By Mike Sloniker
(Not a member of the 48th but one heck of a Lam Son 719 historian)
LAM SON 719 started in late January, 1971 and was completed by early April.
During this operation the Army lost at least 106 helicopters and the Marines lost two of their big Sea Stallions. Most published histories divide Lam Son 719 into four phases with the first starting on 29 January when U.S. Army ground units would begin reopening and securing Route 9 and reoccuping Khe Sanh as a forward supply base. The planning for Dewey Canyon II and Lam Son 719 was a carefully guarded secret and only a few individuals knew what was really being planned.
As part of the build-up to support this large operation, the 1st Avn Bde did not want too many of its assets transferred to the 101st Abn Div for several reasons. Two of its aviation battalions (the 14th and the 223rd) were preparing to stand-down. While the 14th Bn was an operating CAB, the 223rd was a fixed wing unit that needed a quick convertion to a CAB. Other 1st Avn Bde assets sent small detachments to Dong Ha with helicopter S-3 and S-4 experience to rebuild the 223rd. The 48 AHC was assigned to the 223d CAB.
As a general rule, an Assault Helicopter Battalion was placed in direct suport of each major ARVN command. For example, the 223d CAB was in direct support of the 1st ARVN Inf Div. Thus all airmobile assaults conducted by the 1st ARVN Inf Dive were controlled by the 223d CAB and all general support aircraft (Huey) required by the 1st ARVN Inf Div were provided by the 223d CAB.
The 1st Armored Bde crossed into Laos at 1000 hours and advanced 9Ks west on Route 9. The 101st Div's ORLL reports that three battalions of the 3d Regt, 1st ARVN Inf Div air assaulted into FBs HOTEL and BLUE south of Route 9. Two battalions of the 1st ARVN Abn Div air assaulted into LZ 30 and LZ 31 north of Route 9. One ARVN Ranger battalion air assaulted into LZ RANGER SOUTH. 105mm batteries were landed on LZs HOTEL, 30, and 31. The 14th CAB's ORLL reports:
On the 7th, a Battalion Forward was established at Khe Sanh. This alleviated problems that had arisen because of a lack of coordination with the forward units. It also made available flight following for all aircraft within the Battalion, which up to that time was limited due to distance. Problems did arise, due to the lack of available communications equipment. The need for UHF radios was immediately apparent and both the forward and rear established UHF capabilities. On the 8th, in support of Operation Lam Son 719, the Battalion was involved in the initial insertion into Laos. The 174th supported this combat assault, under direct control of the 223rd Combat Aviation Battalion, into LZ Hotel (XD725344), moving 265 ARVN troops for a total of 1000 troops. The assault force encountered numerous anti-aircraft positions and intensive hostile fire which resulted in one aircraft receiving hits in which the aircraft commander was killed. (Editor's note: WO Robert B. Gentry of the 174th AHC died while departing LZ HOTEL when the cockpit was hit by machine gun fire.) During the remainder of the month, the Battalion was involved with combat assaults for the 1/5 Mech and continued general support for the 101st Airborne Division and XXIV Corps, with minor support to the 1st ARVN Division, ARVN Rangers and the ARVN Marines.
Cliff Whiting: (Traps 39)
The 48th AHC moved over 300 miles to Dong Ha from Ninh Hoa in II Corps. The 14th CAB (-) became tactically operational at Quang Tri. Cliff Whiting was TRAPS 39 during this operation.
The 48th had supported the 9th Korean Division from Ninh Hoa for a long time, so we were really new to I Corps. In the beginning it was cool, rainy, wet, and sometimes cold at Dong Ha, our new home near the DMZ.
In the excitement of finding and landing at Dong Ha, two of our aircraft almost had a mid-air. Fortunately it didn't happen. The lesson was learned to always keep your eyes open - stay alert. The first night there we slept in our aircraft. Several of us borrowed ARVN bulldozers to move and dislodge soil to level areas for our tents and the construction of bunkers. The bunkers were built quickly and in haste because on the second night at Dong Ha we had five double deuce (122mm) rockets land in our compound. No one slept that night! Fear of being in a direct hit made us feel we were extremely vulnerable to disaster and death.
