• U.S.

South Viet Nam: The Helicopter War Runs into Trouble

5 minute read


The helicopter has revolutionized the ugly little anti-Communist war in South Viet Nam. Using the whirlybirds for transport, government forces no longer remain immobile in fixed outposts. They now go where the Viet Cong goes.

Sometimes this is not very healthy, for the Red guerrillas have developed tactics to counter the copters. In the early days, they tried to shoot them down with homemade shotguns and ancient French rifles; one helicopter even returned to base with an arrow stuck in its fuselage. Today, with more practice and an abundant supply of captured U.S. weapons, the Viet Cong gangmen can make things hot for the most skilled U.S. helicopter pilot. Last week the Viet Cong forces proved their prowess by shooting down five helicopters over rice marshes southwest of Saigon and inflicting a brutal defeat on the government forces.

Like Shooting Ducks. The battle began as a routine “search and clear” operation in a Red-infested area near the tiny hamlet of Apbac. The strike plan called for ten U.S. H21 troop-carrying helicopters, escorted by five U.S. rocket-firing HUA choppers, to ferry 400 government troops to the drop zone in waves of 100 men each. The first three groups landed with no ground fire from the enemy. But as the fourth lift fluttered over the paddies, the Communists let loose with a blaze of bullets from the woods at the edge of the rice field. “The tree line seemed to explode with machine-gun fire,” said one helicopter pilot. “It was pure hell.” Virtually motionless, the banana-shaped helicopters were helpless targets at point-blank range; five of the hovering choppers were shot down, and nine others were riddled by enemy fire.

On the ground, the government forces were pinned down in the hail of fire. “When those poor Vietnamese came out of the choppers, it was like shooting ducks for the Viet Cong,” said one U.S. officer. The stunned survivors burrowed into the slimy mud of the paddies and stayed there, refusing to continue the assault. Desperately, Captain Kenneth Good, 32, a West Pointer from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, sought to rally the Vietnamese for a counterattack, but he was stitched through the neck and chest by a burst from a Viet Cong automatic rifle. The government troops stayed put.

After eight hours of continuous bombardment, reinforcements began to arrive. Blasting away with machine guns, government armored cars repeatedly attacked the entrenched Viet Cong positions at the tree line and along a canal bordering the paddies; each time they were driven back. Overhead, government planes pounded the Viet Cong with bombs and napalm, but the Communists did not break. “My God, we got a fix on one machine-gun position and made 15 aerial runs on it,” said a U.S. adviser. “Every time we thought we had him, and every time that damned gunner came right back up, firing.”

The Open Wallet. As dusk fell, the Viet Cong slipped into sampans and escaped down the darkened canal with their dead and wounded. “Everything we did went wrong.” complained a U.S. adviser. A battalion of government paratroopers, assigned the job of blocking the Reds’ escape route, was airdropped into the wrong position. And when government artillery at last started to shell the wooded Viet Cong positions, their rounds were zeroed in on their own troops, killed three of their own men.

Worst of all, the battered Vietnamese troops showed little interest in pursuing the Reds. Instead, they sloshed through the paddyfields, picking up their casualties—68 dead and 100 wounded—and poking through the downed helicopters. On the cabin floor of one of the choppers lay the wallet of a dead U.S. adviser—open to a picture of his wife and child. In all, three U.S. advisers—Captain Good, Sergeant William Deal of Mays Landing, N.J., and Specialist 4 Donald Braman of Radcliff, Ky.—were killed in the ambush, and six more wounded. The dead brought to 56 the number of U.S. troops killed so far in South Viet Nam.

Piecemealed to Death. The extent of the government defeat under conditions of its own choosing and the heavy losses suffered by the U.S. helicopters caused heads to snap from Saigon to Washington.

Under orders from President Kennedy, the Pentagon began to investigate ways in which the choppers can be better protected. In Saigon, U.S. advisers admitted that the day was a “miserable performance,” blamed the defeat on a “lack of aggressiveness” by government troops. “They moved in slowly and gave the Viet Cong a chance to piecemeal them to death,” said one American officer.

Still, U.S. advisers are pleased with the progress made by government troops over the past year. “Casualties are inevitable when you are fighting a war,” said one. “The Viet Cong are improving their arsenal and techniques. We’re doing the same—and on balance we’re still way out ahead of them.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com