A short narrative from

Black Stetsons, Golden Sabers

by Lionel DeLaRosa
USA, ret.

In November 1965 I got my orders for Vietnam. In less than 24 hours I left Germany during one of the worst snowstorms of the year and arrived into the hot hell of Vietnam. It should have been an omen, but as a 30 year old career soldier I was used to that. When I arrive in RVN I volunteered as a door gunner and was assigned to Headquarters Troop, 1/9th Cav., 1st Cavalry Division.

The day we flew out to Pleiku to join the troop in the field it was so foggy that the birds were walking and all other flying creatures were grounded yet we took off without a care in the world. Hey, I had never been in a helicopter and it was my first ride! Needless to say we never got there that day. An hour later we were back in An Khe after almost crashing into a mountain.

I finally joined my unit the next day and was assigned to be the door gunner on the Squadron Commanders chase ship. Our ship had no machine guns for the crew chief or gunner so we used our M-16s and a clip fed, three round grenade launcher. The chase ship had flexible turrets mounted on each side with two machine guns mounted on each turret.

The next three months proved to be quite routine. We followed the command ship where ever it went, dropped food and ammo to the troops and covered insertions of the Blues and LLRPs. Then on March 30th things changed. On that morning my crew chief came running up yelling that A Troop had spotted a group of NVA in trenches at the base of Chu Pong Massif, in the Ia Drang valley. I couldn't understand what all the excitement was about since the scouts did that every day. That changed when I saw all the pilots and crews scrambling to their aircraft.

The Air Force was pounding the area when we got there and when they were finished both the command ship and the chase ship made runs , firing into the tree lines. I could see no enemy but I dropped several grenades as we flew over the tree line anyway. Adrenalin excited my body and the smell of gun powder filled my lungs.

As the B Troop Blues made an assault we again made a run as the lift ships made their approach. We gained altitude and began to circle as the blues assembled and entered the tree line. The situation seemed quite routine and things seemed to have settled down, but not for long.

Over the sound of gunfire, Blue Mike reported that they had captured a NVA prisoner. Shortly Blue Mike again reported that according to the prisoner they were surrounded by a thousand NVA. Too many even for the elite blues. They were ordered to break contact and return to the LZ to be extracted by the slicks. We continued to circle the area. The pink teams had been on station for some time and were running low on fuel and ammo. Some of the scout pilots were actually shooting their .38s and throwing c-ration cans at the enemy.

As the lift ships made their approach to extract the blues we made a gun run to cover them. As we finished our run all hell broke loose. The NVA began firing machine guns and RPGs from the tree line. Two lift ships were hit and were on fire. Making some drastic maneuvers and dropping several hundred feet our two gun ships made another gun run and I dropped some WPs on the tree line.

Below one could easily see the green and white tracers crisscrossing the LZ. On one of the two remaining lift ships with the pilot was dead and the co-pilot badly wounded the crew chief flew the helicopter out. (In the fall of 1966 the crew chief was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the few enlisted men to receive it).

The remaining ship finally lifted off and we were there to escort him but time was running out for this ship too. With wounded aboard and the ship badly damaged, the pilot tried to make it to the Plei Me Special Forces camp. Fate intervened and half way to Plei Me the helicopter lost power and crashed into the jungle.

As we slowly circled the crash site I saw a clearing about a hundred or so yards away and asked the pilot to drop me off so that I could try to help the crash victims. We were deep in enemy territory and the only ones anywhere nearby. It was decided to land and bring them out. While the pilot stayed with the ship the co-pilot (an Air Force liaison captain), the crewchief and I went to give aid and dress the wounded. It took nearly all afternoon to bring all nine men out. Luckily two scout ships dropped off their observers to help. It was dark when we finally finished but we did not lose a single man.

Two or three days later while flying contour from an artillery base, I spotted what appeared to be either a monkey or a gook on the ground near a tree line. After reporting the siting to the pilot we made a wide turn and returned to the area and I dropped a WP on the approximate position. As we again circled back to check the area a large NVA unit opened up on us from the tree line. Rounds were hitting our chopper and I returned fire with my M-16. The pilot quickly dropped below the skyline as I continued to fire at the blinking lights. Although I could actually see the NVA standing and kneeling, I aimed at the muzzle flash.

It shook me up so badly that I was still firing as we climbed out through a thousand feet and a mile away from the the ambush. When we landed back at the artillery base my body started to shake so much that I could not even put a cigarette in my mouth and trying to light it was even worse.

The NVA unit got the worst of it. They never made it to the artillery base camp which was their target for a night attack. A mile or so from the ambush site they were annihilated by our gun ships as they tried to flee. They left 15 KIA in the tree line.

Shortly after that we returned to An Khe. We had been in the field since December and the aircraft needed maintenance. While back in An Khe we participated in the killing of some elephants. Believe me, it's next to impossible to kill an elephant with an M-16.

Instead of returning to Pleiku we were sent to Bong Son. I did not like Bong Son, besides the Viet Cong and NVA there were civilians in some of those villages who would shoot at us. Okay, maybe they weren't civilians but they dressed like them, heck some were even women and kids!

I don't know which was worse, the highlands or Bong Son. The very day we flew to Bong Son there was a convoy ambush. That night while dropping ammo to a ground unit along a ridge line we got shot at by a .51 cal and took a round through the rotor blade. Later that same night we were mortared.

A couple of weeks later I became the Squadron COs gunner after his gunner was wounded near a village called Tran Son. A large NVA unit that had escaped earlier in the week was surrounded by our troops and the battle was in full swing. An hour after becoming the COs gunner we were nearly shot down. The crew chief, co-pilot, artillery FO and communications NCO were all wounded. That didn't stop the CO or even slow him down. He went and got another bird and we were back in the combat arena.

And so it went. I never had the pleasure of serving under Col. Stockton but I did serve under two great commanders. Colonels Shoemaker and J.C.Smith. Had Rambo been a real war hero rather than a movie character either of these men would have made him look like a boy scout.

It was widely known that the 1/9th was not very liberal with awarding medals to its troops. There were just too many troopers in the 1/9th who daily went above and beyond the call of duty in doing their job. I still remember the OH-13 who played hide and seek with a .51 and finally got it. Or the blue platoon that was regularly out numbered when they made contact. Then there were the lift ships who under heavy fire always came in to pick them up. Those 'angels from hell' gun ships who were always there when you needed them and always seemed to put their fire on the right spot. The mechanics who (at the time I wished were not so fast) patched up the birds and kept them flying.

Well, I guess our helicopter crew was just like everyone else in the squadron, (if not in the entire 1st Cav Division) a close knit group of deranged individuals who were determined to "just get the job done".

Maybe this is the reason that the 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry is the most decorated unit that served in Vietnam.