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. ("PP" was
used for the term Peter Pilot. In the Army there was no
designation as co-pilot. Pilots logged time as either Aircraft
Commander or the right seat as Pilot. Both being 1st pilot time.
In most units rank had no claim on Aircraft Commander that was
earned and usually only after at least 2 plus months in country
flying right seat, and after the approval of the other AC's and
the company commander) 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 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, and
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 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 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 one other at the 1998 Viet Nam
Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) reunion in Fort 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. We are trying to locate our crew and
the others who were there to help us. We are still looking for
the door gunner to complete the crew. What follows is from what
both of us are able to remember, and from what others that were
there have told us.
On December 11, 1968,
our first mission was to lift a 4.2 mortar crew to a mountain
top over looking the Area of Operation (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
After the mortar crew was in place we returned to LZ Uplift,
refueled and picked up the Battalion Commander 1/503, Artillery
Forward Observer (FO), radio operator and five PRC 25 radios. 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 feet, 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 and
altitude as much 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, and we had to get clear.
During the time Walt was talking to the Colonel, and I was
looking down at the LZ, neither 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 at flight training in Texas (At the
reunion in Fort 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
I remember watching what we still thought was a large bird as we
went under it, 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 bucking
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 at the same time. The FO was
yelling cease-fire; so I shut off the FM radio 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 yelled we were going in and he needed the coordinates, I
searched the map but was too excited to quickly find our exact
location. In the same moment, Walt told me to get on the
controls with him. He then put out the first May Day 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,
". . . 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; it was down
slope all the way. The Huey was so out of trim that we had to
look through the green house overhead (like a car's sunroof) 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 tree tops. All this
happened in seconds, but it seemed like minutes.
As we passed through 1000 feet 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. With the torque of the engine gone we came out of
the spin nose down.
Walt began a series of May Day calls, as both of us were
going through shut down, fuel and battery. Walt was looking for
the best place in the trees to crash, and planning a controlled
auto rotation (no power). We started the very rapid descent to
tree top level. The mountains were behind us and our auto
rotation glide was down slope, and away from the
mountain. Both of us were on the controls and I was following
every move Walt made---the Huey was not responding, and there
was little if any cyclic control.
The loud noise had been a round exploding and taking out our
controls; the bright flash was a AA flak round exploding
somewhere to our left front . . . almost close enough to be
the one you don't hear is the one that gets you. There had
never been a large bird. We tried full aft cyclic and no flair,
twice, and still no flair. We pulled all the collective there
was without response. Air-speed and rate-of-descent when we hit
the trees was 70 knots, and 700 feet/m. We ran out of air before
reaching the valley floor, and the last thing I remember was
hitting the top of a large dead tree head on.
A Casper ship, piloted by CWO Larry Kahila was setting on the
Crap table at LZ English waiting for a Colonel and some Red
Cross ("Donut Dollies") ladies and heard the 1st May Day call.
Larry had an Artillery Lt. and a Major already on board waiting
for the Colonel and the "Donut Dollies". Larry ordered the ship
ready to respond to the May Day, but the Major refused to get
out of the Huey, insisting it was the Colonel'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
Larry's crew chief grabbed the Major and tossed him out of the
Huey into the arms of the Colonel, just as their Huey came to a
hover and departed to join the recovery effort.
When I came to after the crash, I could hear our Huey's engine
winding down, and reached for the fuel switch only to find some
grass and dirt, but the instruments---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. The Huey was
standing on its nose on a very steep slope. I was down slope and
Walt was up slope.
The jungle can be a quiet place, and the silence now was
deafening. Fuel was running down my back and the fear of fire
suddenly motivated me to crawl free of the debris. Walt was
pinned against the ground with the ship braced on his back. If
it shifted again he could be crushed. SP4 John Steen, the door
gunner, was pinned-in his seat by a 6" diameter tree branch
pressing against his "chicken plate" Walt had to order him to
wear that morning. SP5 Ned Costa, the crew chief, had freed
himself and between the two of us we got John out.
The door gunner didn't appear to have any other injuries than a
sore chest, but later we found John had been hit and wounded
several times and had other crash injuries. Ned said he thought
he had a broken leg and the carbon steel core of an armored
piercing round in his arm, which he took out---my first
indication that we had taken fire.
There was a real danger of fire in the Huey any second, so I
crawled back in 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", and the Colonel's radios were on top of the
back of Walt's seat. After frantically clearing the tangled
mess, searching for him, I heard Walt say to get the ---- off my
I could only see part of his face, and wiped dirt and grass from
his mouth. There was nothing I could do to free him quickly. I
tried to use the little 12" cutting tool with rings on each end,
which was worthless against metal. Ned joined me but the both of
us could not move the seat.
I took a quick inventory of our injuries: The Colonel was
trapped with his leg under the left side of the Huey, his
shoulder was dislocated, and he was drenched in fuel. His
injuries and agony prevented anyone from approaching him. The
radio operator was still unconscious with serious face and head
injuries. I had found the Artillery Lt. about 25 feet from the
crash site wrapped in branches with only his eyes visible,
however, he was conscious. It appeared that he had been ejected
from 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 Infantry Basic or Flight School, however
all I can remember is I felt I had to do something. The NVA were
all around us and we needed a defense. No doubt they were
searching for us.
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
later he explained this was what he had been taught at school.
