Mike Wheeler, WO1 (June 13)

An Loc Personal Account as provided to Mike Sloniker, VHPA Historian, and Pilot with the A/229th by Mike Wheeler

Recount of events that occurred on June 13, 1972

This is what I remember of 13-14 June and the days through June into July at An Loc. Some of this may run together and the dates may not be exactly correct but they are my remembrances.

On June the 13th A/229th and B/229th were tasked to provide two flights each of 5 UH-lH’s to combat assault in to the besieged city of An Loc. A Co flights were Yellow and White and I think B Co flights were Red and Black. I was in Yellow 2 with Chad Richmond. The flight was lead by MAJ Evens and Ron Williams. Scotty McGregor and Lt Wallace were Yellow 3. Yellow 4 started out with CW2 Fegerous the PP don’t recall. You may have replaced Yellow 4 after Fegerous had an overtorque. Jim Paisley was Yellow 5 with Lt Sabo. MAJ Evens was the kind of leader who led from the front and never asked us to do any thing he wouldn’t do himself. In 21 years in the Army I only had the pleasure of serving for one commander who came close to the MAJ Evens’ leadership, that was John Binkley during my last assignment.

The White flight was lead by Willie Neuss and CPT Orahood. White 2 was Josh Dunagan and CPT “Foggy” John Bowers. White 3 was AC’ed by “Little” Joe Layman, Lt Dan Murphy was the AC of White 4. CW2 Bill Vickery was White 5 (which was a very good thing for Josh and crew during their first turn to the LZ).

One evening during this time frame MAJ Evens had come down to the Slums (you remember where we all lived) and gave us an over view of things to come. He didn’t paint a very bright picture.

As you recall it had been since early April since there had been any significant US heliborne assaults into or around An Loc. The VNAF may have been working up there but we hadn’t. In reality I’m not sure how much the VNAF had accomplished because the troops I saw at An Loc from the 13th of June on into July were in very rough shape. Their clothing was tattered and they didn’t appear to be very well nourished. Of course Blue Max and F/9th had been engaged on a regular basis in and around the area of An Loc as well as had D/229th. The gun drivers had been dying up there all spring.

As with all things military we got an early start, we lifted at first light for Lai Khe as the sun came up. Once we all were assembled at Lai Khe there was a briefing. (The briefing wasn’t much by the comparison to how we did things at the end of my career twenty years later.) Although I don’t remember exactly what was briefed, more than likely we were given frequencies for gun cover, C&C, Medivac and such. We were given landing zone information as well as numbers of troops to be moved. Even though I’m not a math wizard I suspect I did some mental math trying to figure out how many turns we each would have to make. The one thing I do recall distinctly was our being told the trip was a “one way trip” with the exception of US forces. We were to bring out no ARVN, wounded or otherwise. The reference to US troops was to the advisors, it was hoped some might still be working their way out of Loc Ninh after it had fallen in April.

The LZ was to be south of the city of An Loc along the road QL13. The LZ was marked by a burned out Soviet T-54/55 tank. Adjustments would be made throughout the exercise as the threat dictated.

There were to be VNAF lift ships involved in the CA, it was after all their war. I think I once provided you with a Newsweek clipping where one of us complained to the press about us carrying the load while the VNAF crews slept and lounged around their aircraft.

In any case the VNAF either refused to follow the briefing or didn’t comprehend what was intended but from that day forward they seemed to fly up and down QL13 without regards for avoiding the “bad” areas. On more than one occasion we would be approaching the LZ only to have the guns advise us there were VNAF unexpectedly on final to the LZ.

I’m sure I’m wrong but it sure seemed the VNAF only made two trips a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon. Rumor was they said it was too rough up there. Had they followed the routes we took and taken advantage of the gun cover provided by Max they would have had a better time of it.

But I digress.

Yellow flight was to conduct the first lift into the LZ. We took off from Lie Khe and headed out to the east and north at our standard altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 AGL or so. After a while we were “saddled” by our gun cover “Blue Max”. In the vicinity of Chon Thanh we started down out of altitude and headed towards the road, QL13, low level. As we headed towards the road the C&C ship started to provide guidance as to being on course and the status of the LZ.

