Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan

Operation Tailwind

In July of 1970, I arrived at the Marble Mountain Air Facility, Marble Mountain, RVN. where I was assigned to HMH-463 as a structural mechanic and began flying as an aerial gunner aboard our CH-53 helicopters. As the largest helicopter in the Marine Corps inventory, we flew many different kinds of missions from re-supply to insertion/extractions of troops and even moving USO shows from camps to camps. But some of the most dangerous and interesting missions were known as Mission 72. Mission 72’s were those missions, where we would insert MACVSOG troops into Laos, also know as “going over the fence.” These would normally consist of one CH-53 and one CH-46 as our chase bird. But then a Mission 72 in September 1970 would change everything.
September 1970 was just another month closer to my RTD back to my family and “the world.” But it would turn out to be the most exciting and rewarding time of my tour in country. On 4 September 1970, HMH-463 was alerted for an upcoming Mission 72. I knew that this mission was going to be something huge and I wanted to be part of it. It would consist of 5, CH-53’s and 4, AH1G Cobra’s from HMA-367. At first the maintenance chief was only going to assign one metal smith to this mission ( Sgt.Ron Whitmer) but I finally convinced him that he really needed two “tin binders” to take care of these birds. So from 4-7 September, we gathered our equipment, received a quick brief and were put on a one hour standby. On the afternoon of 7 September, we launched out to a place unknown to me at the time. A place called Kontum. It was an Army Special Forces base under the command of the 5 th Special Forces and located real close to “the fence.” Our first night was interesting in many ways, but that’s another story. We were given some of the best chow that I had eaten in awhile and later enjoyed a few cold ones in the E-club. Later that night we were welcomed by the VC with a mortar attack. What a way to be awakened in the middle of the night. On 8 September we received a brief about this mission. We were told that we would be inserting 16 Special Forces troops along with over 100 Montagnards troops to an LZ located about 60 miles in Laos. And we were also told that we could expect very heavy enemy fire with the possibility of many casualties. Later after the brief, we launched out to an old Army air strip called Dak To, which would be used as our staging area. We shut down and waited for the word to go. Bad weather at the drop site held us back, so most of our time was spent sitting around talking or taking a nap. I decided to catch a few winks lying down on the troop seat’s using a bullet bouncer as a pillow. I was in a deep sleep, when I was awakened by the sound of a large explosion. The VC or NVA, had launched a rocket attack at us, trying to hit our aircraft. Needless to say, I was up and running with my M-16 attached to my hand in a death grip. In my hurry to get out the chopper I had forgotten to grab my bandoleer of ammo for my M-16 so I had to quickly return and retrieve it. There was basically no cover for us run to as our choppers were the target of the attack. I found an old crater near by and jumped in. I had counted 5 rockets as they passed over my head. It was then that I recalled what my father had told about his experience in WWII, “Son, it’s the one that you don’t hear that gets you” so I was very pleased to hear hose “telephone poles” going over my head. One of our Cobra’s took a direct hit on the rotor head and soon its ammo was cooking off. We never did launch out that day do to the bad weather. It wasn’t until 11 September that we were able to launch and deliver the package.
All the birds involved took many hits during the insertion, except the SAR bird which I was assigned to. Thank God we didn’t lose any birds that day.
