( Craig's Poem "Orbits" Sep 2002)
13 October 1999: for the record: Thirty-two years, four
months, and 22 days after the incident, these are my recollections and impressions of the
21 May 1967 crash involving the US Army UH-1C helicopter gunship (tail number 65-9480) to
which I was assigned as a crewchief of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company (Intruders).
The action took place West of the A Shau Valley, about 35-40 miles West of Phu Bai, Viet
Nam. Although official US government dicta state that we were within the confines of Viet
Nam, I was under the impression that our mission went into Laos. Here are maps of the
South Viet Nam (w/ parts of Laos &, Cambodia): http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/SVNmap.html
Northern South Viet Nam & Laos: http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/mapne4816.html
A Shau & A Luoi Valley: http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/vietnam/maps/ne48-16/ne48_16g.jpg
A Sap River, West to Laos: http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/vietnam/maps/ne48-16/ne48_16f.jpg
The area where we were shot down was inside a large horseshoe shaped hill that was higher at the apex than at the tips. The tips of the horseshoe trailed down to the North side of a small river that connected to the A Shau. Within the "shoe" were three hummock-like hills that were in line from the apex of the horseshoe to the river decreasing in size, as did the horseshoe from apex to tips.
As our gunship flight established its orbit over the area, I believe that my ship was number two or three in the pattern. As we came on station in the orbit and broke into the left bank we drew ground fire up through the belly of the ship. With this burst of gunfire, I was hit in the right foot, through my boot. I got on the microphone to notify the pilots that the ship and I had been hit. Gary Hall, the gunner, and I then did a damage survey which revealed that the engine had been hit and was on fire. We reported this to the pilots, knowing we were going to crash.
As door gunners, in those last few seconds, Gary and I then sprayed the area of our impending crash with all the ammunition we could pump through our M-60s, hoping to deter the Viet Cong from any immediate interest in the crash site. We kept firing until one of the pilots gave the order to cease fire, just before we were about to hit the trees.
The last thing I recall just before the crash is a strange sensation of "slow motion." The trees seemed to come up to meet us, and I thought I saw the rotor coming in just over the head of the pilot on the starboard side of the aircraft. That would have been Don Corkran, who was aircraft commander. In his commentary on the incident, he states that the chopper transmission was what came through the canopy of the aircraft, landing between him and the copilot, Walter Wrobleski. I believe that we hit about two thirds of the way up on the middle hill, inside the horseshoe. On impact, I must have been pitched into the back of the seat in front of me. I blacked out and do not know exactly how long I was out.
When I regained consciousness, I was alone in the chopper. I was confused, stunned. I could not understand much of anything except that I remembered that the ship was on fire and I had to get out. I seem to recall that the floor of the chopper was tilted on about a 35-45 degree angle to the starboard side. I slid down and out through that side into the brush and trees on which our downed bird was lying in its death throws. Despite the immediacy of the situation, it was like some weird Salvador Dali painting come to life.
I did not see anyone in or around the helicopter. However, I must admit that I had to have been very emotionally confused: I recall that at that point I had convinced myself that everyone else had died in the crash. Though I know it did not happen that way, I was positive then that I had seen their bodies in the chopper. My mind was trapped between two states, sheer terror to survive and emotional chaos. I could not fully process and sort the reality of both aspects of the crash scene at the same time, it seems that I chose survival over full understanding.
Thank God I grew up roaming the woods of New Hampshire, since I was never given any military survival training. I worked my way downhill away from the wreck, toward a tiny stream below. But, as I got to the brooklet I could not bear the idea that I had not done any real investigation of the crash site to see if anyone was in fact still there or not. I started back toward the ship as fast as I could in the brush. Pressing closer, I called out, hoping for an answer from someone in our crew. I was only answered by the silence immediately around me, the crackling of the burning bushes at the ship, and then the explosion of the fuel bladder. With one last despairing cry for Gary, I retreated to the brook, "knowing" that no one now could survive the inferno of fuel, trees, fuselage materials, rockets, and 7.62 ammunition cooking off. I knew I was on my own.
Following the brook a little way, I then angled up around the Southern side and top of the middle hillock, noting human feces and tunnel openings. I knew I did not want to stay there! and quickly left the tunnel openings, and headed to the lowest hillock nearest the river to the South. I determined that if I was not picked up by our forces by sundown I would work my way to the river and float out across the A Shau to the sea, hoping to wind up in the Hue or Phu Bai area. Little did I know at the time that the A Shau Valley does not drain East, but into Laos.
