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One Wild Ride to Destiny

By Paul Gregoire
11/14/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

A Marine helicopter pilot reveals new insights into the legendary 1965 mission chronicled in Life by photographer Larry Burrows.

It was a clear, sunny Wednesday in the scenic Que Son Valley, southwest of Da Nang, the last day of March 1965. The events of that day were far from being the worst things that happened in Vietnam, but for many of us young Marines, it would be our first exposure to what one could call “real combat.” And, for many Americans back home, the action we engaged in that day would give them a stark and stunning portent of what was to come in the war. Hot on the heels of the 3,500 Marines who had just arrived in Da Nang weeks earlier was Larry Burrows, a photographer for Life magazine, who had settled in with our Marine Corp helicopter squadron to chronicle the day-to-day doings of U.S. Marines in Vietnam. By the end of that day, however, Burrow’s planned piece was scrapped.

What began as a routine mission would be transformed into legend when his hastily assembled photo essay, “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13,” landed in millions of homes two weeks later. Regarded as one of the Vietnam War’s greatest photographic achievements, Burrows’ dramatic telling of part of the story lives forever in the pages of Life, as does the rest of the story in the memories of those of us who were there that day.

Based at Da Nang, we were members of U.S. Marine Corps helicopter squadron HMM-163. My best friend, Claude Calia, and I had been assigned to the squadron in July 1964, replacing two pilots who had been injured in a crash while practicing landings in California. In early December we went to Okinawa to make final preparations for operating in Vietnam, and in January 1965 HMM-163 began rotating into Da Nang as the helicopter component of Operation Shufly, which began in 1962.

This being before the major U.S. involvement in Vietnam, our primary mission was to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) operations around Da Nang. On March 31, 17 of our UH-34D helicopters, escorted by four U.S. Army UH-1 Huey gunships, were to carry an ARVN infantry battalion on a combat assault into the Que Son Valley, known to harbor large enemy units. Multiple trips would be required to transport the troops from Tam Ky, 35 miles south of Da Nang, to the landing zone (LZ). I was copilot for Major Ernie Young in a UH-34 marked YP-10, and we would be leading the third division of four helicopters.

We encountered some moderate ground fire on the first foray to the LZ. Most of the helicopters were not hit, but two had to drop out of the lift because of wounded crew members. The remaining 15 returned to Tam Ky and picked up another load of troops. As we approached the landing zone this time, we found the troops from the first lift hadn’t moved from the spot where we had inserted them an hour earlier. They were pinned down behind paddy dikes in the zone by heavy automatic weapons fire from three sides and had suffered a lot of casualties. I could see several uniformed enemy troops shooting at us from a creek bed on our left.

During landing and takeoff, I ripped off four magazines from my M-16 at the creek bed and nearby tree line. Every bird on that lift was hit, but we all managed to stagger away. As excited chatter about enemy fire, battle damage and wounded crew filled the radio, our commanding officer and flight leader, Lt. Col. Norm Ewers, came on the air to calm us down: “I think we’ve all been hit. If you have wounded aboard, go home. If your aircraft is flyable, press on!” Nine of the 15 copters could not continue because they were badly damaged or had seriously wounded crew members. Also, one of the gunships had been shot down, but its crewmen were rescued by their wingman. That left two gunships to support the next landing.

When we landed at Tam Ky, our crew chief, Corporal Skip Miller, checked us over for damage. We had taken some hits, and the primary hydraulic servo reservoir was leaking, but we were down to one-third of our original strength and still had a lot of troops to take in so we decided to continue for at least one more landing. The troops at the LZ needed reinforcements, or they could be overrun. However, if the ground fire situation didn’t improve, we would probably have to suspend the operation until we could get support from jet fighter/bombers.

As we made the wide sweeping left turn into our third approach, I looked down to see hundreds of tracers from three sides converging in the landing zone, along with explosions from either mortars or recoilless rifles. There was very little return fire from the ARVN troops. At that moment, I realized I might soon be dead, but I also knew that I had to do what I had been trained for. Ernie Young was flying, but I put my hands and feet lightly on the controls so I could quickly take control if he was hit. For someone running on pure adrenalin, I felt incredibly calm.

The next few minutes seemed to be in slow motion. We touched down in the LZ about 75 meters from the tree line on our right, in which stood a two-story stone building. It appeared muzzle flashes of automatic weapons were coming from every one of its windows. I felt and heard rounds impacting the aircraft, mostly from about 100 meters on the left side—my side. Sergeant Harry Dilley, the gunner on my side, was firing back, the nonstop hammering of his M-60 vibrating throughout the cockpit. I feared he’d burn out his barrel if he didn’t slow down, but he kept his finger on the trigger, ripping off long bursts into the trees for what seemed like an eternity. Not surprisingly, the crew chief had trouble getting the ARVN troops aboard to jump out into the raging battle.

