By Ron Turner
48th Assault Helicopter Company (13 Dec 70 - 8 July 71)
The 48th AHC (Blue Stars), led by Major Willis Bunting, were based out of Ninh Hoa located 60 or so miles north of Nha Trang in II Corps. The 48th was pretty much attached to the 9th ROK (Republic of Korea) Division. We primarily flew "ash and trash" missions (resupply) of the Korean Fire Support Bases located all along II Corps.
Life in Ninh Hoa was pretty good. We had great air-conditioned 2 people rooms that were usually filled with way too much stereo equipment. Five or six of the people I was with in the 281st moved up to the 48th in late October 70 as the 281st was standing down. Since I was one of a handful of officers that got tagged to stand down the company, I lost almost 2 months of flight time. I did get my promotion to CW2 while doing this grunt work. Once I got to Ninh Hoa, I quickly blended in with the rest of the guys and got my check ride almost immediately. Thank god....flying again.
My room mate was Tony Amanzio, from New York (also a 281st guy). We grew pretty tight and I flew with him a lot (him as aircraft commander and me as pilot). Steve Williams (called Smack) and Joe Marshall were also really close friends. Smack was one of the only guys up there who brought his guitar with him and played it regularly. I came in country with Joe. Most of the guys I was closest to where from the Jokers (our gun ships). The two Knowles brothers, the "Fucking Fantastic Flying Freddie Few" and Peterson (also a 281st guy) were among my closest friends in the Jokers. We mostly flew ash & trash missions with the ROK troops, who also lived at Ninh Hoa. Did a lot of pinnacle (high hover) resupply missions. Unless you've ever lived with or flown with the ROK troops, you have no idea how bad they smell after eating their staple of rotten hot (spicy) cabbage in soup (kempshi). When you picked up a bunch of them first thing in the morning and caught a whiff, you were pretty sure you were going to hurl.
We got to fly into some really beautiful old French-influenced areas like Dalat and Ban Me Tuit. Dalat was probably my favorite place to fly into. It was an old French coffee plantation area and (on more than one occasion) we were invited up to the big plantation houses to sample the coffee. Real strong, but they were very proud of it. Dalat was also the only place in Nam where we got snow.
Within 30 or 40 days of my arrival, we got the inkling that something big was up and that the 48th would soon be on the road giving up the nice living we had at Ninh Hoa. Rumor was we were headed deep into I Corps. In a company all-hands, Major Willis T. Bunting (our CO) finally told us we were heading to a place near Quang Tre called Dong Ha, just south of the DMZ, to build a new home for the 48th.
In late Jan 71, I was one of the first 5-6 slicks that headed North. After flying over Quang Tre we looked for our new home area and couldn't see much except busted up roads and a bunch of red dust / dirt. That was home. The first couple of nights we were up there, we slept in our helos near a So.Vietnamese 155 mm howitzer unit that we listened to all night long (off and on). And then came the 122mm rockets, almost nightly at 0100 - 0130. We started scoping the area where tents would be set up and started the never-ending job of filling sandbags. Over the next few days, more and more of the 48th arrived by helos and small convoys and then finally the convoy with our tents, supplies, hot food, etc. After we'd set up camp and our comm bunker, Major Bunting told us we were going to invade Laos and attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail and capture / destroy a major resupply point along the trail, Tcexepone. This was Lam Son 719 (8 Feb - 30 Mar 71), Operation Dewey Canyon II. We got an intel report saying to expect enemy fire but that the B52s had been hitting the areas we were going into for the last few days. I think we may have took that wrong.
From day 1 (8 Feb) we knew hell had just broken loose. We flew to little Khe Shan (our PZ) and waited word to lift off. When we did, there were helicopters of every make and model flying North into Laos, through an almost impenetrable haze of smoke and dust. In spite of continuous air strikes and arch lights, the NVA were well entrenched and had more fire power than any of us had seen at any other time in Nam. Most of their antiaircraft guns were radar controlled (51 cal machine guns, 12.5 and 23mm AA guns) and had their gunners chained to them so they wouldn't run away if attacked. We took heavy losses in both aircraft, people, and emotions. The guy I'd come in country with, Lt Joe Marshall, was our first KIA. It was living in hell, something none of us will ever forget. It tested the metal in all of us. Getting shot at was bad. Getting shot down was worse. And it was constant, day in - day out. Loosing friends, watching them get shot down, blown up or blown apart in the cockpit was a heart ripping emotional event. But, it was over quickly. There was a finality that can't be changed.
