Casper Aviation Platoon Story
Casper 721 is Down
By Cliff White
Copyright © 1998
December 11, 1968 began early with a flight from LZ English to LZ Uplift where we were to fly Command and Control for the Battalion Commander 1/503, 173rd ABN. CW2 Walton Henderson (Sugar Bear) was the aircraft Commander and myself, 1st Lt. Clifford White, with only three months in country was flying PP. Neither one of us were supposed to be flying this mission, however Walt lost a coin toss, and I wanted more stick time than I had been getting. Walt was one of those AC’s that was good to fly with, he would give you all the stick time he could, and try to teach you something in the process. The Crew Chief was SP5 Ned Costa and the Door Gunner was SP4 John Steen, and Casper 67-17721 was a new ship with a little over 200 hours. We were members of Casper flight platoon HHC 173rd Abn. Brigade Sep.
At the briefing we received specific flight routes and altitudes to avoid artillery firing from English, An Khe, LZ Uplift, & LZ Fox. Elements of the 1/503rd were to be inserted by the 61st AHC about 20K Northeast of An Khe Pass at the north end of “Happy Valley”. This area was known to be an enemy strong hold. At the briefing no one had said any thing about weapons. Since Walt had not flown in the area for the preceding three months, he asked if there was any 51’s or heavier anti-air craft in the area. We were advised that there were no heavy weapons in this area, and that was the reason that the Battalion was being lifted into this end of the valley. We were shot down later that morning, and Walt was trapped for over seven hours before being freed. He spent 2 and 1/2 years in the hospital prior to returning to flight status. I only spent 3 months at Camp Zama in Japan returning to active duty with the 29th Infantry in Hawaii, and to Viet Nam in 1971 with the 61st AHC. The crew chief and the door gunner returned to Casper after a month at the Evac. hospital in Qui Nhon.
For 30 years some pieces of what happened that day have been unclear to both Walt and myself. Because of the seriousness of the injuries neither of us were able to be debriefed or talk with each other. We finally found each other at the 1998 Viet Nam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) reunion in Ft. Worth. Walt had been to the reunion several times prior, but this was my first. I did not know there were reunions happening and only found out on the Internet.
What follows is from what both of us are able to remember, and from what others that were there have told us.
Our first mission was to lift a 4.2 mortar crew to a mountaintop over looking the AO. This went without any problems. The only interesting point was that on the first lift while on short final to the top of a mountain that looked like no man had ever been there the grass parted and the LZ was leveled with sandbags and a large 1st Cav. patch painted in the middle. We were surprised and disappointed that we weren't first.
After the mortar crew was in place we returned to LZ Uplift, refueled and picked up the Battalion Commander 1/503., the Artillery FO, and the radio operator and five PRC 25’s. At 10 hundred hours we were back in the AO. The Colonel asked us to over fly the LZ so they could get a look. The low cloud cover and flight restrictions, due to the different gun target lines, kept us below 1500 ft., which was causing Walt a great deal of concern. On the first pass the LZ was on the Colonel's side and he wanted a second pass so the FO could see the LZ. On the second pass I was flying and Walt was turned talking to the Colonel trying to convince him our repeated action was not the best plan, and that a third pass the Colonel wanted to make was not going to happen. Walt had been varying our flight path as much as he could and varied our altitude as much as possible to make it difficult for any NVA gunners who might be tracking us. As we crossed the LZ the second time the mortar crew advised the FO they were ready to fire. Walt turned to take the aircraft, all discussion was over we had to get clear. During the time when Walt was talking to the Colonel and I was looking down at the LZ neither one of us was looking forward and never saw the initial shell burst. As Walt turned to take the controls and I looked up from tracking the LZ we both saw the long smoke immediately at our twelve o’clock and slightly higher. From our prospective it looked like a large bird with his wings outstretched riding the updraft, about the size of the turkey vultures we saw in Texas. At the reunion in Ft. Worth Walt said that at that moment he was real upset at me for flying us into the bird’s flight path. Walt took the controls and started an evasive maneuver down and to the left.
I remember watching what we still thought was a large bird as we went under it, and feeling like crap for making a FNG mistake, and putting us in jeopardy. Not a second later there was a series of loud bangs, the Huey acted like a truck with no springs going over several speed bumps at high speed. We began flying out of trim with the nose about ten degrees to the right and the helicopter rolled about fifteen to twenty degrees to the left. At this point a lot happened and it all happened at the same time. The FO was yelling cease-fire; so I shut off the FM and his added noise. We already knew the obvious but the crew chief yelled in the intercom that we had lost the tail rotor.