I noticed that the helicopter to our right had not lifted off yet, although it had landed before us and seemed to have discharged its troops. Suddenly, I saw its co-pilot clamber out of the cockpit on the left side. As he hit the ground, he paused momentarily to get his bearings. Then he turned toward us and started heading our way, and at that precise moment our helicopter became the center of enemy attention. Rounds raked us nose to tail and impacted all around me. Then something slammed into my right foot—or what I thought was my foot. Actually a bullet fragment had hit the heel of my boot and slammed it up against the cyclic control, but I was unhurt. As I looked up, I didn’t see the co-pilot of the other helicopter anymore, and I knew we were in trouble. We’d been hit in the engine, the transmission and the troop compartment. The primary hydraulic system had been shot to pieces; the electronics compartment was a shambles. Dilley had been hit in the back, legs and groin and was bleeding profusely. Skip Miller was hurt almost as badly, his legs shattered by machine gun bullets. Miller shouted on the intercom that the troops were unloaded, that he and Dilley were badly hurt and that we’d better get the hell out of there. Shot up though it was, the old UH-34D fairly leapt into the air when we gave it maximum power. For the first few seconds we stayed low, building up airspeed, jinking from side to side in an attempt to spoil the aim of the enemy gunners as we crossed over the tree line.

We climbed to a safer altitude and headed for Da Nang, 55 miles north, the closest place where our wounded could get medical attention. Even at our maximum speed of 110 knots, it would take at least 30 minutes. Our radios were knocked out, but the intercom was still working. Miller sounded like he was in a lot of pain. Dilley wasn’t talking, so I knew he was in bad shape. Looking between my legs down into the troop compartment below, I could see that the floor was awash in blood and empty cartridge casings. Even with his serious wounds, Miller said that he was unplugging his helmet so he could crawl to Dilley and try to stop his bleeding. Up front, Young and I were uninjured but unable to help the guys in the belly. While it was possible, but very difficult, to get from the cockpit into the troop compartment during flight, we had some very serious mechanical problems that required the attention of both pilots.

With the primary servo gone, we were depending on the auxiliary system to keep the aircraft controllable. The engine operated the auxiliary hydraulic pump, and the engine had sustained some damage. If it quit, the helicopter would become uncontrollable, and we would crash. In that situation, the book says to land immediately, but with our crewmen in the shape they were in we weren’t reading the book. We also had a hard-over in the yaw channel— meaning the tail rotor control pedals, on their own because of battle damage, wanted to give us full right pedal displacement. Both Young and I had to press the left pedal with all our strength just to continue to fly straight ahead.

With the radios shot out, we had no way of contacting anyone for help in case we went down. We were on our own, but alive and heading home as fast as we could. Behind us, back at the LZ, some real heroics were going on.

One aircraft was still down on the ground. Its pilot, 1st Lt. Dale Eddy, was shot through the neck, paralyzed but conscious. It was his co-pilot, 1st Lt. James Magel, that I had seen climb out of the left seat just as we lifted off, apparently too injured to fly the aircraft. The crew chief, Sergeant Cecil Garner, and the gunner, Sergeant Billie Owens, had been wounded by the merciless fire from the building and other guns in the tree lines. Another helicopter in the lift, flown by 1st Lt. Wendell “Eli” Eliason and Lieutenant Don “Shadow” Wilson, was hit while taking off. Eliason was shot several times in the chest and died instantly. Although they came very close to crashing when Eliason slumped over the controls at very low altitude, Wilson managed to regain control and fly them home despite his wounds.At the same time, Captain JerryVogel and 1st Lt. Mort Shearer, aboard YP-13, spotted Eddy’s helicopter still on the ground and Eddy slumped over the controls. Aboard Vogel’s aircraft were the crew chief, Lance Cpl. James Farley, the gunner, Pfc Wayne Hoilien, and Life photographer Larry Burrows.

