On or 21 August 1969, the night standby medevac at Marble Mountain Air Facility had been assigned to 1stLt. Jerry Soukup and his copilot in the lead aircraft. The chase, or second aircraft assigned to the mission, was piloted by 1stLt. Charles J. "Chic" Schoener and his copilot 1stLt. Randy Matthews. Names of other crew members? During late August the enemy (guys in black PJs) decided to stand and fight. The weather was excellent with a clear moonlit night.
The lead aircraft of any mission in Vietnam was generally (not always) assigned to the senior (in terms of combat experience) pilot who held the designation of "section leader" or higher. It was the lead aircraft commander's call as to who would actually make the medevac recovery from the LZ, and this was based on his estimation of the ability of the chase aircraft crew and the severity of the medevac in the LZ. Normally, only the lead aircraft had a corpsman on board so therefore any "Priority" or "Emergency" medevac would require the lead aircraft to make the pickup. Normally the chase aircraft orbited high while the lead aircraft made the pick up. The chase aircraft was primarily along to recover the crew and/or passengers in the event the lead aircraft was shot down or otherwise disabled while in the landing zone.
Based upon Lt. Soukup's knowledge of Lt. Schoener's proven abilities, it was briefed that the missions would alternate between the two aircraft assigned that evening. Four missions called in by Da Nang Direct Air Support Center (DASC) were responded to in this manner. Around midnight the medevac package was at 2,500 feet over the Que Son Mountains heading back to Da Nang as huge orange fireballs light up the Air Force area of Da Nang Airfield. The rocket attacks that evening were very colorful and surreal.
Around 0400 on the 22nd. the medevac package was again scrambled for a seriously wounded Marine in the vicinity of Hill 65 northwest of Da Nang. Lt. Soukup was scheduled to make the pickup. As the flight approached the LZ the gun ship commander received the zone briefing and a plan was made as to how the approach would be made by Lt. Soukup and the position of the gun ships, relative to the CH-46, for fire suppression if required.
Col. Schoener recalls, "As Jerry,s aircraft disappeared into the darkness, I orbited high waiting to join up on him after the medevac pickup. After a short while I received a call, ' Swift Medevac Chase, you need to come and get us, we crashed'."
Col. McSorley recalls, "The unit with the seriously wounded Marine was a rifle squad. We started and rolled in on our final approach to the LZ which had a lone Marine in the middle of a rice paddy attempting to direct us with a very dim light of some sort. Lt. Soukup called for the landing light and this is where everything began to fall apart. I was not as concerned about retaining our night vision as I was about the fact that the enemy was going to behold us as a well lit target. I turned the landing light on and what we saw was a field of dry wavy rice. We were only 20 or so feet in the air when Lt. Soukup seemed satisfied with the terrain and told me to shut off the light, which I did. Only then did I realize that our night vision went out with the light. Jerry intended to roll the aircraft onto the rice paddy. We were doing just great until one of those sneaky Viet Cong rice dikes by the name of Nguyn, well hidden in the wavy rice, jumped up and slapped the aircraft out of the air. Actually, our alighting gear (nose gear) hit first and totally departed the aircraft. Next the main gear impacted the rice dike, departed the aircraft also and we found ourselves a free floating 20,000 pound missile sliding across the rice paddy.
Things were getting dicey as the overhead console became unlatched, fell down and was bouncing up and down on my flight helmet. I was sitting higher in the cockpit than Jerry and he was not subjected to the console's pummeling on his head. The engines and transmission were making lots of noise, not to mention the sounds and jolts as the landing gear were ripped from the aircraft as we slid along.
Amid all the noise and confusion I could hear Jerry swearing out loud. As we continued to slide along, Jerry yelled for for me to start the auxiliary power plant (APP). I had already pulled back the engine levers and he activated the fire handles to each GE T58-10 turbine engines. With the overhead console still beating me into submission, I was unable to arm the rotor brake and find the switch for the APP. The aircraft ground to a halt and wound down by itself as we sat in complete silence. I tried to open my escape hatch, but it would not release. I think we bent the fuselage a little. I lifted the overhead console to exit the cockpit in the more preferred manner while Jerry was advising LT. Schoener that we had crashed.
We had briefed that in the event of a forced landing the pilot, crew chief and right gunner would exit the crew door at the forward end of the cabin while the copilot, left gunner and the corpsman would exit out the rear ramp of the aircraft. I went aft. The next thing I remember was standing at the back of the helicopter with a Marine in full battle dress asking me if I had a strobe light. I gave him mine and asked if there were any booby traps around. His answer was, ' There are beaucoup booby traps, Sir.'
There was spastic gun fire heard as we began to set up a defensive perimeter around the aircraft. I just wanted to be pointed in the right direction to join the fun and was positioned approximately 40 feet from the rear of the aircraft. Across the rice paddy I could see the various pieces of our landing gear in the moonlight. I was wondering how I was going to explain this to LtCol. Brady and hey, it's my brother's birthday back in the States. Who knows why you think of such things at such times? When things settled down, we were able to return to the aircraft to pick up personal items. Returning to the aircraft, I was careful not to take any different path than the one I had taken from the aircraft into the rice paddy for fear of encountering booby traps or land mines. Later when thinking about setting off such devices I had to laugh. Putting this into perspective, we had just crashed a 20,000 pound aircraft, slid a hundred or more feet and had not set off any explosives in the area I was walking through.
Our stalwart wingman and noble rescuer, Lt. Chic Schoener with his trusted copilot Lt. Randy Matthews, swooped in and plucked us from a possible long night on the ground. Chick also picked up the wounded Marine, we had attempted to medevac, who had tripped a booby trap and was stable, but unconscious. We dropped him at 'Charlie Med' enroute home. We arrived back at Marble Mountain around 0530. The oncoming crews of Lt. 'Chip' Butler and Lt. Bill Schwartz relieved us, and I went back to my hooch and went to sleep.
The following morning Lt. Schoener launched with the squadron's Aircraft Recovery Team to assess the damage, make repairs if possible in the field, and return the aircraft to Marble Mountain. Field repairs were not possible so the aircraft was externally lifted by a CH-53 "Heavy Hauler" to H?MS-17 at Da Nang for follow-on shipment to Japan for overhaul.
Col. McSorley relates, "In spite of our unfortunate incident the morning of 22 August 1969, 1stLt. Jerry Soukup was a very capable and professional pilot who gave everyone flying with him the feeling utmost confidence. In fact, my first combat flight (not counting orientation flights) was with Jerry and we responded to 10 medevac missions together. Further, I was very happy that "Chick" was able to recover us at night. It would have been very embarrassing to return in daylight. Since we were rescued at night, we did not have to explain ourselves to all sorts of curious questions at the squadron. The war continued and later that day our experience was just one of many and did not generate too much interest. In fact, I was never questioned as to why we let a Viet Cong rice dike render us so helpless.
|1stLt. Jerry Soukup||Pilot|
|1stLt. Dave McSorley||Copilot|
|Sgt. John W. McRae||Crew Chief|
|Cpl. Dennis B. Leslie||Gunner|
|Cpl. Deacon Hannon||Gunner|
After Action Report
Information provided by:
Charles J. "Chic" Schoener, Colonel, USMC(Ret)
William David "Smiley" McSorley, III, Colonel, USMC(Ret)
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