Lost In Laos

A Missing in Action Story


A pilot’s memories about the Vietnam War as it relates to two helicopter “Joker” gunship crews of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company who were shot down in Laos during operation Lam Son 719 in early 1971.

By: Dan (Danny) Grossman CW2, BlueStar 16
Vietnam Jan 70 - Feb 72
 

Written on January 6, 2001

It is almost thirty years later, but it seems like it happened yesterday. Operation Lam Son 719 was an incursion into Laos by the South Vietnamese army together with American air support in order to deny the North Vietnamese army the use of supply areas along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This operation was for many of the Pilots, Crew Chiefs, Gunners and support personnel of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company (48th AHC) the most memorable and terrifying struggle for survival they have yet to experience.

I can still remember many of my feelings during those dark days. The motivation I had before the operation began; the insertions, extractions and support operations; the way the air smelled most days; how scared I was during some of those operations; the panic of the Vietnamese troops as they tried to hang on to our skids during hot extractions; and the bitterness I and others felt as the operation came to an end. Though many of my memories are carved in stone and never will be forgotten, some of these remembrances are not as clear as others as time has taken its toll. Therefore, a few parts of these stories may not be completely accurate in every detail as they contain my personal memories of those incidents together with some unverifiable facts and circumstances as written in a loss report and information obtained from the Internet. However, in the case of the downing of the Fred Cristman Joker 99 gunship crew, there are undisputable facts and direct quotes from a cassette tape* recording of radio conversations that were made as those events actually occurred. Where, in these stories I quote directly, it implies the exact words as were spoken on the radio that day as recorded on this cassette tape.

 

The Downing of Joker 99 & Crew

Crew: Frederick L. Cristman, Aircraft Commander
Jon M. Sparks, Pilot
Ricardo M. Garcia, Crew Chief
Paul Langenour, Gunner
 

 

Aircraft: UH-1C Gunship, Number 65-09489
Date: March 19, 1971
Location: Laos, Loss coordinates: N 16 39.40  E 106 29.20

It was a day that began like any other day in Laos, but since it was nearing the end of the Lam Son operation, we knew it would soon be all over. The worst was behind us; at least that was what many of us thought. We just needed to wrap up a few things across the border and then we could be normal fun-loving helicopter crews again. There would be lots of drinking, jokes, war stories, bitching, bullshitting, and wise-ass remarks. Yeah, life would be better. Our goal that day was to survive. That’s right, just to survive. Many of the 48th crews had already been shot down at least once before that day, and we didn’t want to make a continuing habit about that. Besides, as the operation winded down, bitterness amongst us was widespread regarding the way the Lam Son operation was conducted and how the US military in Washington was declaring the operation a total success. We knew better.

That day I was flying a UH-1H helicopter and was Aircraft Commander with Tom “Flame” Seymour as the Pilot. I do not remember the names of my Crew Chief and Gunner as we often switched crews daily. The mission was to extract a group of South Vietnamese troops from a position just north of Highway 9 in eastern Laos and just ten clicks west of the border with Vietnam. It seemed like it would be a piece of cake. After all, no one ever mentioned that the South Vietnamese were in a hurry to get out of there or anything to that effect.

As we departed PZ (pickup zone) Kilo sometime that morning, it didn’t seem to be much of a big deal type of extraction. I mean the 48th AHC slicks (troop carrying helicopters) and Joker gunships were to be part of this major extraction that included many other aviation and support units. The 48th was to be the last group of slicks that followed other groups of slicks from other units some or most of which, I believe, were from the 101st Airborne Division. Senior officers from a battalion other than ours operationally controlled this extraction. The officer in command, whose name is unknown, went by the call sign of Change 20.

Well, when I say it didn’t seem to be a big deal, I mean that we had at least twenty other helicopters in front of us, if not many more. If there were to be problems, well, I figured that by the time it was our turn to go in, the problems would have been resolved. At least that was what I was hoping.

The BlueStar flight was led by Captain Floyd Lewis (call sign, Traps 15), a very likable guy that enjoyed being called “Home” for hometown kind of guy. Since I was raised in New York City, I was used to calling people that anyway. We became friends soon after we met. Our Joker gunship support included, in part, Steve Knowles (Joker 98) and crew, and Fred Cristman (Joker 99) and crew. Fred was a personal friend of mine. He was a great guy and we had talked many times in the bar at Ninh Hoa about everything from the song We Got To Get Out Of This Place to the rear ends of Vietnamese hooch maids. I did not know his other crewmembers well and have some trouble remembering them.