Walt said we were going in and he needed the coordinates, I looked at the map but was too excited to quickly find our exact location, in the same moment Walt asked me to get on the controls with him. He then put out the first mayday call that we had a bird strike and Casper 721 was going down. I said something I had remembered from one of my flight instructors, “that as long as we were still flying try to keep it flying.” More a prayer than anything of substance. There was a Special Forces base about 10k to our Southwest and Walt said he was going to try to make it there. The Huey was so out of trim that we had to look through the green house (above the pilots are two green colored windows) to see where we were going. A Huey is real hard to fly when she wants to roll over. Walt remembers me reading the instruments to him, repeating the air speed; we had to stay above 70 Knots. Walt was trying to nurse the aircraft through a turn that would head us back down the valley and down to the treetops. All this happened in only seconds, but it seemed like minutes.
As we passed through 1000 ft. Walt remembers a bright flash but no noise, I never saw the flash and only remember a loud explosion. Before the sound of the explosion had gone the Huey began a violent spin. I could not discern the sky from the ground, and don't know how many times we went around. I remember both of us rolling the throttle off so hard it broke the idle stop switch. We came out of the spin nose down.
Walt began a series of mayday calls, and both of us were going through shut down, fuel and battery. Walt says he remembers looking for the best place in the trees to crash, and planning a controlled autorotation, however all I remember is a very rapid descent to the top of the trees. Both of us remember that the mountains were behind us and our autorotation was down slope, and not back into the mountain. Both of us were on the controls, I was following every move Walt made, the Huey was not responding, there was little if any cyclic control. The loud noise had been a round taking out our controls; the bright flash Walt saw was a flak round exploding somewhere to his left front … close enough to be “the one you don’t hear is the one that gets you”. Walt told me the doctors removed parts of a fuse of a 37-mm anti-aircraft from his leg. There had never been a large bird. Both of us remember full aft cyclic and no flair, tried twice and still no flair. We pulled all the collective there was with no response. The air speed and rate of descent when we hit the trees was 70 knots, and 700 ft. /m. We ran out of air before reaching the valley floor, and the last thing Walt and I remember was hitting the top of a large dead tree head on.
When I came to after the crash I could hear the engine winding down, and reached for the fuel switch only to find some grass and dirt, everything was gone. The nose from in front of the pilot’s seats to the green house was gone and there was a strong smell of fuel. We were standing on our nose on a very steep slope, I was down slope and Walt was up slope. I found a small hole and with fuel running down my back was motivated to crawl out. Walt was pinned in the ground with the ship on his back. The door gunner was pinned in his seat by a 6” dia. branch pushing against his “chicken plate”, which that morning Walt had to order him wear. The crew chief had freed himself and between the two of us we freed the door gunner.
The door gunner didn’t appear to have any other injuries, but later found several wounds and had a very sore chest. The crew chief said he thought he had a broken leg, plus had the carbon steel core of a armored piercing round in his arm, which he took out. My first indication that we had taken fire. Only later did Ned realize that he had been hit several times and had several other injuries from the crash. I crawled back into the Huey looking for Walt, there was not a lot of room, the green house was caved in to the top of the seats, the transmission had broken loose and had come forward. The toolbox, a case of “C’s”, & the Col.’s radios were on top of the back of Walt’s seat. After clearing this mess I still hadn’t found Walt when I heard him say to get the ---- off his back. I could only see part of his face, and was able to clear the dirt, and grass from his mouth, but other than that there was nothing I could do. I tried to use the little 12” cutting tool with rings on each end, which was worthless against metal. Ned joined me and the both of us could not move the seat. (The front seats are armored plated and weight 400lbs.) The Col. was trapped with his leg under the left side of the Huey, his shoulder was dislocated, and he was covered in fuel. He was in a great deal of pain and would not let anyone approach him. The radio operator was unconscious with serious face and head injuries. I found the Artillery Lt. about 25 ft. from the crash site wrapped in branches with only his eyes visible, however he was conscious. It appeared that he had left the Huey prior to it coming through the trees. My left knee was severely damaged, and my right leg had several cuts and holes. Everyone was alive.
