It was going to be another hot sunny day in Vietnam, but this would go down as one of my most memorable days by far.
A hand full of Charlie Troopers including Roy McDonald and myself hitched a ride in the back of a 3/4 ton Jeep and headed to Long Binh to attend the Bob Hope USO Christmas Show.
This is where I sat on that hot and sunny Christmas Day. A few GI’s climbed trees and telephone poles to get a better view of the stage. The show ended with everyone singing “Silent Night” and not a dry eye anywhere.
Curry Amphitheater on Long Binh Post – Photo by Dave Ondrey
Vietnam “Santa Claus” with a group of hospital patients during one of the 1970 Bob Hope Christmas Shows. Photographer unknown
Santa visits Phuoc Vinh The man to the right of Santa is CPT Enn Tietenberg, 1/9th’s XO. Photographer unknown
These were a group of two helicopters a Loach, White platoon and a Cobra gun ship, Red platoon. The concept was the Loach would fly low and in tight circles to draw enemy fire. Then when the enemy was spotted the Cobra would use their fire power (miniguns and rockets) to attack.
When the situation warranted, the Blues would be inserted to fix the enemy until a larger force could be committed to the area. The Blues would also search out bunker complexes, possible cache sites, and conduct ground reconnaissance. The Pink team would provide air cover for the Blues at all times while on the ground.
WO Randy R. Zahn (Cobra pilot) & WO Walker A. Jones (Loach and Cobra pilot) Gunner SGT Ford (back) Photo by Walker A. Jones
I recently purchased Randy Zahn’s book “Snake Pilot”. As I read it, I felt right back in the thick of things because Randy flew ‘high bird’ on many missions while I was on the ground with the Blues. As Blue India I had direct radio contact with him on numerous occasions. He gives a very detailed account of events as they unfolded before and during his Vietnam tour. He arrived in Vietnam shortly before the 1970 U.S. Invasion of Cambodia and was a Cobra pilot in Charlie Troop, 1/9th.
Zahn writes with authority about the duties and responsibilities of the high bird in a Pink team, the armed helicopter from the troop’s Red (weapons) platoon that kept watch over the Loach (light observation helicopter) from the white (scout) platoon. As a 19-year-old, fresh out of flight school, he went through a five-month apprenticeship in the front seat to qualify as an aircraft commander (AC). As an AC, he had responsibility not only for his own aircraft and the life of his front seater, but also for the little bird and its crew, the Hueys from the Lift platoon that inserted the Blues of the aero-rifle platoon and the Blues themselves once they were on the ground…
On March 12th, 2000 Walker A. Jones started the Charlie Troop 1/9th message board on Yahoo, which currently has 130 members. It is a way for current and former members, family and true friends of Charlie Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), Vietnam, 1965-71 to communicate with each other. Walker moderated the message board for many years from his distant home in France almost daily and recently moved back to the States.
This board has reconnected many men who served together while with Charlie Troop 1/9th during the Vietnam War. Many thanks to Walker for his dedication in keeping Charlie Troop spirit alive…
The darkest day of my Vietnam Tour was May 6, 1970 in Cambodia
The sky was filled with birds as 1st Air Cav Skytroopers launched the attack.
I knew something was up when we were instructed to board our choppers extra early for our daily flight northward. We normally flew to Firebase Buttons and waited for a mission, but this day proved to be different. Our birds continued north and landed at Bu Dop, which was one kilometer (1000 meters) from the Cambodia border. When we landed, we were briefed on our mission of the day and why the men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry of the 1st Air Cav Division had congregated on the airstrip. At 7:30 AM an assault into Cambodia was scheduled and our Blue platoon would be QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for down birds. Our Scout birds and Cobras (Pink Team) would lead the way followed by Charlie Company, 2/7th, inserted by the vast number of choppers lined up on the airstrip.
Just before liftoff, I had a brief conversation with a young soldier cleaning his M-16 in preparation for the invasion. He couldn’t have been a day over eighteen and appeared very nervous. He told me he considered shooting himself in the foot to keep from going on the mission. All the Hueys cranked and at exactly 7:30 the sky was filled with birds heading to Cambodia with 1st Air Cav Skytroopers.
I was the Blues radio guy that day and a down bird rescue mission was almost immediate. Our two Hueys cranked and we were on our way. One of our Scout birds got shot down as the invasion began.
