Copyright 2003. Paul Gregoire. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author. firstname.lastname@example.org
Most people never knew, or don’t remember, that South Korea supplied combat troops for service in Vietnam. At the height of their involvement there were two Korean army divisions and one Korean Marine Corps brigade serving in Vietnam, a total of over 48,000 men. In the fall of 1965 I was based at Qui Nhon with HMM-363 when the ROK (Republic of Korea) Tiger Division came ashore there. The division was tasked with the responsibility of protecting the northern approaches to Qui Nhon and immediately set about establishing base camps in the coastal plains to the north and northeast of the important port city. Although they were fairly well equipped, they had no helicopters attached as US Army divisions did. My squadron was assigned to fill some of their needs, such as troop transport, re-supply and medical evacuation. It was to be an interesting experience.
My first specific memory of working with the Koreans is the first time I was assigned as the C&C (Command and Control) aircraft for the division commander. I received my orders and directions from Captain Moon, their Air Operations officer who always accompanied the general, acting as his interpreter although I always suspected that the general always understood what was being said. Captain Moon spoke perfect, unaccented American English which he sprinkled with wonderful profanities at all the proper places. The division had been in place for only a few days and the general wanted to make an inspection tour of his battalions and their base camps spread throughout the area.
The general and his party got aboard my bird and we headed out to our first destination, which Moon had marked on the map for me. He also told me that there was an English speaking radio operator at the location and gave me the radio frequency and call sign to contact him. We headed out to the coordinates marked on the map and got there a few minutes later. I tried contacting the base camp while I orbited overhead but got no response after several tries. I told the crew chief to give Moon a headset so I could talk to him. I explained what the problem was and asked him what he wanted me to do. He gave me another frequency to try but there was no response on that one either. We had been orbiting for about 10 minutes and the general was getting impatient. Moon said, “The general wants to land — now!”
The camp was obviously in early stages of construction. It was located on a low hill mass that dominated the area around it. There were new fighting holes and trenches all around the perimeter and communications trenches crisscrossing the entire position. There were only a few bunkers that were obviously new. Most of the fighting positions were only covered with ponchos to protect the troops from the sun and rain. There was no marked landing zone to be seen anywhere and I explained that to Captain Moon. He replied, “I don’t give a shit! The general wants to land. Put it anywhere you can!”
It should have been obvious to the troops on the ground that we were going to land. It would have been to Americans but these Koreans didn’t have much experience with helicopters. I began a spiraling approach, being aware of the wind direction by the smoke rising from a couple of small cooking fires. I picked a spot that seemed clear of obstructions and holes and rolled out on final headed into the wind. I crossed the perimeter wire and the first line of holes at about 20 feet. It suddenly dawned on the troops milling around that we were going to land right there among them and they scattered, heading for the trenches. As I touched down, the rotor wash from the blades took effect. Stuff started flying everywhere — ponchos, empty ration boxes, personal gear and dust, lots of dust.
As soon as we settled down on the ground the inspection party was out the door, a staff major was leading the way. As the red dust settled a bit some poor shirtless bastard climbed out of a trench on our right side, a few yards away, gaping at us. As he stood there, dumbfounded, the major ran over and commenced to slap the hell out of him. I don’t know who he was but I think he was just some junior enlisted guy who had no idea who was in the helicopter or what was going on. He took the brunt of the major’s anger simply because he was there. We were directed to take off and orbit overhead until called for. There was another storm of ponchos, dirt and other debris as we took off and climbed to altitude.
About 15 minutes later we were called down to pick up the general. This time a smoke grenade was thrown into the spot we landed in earlier to show us wind direction. When we touched down this time all the loose gear in the area had been secured properly and there was no repeat of the previous shower of ponchos. There was a fairly large group present to see the general off. After much saluting and a few bows we were off to the next position.
