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68th AHC, RVN 1968
By Mike Tompkins
26 April 2006
The Graduate was the number one movie of the year, and the famous political movie Planet of the Apes was released. Born to be Wild was released by Steppenwolf and the Beatles were the headline of every music event. The Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4 games to 3 to win the World Series. There was, however, something even bigger on the minds of Americans. On November 15, 500,000 people turned out in Washington D.C. for a peace rally, and anti-war protest to the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam (Wikipedia). The year was 1968, the bloodiest year of the Vietnam conflict (SIAD). Controversy about the Vietnam conflict has basked it from the beginning of U.S. involvement to present day. The motivation of Washington’s choosing to aid the South Vietnamese should not, and does not mask the brave, courageous, and admirable actions of American military service members, those that survived and those that never came home. The 68th Air-Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) was a unit full of dedicated pilots and crewmen that distinguished themselves by their dedication and skill. The stories and history of the 68th AHC in 1968 prove this.
The 68th AHC, 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, 12th Combat Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade, operated in the III Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ), of Vietnam and home for them was Bien Hoa Air Base (Sbrolla, p 1-3). The company nickname, or mascot was the Top Tigers, however the gun ships were referred to as Mustangs. Below is a map of the III Corps CTZ that shows the provinces that of that area.
The III Corps region provided many obstacles for helicopter pilots due to its terrain, more notably in the southern end, delta region of the zone. Landings were called on to be made on terrain such as muddy open rice paddies to small holes in the thick jungle. There was dust and haze in the dry season and thunderstorms in the wet season. Pilots would be required to adapt to such conditions as soldiers from the U.S. and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), would depend on the aid of the slicks, smokey, and gun ships (Sbrolla, p 4).
AHC’s were most commonly comprised of three types of versions of the Bell
UH1-D, more commonly called Huey, the smoke ship, or Smokey, slicks, and gun ships. Smokey was a Huey with twin M-60 machine guns pointing out one door, an M-60 free gun, and a .50 caliber machine gun pointing out the other door (Smokey). It had a smoke generator used for laying down a cloud of white smoke that would screen and conceal the slicks as they made drops onto an LZ (landing zone) or pick-ups on a PZ (pick-up zone) (Tompkins). Smokey’s had two pilots and 3 crew men, one of which was a crew chief. Smokey’s were heavy because of the extra armament and the smoke machine, and therefore were not intended to transport anyone except the crew and pilots. Below is a picture of Smokey doing a smoke run. Smokey would lead the way to an LZ and if the LZ was suspected to be hot, or was known to be hot, then Smokey would lay down a cloud of smoke to screen the slicks that were landing. You can see the slick trailing Smokey on its way to the LZ.
Smokey’s were better armed than slicks because they were often the first helicopter that the enemy would see; they would be the first to an LZ. “Sometimes we would land in an LZ and wait to see if we were being shot at. If we were we would take off and fly back around a lay smoke. If we weren’t taking fire after a little wait, we would take off and provide cover for the slicks that were unloading,” (Tompkins).
Smokey provided some
concealment for landing slicks, but they also had a vital role in missions in
the air. In an article in the Stars and Stripes in 1968 the author says, “The
smoke ship had the capability of not only ‘prepping’ a landing zone while laying
a smoke screen, but is also capable of standing off at high altitudes and
hammering away at enemy positions.” On one mission Smokey provided over watch
for the insertion of three
ARVN recon teams in the Iron Triangle. Not long after the drops, one of the recon teams came into heavy contact and needed extraction. The slicks that had made the drops were no longer on station; therefore Smokey was called on to do the extraction. Even with the extra weight due to armament, smoke generator, and a 5 man crew, all 8 members of the recon team were successfully extracted while under fire (Smokey). Although this event was reported in the Stars and Stripes, it was not an irregularity for the Top Tigers that flew Smokey.
Slicks were designed for transportation. Slicks got their name because of the sleek profile of the helicopter as it only had two M-60’s, one at each door, and that was all that protruded from the helicopter. Gun ships were heavily armored Hueys. They had four .30 caliber machine guns, a grenade-launcher chin turret mounted under the nose and a pair of seven-tube 2.75 inch rocket pods (Young, p 148). Later, gunships carried mini-guns instead of the .30 cal machine guns (Tompkins). Below is a picture of the side armament of a gunship; notice the minigun.
AHC companies typically had two platoons of slicks and one platoon of gun ships. There were only a handful of smoke ships in all of Vietnam (Tompkins).
