CASPER 721 IS DOWN
by Cliff White
December 11, 1968 began early with a flight from LZ English to Uplift where we were to fly Command and Control for the Battalion Commander 1/503, 173rd ABN. CWO 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 SP4 Ned Costas and the door gunner was John Steen. 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 north of An Khe Pass at the north end of “Happy Valley”. This AO was known to be an enemy strong hold. At the briefing no one had said any thing about weapons, so Walt 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, 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 3 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 what happened that day has been unclear to both Walt and myself. We finally found each other at the 1998 Viet Nam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) reunion. 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. 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.
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 all expressed our disappointment.
After the 4.2 was in place we refueled and picked up the Battalion CO., the Artillery FO, and the radio operator and five PRC 25’s. At 10 hundred hours we were back in the AO. The CO. asked us to over fly the LZ so the FO could get a look. The low cloud cover and flight restrictions, due to the different gun target lines, kept us below 1200 ft., which was causing Walt a great deal of concern. When the AC is upset a new PP’s pucker factor is at its limit. The Battalion CO. wanted another look at the LZ and told us to fly another pass, on the second pass I was flying and Walt was turned talking to the CO., trying to convince him our repeated action was not the best plan. As we crossed the LZ the four duce crew advised the FO they were ready to fire. Walt turned to take the aircraft all discussion was over we had to get clear. Just prior to Walt taking the controls I saw what looked like a large bird at our twelve o’clock. About the size of the turkey vultures we saw in Texas. Walt said at the time he was real upset at me for flying us into the bird’s flight path. Walt took the controls and started a rapid descent.
I remember watching what we still thought was a large bird as we went under it. 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 to the right and the helicopter rolled 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 advised us the tail rotor was no longer turning and hanging loose.
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. Walt 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 any anything of substance. There was a Special Forces base about 10k to our Northeast and Walt said he was going to try to make it there. Walt was still worried about the artillery GT lines. The Huey was so out of trim that Walt had to look out the green house 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. All this happened in only seconds, but it seemed like minutes.
We lost altitude to about 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 to spin rapidly. I could not discern the sky from the ground. I remember both of us rolling the throttle off so hard it broke the idle stop switch.
Walt began a serious of mayday calls, and both of us were going through shut down, battery and fuel. 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 were on the controls, I was following every move Walt made, the Huey was not responding, there was no control. The loud noise had been a round taking out our cyclic controls; the bright flash Walt saw was a round just under his seat. Walt told me the doctors removed the fuse of a 37-mm anti-aircraft round 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 which pulled the nose up some and changed our angle of descent, but never enough. The air speed and rate of descent when we hit the trees was 70 knots, and 700 ft. /m. 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 all I could hear was 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 steep slope, about 60 degrees, 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 holes besides 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. Only later did he 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 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 FO 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. 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 a 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 gun emplacements. The ones that weren’t there. Later it was confirmed we had crashed in the middle of an NVA Regiment. With a 37mm and 51’s 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 4.2 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. 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 set the fuel off. The smokes were thrown at the same time hoping the four duce crew would know more than one person was alive. The mortar crew reported the smoke. We proceeded to set up what security we could, Ned said there were rounds being fired so we all sat next to a large tree. I don’t remember 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 had hovered over us and watched us crawl out, but I don’t remember that. They took too many hits to stay.
The next thing that happened was a surprise. 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 cut out the pilot. 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, so I chose to go. 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. I was told later that the ship was 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. We have not found the AC of that ship, but he was an Afro-American Major, with the Ghostriders in 1968, shouldn’t be too hard to find. 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. Although Pedros had been there earlier the Air Force send another one out with the fireman. The Major 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 birds 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.
Walt found out later that another Casper ship 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. There was a Major 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 did not hear the AC 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 AC knew the mission and the general area where we were. He found our crash site by the rotor blades on top of the trees, but was not able to get to us because of the heavy 50. cal. fire from multiple guns. He took over 20 rounds and was forced to make an emergency landing at the Special Forces camp.
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 for Casper 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 not to come in after Walt. The flight surgeon not only knew and was a friend to all the pilots and crews, but it seems 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 prior 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.
Walt and myself 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 would like to find and thank all those involved.
Our search continues so if anyone knows the whereabouts of our door gunner John Steen, the pilots and crew from the Pedros, from the Ghostriders and Avengers, the Air Force fireman Robert Rager, the Flight Surgeon form the 173rd Abn please let us know. I would even like to talk with the Battalion Commander, after all these years I still have some questions. This story won't be done till we get all thier memories.
It wasn’t till later that Walt found out and only this year when we met that I find out that there was an investigation by the 173rd looking for fault by the AC, believing he had flown into our own artillery. The rounds and shrapnel in the ship and crew stopped any further efforts in this direction.
class 68-12 and fng at VHPA
Casper 173rd ABN '68 LZ English
Lucky Star 61 AHC '71 LZ Lane