The word must have gone out immediately to all the remaining units because there was no repeat of the first inspection. When I called on the radio I got an immediate answer from the ground. Smoke was deployed properly and the landing zones, such as they were at that time, were marked with colored cloth panels, clearly indicating where we were to land. There was a greeting party at all the positions and all loose gear was tied down. It was an amazing display of communications.
Nowadays, here at home, I occasionally run into Koreans, usually when I patronize just about any liquor store. They are invariably polite but often taciturn. It is a rare thing to see them smile. In Vietnam it was my experience that the Koreans smiled and laughed all the time. I recall a re-supply mission where we were taking a large amount of C rations into the field. At the pickup zone the Korean troops were working shirtless in the blazing heat, making endless trips back and forth with cases of rations. They were having a contest to see who could carry the most boxes of rations, which weighed 25 pounds each. They were laughing and joking amongst themselves as they staggered to and fro sagging under the weight of the ration boxes. They started out carrying four each but the number steadily grew until I saw one stout individual carrying 10 — 250 pounds! He was carrying them behind him, the boxes resting on his back and stacked high over his head. Nobody topped his score.
Later that same day a Korean walked into the tail rotor of one of our helicopters that was waiting to pick up some cargo. It was lucky for him that he was one of the few troops around wearing a helmet. The tail rotor blades whacked the hell out of him and knocked him silly but there were no permanent injuries. The last I saw him, he was laughing and showing his buddies the dent in his helmet.
On another occasion, when one of our birds was landing at a ROK position, one of the troops ran out and threw a “smoke” grenade just as he touched down. I was orbiting overhead and saw thin white smoke which was seemed odd. Usually colored smoke was used and I’d never seen this type before. When the pilot in the zone started screaming on the radio I learned what it was — tear gas! The Korean trooper had thrown a tear gas grenade to mark the LZ. There was a lot of consternation because the crew was incapacitated for a while. They finally got airborne after about 15 minutes and went home. The gas grenade was right under the nose and the rotor wash filled the cockpit and crew compartment with the evil stuff. The guy who threw it was dragged away by a couple of NCOs, probably for a bit of field punishment.
In this same time frame there was an unfortunate friendly fire incident at division headquarters. Somehow, and I have no idea how it happened, a 105mm artillery round landed directly on a truck loaded with troops. As I recall, we med-evaced about 20 seriously injured and 16 dead. Nobody was smiling that day.
About a week after the Tiger division went into the field they suffered their first KIA. He was hit by a sniper while on patrol near a small village. I flew out to the area to pick the body and a prisoner captured by the patrol. When I got back to the division CP the prisoner was taken away. I was told that he was the sniper that killed their guy. When I expressed some reservations that they had captured the sniper the ROKs were adamant — it was the guy and they had his weapon to prove it.
A few days passed before I was again assigned to the ROKs for the day. While at the division CP I asked Captain Moon what happened to the prisoner I had brought in. Moon answered, “He died.” That was all he had to say and I didn’t press the matter. Later, the rumor went around that the sniper was skinned alive and his body taken back to the village where he was captured. I don’t know if that’s true or not but, somehow, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.
Later, during my second tour in ‘67, I worked with the Koreans again. This time it was with the Korean Marines of the Blue Dragon Brigade. They were covering the southern approaches to Chu Lai, the large US air base south of Danang. I was with HMM-263, operating out of Ky Ha, the helicopter base just north of Chu Lai. I have a few firm recollections of working with the ROK Marines.
The first was an early morning med-evac mission involving four of our birds. One of the ROK positions had been attacked a few hours earlier and the enemy had been repulsed. From what we heard, it had been one hell of a fight and that the NVA had gotten inside the position. The fighting had been as basic as it gets — feet, fists, knives, entrenching tools, whatever was close by. I recall that the position was on a high hilltop plateau and that there was a Buddhist temple there. Although the position had been socked in all night, the weather was clearing quickly and I could see the results of the assault. There were NVA bodies still hanging in the perimeter wire and strewn throughout the position. Nobody was paying any attention to them at the time; everyone’s attention was directed to the wounded ROKs who were being assembled for evacuation. I don’t remember how many we pulled out of there but I recall that all four of us were full when we left.