The 68th tackled a variety of missions, from pigs and rice (re-supplying troops in the field with food and ammo), combat assaults, recon missions, dust off’s (medical evacuation or MEDEVAC), firefly, “people-sniffer missions,” and aerial coverage of troops on the ground (Sbrolla, p 4-23). The 68th was an independent, Airmobile Light, Assault Helicopter Company, therefore it was specifically assigned to a ground unit, like the 101st Airborne Division, or the 25th ARVN, but the 68th often supported such units in their missions. My father, SPC5 Pat Tompkins, served as a crew chief on Smokey during 1968, said:
“I don’t really know who we were flying all the time, where we were going, or what we were always doing, we were just all over the place. Sometimes we would fly a smoke mission in one location for combat assault, and then be called to fly a pigs and rice mission at the other end of the region.”
January of 1968 saw the 68th supporting the 25th Inf Div, 101st Abn Div, 199th Light Inf Bde, 18th ARVN, and 5th ARVN in locations ranging from Katum, Xuan Loc, and Song Be. Some of the missions saw hot LZ’s and some Top Tigers were wounded during those missions. During the month the 68th recorded a total of 2,251 flight hours, 14,535 passengers and 22 tons of cargo (Sbrolla, p 8). This is a good measure of what a “light” month was like. Later in the year as the Top Tigers role in supporting US and South Vietnamese troops grew, the 68th flew, for example in August, for 3,331 hours (Sbrolla, p 17).
The beginning of February saw the NVA unleash their surprise Tet Offensive. The 68th AHC played an essential role in the defense of Bien Hoa Air Base when it was attacked. “From the time the initial Rocket Attack was initiated against Bien Hoa Air Base, the 68th [AHC] light Fire Teams flew continually for  hours, only to land for refueling and re-arming,” (Sbrolla, p 24). The 68th had been tasked with flying the night command and control aircraft when the assault began. LTC John V. Ohnstad discovered a breach in the east perimeter while on the C&C aircraft and direct air support and a counter-offensive to stop the penetration. As soon as the initial rocket attack stopped, the 68th began flying MEDIVAC missions and fifteen seriously wounded were successfully airlifted by the 68th. 87 total MEDIVAC missions were flown, twenty seven of which required gunship aid (Sbrolla, p 25).
On 1 February at 1200 hours two 68th light fire teams were diverted from a recon mission over the Plantation Area in Long Binh to the Dong Lach Village. Elements of the 101st Abn. Div. were pinned down in rice paddies to the south of the village while trying to drive VC from the area. The 68th made it possible from the 101st make a successful sweep and was credited with 40 VC KIA’s (Sbrolla, p 24). At 1630 that same day two light fire teams were sent to the Cholon area of Saigon and “alternated fire teams over the area in expending their rockets and miniguns on known enemy strong-holds,” (Sbrolla, p 25). Total, the 68th AHC flew 1,010 re-supply missions, forty seven of those required gunship protection. They also flew 50 administrative missions (Sbrolla, p 25). Below is a map showing enemy movements, avenues of approach, and where the VC Forward Command Post was located in and around Bien Hoa Air Base during the Battle of Bien Hoa. Bien Hoa Air Base is located in the top left.
The Top Tigers also worked on the ground during Tet. Upon the initial rocket attack, “26 man ready reaction teams immediately took up their positions on the perimeter and remained there approximately seven days in anticipation of a second wave attack,” (Sbrolla, p 24). Some Top Tigers were also made into small infantry type units. SPC5 Tompkins had gotten in country in late January and there were not enough helicopters for them to be needed. “We went on ambush patrols, night patrols, guard duty, and sitting in some random buildings watching the road to make sure the enemy didn’t come down it,” (Tompkins). Although these men worked and fought like infantry for a short period of time, they weren’t eligible for a Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) because they didn’t have an official unit designation; “we didn’t have a name or assignment to a unit, weren’t anybody, we were just ‘those guys’ in that building or out in the field,” (Tompkins). Soon after Tet, the need was there for more helicopter personnel and their “infantry days” were over.
