First Day of Operation Hastings, by Chuck Johnson
My memories of Hastings (and everything else) are increasingly hazy and fragmentary, but here is what still stands out in what’s left of my mind.
On 14 July 1966, the night before the first day of Operation Hastings, there was a huge all-pilots briefing at Phu Bai. There must have been well over a hundred pilots from 46s, 34s, Hueys, OV-10s, and maybe even a few Deuces and Bird Dogs. There were lots of heavies from Group, Wing, and God knows where else, and reporters and cameramen everywhere. The briefer covered both friendly and enemy order-of-battle, zone prep, frequencies, times, routes, loads (heavy), wind direction and velocity, and direction of landing. Finally he asked, “Any questions?” Someone in the rear (Rolo Langenfeld, I think) shouted, “What if the wind changes?” I don’t remember hearing an answer, but the question proved prescient.
The next day, 15 July, I was flying copilot for John Turner Maxwell and, of course, the wind had changed. We landed down-wind, down-slope, and heavy. I remember seeing a division of four CH-46s from HMM-164 drift long and crash into the trees on the far (downwind) end of the zone, two of them with overlapping rotor blades. Several of the Marines on board were killed by flying rotor blades. The rest of us staggered to the ground as best we could, with several near-misses as we wallowed left and right, turns drooping, trying to pick landing spots with no tree stumps.
The Group Commander, watching all of this from a Huey slick overhead, finally blurted out something like, “This is Roseanne Six. What’s happening down there? What’s all this chaos? There will be no more chaos; I repeat, no more chaos.” An unidentified voice (sounded like Gerry Lear) replied, “They’re crashing by divisions, that’s what’s happening!”
We were in and out of the zone all day supporting the operation. As some point Maxwell and I watched as one of our own (EP-171), flown by T. C. McAllister and George Richey, was shot down in flames and crashed in a fireball, the fifth ’46 lost that day. (The AP photo became one of the iconic pictures of the war. My wife was visiting my parents in Louisiana when she first saw the picture on TV. The broadcaster said it was an Army Chinook; she knew it was a Marine ’46, but did not tell my parents.) Later that day a bunch of us were crapped out near the aircraft at Dong Ha when T. C. and George walked up, seemingly back from the dead. We were stunned, but very happy to see them. (The gunner, Sgt. Gary Lucas, also survived but was badly burned. The crew chief, Sgt. Robert Telfer, perished, as did all of the Marines in the belly.)