Once I got to my temporary objective, I stood and thought, and talked to God for the first time in a long time. [I told God, "I don't believe in You, but I know my mother does. If You get me out of here, I will give you my life." I am writing this down at home, proof that He got me out of that mess. Bless God! But, once He did get me out, I ran away from Him for about seventeen years! Praise God for His patience with me (us). It wasn't until 1984 that I finally realized that I had to repent of my sin and trust His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Admitting to God His existence and holiness and that my sin nature needed His salvation was, for me, scarier than being in the jungle all alone! ...and if He can save me, He can save anyone!]
Waiting there on the hill, I initially tried flashing the back of my watch to signal my location. Having read other versions of the incident, this may have been mistaken for a survival mirror at some point. With all the firepower on station that day (Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force! My thanks to them all!!!) it finally dawned on me that a watch flashing in the brush could be too easily mistaken for enemy movements. I put away the watch and cut off my white boxer shorts, attaching them to a long stick. I then broke down an area of trees and brush so I could clearly be seen from above, waving my shorts. That was to be my plan until sundown. But, I began hearing "Charlie" talking and shooting somewhere between my location and the lower eastern most end of the horseshoe. At that time I pulled out my badly rusted TL-29 pocket knife (the only thing to survive the crash with me). I was adamant that I WAS NOT going to be taken POW. With one hand I held the "white flag" waving overhead in the hope that I would be rescued. With the other hand I kept the rusty TL-29 pressed to my jugular, a last resort against enemy capture. And so I spent those few, yet seemingly eternal hours on the ground, wondering, waiting, alternating hands when they got tired, occasionally talking with the God in whom I did not want to believe, and not daring to unlace the boot on my right foot lest I lose any blood.
After a lot of rockets, bombs, machine gun and cannon fire all over the place, I heard a UH-1 come in, for a pickup somewhere to the North and West of me, then leave. That had to have been crewchief Michael Gallagher's "slick" trying to get Hall and Corkran. (I leave the telling of that story to Don Corkran ...see his Intruder story by clicking on his name.) At times, I despaired it was so quiet, with not even the FAC visible to me. Then the "hell from above" would start again to suppress the hell on the ground, and remind me our guys hadn't given up the search.
FINALLY, a Marine chopper, similar to a Jolly Green Giant, but smaller, managed to drop a line not too far from me where I could just see the line through the brush. I got there as fast as slow motion would let me, and onto the lift. I about kissed the Marine who took me off the hoist!
When they hauled me inside, they asked several times about who else was on the ground. I was flabbergasted! I hadn't heard or seen anything resembling living American activity since the last seconds before the crash! I was still in severe emotional shock evidently, and not able to figure out what was really happening, regarding who was where or alive. In my befuddled state, I told them that I was sure no one else had gotten out of the ship. But from information given by FAC and other observers, I guess that they could see I was pretty well mixed up. They gave up on me being of any further help, and proceeded to cut off my boot and field dress my foot.
Given my mental and emotional confusion at that time, I offer my apologies to all those involved, and your families, for any disservice or grief that you have suffered as a result of my failure to see and understand things more clearly than I was able.
I was sent, for three months, to Okinawa to recuperate, and regain the use of my foot. Attached to the hospital in Okinawa, I heard nothing from nor of anyone in the 281st. Then as I was getting better, I was told that I would be reassigned to a different unit in Viet Nam, if I did not return to the same unit within 90 days (by the end of August). I opted to return to the Intruders.
It was not easy finding the right "hops" back to Nha Trang. Time, bureaucracy, and orders were formidable opponents, but I checked in at the orderly room just in time. Walking to the barracks, my jaw dropped. Gary Hall was coming toward me! I thought I was shocked to see him, but he turned about as gray as concrete when he finally recognized me. Neither of us knew or believed the other was alive. He said he had never been told I was extracted the same day we crashed, but did tell me that Michael Gallagher was shot and died that day, trying to extract Hall and Corkran.
Gary told me he was rescued 22 May and Don Corkran 23 May. Bless God! Gary made it out, and "Corky", too! Library of Congress POW/MIA records show that since the crash there has been much official flip-flopping about what happened to Walter Wrobleski (you can look up his name, or others, at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pow/powhome.html).
On 7 December 1967, in a field op flightline 40mm incident, I received wounds that sent me stateside.
Only God knows what it was all worth, besides the experience of being there, and the disability checks.
To those who made it back, God bless you. Welcome home! To the rest, may God have mercy.
Craig Szwed (PFC & SP4 in RVN)
Wolfpack crewchief, April-December 1967
ETS'd out of Fort Rucker, Alabama 1969