67-17187 Smokey’s Last day in Laos - 18 March 1971
Going back to Dong Ha on the evening of 17 March was truly glorious for me. It was the first time in a long time that my spirit was soaring. In my mind we beat the hell out of the N.V.A. and it felt good. Mr. Turner announced over the radio that 187 would be returning to base with the Jokers instead of the slicks. That was different and pretty cool. After post flight, Barry and I removed his 50 and returned it to armament. This was a two man job. The gun along with the yoke mount (it was u-shaped with a post) was attached to the standard round base. The post was held on by a threaded ring secured by a large pull pin. A 100 round ammo can holder and a link bag was also attached to the yoke mount. It was too heavy, or so I thought, for one man. They said the gun would have to go to depot maintenance to be repaired and that would take awhile. Barry decided to go with a free 60 instead of a mounted gun. Normally I would insist on a new gunner using a mounted gun, but Barry seemed to be working out well and I was in a good mood, so what the hell. We used most of the oil in the tank smoking the two pick up zones that afternoon and needed to get it filled. I came to find out that no one really knew what to put back in there. That same Maintenance officer from the other night came by and told me that the Army had a special oil just for smoke ships and of course we didn’t have any. He gave me a homemade recipe that, in his opinion, would work well enough. The only part of that recipe that I can remember is the 90 weight oil and the guy from the motor pool who brought it to the ship in a big bucket.
On the morning of 18 Mar. 187 left with the rest of the flight and took up residence at PZ Kilo waiting for smoke missions. Our first mission went off without a hitch. I remember low leveling over the ‘trail’ seeing all of the supplies stashed in dug out areas ramped down from the road we were over flying. It was also quite apparent that our smoke was not as good as day one.
Our smoke was thin and wispy, dissipating rather quickly. It was for shit compared to the real stuff. So much for our homemade brew. This constituted a lot of passes around that PZ but we took very little fire and had no real trouble.
Our next mission was without a doubt the most difficult time I had in the 1500+ hours I flew in country. The mission was to provide smoke cover for the extraction of the A.R.V.N. Five One Battalion (this is how I remember us referring to this action). The A.R.V.N.'s were pushed off the ridge by the N.V.A. and were surrounded down on the flats and in real danger of being completely destroyed. We were assigned two 101 Airborne Cobra gun ships (call sign Music 16) for cover while we made left hand circles laying smoke around that PZ. One cobra trailed our ship (Music 16) while the other flew high cover. The situation in the PZ had gone from bad to worse. Troops who could not board the slicks due to wounds were being shot by their officers, others were begging for ammo from the flight crews to keep on fighting (shades of the Little Big Horn). On about our third pass around, I took heavy fire and tried to suppress it. The enemy waited until the low cobra presented a perfect broadside view and then opened up. They hit that snake real hard. I could see panels and debris from the right side of Music 16 ship falling to the ground. 16 stated that his intentions were to get some altitude and try to put it down in a stream that was a few clicks away. Mr. Turner peeled off to the right from our smoke run to be able to meet the damaged cobra head on.
We arrived at the intended spot at about the same time. 187 was about 100 yards out and closing fast when Music 16 hit hard just 15 feet short of the stream on a sand bar. As we moved closer, I never lost eye contact with that ship. Both pilots were struggling to open their canopies when a cloud of steam like white smoke enveloped the engine area and the whole ship from the mast on back. By now we were in our flair and I already had my belt off getting ready to exit 187. What I saw next will be with me until the day I die. That cobra exploded, straining both pilots through their still closed canopies. There wasn’t anything left to save. How did I feel about all this?
I didn’t---no time to think or feel anything. Just like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind----”I won’t think about that today---I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Funny how tomorrow can turn into 29 years. The worst part of this day was yet to come.
