18 MAR 1972 - THE BOLIVANS PLATEAU - Air America - Ben A. Van Etten
Three helicopter crews were assembled in Jim Butler's briefing room. A battalion of Thai soldiers have been under daily attack by NVA artillery and have about thirty wounded soldiers to be picked up. They were located on the Bolivan plateau and were on the move to an area that would be safe enough for a helicopter pick-up. The LZ would be on a high open area about thirty miles east of Pakse.
I was going to be the flight leader in "Hotel 70", with the other two H-34's to follow close behind. The third aircraft would remain high and become the SAR aircraft in case one of us was shot down. Piece of cake!
Then into the room came the "customer", a CIA case officer named Jim Lewis (call sign "Sword"). We all looked at each other with the same thought, Jim Lewis didn't have the greatest reputation for honesty. He'd tell a chopper crew whatever you wanted to hear so you'd attempt the mission. He was determined to win the Medal of Honor, even if the chopper was shot down in the process.
The plan was Jim would ride in my bird, be dropped off at the pick-up zone, sort out the wounded while we orbited over head, and call me in when they were ready. We'd land one at a time. If the first aircraft didn't receive any fire the second would land and pick-up more wounded. We'd continue making trips until all of the wounded were picked up, or we started to receive fire.
On the Bolivans the enemy (NVA) had artillery and some light armor. The Lao and Thai soldier's were not as heavily armed. All they had was limited air support when the weather permitted and, of course, Air America.
The Pakse airport is located on the Mekong River and during that period was a relatively safe area. About fifteen miles east, where the high plateau of the Bolivans begin, was pretty much controlled by the enemy. The Royalists (Lao Army) had occupied most of the plateau (at least the populated areas) until late 1971. Gradually, the NVA had pushed the Royalists out and by March of 1972 controlled most of the Bolivans.
One of the real travesties associated with the Communist take over of that part of Laos (or any where the Commies moved in and occupied) was that developing the immense natural resources of the area would stop. The Bolivan plateau was a mountainous area about forty miles square ranging from two to five thousand feet in elevation. It contained some of the most fertile land in Laos. Anything could grow there and that could amount to about four crops a year.
US AID had spent time with the farmers and introduced many hybrid crops which all did amazingly well. Even strawberries flourished in that area; a crop previously unknown to South East Asia.
Because of the higher elevation the rivers on the Plateau were clear and cold. There was a waterfall on the eastern edge we called Niagara Falls. It was a beautiful setting and could have been developed into a world class resort. Wild game abounded in the area including tigers, wild gaur, and elephants.
Obviously, nothing good will happen there until Communism goes away. Keeping the locals under-developed and progress at a minimum is how they retain control.
After about fifteen minutes of flight time we were nearing the landing zone. We remained high and looked for the proper signal panel to appear on the pad. A white "O" was put out and I could see about thirty soldiers standing around the LZ. The fact that they were not hidden from view meant that there probably hadn't been any recent enemy contact.
I dropped off "Sword" while the other two H-34's remained high over-head. The landing caused a great deal of brown dust which would definitely alert any enemy in the area that a chopper had landed.
In about five minutes "Sword" called that they were ready for the first aircraft- me. The litters with the wounded were lined up next to the pad where I landed; again, creating a large cloud of dust.
I kept the RPM up and the aircraft light on the struts, expecting incoming fire at any time. The wounded were being loaded when I heard the first explosion about three hundred meters behind us!
I would wait about ten seconds before taking off, giving "Sword" a chance to get in the aircraft. I figured that if a second round was fired, it still wouldn't hit us (hopefully).
There were several litters and walking wounded at the doorway when the seconded round hit. Right in the middle of the troops next to the aircraft! Five feet left and we would have been history.
I was looking down from the right seat at the loading procedures when the round exploded. The concussion and noise from the impact were instantaneous, but the resulting mass of bodies being thrown in all directions seemed to happen in slow motion. Just like a "Spaghetti Western".
I hoped that "Sword" had jumped aboard because we were out of there. We had a heavy load, and because of the high elevation, it seemed to take forever for the H-34 to gain airspeed. As we were climbing out, another round went off under us. They were trying to shoot us out of the air!
Jim was with us in the aircraft, but he'd received a shrapnel wound. There was also a wounded soldier hanging on to the wheel strut! The back of his shirt was covered with blood and as we gained airspeed and altitude, I expected to watch his body drop hundreds of feet into the jungle. Too bad.
Suddenly, the muscular arm of my flight mechanic, Jim Nakamoto, reached out the aircraft cargo door, grabbed the soldier's shirt, and yanked him inside! Another life saved, as we heard later, because the soldier survived from his wounds.
By the time we arrived back at Pakse the sun was setting. We inspected the aircraft for damage, but there were only a couple of small holes. No problem.
The mission would be continued in the morning. This would give the Thais time to move to another location. Meanwhile, after a very eventful day to say the least, we were ready to suck down a few cool ones. As I had mentioned before, 18 March 1972 is a day I'll always remember.