Leaving a crew that survived getting shot down behind in Laos, not being able to get them out, was a mind ripping event. It's an event I still live with (emotionally) because I was never able to find out the status of a crew I couldn't get on Mar 18th, the day I lost A/C #6712187. My CE said he saw a plane go down and directed me to it. It was laying on its side in a small mountain ravine in the middle of an area with high trees coming off the escarpment. Two Cobras were flying gun cover for the pick up. One of them (Music 16) exploded in front of us and crashed in flames. I hovered over the other downed crew but couldn't get low enough to get them. I saw three living Americans, Tony said there were four. Our 50 cal machine guns were straffing the area since the NVA had been shooting at us almost the whole time. Tony told me I had to get a little lower and the crew would be able to reach my skids and he'd pull them up. I did and suddenly the entire aircraft shook violently and I thought I was going to crash on top of the other crew. Based on how much we were shaking I thought we took a round in the rotor blades or head assembly somewhere. Now, I had to worry about the safety of my crew. I slowly climbed above the tree tops and thought for sure we'd had it. This was the end. As I lifted up, all I can remember was the pilot looking up with a "don't leave me here" look on his face. I thought the plane was going to shake itself apart as we started to move forward. Tony kept firing and said the NVA were running up the hill to where the crashed slick was. We made it to a cold LZ and I landed, shut the A/C down, jumped out and we waited for someone to pick us up. They did. A/C #187 got slung out of Laos later that day. I found out that our blades or head didn't take a round. I must have hit a tree and ripped over a foot off one blade. I never found out the status of the other Americans on the ground that day. I've lived with that buried memory for 27 years.
The next day was worse. I didn't have an aircraft to fly and we watched everyone leave Dong Ha. I think I was down in maintenance when we got word that Joker 99 (Fred Chrisman, John Sparks, the CE and gunner were down in a hot LZ). Shortly afterwards, we got an unconfirmed report that three of the Joker 99 crew were KIA when a mortar landed on the helo. One of the crewmembers was on the group and no one could get him because of the heavy enemy fire into the LZ. 13 days later, the CE walked out of Laos with a So. Vietnamese unit and said he was sure that Chrisman, Sparks and the gunner were dead based on when the mortar round hit the aircraft. They're still formerly listed as MIA on the wall.
And so it continued, day after day. Every night the VC or NVA would lob 2 to 4 122mm missiles into the camp at Dong Ha, usually between 1:00 and 1:30 in the morning. They seemed to be more for harassment than anything else. If they wanted to take us out, they could have. As LS 719 wound down and we started going in to pick up the Vietnamese we'd either dropped off earlier in the day or on days past, confusion reigned. When we'd land to pick up 10 or so ARVNs, we'd be stormed by 20-30 people all trying to get out. CEs and gunners had to physically push people out so that we had enough power to take off. I think to those of us that flew it was obvious that the NVA was crushing the ARVN Divisions. People would run to the aircraft with no packs, no weapons. As we'd take off, ARVNs would grab the skids and hold on. If the gunner or crew chief couldn't get then off in the LZ, they either crashed into the trees as we tried to take off or fell to their death as we left Laos. The TVs and news really played this up. On 30 Mar 71, it was over.
On May 7th, after LS 719 ended and we picked up the pieces of what was left of our company, we moved south to Marble Mountain, near the Air Force base at Da Nang. After almost 5 months in tents in continuous combat, it was like dying and going to heaven. We moved into the old 3rd Marine base at Marble, into their Quonset huts (read that as ready bake ovens). Right outside our doors and past the barbed wire was a great beach. On our first or second night at Marble we all grouped up and went over to Da Nang's Officers Club for some real food and cold, cold beer. Everyone got really wasted. All of the frustrations we had about the friends we'd left behind, the number of times we'd been shot at or shot down, the shitty intelligence we had about what resistance we'd expect to encounter, etc. just broke loose. With the sounds of Edwin Hawkin's "War. What is it good for" in the background (we played it over and over and over) some Air Force fast movers and 52 pilots that made a comment about Army pilots not being real pilots. We got into a huge, bar clearing fight with them and trashed the O Club. Somehow, the Mps came and broke things up, they just told the AF guys we were just out of Laos and forget what happened. Why we weren't arrested that night or court marshaled for striking senior officers I'll never know, but, were "escorted" back to Marble Mountain.
We continued to fly combat mission mostly into the A Shau Valley area. We continue to take fire but it just wasn't the same as Laos. I don't think we ever ran into the NVA again or any heavy AA fire. I think I basically stopped flying between the 1st and 4th or July and turned my Smoke Ship (A/C #187) over to Strom, a guy we'd just finished getting ready for AC that I flew with for most of the time we were in Marble Mountain. I trusted him and Tony & Barry (my CE and Gunner) trusted him. On 6 July, I bid an emotional farewell to Tony & Barry as I boarded a C130 to fly to Bien Hoa. They gave me an engraved 50 shell casing to remember them by (like I could forget them after Laos). On 8 July, I boarded a Flying Tigers stretch DC8 and left Vietnam headed back to the "world". Someone played the theme song from M.A.S.H. as we started to climb out, looking out the windows at the country, the people, the smells, the sounds, we'd leave forever. I quietly cried.
Back to Memories Page