The second incident was also a medevac. This was a daytime medevac, which meant that the med-evac team consisted of the med-evac helicopter and a Huey gunship from VMO-6, the squadron we shared our flight line with at Ky Ha. On this day my escorting gunship was being flown by Steve Pless, who would earn the Medal of Honor about a month later. To facilitate communications, the Koreans were assigned American radio operators from ANGLICO, the Air/Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. As we approached the coordinates for the med evac Steve contacted the unit on the ground. On this particular day the RTO sounded like a very young kid and he was scared. He came up on the air and in a shaky voice reported that the company command post was being overrun and that there was fighting all around him. I still remember his voice when he said simply, “We’re hand-to-hand in the zone. Please help us”
Steve Pless helped them. He went down into that place and hovered around, just over the top of the tall grass, firing his machine guns and rockets at whatever enemy he could see. His efforts allowed the Koreans to pull back to a small copse of trees about 50 meters away and reorganize. Just as they got back to those trees the kid on the ground said that their med evacs were very critical and needed to be pulled out immediately if they were going to live. It was our turn to do what we were there for so I started a hair-raising descent in autorotation and we went down and picked up the wounded. We got them all out and didn’t lose any on the way to the hospital. Pless stayed around until he was relieved by a section of gunships from his squadron. I bought him a drink that night.
The Koreans had a reputation for toughness. I have no argument with that assesment but they also had a few foibles. I never saw a Korean unit operating in the field in less than company strength. They always moved in a mass. They were also the best mine detectors I ever saw. If there was mine or booby trap within 100 meters of a Korean unit one of their troops would usually trip it. This propensity came to light in spades one day when a Korean Marine company wandered into a heavily booby trapped and mined area. The first mine was most likely a command detonated artillery round that caused a lot of casualties. That was followed by the troops scattering into adjoining rice paddies and setting off a whole series of booby traps and mines. I was about half way through my day medevac standby when the call came in. We were in the air within minutes and headed south to the pickup zone. Normally, the med-evac aircraft had a Navy medical corpsman aboard but on this day that function was being filled by our squadron flight surgeon who often went along on med-evacs. The Koreans were fortunate that he was there that day.
The trip to the LZ was routine and we arrived overhead rather quickly. The information we had received was sketchy so we didn’t know for certain how many medevacs we had to pick up. The radio operator told us that they weren’t receiving any fire but I had to land with my right wheel directly on top of the panel he had laid out. When I asked why, I was informed about the mines. That was my first inkling as to what had happened. I then asked how many wounded he had and he answered with, “How many can you take?”. I didn’t like the sound of that so I asked him how many were emergencies. Emergency med-evacs were those that would probably die within an hour if they didn’t get to a hospital. He said he wasn’t sure but probably had about 15 emergencies. I took stock of the situation. I had about 600 lbs of fuel aboard along with five crew members. The doc probably had about a hundred pounds of medical gear. With the temperature and humidity the way it was the charts would probably say that we could carry about seven or maybe eight medevacs. I told the doctor that he would have to triage the wounded because we couldn’t take them all.
The landing was easy and there was no ground fire. I put my right wheel directly on top of the panel as I had been directed to. The Koreans started to bring their wounded to the aircraft. Some were walking while other were being carried or dragged in ponchos. The flight surgeon stood outside the door and checked each man as he came close. Some were told to step aside while others were put aboard. The process was slow as the doc thoroughly checked the wounds. After a few minutes there were eight men aboard the helicopter and there was still a line waiting to be checked. The doc looked up at me and I could see the concern in his eyes. I thought it over again. We were in a dry rice paddy area that stretched out in front of me for several hundred meters. The only obstacle was some shrubbery directly in front of me about 20 meters away. It didn’t look too thick and I figured we could smash our way through it without too much effort or damage. I felt I could make sort of a rolling take off and, hence, carry a bigger payload.I held out three fingers to indicate that we’d take that many more med-evacs.
