I was the Aeroscout Platoon leader flying OH-6A scout helicopters for F Troop, 9th Cavalry, from 7 Sep 72 until the Vietnam cease fire announcement by President Nixon on 23 Jan 73. While still learning the ropes from the veteran scout pilots, I was flying as co-pilot in the left seat with the pilot CW2 Tim Knight on 26 Sep 72.
We were on a mission in the eastern part of our area of operations when the Troop Commander gave a radio call for all of us to head west to Lai Khe for refueling and then fly to the Michelin rubber plantation to rescue a Marine A-4 pilot who ejected from his aircraft after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.
An Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) saw the pilot parachute into the rubber trees and had a good idea of his location. Our plan was to fly to that location at tree top level in a V formation lead by the scout with two AH-1G Cobras slightly behind and on the scout’s left and right. Above us at 1500 feet was the Troop Commander (our Command & Control) in a UH-1H Huey and a Medevac Huey.
The OH-6A had no doors so I searched to the front and left, the pilot front and right plus flying the aircraft, and our enlisted man gunner on the floor in the back right side looking right and to the rear. I had a CAR-15 with three 30 round magazines taped together for easy loading. Our first pass over the area was incredible – there were NVA soldiers in blue uniforms looking and shooting at us, trucks, picnic tables, and 55-gallon drums all over the place. We could hear the A-4 pilot’s survival radio’s beeper, but he did not answer our calls for him to come up on voice. We did not return fire because of concerns about our A-4 pilot on the ground somewhere nearby. Our next pass from a different direction was even more difficult because the enemy gunfire was now intense, and the Cobras were now getting hit. We realized we needed to protect ourselves. The gunner in the back of the aircraft fired at the enemy with his M-60 machine gun and I fired all 90 rounds from my CAR-15. We still could only hear the beeper from the survival radio, but no voice and we could not locate him visually. Before initiating our next pass, the Troop Commander ordered us to come up to altitude and informed us that we needed to return to our home station. A Jolly Green USAF rescue helicopter was coming on station and would continue the search. All of us felt terrible because we failed in our mission. The Troop Commander, among the bravest of all, had to make a hard decision. Both Cobras had multiple bullet holes – things were starting to go completely downhill.
After the 23 Jan 73 cease fire announcement (the cease fire went into effect on 27 Jan 73), I was assigned to Saigon to the Four Party Joint Military Commission (JMC) flying UH-1Hs. Our mission was to fly US, ARVN, NVA, and Vietcong (VC) leaders to negotiate prisoner releases (usually VC releases). I experienced VC releases out of C-130s and lead one out of CH-47s. But the best was yet to come! On 15 Feb 73 our aviation group received the mission to fly to Loc Ninh the next morning and bring back 29 American POWs to Saigon!
However, out of the woodwork the morning of 16 Feb 73 appeared many senior officer aviators who took the mission instead. Since we had no mission, my co-pilot, 1LT Ray Dabney, (a great pilot even though he was a Texas A&M Aggie) and I went to the Tan Son Nuht Officer’s Club and started drinking beer. Around 1500, our boss burst into the bar and told us that the POW release had still not happened. Looking at us and our beers, he sheepishly asked ‘can you guys fly’? Of course, we answered ‘YES’!
We flew a US LTC and Sergeant interpreter, two senior VC officers, and an NVA liaison with the ‘real paperwork,’ so we were told, to Loc Ninh. Upon landing at Loc Ninh, my co-pilot, Ray, and I had to stay on the helicopter. Our passengers got out and met with their counterparts. I gave my camera to an Indonesian photographer (a member of the other post-cease fire organization – the UN International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS)) so he could take some pictures of the POWs for me. Within minutes, out came the US POWs in trucks from the woods nearby. I saw them get out of the trucks, greet the senior US officers, and walk by me, including a POW on a stretcher, to the helicopters that would fly them to Saigon.
At the club that night, one of my old Scout platoon pilots grabbed me and said we needed to meet a Marine COL, who was the wing commander of the A-4 pilot shot down in Sep 72. We sat with him at the bar and re-lived our failed rescue mission. He told us that he had good news – his A-4 pilot was in the group of 29 POWs just released! He must have been able to see him. The lists of to be released POWs were provided to the senior Four Party JMC officials prior to all POW releases in Vietnam. If I recall correctly, the COL told us (or someone else did later) that his pilot crashed through the rubber trees with his parachute and broke his leg. He hunched himself up, sat with his back against a tree, pulled out his .38 caliber pistol, and shot two NVA before they overpowered him and clubbed him unconscious. His leg was badly damaged, and he did not get much medical support in captivity.
That POW on the stretcher was the young man that we tried to rescue in Sep 72. Learning this brought tears of both joy and thanks to my eyes. Hooray!
After being contacted about my POW story, I decided to do some ‘Google research’ about the Vietnam cease fire agreement, the Four Party JMC, and the ICCS. The research was fascinating, especially the New York Times 25 Jan 73 article entitled ‘The Vietnam Agreement and Protocols’. I had never seen any of this information before. The article contained the 24 Jan 73 White House release of the texts of the Vietnam cease fire agreement initialed by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho and the four accompanying protocols detailing the means of carrying it out.
It sure would have been helpful to have seen this information when it was released in 1973 instead of seeing it for the first time in 2020! The other exciting document was a book written by LTC Walter S. Dillard, USA, the chief historian for the US delegation to the Four Party JMC under the command of MG Gilbert Woodward, USA.
LTC Dillard’s book, ’60 Days to Peace’, contained an interesting section describing the subject of my POW story.
I learned from the book why there was such a long delay (at least seven hours) in the US POW release, which is what lead to my involvement. The author stated that there were differences of opinion or misunderstandings within the Vietcong and South Vietnam delegation leaders. The US POW release per the cease fire agreement was to be an independent action. The Vietcong believed that the US POW release at Loc Ninh was contingent upon their own VC POW release by the South Vietnamese at Bien Hoa. From there, the VC POW return was set to occur at Loch Ninh on the same day as the US POW release. So, at Loc Ninh the morning of 16 Feb 73, the VC refused to release the Americans until their own POWs were returned. The Vietcong blamed the South Vietnam leaders for delaying the VC POW release at Bien Hoa. However, it actually was delayed because the Vietcong POWs staged a sit-down strike. They did not believe that there were actual VC or NVA members in the Four Party JMC. This confusion led to messy and frustrating negotiations among all parties of the JMC to reach a final resolution. The US prevailed mostly because of the leadership of MG Woodward who took a tough stand with the Vietcong senior leaders, finally leading to an agreement. This long delay is what led to Ray and me getting the mission to fly the five liaisons from the Four Party JMC to Loc Ninh with the actual agreement to release the US POWs. Pretty amazing to learn the real story 53 years after the fact!