The first week was a test of getting ready - tents up, sand bagging, eating C- rations, in a wall of mud. There were no showers and no latrines. However, I dug a wide ditch with a bulldozer, laid a piece of PSP across it, and everyone just did their business into one big hole. The unit did build a better latrine and a cold shower facility in the weeks to come. Everything had to be done quickly at first for immediate usage, then again for quality. Between the sand bagging in the mud, incoming mortars, and constantly building and bettering of our quarters; there was little time to relax. Even when we had a sit down minute, there was that constant harassment and fear of being hit by incoming. My basic diet for the entire Lam Son operation was warm Fanta orange sodas, C- rations, and mosquitoes. My favorite meal in those days was chicken in water. It was the only one I could eat that was decent, the rest were like dogfood.
Time permitting I would dash off a letter to my wife. All my letters were dated and numbers in sequence. She saved every one. For the first time in 22 years, we both reread the 300 plus letters last year.
Quoting from my letter #231 dated Feb 9, 1971, 10:15 a.m. "Bright and early yesterday morning at 7:15, Monday, February 8, we took off for Khe Sanh from Dong Ha. We refueled in LZ Stud (Vandegrift) and got to Khe Sanh around 8:00 a.m. At 10:00 a.m. sharp, our ten slicks plus ten others from another company, crossed over into Laos loaded with 1st ARVN Division troops. I was Chalk 4 in the formation. All total, I made 15 sorties (landings) into Laos during the day. I guess I am real lucky because in our company we had two aircraft shot down and four more shot up. That afternoon the Blue Stars (Traps) had only three aircraft still in the air, of the original ten that started the day. I was one of the three. Major Bunting and Danny Grossman were the lead aircraft until they were shot down, then the Major took my peter pilots seat. I was lead ship for the remainder of the day. The Major worked the radios and I did the flying. Flew a total of eight hours. Higher ups wanted us to stay in Khe Sanh for the night, but we got to go back to Dong Ha. (Now I'm inside my tent at 6 p.m. Haven't had a shower now for 11 days. Today, low clouds, heavy rain, and fog preventing us from flying back into Laos."
Usually we put up ten slicks a day with support from our own gun platoon. Within weeks we lost the entire gun platoon due to ships shot up, shot down, or pilots being killed.
1LT Joe Marshall was the first 48th AHC casualty of Lam Son 719. He took a .51 cal in the head on Feb 18. Other KIA/MIA pilots from the 48th during Lam Son 719 included CPT May, CPT Bilbrey, CW2 Christman, WO1 Reid, and WO1 Sparks.
The enemy fire was very intense, including flak. The flight lead duty rotated among three pilots - Keith Howell, Dan Grossman, and myself. The most disturbing problem I had as flight lead, was not being able to establish communications with all members of my flight of ten slicks early in the morning before takeoff from Dong Ha. Our radio technicians did the best with what they had - but communications was impossible even with three radios (VHF, UHF, and FM), I was at times not able to give commands to one, two or three aircraft in my flight. They just followed the aircraft to their front. The frustration and tragedy was when someone didn't hear the commands warning of enemy fire and consequently got hurt and/or shot down. Throughout the whole ordeal of Lam Son, there wasn't one aircraft commander in the 48th that had not been shot down at least once inside Laos. Those fortunate enough to be rescued are here to tell the story.
I had just returned from the states to report in to my new assignment with the 48th Assault Company. When I arrived back in country, fellow aviators would have somber faces when I expressed that I was in route to the 48th to finish out my remaining four months of tour. I had little faith in Army rumors, but upon reporting in I noted that the entire Company was packing and Major Bunting said, "We need a lot of pilots like you where we are going."
In the camp the rumors were rampant. Jesse Dize was confident we were going to stage a major attempt to free prisoners out of North Vietnam. Others were sure of an all out attack of the North. No one had any idea of how big or exactly what we were going to do. That evening the Major had a meeting to explain that we were headed to Dong Ha, a deserted Marine base just south of the DMZ. When you previously had been flying in the Central Highlands around Ban Me Thout, this abbreviation was not the location you desire. Usually the Army valued their $250,000 choppers and wanted them in a secure area at night.