Tet was only the first 3 days of February, but the Tet Counteroffensive would ensue from On 26 February the Top Tigers went in support of the 25th ARVN near Ben Luc. The 25th was doing a ground sweep, during which 2000 AK-47 rounds, 4 AK-47 automatic rifles, 15 B40 rockets and fuses, 1 B40 rocket launcher, 6 enemy uniforms, and 1 3.5 horsepower motor were found and recovered (Sbrolla, p 9). I asked what the 3.5 horsepower might have been for and SPC 5 Tompkins commented, “The enemy was very smart, very crafty, very ingenuitive. They could have used a 3.5 horsepower engine for draining water out of tunnels, or powering a sampan,” (Tompkins). Mustang gunships destroyed numerous enemy bunkers on the mission (Sbrolla ,p 9). The next two days saw more action for Mustangs while supporting the 25th ARVN again near Ben Luc. The Mustangs were credited with 57 VC KIA’s with their rockets and miniguns. The total enemy losses for the two days were confirmed at 152 KIA (Sbrolla, p 9).
On March 9 the 68th made five lifts of CIDG Forces in the vicinity of Lam Son (Sbrolla, p 10). CIDG stands for Civilian Irregular Defense Group and they were “raised, led and paid by the U.S. Special Forces, with only a nominal pretense of subordination to the Vietnamese Special Forces or Government. At least in the central highlands, CIDG personnel were often montagnards or other non-Vietnamese ethnic groups,” (Rinaldi). I asked Pat Tompkins about what he remembered about CIDG forces and he said,
“Every once in a while we would pick up a group of people and fly them some where, it was usually a real hush hush deal. They weren’t typically dressed like normal soldiers either, but they did carry weapons. I remember a lot of the time when we had people like that, because they weren’t big in numbers, the slicks would leap frog each on the LZ to make it look like more were landing than there really were; make it look like a bigger force was being unloaded than there actually was, so a small VC unit would be less tempted to open up.”
Two days later on the 11 of March, two UH1-D and UH1-C models were used for a “people sniffer mission” near Saigon (Sbrolla, p 10). A “people sniffer mission” was a special mission in which a few helicopters were equipped with a sniffing or smelling type device. It sampled the air and was supposed to be able to detect large groups of people in an area by their smell (Tompkins). “People sniffer missions” were most “effectively produced intelligence in areas of heavy vegetation where visual reconnaissance was ineffective. These missions were also invaluable in verifying agent reports as well as specifically locating enemy units, hospitals or storage areas as revealed by detainees or captured documents,” (VC). A “sniffer” was a rectangular machine that was operated by one or two specialists. 2” hose would gather air from the outside and run to the sniffer which would then determine the ratios of ammonia and carbon. From this the operator was supposed to be able gather information such as campfires and body sweat/waste/gases. To ensure the least dilution in the air, samples had to be taken “as low as possible,” which meant for the safety of the air craft they had to take place at a max speed that would allow the machine to do its job (Turner).
The special mission type that SPC5 Tompkins remembers the most was firefly missions. Firefly missions were conducted at night with no lights except for the one helicopter that had a powerful spot light attached to it. The helicopter with the light would fly at about 500 ft (Tompkins). Another helicopter or gunship would fly at 1000 and a third at 200. The Helicopter flying at 200 ft. was a gunship equipped with miniguns and rockets. The aircraft at 1000ft was equipped with a .50 cal machine gun. Below is an animated picture of the locations of the aircraft to one another and how a firefly mission was done (Sheffield).
Firefly missions were intended to find sampans, large concentrations of troops, and an occasional lucky bunker or position. “When a target was spotted the gunships would do their business and take it out,” (Tompkins). Below is a picture of a Huey geared up for a firefly mission. Notice the large spot light mounted to the helicopter.
Through out the year the Top Tigers conducted and supported missions that were normal for assault helicopter companies, but hardly routine. Supporting the 101st Airborne Div. the 25th Infantry Div both US and ARVN, the 1st Infantry Div were common occurrences. It was all in a days work. “I don’t really remember many operations we took place in, or really who, what, or where we going or doing. I was enlisted and it wasn’t my job to know unless the pilots thought we should know. We were just told to get the helicopter ready and when we would be leaving,” (Tompkins). Every once in a while something would happen on a mission that would cause it to stand out from the other countless missions that the 68th flew.
One such mission occurred on September 16, 1968 near Dau Taing in support of the insertion of ARVN Airborne troops (Sbrolla, p 18). Pilot and Aircraft Commander for Smokey that day, Walter Fricke said, “We had intellegence that a company sized force of NVA had been spotted in the area where we were to insert the Viet Namese Rangers,” (Fricke 2006). WO Webster, a pilot on the Command and Control helicopter, said of that day they were
“[F]lying support for the VN Rangers who had one sorry ass US Marine Sergeant
advisor on the ground and the only English speaker. We inserted (cold) the
ARVN’s for a search and destroy but they immediately set up cooking fires and
prepared their lunch. I recall some Mustangs voicing their displeasure at this
unfortunately routine act.”
