by Wyman Blakeman
There were 16 aircraft scheduled to go into As Hau the evening of March 10, 1966. Col House (Commanding Officer of HMM-163) led the first 8 in at 1700 local time. The 2nd flight of 8 was scheduled on station at 1720. Fortunately for the 2nd flight of 8 the weather deteriorated rapidly and I, as flight leader of the 8, detached my second 4 and left them east of the valley over the ridge line.
I put my first four into trail position and sneaked through a crotch in the mountains just below the clouds and just above the mountain pass. The weather in the valley to the south was Zero-Zero so we returned to base. Because of the mountains between where we had been orbiting and the landing zone at As Hau we heard no radio transmissions from aircraft in the battle zone.
I returned to base and, as Ops Officer, tried to de-brief the crews that returned to determine what happened to Chuck House and his crew. I had the impression that mass confusion existed.
I did learn the helicopters had been stormed by the CIDG (Civilian Indigenous Defense Group) personnel and some had been shot off the main landing gear struts. To this day I think this was a brilliant extemporaneous decision upon the part of Chuck House. The choice was to loose 30 or shoot 3 off the landing gear and save 27. On a small scale it was analogous to Pres. Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It that case it was kill several hundred thousand Japanese or to destroy 11 million or more on both sides in ground combat operations.
Of the aircraft returning from As Hau the evening of 3/10/66 there were some incredible loads. One helicopter carried 25 CIDG plus the crew of 4.
After being shot down and realizing the weather was such he would not be rescued, Col House took charge of all the friendlies including 3 Green Berets. In addition to his crew, Lt. Joe Weiss (co-pilot) and Sgt Thompson (crew chief), there was his gunner and a crew chief from another aircraft that had burned in the LZ. Our base at Phu Bai was nearly due east.
However, attempting to walk home that direction would probably have been futile due to steep mountains and a dense jungle. Chuck (Col House) led his newly acquired entourage to the north-northwest because going down the valley (in this case to the north) to the Perfume River and down the river to Hue was the only logical way out.
This not only fooled the enemy, who expected him to go east, but also surprised some folks at the Wing level. I received a call that night from Wing wanting to run a B-52 raid to the north and west of the As Hau outpost. We had a bit of an argument about why that shouldn’t be done. The B-52 raid was cancelled and the next afternoon at approximately 1330 (As soon as the weather permitted us into the valley) I found Chuck and his entourage about 3 clicks (kilometers) NNW of Camp As Hau.
Chuck knew, from the weather and lack of aircraft noise, that no other aircraft had been in his part of the valley that day. A red smoke grenade was generally used to mark an enemy position. Because he knew no enemy would have the guts to pop a red smoke on himself, Chuck popped one knowing that I would understand his reasoning and pick up his position.
In retrospect, I believe Chuck House saved a batch of lives by ordering “excess baggage” removed from the helicopters in the landing zone and saved additional lives by leading them NNW from the As Hau outpost.
Unfortunately we could not rescue all of those he led away from the outpost because the next day (12th) they began grabbing the hoist 6 or more at a time and grenading each other in the pick-up zone. As I recall we rescued approximatily 140 of the CIDG.
On the 11th, Don Berger was shot down and his aircraft burned. His co-pilot and gunner were picked up but the weather deteriorated so rapidly Don and crew chief spent the night in the jungle. WO Burger was a big healthy German and swore he met a tiger face to face in the night and the tiger ran away! I told him if I had never seen him before and encountered him in the jungle night I would also run. When I him up on the morning of the 12th, he leaned up under the pilots seat in the H-34 and kissed my shoe.
The last flight of the As Hau Evacuation was in the afternoon of the 12th. “Mick McMinn was my wingman and we spotted what appeared to be 15 ARVN at the old closed air strip, Ta Bat. We didn’t know whether they were friendlies or enemy setting a trap for us. Taking a chance, I landed to pick them up but they had obviously prebriefed that 10 would get into the first H-34 and 5 in the next.
Mick overshot the pick-up zone a bit and the enemy zeroed in on him with mortars. I heard an explosion and felt a “whuff” on my flight suit leg and turned to see what looked like a hopeless situation. Mick’s helo was enshrouded in a cloud of dust with the rotors turning at a reduced speed, it appeared the engine had been rendered inoperable.
Soon, however, his rpm began to increase and the H-34 lifted off. The bow doors were blown open and wrapped into the landing gear struts and the rotor blades damage so the whistling could be heard for miles. Mick limped the thing back home and as soon as he landed Col, T. J. O’Connor, Group Commander, shut the squadron down and opened the clubs. It was a miracle there were no Purple Hearts earned by HMM-163 in the As Hau evacuation.
A few days or a week later Gen. Walt, MAF Commander, with his entourage, stopped by Chuck Houses’ tent and spoke at length about what a great job we had done. When he finished he said, “Chuck, do you have anything to say?” Col House rose and said, “Yes Sir. Was the order to go into As Hau on the 10th a tactical or political decision?” Gen Walt shuffled back and forth on his feet a few seconds while all his grunt entourage bailed quickly out of the tent. He then responded, “Tactical.” This question was probably the reason why Chuck was later passed over for bird col.
Our squadron had tried to get into the As Hau valley during the days and nights of the 8th and 9th and the morning of the 10th. General Carl was flying around in a UH-1E the afternoon of the 10th and accidentally found the only ray of sunshine to hit the As Hau valley in days! He flew back to wing headquarters with his information which resulted in the issuance of a Mandatory Order for us to fly into As Hau. The Mandatory Order was an insult because it made it appear we hadn’t been trying.