The next day we took off to the north with frequent stops to refuel the hungry Hueys (115 gallons per hour). As we stopped many other flights requested permission to refuel using the last digits of their tail number. We were instructed to use no call signs. The high command felt Charlie might get an advantage if he new where all the aviation equipment had come from. Upon hearing and seeing all the helicopters we began to realize the scope of this operation. None of us realized that the Army had this many Slicks. Gunships, Chinooks, and Cranes in country. I remember Warrant Officer Childs saying he felt this was the start of WWIII. We still had not been told exactly what we were going to do.
That night we pitched a 30 x 40 Army tent and slept on the ground. Hey, we were pilots and we were supposed to have decent quarters! We continued to set up camp the next day when we were finally briefed on the invasion into Laos or Lam Son 719. Since I had just reported in, I did not fly the first day into enemy territory, but the fellow pilots that did said you can tell right where the border is as the NVA fired immediately. Needless to say the Company quickly gave me a check ride so that I could join in the fun.
Ed Newton, was a maintenance officer in the 48th AHC.
I received my orders to join the 48th (Bluestars / Jokers) in September, 1970. Since I was an Aviation Maintenance Officer Course (AMOC 70-21) graduate, I was assigned to the Maintenance Platoon (Hanger Rats). My responsibilities were maintenance quality control officer and maintenance test pilot. At a company formation on Jan 24, our CO MAJ Willis Bunting briefed us on a large military operation which was to take place in northern I Corps. He couldn't give us details but told us to be prepared to move to an undisclosed location for a two to three month stay.
Immediately following the formation, the maintenance officers held our own meeting. We had been advised at the beginning of the month to transfer three of our best UH-1Hs to the VNAF. Additionally we were to downsize our parts inventory as the 48th was scheduled to stand down within six to eight months. CPT Winston Moore, the Service Platoon Leader, and CPT Thomas Cole, the Maintenance Platoon Leader, began to assign duties to CW2 Steve Dixon, CW2 John Wallace and myself. CPT Moore had to get all the vehicles in the motor pool into top shape for the long trek up Highway 1. He and CPT Cole also had to coordinate an airlift of some of our equipment by C-130s out of Nha Trang. We knew the operation was going to be big when we received top priority to requisition almost any equipment we needed from a huge stockyard in Nha Trang. Some of this equipment was tents, portable generators, flood lights, immersion heaters, conexes, electric and commo wire.
In the company area, we were packing our maintenance and parts manuals, spare parts, tools and even a couple of refrigerators. All the helicopters were given a quick inspection and every part that showed any wear was replaced. Some helicopters, which were near their 100 hour PE inspections, were pulled onto the ramps and the inspection was completed early. Three helicopters were assigned to the 48th from other units to replace the ones we gave to the VNAF. This gave us a total of 21 UH-1Hs (ten per flight platoon and 1 maintenance) and eight UH-1Cs. We worked hard and were ready.
The move took place in three phases. The trucks left first. They were carrying the heavy equipment, avionics, tools, parts and manuals. Each truck had two or three EM riding shot gun, armed with M16s, M60s, and M79s, wearing helmets and flak jackets. Two light fire teams from the Jokers were assigned to fly gun cover for the convoy. I recall hearing that they came under attack with small arms and RPGs at they went thru a pass north of Da Nang. The Jokers took care of the attackers. The second group left Jan 31st with half the helicopters loaded with company personnel and their TA 50 gear. The third group left the next day with the remaining helicopters and personnel. I was with the last group. It was my responsibility to make sure all the helicopters were up and flyable, repair any that broke enroute and above all leave nothing of value behind. We took off at 8 a.m., flew north along the coast in loose trail and make a number of fuel stops enroute. The trip was uneventful until the last leg. We had refueled at Quang Tri and tightened up the formation so we would look good landing at our new home, Dong Ha. Just when everything was looking good, a call came on guard Flight of Hueys north-bound on Highway 1, make an immediate turn - you're about to enter the DMZ! Well, flight lead, who's name will not be spoken here, but who was our unit IP, made a hard right turn out over the coast. He finally found Route 9 and led us to Dong Ha.
