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War Stories

The Battle of Suoi Tre - (LZ Gold)

See also Battle of Suoi Reunion 15 March 2015

Mike Vaughn - Bain Cowell -Tom Fleming- George Stenehjem - Harold Fisher - Buck Buxton - Gerald Crawford - Willi Williams

This was one of the larger battles of the war. Much information on it is available online from many units.

See also: Bain Cowell's videos First Video 2010 - Corrected version 2012

(link to detailed report of the battle from "Triple Deuce")

See also: Harold Fisher's video describing the medical evacuations.

LZ Gold (XT385708 - a small clearing near the abandoned village of Suoi Tre in central War Zone C).

These are accounts of some of the Centaurs that became involved. - Updated 5 Oct 2015

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The Battle of Suoi Tre occurred during the early morning of 21 March 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam. After being challenged heavily to begin with, the Americans gained the upper hand and completed a convincing victory over the Viet Cong. They found 647 bodies and captured 7 prisoners, 65 crew-served and 94 individual weapons. The Americans lost on 36 dead and 190 wounded.

At the Tucson Reunion in 2010 Bain Cowell gave a video accounting of his experiences during this battle. Then, after meeting and talking with other Centaurs, and particularily Willi Williams, at the Nashville Reunion in 2012 he made a slightly corrected version.

At the San Antonio Reunion in 2014 Harold Fisher recounted his role in the medical evacuations from the hot LZ.

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Mike Vaughn with contributors Harold Fisher, Buck Buxton and Gerald Crawford, wrote the following article about their experiences that day:

“The Battle of Suoi Tre” - March 21, 1967
 
Elements of D Troop (Air), 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division, had been temporarily based at Tay Ninh base camp in support of one of their Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP).
 
D Troop helicopter 65-09661 (661) departed Tay Ninh base camp in the early morning hours of March 21, 1967 on a routine communications check with our LRRP team that had been inserted just the day before.   Our crew consisted of Aircraft Commander (AC) CPT Harold Fisher, 1st Pilot 1LT Buck Buxton, Crew Chief (CE) PFC Vaughn and Door Gunner SP4 Adams.  The patrols location was north of the Michelin Rubber Plantation and our mission was to get a situation report (SITREP) concerning the status of the patrol.

As the crew departed Tay Ninh, AC Fisher observed an area a few miles east of our location of some very intense activity that included heavy artillery and continuous air strikes.  CPT Fisher immediately contacted D Troop operations and requested information on the fighting he had spotted.  661s crew was advised that Landing Zone (LZ) Gold was under heavy enemy attack and had scores of wounded (WIA) that were in need of immediate evacuation (DUSTOFF).  AC Fisher, without hesitation, volunteered his helicopter to assist in anyway he could with the wounded.  He was advised by operations that his helicopter was definitely needed, and to setup in a holding pattern a few miles west of LZ Gold until they could clear us into the LZ. 
 
We continued to circle in a holding pattern waiting for clearance to land at LZ Gold.  Because of the low cloud cover our helicopter was required to fly very low (below 500 feet).  We were well within the range of enemy ground fire….a fact that had already cost one flight crew their lives.

gold

As we circled the area we began to pickup the frantic radio traffic coming from LZ Gold and the excited radio exchanges became more and more disturbing.  We could hear the sounds of immense volumes of automatic weapons fire and large explosions in the background.   They were pleading for help as their base camp perimeter had been attacked by wave after wave of VC firing automatic weapons, recoilless rifle and rocket propelled grenades (RPG); they needed immediate help.  The waiting, hearing the echoes of the raging battle made us believe we were about to enter the very jaws of hell. 
 
It would have been much easier on our crew to have gone directly into LZ Gold when first informed we were needed.  It was very unnerving hearing the troops on the ground describing the fierce battle.  They were telling how most of their artillery pieces had been destroyed by VC RPGs, recoilless rifle and mortars rounds.  The artillery pieces and their accompanying big shells were burning.  The shells were cooking off; exploding white hot shrapnel in every direction. 
 
Continuing to fly in a holding pattern our minds had far too much time to think about what’s waiting for us down there in that very hot LZ.  When actually engaged in the dustoff or other combat mission you are too focused on the mission to worry about anything else.  The waiting was always much more difficult than the rescue missions themselves.  Sometimes it’s better to not know, before hand, what your about to get into.
 
