|1stLt. Michael K. Nickerson||(Pilot)|
|Capt. Richard L. Bianchino||(Copilot)||(Survived the crash)|
|Cpl. Ernesto Gomez||(Crew Chief)||(Survived the crash)|
|Cpl. Robert M. Gendron||(Gunner)|
|LCpl. Charles F. Burdick||(Gunner)||(Survived the crash)|
|HM2 William L. Sperb||(Corpsman)|
|LCpl. John E. Banister||(Combat Photographer)|
On the afternoon of April 14, 1969 the dedicated emergency medical evacuation (medevac) crew of YK-5 was assembled at "Luminous Base", the call sign for the standby medevac bunker, at Marble Mountain Air Facility. This day there was an additional person, LCpl. John E. Banister a Marine Combat Photographer, who was going to accompany the crew on missions that would be forthcoming from Da Nang Direct Air Support Center (DASC) in support of the Grunts in the field. LCpl. Banister had not flown a medevac mission before. Capt. Bianchino, the copilot, suggested that LCpl. Banister might want to fly in the chase aircraft to facilitate airborne pictures of medevacs being picked up. LCpl. Banister deferred, indicating that he wanted pictures of hoist operations, taken through the "hell hole". The "hell hole" is an opening approximately three feet square in the center of the cabin floor. It is through this opening that the hoist is operated or the crew chief of the helicopter controls the pickup and delivery of externally carried logistical supplies such as "beans and bullets". In either case the crew chief is generally lying flat on his stomach with his head out the "hell hole". Rotor wash, dust and other debris which is encountered when this area is open has led to it being named the "hell hole". Capt. Bianchino remembers, "he was a nice kid, had his mind made up and I said OK."
YK-5 had flown a series of non emergency pick-ups and had just refueled and was topped off with 2,584 lbs. of jet fuel on board for the two GE T58-10 turbine engines.
Da Nang DASC informed Luminous Base of an emergency (the wounded Marine might die within 20 minutes if medical assistance is not received) medevac. This mission was in support of Foxtrot Co., 2nd Bn., 3rd Marines. They were located on the south side of Charlie Ridge, as it was referred to by helicopter crews. Charlie Ridge, like the Arizona Territory, immediately to its south, was known as "Indian Country" due to there not being a permanent representation of US forces in the region. The permanent residents of the area were the Viet Cong (VC or Charlie as they were referred to) thus the name Charlie Ridge. The nature of the medevac was a head and other wounds to one of the company's officers.
The MEDEVAC package, consisting of two CH-46 and two UH-1 (HUEY) gun ship escorts from HML-167, arrived in the vicinity of the medevac area. The gun ship lead, Maj. Ross Plasterer received the landing zone (LZ) brief from the Marines and learned they were under what is known as a triple canopy of forest (tallest trees up 100 or more feet high, with middle and lower level trees fully developed with limbs and leaves almost to ground level). Further the LZ briefing revealed that there was not a suitable spot for the helicopter to land. This meant that a hoist extraction of the wounded Marine would be required while hovering motionless at an altitude in excess of 100 feet above the steeply sloping terrain. It also meant that YK-5 would be a "sitting duck" target for any VC that remained in the area. Finally, the radio man in the LZ related the had not taken any fire for a considerable length of time. This information should have been well received by the crew, however Cpl. Gomez relates that he felt something was wrong, but could not convince anyone else of his feelings.
At the completion of the LZ brief, Maj. Plasterer recommended an approach avenue for YK-5 which would allow his two gun ships to set up a covering position beside and slightly to the rear of YK-5 which would position them to provide suppressive fire support if required. Maj. Plasterer told the Marines in the LZ to, "Pop your smoke". A red smoke canister was activated and for the first time the crew of YK-5 could see where the medevac was located beneath the forest's triple canopy. The approach commenced as briefed by Maj. Plasterer. YK-5 came to a hover over the red smoke billowing up from below and Cpl. Gomez could barely see the men on the ground beneath him through the mass of foliage. All was going well, Cpl. Gomez was giving verbal instructions to Lt. Nickerson relative to holding his hover directly over the Marines below. Cpl. Gomez started lowering the hoist with a jungle penetrator attached to its end through the "hell hole" in the cabin floor of YK-5. Lt. Nickerson was holding a motionless hover. The jungle penetrator nearly touched the ground and the Marines started toward it to assist strapping their wounded officer to it for the ride back up the 100 plus feet, through the trees, to YK-5.