Seconds after we had lifted off from the LZ, Vogel landed beside Eddy’s aircraft, even though they were under very heavy fire. Sergeant Owens, the wounded gunner from Eddy’s helicopter, ran toward them, and Farley helped him aboardYP-13. While Hoilien directed his fire at the enemy guns on the left, Farley jumped out of his helicopter and ran toward Eddy’s, where he encountered Magel. Farley wrapped his arms around the wounded Marine and helped him toward YP-13. Just as he was pushing Magel up into the troop compartment, Magel was struck by another bullet in his right armpit. As photographer Burrows recorded the scene, Farley then ran to the left side of the downed aircraft and clambered up the side in an attempt to rescue Lieutenant Eddy. While completely exposed to extremely heavy automatic weapons fire from the left, Farley unstrapped the paralyzed Eddy and tried to pull him across the cockpit from the right seat. Eddy was a large man and his dead weight was hard to budge. His pistol belt became caught in the mixture and fuel control handles between the seats, and Farley could not get him untangled.

With rounds hitting all around him, Farley saw Eddy had a serious wound through his neck. Coupled with Eddy’s failure to respond in any way, Farley believed he was dead. Farley looked toward Vogel in YP-13, who was signaling for him to return. With a heavy heart, Farley followed Vogel’s order, jumped to the ground and ran back toYP-13. Hoilien, surrounded by bullet holes but uninjured, continued pumping out rounds with his machine gun. A bullet had creased Vogel’s neck, but he was still at the controls. Carrying their two seriously wounded passengers,YP-13 headed home. With Burrows documenting the dreadful scene, Magel succumbed to his wounds on the way to Da Nang. Though seriously wounded, his shoulder shattered, Owens would survive.

Back on the LZ, somehow Dale Eddy was still alive. Crumpled in the cockpit, paralyzed but conscious, his life was rapidly slipping away. He was aware of Farley’s heroic rescue attempt and knew that it was unlikely that anyone else would try before it was too late. Eddy’s crew chief, Sergeant Garner, was also grievously wounded. The former infantryman had grabbed his M-60 machine gun and ammunition and left the damaged helicopter. Although both his legs were broken, he crawled to a paddy dike and began to engage the enemy guns in the nearby building. His blood soaking into the dry rice paddy, he was determined to go down fighting.

Major Bennie Mann and my good friend Lieutenant Don Hamilton flew YP-2, the last flyable helicopter left in the LZ. As they lifted off after dropping their troops, Mann glanced down and saw Eddy’s slumped figure in the cockpit of his helicopter. Mann quickly stopped and, under heavy fire, landed close to Eddy’s. Hamilton leaped to the ground from the co-pilot’s seat and along with the gunner, Staff Sgt. Stanley Novotny, and crew chief Corporal Ted Rostad, sprinted toward the right side of the downed helicopter—the side directly exposed to the enemy guns less than 50 yards away. Novotny scrambled up the side, 10 feet in the air, reached in and grabbed the wounded pilot. Eddy was dead weight, but Novotny was a big man and his adrenaline was pumping furiously. With one hand, he wrenched Eddy from the cockpit and handed him down to the waiting gunner.

While running to the downed helicopter, Hamilton had spotted Garner close by, furiously engaged in his one-man last stand. In full view of the enemy gunners only yards away, “Hollywood” Hamilton ran to Garner’s position behind the paddy dike. Standing fully erect under fire, he reached down and slung the seriously wounded sergeant over his shoulder. The consummate Marine, Garner held onto his M-60 and continued to fire at the enemy as Hamilton carried him toward safety. Mann, watching the scene unfold in the face of a cascade of enemy fire pouring from the building, lifted into a hover and placed his helicopter between the building and Eddy’s aircraft to shield the rescuers from the enemy fire.

While Mann and his crew struggled to save their fellow Marines, the two Army Huey gunships were making their last-ditch run at the enemy in the tree lines. Each had used up all 14 of their 2.75- inch rockets and all the ammunition for their six machine guns. Though they had nothing left, they were determined to try to draw fire away from rescuers. The pilots in each Huey handed their pistols back to the crew chief and gunner who fired at the entrenched enemy from treetop level. Although Mann’s hovering helicopter was hit several times, Novotny and Rostad lifted Eddy aboard. As Hamilton threw Garner into the aircraft, Mann tore off fast and low. Remarkably, none of the four rescuers was wounded.

In Da Nang, word spread fast that the squadron had flown into a flaming debacle. The crews that had come back early from the first and second lifts told of heavy enemy fire and wounded crews. Slowly, by ones and twos, the squadron limped home. Makeshift ambulances were waiting at the edge of the main taxiway to take the wounded to a temporary triage facility. When we finally landed YP-10, we turned onto the first taxiway and shut down immediately. Miller and Dilley were gently carried from the crew compartment and rushed to the triage center.

I looked over our bullet-riddled, bloody helicopter. Hydraulic fluid ran down the side from the primary servo reservoir. I gathered up my equipment and began the long walk to the pilots’ready room. Yankee Papa 10 would never fly again, but she brought us safely home.

