By John Dionicio Sanchez – Black Widow 49/Kingsman 39 – 1968
In the spring of 1968, I was almost 23 years old, was an aircraft commander (AC), and had already been “in country” (Vietnam), for more than nine months.
I had accumulated many hours of flight time, day and night. I had already been shot down twice, and going down four other times due to mechanical failures of one type or another – short shaft failure, tail rotor failure, etc. Flying at night was especially difficult due to the hostile environment where there was no horizon nor any lights from which to get one’s bearings. As a pilot, I relied heavily on the in-dash instruments that monitors artificial horizon, airspeed, degree of turn, rate of climb and descent, rotor RPMs, and other flight characteristics; plus monitoring the Lycoming engine gauges for fuel, engine temperature, oil pressure, and the electrical components of the aircraft. Did I mention that I had to fly helicopters as well!
We had recently experienced the Tet Offensive, named for the lunar new year calendar date when it was launched by the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] throughout South Vietnam. Therefore we were on constant high alert, especially when we flew to distant outposts that needed support and resupply.
Our unit, the 101 Air Mobile Division, was assigned to I Corp, which was in the northernmost region of South Vietnam. We were only a few miles south of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] that separated North and South Vietnam. This highly volatile area of South Vietnam included Khe Sanh, the notorious outpost to the northwest. The area also included the Imperial Capital – the Citadel of Hue, which witnessed horrendous door-to-door and hand-to-hand fighting by our Marines and Army Calvary units – and Lucifer’s Lair, the A Shau Valley, an area that rivaled the powers of hell. Many pilots and crews had been lost flying into this extremely dangerous valley, controlled primarily by the NVA, which had radar-guided antiaircraft weapons to use against our aircraft.
Also in this area was the LZ Evans landing zone at Camp Evans, where my good friend and flight school comrade, Michael F O’Connor, left on a mission, only to be shot down and captured by the NVA, spending the duration of the war at the treacherous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. Directly to the west of the I Corp. area where we were stationed is the country of Laos, whose border areas were being used as staging areas by the NVA for assaults into South Vietnam. Much of the mission I will describe later took place in Laos. It was common knowledge, and rumors abounded, that our Army Special Forces –the Green Berets, had been participating in recon [reconnaissance] missions to the west near the Laotian border.
It was approximately 2:45 in the morning when I was shaken by our scheduling officer. I had been in a semi-alert sleep until this moment and was very surprised, almost agitated, to have been awakened. But I was alert almost immediately and I wondered if we were under some sort of attack that I had to respond to. The officer waited a few seconds and then told me that I had been “selected” for an important mission in conjunction with MAC, Military Air Command. Upon hearing this, it immediately brought a sense of foreboding and apprehension. MAC flights were invariably bad news for everyone involved. MAC missions were always of the highest priority and supported by ALL the services – Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines – thus giving these missions a serious reputation for danger and survivability. As I prepared myself, the scheduling officer went on to awaken my co-pilot “H2O”, and my Crew Chief and Door Gunner. I then went to the operations tent and received the coordinates, frequency, and call sign of the staging area for the briefing. By flashlight, I conducted the pre-flight check of my chopper, the latest and most powerful model Huey Helicopter in Vietnam. It was an H Model built by Bell Helicopter in FT Worth, TX.
My flight crew was as stimulated as I had been when I told them we had to report for a MAC flight. Both my Door Gunner and Crew Chief checked out extra ammunition cans for their M60 machine guns, and extra ammo for the M-16s carried by H2O and me. They didn’t have to be asked, considering the mission.
We proceeded to crank up our Huey by using my well-worn flight checklist. We brought it to a hover, (three feet above the ground), and continued to monitor all our gauges. As we hovered to the takeoff pad, I received flight clearance, wind speed, a frequency for radar tracking, and a personal blessing for a safe mission, all from the tower operator. No other aircraft were in the area. Moving the Cyclic forward and lifting the Collective, we began our ascent into the pitch black that was the Vietnamese night. We immediately focused on our instruments, rapidly ascending toward what only God knew was ahead.
