Surviving a Crash Over Laos
By Thomas Murray
(Artillery Aerial Observer

I arrived in country in October of 1969. Rich Diehl was on my flight. When we were asked where we wanted to serve I asked Rich what he thought. He said "my father-in-law is up in I Corps with the 8-4 Artillery so that's my choice." I had no other knowledge about this so I said "I'm going with you." That was the start of a special friendship between Rich and myself. We served with the 8-4 for some time as Forward Observers for an armored cavalry unit. Rich eventually became an Aerial Observer with the Sundowners. I tried to get in the AO unit. I eventually extended my tour for six months and my request for the AO position was granted. I lived in Phu Bai in a hootch with Rich and Chris Monteleon. When I first met Chris he told me how stupid I was to waste the 30 day leave and free air fare for my six-month extension on a trip home to Ohio. He recommended a trip to someplace half way around the world from Phu Bai so that I would get a trip around the world free on the Army. I eventually agreed and my trip went from Saigon to California to Chicago, (I snuck home to Cincinnati for a few days) to New York to Rome to Athens Greece to East Africa my ultimate destination for my leave. The way home to Phu Bai was from East Africa to Athens to India to Bankock to Saigon. Chris did me a big favor. That paid trip was amazing.

When I returned to duty from my trip Chris and Rich had completed their tours and were of to the world. I was left with a bunch of rookies who didn't have the same sense of adventure and aggressiveness as the Sundowners. The atmosphere had definitely changed. The CO of the Sundowner unit was a young hotdog seeking glory. I was definitely wondering why I had extended for this garbage.

One day we were all called into the Major's office and he asked us to get our maps out for a new area that he marked on his large office map. An operation was coming and we were going to be a big part of it. I spoke up in the meeting asking the major to clarify his instructions. No one seemed to notice that he wanted us prepared to work Laos west of the Old French Prison. No one else in the unit had ever been out there. He simply said, "Get your maps ready. Keep your mouth shut. I'll explain when we get there."

I extended for six months. My buddies were all gone and we were invading Laos on a massive scale. OH MY GOD!!!

The campaign was the major event of my time in Vietnam. Most of what the tactics we had used to that point would soon become obsolete. The Sundowners lent me to an Air Cav unit from III Corps that had move up for the battle. Their normal search tactics used a OH6A at tree top level as bait for the enemy to shoot at. Then two Cobras would trail far enough back and pound anything that fired at the OH6A. Within a week almost every OH6A had been shot down. There were so many NVA troops in the area that they did not shoot at the OH6A when they heard it coming. They simply shot in the air in volume and the OH6A ran into the gun fire. From the Command and Control Huey we were often trying to organize the rescue of several helicopters at a time. The May Day frequency has very busy.

The Air Cav Units changed their tactics to attack targets that were identified by the Command and Control. We were out on mission when the Vietnamese interpreter in our Huey became very excited on the radio. He told me that we had to move quickly to help his unit. It was being over run by NVA tanks. I told him to calm down and get the message right because the NVA didn't have tanks. He radioed back and confirmed the original message. We got on station and to my disbelief his unit did have NVA tanks right in the midst of it. We called in an air strike with the area FAC and watched in amazement as the action took place. The tactical fighters arrived and made a run. On the second run something (I think it was a lucky tank round) shot one of the fighters right out of the air. The pilots ejected safely. As they floated to the ground we knew we had to get them out immediately upon touch down or they were in real trouble.

We took the Huey down into a small valley. At the point we had hillside on both sides of us we realized we had no chance of getting to them. The NVA opened up on us. We were hit 200 to 250 times. The ship was going down. Both pilots were hit badly. They fought each other for the controls. Finally, the one pilot took us south toward the hillside. As we approached the hillside we missed hitting the hilltop by a matter of feet. I could see the eyes of the NVA shooting at us. They dove to keep from getting hit by the Huey as it missed the hilltop. As the terrain fell, we fell. We were luck to get a few miles away before we hit the ground hard. The rotor severed the tail boom as we hit. Luckily no fire was started by the crash.

During the few seconds I had to react to the initial fire from the hillside, I grabbed my M-16 and fired out the side door at the NVA. Rounds were hitting inside the Huey everywhere. I was sitting on my chest armor so I layed back to provide less of a target. I continued to fire through my legs/knees as best I could. When I layed back, I felt a burning sensation. I knew I was hit. I rubbed my back below my shoulder and got a handful of blood. I asked the Vietnamese interpreter to check me out. He said I was OK. I realized after the crash that when I layed back I layed on my empty M-16 casings plus some M-60 casings that burned my back slightly. The hand full of blood was from the door gunner who was hit in the leg and had his femoral artery cut. He died from the wound.

When we finally gathered ourselves after the crash, we had three severely wounded, one dead (we were unaware he was gone), myself and the Vietnamese were unhurt. I forced everyone to move away from the Huey and attempted to set up a defensive position with the M-60's. Our Cobras started spraying the area around us to protect us from the enemy nearby. The entire Air Cav Unit scrambled to our aid. When the first Cobra was out of ammo it came to us, touched down and we put our worst wounded (he did die) in the front seat. The front seat got out and joined our defensive position. The same routine happened for the second Cobra. Finally, within about 15 minutes we got a medivac to take us out. The Cobra unit protected us from enemy attack and we were saved quickly.

I got back to Khe Sanh. I was full of blood but it was my buddies not my own.

Later that week an HQ Captain that normally did not fly went up on a unit to get some flight hours in. This seemed stupid to me but I wasn't making the calls. We found a 23 mm. We moved off the scene and called the FAC in. He wasn't sure of the location so he asked us to go back in and take a little fire so he could get a good look at it. We did so. He called in his tactical fighters. The fighters got on station but weren't sure of the location so our Captain offered to take fire again for the third time, in spite of the fact that the FAC had white phosphorus marking rockets. This time the 23mm was close. I swear we had tracers on both sides of the Huey.

When we got on the ground, I was screaming at the inexperienced Capt. He had needlessly risked the lives of all his crew. He was arrogant and smug. I challenged him, bumped chests with him and explained that there were ways of dealing with idiots like him. I was back with the Sundowners before nightfall. The Air Cav no longer needed by map expertise to call in fire missions or air power. Thank God.

This time at Khe Sanh was a different phase of the war for all of us. We weren't fighting two or three VC with limited fire power. These NVA were the best the North had to offer. They used heavy artillery hidden in the hillside on us at night while we slept in bunkers near the air strip. Sappers were in our wire and through our wire frequently. Sometime I slept in a one man small bunker other times I was in a larger bunker. One night while sleeping in the small bunker we had sappers inside the wire. I positioned myself at the door but saw nothing. The next morning I found a dead sapper laying on top of the bunker.

As I looked around at the massive number of helicopters shot down, it really changed my perspective. As a Sundowner you usually had a lot more risks on a daily basis than other soldiers. This was different. Why was I unhurt while others were dead or wounded? From that day forward, I make an effort to help others especially kids in need. God saved me for a reason. I'm not sure why but I try to use my good fortune for others.

Tom Murray
Sundowner Mike