As the assistant intelligence officer, I stored my equipment in the intelligence office. When I dropped off my gear, my boss, Captain Jerry Maxwell, who had not been on the mission, was fielding phone calls from higher headquarters asking for updated reports. As soon as I walked in, he handed me the phone. “Tell them what they want to know,” he said. “They’re driving me nuts!” I tried to answer the questions being thrown at me, but had a hard time convincing them of the magnitude of the opposition we had run into. After giving my sketchy report, I went next door to the Ready Room.

A pall hung over the room. Most of the pilots sat in the chairs spread about the room and stared off into the distance. Norm Ewers sat against the wall, his baseball hat pulled down over his eyes, hiding his face and his emotions. A slow but steady stream of people came in and out over the next hour or two. Muted conversations could be heard in the adjoining operations office. We hadn’t been released from flight status, so we all waited, unsure what would happen next.

After a while Major Mann came in and took the podium. At the direction of Group headquarters, Mann announced, the squadron would stand down for maintenance for at least 24 hours. That would give us time to determine how many flyable aircraft we had, and the extent of repair required for the others. There was an almost audible sigh of relief from those in the room. No more flying today! Welcome news for everyone.

But Mann had another announcement. He and Ernie Young, the squadron executive officer, were going back to the LZ in an attempt to recover Dale Eddy’s helicopter! Looking around the astonished assemblage, Mann asked for two volunteers to go with them as copilots. After they landed near Eddy’s helicopter, he explained, the two co-pilots would jump out and run to the downed aircraft, scramble aboard and attempt to fly it out. Hopefully it would still be flyable!

Dead silence. Everyone stared at Mann, and then slowly started glancing around to see if anyone was going to raise his hand. As I scanned the group, I realized that everyone in the room was married except for me and my best friend Claude Calia, the two junior pilots in the squadron. On an impulse, I raised my hand and announced that Calia and I would go. Seated two chairs away from me, Calia spun around, a look of absolute disbelief on his face, as if to say, “Are you fucking crazy?” I shrugged and grinned at him. “Hey,” I said, “it’s our chance to get some HAC time.” Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC) time was very hard to come by for the two junior pilots in the squadron. He had to laugh at that, and soon we were headed back to the dreaded Que Son Valley.

We briefed on the plan in the air. Mann and Young would land close to the downed helicopter, and Calia and I would try to get it started and fly it out of the LZ, either to Da Nang or to Tam Ky. If the landing zone was still under as much fire as it had been, we would not make the attempt.

When we reached the area, there was still a lot of activity. Our sister squadron, HMM-162, had taken over the mission and was hauling in the remainder of the ARVN battalion to an LZ a short distance away from the original. The troops we had brought in had pulled back, and Eddy’s aircraft was now essentially in enemy-held territory. We orbited while the decision was made to either attempt the recovery or to destroy the helicopter. A flight of B-57 Canberra bombers had arrived to support the effort, and it was eventually decided to bomb Eddy’s helicopter to keep it out of enemy hands. Though we wanted to recover any aircraft we could, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.

It was close to dark when we arrived back at Da Nang, and the Ready Room was empty. We put our flight gear away for the final time that day and jumped on a truck for the ride to our living area. I didn’t bother to go to my room to clean up. I went directly to the bar and got drunk. I was 22 years old.

WhenYP-13 had returned to Da Nang, Larry Burrows knew he had caught something important on film and immediately set about to leave for Saigon. Since he didn’t know everyone in the squadron, he asked Norm Ewers if he could take someone with him for a couple of days to help put names with pictures. Ewers sent my buddy Don Hamilton, who earned the Silver Star that day in the rescue of Garner and Eddy.

A few days later, after he returned to Da Nang, Hamilton, two other squadron pilots and myself went to Hong Kong for an R&R. Burrows lived there and had given Hamilton his phone number with instructions to call if he was ever in Hong Kong. He made the call, and on April 12 Burrows invited us all to his beautiful hillside home on Hong Kong Island for dinner and drinks.

After dinner, Burrows showed us the Life magazine with the “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13” article that would appear in the April 16 issue. The cover was stamped, “FIRST RUN COPY. NOT COMPLETELY MADE READY.” We looked it over. I’d had enough to drink to come out and ask Burrows if I could have it. He said he’d be glad to give it to me. He signed it, with the words: “A story can always be better. Many thanks. Larry Burrows.”

 

Paul Gregoire enlisted in the Marines at 17 and was selected for flight/officer training. After his two tours in Vietnam, he flew for Air America in Laos. He was a policeman in California for a decade before a career in the commercial construction business.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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