On the afternoon of July 21, 1970, a standby dustoff crew was notified of an urgent mission to evacuate 101st Airborne Division wounded from a small hilltop landing zone near Fire Support Base Ripcord. Captain Laurence Rosen was the pilot in command of a five-man dustoff crew on continuous standby at outpost Camp Evans for missions in the area of operations around FSBs Ripcord and O’Reilly.
Rosen had joined the U.S. Army in 1969 after graduating from college and immediately entered flight training. He completed rotary wing and instrument training at Fort Rucker, Ala. On February 20, 1970, he deployed to Vietnam as a pilot in the all-volunteer Air Ambulance Platoon of the 326th Medical Battalion at the 101st Airborne Division’s Camp Eagle near Hue.
Rosen, along with his co-pilot Warrant Officer Douglas J. Rupert, flight medic Spc. 4 Brent R. Law, crew chief Spc. 5 Donito C. Deocales and the new medic, Spc. 4 James L. Wieler, lifted off and headed for the firefight. Rosen approached from below the altitude of the LZ, barely above the trees, and at the last moment climbed up to the touchdown point at the north edge of the LZ. The 101st Airborne troops were firing at NVA troops in the treeline to Rosen’s right, and the smell of gunpowder was thick in the air. The ground medic, soldiers, dustoff medic and crew chief loaded six or seven wounded onto the floor of the aircraft. Rosen departed the LZ with a backward takeoff, a pedal turn to the right and a dive for the treetops in order to stay out of the direct line of enemy fire.
Off-loading the wounded at the aid station at Camp Evans, but without refueling, Rosen immediately headed back to the LZ to pick up another load of wounded. The pilot critically evaluated the situation on the LZ — the direction of the NVA attack and the exposure of the aircraft to enemy fire. Then he made the decision to violate ‘Rookie Rule No. 1′ — Don’t fly over the same patch of jungle twice. He elected to sneak in from the north, the same way he had the first time.
As he touched down lightly, the crew and ground troops helped another group of wounded get aboard. With men of the 101st firing M-16s, M-60 machine guns and grenade launchers from behind trees and hastily constructed defensive positions, Rosen’s helicopter departed backward to the left from the LZ as enemy mortar rounds landed among the ground troops. Rosen knew they would have to go in again, but he was particularly distressed by the continuous flow of casualties, the restricted approach and departure routes, the confined LZ and the close proximity of the enemy.
As Rosen headed back to Camp Evans for the second time, he radioed for another dustoff from Camp Eagle to assist in the evacuation. Again, after off-loading the wounded at the aid station, Rosen immediately took off on his third trip to the LZ. The ground situation had continued to deteriorate, with the 101st soldiers in danger of being overrun. The radio telephone operator (RTO) on the LZ did not answer calls. There were more wounded than the helicopter could carry, and only one ground soldier was available to assist in loading. Enemy mortar rounds hit behind and in front of the helicopter as it left the LZ, flying low and fast to the aid station.
Rosen touched down at Camp Evans as the relief dustoff from Camp Eagle radioed him for a situation report (sitrep). After unloading the wounded, and with the cabin floor of the helicopter covered in blood and fragments of flesh and fabric, Rosen, again without pause, headed back for the fourth rescue. As they flew, Rosen asked his crew if they were willing to go back into the LZ. They unanimously agreed to continue as long as there were wounded.
Lieutenant Allen Schwartz, at the controls of the relief dustoff flying from Camp Eagle, received a sitrep from Rosen by radio and a recommended approach and egress route for the LZ. Schwartz landed and loaded two litter cases and six walking wounded, but just as he lifted up only a few feet, his Plexiglas windshield suddenly shattered from a hail of automatic weapon fire. The aircraft lost lift, crashed straight back down and began to shake violently on the ground. A rocket-propelled grenade had blown off the tail boom.
As Schwartz tried to hold the helicopter steady and get it shut down, those wounded passengers not strapped down went bouncing out the open doors. The Huey vibrated backward toward the slope on the east side of the LZ. Before he was able to shut off the engine, Schwartz and his co-pilot were physically hurled out of the vibrating aircraft.
Rosen came in for his fourth landing on the little LZ. This time the RTO on the LZ responded, but Rosen could hardly hear what he said due to gunfire, mortar explosions and yelling. As he came in low and fast, Rosen saw the wounded huddled near the LZ and the wreckage of the relief dustoff lying on the far side. He was dismayed to see that the main rotor on the wrecked dustoff helicopter was still pumping away and the engine revving up to an explosive level.
As soon as they touched down, Rosen’s flight medic, Brent Law, hauled Lieutenant Schwartz aboard, and then raced across the LZ, climbed aboard the still shaking wrecked Huey and shut off the engine. Law then dashed back, and worked frantically with the crew chief to get all the wounded aboard Rosen’s aircraft.