I am not sure whether Steve and Fred’s gunships were to support only the 48th slicks that day, or whether the plan called for the gunships to support the entire extraction. But somehow soon after the extraction began the Joker gunship team was right up front supporting slicks from the lead units. As the extraction began to turn sour, I began to realize that this piece of cake extraction was not going to be that nice little neat piece of cake I had expected. In fact, it actually turned out to be just another typical day in Laos. It was another day where the South Vietnamese army got themselves surrounded and asked American helicopter crews to save their butts. As we returned to Dong Ha later that afternoon, I realized that this day was a very big deal indeed. It was a nightmare that many in the 48th AHC will never, ever forget. Three out of four of Fred’s gunship crew would never return home, and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

As the extraction began, I remember the BlueStar group of slicks started to bunch up. We were then ordered to circle south of Highway 9 for spacing purposes. It was then that I realized just how badly this extraction was going. After a few minutes in the holding pattern, I realized that it was just another case of – here we go again. I remember the butterflies in my stomach as the shit began to hit the fan. I remember praying that I hoped we wouldn’t have to go in there. I never had much luck flying into hot PZ’s before, and I was not pleased. Though “Flame” said nothing at all, I could sense that he was feeling the same way. He and Jesse Dize had been, not so many days before, shot out of the air as many of us watched them go down on fire.

As we continued to hold south of the highway, visibility was poor as the combination of haze and residue of gunpowder and smoke expended that day created a condition where we could not see the PZ very well. A very short time later a helicopter was shot down in the PZ. However, it was not clear to which unit the helicopter belonged. After some radio conversations, a slick was ordered to rescue the downed crew. As the slick approached the PZ this was heard on the radio...

Change 20 (the operation’s officer controlling the entire extraction) to the rescue aircraft:

“...I got the smoke on station, uh, how far out are you?”

Rescue aircraft:

“About a click out at this time.”

Change 20:

“OK roger, come on in and try to make it, and then we’ll put the smoke in after you get out of there.”

Change 20 as he talks to Hammer 229, the USAF spotter aircraft:

“Let’s don’t try to put the smoke in until I get this one slick in there to recover the crew, and then we’ll put the smoke in and we’ll go ahead with the whole lift to get, eh, those people out of there.”

Just then I heard on the radio...

Rescue aircraft:

“We’re hit, we’re hit, pilot’s hit and ...(unintelligible). Get Mr. Smith out, help Mr. Smith out. Help Mr. Smith out.”

Apparently this rescue aircraft was hit during his approach or while on the ground in the PZ.

Rescue aircraft:

“...my aircraft is hit but I’ll be flying this thing back until something quits on me. And, uh, I believe my pilot is seriously wounded.”

Shortly thereafter, a smoke screen was ordered.

Change 20 as he talks to Hammer 229:

“Ok now we want that smoke as close to the LZ as you can get it, uh, over the west, southwest and northwest...”

Hammer 229:

“OK sir, understand that you are going to make the pickup on the LZ itself down where the two choppers are...”

Two choppers? What two choppers? From this point onwards it seemed very unclear to me what was going on. Now someone was saying that there were two choppers down in the PZ? Well, I thought that the chopper that was just hit, the one with the wounded pilot, was flying out of there. That left only the first chopper down in the PZ. I didn’t understand as I heard no other mayday or distress call or any other call regarding a second aircraft going down in the PZ. What the heck was going on? Well seconds later I found out when the following conversation was heard...

Traps 15 (Captain Lewis, BlueStar flight lead) as he calls Change 20:

“...if one of our birds is in there, we’d like to go help get them out.”

Change 20:

“No, we’ve got the Lotus bird going in...and we’ll go in in order here, and we’ll get your Joker out, uh, uh, first business.”

From Traps 40’s aircraft (Lt. Keith Howell) as his Peter Pilot (co-pilot) made this comment:

“We’ve got a Joker down!”

Traps 40:

“A Joker is down?”