Then above the engine and rotor noise erupted the sounds of the VC's 51 caliber machine guns and other assorted small arms. "Charlie" had been waiting. Suddenly the motionless hover of YK-5 turned into a forward lurch simultaneously as a white explosive flash lit up the cabin. Cpl. Gomez related it looked like confetti floating inside the aircraft from the number of bullet holes he could see. Cpl. Gomez also saw the corpsman and his left gunner reel from hits they had taken. Cpl. Gomez jumped up from his prone position at the "hell hole", grabbed his M-16 and rushed to the area between the pilots. He was horrified, both pilots had been wounded. Lt. Nickerson was transmitting over the intercom, "We're going to crash - - -God help us - - -God help us - - -God help me". Then another round hit Lt. Nickerson and he was dead. Though seriously wounded Capt. Bianchino wrestled with the aircraft as he was transmitting a MAY DAY and the coordinates of the location the helicopter was going down. The aircraft attempted to wave-off but in a short distance settled and fell into the tops of the triple canopy. Now the aircraft was rotating and lurching violently as it fell toward the ground. Cpl. Gomez and his right gunner were thrown out the right side of the aircraft.
Capt. Bianchino relates, "The aircraft had sustained a dual hydraulic boost failure. The utility and #2 boost gauges immediately dropped to zero and the #1 gauge began to fluctuate and was dropping noticeably. I knew I had to get the aircraft to a suitable landing zone before all hydraulic pressure was lost and subsequent control of the aircraft. I activated the the explosive device to shear the hoist cable which was hanging down below the aircraft. The mountain's topography dropped off steeply to the side of the aircraft. I kicked in rudder, turned 90o and started an auto rotation to the valley beneath us. Well, the #1 hydraulic system failed completely and the mountain's gradient was not steep enough. We hit, nose up, like a motor boat and plowed through the trees."
Cpl. Gomez relates, "I fell at least two stories grabbing at limbs and vines attempting to slow my rate of fall. When I hit the ground the wind was knocked completely out of me. I was covered with blood from wounds and scrapes to the head, face, shoulder, back and ankles. I do not know which were sustained in YK-5 or as a result of the fall through the trees. I was one bloody and bruised individual and it took several minutes for my breathing to come anything close to normal under the conditions. My right gunner, LCpl. Charles Burdick, walked up to me and I remember asking him, "Did anyone else make it out". YK-5 was nose down in the underbrush with the tail sticking some ten feet in the air. I was on the right side of the aircraft about 10 yards off. YK-5 was engulfed in flames. We both looked at the helicopter and could see no one other than LCpl. Banister, the combat photographer who had come along for the rid and pictures, trapped inside the burning helicopter. The 50 caliber machine gun rounds inside the helicopter began cooking off and spraying the dirt in our vicinity. I was afraid the stub wings, containing the jet fuel, would explode next. The heat from the fire was intense, it was burning our faces. I looked at Charlie and said, "There's nothing we can do, she may explode any minute". Charlie and I backed off into the jungle, on the right side of the aircraft, a good 30 to 40 yards and sat down. Then with a loud whoosh the stub wings containing the jet fuel ruptured and the heat at our distance became noticeably greater."
Meanwhile on the left side of YK-5 Capt. Bianchino relates, "I found myself outside the cockpit, not knowing how I had managed that. I had lost my bullet bouncer and my survival radio. I went back into the burning aircraft to aid the three Marines in the cabin area, Lt. Nickerson did not need my assistance. When I reached out for one of the Marines I noticed that I had no use of my left arm. I unzipped my flight suit, placed my left arm in and zipped it half way up providing a sling for the left arm. I managed to assist the three men in the cabin out and placed them in the dirt at the base of a tree which had been knocked down providing some cover for them. Using my 38 cal. pistol, I defended the left side, which was the down hill side, of the aircraft against several enemy who attempted to gain access to the crash position. The underbrush was very thick and the VC were forced to to move through it very slowly, making them easy targets."