Earlier that morning our Command and Control (C & C) helicopter had been tasked to try and locate a downed Forward Artillery Control (FAC) 0-1E Bird Dog.  The FAC had been shot down by enemy ground fire while flying low over the perimeter of LZ Gold.  The crew was shot down soon after their arrival on scene.  They were only able to direct one air strike before being downed by heavy machine gun fire.
 
Our C &C ship, commanded by MAJ Stenehjem, soon located the downed FAC in the heavy jungle canopy not far from LZ Gold.  Because of the heavy triple canopy jungle it wasn’t possible for them to land to aid the downed crew.  They called for Stable Boy with it's hoist to try it. PFC Gerald T. Crawford was one of the door gunners on the Stable Boy chopper.   Gerald’s descriptions of the events concerning their mission was that they had hovered over the crash site, lower a man down on a hoist line, to see if the pilot and observer had survived the crash.  While doing so they were sitting ducks from enemy fire.   They soon determined both crewmen were dead (KIA) and it would be far too dangerous to stay and try to retrieve the bodies at that time.  Their helicopter was then directed to fly to LZ Gold for dustoff missions as needed.
 
We could see the ground around LZ Gold was literally covered with VC bodies; some stacked one on top of the other.  CPT Fisher reported that we even had to land on top of some VC bodies during our landing.  What an awful sight.
 
When we turned on final approach into the LZ it was obvious this was going to be a very risky mission to complete.   We were committed and we were either going to bring the wounded (WIA) out of that hellhole or we were going to join the rinks of the KIAs trying.  That was our job and no one on 661s crew was going to hesitate to help those poor men on the ground. 
 
During 661s approach into the LZ, not only did we have to contend with enemy ground fire, the crew had to avoid incoming mortars, outgoing artillery fire and the high performance aircraft as they zipped by dropping their bombs.  Normally choppers would stay a few miles away from the jets as they made their bombing runs.  They are flying so fast and they can’t see the choppers and by the time we see them we can’t get out of their way.  All this while flying below 500 feet; making us a very tempting target for the enemy gunners.  CPT Fisher and 1Lt Buxton had to pilot us through a very tricky and dangerous obstacle course just to get into LZ Gold.
 
After we landed our CE left his gunners seat to help load the wounded.  Those poor soldiers had endured the battle all night long and they were walking around like zombies.  It was an unbelievable sight with the jets dropping bombs within 50 meters of the edge of the perimeter, incoming mortar rounds hitting the LZ and artillery rounds cooking off.  It was absolute mayhem.  After each explosion our CE would duck and hit the ground.  The men of LZ Gold, having suffered through the all night battle, seemed to not even notice the incoming fire and the peril all around them.  They just calmly continued to carry the wounded and load them onto the chopper.  Each one was walking around with that 1000 yard stare.  The look on their faces was that of a person who has been brought to the very breaking point, but continued to fight on.  True American heroes…every damn one of them. 
 
On the flights back to the hospital the CE and gunner had given first aid to some of the severely wounded.  One of the wounded soldiers 661 picked up had a very serious gut wound.  He had lost a lot of blood and was crying out in agony.  He asked gunner SP4 Adams for some water because he was extremely thirsty.  Adams reached for his canteen to give him a drink.   The CE pointed to his belly and shook his head no, reminding Adams that you never give water to a person with a belly wound.
 
Another soldier had a very large and gapping wound to his upper thigh.  He was crying out; just let me die.  He said he knew he was going to lose his leg and he was afraid his girl back home wouldn’t want him anymore.  Both the CE and gunner continued to encourage him; telling him that they had seen much worse wounds and that he was going to all right and he would be going back to the real world soon. Can’t help but wonder how life turned out for those guys.
 
CPT Fisher asked the CE over the chopper intercom how the wounded soldiers were doing.  He told him that the soldier with the gut wound was complaining about being very cold and maybe going into shock.  CPT Fisher quickly removed his own fatigue shirt and Vaughn used it to cover the soldier helping him to feel warmer
 
Both the C&C crew and 661s crew made multiple successful dustoff missions into and out of LZ Gold that day.  We were very willing and able to assist fellow soldiers and rescue numerous wounded soldiers.
 
During 1966-67 D Troop Centaurs had established an excellent reputation as far as dustoff missions were concerned.  Their chopper crews never refused, not one time, to make a dustoff regardless how dangerous the situation.  D Troop Centaurs were even called in when other crews refused to go.  Soldiers familiar with the Centaurs knew they would go into any hot LZ to pickup their wounded, you could bet your life on that fact.  

