Saber Article Index

2001 Jul-Aug

MEDEVAC 15th Med\15th FSB
Mike Bodnar
307B N Main Copperas Cove, TX 76522
1704 254-542-1961

I was informed that long time MEDEVAC and 7th Cav Medic Jim HALL is reported K.I.A. due to an auto accident. GARRYOWEN! Jim, R.I.P. And thanks always, SO THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE.

Dennis O'DONNELL DENNISODNL@AOL.COM from Denver, CO writes in and says that he was assigned to 15th MED in April of '66 at An Khe. He says that the orderly room had the words in bold letters over the door: "Through These Doors Passed the Best Damn Medics in the World."

He also says that he would love to locate a SFC Charles D. CLINTSMAN, whom he says, "Was one hell of a soldier and medic. [He] Always cared more for his men than himself. Felt it his duty to stay in Vietnam after his first year, as he said, 'This is what I was 'trained' to do.' Best lifer I ever met!!!"

Dan PORTER DANIELF@BIGPLANET.COM wrote in to say that he served with HHC, 15th MED BN in 1969, Phouc Vinh and with CO C in Quan Loi.

Jim BLACK HEADHUNTERS9@HOTMAIL.COM wrote again to say: "Hi Mike, This is 'Blackie' again with a bit of info for you and your column. I'm in touch with the American Legion Post in Jeffersontown, KY (a suburb of Louisville) and they are dedicating a Veterans Memorial Park 27 May 01. The park features 2 AA guns, a tank, and a UH-1 H helicopter. There seems to be something special about this helicopter (at least to me) that might interest you and your readers. Though this bird has received a new coat of paint, I was told that this bird had a MEDEVAC emblem painted on both sliding doors and a CAV patch painted on the vertical tail when the bird arrived to be painted. I have been able to obtain this bird's serial #, which is 68-16405. Since the repainting, this memorial piece only sports a good sized CAV patch on its nose. Betty and I will be going to the dedication and take some pics of the bird-which I will forward to you for your column. Well gotta get moving. Take Care, First Team, Blackie P.S.- So far nothing is happening with what you mentioned in your last article for me."

Ric HOOVER RHOOVERJ@TAMPABAY.RR.COM from Largo, FL, wrote in to say that he served with C Co 15 Med BN, 3 Bde 1 Air Cav from Jan '66-Jan '67.

Dick SAUNDERS RLSAUNDERS66@JUNO.COM from TX says that he served with B Co 15th Med Bn from Jan 2, '68 until Dec 31, '68.

I got snail mail from Doug CAMPBELL who was a MEDEVAC crew chief of aircraft #67-17624 from Oct '71 through Jan '72, out of FSB Mace. Doug wrote in response to one of my columns, probably when I mentioned that the 1st Cav put M-60s on MEDEVAC in Jan '66 and that they stayed on, the only aeromedical evacuation unit in Vietnam to have fixed armament.

Doug says that at the start of '72 they did remove their 60s. He refers to an article in the Jan '72 "Garryowen" about supporting 2-5 Cav on Jan 03, '72. I infer that was a combat mission, and not the "garrison duty" that they were told they had then become, which is why he goes on to say that they also had to paint their MEDEVACs white!

Doug says that MEDEVAC at his time was still pulling hoist missions in triple canopy on the majority of the "contact" missions. He says that once his first up aircraft out of Bien Hoa was interviewed by both CBS and NBC news and asked how they felt about having to remove their 60s, and painting their MEDEVACs white.

He says that only speaking for the E.M., they did not much care for losing their 60s but were outraged at having to paint their aircrafts white! He says that the red crosses had presented enough of a target and that all the new S.O.P. would be further endangering the lives of the wounded and crew.

Doug also said that for him, MEDEVAC was the best duty in- country. He ended his letter by saying that the only downside of his time there was that they were expected to be more "stateside" due to their "stepping down," which would have been the end of the 1st Cav' assignment in Vietnam.

I had read about why the red crosses were retained, and the later painting of the helicopters white, in the out of print G.P.O. book: ARMY AEROMEDICAL EVACUATION IN VIETNAM by Peter DORLAND and James NANNEY, <HTTP: d ustoff> in the section titled: "Enemy Fire," which I include below:

"Although pilot error and mechanical failure accounted for more aircraft and crew losses in Vietnam than enemy fire, the air ambulance pilots worried more about the latter danger than the other more controllable ones. Once the buildup got under way in 1965, any air ambulance pilot who served a full, one-year tour could expect to have his aircraft hit by the enemy at least once. When hoist missions became a routine part of air ambulance work in late 1966, enemy fire became especially dangerous. Although the pilots devised ways of reducing the danger, such efforts barely kept pace with improvements in enemy weaponry and marksmanship.

"Before the buildup began the pilots had little more than homemade weapons to fear. In 1962 and 1963 the 57th Air Ambulance Detachment suffered less from enemy fire than the nonmedical helicopter units, partly because of the limited number of missions the unit flew in this period. The unit's five ambulance helicopters flew a total of only 2,800 hours those two years, and no pilot or crewman was wounded or killed in action. To get their minimum flight time and provide themselves some insurance against a lucky enemy hit, the pilots started flying two ships on each mission. But once the buildup got under way in late 1964 the unit went back to single ship missions, and most of the division and non-divisional air ambulance units that later joined them also followed this practice.

