114th Air Mobil Company
Twilight Rescue in the Delta
Story and Photos by
Marine Staff Sgt. Steve Stibbens
Pacific Stars & Stripes Staff Writer
BA DONG, Republic of Vietnam (Sept. 27, 1963) They came in droves, running across the field, crying women clutching babies in their arms, old men half-carrying their young boys. Some had managed to grab up a few family belongings in tattered blankets or cloths.
A hundred yards away, across a canal, were the guerrilla-held swamps. In between were the smoldering ashes that had been simple peasant homes.
We took as many as possible aboard our helicopter and had to leave the rest. One old man begged us, with his wrinkled hands clasped in front, to take just one more passenger his wife. As the 'chopper lifted off the ground, he tried to hang on to a steel landing strut.
Old-timers here in this "dirty little war" say you can get used to the everyday tragedy and the pathos in this years-old battle against Communism. But I hope I never forget what I saw at Ba Dong, a tiny coastal hamlet in the Ca Mau Peninsula, about 75 miles south of Saigon.
It all began as a somewhat routine mercy mission for the helicopter crewmen of the 114th Air Mobile Co., based at Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. Just before dusk, the call came in for eight UH-1B helicopters to evacuate villagers from Ba Dong, which was about to be overrun by the Viet Cong.
"Click" photo for full view
The Viet Cong guerrillas, estimated to be a reinforced company, had called out to villagers the night before to give up their arms and come over to the Communist side. They were answered with gunfire from the handful of Civil Guardsmen inside Ba Dong.
All night long, the villagers withstood the sometimes overwhelming fire as Vietnamese Air Force planes kept the enemy positions lit with flares. In the morning, when the bodies were counted, they found one civil guard dead and 14 wounded. Just outside the village gate lay the bodies of 11 Viet Cong.
All day, the guerrillas waited across the canal like vultures, waiting until nightfall again when they would go in, this time for the kill.
"Click" photo for full view
A half hour after we left Vinh Long, the 'chopper's gunner, Sgt. 1.C. Royce Linch, from Hico, TX, pointed ahead where we could see T-28 fighters strafing and bombing a clump of brush alongside the canal adjacent to Ba Dong. Then the "Huey" ahead of us began receiving ground fire and we swooped down to cover.
Suddenly, there was an ear-shattering blast and two rockets fell out in front of us and spiraled lazily toward the ground.
Sgt. Linch leaned out the door and emptied a magazine from his M-14 automatic rifle as we passed over.
The Viet Cong had dug foxholes in the swampy brush and paddy fields. A Viet Cong flag was flying brazenly from the middle of a blown-out bridge crossing the canal to the hamlet.
While the fighters and other choppers covered us, we broke out of the "daisy chain" formation and landed behind Ba Dong hamlet to pick up 14 men, women and blank-faced children in our 'copter. The other helicopters followed in succession until each was filled. The five Hueys, each designed to hold only 10 persons max., managed to pick up 102, averaging more than 20 per ship. They could hold no more.
The last crew to land must have had it the roughest as 23 villagers, mostly children, climbed aboard before the crew chief was forced to leave the remaining 60 behind to await their fate in the night.