Now came the 13 September were I learned how to make my backside “as tight as a nat’s ass”. We were on our way to extract the wounded and again I was assigned to the SAR bird, nick named “Bit’s & Pieces” by the crew chief, Sgt.Spalding. I was the left door gunner with Sgt. Ron Whitmer on the right gun. Lt. Mark McKenzie was the HAC (Helicopter Aircraft Commander) with Lt. Raul Bustamante as the co-pilot. Capt “Chip” Cipolla, who was our maintenance officer, jumped on board just prior to us taxing out of Kontum. He said that he didn’t want to miss the action and later he would get his wish. While in route to the pick up site, I was admiring the beautiful county side and just couldn’t help thinking about all of the “bad guy’s” down there waiting for us. When we got to the pickup site (LZ), we staged in our marshalling area, while the other 4 birds started to make their approach to the LZ. It didn’t take to long before we got the call that the first bird in had gone down and we were needed to in for the rescue. Our SAR bird was equipped with a 120 foot aluminum ladder, which we had attached to the rear ramp of the bird. If needed, all we had to do was roll it out the back and the troops below could hook up to it with their “D” rings and away we would go pulling them through the sky hanging below the bird like a kite’s tail. (All of the aircrew members wore a parachute harness minus the chute, with two “D” rings attached.)
The lead bird, side number YH-14, with Major J.Carol as the HAC and Lt. Bill Beardall as the co-pilot. Sgt’s Henderson and Follin and Cpl Quesada were the enlisted crew. Also in their bird were the Army’s medics and the Special Forces Commander, code name “Crossbow”. They had found the LZ to be to restrictive for the large CH-53 and as they were pulling out of the zone they were taking numerous small arms fire and direct hit’s from B-40 rockets. They were now going in and a call for help went out.
A command of ‘Done Gas Mask” came over our ICS. We had been briefed that CS gas would be used for this extract, so we had our mask at the ready. Now I really started to think about what was going to happen next. Could we make it in time to save our guys who were now on the ground and fighting for their lives? Would we be knocked out of the sky also? Who could save us, since we were the only one with a pickup ladder? A thousand “what ifs” ran through my mind? I donned my aviation gas mask and made sure that it was properly seated and hooked up to the ICS. In only a matter of seconds, one of the pilot’s gas masks was not working properly and I had to give mine up. Now I had to use the standard issue M-17 mask. After donning it, I must have cleared and checked my mask a thousand times. I sure didn’t want it leak and have to barf in the mask. And now that I couldn’t communicate, how could I tell anyone if I got wounded? My heart felt like it had moved up into my throat and it was racing at a rapid fire pace. As we made our descent to the pickup site, my senses were at their best, my finger was on the trigger of my M-60 ready to go to work. The zone was surrounded by gas/smoke laid down by the Cobras of HMA-367, call sign “Scarface” to help protect us and the downed crew. Just about the time we came into our hover over the downed crew, it happened. BAM, BAM, BAM, was all the sound I heard as the NVA opened up with a .51 cal AA gun on my side of the aircraft. They were only about 25 yards away from our bird when they opened up. The muzzle flash from their gun was huge and seemed to be about the size of a basketball. Without a second thought, I pulled back on the trigger my M-60 and didn’t let up until that AA gun crew were silenced. We started to bounce around now and I knew that we had taken some bad hits. I took a quick look towards the cockpit and saw both Mark and Raul were on the controls fighting to keep us in the air. Only latter we learned how bad it was and how every lucky we were to have been able to make it out of there in one piece. Numerous rounds had cut our hydraulic lines to our tail rotor and one round had almost cut the main drive shaft in half. The round had hit next to a “Thomas coupling” which is what holds the drive shaft sections together. Sgt Whitmer was working his gun on the left side as Capt Chipolla and Sgt Spalding were at the rear ramp throwing out the extract ladder for the downed crew to hook up to. All during this time, Scarface was lying down protective fire from their 40 mike-mikes and rockets. Scarface pilot’s were at their very best that day and thank God they were. We were able to get the downed crew hooked up on the ladder and pulled them out to safety. Only now we were worried about our bird making it back due to our battle damage and we sure didn’t want to go down with the men still on the ladder. Lt. Mckenzie radioed the Scarface commander, LtCol Sexton that we needed to set down to check our damage and to let the men off the ladder and get them into another bird. Scarface prepped a clearing that was to our 12 o’clock position and then Lt. McKenzie set the bird down. After the men got off the ladder, we set down and Sgt.Spalding made a quick check of our damage and determined that we could make it back. We did, but it was a wild ride as we had one really huge “beat” as we bounced through the sky. Once back at Dak To, cheering, high fives and lot of smiling faces were the order of the day as the rescued crew ran over to great us. Those smiling happy faces were a joy to see and made all of us feel so proud that we were able to save our fellow Marines, Special Forces CO and the medics. Ron and I spent the rest of the day repairing what damage we could and waited for another two birds from Marble Mountain to arrive with parts to repair our bird and another to replace the lost bird, YH-14.
