On December 9, we made a pickup in the South China Sea. It was a Dustoff mission that had been called in by the US Navy destroyer, the Arnold Isabel. An injured seaman required medical treatment at the Third Surg hospital in Binh Thuy.
It was my first pickup at sea, but there was really nothing to it. The destroyer had radar on board and once we were offshore, they vectored us right to their location. The forward deck had a large helipad on it and the seas were relatively calm. We approached the helipad at a 45-degree angle to the ship’s axis and hardly noticed that it was underway.
Later that afternoon a mission occurred that I will never forget. We were in the air and received a call to proceed to coordinates WR8770. This was an area in the U Minh forest approximately 20 clicks south of the sea coast town of Rach Gia. The U Minh covered a large portion of the southern Cau Mau peninsula. It was a VC haven and we didn’t like to venture in there if we didn’t have to.
We arrived on station to join a party already in progress. Both Loaches in a white team from the C/16 Cav had been shot down, almost simultaneously. The C&C ship had picked up one of the crews almost immediately. Both occupants of the other helicopter were pinned down by enemy fire coming from a tree line less than 50 yards from their position. Several aircraft had attempted to go in after them and had been turned away by intense enemy fire.
When we arrived on station the Command and Control ship was orbiting overhead. There were several slicks in the area and two Cobras, which had arrived about the same time we did. We were all communicating with each other via UHF, while the C & C ship had apparently established contact with the guys on the ground via FM. One of the men was injured and the other was trying to help him, while fighting off the bad guys with his personal weapon.
The mission commander quickly evaluated his new assets and came up with a plan. The Cobras would make a rocket attack on the tree line to cover us, while we picked up the two men on the ground. Two of the slicks would accompany us, providing more covering fire with their M-60s.
It was a good plan we felt comfortable with it. The Cobras started their run, with us right behind. The slicks moved into position slightly behind and on either side of us. As we descended, I clearly saw the two men on the ground. One was in the cabin area, the other standing on the skids. Tracers were flying all around them and they didn’t have much cover.
The first Cobra fired his rockets into the tree line at the enemy. The second Cobra was right in front of us, flying slow and with his nose angled slightly to the right. When we were about 200 feet from touchdown, he fired his rockets. Just as they exited the tubes, we heard somebody exclaim, “Oh, my God!” over the radio. Immediately, it became apparent why. One of the rockets fired by the second Cobra went wild and hit the OH-6, rupturing the fuel tank and enveloping the Loach and the two crew members in flames.
In shock, we broke off our approach. The C & C bird quietly released us from the mission.
The radios were dead silent as we headed back to base. Each of us felt the loss, though we didn’t know the victims. Most of the others were in the same unit and did know the men who had just been killed. I imagined the grief felt by the Cobra crew, whose rocket had done the damage. There was absolutely nothing they could have done to prevent what happened. It was a wild rocket that went more than thirty degrees off course. Still, you knew it was something they would live with a long, long time.