The wounded, including those from the crashed dustoff, were literally stacked up on the floor one on top of the other with their bloody dressings, broken bones and sucking chest wounds. Their screams of pain were mixed with the explosions of nearby enemy mortar rounds. Rosen could see the NVA only about 40 meters away, and with pieces of trees and chunks of dirt from the mortar explosions striking the helicopter, the unflinching crew chief and flight medic loaded another five or six wounded aboard. Lifting off, Rosen pedal-turned and dived down on the north side of the LZ, treetops slapping the bottom of his aircraft.
After unloading the casualties, and still without refueling, Rosen immediately flew his helicopter back to the about-to-beoverrun LZ for his fifth rescue mission. The interior of his medevac was splattered with blood, and the mood of his crew was somber. ‘We all knew that the repeated use of the same approach and departure routes to the same landing site was practically suicidal,’ recalled Rosen, who had felt obliged to ask his crewmen if they were willing to go in again. Everyone on board — Rupert, Law, Deocales and Wieler — agreed that ‘we would keep going in until there were either no more wounded or we were shot down.’ As Rosen later wrote, ‘We were all of one mind.’
Fearing the NVA had by now captured the RTO’s radio, Rosen approached the LZ without communication with the ground troops. He saw casualties squatting behind tree trunks, hiding over the edge of the north slope of the LZ and lying in ditches or craters made by mortars. On short final approach, Rosen suddenly heard the RTO on the LZ shouting to him, ‘Dustoff, dustoff, break it off!’ but Rosen was too deeply focused on the mission to stop.
Dodging, zig-zagging and flying at tree height, he set down on the LZ as mortar rounds hit around his aircraft. As the less severely injured soldiers helped load those unable to climb aboard, one yelled in Rosen’s ear, ‘We’re being overrun, get the hell outta here!’
The flight medic looked at Rosen as if to say, ‘What now, sir?’ The captain nodded toward the remaining wounded on the ground and the flight medic and crew chief unhesitatingly continued loading. With wounded both sitting and piled on the floor — their arms and legs hanging out the doors and heads bobbing over the edges of the cargo compartment — the crew chief standing on the right skid and the flight medic squatting on the edge of the cabin floor, straddling a soldier’s arm and neck, the nearly overloaded dustoff finally cleared for takeoff.
Just as Rosen started to lift off, mortar shells exploded around the aircraft, and a squad of NVA soldiers charged toward it. The heavily loaded helicopter struggled in the thin, moist mountain air as an NVA soldier popped up in front within 6 meters of it. He fired his AK-47 on full automatic, stitching bullets across the windscreen and the Red Cross-adorned nose of the helicopter just as Rosen lifted the ship from the ground. The fusillade severely wounded the co-pilot and killed flight medic Law, whose body would have fallen from the aircraft, Rosen reported, except that ‘Wieler caught him and pulled him back inside the Huey.’
As more rounds came through the right side of the ship, Rosen did an abrupt left pedal turn and dived for the treetops, literally dragging the skids through the trees in an attempt to evade the enemy gunfire. With the rotor clipping the treetops, Rosen headed for Camp Evans at top speed.
As Keith W. Nolan later wrote of the incident in Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege: ‘…Doug Rupert [was] in agony beside him, his smoldering left arm blown almost completely off above the elbow. Deocales and Wieler, meanwhile, were urgently attending to Brent Law, [and] the bullet that had blasted through Rupert’s arm had shattered against the copilot’s armored seat, a fragment of it catching Law just below the edge of his armor ‘chicken plate.’ There was little that Deocales and Wieler could do, for the bullet fragment had ruptured Law’s liver, and he bled to death almost immediately on the floor of the Huey.’
In the chaos, according Nolan’s account, no one on the medevac was aware that just as it was lifting off a 101st soldier darted forward, ‘…and, reaching up with both hands, managed to grab the right skid just as the medevac wheeled around. [The soldier] had both arms and legs wrapped around the skid, [but] as the helicopter went into a dive down the side of the ridge, the wind blasted [him] so strongly that his legs came loose, and he was just hanging on with his hands.’The helicopter started pulling up at that point, going full throttle, [the soldier] was blown off the skid. The helicopter must have been several hundred feet up going in excess of 100 miles an hour when he lost his grip. He just went straight down into the jungle…there was no way he could have survived….’
After landing his helicopter, which was no longer airworthy, and unloading the mass of wounded, including his co-pilot and the body of his dead flight medic, Rosen checked himself for wounds. He found that his now-shattered ceramic body armor had stopped an NVA bullet.
Those five missions had lasted 2 1/2 hours, and during that time Rosen and his crew had evacuated 26 soldiers from the LZ just east of FSB Ripcord. As they landed again and again in the midst of the battle, they had asked no more of the ground troops than to ‘Give us your wounded.’
For his heroic action, Captain Lawrence Rosen was nominated for the Medal of Honor, which subsequently was downgraded to a Silver Star.
The article was written by Colonel John Aure Buesseler, M.D., U.S. Army (Ret.) and originally published in the February 2005 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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