"Death on Call"

excerpt from

Vietnam: The Helicopter War

Philip D. Chinnery          

    "Death On Call" was the motto of the "Wolfpack" gunship platoon of the 28lst Assault Helicopter Company. The company, known is the "Intruders" and boasting the motto "Hell From Above" arrived in Vietnam in June 1966 and departed in December l970. Their two slick platoons flew with the callsigns Ratpack and Bandits. In the summer of 1969 the company belonged to the 10th Aviation Battalion (Combat), 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.

    The 281st had a highly classified and dangerous role in supporting the 5th Special Forces Group, in particular cross-border infiltration campaign known as Project Delta. The project was run by Special Forces Detachment B-52, based at Nha Trang and its missions included locating enemy units, intelligence gathering, special purpose raids, harassment and deception missions. Artillery and air strike co-ordination. hunter-killer missions and bomb damage assessment. It was organized into a dozen reconnaissance teams. six and later twelve CIDG Roadrunner teams, one Nung camp security company and the five companies of the 91st South Vietnamese Airborne Ranger Battalion as a reaction and reinforcing unit.

    Occasionally, the Project Delta recon teams found themselves in trouble and the 281st had the job of pulling their "chestnuts out of the fire."  Often the helicopter crews paid the price for their dedication. Duane Brudvig joined the Wolfpack gun platoon as a UH-1 door gunner in July 1969. He recalls the dangers the crew faced.

    'On Thanksgiving Day we were sent on a special mission into a dangerous area near Cambodia. The crews were hand-picked for the job and as we left we were getting reports in of fast movers (jets) being shot up by 0.50-caliber AA cross fire. We flew to the area near Duc Lap and got our orders at a fire support base. The area we were to help out was an outpost on top of a small, dead volcano that was getting hit by Charley's mortars. They started getting hit about 1400 hours, so they scrambled us to help out. They were waiting for us though, and as we flew over a heavy position we got hit by AK-47s. All hell was breaking loose on my ship. Bullet holes were appearing in the floor between my crew chief's feet and I had to turn away because small bits of metal were hitting me in the face!

    I fired up the area on the other side of the ship and imagined the worst while we took fire. Suddenly everything stopped and all I could hear was the sound of wind rushing by and nothing else. The radios were shot out and I could smell hydraulic fluid! We were just floating through the air, gliding towards the ground. It was very strange sitting in a ship that was losing power, but at the same time it was kind of peaceful! I was calm and so were the others. Now we were turning and dropping, the pilot flared the ship, pulling as much pitch as he could to bring the ship down as best he could. It touched the ground perfectly, so now it was show time!

    I jumped up, but didn't go anywhere, because my monkey strap held on to me! Captain Jim Brown, the platoon leader and co-pilot, was already out and shooting with his 9mm Swedish K. Warrant Officer Ken Miller, the pilot, was already out and shooting his 0.38 pistol. My crew chief, Daryl Evangelho, was out the other side of the ship firing his M60. I was on the other side, out away from the ship, firing my M60 at an area that was being marked with smoke rockets by the Forward Air Controller in his 01 Bird Dog. I ran out of ammo fast, so had to go back for more. I checked Captain Brown out, he was covering the tail end of the ship. Seeing he was OK, I took off my chicken plate protection, grabbed a handful of rounds and headed for my machine gun.

    All of a sudden Captain Brown comes running over to my position and tells me it was a little too hot where he was. Rounds were hitting between his feet, so he decided to move! The next time I ran out of ammo Captain Brown went and got some, then he took over the gun for a while. That was when he got the guy that was shooting at him before!

    It was getting to be too long on the ground with the enemy so close. We were down about 30 minutes and we were in big trouble. Mister Miller started destroying the scrambler, the radio equipment that was Top Secret because it scrambled radio messages. Then he threw a grenade over to us.  I caught it and just looked at him, wondering what I should use it on. I don't think I would have thrown it!

    While we were on the ground, the other gunship was circling over us. Covering us and burning up fuel and ammo. They were nervous, because they could see the situation was desperate. Warrant Officer Robert George, the aircraft commander, decided to come in and get us. His crew and co-pilot were anxious and ready to go. Co-pilot Jackie Keele, crew chief Larry Elam and gunner "Red" Vandervene had been going crazy covering us, thinking we weren't going to make it!

    The heat was on and time was running out on us. Suddenly, someone was hitting me in the back of the head, so I turned just in time to see the other ship coming in to land. Mister Miller was trying to get my attention to run for the recovery ship, but once I saw it land I was gone! I dove in, followed by my crew chief, then we sat there seeing something strange. The two pilots were standing in front of the damaged ship talking! Then they broke and ran for the recovery ship, dove in and we were off again. Now we had a problem, because we are in a gunship that can't carry more than its crew and ammo. Now there are four more people, and during the time they had been covering us they took more hits, making our take-off very shaky. The enemy was right in front of us, shooting as we picked up to take off. Moving forward and heading down a small slope we were on our way. I looked at the gauges to see how bad the engine was doing. I didn't see the guys in front until we were almost on top of them. They were smiling like they knew they had us, but we went right over them, hitting one with the skid!

    Mister George took his ship out and up, away from the mess below. He knew just how much power his ship had and he used it all. We were on our way to safety. Captain Brown looked at me and told me he hadn't been a strong believer in God before, but be sure was now! We landed near another base in the area and I jumped down and looked back at the ship. We had taken about 20 rounds and had made a bouncy landing. We were lucky to be alive.'

    A good friend of mine, Gary Fields, was the lone survivor of a chopper shot down on 27 April 1970. He was a crew chief of a UH-1H slick that was to be the command and control ship on an operation northwest of An Khe where the 4th Infantry were going into an area controlled by NVA. The aircraft commander was Warrant Officer Robert Gardner, the co-pilot Stanley Miller and the gunner was George Tom. There were also three high-ranking people from the 4th Infantry on board, who were there that day to see the operation.

    That afternoon Gary's ship was hit by enemy ground fire, while Mr. Gardner was stopping the flight that was going in to drop off troops. He had seen an ambush setting up, so he went in front of the others to draw fire. It worked, but they took the brunt of it. They hit, bounced, then hit again and burst into flames. Gary remembers jumping just before the ship hit the ground. He doesn't remember lying next to the burning wreckage with his legs burned, 66 broken bones and a broken back. He was unconscious and stayed in a comma for three months.

    While Gary was on the ground, a Loach pilot landed, ran to Gary, picked him up, ran back to his ship under fire and flew out. It took a brave man to do what he did that day. Gary would like to find the pilot who saved his life. If anyone can help identify the Loach pilot, the author would be very pleased to hear from him."

    The article above was sent to me by Ken Smith. I was in the unit when both of these incidents occurred. I knew all of these guys very well. Gardner had just gotten back in country from a 30-day leave back in the world. He had gotten a 6-month and out deal and this was his first flight since returning. Miller was an FNG at the time. Robert George and Jim Brown both have died since the first of January this year (1999). I think Jackie Keele is alive and well in Florida. Keele was one of the UH-1 pilots in the Son Tay Raiders. Duane "Tubby" Brudvig was active in locating past members of the 281st several years ago.
Bob Mitchell
"Bandit 24" 5/69-5/70