[This piece appeared originally in the New York Times Vietnam 67 online series of articles about the war.]
In the spring of 1967, attacks were becoming more frequent on Marine fire bases along the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam, particularly at the Khe Sanh combat base in the highlands, about 10 miles from the border with Laos. During the monsoons enemy troops stealthily moved down the Ho Chi Minh trail, establishing positions in hills near Khe Sanh. Marines countered their incursion by occupying hills northwest of the base, supplied by a steady stream of helicopters, including my CH-46.
Khe Sanh was a rag-tag base of entrenchments and barbed wire encircling a metal-mat runway, hard-back tents, makeshift latrines, assorted wood structures and an ammunition dump. Its command bunker was buttressed with thick mahogany timbers and smelled like a furniture store. The airstrip was a beehive of activity with four-engine Marine C-130 transports landing with troops and supplies and departing with the wounded and dead. Huey gunship helicopters were always about, circling the hills looking for targets. Twin-engine Air Force C-123 planes, outfitted with sprayers for Agent Orange, also dropped in regularly to refuel.
Rats roamed freely at night, scampering through the tents. Traps did little to cull the population, and we just accepted them as part of the Khe Sanh scene. During the monsoons, low clouds enveloped the base, heavy rain turned rutted dirt roadways into foot-deep quagmires and nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s.
On March 16th, I was ordered to fly from Dong Ha, the Marine’s main logistic base south of the DMZ, to Khe Sanh. Capt. Russ Verbael commanded the lead helicopter; I was the aircraft commander of the second. By then I had been in-country 10 months, had survived a mountain top crash and was wounded attempting the rescue of a trapped Marine patrol. On another occasion, a Marine infantryman was hit in our helicopter during a troop assault and later died. I had evolved into a pragmatic pilot, careful to fly within aircraft limitations and averse to volunteering for missions with questionable outcomes.
That day, soon after landing at Khe Sanh, we were ordered to med-evac several wounded Marines from Hill 861, where they had established a base. We immediately lifted off and climbed toward the hilltop, which was in plain sight a few miles away.
As was common practice for a wingman, I orbited high as Russ landed and retrieved the wounded. Surprisingly, his helicopter wasn’t fired on. Stationary helicopters in landing zones were prized targets, and enemy gunners rarely passed up such opportunities. I thought, maybe they were out of ammo. It was an easy med-evac pick up and the short flight back to Khe Sanh was uneventful.
Minutes after off-loading the wounded, Hill 861 came under renewed mortar attack and marines radioed for another med-evac helicopter. But Russ’s helicopter developed a mechanical problem. That left my helicopter to accomplish the mission. I wasn’t alone; a Huey gunship was circling the hills trying to spot the enemy mortar position.
We climbed directly to the summit, hoping to land quickly, remove the wounded and depart before enemy mortar crews could react. Marines were dug in, heads down and out of sight, waiting to leap from cover once we landed. Watching from a nearby hill, the concealed enemy must have decided that my 45-foot helicopter was too good a target to pass up. Just as the aft ramp came down my copilot reported mortar shells exploding all over the hilltop. The Marines weren’t about to break from cover in such a barrage, and we were a sitting duck drawing fire. I lifted off, diving into the valley toward Khe Sanh.
Back at Khe Sanh with the helicopter idling by the runway, I radioed the command post that under the circumstances, with the mountaintop zeroed in, a med-evac was untenable. At that point the Huey gunship pilot orbiting about a thousand feet above Hill 861 cut in on the frequency saying he thought he’d spotted the enemy mortar position on an adjacent hill. He suggested I approach from the south, climbing just above the trees out of enemy sight, then hook around the summit and land. He’d make a simultaneous gun run, destroying their position or at least sending them diving for cover.
I was skeptical, but the grunts on the hilltop were in a bad way. I radioed back: “It’s against my better judgment but we’ll give it try.” My copilot, always quick to render an opinion, said nothing. Not a peep out of the crew chief or the gunner either. It was my reluctant call and we were going to make it up and back – or not.
Rounding the summit, I spotted a fairly unobstructed slope near the top. Meanwhile, out of my view, the Huey made its firing run on the supposed mortar emplacement.
The marines broke from cover and rushed the wounded onboard. About 15 were in the cabin when the first mortar round detonated under the helicopter with a concussive blast. More shells detonated all over the hilltop. Instinctively, I yanked the helicopter back into the air. But with all the additional marines bringing the wounded on board the helicopter was overloaded. The helicopter settled back toward the hillside. Fortunately, the hill sloped away steeply and I was able to keep the settling helicopter just above the trees until reaching a cliff. We dove into the valley, allowing the helicopter to regain airspeed and normal rotor speed.
As soon as we landed, corpsmen began removing the wounded. By the time the rotors stopped, only one marine swathed in an arm bandage remained on board. As I walked back through the cabin he looked up and said, “Thank you sir.” I said, “You’re welcome.”
Walking around the aircraft, we discovered over 150 shrapnel holes in the belly and side fuel tanks.
Around this time Maj. Gen. Lewis Walt, commanding general of the Third Marine Amphibious Force-Vietnam, arrived at Khe Sanh in a Huey. He ordered more reinforcements to the hilltop before med-evac missions continued. Marines have a short saying about the order of combat priorities: “bullets, band aids and beans.” Combat comes before med-evacs.
By then Russ’s crew chief had repaired his helicopter and the general was told that the CH-46 was mission ready. Soon Russ was off, with 14 Marines on board, headed for Hill 861. We had about the same number on board when, overloaded, we nearly crashed on the hilltop about a half hour earlier. Now it was about 2 P.M., the warmest part of the day, when air density and lift were lowest.
I noticed a cluster of Marines gathered around a radio communications jeep. They were listening to FM radio chatter from Hill 861 and as I approached one of them looked up and said: “They just crashed.”
Later, Russ said that he had decided to give his copilot some stick time and told him to make the approach and landing. About 30 feet above touchdown on Hill 861, Russ realized the helicopter was descending too fast. Grabbing the controls, he attempted to regain airspeed and lift. But the left main landing gear snagged a tree trunk and the helicopter crashed, rolling over once or twice and coming to rest upside down. They staggered out of the wreckage, shaken up, but amazingly with no serious injuries.
Russ ordered the helicopter’s two .50 caliber machine guns and ammunition removed from the wreckage, along with classified communications equipment. Then they formed up, making their way up the cratered hillside around shattered tree trunks toward Marine positions on the summit. Reverting to their infantry training, Russ’s grunt passengers hop-scotched ahead, taking fixed positions to cover their progress. The trek up the hill took about 30 minutes.
Using his survival radio, Russ contacted Marine A-4 attack jets overhead and directed napalm and bomb runs on the hills. The air strikes were apparently effective; about an hour later a helicopter was able to land and retrieve Russ and his crew.
Our experience that day was the precursor to the Hill Fights, a three-month battle to drive the North Vietnamese Army from the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. The siege of Khe Sanh began nine months later, in January 1968. At the end, after sustaining thousands of casualties, the North Vietnamese abandoned the effort and withdrew. American commanders had had enough as well, and ordered the base closed. Marines gathered their gear, destroyed everything else and withdrew. North Vietnamese troops then returned to the area.
Arnold Reiner is a retired airline captain. He served as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1966-67.