Nine on a Loach
(By Marv Zumwalt, Captain, Infantry)
How it might have looked.
The OH-6A “loach” is rated to carry a maximum of four personnel including aircrew. However, on April 8th 1972, I and eight others rode a loach to safety. The events leading up to and including our extraction under fire have been partially chronicled in official reports, on the Internet, and recently in a book (The Battle of An Loc). As these came to my attention, I noted that they told only parts of the story, contained factual errors and lacked first person perspective. Over the last two years, I have located and spoken with several of those involved. First, to thank them for their efforts to save us, but also to discover what actually happened. This story is the product of that research. It’s based on the After Action Report written by my boss, LTC Ginger; witness statements; discussions with SFC Floyd Winland (team member), LTC(ret) John Whitehead (pilot), former SGT Ray Waite (gunner), former Captain Dave Ripley (pilot), and 159th Med Det personnel (Steve Lane, Richard Parmeter, and Tom Pierce).
In April 1972, I was one of three advisors supporting an ARVN task force commanded by LTC Thinh. TF52 consisted of about 1000 troops from the 18th ARVN Div comprised of two infantry battalions, two howitzer batteries, and support units. We were attached to the 5th ARVN Div and held two fire bases halfway between An Loc and Loc Ninh and to the west of Highway 13. We were part of the “anvil” in support of an offensive out of Tay Ninh Province. It was a good plan, but the NVA Spring Offensive began first.
It was quiet until the early morning of April 5th when our folks ambushed and killed fifteen NVA. Soon we started taking mortar fire around the fire bases. Ginger put us into a tactical mode where he stayed with the command group, I monitored the US radio net from the team area, and Winland shuttled between us. Ginger’s idea was to avoid a catastrophic hit on the team. The next morning, TF52 was ordered to reinforce the ARVN units at Loc Ninh; however, NVA blocking forces stopped the attempt. Incoming rockets and artillery now augmented the mortar fire. Our heavy weapons were firing almost continuously and we were fast running out of ammunition. Resupply requests went unfilled. Nor were we getting any information about the overall situation. Our only support was from U.S. DUSTOFFs to evacuate wounded.
On Friday morning, the 7th, all hell broke loose. Sustained artillery fire dominated, but the fire bases also came under small arms and automatic weapons fire. At one point Winland left cover and, despite being knocked down by a mortar round and wounded, rescued a blinded ARVN crawling in the open. Finally, we were ordered to move south to An Loc. Being surrounded, we had to abandon everything that could not be carried. My first rounds fired in combat were to shoot our jeep.
Incoming Counter Battery Fire
As we moved out, I noticed ARVNs discarding equipment. After shooting several radios, I stopped thinking that I may need the rounds later. I next disabled several abandoned trucks by puncturing the radiators with my knife. Winland came over and told me that the lead battalion was falling back in the face of heavy resistance. With our trailing battalion closing from the west, TF52 was starting to bunch up. LTC Thinh requested that we accompany the command group beyond the lead units and into the Rome plow area. Which we did, slowly walking, in a group, with antennas announcing to any NVA watching who we were. We moved to some uprooted trees and took cover. Inspired, the lead battalion then advanced past us.
It was now late morning and I was unsuccessful in getting US air support. However, we were being bothered by someone called Dynamite 6 who kept requesting SITREPs. After several calls, Winland told me to tell that SOB that we were in close infantry contact and, if he couldn’t get us support, to stay off the net! As a good O-3, I did what my E-7 told me and added some additional profanity for effect. (Dynamite 6 was BG McGiffert, the Deputy Commander of MACV III Corps.)
About 1200, we got some COBRAs and, as I was directing them at the tree line to the east, a B40 round hit about 20 feet away. At least one ARVN was killed and several others in the command group including Ginger were slightly wounded. I was hit by shrapnel on the lower right side of my face which shattered my lower jaw and cut the blood vessels. My initial reaction was anger. How could this happen? I had done everything right! Kneeling behind a fallen tree, wearing both helmet and flak jacket, with a radio handset covering the left side of my face and wearing aviator sunglasses….I was fully “protected”! Then I realized that I might have a problem. How do you stop facial arterial bleeding? Winland put my field dressing on the wound. Swelling from trauma and infection eventually slowed the bleeding, but it never stopped.
ARVNs in Rome Plow Area
Ginger called for a MEDEVAC and BG McGiffert ordered all advisors to evacuate. LTC Thinh was not pleased as were his only connection to US support, particularly air assets. TF52 had to move south soon or risk being destroyed. Both Winland and I argued to go with them. Our position was known. Time to leave. Ginger said we’ve been ordered to stay and that’s what we did. (McGiffert thought that, once we left the open and went into the trees, they wouldn’t be able to find or extract us.) TF52 shot its way south and we were left with 15-20 wounded and healthy ARVNS.