The 48th found itself in the middle of a South Vietnamese staging base for the 1st ARVN Division. The USAF had built a new aluminum plank runway and set up a GCA. It seemed C130s were landing and taking off every couple of minutes day and night. They were off loading cargo and troops for the ARVNs as well as supplies for the 48th and our new sister company on the north side of the field, the 173rd (Robinhoods / Crossbows). We were finally briefed on our mission. The 48th and a number of other helicopter companies were going to airlift the 1st ARVN Division into Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail as far west as Tchepone. The new call sign for the slicks was "Senior Traps" The guns were also assigned a new call sign but they still called themselves the Jokers. We set up our maintenance area near an old round concrete bunker. It rained almost every day the first week and the temps were down in the 40s. The ground turned muddy and we had to lay PSP down to set up our shops and work areas. The shops (electric, sheet metal, engine, avionics and armament) were set up in tents and conexes. Due to the hard work and ingenuity of the Maintenance Platoon EM, we were up and ready to go. Within four days, we were doing a 100 hr PE inspection on one of the UH-1Cs that flew gun cover for the truck convoy.
Before Lam Son 719, I had not been in a crunch situation in the Old Dog with the new engine. (See Jesse's comments on 11 Mar for some background information about his aircraft named the "Old Dog" and its crew chief, SP4 Mike Sather.) Previously, when the stuff-hit-the-fan, I would pull power until, bleeding off main rotor RPM, the RPM Warning sounded. Then I would reduced power ever-so-slightly, look at the RPM guage to ensure 6200 or more RPM, and hold that power until we were safe. This system didn't work with the new engine. I don't know if the RPM would have ever bled-off in the Old Dog.
I had been wounded near Pleiku while five 48th ships had been OPCONed to the 57th. I had flown as a gunner with the Jokers (WO1 Fred Cristman was a good friend, classmate, and hooch-mate let me fly on his ship) during our get-acquanted to I Corps CAs. That was until Major Bunting relieved me as a gunner, but my leg had healed by then so I went back to flying AC with the slicks.
My first CA was into HOTEL or HOTEL ONE. WO1 Ed Newton was my co-pilot. Normally Ed was one of our maintenance pukes. I still don't know why he was with me out there west-of-the-border. HOTEL was hot, very hot. The radio traffic was horrendous. Everyone was taking fire. As our last pack unassed the aircraft someone yelled mortars! and I pulled power. Ed said something to the effect, "do you think 54 pounds (of torque) is enough?" ED was cool, real cool, and he was a maintenance puke. I looked over at the gages, no Main Rotor bleed off, RPM stable at 6600, but, by now, the torque was at 56 pounds. We made it out of there without a hit. My technique worked.
The next day it was Ed's turn. I think it was into LZ BRAVO this time. He copied my technique and again it worked again -- no hits.
However, we were relegated to ash-and trash on the third day and the sins of our past caught up with us. The 42 gear box chip light illuminated. We then went throught the drill of landing ASAP, and then draining, flushing and refilling the gear box. A couple of hours later another chip light on the 42 and a repeat of the same drill. Then we had a chip light on the 90 and another flush and fill drill. Before it was over, Ed had to change out the 42 and 90 gear boxes. On our third assault we practiced good torque management and did not exceed any limitations. Apparently our early technique was more effective, at least for going into hot LZs. We had a hole, running left to right, in our left skid this time. Ed had lost his cherry.
Ed went back to full time maintenance after that. It was not because he was scared or a quitter. No, Ed was cool under fire. At least he wasn't like me. If I was on the controls when the things started to happen, usually indicated by green streaks of light and/or funny little noises, my right index finger would involuntarily squeeze the commo trigger to death and everyone in the world could hear me talking, or more, truthfully, screaming. Ed never did this. Aircraft were going wanting for test flights and MOCs and other such things. So, Major Bunding ordered Ed to get back to work fixing helicopters and stop having so much fun over in Laos. The Old Dog was the only aircraft in the company that was wired for a rescue hoist. Some how, a hoist was obtained and installed complete with Jungle Penetrator. From that point on I flew trail. My job was to follow any aircraft that went down and recover the crew. I never got to perform that job.
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