(The original letter was written to Al Rampone III, in response to his request for information for his book, Silent Birdmen. I didn't realize until this 1999 that the letter burned in a fire before he was able to use it!)
My Ft. Wolters flight school was Class 66-13, and because of an army screw-up in my transfer to Ft. Rucker I had to finish with Class 66-15.
I was in U.S. Army Reserves for 30 years of active reserve duty. I quit flying in the U.S. Army after twenty years in Army Aviation. My last position in the reserves was as a Computer Systems Analyst. That caused me to spend ten months in Saudi Arabia with Desert Shield/Storm! I love flying, but I had to stop flying in the Army Reserves because other commitments were taking up too much of my life! Besides, I spent plenty of time in the air with my civilian job.
My civilian occupation was a Line Pilot Medium/Heavy Helicopters for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. I retired with PHI with over 18,000 hours of total flight time in various helicopters and airplanes.
My Vietnam story:
(VHPA Refno 0537. 12/02/66)
I arrived at the 281st in Nov 1966. Two weeks later I was flying 2nd recovery and watched one of my 66-13 classmates, Don Harrison, get killed in Laos! Daniel A. Sulander, Don Harrison and crew were ambushed in the LZ after attempting to extract an S.F. Recon Team that was in contact with “charlie”. They made their approach to a “sheet” and “charlie” owned it. The aircraft rolled inverted after takeoff and crashed. What a way to start a tour!
I was the Aircraft Commander, "Wolfpack 33", of aircraft 65-09486. I was with CW3 Walter Francis Wrobleski on 5/21/67.
My Army personnel records stated:
Crew member on aircraft shot down due to enemy action. Aircraft exploded and burned on impact. No known survivors!
To explain the above, my story begins on a Sunday morning as I was flying gun cover for an extraction. Jerry Montoya, another of my Class 66-13 classmates went in to attempt an extraction of an SF team that was being chased by “Charlie”. That's when Jerry got his eye shot out. Jerry told me in 1999 that as he was on the way back to the hospital, he heard that Wolfpack 33 was down!
All I can remember is that as we turned inbound on the daisy chain, all hell broke loose in the aircraft! We were in a left turn when we were hit and then we started to roll right. Neither Walter nor I could do anything with the aircraft. We became passengers as the aircraft started in the direction that it wanted to go! The rotor started to unwind and we were only able to get the collective part of the way down. (Craig Szwed or Gary Hall told someone later that he looked out toward the back of the aircraft and all he could see was fire, smoke and bullet holes).
Just as we reached the jungle canopy, I remember being able to pull back on the cyclic and the nose of the aircraft pitched up in response, so I tried pulling up on the collective and it came up but it didn't do much (not enough turns I guess). As we thrashed down thru the canopy things flew everywhere. Then we hit on top of what looked like a big rock. The transmission came down between Walter and myself. That was the last time that I remember seeing him. The aircraft rolled over three times, stopped upside down then I realized we were on fire. Without thinking I released my seat belt and fell on my head! I couldn't get my door open and there was fire around the transmission on my left. There was a movement behind me and I saw Gary Hall going out the back door. To this day I do not know how I got over the back of my seat and out of the aircraft.
The aircraft was already a roaring inferno and ammo had started to cook off as we ran away from the aircraft. Gary and I realized after we got away from the aircraft that we were by ourselves. We discussed going back to the aircraft but by now the fire was so intense and the ammo was really cooking off (an S.F. team member told me later that they found a rocket stuck through a tree in front of the aircraft). We figured everyone else was dead and that fire would attract unwelcome attention, so we moved about 50 meters from the wreckage and hid in the elephant grass.
We had no survival gear or weapons other than my .45 pistol and 6 rounds of ammo. Everything else was thrown from the aircraft as we rolled, or was burned. We were exhausted so we collapsed on the ground. I had no idea what was going on overhead. There were slicks and gunships everywhere and they were making passes over the crash site and shooting at the “Charlie”. They couldn't see us because of the jungle canopy. There was a small hole in the jungle canopy above us. Anytime that I thought that someone was above us I would signal with my “sheet” (a piece of bright orange panel that I always carried in my pocket). I didn't know if it was doing any good at this point.
After a while an Air Force “Jolly Green Giant” came from down the valley towards us. We could see part of the rotor system but there was no way for us to signal them. I was informed later that the intention had been to drop paramedics on the site. However, the density altitude was too high so they couldn't sustain a hover forcing them to leave.
Just about dark a 281st “slick” appeared right above our heads. (I was informed later that they had stripped everything out of it to reduce the weight. There was only enough fuel on board to make one attempt at a pickup.) The jungle penetrator dropped down. It was ten feet from us so they must have seen my “sheet”. Just as we ran to the penetrator and got on it, all hell broke loose as “Charlie “ started firing at the pickup ship. Roger Barnes who was flying one of the Wolfpack guns reminded me of this. The crew member operating the hoist, Patrick Gallagher, was lying down on the floor of the pickup aircraft and was hit by ground fire. The A/C of the pickup ship aborted the mission. He didn't know that we were on the hoist and we were lifted off of the ground and up thru the trees. We never cleared the trees! “Giant hands” (trees) reached out and grabbed me and jerked me off of the penetrator. I crashed down thru the trees and hit the ground afraid to move. I was sure that something had to be broken! Someone very close to where I landed was firing at the pickup ship. I thought that Gary had gotten out on the hoist and he thought that I had. I was now alone and as it got dark I could hear chickens clucking and Vietnamese voices very close, so I didn't move at all!