Three more wounded were soon loaded aboard but there were still more waiting. I asked the crew chief to ask the doc how many more emergencies there were and to give me a firm number. I watched as the doc went down the line toward the tail of the helicopter and out of sight, checking over each of the wounded, making a life and death decision with each one. He came back into view a few minutes later and held up six fingers. Six more — a total of 17! As he stood there looking up at me I made my decision and nodded my head. We were going to take them all.
When the medevacs were all aboard the crew chief told me that they were all ready to go. They were packed tightly into every available bit of space in the passenger compartment and the doc was already working on them. Now it was time to get out of there. I grabbed the motorcycle-type throttle on the end of the collective control and twisted it until the engine was at takeoff RPM — 2800 RPM or “turns” as we called them. I then began pulling up on the collective which increased the pitch on the rotor blades and increased the manifold pressure of the engine. On a standard day there are 52 ½ inches of manifold pressure available in the H-34 engine. There was never a standard day in Vietnam and therefore that much manifold pressure was rarely available at 2800 turns. More manifold pressure required more RPM but red line RPM was 2850. Anything over 2800 had to be entered into the aircraft’s log book. RPM over 2850 required that the oil be drained, checked for metal shavings and the strainers be checked and cleaned. RPM over 2900 required that the spark plugs be removed and each of the nine cylinders checked for damage with a borescope. 3000 RPM required an engine change. All of this work was performed by the crew chiefs after they had flown a full day.
I soon came to the realization that we couldn’t get airborne using 2800 turns so I told the crew chief that I was going to have to get rough with his bird. He simply said, “Yes sir. I know.” I squeezed the throttle up to 2900 RPM and eased the collective up. She started to get light on the struts but I could tell that 2900 wouldn’t do it so I kept squeezing on turns. At 3000 we were light enough on the struts that I could push a little forward cyclic to get us moving forward. With the engine screaming way beyond the red line we began our takeoff “roll” across the paddy, bouncing heavily across the rough ground. Just as we broke free of the ground we smashed into the bushes and small trees in our path. That caused us to lose forward momentum and lift and we hit the ground again after clearing the brush but we were still moving forward at a higher speed. I kept the turns where they were as we bounced our way across the paddy, trying our damndest to get airborne. The airspeed kept climbing which was a good sign. Then, suddenly, I saw a paddy dike directly in front of us . The dike was only about 2 feet high but it looked like it might be high enough to roll us up into a flaming ball. I squeezed on a bit more RPMs and eased the collective up in an attempt to get over the dike. We hit it just a few inches below the top which bounced us up a few feet into the air. As we started coming down I eased the nose over a bit to try to increase our airspeed and was rewarded with feeling the bird shudder slightly as we reached translational lift speed. Suddenly we were flying! Low and slow at first but the airspeed continued to climb as we staggered into the air.
As soon as I got us established in a slow, steady climb I eased back the power to 2800 turns and told the crew chief that I had ruined his engine. He was busy helping the doc and simply acknowledged with two clicks on the intercom. Then I called the Korean unit and told them that I’d try to get more help to them for their priority med-evacs that I had to leave behind. The American radio operator acknowledged then said, ”You guys shouldn’t take off like that. There’s mines out there!” I thanked him for his advice and switched radio frequency.
The rest of the mission was fairly uneventful. The landing at the hospital was a bit of a controlled crash due to being overweight but we got our passengers delivered safely and returned to Ky Ha where I downed the aircraft for a mandatory engine change. The maintenance officer asked me a few questions about what happened but I never heard another word about the incident. Two other helicopters were sent to pick up the remaining wounded and dead and I checked out another bird to finish up the day with. I don’t recall flying again that day.