After the insertion, all but the Mustangs, which were providing overhead protection with the C&C ship, were sent back for rest and refuel. Not long after the Mustangs had to return to refuel and rearm the Rangers were attacked. During the attack the Marine Sergeant called for a MEDEVAC of seriously wounded, and shortly thereafter he became hysterical and hyperventilating (Fricke 2006). The C&C ship was the only one overhead at the time, and decided to conduct the MEDEVAC once Mustangs returned, despite the reluctance of one of the pilots that only had 7 or 8 days left in country. After making a grossly overweight takeoff with a low rpm alarm going off that included 10-12 ARVN wounded and the Marine Sergeant that jumped on at the last minute and clung to WO Webster’s harness, crying, the helicopter flew to Dau Taing to unload (Webster).
By that time Smokey and the Mustangs were on location. Smokey, “sighted enemy activity on the ground and marked them as best we could for the ground troops and then loitered in the area sort of keeping tabs on things till the boss got back,” (Fricke 2006). Russ Bowers, a pilot of a slick, was called on to insert a replacement advisor and Smokey was called to follow him in with smoke (Fricke 2006). Due to the advisor loosing his cool and leaving the fight, there were no English speaking troops on the ground to inform the C&C ship that NVA troops had moved to another location of the LZ (Webster). That location is exactly were Bowers’ ship was told to land. The helicopter landed only about 25 feet from the forest and almost immediately took heavy fire from the tree line (Webster). According to the citation for a medal for SPC5 Tompkins, “When the smokeship was called upon to cover a single ship insertion Specialist Tompkins once again laid effective suppressive fire, but so heavy and concentrated was the enemy positions the single ship took repeated hits, (Fricke 1968). Bowers estimates that they took as many as 60 rounds of small arms fire as they came to a hover. The advisor was hit as he left the ship and before he could reach the treeline, but that night was MEDEVACed (Fricke 2006). Bowers’ co-pilot had been hit immediately on landing and sprayed blood all over the instrument panel. Both door gunners were killed when trying to return fire. Bowers was shot in the ankle. His radios were also shot out (Webster). Walter Fricke recalls:
“The gunships called out that Bowers was hit (saw his ship swing violently to the
right) just as I cleared the tree tops westbound. I immediately cranked around to
the right to follow Bowers out of the LZ. His ship was obviously hit as it was
leaking fuel, oil and hydaulic fluid as I pulled up behind him on his climb out. He was not talking on the radio but I was calling him desperately and telling him to set it down so we could pick him up (turns out his radios were shot up and he
wasn't hearing us.) He was also distracted by a gunshot wound to his leg and a
severely wounded crew chief or door gunner as well as a co-pilot who was
wounded and bleeding profusely...while wiping blood off the instruments so
Bowers could read them,” (Fricke 2006).
The condition of the aircraft and the crew was so bad that it was unable to reach a secure area before it crashed into a triple layer canopy section of jungle (Fricke 1968). At about 800 ft and about a mile North of the LZ a black puff came off the exhaust of Bowers’ ship signaling an engine failure (Fricke 2006). “It is still hard to imagine anyone surviving that fireball as the ship hit the top canopy and exploded…” (Webster).
Smokey was following the aircraft as it went down. 100 uniformed NVA had been spotted in the location that the helicopter went down earlier that day (Fricke 2006). SPC5 Tompkins, “repeatedly laid suppressive fire and continued to clear the aircraft commander and keep him informed of the situation in the general area,” (Fricke 2006). Smokey came to a clearing about 100yds from the crash site. The ship was hot, overloaded, and downwind and a landing was not going to be a pleasant thing. Recognizing this at 20ft, SPC5 Tompkins is recalled by Fricke as asking “should we jump?” Fricke said:
“He was either thinking of saving us from crashing with an over loaded ship, or in a hurry to get to the crash site to see if we could save anyone…I think both. I clicked off a quick yes and [Tompkins] and the door gunner were gone while we were still 10 feet from touch down…With their M-60’s in hand,” (Fricke 2006).