Apparently I was not the only one who was confused. How, when and under what circumstances was this Joker gunship shot down, and which crew were they? But events did not subsequently focus on the downed Joker crew and little, if anything, was said about it from that point onward. Change 20 apparently wanted to get more slicks into the PZ as fast as possible, and he did not order anyone to pick up the downed crewmembers. It was only minutes later that we found out it was Fred Cristman’s Joker 99 aircraft.

After the smoke screen was in place the extraction continued.

Change 20 as he spoke to Lotus 32 (the slick flight lead):

“OK you’re doing alright, shoot to the right side of the smoke screen up there. Now Lotus 32, I want your entire flight behind you and I want the Spasms and everybody else to go on in there. Let’s take advantage of that smoke.”

Just then I heard on the radio...

Traps 15:

“Flight this is 15, I’m dropping down to start our run.”

Seconds later one of the fighter aircraft or the spotter aircraft reported that he was hit by a 51 caliber round. Very shortly thereafter came this...

Change 20:

“...let’s break it off, let’s don’t try it.”

Traps 15 responded:

“There you go 20.”

Change 20 then told all the flights to head back to their staging areas.

Change 20 as he responded to a question from Traps 15:

“Roger, I hope to get you one (a release) momentarily.”

Traps 15 to flight:

“...I guess we’re going home.”

We then proceeded to Khe Sanh to refuel when this message was heard...

Traps 28 (Craig Ogborn):

“...roger, do not take the flight to Khe Sanh, they are again receiving incoming.”

Since we still had enough fuel to get back to Dong Ha, we initially decided to go to PZ Kilo to regroup. Whether or not we actually landed there or not, I don’t remember. However, sometime after crossing back into Vietnam, the following radio message was received...

Traps 15 in a conversation with Change 20:

“...you were going to find out for me about our downed crew, Joker 99...(unintelligible)...from the ground troops. Do you have anything for me at this time?”

Change 20:

“Negative, can you contact Serpent 20, over? Serpent 20 is the CAV; he took over as we departed. We’re on another ball game at this time.”

Now, what the heck is Change 20 talking about, I thought? That statement sounded like he was passing the buck. Who was this mysterious Serpent 20 and where in the world did he come from?

Traps 15 as he called back Change 20 after trying to contact Serpent 20:

“Negative, uh, frequency response from, uh, Serpent 20 people that are running the PZ. Is there any possible way you can contact the people on the ground, over?”

Change 20:

“Roger, come up 62.05.”

This air to ground conversation I did not hear as Captain Lewis switched to that frequency. Meanwhile, we had received our official release for the day. On the way back we received additional word...

Traps 15 talking to the Traps (BlueStar) flight:

“...Dragon 20 (Major Klose, our Battalion Operations Officer) is pretty pissed off on how Change 20 was handling our downed crew...”

Traps 15 as he was talking to Dragon 20:

“...we only had one aircraft shot up, that was a Charlie model. We had another aircraft shot up and that’s in Laos down in the first LZ we went into, sir.”

Apparently one of our other gunships had also been hit.

Traps 15:

“...and these other...(unintelligible)...dudes they definitely got their shit weak, and they haven’t told me anything about my downed crew. One man tried talking to them (the troops) on the ground, and they made no effort to get these men out of there. They would not allow me to go in there myself or break off any of my flight to go in, and they have given me no information whatsoever. Now, tee tee time ago, Serpent 20 was out there running the show, and I came up on his push and there was no Serpent 20 in the area. And so, uh, I got negative knowledge about my four crewmembers in that ship except for the three KIA’s...”

KIA’s? This was the first time I heard the word KIA’s. Maybe Captain Lewis got some word on the FM frequency that I didn’t hear.

Dragon 20’s response:

“...I have the same report, and, uh, what is being done. I’ll take care of it, and if necessary we’ll get them tomorrow.”

“...they are moving (the South Vietnamese) to an alternate location. There is one American alive.”

Tomorrow, what is this tomorrow shit, I thought? It sounds like an instant replay of what he (Major Klose) said after Jon Reid & Crew were shot down a month before.

