Excerpt from Volume 1, Chapter 4: Come When Called, by Dick Hathcock, US Army
UH-1B, OH-13, 1965-1966
Date of hire by Western Airlines: 8/21/1967
Early on 17 December 1965, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Ellis Williamson, conducted Operation Smash 1. The Brigade moved from the Vo Dat area (40 miles northeast of Bien Hoa) to the vicinity of the Courtney Plantation Airstrip in a combined heliborne and ground movement. Intelligence summaries indicated that the Viet Cong were going to make an attack during the holiday season in the general area of XuanLoc and Ham Tan (an area just north of Saigon). The 173rd Airborne Brigade, in conjunction with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, was to conduct a swift spoiling operation in PhuocTuy Province.
This was a month of continuous combat operations and the crews of Company A of the 82nd Airborne Aviation Battalion were flying night and day in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. When Operation Smash 1 began it started off with a heliborne airlift to Courtney Plantation Airstrip and from there we flew the 2/503rd Infantry Battalion to a spot called LZ Prancer. The 2/503rd moved east from LZ Prancer and ran into heavy action with a battalion sized VC force which was employing heavy machine guns and anti-tank weapons. Company B of the 503rd moved through the jungle and smashed a VC ambush which was set up on the trail leading from the LZ to the area of contact by the 2/503rd. Heavy pressure was brought to bear on the VC position, but the VC chose to stay and fight throughout the afternoon, taking heavy losses from the firepower of the 2nd Battalion and the supporting air and artillery. At 1700 hours the two engaged Companies made a strong assault on the enemy positions which convinced the VC that they had remained too long. During the hours of darkness the VC forces hastily pulled back and retreated from the area, leaving mortar and small arms ammunition behind. 62 Viet Cong were confirmed killed in the action.
On 19 December the Brigade continued to chase the fleeing VC without much success. My unit took Company C into a small village north of the Courtney Plantation in a helicopter assault and sealed off the village. This action resulted in the capture of 54 suspected VC and we did not take fire in the assault. The unit S3 (in charge of planning and operations) decided that we needed to find the main force VC unit and that aLRP (Long Range Patrol) would be assigned to do the job. My crew and I were given the assignment of the LRP insertion and we were to take the team to a place in the northern portion of the operations area. The mission of the LRP was to remain out three days and locate the enemy. My mission was to take off just before dark on 19 December and to make several fake insertions before finally dropping the LRP team into their chosen position. My crew consisted of a co-pilot, Lieutenant Ivy Phelps, and two door gunners with M60 machine guns. We picked up the LRP team at LZ Prancer and conducted our briefing with the LRP team leader, an Army Ranger Lieutenant, and his eight man unit. The weather was clear and warm and the evening promised to turn into a very dark night which was good for the LRP team. After the briefing everyone was on edge, anticipating the upcoming mission. The LRP team leader was nervous and stressed that his biggest fear was to be dropped into the middle of the VC and not have a way to get out quickly. I assured him that in that event we would be back to pick up his team and all he had to do was call on the tactical frequency that we had prearranged.
We took off thirty minutes before dark and flew to the first fake insertion area. I was flying the mission and the first and second areas of fake insertion were no problem. As darkness descended on the jungle we picked out the real insertion point and I made the approach and dropped off the LRP team, then headed away from the spot to orbit in case of problems on the ground. The night was very dark and our adrenaline levels were very high. We had been orbiting for about ten or fifteen minutes when we heard a whisper on our radio over the tactical frequency. The LRP team leader was calling, saying that they were in the middle of a large VC unit and that he needed an immediate extraction. I told him we were on the way and would be there in five minutes, telling him to hold tight and we would get him out. The only reply was, “HURRY.”
The LRP team had moved from the area of drop off and the LRP leader would have to guide us in to his location by flashing his strobe light. I immediately proceeded to the area and had the entire crew looking for the light when suddenly the right side door gunner picked up the strobe and directed me to the team’s location. The LRP team leader said the VC guerillas were getting closer and the team would be discovered soon. Once again, it was very dark and very difficult to see obstructions on the ground. As I began an approach we began taking fire with the VC using tracer rounds that looked as big as footballs. I kept on the approach, telling the door gunners not to fire because we did not know the exact location of the LRP team. This put us in a difficult position because we were being hit by small arms fire, so once on the ground, I told the door gunners to cover the tree line but not to fire until we located the team. The Lieutenant and his team were now taking fire and they were having a hard time disengaging from the VC. There were no lights illuminated on the Huey and it was very dark so I decided to leave the helicopter and find the team so I could lead them back to the Huey. I left Ivy Phelps in charge and told the gunners not to fire until I had located the team, then told the team I was coming after them and not to shoot to their rear. It seemed like a long time until I found the LRP team and started leading them back to the chopper, but I’m sure it was only seconds.
Heavy fire was coming from the wood line and the door gunners were now firing at the VC. When everyone on the LRP team was in the chopper, I took off in the opposite direction of the enemy fire. There were some high trees that I had to get over to make it out of the landing area and somehow we cleared the obstacles in the dark and were on our way out of the area. The VC must have been really pissed because we could still see tracer rounds being fired as we climbed to safety. Once at a safe altitude I told Ivy to take over the flying and then I started to shake. I guess I realized that I had just used another of my nine lives and the list of remaining lives was getting shorter. I didn’t like that feeling!
The LRP team was animated and wired, knowing how close they had come to being captured or killed, and they thanked the entire crew over and over. We knew we had made friends for life even if we didn’t even know their names. Back on the ground and after all the celebration and thanks, we inspected our helicopter and found that we had been hit eight times and, luckily for us, the bullets had not hit a vital spot on the helicopter and we had lived to fight another day. The mission had been a success as we had located the VC and death and destruction were put on them by air strikes and artillery with no friendly casualties.Operation Smash 1 ended on 22 December 1965 and we returned to our base camp at Bien Hoa and a safe Christmas.