Witch Doctor 5
Based on the recollections of Ted Olson, Butch Doan, and Don Davis
See also Lam Son 719 in our Unit History archive...
One of the down-south units who repositioned to Khe Sanh for Lam Son 719 has a pretty thorough recap of their perspective on this mission, somebody obviously kept a great diary.
I'll never forget, as an FNG, Dave Snyder's advice to me on his way out was to keep a daily diary. I learned a lot from him about flying Hueys, but I wish I'd paid better attention about the diary.
Anyway, there's not much mention of the role the Phoenix played in the rescue mission of Witch Doctor 5 in Laos, March of 1971.
I remember being part of a flight of four one late afternoon out of Khe Sanh to insert a Hac Bao team into the approximate A/O where Witch Doctor 5 had just been shot down.
We had been notified to scramble and had been ready to go for at least an hour as I recall, waiting for C&C to get the mission organized and squeezed in amid all the gun support going on out that way. I always hated the wait (we all did), it was much easier to just crank and go with no time to think about it.
We flew out west from Khe Sanh into Laos and along the river toward LZ Sophia and Tchepone, then broke north about midway and dove for the deck on C&C's call from overhead.
It was high speed from there at sub-treetop level in fairly tight trail, dodging tops in the triple canopy as we weaved our way in, C&C calling course adjustments as we neared the final LZ. To avoid announcing our arrival any more than necessary there was no gun cover.
I remember the mission controller finally saying something like "get ready to flare" and gave us a short countdown ... before we could even see any clearing all ships started hauling back on the cyclics and dumping pitch, trying to keep our tails out of the trees, and all of a sudden a small clearing started to appear through the thick jungle.
I remember calling "breaking left" as the clearing started to come into view, and the other 3 ships scattered to fend for themselves and find spots close enough to the ground for the Hac Bao to jump out.
With all four Hueys pulling huge flares and standing on our tails to grind from 80 knots to zero in just a few yards (and avoid ramming into one another), our near-vertical underbellies must have presented textbook targets for the NVA in the trees below.
I sensed that thunks were hitting all round but I never really heard them at the time. Capt Don Davis was in the right seat had switched off everything but intercom for me, while he kept open the comm channel with C&C on Victor (VHF). We had barely rotated close to the ground before our door gunner (right side) yelled something like "all out" and I sucked all the pitch we had and started rolling outta there.
The Hac Bao were the best the ARVN had to offer, and they knew as well as anybody that hanging around on a hovering Huey under close-range fire did not present good odds. We never touched the ground, and from tail-stand to exit we probably spent no more than thirty seconds total in the LZ, maybe less. It seemed frozen in time and almost slow motion.
I remember glancing over my right shoulder into the Huey's cargo bay as we rolled into that transitional hover, and how the deck looked clear as our door gunner rattled away with his M60 into trees not 30 feet away. The one wounded Hac Bao who stayed on board (as I discovered later) was apparently back behind my seat.
From that point all ships were on their own to get outta Dodge and we hauled ass. It seemed like only a few moments before Capt Davis flipped up my VHF for C&C's message, "65, you're trailing a lot of smoke." I simply rogered the call while we checked all gauges and kept on truckin', this was not a good area to consider spending the night (as Witch Doctor 5 could have told us).
It was maybe halfway back to the river, another long 60 seconds or so (then east from there back to Khe Sanh), that C&C radioed "65, it's looking worse, you'd better put it down." The hits in our fuel tanks were not dumping so fast that we might run out of gas immediately, but explosion due to vapor in hot turbine exhaust was a real possibility.
(Capt Davis recalls, with RLO-like attention to detail, that C&C was telling us we were on fire and to get out. He remembers that our door gunner climbed down on the skid for a look, said we were losing a lot of fuel but there was no fire.)
So what were the odds? This was solid triple-canopy jungle, no convenient landing sites were available. NVA were everywhere. Did we want to risk a crash landing and/or capture? There was no time for a vote, the decision was "no way."
We were still blowing a lot of smoke as we approached the river. Hueys tend to broadcast their distinctive noise pattern well in advance of arrival, and all of a sudden 51-caliber tracers fanned an arc right in front of us. I cranked hard left (east) and fortunately avoided the lead time that gun nest's crew had practiced.
From there it seemed that our time was limited. I told C&C we would put down at the abandoned base at A Loui -- I smacked the ground there with very little attention to schoolbook technique and we all clammored aboard the C&C ship that was thankfully there almost immediately to pick us up.
All four of the Phoenix crews sent out to help with the rescue of Witch Doctor 5 returned safely to Khe Sanh. My ship was the only loss of equipment, don't remember its tail number now. Butch Doan (64) recalls making it back to Khe Sanh, but that his ship was pretty well shot up and had to be slung back to (Camp) Evans. (Butch remembers that Groover thumped 40mm grenades out his front door while in the LZ.)
I believe that the entire Witch Doctor 5 crew was extracted successfully the next day, another closed chapter in the history of the Phoenix and the helicopter war in Vietnam. We understood later that the Phoenix crews on this rescue mission were recommended for the Silver Star.
These are obviously just my own recollections. I'm sorry to say now that I really can't remember the other names who were on this mission. Shoulda listened to Snyder about that diary! If you've read this account and it sounds familiar, please drop me a note and I'll happily add your recollections to the story (or correct my own).
Then-WO1 Ted Olson