In hindsight, 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 Colonel's Car-15; he still 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 Colonel. I recovered the map but
before burying it I had a good quick 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 37 mm 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 Colonel's PRC
25s were destroyed, except one and only its 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 there were
no survivors. I wanted to shout that we were alive!
We carried a case of smoke and I passed a smoke to each of the
crew and told them to throw a smoke in different directions as
far from out helicopter as possible so as not to ignite the
fuel. We threw the smokes 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. Perhaps the NVA were firing blindly hoping to get us
to reveal our position with return fire. I don't remember how
much time passed, or much else. Ned said the smoke hung in the
trees like a trapped fog, and he heard rocket fire and AK-47's.
Meanwhile, the Artillery Lt., a friend of Walt's, had stayed on
board Larry's Huey. Larry knew the mission and the general area
where we were down. He flew into the valley from the West
expecting to find us on the lower valley floor.
A mortar crew on the mountain had watched as we went in, and
made their own radio calls for assistance. They had reported
that we went in spinning vertical (tail up and nose down), and
hit the canopy of trees cart wheeling over the top till we
slowed down enough to rip through the heavy branches.
The Casper ship piloted by CW2 Larry Kahila was in fact the
first to find us and began hovering over the canopy above the
jungle floor. Casper found our crash site by parts of the rotor
blades on top of the tree canopy. We were on the North side of
the valley on a 60 degree slope in 150 foot tall trees.
As Larry hovered over the crash site, the Artillery Lt. said he
saw three survivors. Larry couldn't see any way to get to us,
plus the longer he hovered the more hits he was taking. One of
the NVA 51's was above him on a hill and shooting down through
his rotor blades. Others were shooting from across the valley.
They were also receiving small arms fire from beneath and not
far from where the crash site was.
Casper started drawing fire from the jungle floor, and from the
same positions that had hit us. Their chopper was taking too
many hits to stay on scene much longer. When Larry felt the
pedals go stiff he had to either leave or join us. He radioed LZ
Uplift and told them there were survivors seen moving around,
and the recovery operation was now a rescue operation. With
problems of his own he had no choice but to depart immediately.
You know your buddies are trying to get to you, but there is an
unspoken fear they won't make it in time. We had gone from the
noise of a crashing Huey through jungle canopies to near total
silence in a few seconds. Then to the bark of a radio we feared
was announcing our location to the world . . . and now the
growing chatter of enemy firearms and AA at Hueys circling
overhead. What else could happen?
I was suddenly surprised by a Ghostrider chopper hovering at
tree top level seemingly trying to find a way down to us. There
was an old bomb crater about 50 feet down slope from our crash
site that had cut a well hole through the forest, but was
quickly being reclaimed by the jungle. The Ghostrider began
descending through the new growth cutting its way through tree
limbs and vines with its rotor blades! You can't imagine the
racket of a rotating blade cracking home runs through vines and
canopy limbs unless you are beneath it, while trying not to get
speared by flying shards, splinters and limbs.
I still clutched the one-way radio and knew the importance to
tell someone above that we needed equipment to free Walt. I told
the door gunner to get in the Huey. He was beginning to feel his
wounds and said he couldn't make it. The Crew chief was in bad
shape and didn't think he could make it either.
The Huey seemed to be hovering forever, descending slowly
constantly adding to the shrapnel of cut branches. They must of
thought we were nuts as none of us were moving toward their
The rescue Huey could not get down through the limbs to land.
They had descended near the bomb crater and no further. Their
crew chief began waving for us to come to their position. He
gestured toward a broken limb lying across the bomb crater,
wanting us to use it as a plank to get in. With what appeared to
be no other choice I, knew I could tell them first hand about
rescue equipment needed for Walt. I crawled out on the tree that
lay across the crater. I could not hear anymore firing due to
the Huey's engines.
The crew chief hooked his seat belts together making a rope and
dangled it so I could climb up to the skids. As I reached the
skids, Ned joined me. The crew chief told me the hovering Huey
was taking small arms hits the whole time they were hovering and
waiting for us. The Ghostrider held his position as if he had
all the time in the world. The AC of that ship was an
Afro-American Major, with the 189th Ghost riders, and the ship's
tail number was 711.
By now gun ships from the Avengers were in frenzy above trying
to search out targets. The Colonel, Walt, and John were still at
the wreckage as we began lifting up through the well of darkness
toward blue sky. I told the AC we needed cutting tools and a
fireman to get the pilot out. He made the radio call as we
headed to Phu Cat, starting the Air Force response.
The Major told me he had been crossing An Khe Pass and, heard
our May Day, knew the area, so came to see if he could be of
some help. He had heard a May Day call about a bird strike, I am
sure the green birds of flak and tracers he ran into really
surprised him. Strikes from 51's had hit his ship on its way in
and out from the rescue.
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 seriously wounded John and the Colonel out.
Walt would have to wait for heavier rescue equipment.
Some time during the rescue operation "Red Baron" took over the
Command and Control of the rescue operation. 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. They
used a visible trail, and when stopping to rest could hear all
sorts of movement in the jungle.
At the crash site the medical team found the 173rd had already
secured the crash site and everyone except AC CW2 Walt 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.
Fortunately, an Air Force recovery Sergeant had the required
cutting tools and went to work freeing Walt. In a matter of
minutes they had him in a stretcher. Walt and the others were
lifted into the Pedro and flown directly to Qui Nhon.