The weather, which had not been good, began to deteriorate and it started raining. Maj. Plasterer notified DaNang DASC that YK-5 was down on Charlie Ridge, gave them the map coordinates an visually checked the area around the burning YK-5. It did not appear that there were any survivors but his crew chief said he thought maybe he had seen someone waving down below the triple canopy. The helicopter had come to rest more than 1/4 of a mile from the Marines at the original medevac zone. Cpl. Gomez relates he did not see or hear them while he was in the jungle.
Back in the squadron area at Marble Mountain Air Facility, the Operations Officer Maj. Ernest C. "Ernie" Cunningham, received word that YK-5 was down and immediately summoned squadron personnel to ready an aircraft and select a crew for the recovery of any survivors. A CH-46 was equipped with two additional 50 caliber machine guns (now a total of four) and a "stinger" which is a M-60 machine gun placed on the partially lowered rear ramp to provide suppressive fire from the rear of the helicopter. LtCol. Brady, the squadron CO, was returning from a meeting at the Group Headquarters when he saw Maj. Cunningham heading at a fast pace toward his recovery aircraft. LtCol. Brady was quickly briefed on the plight of YK-5 and advised Maj. Cunningham that he was going to fly as Cunningham's copilot and replaced the original copilot on the spot. The balance of the crew consisted of Sgt. John Gruenwald as crew chief, five gunners and two others depart for Charlie Ridge.
The Cpl. Gomez narrative continues: "Charlie Burdick was very concerned and wondered if possibly we should surrender. I believe this was prompted because we were both hurting so bad. Swells, breaks, bruises and cuts. In addition mosquitos and ants were all over us. I only had to remind him "they'll kill us Charlie" once. I had entirely different thoughts. We should wait for dark and then proceed down the mountain to the river that forms the northern boundary of the Arizona Territory and then work our way east toward the city of Hoi An. I was not about to think of surrendering. I do believe I heard voices of the VC during the several hours we were on the ground. Then, we heard the swish swish swish of rotor blades. I looked up and saw that a "Purple Fox" had returned to take us home. As this helicopter approached I saw what appeared to be three tracer rounds go past its nose. At first I thought it was enemy fire. Then to my surprise I saw Capt. Bianchino for the first time since the crash. He apparently had been thrown out, or crawled out the left side of the aircraft on his own. He had fashioned a sling for a broken arm, tended to his other wounds as best he could and loaded three signaling rounds into his 38 caliber pistol. Those were the rounds which signaled the bird overhead of our position and thankfully not VC rounds. Soon the jungle penetrator was being lowered and each of the survivors were hauled up. I was never so glad to see the face of Cpl. James V. King, who was lowered by jungle penetrator to assist us." (Cpl. King had been shot down earlier in the day.) Read his short but vivid memories by clicking here.
The Capt. Bianchino narrative
continues: " Now there were now no additional signs of the enemy on
my side of the wreckage. I looked up and saw a CH-46 pass overhead.
To attract attention I placed some tracer rounds into my pistol and fired
them. The tracers were observed by the crew and Maj. Cunningham immediately
maneuvered his aircraft into a hover over the site. The hoist came
down with Cpl. James King on the penetrator. We loaded on the first
Marine for the trip to the hovering helo. When the penetrator came
back down there was a another member of the crew on it. There were
now two able Marines on the ground to assist in the recovery of the remaining
wounded. All the while the hoist operation was going on, the aircraft
was taking fire. The rescue helicopter was also returning withering
suppressive fire from it's four 50 caliber machine guns and the M-60 on
the ramp. The aircraft sustained several hits but none of the crew
were hurt. As I recall, we were shot down around 1600 and by dusk,
or about 1800, we arrived at the hospital in DaNang. Maj. Cunningham
shut the aircraft down in the hospital landing zone. He, LtCol Brady
and the rest of the crew assisted in the off load of the four casualties
Colonel Eugene R. Brady relates, "To say that Maj. Cunningham was fully in charge of this recovery mission would be an understatement. I a word he was superb. A great deal more could be stated than the words of his Distinguished Flying Cross citation awarded for this recovery mission. Our crew chief, Sgt. John Gruenwald was so cool and professional under combat conditions. Cpl. James V. King's well documented heroics, was a crew member who had just been recovered from another incident where a squadron aircraft had been shot down earlier in the day. Finally, Ernie Cunningham could write a book titled "The Care and Feeding of a Commanding Officer", a sure fire best seller.