Army news reporter (PFC Scott Long) was at Bu Dop that morning to cover the invasion. He managed to jump on the same bird as our platoon leader Lt. Michael La Chance, myself and five other Blues. He recorded the action as it happened on a cassette player while seven of us Blues rappelled down into the jungle.
WO Dave Farrell was the A/C (Aircraft Commander) of our bird. This was only his second mission as an A/C and did a great job positioning his ship in a high hover while we rappelled.
Our other Huey with Blues on board beat us to the down bird site and crashed as they made their approach. It wasn’t clear if they got shot down or simply lost power. Now we had an additional down bird on this mission. Our chopper hovered above the down Huey (which did not burn on impact) while seven of us rappelled down to rescue our fellow Blues. CPT Rhett Lewis (one of the Huey pilots) and three Blues were injured in the crash and medevaced out.
This is when there was a turn of events. Our Medic decided conditions were too dangerous to continue and wanted all of us extracted without completing our mission.
It was then decided which Blues would continue on with Lt. La Chance. I had no choice because I was the radio guy. Five of us made our way to the burning Loach which was about 30 meters away, but seemed much farther due to the thickness of the jungle undergrowth. When we arrived, we discovered the pilot and crew chief had died in the crash.
We radioed for a Medevac chopper and when it arrived the crew lowered two body bags down to us. After placing the bodies into the bags, they were lifted up to the chopper hovering above us. We were constantly watching for enemy movement as we knew the unfriendlies had to be in the area.
Our mission was complete except for getting ourselves out. The only way we could be extracted was by the McGuire rig. There were five of us and three men per trip was the max, so that meant Lt. La Chance and I would be taken out last. We radioed for a Lift bird (Huey) equipped with McGuire rigging ropes on board to extract us. When they arrived, three ropes attached to floor of the hovering chopper were dropped down to us. Three Blues attached themselves to the ropes and were lifted away to the nearest friendly LZ. That left Lt. La Chance and I all alone waiting for our chopper to return. Each minute seemed like an hour as we stood back to back watching for enemy movement with thoughts of Charlie closing in. My worst fear was the two of us occupying a room at the Hanoi Hilton (POW).
The jungle got very quiet with an occasional bamboo stick falling to the ground. My imagination ran wild and I opened up with my M-16 on nothing more than suspicious sounds. That surely gave our position away. Then suddenly that all familiar chopper sound could be heard, in the distance. Our Huey made its approach and hovered above us. They dropped two ropes down, and we attached them to our rappelling ropes, we had tied around our chest. We were then flown through the air (McGuire rig style) to a safe LZ.
To this day whenever I hear a chopper in the distance, I have flashbacks of that memorable day in Cambodia.
There is much more to this story than the Blues efforts to rescue the men that were shot down. Crew Chief/Gunner Gary McKiddy performed an act of ‘heroism’ that cost him his life. He was killed that day along with the pilot, WO1 Tommy Whiddon when the helicopter they were in was shot down. Gary was either thrown or jumped free of the crash upon impact with the ground. Although the chopper was burning, Gary risked his own life when he returned to the chopper and retrieved the copilot, Jim Skaggs, and carried him to safety. Gary again returned to the chopper, even though it was burning out of control and ammo from inside of the chopper was “cooking off”, in an attempt to rescue the pilot, WO1 Tommy Leon Whiddon. As Gary entered the chopper and positioned himself to retrieve the pilot, the fuel cells exploded and killed both men. When the rescue team arrived, Gary was found stretched across the seat that he had just removed Skaggs from, laying across Whiddon with one arm behind him. The transmission had fallen across Gary’s back pinning him in. The military tells us that this happened after the explosion, and he was already dead when this occurred.
Gary was awarded the Silver Star for his action, however there is a bill pending in Congress that if approved will provide for Gary to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions; the bill is HR 369. Gary had flown more than 650 combat missions and was awarded 37 medals during his 6 months in Nam.
In August of 1999, the First Air Cavalry Division dedicated a barracks at Fort Hood, Texas, in honor of Gary Lee McKiddy. Inside of the 400 person building there is a day room that displays pictures of Gary from the time he was a baby until soon before his death, as well as a trophy case with all of Gary’s medals in it. A beautiful plaque on the outside of the building tells the story of his heroism.