That is the final conversation as recorded on the cassette tape. We landed at Dong Ha some time later. I don’t remember exactly what we did after the flight, but I do know that most of us were not happy about how one of our crews, our friends, were left behind especially after we volunteered to go in and get them out. This unhappiness lasted for a long time, even to this very day. It prompted some of us to want to tell the real story of Lam Son 719. We, the helicopter crews, knew better than most what was really going on out there. The fact was that the South Vietnamese army was getting their butt kicked, and badly too. Some of us eventually did speak our minds. That is another story that should be told some day.

To the best of my knowledge, no BlueStar slick or Joker gunship ever went back to that area despite the continuing requests we made. However, on January 5, 2001, I learned something that I never knew before when one of the most highly respected pilots, a man of unquestionable credibility, Ed Newton, e-mailed the BlueStar group the following statement:

“...we were briefed every morning about actual and possible recovery missions for the day. My recollection was that Reid & Cristman's aircraft was discussed. We were told that a light fire team from either the 173rd or the 282nd had over flown the site the previous day and had taken such heavy fire that the area was considered "off limits". No signs of survivors (either visually or beepers) were observed. We were told that another attempt was going to be made for another over flight. I believed that happened with the same results...”

To me, and I am sure to many others, leaving the Joker 99 crew behind was a betrayal forced upon us by others. Our commanders betrayed us once before as you will learn in my next story, and we should have known better. Maybe we should have just gone back there ourselves without permission and set up our own rescue extraction. Would that have meant disobeying orders? Sure it would, but why not? Maybe if we did, things would be different today, I don’t know. To me this whole lousy extraction and the missing Joker 99 crew were quietly swept under the rug by certain individuals who wanted no part of this failure. How easily some of the on-scene commanders forgot the promises they made to us (“we’ll get your Joker out first business...” and “...I’ll take care of it and if necessary, we’ll get them tomorrow”). Oh how comforting they made us feel (they thought) by saying those words while they knew those very words were hollow. All we ever wanted from those guys was for permission for us to take care of our own. We didn’t want to have some other unit do it tomorrow; we wanted to do it that day. If something were to go wrong during a rescue, it would have been our blood that would have been spilled not theirs, as they would have been circling high over the PZ.

And what of the aftermath of Joker 99 and crew? Well, Paul Langenour, the ship’s Gunner survived as he and a group of South Vietnamese troops walked out of Laos and were picked up in Vietnam. When we heard he survived it brightened up our day. Langenour is probably the only person alive who can fill in the blanks on how his aircraft went down and under what circumstances.

Over the years I have heard several different accountings regarding what became of Joker 99 and the other two MIA crewmembers. One story I read over the Internet that came from a major organization that seems to have very high credibility, said that US aircrews flying overhead after Joker 99’s landing in the PZ did not see the three missing airmen escape from the aircraft. However, the report did say that a defector, whose battalion engaged American helicopter forces in Laos around this time, was said to have captured a helicopter pilot who was then taken to a field hospital where he later died. The background of this crewman, as stated by the defector, seemed to match that of a crewman from the Joker 99 aircraft. Another report said that some of the crew exited the helicopter and ran, unknowingly, towards an advancing North Vietnamese force. One other report said that after landing in the PZ, a mortar round hit the roof of the aircraft and it burst into flames.

But, I guess, we’ll never know what really happened to Fred and his crew. Some day, possibly after retirement, I would like to visit that site and have a look around myself. The site is just west of the small village of Ban Sou Doun. Surely one of the village elders must remember something, especially after all the forces withdrew. The PZ was probably well scavenged by the local people in the area. Somebody must know something.

It should be noted that all three MIA crewmen were never reported to have been in the North Vietnamese prison system. They are still listed as Missing In Action.

*Many thanks go to Rick Lester who gave me a copy of this cassette tape while in Washington DC during the July 2000 VHPA reunion. Without this tape, I could never have reconstructed the exact sequence of events as they occurred. And regarding this recording, I did not include every radio call from every aircraft. In order to keep the story a reasonable length, I used my discretion and included only the most important calls. Also, if my memory serves me correctly, there were other very important radio calls from the BlueStar flight to Dragon 20 (regarding a rescue request by our flight) that are not recorded on this tape. It is possible that the tape was switched off and on during this operation.   

It was common practice for some pilots to tape operations in Laos since there were major incidents occurring nearly every day. Lt. Keith Howell made this particular tape recording. I had an identical tape of the day’s events as well as tapes of other Laos operations, but all were lost in a flood in West Africa in 1982.

