As remembered by Cpl. Dale A. Riley
I was the crew chief of ET-13 BuNo 154021 with HMM-262, Provisional MAG-39, 1st MAW based at Quang Tri, RVN. My pilot that day was the squadron executive officer, Maj. Leo Ihli, with whom I had flown many times before. He was a very professional, competent, squared-away “old corps” Marine–always business but also pleasant.
The co-pilot was only two weeks in-country, someone I hadn’t met before. I heard some of the pilots comment on how young he looked, with the brightest blond hair wigs any Viet Cong had ever seen, Lt. Steve Bravard.
I’m afraid I have forgotten the names of the gunners. One was a young kid that I didn’t really know. The other was TAD from crash-crew who had flown with me most of April. He said he checked a couple of us out for a few days and then requested assignment to my crew. I’m glad he did. (He came to see me once in the fall of 1969 at HMM-365, MCAF New River as he oriented some of his young guys to the CH-46. I told them to pay close attention to their Sgt. as he had what it takes for that duty.)
Five of us lifted off for a long, routine day of external loads out of Vandergrift combat base on re-supply missions. I believe we were done and released to head back to Quang Tri when the call came in, “emergency recon extract” for a team heavily engaged NEAR the Laotian border.
As Maj. Ihli headed for the recon team the sky opened with torrential rain. I can still feel the sting on my face as I hung half out of the starboard side trying to locate them and pick a spot to touch down. The ridge appeared as the knuckles of your hand with fingers extended. We landed on the middle finger.
We touched down and I got the team on. Just as I keyed the mike “ramp clear – straight up”—BOOM. There was a blinding flash of light and I was bouncing off the bulkhead and the deck. Over and over we tumbled. I remember my thought –“poor Mom”, another telegram like my brother (PFC Neil E. Riley KIA 13Sept66)
Suddenly we stopped! The aircraft was lying on its starboard side with the nose uphill. The ramp was still half open and hung over a steep drop-off. As I got the recon team out they just disappeared one by one down that chute through the vegetation. I was losing my footing and knew I had to get out but I also had to get to the cockpit. I spotted a log lying on the hill and jumped to get my feet above it so I could climb. After landing, I clawed the wet, slippery hill on all fours trying to get above the helicopter. I was clawing like a dog on the kitchen floor trying to get traction as I listened to the engines whine and as fuel from the stubby wing vent splashed on me.
I reached the forward rotor head and, as I stood, a head popped up from the cockpit–the crash crew gunner. I climbed up on the nose. The port side of the cockpit was gone, the co-pilot seat was gone, and the co-pilot was gone! The gunner helped Maj. Ihli unstrap and stand up as he was laying on his right side. He pushed and I pulled and Maj. Ihli was out. Being trained as crash crew, he took one more look back into the cabin to make sure it was empty.
I mentioned the fuel and hot engines and said that we should get away some. We moved out from the nose and slid into a muddy, puddled, bomb crater as a big rat scrambled out over the other side. I mention it only because it is one of those things that stick in your head forever. My helmet was cracked in half and I realized it was digging into me. I took off the helmet and dropped it in the bomb crater. I believe it is still there.
Our wingmen, Lt. Terry Ewing and Lt. John Parham, hovered over us and down came a horse collar. I got the gunner into the harness and gave a thumbs-up. I told Maj. Ihli he was next and I was going up the hill to find the co-pilot, Lt. Bravard. I took out my .38 and tried to climb out of that muddy hole. Just as I reached the top, my hand and gun sunk into the mud. I cursed loudly but the sound that got my attention was that of the wingman spiraling off to the next hill.
Maj. Ihli was on the radio. I got about ten yards when off to my left I saw our co-pilot slide down the hill out of sight heading for the same place that our wingman went down. I went back to the crater and told Maj. Ihli what I saw. Then we followed that route ourselves. All the while a Huey, from VMO-6 I believe, was covering the ridge above us. And I do mean covering. We caught up to Lt. Bravard just as we reached the wingman. He was moving out pretty well for a man with a broken leg and busted up jaw. Soon the recon team and second gunner joined us.
I checked with the crew chief of Lt. Ewing’s damaged aircraft and tried to determine if we could isolate the hydraulics, take down a tree, check the blades, or get the app going and a hundred other things to get the hell out of there. Unfortunately, NO.
The Officers were on the radios and bringing in air cover. I remember looking for someplace large enough for a 46 to land but couldn’t see how one would clear anywhere.
I remember thinking to myself as I tried to clean the mud out of my .38 to stay close to those recon grunts since they know what they’re doing here in the mud. Then I realized that they had lost most of their weapons in my plane. We checked out the .50s and ammo as the last light faded.
I didn’t know how much time had passed, but all of a sudden the radio crackled. It sounded something like “can’t pick you out – can you signal?” I raced up the ramp to the crewbox by the port gun where a couple of Mae West hung and grabbed a strobe light. Over the years you are in and out and up and down that aircraft so many times you swear you can do it in the dark. Well I could. Out and up I went. As I stood up on the aft pylon holding a bright piercing strobe above my head, the thought hit me that this wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but “there I was.”
A searchlight came on, circled for a minute and dropped into a spot I didn’t think possible. With everything that had happened and all the hours that had passed this was my moment of panic. I cannot say how far it was; I just remember the thick brush and running into the grunts. As I reached the red lit ramp, there stood Tim Pyle. I believe I would have run straight through the cabin and out the front windscreen if he hadn’t grabbed me and said to help him with a count so we didn’t leave anybody.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Lt. Robin J. Tomlin, the pilot. I never really got to thank Tim Pyle, he was gone a week later in a mid-air.
Lt. Tomlin lifted off and I tried to move forward. The squadron flight surgeon, LtCrd.
Gordon Kellog (previously a marine infantry officer) was on board and working valiantly on a young recon marine and wouldn’t give up.
We landed at the med station at Quang Tri. I tried to stay on board because I was fine and just wanted to get back to the squadron flight-line, check-out and back to hooch 7 and my rack. Well the next thing I know I’m sitting on a table with a corpsman poking all around as I’m telling him I’m okay. All of a sudden he’s cutting up the leg of my flight suit, and I hollered “Hey, that burns” as he was swabbing my leg. I looked up and standing in front of me, I believe, was the CO of PMAG 39, Colonel Edward A Parnell offering me a smoke. I took it and held it to my lips but the flame was dancing wildly all over the place. I didn’t realize it was me shaking until the Colonel grabbed my hand and steadied it for his zippo.
Then it hit me, maybe I wasn’t fine.
I don’t remember a lot of “writing up” during my time at HMM-262, but a couple days later I was asked by an officer what happened and if anyone stuck out in my mind. I replied to the cool head and command of Maj. Ihli, the instincts and actions of the gunner from crash crew and Tim Pyle getting his helicopter into the bush. Sorry Lt. Tomlin. I hope someone did write up those people for recognition. They have my gratitude.
I have tried to be accurate with the names, but if I messed up let me know and accept my Gomen Nasai.