Once on the road we were low level, a mode of flight that other than sniffer missions we never operated at. Soon after we headed up the road we over flew a large group of civilians. About the same time we may have taken some small arms fire. There was talk at the time that we didn’t take fire but the NVA was shooting the civilians. I really don’t know the validity of those comments.

On this, the first turn, we had a very easy time. We set up our approach for a landing to a burned out T54/55 tank. Needless to say we didn’t linger long in the LZ. We departed to the north a short distance and headed out to the south and east being led by Max. These guys were something else. We had awakened the NVA and they, Max, took the shit for us.

Max would take a burst of fire and tell us to turn left or right or to stay away from a particular location. Even though Josh was nailed and shot down when the next flight came out of the LZ, I will go to my grave knowing I lived beyond the age of 20 because of the valor of some gun drivers who didn’t know me.

As a side note, later when we were relaxing back at the “house” sharing adult beverages Dan Murphy told about seeing a group of little people in the open on one trip out. He said he waved at them and they shot at him. He guessed they might have been NVA, I think he was right.

While we were being led out by the area by Max the White flight was on their way inbound to the LZ. Our exit took longer than planned so the link up between Max and the White flight was later and closer to the LZ so they didn’t get the protection they needed. While we returned to Lai Khe we could hear the White flight get their asses kicked. It wasn’t too long after White flight departed the LZ when we heard Josh make his call that he was down in the LZ (as we know this was a mis-statement made in the heat of the moment, he was southeast of the LZ).

We have previously talked about Vickery and his Silver Star for 8 April at Nui Ba Dinh, I don’t know if Vic was presented with any kind of award for his actions on 13 June but he should have been. When Josh went down Vic and his crew, apparently without hesitation, followed him down. Josh and crew weren’t on the ground long enough for anyone to hardly notice. If you listen to the tape Chad Richmond made on that day you can hear Josh make his call and less than a minute later Vic call clear of the area with the downed crew on board.

If Vic hadn’t taken the action he did I firmly believe Josh, Foggy John, the Crew Chief and Gunner all would have been killed or taken as POW’s. I present as evidence the fact the Browns were put in to the site and nearly immediately pulled out and the aircraft destroyed because the area was so hot. In the previously mentioned tape you can hear Vic describe the situation on the ground.

Now that the NVA were awake we had to continually make adjustments to the LZ, move it up or down the road, due to artillery and mortar fire. It wasn’t uncommon to have Max make adjustments while we were on final. On one occasion we had a round go off fairly close to us (or at least it was close in my mind!), close enough to spray dirt in my face through the open pilot door window. No one was injured and the aircraft wasn’t damaged.

After the second or third turn to the LZ one of the Max drivers, Ron Tusi I think, suggested that we climb above the broken to overcast clouds and spiral down through the clouds into the LZ. This worked pretty well and ended up being the preferred method for all the subsequent trips I made to An Loc.

During the spiral two guns would lead us down and one stayed high to provide the whole shooting match cover. This worked very well as it got us out of range of all but the 23 mm and the occasional 37 mm fire. The abandoned airstrip at Quan Loi had a .51 cal and or a 23 mm set up on it and it would take pot shots at us but to my memory no one was ever tagged by it. The SA-7 of course remained a threat. I will always be amazed that we didn’t loose any Slicks to the missile. But there can be no doubt it was a significant threat to us, just look at the number of gun pilots we lost to the damn thing.

We really came to rely up the clouds for cover during our approach at altitude. The NVA would fire larger caliber stuff into the clouds in an attempt to hit us. If I recall right we would speed up or slow down while above the clouds in an attempt to confuse them. I never recall anyone getting hit while up there.

After we started the high overhead approach into LZ we would climb out straight down the road and get as much as altitude as possible. Even today as I fly more modern aircraft with all types of electronic gadgets I still think the UH-1 was one of the finest aircraft ever built, but I swear to God the damn thing could never climb fast enough out of An Loc!