 

Still An Open Case

The downing and loss of Joker 06 & Crew

 

Crew: Jon (Jake) E. Reid, Aircraft Commander
David M. May, Pilot
Randolph L. Johnson, Crew Chief
Robert J. Acalotto, Gunner
 

 

Aircraft: UH-1C Gunship, Number 66-00700
Date:  February 20, 1971  
Location: Laos, exact loss coordinates unknown


Since the very beginning of the Lam Son 719 operation, which started on February 8, 1971, the BlueStar and Joker gunship aircraft of the 48th AHC were at very high risk every time they crossed the Vietnamese border into Laos. In fact, on the very first day of the operation we had two slick aircraft shot down. Thankfully, both crews were rescued immediately and were returned safely to Dong Ha, our home base. It was a tradition that started long before I joined the 48th and probably started as soon as the first group of aircraft flew in the very first war - that if an aircraft was shot down, someone would try to rescue the crew. That was it, period. And you could bet your last dollar on that.

That was one of the shocking parts about the Reid & Crew loss. In addition to the tragic loss of the crew, our friends, it was the first time in Laos that we lost an entire crew, and we were not even allowed to search for the downed aircraft.

The reason I am writing about the loss of the Reid & Crew aircraft last even though the tragedy happened a month before the loss of Cristman & Crew, is that I cannot tell the complete story of this incident. What I can write about is approximately one third of the story. Perhaps another third can someday be told by either a crewmember of Steve Knowles’ gunship which was gun team lead during that re-supply mission, or another person who has first hand knowledge of the incident. The last third of the story may never be known. That is, what happened after Reid’s (Joker 06) aircraft crashed. From what is now known, Jake Reid’s and David May’s bodies were recovered near the crash site and returned for burial in the USA. But what about Randy Johnson and Robert Acalotto, did they survive the crash? And why haven’t their remains been recovered? Apparently they did survive, at least initially, or their bodies would have been recovered with the others near the site. Did they try to escape and evade? If so, were they captured or did they die in the Laotian jungle? Who knows? Who will ever know?

It was February 20, 1971, a day that we were to perform ash and trash missions from what I remember. There were no major insertions or extractions that day, and we were just sitting around PZ Kilo waiting for things to develop.

Some time later, I was ordered to lead a flight of four Huey slicks to re-supply a group of South Vietnamese troops in Laos. I do not remember who my crew was that day or who crewed the other three slicks. Our gunship cover included Steve Knowles & Crew and Jake Reid & Crew. Nothing more that I can remember was disclosed to me at that time. I did not know or don’t remember what the conditions were at the LZ or whether or not the LZ was hot. I did not, however, feel intimidated about the mission. After all, part of our re-supply contained food and other things not of an urgent need. I do not remember taking much ammunition, if any at all. Well, if we were not taking ammunition, it probably wouldn’t be all that bad, right? There were no worries.

Although I don’t remember the exact location of the LZ, and since there are no coordinates of this location available that I can find anyway, I estimate it to be somewhere between six to twelve clicks south through southeast of the Delta 1 (not Delta) fire support base. Again, I cannot be sure of the exact location of the area, but I still have a clear memory of the surrounding area and the LZ itself. It was located in the lower lands near where a road runs generally northwest and southeast in a small valley. The immediate area seemed somewhat flat with few very low hills that were covered with grass. The mountains that were on the west side of the area were the same group of mountains where Fire Base Lolo was located although Lolo was well to the north and west of the area.

I can remember approaching that LZ and first seeing it out my one o’clock position. That’s why it is so easy for me to describe. This LZ appeared to have been occupied for several days. It was maybe 100-200 meters diameter and looked more like a small staging area than an LZ. I was surprised to see this type of camp out there. I thought to myself that this place is in the ideal location to be overrun. Gee, didn’t anyone ever think of that, I thought?

