Tchepone, Laos, but–like the Germans on their World War II march to the Caucasus–had soon found themselves overextended. The NVA eventually realized that Laos was the target rather than North Vietnam. (To confuse the enemy, hundreds of parachutes had been shipped up from Saigon before the attack to foster the idea of a massive incursion into North Vietnam.) The NVA mobilized everything they had and wiped out half the ARVN troops who were milling around in the Laotian countryside or trying to retreat to South Vietnam. The North used armor, long-range artillery and SAMs against the panic-stricken ARVN troops. The newspapers called it the ‘Laos Pullout,’ but the men of Eagle Dustoff who were stuck in the middle called it ‘The Rout.’
Things were cooking. Surface-to-air rockets vaporized gunships and slicks (unarmed troop transports) alike with clouds of flak. On occasion, frantic ARVN troops who were trying to force their way aboard medevac choppers had to be shot so that the Hueys could take off to evacuate forward firebases. Four newsmen–British photographer Larry Burrows, Kent Potter of United Press International, Keizaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek and Henri Huet of the Associated Press–perished in one crash on February 10, 1971. Photographers and reporters, including French photographer Franques Tonnaire, had plenty to see. Tonnaire, who was wounded in the course of the operation, was evacuated by Eagle Dustoff’s Doug Wilson and his crew.
Between flights, Wilson, aircraft commander Daniel ‘Tommy’ Talbot, ‘Peter pilot’ (co-pilot in training) Richard L. Dipboye and medic Robert Fritz Speer parked their Huey alongside another 326th medevac chopper and waited for more calls. Khe Sanh was a sea of plastic, sandbags, makeshift shelters and tents, with bare hills in the background. It looked a bit like Tijuana, Mexico. Fog and rain made it necessary for the men to wear field jackets much of the time. When not supporting the outlying firebases or the invasion force, or dodging AAA fire and missiles, Wilson and his buddy Speer–two sandy-haired look-alike enlisted men–hung around their birds, surrounded by the infamous battleground of Khe Sanh.
Speer and Wilson were fully involved in the hectic routine of an invasion on a forward combat base during the operation. Every day, 650 tons of cargo slammed down onto the rough landing field, 400 tons of which was shipped out on slicks and passed up the line to the ARVN airborne or infantrymen every day.
Speer and Wilson found time to pose proudly for snapshots under their state colors, snapping in the breeze like a war banner above the hallowed ground. The haggard, worn faces of the two airmen were recorded for posterity beneath the Bear Republic and the Lone Star.
The crew’s aircraft was its home much of the time. As the faraway brass were making plans to write off the Khe Sanh combat base, the crew was crumpled inside their chopper, closing the sliding doors in foul weather and sleeping as much as they could when they were not flying missions.
The crew chief and medic sought refuge from the nightmare vision of NVA pushing down the road, grinding fleeing ARVN troops into the dust. The good-natured, always-smiling Speer slept next to his helmet, which was personalized with a likeness of the Zig Zag cigarette rolling-paper guy in yellow.
By March 24, NVA troops were coming from the mountains and engaging American troops around Lang Vei, up Route 9 from Khe Sanh. Jets pounded the border-crossing site, armor churned the pulpy ground, and the inevitable cluster of photographers swarmed over the area like moths.
Wilson and his crew picked up an American paratrooper. After taking off, they wheeled around, with the chopper’s nose and skid toes pointed at the ground and were hauling butt, tail high. As they flew on, Fritz Speer watched the American tanks lining up on the horizon in a row, like Indians in old cavalry movies. Dusty U.S. tankers stood behind their 50-caliber heavy machine guns, in silent salute to the medevac fliers. Speer let the slipstream drag his legs rearward as he manned his position, sitting on the edge of the deck, in the left doorway. A trail of dust kicked up behind the machine as it clipped along. Just then, a photographer stood up and took a picture of the chopper. Papers around the world later published the photo of Wilson’s helicopter trucking down the road at low-level, just above the old tank battleground of the Green Beret camp at Lang Vei.
A lot of helicopter crews went down in flames during Lam Son 719. Before things were over, however, the gunship hunter-killer teams were able to live the gunship crew’s dream. They got to kill tanks–just like in a ‘real’ war. Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Molinelli’s 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, with more than 20 Cobras and scores of Hughes OH-6 light observation helicopters (‘Loaches’), attacked so many Russian tanks that the choppers found it impossible to arm fast enough to destroy them all.
By the time Lam Son ended, 618 American choppers had been shot up, downed and damaged. One hundred sixty-eight were lost outright. Fifty-five helicopter crewmen were dead, 178 crewmen were wounded, and 34 men were MIA.
It has been said that the 67-day battle of Lam Son 719 was Eagle Dustoff’s greatest challenge in the Vietnam War. A total of 6,632 wounded men were evacuated during the battle.
Six medevac crewmen were killed, 14 wounded and 10 aircraft destroyed. Among those killed was Fritz Speer, who died aboard an Eagle medevac chopper on April 23, 1971.
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