Mike Wheeler, WO1 (April 8)

Recount of A Co, 229th AHB, 3rd Bde (Sep), 1st Cav Div, 8 April 1972, Nui Ba Den

On 8 April 1972, Yellow Flight (5 UH-lHs) of A Co 229th AHB started the day doing combat assault operations with ARVN (Ruff Puff s) in the vicinity of Xuan Loc, III Corps RVN. I was peter pilot (co-pilot) of yellow 4 (chock 4). CW2 Kirkpatrick was the A/C (aircraft commander).

After an uneventful morning of playing with the ARVN, Yellow Flight returned to Lassiter Pad, Bien Hoa for lunch. Soon after lunch the flight was alerted to a mission near Tay Ninh. We were told we might need gas masks. I remember looking at Kirkpatrick and commenting that this sounded like a formal affair, chicken plates (body armor) and .38s. I also remember this being the last time anyone in A Co picked on me about wearing a chicken plate. I think Gary Mallernee (my roommate, as second tour aviator who had been in country only a short period of time) and I were the only pilots in the flight to have or be wearing chicken plates. I gave Gary my survival pack, the type you strapped to your leg and the belt to hold it on. (After he got shot later that day I somehow recovered the belt and I still wear it today.) I think the lack of chicken plate use might reflect the false sense of security A Co may have fallen into. Other then an isolated shot here and there it had to have been a while since anyone in A Co had taken any serious fire. That sure changed on 8 April.

When we arrived at Tay Ninh I think we may have shut down for a mission briefing and then loaded up the ARVN to start the CA to Nui Ba Den. The LZ was to be the old 25th Division helipad, a single ship LZ (I still remember the electric strawberry patch painted on the pad). A single ship LZ was odd for a flight of our aircraft in III Corps, those of us who had come down from the 101st Airborne in I Corps were used to doing combat assists to single ship LZs. As usual we were saddled with a pair of guns (AH-IGs). I don’t recall where the guns came from but would guess they were from F/79th ARA (Blue Max) as Blue Max usually provided our gun cover and God how they could shoot!

Off we went as a flight. We picked up single ship spacing as we climbed to altitude. I can still to this day remember sitting the cockpit of that “H” model waiting for our turn into the LZ while listening to the guys in front of you get shot at and shot up. I don’t recall being scared (some might recall it differently) but I do recall thinking this wasn’t going to be the usual A Co combat assault.

It was real hectic with calls of taking fire from this direction or that direction. Well, our turn came and in we went. I remember yelling to the door gunner on the right side of the aircraft to shoot some bastard who was sighting down the barrel of his gun from a piece of overturned equipment. The gunner was busy off to the right rear of the aircraft and didn’t shoot up my way at the “target” I wanted him to shoot. Either the little guy pointing the gun was a poor shot or an ARVN, if it was the latter I guess it was for the best the gunner didn’t shoot him.

As I recall the NVA (and they were NVA) had the top of the hill including the compound and portions of the area below the LZ. So not only were we shot at from below and the side as we approached but from above as well. As we lifted off the LZ, CW2 Bill Vickery (A Co Standardization Instructor Pilot, and 2nd tour pilot), and Gary Mallernee (my roommate, and second tour pilot) began their approach. I don’t know if they were on the ground or on short final but Gary got shot in the right elbow. I clearly recall the radio call reporting the problem. (When I went to the hospital to see Gary he kept remarking that “Vic” attempted to keep him occupied on the return trip to the airstrip by having him do before landing checks and so forth.) Gary’s elbow wound was made worse by the round having passed through the rubber “bumper” on the edge of the sliding seat armor. The round tumbled as it exited the rubber and entered his arm; it then exited his arm and traced the inside curve of his chest armor.

After we returned to the strip we all shut down. As they got Gary ready to load on the DUSTOFF I recall a bit of a commotion over who was going to get his chicken plate. As a side note he told me that when they x-rayed him they thought the round was floating in his chest. As they were prepping him for surgery and cut his tee shirt off the round fell on the floor.

After we all settled down from the first turn, we were all looking the aircraft over for damage. Maj Robert Evens, CO of A Co was pointing out this and that hole in his aircraft including one in the tailrotor driveshaft and another in one of the latches of the right side engine cowling. Had the energy not been absorbed by the latch that round may have entered the engine. All of the aircraft were damaged except ours. This fact is a wonder it’s self.

While we were milling around a General arrived on scene (I think it was the III Corps Commander LTG Hollingsworth). He asked us if it had been rough up there, and as you might imagine he got a fairly positive response from us. Well he told us he was going to take care of it for us before we went back up as he had some tac air enroute with napalm and other stuff.

While we waited for the tac air we also waited for a replacement for at least one aircraft. I don’t know if we replaced Vic’s aircraft of Maj Evens’ aircraft, but I know we replaced at least one of the original five aircraft.

Well the tac air came in and did its thing and we got our spares so off we went again. It was just a repeat of the first turn into the LZ. You sat there and waited for your turn while the guys in front of you took a licking and got shot at and shot up. The tac air had been delivered near the bottom of the hill not around the mid-section where the little guys were. I don’t know exactly how many turns we all made that day but it had to have been 5 or 6 each. However many we made, we in Yellow 4 made one extra turn.

I don’t recall exactly what it was we were asked to do, take up some ammo or other supplies, bring down dead or wounded, I just don’t recall. Any way Kirkpatrick and I looked at each other and because we hadn’t been hit (the only ones not hit) he and I volunteered to do the last turn (I don’t know if we consulted the crew chief and gunner but they of course went along as well!). About this time, the intercom between Kirkpatrick and I went out. He motioned for me to take the controls and off we went. It was getting dark and the LZ was somewhat more peaceful than it had been on the earlier turns. While we sat in the LZ loading or being unloaded (and you can bet this didn’t take long!) the gun cover called us and told us to come out some other way than the way we and everyone else had been doing in the past. I picked the aircraft up and did a left 90 degree pedal turn and pushed over the edge of the hill. There were little people all over the area and the guns had a field day with them.

A day or two later we had an awards ceremony where BG Hamlet (3rd Bde (Sep), 1st Air Cav, Commander passed out the Silver Star to Bill Vickery (Maj Evens’ choice), DFCs to the aircraft commanders and Air Medals with V for Valor to the rest of us.