Mike Vaughn

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Tom Fleming's Article:

Tom Fleming, Service Platoon leader and WO1 Donald Scholz, were flying Stable Boy (the Maintenance and Recovery aircraft). SSG Glen Kelly was the LRRP Medic who always flew with me because most of the M & R Missions involved LRRP teams or MedEvac. PFC Gerald T. Crawford was a part of the Crew of Stable Boy as was Larry Richardson (which one was CE and which was Door gunner I can't remember, but Gerald was the left door gunner).  I am not sure who the hoist operator was.

In mid March 1967 the Army launched Operation Junction City in War Zone C to clear Viet Cong Main Force and to locate and destroy the headquarters of the National Liberation Force. The main thrust of the operation involving the 25th Infantry Division was to launch an armored/mechanized force north of Nui Ba Dinh (Black Virgin Mountain) on Route 4 past the Special Forces CIDG outpost at Prek Kloc and establish a series of fire bases along the Cambodian Border.

To accomplish this D Troop was tasked with emplacing LRRP Teams on the eastern flank of the axis of advance as it moved forward. The major elements of the troop supporting our LRRP Detachment relocated to the Tay Ninh Base Airfield closely associated with the 25th Division Tactical Operation Center which was located where the 196th Infantry Brigade Headquarters had been located.

The troop inserted several LRRP teams south of what was planned to become LZ Gold at Ap Suoi Tre. I participated with the Stableboy crew in the insertion and extraction of several teams. Stableboy at this time was equipped with a rescue hoist to aid in the recovery of downed crews inserting or extracting LRRP Teams. On about the 15th of March the operation was in full swing and we had one team that was in the opinion of the troop commander shaky. This team had been in only a couple of days and was complaining about the heat and lack of water and wanted to be extracted. MAJ Stenehjem asked me to fly out to their location and deliver several 5 gal cans of water by lowering them with the hoist. We did this with out any problem; however it wasn’t long after Stableboy had returned to Tay Ninh than the team reported that they heard noise of enemy searching for them and called for extraction. The extraction went without a shot fired.

The next morning, March 19, about 07:00 I got a call from MAJ Stenejhem who was at the DTOC to crank up and head north of Nui Ba Dinh and search for a downed 0-1 FAC that had been shot down and to take with me two gun teams. The weather was overcast with a 1000 ft ceiling. I was told I would be briefed in route by MAJ Stenehjem. Off Stableboy went with its gun team escort heading north. When contacted I was told that I should orbit to the north and east of where we had last extracted the LRRP Team while division attempted to get the exact location of the downed 0-1. After orbiting for about 15 minutes or so I called MAJ Stenehjem and told him we were receiving a lot of ground fire and a good bit of it was heavy stuff (51 cal). MAJ Stenehjem told me that where he was there was no ground fire so I asked for his location. He said he was on top of the cloud cover at 3000 ft. I pulled the escorting gun ships in tight and led the way up through the clouds. Up on top it was nice and clear, but off to the west about 2 k you could see heavy smoke and fire rising up through the cloud cover with fighter bombers diving down and back up signifying a major engagement in progress.

The FM radio on Stableboy had quit working so I had the gun teams relay artillery warning to me over UHF. They were saying that there was heavy artillery fire at about the coordinates where the smoke and fire was coming from. I still wasn’t getting the location of the downed 0-1 and was told to continue to hold while the location was being sorted out. The escorting gun ship leader called and said that there was an emergency call for all available medevac coming over the artillery warning net. I called MAJ Stenehjem and told him about the call and that I would try and go to the location of the tactical emergency. He acknowledged my intent and told me that when he had more information on the downed 0-1 he would get back. I asked my gun escort where the need for the medevac was and they told me that it was in the vicinity of all the smoke and fire. They directed me around to the north of the heavy fire and then back east.