We returned to our smoke mission and about the second time around I reported to Mr. Turner that I saw purple smoke rising from a ravine at out nine 0’clock. On our next trip around we cut our circle a little tighter to over fly the ravine. There was a slick embedded into the bottom left hand side of that ravine with the crew standing by. We came to a high hover to the right of the ravine and tried to work our way down to rescue the crew. The area was thickly covered with scrub trees about 15 feet tall. As we began to work our way down, I started to receive fire from my 09:30 My return fire seemed to stop his. I looked straight below my well and saw the smiling face of a warrant officer jumping up trying to catch the skid but falling short. The only thing I could think of to do was to sit on the floor and dangle my left foot below the skid in hopes that this would give the downed pilot something he could reach. My hands were above my head holding on to the butterfly grip of the 50. That pilot was now missing my boot by about two inches. At the same time the enemy at the 09:30 position opened up again. I returned fire and immediately felt a burning pain in my left knee. Looking down I could see my nomex pants were ripped and my knee was bleeding. I fired another burst and this time I caught what happened. The fired cases ejecting from the bottom of my own gun were doing a tap dance on my knee. In flight, the wind would move the brass away from me, but at a hover the cases were slamming into me....boiling hot and with enough force to be dangerous.
From this point on, things get a little confusing for me. I think I said to bring it down but Mr. Turner or somebody said, “let’s move to the right.” All of my attention was focused on the man trying to grab my boot and that again active gun position. Our ship suddenly shuddered violently and then began listing back and forth over the downed crew. I came very close to falling to the ground from the floor of my well. Mr. Turner recovered control of 187 but it was obvious that we had a major problem. Our rescue attempt had failed and now it was time to get the hell out of there. I will never forget the look on that downed pilot’s face as we nosed it over and left him standing there. I won’t think about that today......
As we left the area, I don’t think we could do more than 50 or 60 knots. It truly seemed that every gook in Laos was trying to bag 187. I had no lack of "targets." We came to find out later, 187 suffered a massive blade strike. Now what was going on in the right well? Barry never really stopped shooting the whole time we were at a hover. As I came to find out, the recoil from Barry’s free 60 pushed him from his well, over the smoke tank, and into the cargo bay. When I had time to look and see what was up with Barry, he was wedged between the pilot’s armored seats, sitting on the map case, still firing that M60. I guess a mounted gun would have been a better deal for him.
187 was bouncing up and down a good six inches every time the rotor blade went around. We made it up to Delta 1 and set it down in the lower landing area. Another ship (I don’t remember who) was on its way in to pick us up. Delta 1 at this time was already abandoned. The rescue ship landed about 50 yards up the hill from us. I remembered what Gary Revheim told me on the night of the 16th when he saw that I was using the 50s. “Tony”, he said, “DO NOT LEAVE THOSE 50's OUT THERE FOR THE GOOKS TO GET!!! DON’T COME BACK WITHOUT THEM!!!” I told Barry to go down the hill a ways and watch for any bad guys that might be on the way up. The 50 was my real concern. I unloaded the gun, pulled the pin, unscrewed the ring, put my shoulder under the yoke and lifted up. Once the post was clear of the mount, I took off up that hill with that gun on my shoulder. The same gun that two of us struggled with was now no trouble for one; even on an uphill run. Amazing what you can do when motivated. I chucked that gun into the cargo bay of the waiting slick and watched the post go right through the floor. That crew chief had a look on his face that would kill. I just shrugged my shoulders and mouthed the word "sorry" and took off down the hill to get more gear from 187. During this time, the pilots were doing a good job stripping the ship. When I reached 187 I saw Barry running up to the ship saying somebody was moving up the hill....time to go! We both grabbed what we could and ran back to the waiting slick. As I sat on the floor of that slick with the rest of my crew and all of our stuff heaped about, I was glad to have survived this whole ordeal and suddenly found myself to be dead tired. On the flight back to Dong Ha, I think I fell asleep.
Later that night, I asked Cpt. Carney (my old A.C. on 221----now operations officer) if anybody picked up that crew. There was an awkward pause while he looked into my eyes. Then he said, “Yeah, sure they got picked up.” Just the way he said it, I believed the opposite to be true. I later learned that Mr. Turner also inquired about the downed crew and came away with the same impression that I did. Another amazing thing was that other than the blade strike, 187 was undamaged. I credit this to the 50 cal. gun and its ability to suppress enemy fire. So went one more day flying in the 48th AHC during Lam Son 719.
Anthony (Tony) Terrana 2nd Flt. Plt. 48 AHC Feb70-Aug71