As a side note the spiral approach caused us to push the aircraft to the limit. I know we were at or beyond Vne (max speed for the aircraft) on many occasions. Years later I experimented with various ways to get out of altitude and found we could have gotten out of altitude faster by taking out nearly all the power and slowing the aircraft down much like a power on autorotation. She would have fallen in excess of 2,000 feet per minute and we could have stayed over a smaller area.

I don’t recall if it was on 13 & 14th that we started to get swamped by the ARVN trying to get out of An Loc or if it was later in the month and into July. But there came a point in time when we were just swamped with them. This of course didn’t help the climb performance.

On all turns through out this time the ARVN were reluctant to get off the aircraft in the LZ, and hell can you blame them? I don’t recall the names of the crewchief and gunner at present but I do recall them helping the little guys off the aircraft with a lot of vigor, maybe a bit more vigor then necessary. But these same guys could show a lot of compassion. One day while on short final a mortar or artillery round went off as we were on short final to the LZ. Well this round impacted near a group of ARVN and after we offloaded our troops a wounded ARVN was thrown on the aircraft. Once we had cleared the area I looked back to see either the gunner or crew chief cradling this dying ARVN in his lap. He didn’t live. It was quite a dichotomy.

As the summer dragged on we broke into flights of two. I don’t really know why but I think it may have been easier for the guns to cover us or maybe we made less of a target for the NVA to shoot at. I guess it wasn’t worthwhile to shoot a couple of aircraft unlike a whole gaggle them.

After Max got sent up north to the Quang Tri area we got our gun cover from F/9 Cav and D/229th. They were good but they weren’t Blue Max. Around this same time we would let ourselves down from altitude while the guns circled the city and suppressed any fire.

Later in June or July when the situation around AN Loc had improved we continued to take in fresh troops and we began to haul out those that had survived the siege of An Loc. They were a pitiful lot. Their cloths were in tatters and most didn’t have their weapons. They would continue to swamp the aircraft in an attempt to get out. There were times when they would hang on the skids only to fall off. Soon after I made AC I came out of An Loc with 12 ARVN in the back of the aircraft. They didn’t weigh much so it wasn’t that great of a load.

I think I followed Murphy one day after I had made AC during the two ship days and we couldn’t find a hole to get down through. When we did it was north of where we should have been and as you recall that wasn’t the place to be. On another day I was following someone, it may have been Dan again, and we ran into some bad weather during our egress. We went out east before turning south and west in hopes of finding the road again. Once again it wasn’t a good place to be. I never was much of a navigator and I do recall be scared somewhat.

I made trips to An Loc upon till a few days before we started turning in our aircraft to stand the company down to bring it home. I know in the book Trial By Fire the author claims the siege at An Loc was broken sometime in May. But I’ve got news for the guy. The siege may have been broken but even on my last trip, some time in July, we were getting shot at and not a little bit either. I sure had the feeling it wasn’t all that secure. One of my last memories of An Loc is climbing out heading south down QL 13 and have a sting of .51 sail past my nose from behind the aircraft. Sure seemed like the contest was still on to me. In fact a US General visited An Loc along with some other VIP’s to demonstrate how secure it was. The General (Tallman I think) came out on a 326 Med ship after having been wounded by an artillery or mortar round. As I understand it he was the last US General to die in Viet Nam. As a side note I think his son was a senior at West Point when his dad was killed.

We did pretty well in a difficult time and place for a group of 20 year olds. Coming down form the 101st into an already established company was hard. I really never got to know some of the A Company guys as one would have had he been assigned for the full tour with them. But I can’t imagine doing what we did with any other group of guys. I trusted them. I knew if I got into trouble they would have done everything to help me and I would like to think they could have expected the same from me. They were a hell of a bunch. I’m glad I knew them.

34 years later Mike Wheeler is still helping people out flying helicopters. He is an instructor pilot as well as a Check Airman.