14 September was going to be the last hope to pull out the Special Forces and the “Yards” who were now surrounded by the enemy. Since my bird was out of commission, I wasn’t assigned to participate in that days extract and was preparing to finish patching our battle damage. Ssgt Sherwood, who was assigned as a gunner to another bird, asked if I would go in his place as he was due to rotate back to the States in a few days. I jumped at the chance and was assigned to the lead bird. I had him pull his guns off and replaced them with mine. I knew that my guns would always work as I took care of them like they were my babies. The HAC for the lead bird was LtCol R.Leisy and Capt Art Picone as the co-pilot. Ssgt Baker was the right gunner and I was on the left. Sgt’s Edmonds and Meng were the other two crewmembers. The weather wasn’t going to give us a break that day but we didn’t have any other options. We had to go as it was the last chance to get the Special Forces out of there. We donned our gas mask and headed towards the LZ. The first LZ was a “no go” due to the large enemy force around that LZ. So we had to wait until the Special Force’s had moved to an alternate LZ. As we approached the LZ and making our descent, I could see some of the troops crouched down waiting for us. LtCol Leisy gave the command that we would be going in “hot” meaning that we were to lay down suppressive fire as we were coming in. We landed and boarded over fifty of the troops. I recall one of the Special Forces team leaders was carrying a framed picture of Ho Chi Minh as his war trophy. While in the LZ we were taking some hits but it didn’t seem to be too bad. Once on board we lifted off and made a power climb out to our right, mowing down some small trees that were in the zone. We sure did bounce around on the way back due to the damage to our main rotor blades. I had two “Yards” crouching down on both sides of me and as I ran out of ammo, they handed me their CAR-15 so that I could still provide some protection. The number two bird came in and reported that he was taking fire but was able to get out okay. The number three bird, with Lt. Don Pershy as the HAC, with crew members Stevens, Snipes and Bell, made their approach and reported that they were taking heavy fire. While in the LZ loading the last of the troops, they lost an engine. They were able to lift off with over 40 troops. A short time after lift off, Lt.Persky made a May Day call, reporting that he had lost the second engine and was going in. Lt. Persky was able to make a successful auto rotation and landed near a ravine and rolled to his right. All personnel made it out and were picked up by the SAR bird, commanded by Lt. A.Aamold. Lcpl. Stevens who was the right gunner had taken a round to his neck and had been treated by the Special Forces medic (Rose) on board the bird prior to the crash and was later airlifted to Pelku were he made a full recovery. After returning to Dak To to drop off the troops, LtCol Leisy and I were able to check out our battle damage to our bird and found out what had caused bumping ride back. We had major damage to all of the main rotor blade tips and some to the tail rotor blade tips. Needless to say we were lucky again that day. A few week’s later, a party invitation came through secret channels, from the CCC Special Forces. They had invited us down for a BBQ with lots; of cold beer to show special thanks for our part in the operation. It was quite a party that I’ll remember for ever. We were made honorary members of the Special Forces, given a Green Beret with their emblem and flash and also a Swiss Army knife. I’ve always been honored to have been able to work with these brave men of “B” Company, 5 th Special Forces and needless to say, my fellow Marines who were magnificent during this mission. I have to say a special thanks to the pilot’s of my aircraft on both days, “thanks for bringing me home safely.” Semper Fi.
SgtMajor Larry Groah, USMC (ret)