The fear of being discovered in my sleep kept me awake most of the night. All night long the Air Force made runs in the valley below and the ridge above dropping cluster bombs. Exhaustion must have overcome my fear of being discovered or bombed because I suddenly realized that it was daylight and I was lying face down. There was a leech stuck on my lip and I discovered a couple of others on other exposed parts of my body. I do not remember how I got them off. My canteen was missing so no water and of course no food. The next two days I kept myself in food and water by chewing into a banana tree and chewing and swallowing the pulp to curb my hunger and thirst.
Suddenly the rescue aircraft were back. They were being shot at and I'm not sure that they were aware of it. There were no more shots close to where I landed so I started to crawl back toward where I thought the aircraft was located. A clearing appeared on the slope I was on so I stopped at the edge. I could see an Air Force FAC so I took out my “sheet” and laid on my back to signal to him. He rolled over on his back and I new he had seen me! I moved back into the tree line and watched to see what he would do.
Things were quiet for a while and then all of a sudden there was a Marine CH-46 hovering in the vicinity of what I thought to be the crash site. I saw them lift and leave with someone hanging on a McGuire rig. Not a shot was fired from the ground as far as I could tell. The man on the McGuire rig was Craig Szwed (as I found out from Craig when we found each other through the internet).
According to Maj. Smith, Craig Szwed had jumped out of the aircraft when we hit the canopy. He sprained his ankle when he landed. He had used a pink pay voucher to signal the other aircraft after we were split from each other. In the debriefing he told Maj. Smith “there wasn't any way that anyone could have survived the crash. The impact and fire had to have killed everyone”! He was asked about a signal mirror that they had spotted. Craig said that he knew nothing about a mirror. Maj. Smith knew now he had to have at least someone else alive. None of us that were recovered had ever used a mirror! So was this Walter Wrobleski who used a mirror? I guess we will never know.
Then I heard a “giant voice” from the air. The Air Force brought in their psychological warfare aircraft with its giant speakers and was using it to communicate with me. They told me to flash the “sheet” once for no and twice for yes. They asked me if I was hurt, did I have weapons, did I have food and water, etc. I didn't realize that they were not talking to me but to Gary Hall (he had used his white undershirt as a “sheet”).
Sometime later the shooting started everywhere in the air above me, on the ground and in the trees around me. Suddenly an Air Force jet made a low pass over the ground and I shifted; there was an explosion and another and another, about six all together and it seemed like it rained trees for about five minutes. The firing stopped. A helicopter made a low pass some distance from me and I saw a bundle drop out of it. The bundle contained survival gear, radios, and weapons for three people. They thought that there were three of us together I guess. Apparently the bundle was for Gary who knew that he was by himself, so he buried the extra equipment. However, he knew that I had survived the crash initially, so he told them that on the radio.
The psy-war aircraft said to stay put, that help was coming. Later I found out that they were using Marine CH-46’s to insert Vietnamese Rangers with Special Forces advisers into a clearing in the valley about a “klick” away (one CH-46 had it's hydraulics shot out on the insertion in the LZ). The intention was to rescue us.
They linked up with Gary Hall first. As they got to a clearing, the pickup ship came in and picked Gary up. Not a shot was fired. The rangers were then vectored toward me by the FAC. The psy-war aircraft kept me informed of the progress of the rangers. I kept myself covered with elephant grass for protection and waited. Toward the end of the second day bugs crawling on me were becoming more tempting for food. To pass the time I would “threaten” the bugs with becoming my meal if they didn't leave me alone.
It was the third day of waiting. Tomorrow I would head for the coast. There was a movement in the grass not too far from me. I raised my 45 pistol with my “vast” six round ammo supply and prepared to defend myself! The point man, a Vietnamese Ranger appeared. I probably would have shot him but I realized that he had American field gear on so I kissed him instead! I shook hands with the Special Forces Sergeant (he wouldn't let me kiss him)! They gave me food and water and we started to move toward a clearing that was close to us. The intention was to get me out and then the main body would move back to the valley insertion point so that they could be picked by the CH-46’s.
We reached the clearing. The pickup ship started its run and all hell broke loose. The ship aborted and Wolfpack “prep-ed” the area with gun support. The pickup ship started its second run and the hills came alive again with fire. Several ships were hit several times. The Air Force was called and they dumped on the trees around us until it got quiet. Again, when the helicopters started their run the hillsides came alive with fire. We were down in the valley and the S.F. Sergeant said it was a very bad place for a pickup. He said the ideal place would be back at the insertion area because it was a large valley and a farther distance from the hills. I told him that I would stay with them and walk back to the insertion point. The decision was made and we started out on foot.
