The 161st Aviation Company was stationed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. The years may indicate a four-year tour of duty, however, due to actual arrival and deactivation dates, the true tenure is slightly over two years. The company arrived in-country in December 1965 and was deactivated/reorganized in January of 1968.
The 161st Aviation Company was organized on August 25, 1965 at Fort Benning, Georgia for deployment to the Republic of South Vietnam. At this point of the Vietnam War, the military buildup is escalating and as many as two helicopter companies a month are being sent to Vietnam. The 161st was composed of three flight platoons with an authorized strength of seven helicopters each, a helicopter maintenance platoon, the 406th Transportation Detachment, the 449th Signal Detachment, and the headquarters section.
Two of the Huey platoons flew the UH-1D Huey and used the call sign of PELICAN. Many of these aircraft were brand-new Hueys right of the Bell Helicopter assembly line and had consecutive serial numbers.
The third Huey platoon flew the UH-1B Huey gunship and used the call sign of SCORPION. The 161st was the last Army unit to be organized with the UH-1B gunship. An observation at the time was that most of the UH-1Bs were the "Hanger Queens" from various military units across the country. One aircraft had a previous duty station in Puerto Rico.
The 406th TC augmented the 161st service platoon, providing support in the area of rotor maintenance, engine repair, and airframe repair and general aircraft maintenance. The 406th TC used a call sign of ROADRUNNER.
The 449th Signal Detachment provided maintenance and repair of the aircraft avionics systems.
By November of 1965, the company was up to full strength and ready to ship out to Vietnam. An advance 10-man party led by a Major Meeks, set sail on the Private Joseph P. Merrell, a World War II victory ship operated by the Merchant Marines. Other known members of that team were Melvin Breeden, an aircraft maintenance officer and an enlisted man by the name of Joe Ever sole.
The remainder of the 161st set sail on the troop ships Point Cruz and General John Pope arriving some 14 days later at the port Qui Neon. The actual company area was actually 12 miles to the west of Qui Neon on a scrub-covered hill in the An Sou Valley. The area would later be designated as Lane Army Airfield, and was built from the bottom up largely from the personnel stationed at An Sou. Living in tents, the 161st built their own quasi-permanent living quarters and Christmas dinner heralded the first "sit-down" meal for the company
How did An Sou become known as LANE ARMY AIRFIELD? It was named after CW2 Robert Carl Lane killed on January 5, 1966, as the first 1st Air Cavalry Division Sky Crane casualty in the war.
During its first month in-country, to help maintain morale, Major Michael Thomas, the Company Commanding Officer, wrote to his hometown of Wyoming, Pennsylvania. Major Thomas had already nicknamed the area around An Sou as "Wyoming Valley, Vietnam", and had given local landmarks names that reminded him of home. The town citizens responded by adopting the 161st AHC as honorary citizens and set about sending letters and packages of "goodies" to their adopted citizens.
The townspeople also managed to obtain a bell for the companys chapel. Kenneth Messick, a Warrant Officer pilot, did a lot work building a suitable structure for the bell. In 1967, when the unit moved to Chu Lai, the bell remained at Lane AAF since it was anticipated the unit would return to Lane. However, the 161st never did return and today, the whereabouts of the bell is unknown. Jason Kaatz has taken it upon himself to determine the disposition of the bell and have it returned to the men of the 161st Aviation Company.
Later while still at Lane AAF, Kenneth Jackson was instrumental in the modifications to the chapel, even encouraging several people to donate some of their time in assisting the chaplain.
While at Lane AAF, the unit operated in a relatively peaceful environment and a rather relaxed military command structure. Brightly colored baseball caps were wore instead of the military green caps. The first platoon wore red, the second wore yellow, the scorpions wore blue, and maintenance wore green. The hats were a source of considerable pride for the young pilots and were referred to as "Red Hats", ect. However, when the unit left Lane for Chu Lai, they were forced to discard the colored hats for the traditional army caps and eventually even to wearing the steel helmets. Giving up the hats was a source of great consternation but an indication of the hostile new environment and a stricter command structure.