I couldn’t do anything more to help the injured and began to look for weapons, the SOI and the operations Map. I think they taught this either at Inf. Basic or flight school, however all I can remember is I felt I had to do something. The crew chief had pulled the pins and kicked his M-60 and ammo over prior to hitting the trees. I remember being really upset at him for getting rid of the M-60. But when I talked to Ned this summer he explained this was what he had been taught at school and in hind sight the mount and the M-60 would of pinned him in the ship and probably killed him. The door gunner’s M-60 and M-16’ were broken. I could not get to the Col.’s Car-15, he wasn’t letting anyone near him. That left a couple of 45’s, and an M-16. The SOI and survival radio was buried under Walt in the pocket of his “chicken plate” and the map was next to the Col. I recovered the map and before burying it I had a good look at it. There were several “hot spots” marked on the map that were heavy gun emplacements. The ones that we were told weren't there. Later it was confirmed we had crashed in the middle of an NVA Regiment. With a 37mm and three 51 emplacements set up in a triangle they had to be protecting something big. We later found out it was a Division size hospital dug into the mountains. It was still there in 71 when I returned to the same AO.
I tried to find a radio that would work. All the Col.’s PRC 25’s were broken except one and with that only the headset was working. The frequency was set to the mortar crew, and as I listened I could only hear one side of the conversation, so I don’t know whom they were talking to, but they were telling them that there were no survivors.
Photo of Casper 721 laying on it's left side after sliding down the mountain. The tailboom was broken in half, the rotorblades and landing skids were ripped off.
Casper Crew Chief SP5 Ned Costa standing next to his ship in Nha Trang. This photo was taken just a few days before the crash.
We carried a case of smoke and I passed a smoke to each of the crew and asked them to throw a smoke in different directions, and far enough from the helicopter so as not to ignite the fuel. The smokes were thrown at the same time hoping the four duce crew would know more than one person was alive. We proceeded to set up what security we could, Ned said there were rounds being fired at us so he had us huddle next to a large tree. I don’t remember any of that, how much time passed, or much else for a while. Ned told me the smoke stayed in the trees and he heard rocket fire and AK-47’s. I was told that one of the Casper ships was the first to find us and had hovered over us and seen us moving around, but I don’t remember that. They started drawing fire from the ground below them and from the same positions that had hit us and took too many hits to stay. This year I found out that was CW2 Larry Kahila.
I remember the next thing that happened had surprised me. A Huey was hovering at tree top level trying to find a way down to us. There was an old bomb crater about 50 feet down slope from us and the Huey had to cut its way through the tree limbs. You can’t imagine the racket that makes until you are underneath trying not to get hit by flying limbs. With no radio it was important to get someone on the Huey and tell them we needed equipment to free Walt. I told the door gunner to get in the Huey. He said he couldn’t, and the Crew chief was in bad shape and didn’t think he could make it. The Huey seemed to be hovering forever, all the time cutting branches. They must of thought we were nuts because on one was moving to get in the ship. The crew chief was waving for us to get in, and with what appeared to be no other choice I went. The Huey could not get down and I had to crawl out on a tree that laid across the crater, the crew chief hooked his seat belts together making a rope so I could climb up and get to the skids. As I got to the skids our crew chief joined me. Ned told me later that the ship had taken small arms hits the whole time he was hovering waiting for us, plus hits from the 51’s on the way in and out.
I always thought the slick was from the 1st Cav. However this year I found out it was a Ghostrider and the gun ships were Avengers. This year we located the pilot of that ship. He was CW2 Donald Wittke, with the 189th Ghostriders. On the way to Phu Cat I told him we needed cutting tools and a fireman to get the pilot out. He made the radio call starting the Air Force response. Mr. Wittke told me he had been crossing An Khe Pass and, heard the mayday, knew the area, so came to see if he could be of some help. He heard a mayday call about a bird strike, I am sure the green tracers he ran into really surprised him.
The mortar crew on the mountain watched as we went in, made their own radio calls for assistance. Their reports were how I learned that we were spinning vertical (tail up and nose down), and that after we hit the trees we cart wheeled over the top of the trees till we slowed down enough to go into the trees. The 61st slicks and guns were 10 minutes behind us with the first lift, and were able to get troops on the ground to provide security, and get the other wounded out leaving only Walt. We have heard a couple of different versions of who the troops were and how they were brought in. If anyone can help on this please contact us.