"The return to single-ship missions demanded a few unorthodox procedures. International custom and the Geneva Conventions, which the United States considered itself bound to observe, dictated that an ambulance not carry arms or ammunition and not engage in combat. But in Vietnam the frequent enemy fire at air ambulances marked with red crosses made this policy unrealistic. Early in the war the crews started taking along .45-caliber pistols, M14 rifles, and sometimes M79 grenade launchers. The ground crews installed extra armor plating on the backs and sides of the pilots' seats. The hoist missions, introduced in the late fall of 1966, produced a high rate of aircraft losses and crewmember casualties.  Although at this stage of the war gunship escorts for air ambulance missions were still hard to arrange, only the Air Ambulance Platoon of the 1st Cavalry responded to the new danger by putting machine guns on their aircraft. At first the unit simply suspended two M60's on straps from the roof over the cargo doors. Later they installed fixed mechanical mountings for the guns. A platoon aircraft also usually carried a gunner as a fifth crewmember to handle one of the M60's. Later in the war many of the air ambulance units, both divisional and non-divisional, tried to arrange gunship escorts, especially for hoist missions, to pickup zones that had been called in as insecure. Throughout the war, however, such escorts proved hard to obtain, because aeromedical evacuation was always a secondary mission for a gunship in a combat zone.

"None of these defensive measures reduced the rate of air ambulance losses in the war; they only prevented it from approaching a prohibitive level. Most of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers clearly considered the air ambulances just another target. A Viet Cong document captured in early 1964 describing U.S. helicopters read: "The type used to transport commanders or casualties looks like a ladle. Lead this type aircraft I times its length when in flight. It is good to fire at the engine section when it is hovering or landing." Fortunately Viet Cong weapons early in the war made a helicopter kill virtually impossible. Late in 1964, however, the North Vietnamese began to supply the Viet Cong with large amounts of sophisticated firearms: Chinese Communist copies of the Soviet AK47 assault rifle, the SKS semiautomatic carbine, and the RPD light machine gun. The introduction of these new enemy weapons in 1965-66 and of the hoist missions in late 1966 caused a dramatic increase in 1967 in the rate of enemy hits on air ambulances. Only in April 1972, however, when the United States was well along in turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, did the air ambulance have to contend with the Soviet SA-7 heat-seeking missile. This antiaircraft device was about five feet long, weighed thirty-three pounds, and had a range of almost six miles. A pilot had little warning of the missile's approach other than a quick glimpse of its white vapor trail just before it separated the tail boom from his aircraft. This weapon downed several air ambulances in the last year of U.S. participation in the war.

"The missile also disrupted the most elaborate effort the Army made during the war to reduce the losses of air ambulances: a change of their color. The 1949 Geneva Conventions did not require that air ambulances be painted white, and for their first nine years in Vietnam the Army's air ambulances were the standard olive drab, medically marked only by red crosses on small white background squares. Early in the war many of the pilots thought that the crosses improved the enemy's aim at their ships, and the unit commanders had to resist pressure to remove the markings. Arguing that they would be unable to keep aircraft that looked like transports dedicated to a medical mission, the commanders prevailed, and the red crosses remained for the rest of the war.

"By mid-1971, however, the high loss rate for air ambulances over the last six years produced much doubt about the olive drab color scheme. Believing that making the aircraft more distinctive might be the answer, the Army Medical Command in Vietnam secured approval in August to paint some of its aircraft white. The Command also was allowed to try to persuade the enemy that the white helicopters were for medical use only and should not be fired on. Thousands of posters were to be distributed and millions of leaflets dropped over enemy-held territory. The most elaborate leaflet read: 'Some new medical helicopters not only have Red Cross markings on all sides but they also are painted white instead of green. This is to help you recognize them better than before in order to give the wounded a better chance to get fast medical help. Like all other medical helicopters, these new white helicopters are not armed, do not carry ammunition, and their only mission is to save endangered lives without distinction as to civilians or soldiers, friend or foe. 'MEDICAL HELICOPTERS ARE USED FOR RESCUE MISSIONS AND THEY ARE NOT ENGAGED IN COMBAT. YOU SHOULD NOT FIRE AT THEM.'

"An enemy soldier still intent on bringing down any U.S. helicopter would now find the white helicopters excellent targets against a background of forests, hills, or mountains. All armaments now had to be removed from the ambulances, and gunship escorts could no longer furnish close support. Unless the information campaign were successful, the air ambulances would encounter more rather than less resistance. But the risk, while undeniable, seemed justifiable in view of combat loss statistics: from January 1970 through April 1971 the air ambulance combat loss rate was about 2.5 times as great as that for all Army helicopters. Something had to be done.