In January of 1966, the 161st was ready to begin performing the missions for which it had trained. The unit was assigned to the 52nd Aviation Battalion, located at Pleiku, to begin combat missions.
The 161st was assigned to give direct support to the Republic of Korea "Tiger" Capital Infantry Division. The companys area of operation was concentrated in the Phu Cat Mountains just north of Lane AAF. From their first combat missions, the company was known for their attitude of "only the best will do." Throughout their operation at Lane, the company compiled an extremely meritorious record and earned a well-deserved reputation of being dependable in any situation.
In return, the Capital Division provided security for Lane AAF. The Koreans were able to fight the war without some of the restrictions imposed on the American military. Any attacks on Lane by the Viet Cong would result in swift and harsh retaliation by the Koreans. As a result, the inhabitants of Lane, at least on the ground, would enjoy a relative safe existence.
One of the measures the Korean general utilized to intimidate the Vietnamese population was a special Karate demonstration team. The general selected a group of exceptionally large Korean Karate experts that were all over six feet tall. The team would be flown around to the various villages where the Koreans would assemble the local population. The Karate team would then be introduced as "average" Korean soldiers. This imposing team would then conduct an awesome display of their martial arts skills in front of the totally cowed audience.
On May 17, 1966, the 161st suffered its first combat loss with the death of Captain Arthur P. Wright being killed by small-arms fire on his first mission with the 161st while flying a Scorpion gunship, UH-1B, s/n 64-14045.
During the first half of 1966, the 161st did its share of flying combat support for the "Tiger" Division and its aircraft took hits from enemy ground fire and some of its crew wounded, they had only one fatal casualty. That changed on June 27, 1966, as a UH-1D and its entire 4-man crew were lost, not to combat fire, but to a mid-air collision. The 161st aircraft had just taken off from Lane enroute to flare mission, when it collided with another Huey belonging to the 1/9th Cav of the 1st Cavalry Division. Captain Donald Ray Bryant, Captain Jerry Wayne McNabb were the pilots, the enlisted crewmembers were Fredrick Marlton Binder and Jackie Lee Goforth.
Warrant Officer Michael Quaintance wrote: Major Michael Baldasare was the company commander before Major Gala. I remember Baldasare had a few incidents during his command that must have been very embarrassing. One was the time he decided (as I recall) that to cut down the dust in the maintenance area at Lane Field was to run the tanker truck that had a spray-bar on the tail with JP-4. The truck had almost finished (fortunately the driver hadn't gotten very close to the maintenance tents when the truck rolled over an extension cord from a generator and caused a spark. You're imagination can take over here. It was quite a fire! The driver got out OK but the truck was a goner even though I dont think it blew up.... just burnt up thoroughly!
In August 1966, the 161st was released from assignment to the 52nd Aviation Battalion and reassigned to the 14th Aviation Battalion, which had arrived at Lane AAF in April of that year. The 14th Battalion had previously been working around the Nha Trang area. In April of 1966, the 174th Aviation Company had arrived at Lane from stateside.
The 161st and the other companies of the 14th Aviation Battalion continued to operate out of Lane AAF until April of 1967. At this time the 14th Battalion, including the 161st, were repositioned for a 3-4 month period, to the Chu Lai Combat Base in support of a "Provisional Division". Chu Lai is located on the coast in the I-Corp combat zone, approximately 75 mile south of Da Nang. The United States Marine Corps ground and helicopter units were being moved further north along the DMZ.
In mid-April, the company was alive packing all its gear and equipment for its relocation. On April 14, most of the equipment was loaded onto a Navy LST, and Air Force C-130s transported most personnel to Chu Lai.
The aircraft and crews were flown from Lane AAF on the 20th of April to Chu Lai. Ky Ha was the initial destination for the 161st, and is located on a peninsula approximately 4 miles north of the main Chu Lai base. Most of the Marine helicopter units were based at Ky Ha, while Chu Lai had a jet runway used by the Marines flying the F-4 Phantom.
