The first attack on the base camp outside of Tieu Can came just after midnight. It started with mortars–extremely accurate mortars. The first one landed inside the compound and left two ARVN soldiers dead. A few minutes later, the sniper fire started. The VC sniper obviously had a starlight scope. His firing into the compound was extremely accurate.
Several of the ARVNs slipped out of the camp prior to the first VC attempt to bridge the perimeter. This attempt was an assault on three sides simultaneously. The American advisor used flares to light up the area so that he and the remaining ARVNs could pick the VC off as they made their way through the concertina wire. There weren’t enough ARVNs to cover all three sides at once and two of the VC made it into the compound with hand grenades. By the time they were killed, eight more ARVNs were dead. Several more left the compound as soon as the flares burned out.
The American advisor called his commanding officer in Vinh Long and requested an evacuation. He told his commander that the gooks were coming through the wire and the ARVNs were deserting him. The C.O. promised to get him some help ASAP. His first action was to contact his Vietnamese counterpart to see if there was an ARVN patrol in the area that could be diverted to the outpost. The ARVN commander checked his situation map and noted that the nearest patrol had just left Cau Ke, over twenty kilometers away. He started them toward Tieu Can, but it would take them at least four hours to get there.
Meanwhile, the American advisor at the ARVN outpost advised that he only had seven loyal ARVNs left. The rest were either dead or had deserted. Ammunition was also in short supply. The C.O. promised to find a helicopter.
He called the 188th Assault Helicopter Company in Can Tho. He couldn’t reach the commanding officer, but was told by the night clerk there were no crews on duty. “This is an emergency!” the C.O. pleaded. There was nothing the specialist could do without finding his C.O. or the Operations Officer.
Desperate to save his man, the C.O.’s next call was to Dustoff Operations. He called the mission in clean, telling the RTO just exactly what was going down. Without hesitation, the RTO called the First-Up crew on the radio. Gary Chester was the AC. I was the Peter Pilot. We had just dropped off a load of patients at Phu Vinh. That put us less than ten minutes flying time from Tieu Can.
Gary flew in that direction, while I copied down the frequency and call sign of the American Advisor at the Tieu Can outpost.
I switched the FM radio to the new frequency and gave the guy a call. “Roadrunner two-three, this is Dustoff seven-eight.”
“Dustoff seven-eight, this is Roadrunner two-three,” came the immediate reply. There was just a hint of apprehension in his voice.
“I hear you have company down there.” I was still a newby, but already I had learned the technique of understatement. If you listened to our voices on the radio, we never encountered a situation that was too difficult to handle, or caused us to be afraid. (Roger that, Ops. We’ve lost a rotor blade and the engine’s on fire. We’ll be back with you in a minute-sort of the Chuck Yeager approach to life in the danger zone.) Maybe we felt it was our responsibility as pilots to present a calm, macho image in the midst of danger. This attitude tended to convince us we could do anything, which is how we managed to save lives.
Our “client” picked up on it right away. “Roger, Dustoff. We’ve got a few uninvited guests down here,” he replied.
“Are you ready to leave the party?” I asked.
“I could be convinced, Dustoff, if you could find it in your hearts to stop by and give me a ride.” The guy was probably scared out of his gourd, but since we hadn’t let on to him how scared we were, he couldn’t let on to us how scared he was.
By this time, we were close enough to see the action. Tracers were flying in both directions, but more were going in than were coming out. The incoming tracers were mostly red-from AK-47’s. The outgoing tracers were green M-16 tracers. If there was an M-60 in the compound, it was either out of ammo, or there was no one to fire it.
“Can you get to a point where we can pick you up?” I asked Roadrunner.
“On the blue side, Dustoff,” he responded. That indicated he would be coming out of the compound on the south side, near the canal.
“Roger, Roadrunner. Keep your head down, and give us a light when you can,” I told him.
“Wilco,” was his only reply.
Gary positioned the helicopter so that we could make an approach along the canal to an area just outside the camp. He started a descent before we saw the strobe. Our external lights were still off.
There were four of us in the helicopter and we were all on the edge of our seats. Our eyes were moving constantly, trying to take everything in. My hands were near the controls. We expected the VC to have been monitoring our radio conversations. They would be moving to cut off those fleeing the camp and hoping to bag a helicopter in the process.
I wanted to know how many we were picking up, but knew better than to ask. If Roadrunner told us, he would further weaken his position by giving the enemy his strength. We asked the crew if they were ready. M-16’s in hand, they both assured us they were. What we wouldn’t have given for a Seawolf or two about now.
The American Advisor and the four remaining ARVNs were crouched in some bushes waiting for us. They couldn’t tell where we were coming from. The thundering sound of the approaching helicopter could have been coming from anywhere. The scream of that turbine engine and the throbbing of those big rotor blades probably felt to them like they were being run over by a freight train. They told us later it was the sweetest sound they had ever heard.
When the sound was right on them, the American switched on his strobe light. I didn’t see it at first and neither did Gary. Pete Petersen, the medic, saw it first, almost directly below us. Gary made a hard left turn and I switched on the landing light. Immediately tracers came our way, but they were shooting behind us, misjudging our forward motion because of the darkness.
We were kicking up a lot of dust and a roll of concertina wire was blowing around in the rotor wash, so Gary took the helicopter to the ground. In the back, Pete, and Eddie, our crew chief, were laying down covering fire with their M-16’s, spraying the area where most of the incoming fire was originating. The American and the four ARVN’s dove for the open door on my side of the helicopter. He signaled for us to go. Three rounds shattered the plexiglass in the small, outward swinging door that was just behind Gary’s seat. I was on the controls with him and found myself taking them away as he reacted to the rounds impacting just behind his seat. I was pulling pitch and pedal-turning away from the firing at the same time. For some reason, we had forgotten to turn the landing light off and I flipped it off now and dumped the Huey’s nose. Gary was back on the controls, but continued to let me fly. As we climbed for altitude, we escaped the small arms fire and things settled down a little. It’s a good thing we were both still on the controls, however. The American sergeant we had just picked up was leaning over the console, trying to hug us both.
The next morning on an ash and trash run to Vinh Long, we flew over what had been the Tieu Can base camp the night before. There was nothing left but a blackened spot on the ground.