We had gone 200 meters down the hill when we were hit! Ambushed! Snipers were in the trees and they disappeared. Another 300 meters and we were ambushed again. I fell on the ground as the fire fight started. I pulled out my 45 again with my six rounds of ammo and looked up to see if we were being overrun. One of the Special Forces men stepped in the middle of my back. He told me to keep my head down that he had come too far to get me out and that he did not want me killed now. Three Vietnamese Rangers died. One died from a bullet in the arm. The Vietnamese medic could not figure out why he died until he raised the man’s arm and found out that the bullet had gone through his arm, into his chest and through his heart!
The rest of the trek back to the insertion point where the Marine CH-46 was still sitting untouched was without incident. The downed Marine CH-46 was still sitting where they had left it. Its hydraulics had been shot out during insertion. The S.F. man torched the 46 with a thermite grenade and then the other Marine CH-46’s took us out. Marine 46’s came in and picked us up to take us back to the TOC. They then ferried me to the Marine Hospital for a check up. I was “shaken from the ordeal” and doctors at the hospital said that I was starting to dehydrate.
Some people from the TOC then took me back to the TOC again for a debriefing. There was a meeting with Smith, Moberg, Boyd and Cartwright (Wolfpack platoon leader). They told me they had been in conference with the Company Commander and they all agreed that I had served my time in hell with Project Delta. I would be going back to Nha Trang on the first available aircraft and I would pull ash and trash flights until DEROS.
When I reached Nha Trang, I was allowed to call my wife. She told me that she was working in a doctor’s office when a Captain from the Army showed up to inform her that I was missing in action and presumed dead. He had the insurance money and was ready to help her settle my affairs! My wife called my parents and then travelled to their home to make final arrangements for my funeral. Three days later I called. They would not believe that it was I! (During this time frame, anti-war protesters would call families of MIA and KIA to harass them). I finally convinced my family that I was alive. Two days later a PFC in Saigon called and asked my wife where they should send my personal effects! She then asked the voice on the other end of the line if I had been “killed” again!
I was debriefed by the CIA and had to sign a statement to the fact that I had not been in personal contact with any enemy soldiers. Three days later, I was called in by the Company Commander and the Executive Officer and told that tomorrow I would be going back to Delta! His comment was that he was “the Commander” of the 281st and that Moberg, Smith, Boyd and Cartwright “were not”!
I was having problems examining my decisions prior to, during, and after getting shot down. Dealing with these decisions that may have had a direct bearing on the death of Walter were causing me some real anxieties. Now here I was going back to Delta and I had not physically recovered, not to mention my mental state.
Having made the decision to take myself out of the Aircraft Commander's seat for a while, I went in and told the Company Commander and he agreed. I returned to Delta much to the surprise of Smith, Moberg and Cartwright. Two days later the Company Commander was at Delta having a meeting with Smith (with me being part of the reason for the meeting!). The Company Commander called me in and told me that he needed AC’s and that I was returning to my old slot in Wolfpack. I told him that I was not refusing to fly, but that I felt that I could not be a competent Aircraft Commander at that point. He got mad and told me to pack my bags, that I would fly back to Nha Trang with me as his co-pilot. This made me look like I was lashing out at anyone with authority, which was not true.
When we arrived at Nha Trang, the Company Commander scheduled me with a psychiatrist who said that there was nothing wrong with me. He said that I hadn't refused to fly and therefore the problem was the Company Commander's. Then he scheduled me with the flight surgeon that said that there was nothing wrong with me. He also said I hadn't refused to fly, so again, this was the Company Commander's problem. The Company Commander threatened me with a Flight Evaluation Board; however, he didn't have a leg to stand on with an FEB, as I had never refused to fly. He sent me to the Battalion Executive Officer. We talked. The Battalion Executive Officer sent me back and told the Company Commander that I had not refused to fly and the problem was not his. The Company Commander then sent me to the Battalion Commander where we also talked. He said there was no mandatory requirement for me to be an Aircraft Commander so therefore I was the Company Commander's problem, not the Battalion Commander's problem.
No one would help the Company Commander hang me, so he told me that he was going to do me a “favor” and let me transfer out of the unit. He did transfer me, and I went to the 129th Helicopter Assault Co. as a gun pilot. The 129th Commander told me that he had been briefed by the 281st Company Commander about my ‘problem”, but he told me he didn't see one. My job as the Aircraft Commander of “Cobra 33” commenced immediately. I finished my last two months in Vietnam with the 129th AHC.
One month after going to the 129th, I was presented with the Bronze Star with a “V” device for my actions in the Au Shau Valley while serving as Aircraft Commander with the 281st Helicopter Assault Co. “The” Company Commander of the 281st. signed the paperwork! His part in this story is only to fill in some details. As the Unit Commander, I am sure that he had his reasons for what he did as I had mine.
I have told this story many times, but this is a revised version based on facts that have been presented to me after I wrote my original story. If anyone can supply different facts or to add to this story, please feel free to write me at my e-mail address.
Most of all, I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest gratitude to all of the people who risked their lives to save my crew and me!!
Donald L. Corkran, Sr.