Ky Ha was only a temporary location for company. On May 19, construction was begun on a new heliport at the south end of Chu Lai and on June 13, the 161st moved into its new not-quite finished quarters. The new base was along the coast and was called "Pelicans Roost" proved to be not an ideal location for people or aircraft. It was mostly loose sand that seemed to get into everything. The taxiways and parking revetments were coated with an asphalt compound and the maintenance areas had steel planking, the blowing sand took it toll on aircraft grease seals and bearings. The typical Vietnam semi-permanent living hoochs had tents for roofs until tin roofs were installed several months later.
Task Force Oregon, as the Provisional Division was called, was the predecessor to the AMERICAL Division, which would be formally organized in late 1967. The Area of Operations (AO) for the AMERICAL Division extended generally to the Hoa An River to the north, to Duc Pho to the south, and into the mountains to the west. The 14th Aviation Battalion and later the 123rd Aviation Battalion would provide most of the helicopter support to the Americal Division.
Most of the Huey companies would be assigned an infantry battalion or brigade that they generally supported. However, any aircraft could be reassigned to any mission as necessary.
The 161st had the mission of providing general support for the Americal, meaning they flew all kinds of missions. These would include combat support, but also logistical support (resupply), troop movements, command and control, courier missions, and even VIP missions.
One typical mission each day was to provide an aircraft to the US Marine Engineers still stationed at Chu Lai, who were responsible for keeping Highway-1 open from Chu Lai to the Liberty Bridge on the Hoa An River. Each morning, we would pick up the engineers and fly a reconnaissance up Highway-1 looking for bombed culverts and bridges. It was normally an uneventful mission that started out early in the morning and lasted only a few hours. If time permitted, the aircrew would be able to eat at the engineers well-provisioned mess hall.On July 20, a North Vietnamese trawler loaded with munitions tried to shoot it out with the U.S. Navy and enter the Riviere De Sa Ky River. As the naval action continued into the night, gunships and flares were provided by the 71st AHC. The 161st provided additional gunship support in finishing off the trawler.
On July 26, 1967, Major Donald S.Galla assumed command of the 161st AHC. I think Major Galla had previously been the 2nd Platoon Commander. Major Fredrick Shanker replaced Major Galla for a short period before the reorganization into the 123rd AHB.
On August 30, the 161st was the recipient of approximately 40 rounds of Viet Cong mortar rounds. The only damage was to the refueling point, damaging a fuel bladder and several fuel hoses. I think there was some sort of homemade-lighted ground approach system that was destroyed, much to the ire of Lt. Walker of the Scorpions.
September 1967 was a costly month for the company. On September 12, 1967, many of the 161st aircraft participated in the battalion size troop movement. One particular incident had aircraft dropping troops onto a rocky LZ that was supposedly been cleared of mines by daisy-cutter artillery fire. However, soon after the first lift, there were reports of American soldiers being injured by mines. Captain Thomas Hooker piloted a Pelican slick back into the LZ to evacuate some of the injured. There was even an aircraft from the 71st AHC aircraft that was disabled by a mine. One of its crewmen who had been killed by the explosion was loaded along with some the injured soldiers. Later that same day, continuing with the same battalion movement, several of the companys aircraft was damaged by small-arms fire coming out of the landing zone. Eight rounds that severely damaged its avionics system struck Pelican 839, and would be grounded for several weeks while its avionics systems were repaired.
Later in the month on September 29, the 161st was again involved in another large-scale combat assault for the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. Captain Hooker again returned to the LZ to evacuate wounded soldiers. While loading the injured, the aircraft (Pelican 955) was raked with NVA .51 caliber machine gun fire. The co-pilot, William Chellis was wounded when a round penetrated the armored seat. Captain Hooker had minor wounds to his face when a round shattered one of the windshields. The crewchief, Robert Anderson, was not so fortunate. He was hit in the groin area, severing a major artery and as a result, he bled to death before he could be flown to a nearby aid station.
After dropping off the Anderson and the wounded at the Chu Lai Evacuation Hospital, alone he fly his aircraft back to Pelicans Roost, shutting down at the aircraft wash point. With Andersons still wet blood all on the interior, it was quite sobering for us who cleaned up the aircraft.