"The test program for white helicopters, begun on 1 October 1971, soon produced encouraging preliminary results. In November the Army medical command received permission to paint all of its remaining fifty air ambulances white. However, the drawdown of U.S. forces was now in full swing. The test, which terminated the following April, had begun too late in the conflict and with too few helicopters to produce conclusive results. The white helicopters at least had not proven any more dangerous than those painted olive drab. On 28 April 1972 the MACV Surgeon recommended to the Surgeon General that white helicopters continue to be used for medical evacuation by the dwindling number of Army units in Vietnam.

"But in the same month the enemy's introduction of the heat- seeking SA7 missile to South Vietnam put Army medical planners in a new quandary. To navigate properly, most air ambulance pilots could not fly to and from a pickup zone at altitudes low enough to enable the enemy on the ground to discern the white color and the red crosses. Except at the pickup zone, the white ambulances were as vulnerable as any other Army olive drab aircraft. Between 1 July 1972 and 8 January 1973 the enemy fired eight heat-seeking missiles at white air ambulances. The only protection against the SA7 was a new paint that reflected little of the engine's infrared radiation but dried to a dull charcoal green. In January 1973 USARV/MACV Support Command directed that all U.S. Army air ambulances in Vietnam be painted with the new protective paint. Research began on a white protective paint, but before any significant progress could be made the war ended."

I never thought that I would hear from a MEDEVAC veteran of the "last shift" like Doug CAMPBELL, but that shows who is out there and paying attention, as well as interested enough to reply. Unlike some, I will try to publish anything pertinent that you send in to me, but like Doug, you have to send it, which includes e-mailing it to me. If you have an interest to publish your stories of your experiences, send them to me, if you do not, they will never get read by those 1st Cav veterans who are interested.

Another veteran who has shown that interest along with his long, notable Army career is James M. MCDONALD, MEDEVAC PSG '70-'71, who wrote the following story: "When was the last MEDEVAC Mission?"

"Although 26 March 1971 officially marked the end of duties in Vietnam for the 1st Cavalry Division, President Nixon's program of "Vietnamization" required the continued presence of a strong U.S. fighting force. The 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment, 1st Battalion of the 7th Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Regiment and 1st Battalion of the 12th Regiment along with specialized support units as "F" Troop, 9th Cavalry and Delta Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion helped establish the 3rd Brigade headquarters at Bien Hoa. Its primary mission was to interdict enemy infiltration and supply routes in War Zone D. "The 3rd Brigade was well equipped with helicopters from the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion and later, a battery of "BLUE MAX," aerial field units and two air cavalry troops.  A QRF (Quick Reaction Force) -known as "Blue Platoons," was maintained in support of any air assault action. The "Blues" traveled light, fought hard and had three primary missions; 1) to form a "field force" around any helicopter downed by enemy fire or mechanical failure; 2) to give quick backup to Ranger Patrols who made enemy contact; and 3) to search for enemy trails, caches and bunker complexes.

"BLUE MAX," "F" Battery, 79th Aerial Rocket Artillery, was another familiar aerial artillery unit. Greatly appreciated by troopers of the 1st Cavalry, its heavily armed Cobras flew a variety of fire missions in support of the operations of the 3rd Brigade. The pilots of "BLUE MAX" were among the most experienced combat fliers in the Vietnam War. Many had volunteered for the extra duty to cover the extended stay of the 1st Cavalry Division.

"On 30 March 1972, General GIAP of the North Vietnamese Army began an offensive across the DMZ in a final attempt to unify the North and South. By 03 April, these thrusts became a full scale attack. More than 48,000 NVA and VC troops hit Loc Ninh. Two days later, on 05 April, the North Vietnamese threw heavy assaults against An Loc and announced that by 20 April, An Loc would be the new capital of the South for the North Vietnamese. "In April and May, stepped up bombings by B-52's helped blunt the North Vietnamese invasion. Large groups of enemy soldiers were caught in the open fields and entire NVA units were destroyed. Helicopters and gunships from the 3rd Brigade saw heavy action at An Loc and Loc Ninh, engaging heavy armor as well as ground troops. The intensity of the fighting took a heavy toll on them. For example, on 12 May, five Cobra Ships were destroyed in less than 30 minutes by Chinese Surface-to- Air (SA-7) Missiles.

"On 15 May, relief units, moving down Highway 13, broke through and helped lift the bitter siege of An Loc. The North Vietnamese were reeling from huge losses and began to withdraw to their sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos. Their spring offensive aimed at cutting South Vietnam in half and capturing Saigon had been decisively smashed. The helo air effort of the 3rd Brigade had turned in a magnificent performance in support of the remaining advisors with the ARVN units. During the period of 05 April through 15 May 1972, more than 100 T54 tanks, armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft guns were knocked out in the area around An Loc.

"By 31 March 1972, only 96,000 U.S. troops were involved in the Vietnam combat operations. In less than two months later, the last of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 3rd Brigade, began its "Stand Down" in a phased withdrawal and was bought back to the United States, completing the division recall on 26 June 1972, which had started over a year earlier on 05 May 1971. The 1st Cavalry Division had been the first army division to go to Vietnam and the last to leave. I want to find out when was the "LAST MEDEVAC MISSION FLOWN IN RVN"?

 Always remembering our 1st Cav troops on duty around the world; over and out.

Mike Bodnar C 2\7 '69
MEDEVAC 1-7\70

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