Cdr. Olson relates, "The corpsman, William "Bill" Sperb, involved in this incident may have been a record holder. I believe this was Bill's 803rd mission. Bill had flown 800 missions before returning to CONUS and had just come back to the unit for another tour. He told me that he wanted to be the first Corpsman to fly 1,000 combat missions. The story relayed to me after the incident suggested that Bill was standing at the ramp when he received a head wound that ultimately resulted in his death. This of course is all anecdotal, but may add something to the history."
The remains of Lt. Nickerson, Cpl. Gendron and LCpl. Banister were subsequently recovered by the aircraft recovery team headed by Lt. Courtney Payne. A Silver Star Medal was posthumously awarded to Lt. Nickerson
Phillip T. Bohall remembers Lt. Nickerson: One day when I was about 11 years old and ready for the 6th grade, my Dad said I should go visit this curly haired blond kid over the way and see if he wanted to join Boy Scouts. So, I rode over on my bicycle and met Mike. We went out shooting at birds with his gas powered pellet gun that day and took apart some of his airplane models. Yeah, he wanted to join Boy Scouts, so he came to the next meeting with his dad George and signed up.
From that time on to when we were 15 or so and going to different high schools and pursuing different interests, we were inseparable. Somewhere around November 1959, or thereabouts, he and I received our Eagle rank together at the World War Memorial in Indianapolis. His dad worked at Indiana Gear works making helicopter gears. They sponsored the Boy Scout band, so we both played in the band and took trips around in the summer to various places. It was all a great boy's adventure we had.
We also fought a lot - real fist fights - always mixing it up. I was lighter but 6 inches taller, so it was always a mix match. Nobody won, they always broke us up, but he was real tough. Push him down and he was right back up in your face.
Then college came and he was at Purdue and I went on to Indiana. Somehow my fate was to be in the Infantry, and his the Marines. All same thing! I am still shaken over the news of his death. When I first went to the Wall, back there when we dedicated it the first time, I took a lot of pictures. Got over to Mike's name, and took a picture. Then, when I got the photos back I saw my own image there superimposed on his name. What power.
Now, with the net, I somehow got over to your personal notes. We are back at the Wall with the name. And, there are 13 other fellows I know up there who are also forever young. But, for me, when we were kids, Mike was my best friend. There is an artifact I keep from those days. One day on a Boy Scout Bound tour over to Hot Springs, we went through Vandalia Illinois. We bought a giant bottle of coca cola. It was the classic coca cola design, so I kept it. We shared the bottle and used it as a canteen all that summer. It was a really great bottle. It stands on a shelf in our bedroom, and every night as I lay down I see that bottle and I am young again for a moment, and Mike and I are in a fight somewhere, raising hell.
Phillip T. Bohall
6818 Ben Franklin
Springfield VA 22150
HM2 Sperb died of injuries sustained in the crash en route to Da Nang in the rescue helicopter.
A street in the enlisted housing area of Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin, CA was named "Gendron Way" in honor of Cpl. Robert M. Gendron, the left gunner on YK-5.
LCpl. Charles F. Burdick left the Marine Corps after recuperating from his wounds and subsequent release from the U.S. Naval Hospital, St. Albans, NY.
Cpl. Gomez continued his service to the Marine Corps until medically released in 1970.
Capt. Bianchino recovered and
served the Marine Corps until retiring as a LtCol. in July of 1987.
You have been home for thirty years,
It still seems just like yesterday.
You try to rest, the sleep escapes.
Your mind still sees those moments past.
If I could just go back in time,
It was just moments of death and fear,
Ernesto Gomez USMC 65-70 6320
Written January 9, 1998.
Information provided by:
Eugene R. Brady, Colonel, USMC (Ret) - His History Index
Ernesto "Gooie" Gomez, Cpl. USMC 65-70 - His History Index
Richard L. Bianchino, LtCol, USMC (Ret)
Ross Plasterer, Major General, USMC (Ret)
Richard S. Olson, Cdr. USNR (Ret)
Larry Britton, LtCol. USMC (Ret), - His History Index
Philip T. Bohall
James V. King, Cpl. USMC 68-69 - His History Index
(Cpl. King had been shot down earlier in the day.) Click here for his memories
Dolph Quijano, Sgt. USMC 68-69 Click here for his memories of HM2 William L. Sperb
LAST UPDATED: April 20, 2011
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