As we were flying to our briefing area, I wondered how I had been selected by the scheduling officer on duty, but gave that but a brief few seconds, as I was busy finding our staging area in a place I was not familiar with and had to locate it in the darkness. I would later come to know that this mission had been turned down by two pilots before I took it. One was a Captain, and the other, sadly, was a Warrant Officer.
We reached our staging area in about a half an hour, and on the final approach, I noticed other choppers already on the ground. Four were Army, all from different units flying D Models, and one old Marine C Model helicopter. We came to a hover and H2O proceeded to touch down and shut the Huey down. As I opened the left side door to exit, I told the crew to wait there until I received the briefing. I still remember the stillness of the area. Nothing was moving; the silence was deafening. It was still early morning and extremely dark. I remember the noise my boots made stepping on the ground as I made my way to the briefing tent. In pulling open the tent flap, the smell of damp canvass was evident, and what I would see, hear, and experience within the next three hours remain vivid in my mind and soul to this day.
The vision was almost surreal. I thought I had entered a WWII movie scene. The tent was illuminated by only one dim light bulb that hung in the center, barely giving light and casting everything and everyone in vague shadows. I do not remember sitting on a chair, maybe it was a stump, but no one said a word to each other, giving further credence to the seriousness of our impending briefing. There were but six of us pilots in this medium-sized tent, and as I looked around I noticed that I had found a seat to the left of a young Marine Lieutenant, who just nodded his head to acknowledge me. Directly to our front was a makeshift easel with a map that was covered up with a light camouflage blanket.
There was a Green Beret Major in the tent, who within a few minutes left to bring in our briefing officer. We did not wait long, for as if in a whirlwind, this most impressive figure of a man burst in and stood before us. The dimness of the lighting did not diminish his stature, for here was a Green Beret FULL BIRD COLONEL. We all immediately stood at stiff attention.
While still at attention, I couldn’t help but be impressed with this man. He was approximately 6’4”, with a body built like Burt Lancaster in the movie From Here To Eternity. He wore neatly starched green fatigues, and his Green Beret was cocked slightly to the side. He had boots that shined like a mirror. The fact that he was an African-American man made him all that more impressive to me. I instinctively became even more aware that I was facing some real deep… stuff.
He thanked us for coming, and then, without delay, proceeded to tell us about the situation. Earlier in the week, a Special Forces Unit with indigenous Laotian troops was inserted into Laos with orders to search for enemy activity and engage them only if faced with light resistance. He then revealed a map of Vietnam and Laos. He pointed to where the insertion took place: “Our unit not only found the enemy but became engaged in a very intensive assault by numerically superior forces of NVA. Our unit sought higher ground to engage and repel these forces. This is why they are now located on this mountain top, here,” pointing to an area that I could tell was mountainous with elevations above 5000 feet.
“Gentleman,” he said, “we are not supposed to be in Laos, and if our Unit is captured or killed, there will be hell to pay by political *******s who want us out of Vietnam. And much less, Laos, with Laotian troops. But our main concern is for our Special Forces Unit, who along with the other troops, are surrounded on the top of this mountain. We have been attempting to support them with water and ammunition via other helicopter units, but the NVA are heavily armed. And as a result, we have lost a number of helicopter crews already in an attempt to resupply and ultimately extract. We have Air Force F4 Phantoms and Navy jet aircraft pounding the mountainside to keep the enemy at bay, but we need our people out NOW.”
“The President of the United States has been briefed, and he has made this a priority issue. We need you to go in and extract these brave men! Needless to say, this is a volunteer mission.” Even as the last syllable was still coming out of the Colonel’s mouth, the young Marine Lieutenant to my right immediately stood up at attention and yelled, “MARINES WILL GO”. I instinctively realized what this young lieutenant had done and I was so startled and amazed that the only reaction I could think of was to immediately stand up and say, “ARMY LEADS”, after which, all the other pilots stood up and each said, “ARMY GOES”. None of us had ever met each other, but now we were forever bound by that one instant of dedication.