Walt found out later that the Casper ship flown by CWO Larry Kahila was setting on the Crap table at LZ English waiting for a Col. and some Red Cross (“Donut Dollies”) ladies and heard the 1st mayday call. Larry had an Artillery Lt. and a Major already on board waiting for the Col. and the “Donut Dollies”. The Major would not get out of the Huey, saying it was the Col.’s helicopter. Obviously he did not understand the urgency of the situation and possibly did not hear Larry when he told him there was an aircraft down, and to get out. In the excitement of the moment the crew chief grabbed the Major and tossed him out of the Huey into the arms of the Col. just as the Huey came to a hover and departed. This misunderstanding must have been cleared up later. The Artillery Lt. (a friend of Walt’s) stayed on board. Larry knew the mission and the general area where we were. He flew into the valley from the West expecting to find us on the lower valley floor. He found our crash site by parts of the rotor blades on top of the trees. We were on the North side of the valley on a 60-degree slope in 150ft. trees. As Larry hovered over the crash site the Artillery Lt. said he saw three survivors. Larry couldn't see any way to get into us plus the longer he hovered the more hits he was taking. One of the 51's was above him shooting down through his rotor blades, and the others were shooting from across the valley. He was receiving small arms fire from beneath and not far from where the crash site was. Larry said he felt the pedals go stiff and had to leave or join us. He called LZ Uplift and told them there were survivors, changing a recovery operation to a rescue operation.
Some time during the rescue operation “Red Baron” took over the Command & Control of the rescue operation.
I registered with the Society of the 173rd Abn Association on the Internet. An engine maintenance Tech. Specialist who was with Casper in 1968 found me and filled in more of the information. He said that Casper operations hearing one of their ships was down and that a pilot was trapped sent an additional ship with the Flight Surgeon, himself, and another crew chief to the crash site. They could not find a place to land near the crash site so the pilot dropped them off in a bamboo thicket at the bottom of the hill leaving the three of them to find their way up the slope. He said they used a visible trail, and when stopping to rest could hear all sorts of movement in the jungle. He doesn’t know why they weren’t hit. At the crash site they found the 173rd had already secured the crash site and everyone except Mr. Henderson had been evacuated. They tried to get him free, but did not have the right equipment. The doctor gave Walt shots of Morphine, but could not get any closer to his wounds to help. It was getting dark and the flight surgeon said they couldn’t stay and to get Walt out they were going to amputate his legs. The timing is not clear here, if the Air Force recovery was there or had just returned but an Air Force Sergeant with the required cutting tools went to work and in a matter of minutes had freed Walt, and had him in a stretcher. He and the others were lifted into the Pedro and flown directly to Qui Nhon. (A note needs to be added here.) It was strongly recommended to the flight surgeon by Gen. Allen commanding 173rd ABN that he should not come in after Walt. The flight surgeon not only knew and was a friend to all the pilots and crews, but had the integrity to stand by his own decision to do what at the time he knew had to be done.
The “Stars and Stripes” had an article on their front page saying the Air Force was calling this the largest air rescue operation of the war. (We were before Bat 21.) According to the Air Force three Pedro helicopters rigged for rescue of down crews were dispatched from Phu Cat air base. They were turned back by heavy antiaircraft fire, with two Pedros' being damaged and returning to Phu Cat. F-100’s were sent out from Phu Cat, and along with Army gun ships suppressed the fire so the Pedros' were able to get to the downed crew. The “Stars & Strips” credited an Air Force Tech. Specialist who repelled in with cutting tools designed to cut out trapped aircrew, for freeing Walt. My E-mail communication with the Tech. Specialist from Casper who came in to help confirms everything the paper said about the Air Force Sergeant. This summer I also found out from Larry Kahila that the pilot from the first Pedro that was shot up and had to return to Phu Cat flew the third Pedro that finally was able to reach the crash site.
We don't know if this was the largest air rescue, because there were many other rescue efforts by aircrews from all branches to get their downed crews out. We do know there was a great deal of effort and commitment by everyone in getting us all out, and the crew of 721 would like to find and thank all those involved.