Michael Quaintance, a Pelican pilot who participated in these flights, related what he saw in the LZ. On his second or third mission into the LZ, he noticed the aircraft to his left and its rotor blades and transmission being torn out of the aircraft and the tail boom being twisted and crushed like an eggshell. This Pelican slick, it was later learned had been hit by an NVA mortar that was being fired into the LZ. Miraculously, the entire crew escaped serious injury. I think Robert Mix was the crewchief on this aircraft (Pelican 836).
After this action, the LZ where this action occurred was referred as "Million Dollar Hill" for all the wreckage of helicopters abandoned on the hill. This infamous hill in future years was where future Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Blier was wounded. Also, in 1969, at this location, an infantry company refused an order to attack the hill.Also on that same day and mission, an UH-1B gunship from the 161st was shot down by .51 machine gun fire. The gunship, Scorpion 045, had recently been overhauled with the 40mm grenade launching system and great things were expected from this aircraft.
On November 29, 1967, the unit lost another aircraft, 65-09955, and its entire crew. The crews mission was to be on standby for flare missions. This was a routine mission that rotated among the aircraft and its crew. The crew was called out for a mission, but soon lost radio contact after taking off from Pelican Roost. Several versions of this loss incident are recorded in a separate section of the historical narrative.
On January 1, 1968, the Scorpions along with the Firebirds from the 71st and the Sharks from the 174th racked up the most impressive body count ever attributed to the battalion gunships. The Americal Division had caught a main force Viet Cong unit that had routinely operated just to the northwest of Quang Ngai in a pincer operation. Airmobile forces had been placed in a blocking position to the west to prevent the enemy from escaping into the mountain an mechanized infantry force (probably the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment) was pressing in from the east with their armored personnel carriers. When the Viet Cong was trapped in between the two forces, they scrambled out of battalion gunships to finish them off. The Scorpions launched every available aircraft, which consisted of at least two fire teams (four aircraft) and attacked the enemy positions. The Viet Cong had assumed positions in a series of overgrown hedgerows that separated the rice fields. We continued to fly all afternoon, alternating the refueling and rearming activities so that one fire team was always on station. It was one of the few times when we could positively identify the enemy locations and in spite of the heavy fire, we were having a field day. On one pass were so low that we flew through the tops of the bamboo plants and had pieces of bamboo trailing from the skids and gun mounts. The commander eventually called off the gunships and ordered his infantry to sweep the area. Afterwards, the credited the gunships with 145 kills (Chuck Carlocks book Firebirds states the count was 90 kills).During the later months of 1967 and into 1968, the 161st provided some direct support to the U.S. Special Forces along the DMZ. Typically, two gunships and a Huey slick would spend a one to two week rotation at the Phu Bai and Khe Sanh combat bases. These were "Classified Missions" and are discussed in further detail in a separate history section.
By mid January 1968, the unit received a group of new doorgunners. Actually, they were all Military Policemen, who had trained in the United States as a unit for assignment to the Saigon area. However, upon arrival there were no open assignments for Military Police. They were given a choice of individual reassignment duties, that of infantry or helicopter door gunners. I think almost all of them choose aviation and at least 10 of them were assigned to the 161st.
In late January 1968 (probably during TET), the company compound was on the receiving end of a number of NVA rockets and mortars. I believe the Tech Supply hooch took a direct hit by a rocket. During one of these attacks, a NVA rocket scored a direct hit on one of the nearby munition bunkers. The resulting explosion of aerial bombs was so tremendous; it was felt on the northern end of the Chu Lai complex. Langdon Carpenter described it as, "looking like a miniature atomic bomb."
The company also had one fatal casualty when a mortar hit one of the enlisted crewmember hooches. A new MP doorgunner was sitting on the edge of his bunk, lacing up his boots, when the round came through the roof, and killing him. He had been in the company less than a month and there is some confusion or uncertainly about his name. Several people recall the incident, but could not remember his name, other than he was one of the MPs. Eventual, David Czarnecki, one of the MP doorgunners confirmed him to be Stephen Mueller.