The Colonel was impressed, shook each of our hands, walked back to the front, and said, “good luck gentlemen”. We saluted him and he walked out of the tent. I never saw him again; only in my mind. At this point, the Major took over and gave us the details, actual coordinates, call signs, enemy location, which would be easy to see, types of enemy weapons, etc. What was very noticeable to all of us was that we had to fly over the A Shau Valley to get to our destination in Laos. I was also going to lead.
All the pilots now met together for the first time to get ourselves acquainted and assign flight positions. The Marine Lieutenant requested the trail position, it was obvious that his C Model Huey was the least powerful of all the aircraft and thus would be able to extract fewer troops than the rest of us. As I walked back to my Huey, the feeling of foreboding was more prevalent than before.
Our startup was complete, and the thumping sound of spinning rotor blades filled the area. All our aircraft had already been topped off with JP4 fuel by a fuel truck, in positive anticipation of all of us agreeing to volunteer for this mission. We took off, one by one, and formed in two V formations of three aircraft, and headed west into blackness of the night to fulfill our mission… or meet our destiny.
Initially, I was extremely busy developing various contact with radar control, onsite C&C, (command and control), and navigating towards our target. Our copilot, H2O, was flying the aircraft and was unusually quiet, as was the rest of the crew. I knew they were scared, but also ready to do their jobs. We were flying totally on instruments at an altitude of 8,500 feet, staying above the mountains in our flight path, airspeed around 100 knots. The other aircraft were in formation and flying off my lead. Knowing pilots, I knew that each one of them was also on top of our location.
We were now about halfway to target, approaching the eastern edge of the A Shau Valley mountains. I reminded the rest of the flight that if we encountered anti-aircraft fire that we would break formation, take evasive action, and regroup on the other side of the Valley. Specially conscious of radar-guided 37-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons (a similar weapon to the one Jane Fonda sat on and smiled for the North Vietnamese photographers in Hanoi), we entered the Valley. I can still feel the fresh, almost cool air coming in the cockpit through the open windows and open doors of the Huey. The stars were especially evident in the blackness that surrounded us on this early morning Spring Flight.
“I Reminded The Rest Of The Flight That If We Encountered Anti-Aircraft Fire That We Would Break Formation , Take Evasive Action, And Regroup On The Other Side Of The Valley “
The anticipation of what was ahead of us was now ever-present, and I began to sense a feeling I had not felt before. The sensation was impossible to ignore and it only became more intense. I was overcome with a deep, profound, evil, soul-absorbing feeling of fear.
In all my time in Vietnam, I had not had this sensation. I felt extremely vulnerable, a sensation that would haunt me for almost half a century. I tried to suppress this feeling by telling myself that we had just made it through the A Shau Valley without any hostile fire, all aircraft gauges were fine, and we were flying straight and level. But this Evil feeling was in every part of my being. Now came a radio message from the C&C aircraft onsite of our target that diverted my attention, requesting our ETA, and I indicated that we were about 20 minutes out. As we got closer to our target, I could begin to see flares in the night sky and knew we were inbound to a major event.
The fear was ever-present, as I had thoughts of my wife Betty, my son John Jr., whom I had not seen yet, (he was born a month and a half after my arrival in Vietnam), and the rest of my family. I contacted C&C again and said that our flight was going to orbit east of the mountain. I made contact with the Special Forces Operator on the mountain top. I could hear through the radio the nonstop rat-tat-tat-tat of automatic weapons fire in the LZ.
I told him that at 30-second intervals, after my lead run, each aircraft would break out of formation and head to the mountaintop to extract our troops. I stated that I wanted the American wounded and/or KIA loaded first and that I would be able to extract a maximum of 10 people at a time, and did not want to be on the ground for more than 10 seconds. The other people would advise him of the number of people they could extract.
The scene was one of intense confrontation and madness, with flares illuminating the entire area, and both sides exchanging fire with a variety of automatic weapons and mortars. Tracer bullets were flying from all around the perimeter in both directions. Each tracer was followed by four other bullets and then another tracer bullet. F4 Phantoms and Navy jets were dropping huge bombs that exploded with massive shock waves and destruction. This was as bad as I had experienced in Vietnam.
Landing on a pinnacle or mountaintop came with its own set of problems, over and above dodging bullets and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). There were also swirling winds, updrafts, downdrafts, a limited landing and takeoff area that could put my loaded Huey over the edge without sufficient power… and it was 10 times more dangerous at night.
