Courtesy Danny Grossman
The 48th Assault Helicopter Company
and How To Grow Up In Sixty Days or Less
story about my aviation unit, the BlueStars (48th AHC), in Vietnam
and the Vietnamese invasion into Laos in 1971 to cut the supply line on the Ho
Chi Minh Trail.
Dan (Danny) Grossman (CW2, BlueStar 16; Vietnam Jan 70 - Feb 72)
Great guys and a fun place. That was my first
impression of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company when I first arrived in Ninh
Hoa, Vietnam in early January, 1970. I had just graduated from flight school and
was looking for some excitement in my life. When I was fifteen growing up in New
York I was arrested for stealing a car and incarcerated in a juvenile jail. I
needed to grow up. Maybe this would be the time. Just maybe.
I had been to Vietnam before, with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne
Division in 1966 and 1967 as a grunt, and although it was a tough year, I
survived without getting too messed up. Now I was looking forward to this Ninh
Hoa tour as a new chapter in my life, and I intended to take full advantage of
it. I was finally going to be a helicopter pilot and have some fun, yeah right.
Well, little did I know that for better or for worse, for all the fun times, for
all my personal ups and downs, I never expected to have had some of the best
times of my life intermixed with many of the worst nightmares of that life.
Oh yes, I remember that highly flammable BlueStar special (a mixture of
various types of alcohol served in a very large glass) that first night with the
company when Randy Hilbig (another new guy) and I were on stage at the
officer’s club in Ninh Hoa, he having chugged his drink without stopping and
then vomited on the sage - and how everyone thought that was very funny. So did
I. I finished mine too, but minutes later I left the bar to do the same thing.
I remember my engine failure in aircraft #388 in the cemetery south of
the Ninh Hoa refueling point which they called “A Grave Incident”, the Bob
Hope “flyover” in Da Nang and how the general got pissed off that we did it,
and the fight with the Air Cav in the club at Marble Mountain. And yes, we did
win that fight, just ask any BlueStar that was there. I remember the day when
Rogers was severely hurt after his Joker helicopter gunship went down, and how
some of us visited him in the hospital the next day. He was in a coma. His Peter
Pilot (co-pilot) was there too, but due to a massive back injury, he was
suspended on some kind of gismo where he could only look at the floor. He was in
such pain and couldn’t say much except - “thanks for coming guys, thanks for
coming.” Rogers died later that night. It was only recently that I learned his
first name was Tom.
I remember all the fun. Like enjoying several conversations with Fred
Cristman (Missing in Action) in the bar at Ninh Hoa. Like flying as a Peter
Pilot with an Aircraft Commander that liked to chase birds and tried to kill
them with our rotor blades. And the time we landed in the rice paddies southwest
of Tuy Hoa to check out the rice harvesters’ ID cards. All just for the fun of
it. Kind of like taking the family for a Sunday afternoon drive. We were very
young then and thought we were so immortal. Oh what fun and crazy times.
But all that changed soon thereafter. As a grunt with the 101st I
remember there were some very horrific times especially during my last month
there in May (29th), 1967, when half of my platoon was KIA (killed in action)
when we got ambushed on some godforsaken ridge line west of Duc Pho. But little
did I expect that sad times would return again, just at a different time and at
a different place. The winds of war were about to change and not for the better
We were going to Dong Ha - and then into Laos for Operation Lam Son 719,
the bold Vietnamese incursion into Laos to cut the supply line on the Ho Chi
Minh Trail. The operation started on February 8th, 1971.
I can’t go into all the incidents that were experienced by me and other
crews during that operation for there are literally hundreds of them. I do
remember a lot and want to tell all the stories someday, but for now I do want
to tell one story. It’s a story that reveals the character of the Pilots, Crew
Chiefs, and Gunners in the 48th AHC. We were nothing special then, just ordinary
helicopter crews, like all other crews in the US Army in Vietnam. It could have
happened to other guys, and if it did then the names and faces of those crews
would have been different, but the character of those crews would have been the
same as well as the heroics. I am absolutely sure of that. It was just our turn
this time. That’s all.
It was February 28, 1971, a morning just like all other mornings at Dong
Ha. An early wake-up, having to put on a jacket because of the cold, a crapola
breakfast, and an early takeoff to PZ (pickup zone) Kilo just south of Khe Sanh.
We would shut down at the PZ most days then stand around in small groups telling
jokes to try to keep our minds off of what was yet to come. There were other
guys that just lay in their helicopters staring at the roof. I knew what they
were thinking, we all did. Many of the guys had already been shot down at least
once before. Just then, as usually happened, we got our mission for the morning.
We were to cross the border, fly into Laos and extract about eighty ARVN (South
Vietnamese) dead and wounded soldiers from a PZ somewhere west of LZ (landing
zone) Blue. This PZ was supposedly surrounded. Oh shit, here we go again.
