Angry Eyes at A Shau
by George Twardzik
The following experience occurred in the A Shau Valley around March 25, 1966, which demonstrates the down and dirty gut spirit of Marine helicopter pilots and aircrew, especially the can-do, will-do character of my outfit, Marine Helicopter Squadron -163.
At the time, I was a PFC flying as a gunner in the UH-34Ds, based at Phu Bai. Around March 23rd, we received a frantic call from an Army special forces unit of about 220 men who were in a very critical situation at their outpost in the Ashau Valley. The special forces were under siege from an enemy force estimated to be 3000 men. An Army helo sped in to assist them and was promptly shot down. It was determined that the outpost could not be saved because the risks were so great, and that all military units were to stand down and stay away from the Ashau outpost.
We could hear them begging over the radio for medevacs, ammo and water for three days. Finally, our squadron skipper had had it. He strode rapidly from the radio shack to one of the H-34s when he stopped in his tracks and turned to the waiting pilots and aircrews. He said he was “going for a ride,” and if anyone else wanted to go he was not going to stop them. Everyone raced for their birds and powered up for the flight to Ashau.
The skipper’s helo and three others in the first wave, were immediately shot down. Since this happened late in the day, the other helos returned to Phu Bai. Next morning, HMM-163 “angry eyes” helos returned to Ashau. Americans were dispersed all over the zone, singly and in groups. We sighted three or four running near the old runway, so we spiraled on in to pick them up. We could hear a .50 cal. machine gun popping away at us on our approach. It missed us as we scooped up the soldiers and spiraled up and away. The .50 was shooting at us all the while but once again, we were very lucky and flew out of trouble.
We had a lump in our throats when we spotted some of our aircrews in the zone. We went on in and hoisted them aboard into the cabin. An M-60 machine gun came up on the hoist first. I grabbed it and set it up out the aft escape hatch where a rescued gunner put it into action.
I had on an Army flack jacket since we were short of the USMC regulation ones, and was secured in the cabin helo by a gunner’s belt hooked to a “D” ring on the deck. Our luck ran out, when the enemy .50 cal. machine gun found our helo and I was hit squarely in the chest. I lost it. I was told later by the crewchief that the force of the round drove me completely out of the cabin doorway and into space. When the safety belt reached the end of its travel, it snapped me back right into the cabin!
Other rounds hit the helo; one of them penetrated the radio compartment and ignited a 5 gallon can of engine oil we had stored there. It burst into flames and filled the helo with acrid smoke. The pilot secured the engine and autorotated down to a safe landing below. As we touched down we managed to pitch the burning oil can overboard and put out the remains of the fire.
After we pulled the seat cushions out of our butts, the pilot restarted the engine, engaged the rotors and took off, dragging the main gear through the tree tops as we headed for Phu Bai. I must have smoked a whole pack of cigarettes on the twenty minute return flight! After we landed and secured, I got out of the 34 to view the battle damage. The aircraft was sieved with bullet holes. My flack jacket had a burn mark in the center of the chest area. Thank God for small miracles!
Air Force A-1 “Skyraiders” dropped their loads and strafed the surrounding enemy while supporting us. Even when they ran out of ammunition, they continued to make runs with their landing gear down, to take the heat off of the trapped GIs and aircrews. One of the “spads” as they were called, was hit and had to make an emergency landing on the old strip. One of his buddies immediately landed behind him; and stuffed the downed pilot in his lap, and took off safely. I heard later on that the rescue pilot got the Congressional Medal of Honor for his brave deed.
As it turned out that day, we saved all the HMM-163 aircrews who went down the evening before. I learned that Sgt Puckett, an aircrewman who was forced down, grabbed his M-60 machine gun, leaped out of his helo and dived into a bunker while under enemy fire. He then set up his M-60 and joined the other “grunts’ who had a mortar and another machine gun blazing away. Puckett was the only one to get out of that bunker alive, as it turned out. Fighting was furious.
As it turned out, we also saved around 190 of the 220 men who were trapped in the zone, which looked like an aircraft parking lot by the time we were finished the mission. By the time it was all over and we took inventory, HMM-163 only had five flyable choppers left on the line!
The special forces presented HMM-163 with a special award for their extraordinary efforts to rescue the beleaguered troopers from their precarious zone at A Shau. I personally received an award of a special patch which was sewn onto my flight jacket and remains there to this day.
This action at A Shau was the high point of my Marine Corps career. It exemplifies what I feel that it was all about. Semper Fi!