Our search continues for the pilots and crew from the Pedros, from the Ghostriders and Avengers, the Air Force fireman Robert Rager, the Flight Surgeon form the 173rd , Bill Dyer, the crew chief that came in with the Flight Surgeon let us know. We would even like to talk with the Battalion Commander 1/503rd there still are some questions we would like answers to.
It wasn’t till later that Walt found out , and only this year when we met, that I found out that there was an investigation by the 173rd looking to fault Walt, believing he had flown into our own artillery. The rounds and shrapnel in the ship and crew stopped any further efforts in this direction. The cease-fire orders from the FO had stopped any artillery action and no friendly rounds were ever fired.
Clifford E. White Class 68-12
Walton A. Henderson (Sugar Bear) Class 68-501
The Huey that Pilot CWO Larry Kahila was flying was Casper 031. Also aboard was Crew Chief SP5 Terry Gallagher. Besides the Brigade Flight Surgeon on the ground were: Casper Platoon Sergeant Robert Lee Page, SGT Richard Canning, SSG Vernon Taylor, among others that helped in this rescue mission.
The Third Pedro
Casper 721 Rescue Mission
December 11, 1968
By Dwight Hageman
On December 11th, 1968, I had been “in country” about 3 weeks, following the USAF Jungle Survival school in the Philippines.
I was a new USAF Major, with thousands of flight hours in fixed-wing aircraft, but had “been drafted” into rescue helicopters following a professor of Air Science (USAF ROTC) position at the University of Michigan. I went to the USAF helicopter school at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls Texas in the summer of 1968, training in the H-1 Huey and HH-43 Husky.
In December of 1968 I was getting checked out in Vietnam operations. I had been rather suddenly assigned to Phu Cat AB because another pilot had recently been killed in a rescue attempt (also for a downed Army helicopter crew) just a few days before my arrival. I was his replacement.
On December 11th, myself and Maj Juan Migia, the Detachment commander at Phu Cat Pedro were on local base rescue (firefighting) alert, and our other two crews were on rescue alert.
When the alert sounded for Casper 721, our two rescue alert Pedros launched and began extraction operations, ferrying the rescued personnel to the hospital at Quin Non, with fuel stops at Phu Cat operations as required. I was serving as Operations Officer at this time, and was coordinating our rescue operations as well as the medical evacuations.
In the late afternoon, a distress call was received from our two Pedros, stating that they needed more support ASAP due to the number of extractions, and mainly the need to get a fireman with the “Jaws of Life”
apparatus to the site to extract the pilot (Walt Henderson) without major surgery on site. The Army personnel on site were very concerned that the impending darkness would enable the NVA/Viet Cong troops to overrun the site.
Maj Migia and I launched immediately with the fireman and the “Jaws of Life”. Maj Migia was in the right seat, and I was in the left seat. We hot refueled enroute. The next few hours are hazy due to the extreme pace of operations. Our three Pedros extracted a total of 9 souls from the site, including crewmembers Walt Henderson (pilot) with his legs more or less intact, and John Steen (door gunner). I was informed later that Army Hueys picked up Ned Costa, crew chief, and Cliff White, co-pilot.
Photo of an USAF HH-43 "Pedro" Huskie used during the Vietnam War.
One truly amazing thing happened as darkness fell over the crash site. We were extracting the “last two” souls from the site. I don’t know if they were Casper personnel, passengers, or other people that were trying to help. We were hoisting these two troops up at the same time on the Jungle Penetrator. Just as we got them to the helicopter side door, the cable broke at the hoist motor area. Thank God that our large crew chief, a Sgt Jessie Franklin, was able to manhandle one of the troops before he fell, dragged him partway into the helicopter and literally sat on him to keep him from falling out. Maj Migia, who was in the right seat, turned the controls over to me, and got the other troop to stand on the “bear paw” left front skid of the HH-43, and kept him from falling over backwards out of the helicopter. This configuration left me with severe flying problems. Since the pilot, two rescuees, and the crew chief were all hanging out of the right side of the HH-43, I ran out of left cyclic stick control to keep the Pedro from tipping over to the right. I was able to slowly maneuver the helicopter across a valley with maximum left cyclic banging the stops , descend to a Army mortar site (I think), and hover while the panicked Army troops put their feet on terra firma.
We then returned to Phu Cat and tried to put the events of the day together. Due to this quirk of fate, I ended up received the Military Airlift Command Outstanding Safety Award for 1968. It was an amazing sequence of events.
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