Well, off we went, trying not to think about what was ahead of us and
trying to concentrate on staying alive. The aircraft was 276, I was the Aircraft
Commander and Major Bunting was in the right seat (and of course in total
command of the operation). Everybody liked Major Bunting, he was a great leader
at a time when we needed a great leader. Specialist Sauer was the Gunner and the
Crew Chief was, well, I think his last name was Thomas but I just don’t
remember his first name. The Major and I had been shot down on February 8, 1971,
and I was very worried about his magnetism. Maybe he was worried about mine as
well. It was kind of tense.
We flew west. It was kind of a clear day. Some type of thin reddish
“clouds” were on the horizon. It seemed like these clouds formed at the
border of Laos and Vietnam. And they sure did. When we approached these so
called clouds, we found them be made out of vapor and dust particles mixed with
gunpowder, napalm and other ordnance expended from the day before. It was a
terrible smell, but it was the smell of reality, a smell of what was yet to
come. Most people who flew into Laos, I am sure, remember that smell. It was
there day after day.
There must have been at least 15 helicopters flying that day in trail
formation. As we approached the PZ, there was a strange and tense calm. I mean
nobody was shooting at us. How cool! What the heck was going on? We set down
quickly in the PZ. I could see the wounded ARVN soldiers being carried to our
chopper. Their bodies were so mangled and bloody. Just as they approached, a
mortar round exploded at our 2 o’clock position about fifteen to twenty meters
away. We were hit. It was a trap. They were waiting for us.
There was a lot of chaos on our intercom. Some yelling and some screaming
(the type of screaming that goes on after people are wounded). I knew we were
hit bad. “Let’s get the fuck out of here” I said to myself. As I took off
and just past the tree line all hell broke loose. We were hit by so many rounds.
I remember them coming through the chin bubble and hitting the bottom of my
armored seat. The incoming fire knocked the machine gun out of the Crew
Chief’s hand. I turned right. We took more fire. Sauer was hit and the Major
had a piece of shrapnel in his right leg. Cliff Whiting, Steve Williams and crew
were Chalk 2 and right behind us. They told us that we were on fire and to set
it down. I remember over and over how they said, “Dan, you’re on fire, put
it down, put it down.” Well, off we went limping to a clearing not more than a
mile from the PZ. It was perfect. It must have been put there by God; it was the
only clearing around. I set it down on a terrible slope. My flight school
instructor would have been very proud of me. Somehow I just knew that Cliff and
crew would pick us up. I just was so sure of that. I knew Cliff.
We hurriedly exited the helicopter as the Joker gunships were tearing up
the treelines all around us with their UH-1C helicopters. Wow, I felt like we
might actually make it out of here. It was a very secure feeling. Rockets were
exploding everywhere. Joker machine gun fire never ceased and they kept on
coming, flying low over us and causing havoc everywhere, and all the while
taking fire as they covered our rescue. And guess what? Cliff and crew were
already hovering right next to us in the PZ. How did they get there so fast, I
thought? I remember running towards their helicopter but his crew chief pointed
to something behind me. It was Sauer limping and clawing his way out of our
downed aircraft. I went back for him. Cliff’s Crew Chief and Gunner helped us
into their chopper. I don’t know how they did it. Their helicopter was at a
high hover due to the high bushes, trees and high grass in the PZ. His crew must
have drawn strength from God that morning. I don’t know how they hauled us up
and lifted us in. We were not exactly small guys. Thanks guys, thanks.
After we boarded, I remember looking at Steve William’s face. He was
smiling. A type of smile that made me feel that I was back amongst friends.
Cliff hauled ass out of there with no delay. Sauer was bleeding profusely from
his groin area. We ripped the first aid kit off the wall behind Steve’s seat.
We tried to stop the bleeding, but there was just so much blood. Where was the
wound, where was it? We were flown to Khe Sanh and to the field hospital there.
We made it. Wow, we made it out of there once more.
Later that afternoon, we all returned to Dong Ha. I went to bed early
that night. I didn’t feel like discussing the day’s event with anyone. It
was just another day anyway. Tomorrow would be another day with other horrors.
All the crews had a day like I had, all of them. The stories were different, but
everyone went through their own private hell over there.
I never saw Sauer again. He did live, but I never heard anything about
him. I do know he was hurt badly. And guess what? I never knew his first name
either. And I never asked who Cliff’s Crew Chief and Gunner were that day. I
feel ashamed about that.
In the days that followed more BlueStar aircraft (slicks and gunships)
were shot down. People were killed and crews were MIA. About 25 BlueStar and
Joker helicopters of the 48th went down during that operation, and many, many
more were shot up. Lives of friends and brave people were lost. That’s the way
it was. It went on day after day with no letup for almost sixty days.
I learned a lot that day and in the days that followed. I learned about
people and friends. And I learned that being an Army aviator meant helping your
buddies when they need help. Learning that most people when faced by
extraordinary events turn out to be extraordinary. I learned to remember
people’s first names, and to trust people with whom I work. But most of all I
learned that you can always count on the helicopters that are behind you and the
courageous crews that fly them. No matter where you are and how much shit you
are in, they will always be there for you.