We approached, landed, unloaded, and departed the LZ without incident. Shortly after we climbed to altitude, Steve Knowles radioed me that someone had spotted something and they were going to check it out. Something to that effect anyway. I think we agreed to meet up either somewhere enroute, back at Khe Sanh or PZ Kilo. That was the last message I heard from any of the two gunship aircraft that day. At some point on our way back to Khe Sanh, I remember trying to call Steve and Jake. I tried several different times. They never answered me. Since we needed to refuel we headed directly to Khe Sanh. Well, I wasn’t particularly alarmed at that point because I figured that Steve and Jake were possibly up on their own VHF push and had their UHF receiver toggle switch off. I am not sure, but I think the gunships had their own frequency, possibly VHF, that they used. I don’t remember.

We landed at Khe Sanh and as we were refueling I was deciding what to do next. I tried to call Steve again, but no response. Just then, guess who popped up at my left side window? Right, it was Steve. He had a very desperate look on his face. He was yelling through the window something about his wingman being in trouble and was still in Laos. I just cannot remember his exact words, but I got the picture quickly. I asked him why he didn’t call me. He said something about how his radios were shot out. He had no communications. I said well, let’s go back and get them or something to that effect.

From that point I do not remember if Steve and his crew got in my helicopter or flew their damaged gunship back to PZ Kilo. We did go back to Kilo however, to talk over our plan. Minutes later, and I mean a very few minutes later, we were back in the air. We did not ask for permission to go back, we just took off. I figured since I was flight lead of this mission, I was flight lead and the mission wasn’t over yet. I do not remember if another slick followed us back into Laos, but I am almost sure we went alone. Steve insisted he go along, and I needed him to spot the downed aircraft’s position. I remember Steve sat in the right rear well seat. I think I asked him to sit there, as he would have a better view of the area.

When we arrived in the general area, not far from the re-supply LZ, I was flying about 1500-2000 feet. This early in the Laotian operation that was more or less standard. It was only a very short time later when aircraft began taking flak did we fly higher (3,000-7,000 feet or thereabouts). I wanted to keep this altitude until we spotted the downed aircraft, then my plan was to do a high overhead approach into the crash site. Many of us loved to use the high overhead type of approach. It was a corkscrew type of approach initiated high over a hot LZ with a very rapid descent all the while keeping within the general boundary of the LZ. It worked almost all the time.

We circled and looked, and circled and looked. There was no sign of any downed gunship anywhere. Since we all knew how easily a small helicopter could get gobbled up by a big jungle or tall grass, we decided to go lower and have a very close look. At one point we thought we spotted the aircraft. I then flew low, possibly as low as twenty feet hovering over the area, but there was nothing. As we climbed up several hundred feet we took small arms fire but no hits. I had to get back to altitude. We continued to circle and look, move to another possible location, circle and look again, go lower, get shot at again and return to altitude again. This went on and on until we were low on fuel.

We refueled at Khe Sanh then, for some reason, returned to PZ Kilo and shut down. I don’t remember why we shut down. It was either to organize more search aircraft, or it was because it was getting late in the day, or because Major Klose (our Battalion Operations Officer) ordered me to.

By that time I believe Major Klose was at the PZ. If he was not at PZ Kilo at that time, then he arrived a very short time later. I remember trying to tell him the story, but he said he already knew what happened. Probably the other crews told him about it before we got back. Steve and I told him we needed to get back in there again, and now. He told us that we couldn’t do that. I don’t remember his exact words, but I accepted his word that he had everything under control. This was the first time I ever heard the words Hoc Bau. I have said those words many times during my life but never learned how to spell them. He told me and others that this unit (the Hoc Bau), which specialized in rescuing downed aircrews, was either being deployed at that time or would be deployed very shortly. I accepted his word from what I can remember. I think we all did. If I only knew then what I know now, I would have gone back in there again with Steve for another look, orders or no orders. This so called Hoc Bau unit apparently was so secretive and illusive that no one that I know of, to this very day, has ever seen the unit. Not on the day of Reid’s crash or any other day that followed. In fact, I just wondered if this Hoc Bau unit was some figment of someone’s imagination.

Nobody ever bothered to ask me where Reid’s helicopter crashed. Whether they asked Steve or not, I don’t know but it is logical that they did ask. I did not know the location of the crash site anyway, just the LZ that we re-supplied. I only knew that it was in the vicinity of that LZ. Gee, you would have thought that someone (Major Klose) would have asked us right then, then had us and others to go back to look before the site was swamped with North Vietnamese. Major Klose said that we should not worry; he would take care of everything. We trusted him. We were just young guys then. Boy how we fell for that line. This was the first time we were betrayed by Major Klose, but we didn’t know it at the time. And who would have thought the exact same thing would happen a second time a month later when Cristman & Crew were shot down?

