For several days near the end of 1971, we all knew something was going on, but only the select few were privy to the facts. The CO’s office was home to a bunch of closed door meetings with people from Can Tho. That was really unusual and naturally started the rumor mill flying. Finally, on December 22, several more of us were included in the briefings.
We were informed that Army Intelligence (I know, I know, an oxymoron) had determined that a number of American POWs were being held in camp in the lower region of the U Minh forest. Some time before Christmas, they were going to be moved to the coast and picked up by boats that would transport them to Hanoi. We were putting together a mission to attempt a rescue before the prisoners were moved. The mission was in the hands of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company, but the 57th Medical Detachment was sending two crews along to pick up the prisoners in case they needed medical attention.
Naturally a mission like this would involve the possibility of medals. So it was a no-brainer that the two aircraft commanders were the CO and the Operations officer. Through the luck of the draw I was one of the Peter Pilots.
We left Binh Thuy well before daybreak on the morning of the mission. Just south of Can Tho, we joined up with several helicopters from the 188th. There was a C&C ship, accompanied by six Cobras, and five slicks loaded with combat assault troops. We each knew our mission. The guns were to create a diversion while the slicks dropped the troops in to secure the area and release the prisoners. Then we would come in to pick up the freed prisoners, while the guns flew cover. The slicks would pick up the troops and we would all head for home. The plan’s success depended upon immaculate timing and knowing exactly where the bad guys and the prisoners were located. The full bird colonel in the C&C ship had all of that covered.
The plan was an exciting one and the thought that we might get some POWs freedom as a Christmas present had the Dustoff crews all keyed up. The conversation in our helicopter was subdued, but much was said with eye contact and the business-like precision with which we carried out our routine tasks. I felt it, I know the others did, too-part fear, part excitement, and an adrenaline high that began long before the action would start.
The helicopters from Can Tho were circling in a wide orbit south of the airfield, waiting for us to arrive and for everyone to join up in formation. We picked our spot and fell in behind the slicks on the right side of the staggered trail formation. The Cobras flew off to either side of the main group. When we were all joined up, the C&C ship broke radio silence with one short comment on FM. “Flight’s up lead.” The lead slick turned south with the whole formation in tow.
The mission profile called for us to arrive at the site of the POW camp at daybreak. We all had the plotted the mission coordinates on our tactical charts just before takeoff, but it was the lead slick’s job to get us to the right place. The POWs were located forty-five klicks south of Quanh Long. We refueled at Quanh Long in the pre-dawn darkness.
Departing the Quanh Long strip, the guns took off first, then everybody else fell in. There would be absolute radio silence from here on out. The C&C ship supposedly had radio contact via the scrambled KY-28 FM radio. (Those things never worked for us.) Success of the mission depended upon total surprise, which would be hard to accomplish with so many aircraft heading south at the same time. The Viet Cong communication lines would be busy.
We were halfway between Quanh Long and the POW camp when the mission commander came on the air-to-air radio with a short simple statement. “The mission is off, boys. Let’s go home.”
I looked over at Captain Lange, my CO, who was our AC on the mission. He was in the dark as much as I was. He just shrugged his shoulders and offered me the controls. The lead slick began a turn back to the north. We communicated with the other Dustoff ship and decided to break off from the formation and head back to Binh Thuy on our own.
We all knew better than to try to get details over the radio. We would just have to wait until we got back to operations to find out what happened.
The mood was somber as the eight of us walked back into operations to put up our survival gear and weapons. The RTO didn’t know any more than we did about why the mission was cancelled. Captain Lange went into his office and closed the door. It took him a few minutes, but he finally made contact via phone with someone who told him what had happened. All seven of us were waiting when he came out to tell us what he had learned.
“They had the prisoners in bamboo cages,” he explained. “They had them close to the river. If we had come in, they would have dumped the cages in the river, before we could have stopped them. The prisoners would have all drowned.”
Some Christmas present