Scorpion crewchief John Terry wrote that he vividly recalls the incident because he tired unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding from a neck wound, but Stephen Mueller died from his wounds.
It was rumored in latter months of 1967, that the 161st would be deactivated or reorganized. Looking back, I think it had already been decided by mid 1967. As I recall, the 161st never got a new aircraft for replacements. Whenever we did get a replacement, it would be an older aircraft from another in-country unit. I suspect the 1st Aviation Brigade, did not want to send any of its new in-country aircraft to a unit that would soon be reorganized into the new AMERICAL Division.
In January 1968, the 161st received orders that it was officially being deactivated. About the same time, the 123rd Aviation Battalion was organized into the AMERICAL Division. The two Huey slick platoons would be used to build the core of "A" Company, while the gunship platoon would be used to form the core of "B" Company. The aircraft and personnel remained at the beach complex for several more weeks, but soon relocated to the Ky Ha Heliport. The aircraft, now part of the 123rd AHB, remained at Ky Ha for the remainder of the war or until lost for one reason or another. Alpha Company of the 123rd Aviation Battalion retained the "Pelican" call sign. However, "B" Company, initially continued to use the "Scorpion" call sign, but later adopted the "Warlords" call sign.
This history focuses primarily on the history of the 161st Aviation Company. However, initially after the reorganization into the 123rd Aviation Battalion, a few significant events are mentioned because of the involvement of 161st personnel.
On February 7, 1968, Captain Thomas Tucker was killed by a sniper while getting out of his aircraft at a LZ in the Que Son Mountains. According to Langdon Carpenter, the aircraft (UH-1H 66-16675) began to spin from a battle damaged tail rotor control cable. After Captain Tucker landed the aircraft and shut it down, the sniper killed him.
In late February, another original aircraft UH-1D 64-13839 was lost, not from enemy action but from "pilot error." Warrant Officer Jim Stefancic was piloting when he failed to hear the Low RPM audible alarm (the circuit breaker had been pulled). During the autorotation maneuver, the left skip caught a Vietnamese stone burial structure, causing the aircraft to roll on its right side. The sudden rotor stoppage severely damaged the airframe and all systems. Fortunately, crewchief John Hastings and gunner Patrick Whelan received only minor injuries. The aircraft commander was Gary Busby, TDY from the 176th AHC.
The infamous My Lai incident occurred in the AMERICAL area of operations. It was on the morning of March 16, 1968 that Hugh Thompson was flying his helicopter just above the treetops in search of enemy soldiers. It was a reconnaissance mission in support of U.S. troops on the ground. Onboard with him were Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. What they saw instead was U.S. soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians and countless bodies of Vietnamese people in a ditch. To say they were stunned by what was going on would be an understatement.
Thompson is recognized for his heroic and successful efforts to save the lives of innocent civilians who were being pursued by American soldiers. He has been described as the hero of the My Lai massacre the soldier who stepped in to stop his fellow soldiers who were on a murderous rampage, totally out of control, at My Lai, South Vietnam. Danny Millians, who was flying cover in a Huey gunship, also landed and took some of the civilians to nearby Quang Ngai.
More detailed accounts of this action may be read in the book, The Forgotten Hero of My Lai, The Hugh Thompson Story by Trent Angers.
On April 8, 1968, Glenn Andreotta and Charles Dutton, crewmen on an OH-13 (62-03813) "Warlord" scout were killed when their aircraft was shot down, crashed and burned. John Terry, another Scorpion crewchief had been a mentor to Charles Dutton, assisting him in his transition from Infantry to Aviation.
After his tour of duty with the 161st AHC, Warrant Officer Michael James Kerl took a commission and transitioned to the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Many years later, on February 6, 1971, he was piloting a CH-47 Chinook helicopter belonging to the 178th Aviation Company. As they were sling loading a water trailer to Fire Base Siberia, the Chinook lost power and crashed while approaching the LZ, killing Captain Michael James Kerl.