In the days that followed, despite our continuing push to locate and go back to the crash site, no one was ever allowed to return there. If anyone did return, I never found out about it. I just couldn’t understand it. And what ever happened with the Hoc Bau? Major Klose never told us. I truly believe that no such unit ever went back there and probably never was ordered to go back.

I often think back to that day. Maybe if, when Steve first called me that he was checking something out, I had said no, don’t do that, we should all go back together. Maybe, just maybe Reid’s crash wouldn’t have happened. While I do not blame myself for what happened, I do occasionally get hard on myself about it. However, as the years go by I have loosened up a bit. I realize that sometimes things just happen, especially during wartime.

For the above reasons I do not hate or blame Major Klose for the loss of the Reid crew. He wasn’t even around when it happened. But I do hold him personally responsible for not taking any immediate actions regarding a rescue, and for him refusing to let us go back for another look that day or the next day. I do know that some people despise him for that. I have accepted the fact, especially after he betrayed us a month later during the Cristman downing, that this man would say anything to anyone in order to defuse a situation. He, a Major, Battalion Commander, told us he would take care of it, and we believed him. And when he didn’t take care of it, he betrayed us. Now, in all fairness, no one in the 48th knows whether Major Klose tried or didn’t try to set up a rescue either that day or thereafter. Maybe he was told by his higher ups that the Hoc Bau was on the way, who knows? I think that someday it would be good to know his side of the story.

Over the years I have heard and read several reports of what happened at the crash site. Who told these stories, I don’t know. And how would they know unless Steve or one of his crew told them, which seems probable. One report said that the aircraft settled in the brush and the pilot’s and co-pilot’s doors were seen jettisoned but nobody was sighted. Another report said that the aircraft burned after crash landing. And one other report said that people were spotted running from the downed aircraft after it crashed.

Another interesting report I downloaded from the Internet said this: “On February 20, 1971 May and Reid were flying their UH-1C Huey helicopter on an emergency re-supply mission over Laos when they were hit by enemy ground fire and crashed. A search and rescue mission was repulsed by hostile fire.” Now, what’s this about a search and rescue mission? If you call me and Steve returning to Laos a rescue mission, OK, call it that. But that’s not what I consider to be a rescue mission. A rescue mission to me is several flights dispatched over several days in order to locate and initiate a rescue of the crew. This type of rescue was never performed from what I know.

The final report that came from the Internet said “In 1994, 1996 and 1998, U.S. and Lao investigators interviewed villagers in the area of the crash, then initiated an excavation which recovered human remains as well as portions of an identification tag with the name May, David M. Analysis of the remains and other evidence by the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii confirmed the identification of each of these four servicemen.” Did anyone just read four servicemen? They must be mistaken, right?

These theories are all unverified, and the only story I would believe is from Steve and his crew. Maybe someday I will find out, but this story I am limiting to the pre and post crash events only, no speculation. 

And what of the aftermath of the Joker 06 gunship crew? Jake Reid’s and David May’s bodies were recovered in October 1999 and were buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 14, 2000. I wish I could have been there, but I only joined the BlueStar web group some months later and never knew of the funeral. From what I understand, the Reid and May families were there in addition to many BlueStar personnel, including the well-liked former 48th Company Commander, now Mayor Bunting. BlueStars who knew and BlueStars who never knew Jake Reid or David May came from all over the USA to pay their respects. They all came to honor their fallen comrades. 

The case of the Reid & Crew gunship loss, to me, will never be closed until the remains of the other two crewmembers, Randy Johnson and Louis Acalotto are found and recovered. Until that time...

This Case Remains Open!

. . .

They gave their lives for their country when their country needed them most. They did their duty without shying away. While others back home were burning draft cards, they performed the same feats that other American heroes performed in the past. Freedom is costly and is born when brave men are called upon to fight aggression. Though the Vietnam War was and still is very controversial, those who did not come back paid the ultimate sacrifice without whining, bitching and without thinking of self. They performed their duty to the very end. Now THAT, I think, is worth passing on to future generations. We are all so very proud of them.
 

May God bless them all.

 

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