A MEDEVAC bird approached at 1430 but left after taking fire. DUSTOFF 111 came in about 1600, took fire, and broke off when the medic, Richard Parmeter, was wounded. Richard says his being hit was lucky, because the aircraft would not have survived much longer. Aircraft continued to work over the area, but NVA AA fire did not slacken. At 1730, DUSTOFF 107 got to within 50 yards, but couldn’t spot us. The pilot, CW2 Horst, was hit and died almost immediately. The medic was also wounded and the crew aborted the mission.
Winland now argued vigorously that it was time to E&E. I also voted to move; however, Ginger said we would stay. As it got dark, we got a SPECTRE gunship for support. Ginger had to stand up and hold an unshielded white strobe light over his head so that the crew could pinpoint our position. It was like a big flashing sign telling everyone that we’re over here! Come shoot us! We hunkered down in the ditch on the west side of the highway. Sporadic small arms and automatic weapons fire continued most of the night. Ginger kept calling in SPECTRE on targets. Once, we had to dodge “friendly” WP. All of us were starting to run out of gas. The last food we had was that morning and the last water, at least for me, was just before I was hit. Now there was no water to be had anywhere. We were also short on weaponry. When I expected to be evacuated, I gave away my M16, ammunition and spare canteen and was left with a 45. Ginger also had a 45. Winland had an M16 with at most one bandolier. Some of the ARVNs were armed. They did search that night for more arms, rations and water with little success.
Ginger struggled all night to get support and find out what rescue was planned. One option was extraction with a USAF Jolly Green until someone realized that they did not fly at night. The first SPECTRE told us about 2300 that he was out of gas and going home. When asked about a relief, he had no answer. He did stay overhead until another bird appeared. Again, Ginger had to stand up with the strobe. Then the 5th Div tried to divert the SPECTRE to An Loc! Some testy radio traffic ensued and we kept the bird. Ginger kept pushing for extraction information. Many options were discussed, including spraying a gas that would put everyone to sleep so the good guys could land. We did not have masks and Ginger was worried that I could hemorrhage. (Next morning a USAF bird did spray, but it had no effect except to require the helo crews to wear gas masks). Winland and I were both irritated that everyone seemed more concerned about saving the secure radio. He continued to raise the issue of walking out, but Ginger kept turning him down. About 0500, after hours of talking about rescue options, the 5th division asked why we hadn’t E&E’d yet! At that point I do not think any of us had any confidence that there would be a rescue or that we would live much longer. Surrender was not an option for me. The NVA would have shot me outright because of my wound. Winland was adamant about not surrendering. As for Ginger’s thoughts, he did not voice them to me. I do remember Ginger asking that water, food, and ammunition be dropped if the extraction did not occur or failed.
At dawn we moved off the road about 25 yards and took cover by two uprooted trees. We still had several ARVNS, despite Ginger and Winland frequently telling them that they could not expect to get out with us. Ginger continually reminded everyone on the radio that the ARVNs would try board any aircraft that landed. Surprisingly, none of the aircrews were told!
About 0530, 50-60 NVA started moving south on the road. Ginger called in SPECTRE who killed several and drove the survivors off the road. About a dozen broke toward us. Winland jumped in front of me to engage, but his M16 jammed. I crawled to my left to get a clear shot. Before I could fire, he cleared the weapon and killed seven to ten at close range. A couple of ARVNs also fired. The remaining NVA retreated to the east side the road. For the next several hours, U.S. aircraft dropped 500lb bombs, CBUs, napalm, 2.75” rockets and strafed with cannon and machine guns. Some strikes were so close that we had ordnance going over our heads. Regardless, the NVA fire continued unabated. In the middle of all this, two draft age Vietnamese men in civilian clothes came down the road on a Vespa! The ARVNs stopped them and we had a vigorous debate about whether to release or shoot them as we could not take them prisoner. Ginger prevailed and they continued south. As the morning wore on, fatigue, dehydration, and nerves played on us all. I still did not believe anyone was coming or, if they did, they would actually get us out.
Winland & Ginger Zumwalt
Despite our doubts, a rescue was coming in the form of two loaches from D Troop/ 229th Assault Helicopter BN. One, piloted by John Whitehead with gunner Ray Waite, was to evacuate us. Dave Ripley flew a second bird as back up in case Whitehead went down and to make sure that we were evacuated. They came in from the east, escorted by four Cobras with four more from F Battery/ 79th Aerial Rocket Artillery orbiting overhead. The area was blanketed with smoke from numerous fires and NVA ground fire was still intense despite the air strikes and suppressive fire from the rescue force. Ray’s M60 barrel overheated causing the gun to “cook off” and requiring him to break his ammunition belt and reload.