Tompkins commented, “You don’t really think about it, you just react.” The jungle was extremely thick, so thick that the clothing of Tompkins and the other gunner were town off (Fricke 1968). After about 10 minutes the two door gunners returned, exhausted, with Bowers. The rest of the crew was too consumed by fire to be rescued. Bowers had gone through the front of the helicopter and it skidded, putting him under the nose of the helicopter which protected him somewhat from the fire (Fricke 2006). “[Bowers] thought he heard someone coming thru the bush for him and was convinced it was VC. He had his gun out and passed out before [Tompkins] got to him,” (Fricke 2006). SPC5 Tompkins laid down his M-60 in order to rescue Bowers because he could not walk due to two broken legs and multiple gunshot wounds (Fricke 1968). On commenting on the actions of Tompkins and the other gunner Fricke says “[They] should have received a commendation for valor for that operation as they risked their lives in the process of saving a fellow aviator,” (Fricke 2006). Bowers said about the two men that rescued him, “I do not remember a lot about that day, but I do remember being dragged out of the jungle by two brave Top Tigers,” (Bowers). The two crewmen of Smokey that rescued the fellow pilot never received a medal or recognition from the army for their actions.
The 68th lost 5 men during the year of 1968. The Top Tigers received 54 Air Medals for Valor; 48 Army Commendation Medals for Meritorious Service; 37 Purple Hearts; 35 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Bronze Stars for Meritorious Service; 7 Silver Stars for Valor; 5 Bronze Stars for Valor, and 1 Army Commendation Medal for Valor (UH). 24 Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry were also given to the men of the 68th. There is no count of the number of medals that were not rewarded for actions that should have been recognized, but no number of medals could be rewarded to compensate for the loss of the 5 Top Tigers. Officially the Top Tigers recorded 32,074 flight hours, carried over 251 tons of cargo, and carried over 180,685 passengers (Sbrolla, p 26).
9,087,000 military personnel served in the official Vietnam era from August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975. 47,378 died in hostile action during that time period, nearly 68% of that came in the three year time span of 1967-1969 (SIAD). The courage and loyalty of the pilots and crewman of the Top Tigers, and other helicopter units, to land and drop off or extract soldiers, some wounded or already dead, under enemy fire which some times was heavy, goes beyond the comprehension of the author of this paper. The war is sometimes forgotten, the causes are usually blurred, but for the men who served, their time is forever ingrained in their memories. Those that made the ultimate sacrificed are forever etched on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and all though they are gone, the ones who are left to tell the stories of what happened in Vietnam serve as a testament to the legacy of those that sacrificed.
1968. (2006). Wikipedia. Retrieved on April 15, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968
(1968). “Smokey Aids Top Tigers.” Stars and Stipes. P. 3.
(2004). Vietnam Conflict- Casualty Summary. Statistical Information Analysis Division, Department of Defense. Retrieved March 30, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://web1.whs.osd.mil/mmid/CASUALTY/vietnam.pdf
Bowers, Russel., Warrant Officer. (2006). Personal Communication. Served with the 68th AHC as a pilot for Lift Platoon and Smokey from Oct 1967-Sept 1968.
Fricke, Walter., Warrant Officer. (1968). Medal Citation for Pat P. Tompkins, SPC5.
Fricke, Walter., Warrant Officer. (2006). Personal Communication. Served with the 68th AHC as a pilot on Smokey, Mustang 25, and Top Tiger 17 from April 1968-November 1968.
Rinaldi, Richard A. (1999). Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces: Order of Battle. Retrieved April 5, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.gruntonline.com/Order%20of%20Battle/rvn_armed_forces/cidg.htm
Sbrolla, Richard J., Warrant Officer. Annual Supplement History of the 68th Assault Helicopter Company 145th Combat Aviation Battalion 1st Aviation Brigade: 1 January 1968-31 December 1968.
Sheffield, Ron., Captain. (2004). Chapter 1: Evil Knievel Ron. Retrieved April 5, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.68thahc.com/68th_stories/K68_RS_Chap_01.htm
Smith, Ray. (2004). Ray’s Map Room. Retrieved March 30, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.rjsmith.com/topo_map.html
Tompkins, Pat P., Specialist 5. (2006). Personal Communication. Served as a crew chief on Smokey from February 1968 to January 1969 for the 68th AHC.
Turner, Denny. The Sniffer Worm. Retrieved April 12, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.dennysguitars.homestead.com/worm1.html
VC and NVA Base Camps. Retrieved April 5, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.gruntonline.com/TheWar/Tactics/tactics10.htm
Webster, Geoffrey R., Captain. (2006). Personal Communication. Served for the 68th AHC as gun platoon leader, operations officer, executive officer, and sometimes AC of Smokey.
Young, Warren R. (1982). The Helicopters (The Epic of Flight). Alexandria. Time-Life Books Inc.
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