Top Tiger Rescue
Tommy Martin

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Others have written about this day in other places on the 187th Net. Check out the after action report on the Crusader page, this has some actual details.  I am still trying to write mine from a memory fogged over by 30 years of trying only to remember the good things.  What I write here is what I remember seeing and feeling that day.

After we dropped our downed crews off at the 97th Evac in Bien Hoa, we returned to the PZ to see what was up.  Well not much was, when we got there I think there were 2 or three other birds left flyable. A Tac 'E' or Tactical Emergency had been called, that meant that every available aircraft in the area would be converging on this spot shortly.  Already, extra guns were coming in and reporting to Rat6.

We shut down to check for damage.  We had been very fortunate, took only a couple of rounds, unfortunately one had clipped our engine ignition wires. This wire carries a lot of voltage to the engine igniters during start to get the fire going and is heavily shielded.  The CE repaired it the best he could and we decided to try a start. We got the aircraft started, but melted the repair job, so this would be our last start of the day.  We would need to keep it running from now on or leave where we shut it down.

As explained by the After Action report, Blackhawk crews and aircraft were down everywhere, so we got back into the air to see if we could help. 1LT Charles Eshelman the A/C reported to Blackhawk 6 and asked for instructions.

Just prior to our getting airborne, a Top Tiger aircraft had attempted to land in the LZ and was decimated by small arms fire.  Reports varied but at least one crew member was dead and others wounded. He had been told by the ground forces that they were receiving no fire, which was true, the enemy was waiting for more aircraft, they were much easier targets.

As we got airborne we were able to listen to the rescue attempts to get the Top Tiger crew out.  I am not sure I have the order correct, but there were at least 3 attempts to get the crew out, all unsuccessful.  I remember thinking "those guys have got to have big balls, everything that gets close is hit and crews are wounded".   Little did I imagine what was coming.

Th first attempt was Smoky, our battalion smoke ship. A smoke ship injects oil into the exhaust to produce a heavy smoke screen between the tree line and the landing aircraft.  It's great and most slick pilots love it. I have never been hit when Smoky was along.  Shot at yes, hit no. Anyway, Smokey made the first attempt and on short final the LZ erupted. Smokey's CE was wounded and he had to abort and head for the 3rd Evac in Saigon.

Next was a Razorback gunship. As I was to learn later this wasn't a good idea in its own right. Gunships are typically heavy and have a hard time taking off on a runway, much less a hot LZ. But the Razorback crew as low on ammo and fuel and decided to try. On short final he was plummeted by small arms fire, his CE was wounded in the neck and a rocket pod was hit and caught on fire. He tried to jettison, but it hung and the other CE had to kick it off. He headed to 3rd Evac, Saigon.

Now the CO of the 199th, a 1 star (BG) decides they can make an attempt.   They are low on fuel and need to go back and refuel, so one more try to get the crew out first.  He has an aircraft full of staff monitoring the battle.  So in they go, or almost... On short final the VC rake the aircraft, the General and one aide are wounded, they abort and head for the hospital... this is starting to get real serious.   I think they also went in without permission from Blackhawk 6 the air mission commander.  I know he was steamed on the radio.

About now, Blackhawk 6 orders everyone else to stay out of the LZ, no more attempts.  You have to understand how hard this is, for one aviator to leave others behind in an LZ.  Also, we have been listening to all this on the radio and actually got to see the Razorback attempt from high above.

Well about this time Eshelmann comes on the intercom and lets us know he thinks he can get into the LZ.  He has been watching and has a plan to keep us out of the firing line until we are in the LZ, with a quick pickup, we could be out before they had time to get a bead on us.  He isn't going to volunteer unless the crew agrees. So we take a vote.  The two crewmembers say go, they're even upbeat about it. To be honest if one of them had of said NO, I probably would have joined him, but since I would have been the lone NO, I agreed also.

So Eschelman calls Blackhawk 6 and starts discussing the plan.  BH 6 isn't in favor of risking another crew, but Eshelman does have a good plan.  Low level down the river, Rat6 suppress the area heavily in coordination with our approach.  They should be hitting the tree line while we are on short final.  This will keep the bad guys down and we have a better chance of getting in. Pop up over the LZ, drop it in, pick up the crew, and de de outta there.  A good simple plan. BH 6 agrees to allow the try and so we all got ready.  Eshelman wasn't a big talker, he was a quiet guy and continued to be a quiet guy for the remainder of his tour.  He assigned me the job of all the radio work. I was to coordinate with BH6, Rat 6, and the ground guys.  He actually turned his radios off so he could concentrate on flying and directing the 2 guys in back.  Then this didn't seem like a lot, but as I would learn later, to trust a 20 day wonder who you had never flown with to coordinating all that radio traffic, was a leap in faith, especially at this crucial time.

I don't remember much about the approach to the LZ.  I was talking to Rat6 for reports on the enemy and BH6 was giving him our location so he could coordinate the prep and covering fire.  I do remember the pop up into the LZ, the short final, landing, and departure.  Since I wasn't flying, I had a lot of free time on my hands, in between yelling over the radio and at the ground guys to load the wounded crew, I got to look around a lot.  This was the longest minute of my life, 30 seconds on short final, 10 seconds in the LZ (seemed like an hour), and 20 seconds to clear the LZ and the fire.  This is one minute that is etched in my mind, the images and details of each second and sub-second will always be there.  To explain it would take a lot more space, so I will do that in another installment.

We started receiving heavy fire as soon as we cleared the tree line around the LZ, we were in a flare to lose airspeed and so most of the hits were in the belly.   As we dropped into the LZ we could see people scurrying everywhere, good guys and bad guys, it was a sight.  The ground guys loaded the live and wounded crewmembers, plus one of their own on board and we got out of there.  On climb out we where hit by the infamous .51 cal. machine gun.  It took out a big chunk of rotor blade and made flying difficult. Eshelman put it down at the RF camp close to the LZ another aircraft came in to get the wounded and we waited around for someone to get us.

We had over a 150 hits on the aircraft, most around the gunners stations, they had concentrated on them for good reason (see next installment).  Plus we had numerous holes in the transmission, good thing we set down, we weren't going to fly long.

The CE and gunner had performed beautifully.  They had made the bad guys pay and took much of the fire during our short stay.  90% of the hits were in the gunner area.

We were picked up and moved to Chu Chi and then picked up by Blackjack 6, BG Seneff, 1st Aviation Bde Commander and flown to Tay Ninh.  I got to tell you this was a thrill for a 20 day wonder to be picked up by BJ6, man my life was complete.

I'll explain some of my thoughts in the next installment, it should show my inexperience at this time.  I thought this was normal, it fit my image of war, so I thought it was just another day.  Boy am I glad I was wrong.

Next.. the Mad Minute and The Aftermath...

Tommy Martin 
187th Assault Helicopter Company

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