I can remember sitting in the dirt and generally looking east, but not really focusing on anything. All of a sudden there was a helo on the road! Winland and I headed for the bird with possibly seven ARVNs while Ginger remained to shift the radio off freq. Other ARVNs ran towards Ripley’s loach. Waite stepped off the bird and trained his M-60 on us. I realized that it was going to be a mess on the right side, headed around the nose, and sat in the left rear of the compartment. An ARVN came up and I motioned him to move south to where Ripley was hovering his loach. Fire was coming from everywhere and I kept my 45 out in case NVA showed up close. Waite was struggling to keep the ARVNs off the helo until we three could get on board. Winland forced his way to the loach and threw in the classified radio. Next he grabbed Waite’s M60 and jammed it between the floor and the rear bulkhead to hold Ray in the bird. He then lay across the floor behind the pilots’ seats with his hands crossed over his M16. Ginger then “boarded” the helo which meant standing on the right skid. ARVNs continued to try and board the loach on the right side. Until we lifted off, Ray worked to position them so as to minimize their aerodynamic and weight impacts.
Flying without a gunner, Dave Ripley fought his battle alone. ARVNs tried to board his loach and one created control problems by grabbing the cyclic. NVA fire eventually solved that issue. Dave followed us out of the area through the same fire with several ARVNs hanging on his skids. No one really knows how many ARVNs he actually brought out. One report says three were shot off his skids. Other accounts say up to four saved. However, his primary mission was not to rescue anyone, but to back up Whitehead. And that he accomplished
Whitehead started trying to take off. We got about 6” off the ground and I started to relax until I realized we were not going any higher and were rotating in place. We did a 360 and I remember thinking that I really did not want a last look at this place. As John got the nose pointed south and “bounced” the bird into the air, an NVA soldier fired several rounds with one impacting under his seat. I don’t know how many ARVNs were on board when we took off, but we landed with four. Some have said that we started with seven ARVNs, but I could not tell as they were all hanging on to Whitehead, Ginger, Winland, Waite and the right skid. Several times Ginger lost his footing and only stayed on the aircraft because Ray was holding his web belt. Ray’s gas mask canister became crushed between them and, since it took both hands to keep Ginger on the bird, Ray could not remove his mask. With his air supply severely constricted, he fought to maintain consciousness during the rest of the flight.
NVA fire did not let up. We took at least one 51mm hit. Internal comms were gone and we had holes in several places including the fuel cells, main rotor blades and tail boom. Several times, the loach seemed to lurch upward either from the impact of ground fire and/or the loss of an ARVN. As we were flying between the tree tops, AK rounds impacted the left side. One must have hit Winland’s M16 spraying shrapnel through his right hand and forearm, face, and left hand. There was already a mist in the bird from stuff leaking and now his blood joined the mix. He rose up and asked me for something to stop the bleeding and I gave him the only thing that I had left…my boony hat. I then motioned to Ginger and Waite as to the extent of Winland’s wounds. The rest of the flight was a blur. I kept checking Winland to see if he was conscious. I remember little else until we landed at Chon Tanh. There the medics took over and we were flown first to an aid station at Bien Hoa and then to 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon.
Safe at last.
Copy right picture deleted.
UPI photo of LTC Ginger and Waiting to fly to Bien Hoa, Zumwalt
Captain Zumwalt in a slick after comforts SFC Winland (Ginger is
the rescue. on the other side of Zumwalt)
Photo Jeff Taylor/Corbis.
I saw SFC Winland on April 9th after his operation and later at my apartment in August 1972. Floyd was on his third tour in Vietnam and had also served a combat tour in Korea. Contrary to some accounts, he did not loose his hand. He was awarded the DSC and Purple Heart and retired as an E-8. Floyd died in 2002 of natural causes at the age of 73. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
LTC Ginger and I only spoke once or twice over the phone after Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart and retired in 1977. He died in 1997 at the age of 65. His ashes are interred in Arlington Cemetery.
John Whitehead was nominated for the CMH, but received the DSC. He retired as a LTC and lives and works in Columbus, GA.
Built in 1969, the “243” bird was rebuilt after the mission and returned to service in the F/9 Cav. Later, it was used by an Alabama NG unit for drug interdiction missions and next in a Rhode Island gun outfit. It was then sold to the Long Beach Police Department and finally to a private individual in Alaska who used it for fishing in remote locations. On August 6, 2004, “243” was destroyed in a crash landing. The pilot survived.
Dave Ripley was awarded the Silver Star and lives and works in Oklahoma.
Ray Waite was awarded the DSC, left the army, graduated from college, and is an independent lobster fisherman in Maine.
I was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart, but they paled in comparison to being able to come home to my wife and live a second life.