When I got the gaggle maneuvered around to the other side I asked for a smoke for location and it was relayed to me that yellow smoke was out. As I was searching for the yellow smoke I saw a platoon of tanks crashing through the jungle cross county and thought it must be there, all the while looking about a kilometer further east at what looked like a conflagration of immense proportions, continuous air strikes on the north and artillery on the south. When I said I couldn’t see it I was told to look to my front and I would see the ammo dump exploding and that was where they needed the medevac. I dropped to treetop level and raced in to the LZ almost over running an OH-23 C&C (It was LTC Vessey’s C&C later General Vessey, Chairman of the JCS) I landed short of the exploding ammo dump adjacent to two wrecked smoldering UH-1Ds amid heavy mortar, small arms and RPG fire. Everyone on the ground was in holes or crawling around. An officer with a PRC 25 strapped to his back crawled up and started to try and tell me he had a lot of wounded and they would drag them to the helicopter.

While they were gathering the wounded and loading them I witnessed a quad 50 to my front (100m) get it’s barrels jammed, overrun with VC and blown away with direct fire from a nearby 105 Howitzer. Our infantry were firing from piles of dead VC within 100 meters of my location. As they put a severely wounded soldier in Stableboy a less wounded would get out the other side. I finally had to tell them I needed to get out of there other medevacs were coming in.

As I pulled up to depart a platoon of M113s burst out of the tree line to my left rear and raced across the LZ in front of Stableboy and right into the midst of the enemy. I have no doubt they ran over both friend and foe as they charged into the fray. I did a hovering 360 and departed. On the way out we took one round in the belly, the only hit we took. As we approached the initial landing I was sure that we had had it. I couldn’t see how any one could fly in and out of that LZ and make it. After I had mentally accepted that the mission had to be accomplished it got a lot easier.

We dropped off our wounded at the Tay Ninh MUST hospital, refueled and returned to LZ Gold for another load. By the time we got back things had quieted down a good bit and there were lots of other helicopters picking up wounded. Even though the main VC attack had been spoiled there was still a good bit of mortar fire coming in as well as small arms from the south and south east. The same officer came up to my helicopter at a low crouch and asked that we evacuate a wounded VC Lieutenant as a priority which meant we had to off load US wounded, which didn’t make for a happy passenger load). While they were dragging the wounded VC up to Stableboy the same officer asked if we would hover up to the north of the LZ and evacuate a badly wounded soldier who had been at one of their LPs. We off loaded more less wounded, loaded the VC POW and hovered across the LZ, past the artillery and the forward edge of the defensive perimeter and located the wounded soldier. He had lost both legs, one arm, had a sucking chest wound and was conscious. The Medic SSG Kelly who always flew as part of the crew helped load him on board and attended to his condition.

We raced back to the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) hospital and off loaded the wounded. SSG Kelly told me that the badly wounded soldier from the LP was conscious all the way and attempted to push the VC POW out the door on several occasions. (SSG Kelly returned to the hospital later in the day after all our missions were over and the severely wounded soldier had died as did the VC POW).

While refueling at about 10:00 I got a call from MAJ Stenehjem that the AF 0-1 had been located, the Air Force wanted someone to go in and rescue the pilot and observer and would provide an escort of seven B-57 Canberra’s, he also said he would provide three or four gun teams to escort Stableboy if I would give it a try. I agreed to give it a try after consulting with the crew and letting them know we would have to hover over the trees and lower one down to try and find them. Good old SSG Kelly volunteered to go down the rescue hoist and check the crash scene out.

Off we went to 700 meters south of LZ Gold (the direction the VC attacked from) and found the wreckage. I came in fast at tree top level and almost over ran the wreckage. The B-57s had preceded us and had used their 20mm cannons to soften up the surrounding area and lifted up to hold above us. The gun ships set up a daisy chain around us and fired outward to suppress. We came to a high hover (about 75 ft) with WO Sholtz on the controls and we let SSG Kelly down. As he was going down the door gunner reported seeing one body decapitated and another headless, the hoist operator and CE reported seeing the same thing. At that point I concluded that it was senseless to continue to attempt rescue two dead flyers at the risk of six crew members, so I ordered Kelly to be winched up and we departed the area. The Air force was not too happy with us, but they got their bodies back the next day via ground evacuation along with the radio and code book.

The Battle of Ap Suoi Tre as it became to be known was the most significant battle to date of the Vietnam War. The 272 VC Main Force Regiment had been eliminated at a cost of 31 US KIA , 187 WIA and the rendering of two assault Helicopter Companies of the 145 Aviation Battalion (68th Top Tigers & 118th Thunderbirds) ineffective. The VC body count did not start until the afternoon of 19 March, 647 bodies were counted and it is estimated that some 200 more died and were dragged away. - Tom Fleming