The time had come. I took the controls and told H2O to stay on the controls with me in case I was hit. I placed the Huey out of trim, lowered the collective, and dropped like a massive rock from the orbiting pattern onto a small spot on the mountaintop. Our airspeed and rotar RPM’s (revolutions per minute) were approaching the critical red line. Almost immediately the tracer rounds directed at the surrounded unit changed direction to our Huey. These rounds looked like basketballs as they pierced the night sky heading in our direction. The tracer fire grew even more intense as I stayed fixated on my landing spot.
Both of our onboard M-60 machine guns were blazing as I came to land our Huey on a spot not much larger than a living room, which is quite a feat at night on a mountaintop. We were immediately loaded with the severely wounded and deceased. The noise was incredibly loud with our own aircraft bullets, bombs, and yelling. As we prepared for takeoff, we faced a new dilemma that placed us all in additional peril.
The Laotian troops, who were now thinking they would be left behind, were jumping and climbing aboard our Huey, and we became grossly overloaded. I made another quick life-and-death decision, and shouted to my Door Gunner and Crew Chief to get the Laotian troops out of the Huey, and if they had to shoot them, to do so. Again, it was a life or death decision for my crew. When the Laotian troops saw that we were going to fire at them, they jumped off the Huey.
Our takeoff from the mountaintop was just as harry as the approach, with another major issue: power. Still receiving heavy fire, smoke billowing and bombs exploding, I moved the Huey forward, lowered her nose, and Pulled Pitch. This is the term used when pilots raise the Collective Control to engage needed power to the rotor blades. We were now over the edge of the mountain, with nothing but boulders, trees, and NVA below us. Tracers were still coming in our direction. I briefly looked out of my side window and saw the outline of a downed Huey in the darkness. I sadly thought of the heroic crew, all lost, and now in my aircraft. Soon their families would be devastated. I needed to make it back.
As we climbed to altitude, the firing was diverted to the second Huey, which as on the final approach to the landing site. With the safety of our gained altitude, my thoughts were now on the other aircraft behind me, and especially the young Marine Lieutenant flying the C Model Huey. That thought quickly dissipated as I now refocused all my attention to flying over Lucifer’s Lair again, and getting our deceased and severely wounded to the designated medical facility.
As we landed, amazingly there was an entire medical unit and a refueling tanker waiting for us, as our 1400 pounds of fuel had gone below 320 lbs. and the fuel lowlight had turned on a while back. 1400 lbs. is almost 210 gallons of fuel. With this completed, we immediately Pulled Pitch to return, and extract the final group of troops on that mountaintop.
On this last sortie, the situation had become even more severe. There were only nine guys left on the mountain, and not surprisingly they were all Green Berets. They wanted to be the last ones out. They all were fiercely returning enemy fire. Additional Navy jets were called in, along with more Air Force F4 Phantoms, all pounding the site harder, and using their cannons. Battle sounds and activity had become more intense as I got the request to “expedite my arrival” – the NVA were mounting a full-frontal attack!
I responded, “Black Widow 49er INBOUND, your location, ETA 20 seconds”. I swear to this day I can’t remember the complete details of my landing, loading of our troops, or takeoff. H2O and I were extremely busy, and the Door Gunner and Crew Chief were blasting away on their M60s. H2O screamed “GO”, and I yelled “COMING UP,” on our common frequency, so that everyone involved knew we were on our way out. All our guns were firing, as well as all nine Green Beret HEROS firing, some of them hanging on with one hand, and others with their legs hanging from the side of the Huey.
As we approached altitude, I noticed the faint glimmer of dawn. All our people had been extracted before the sun came up.
MISSION COMPLETED. I was not surprised when we returned to the briefing area, we were thanked and then told that this mission NEVER HAPPENED and no recognition would be given. We were quickly dismissed to complete other missions with our regular units for the rest of the day.
I never saw the other pilots again. I often wonder whatever happened to that young gung-ho Marine Lieutenant.
John Dionicio Sanchez
BLACK WIDOW 49