2017 Gladiator Reunion
The period covered in this history of the 57th Aviation Company exemplifies the utilization of Army Aviation in support of the Allied Ground Forces in the Republic of Viet Nam. During the 57th's tour in Viet Nam, there has been a definite change in the nature of this conflict. The guerrilla war has so intensified that it has almost reached the stage of open conventional warfare, with the Viet-Cong farmer soldier being replaced by well trained and modern equipped North Vietnamese Army Regulars.
Employing modern, sophisticated weapons and tactics, Army Aviation has met the need for flexibility and mobility to contain this new threat and establish itself as a vital arm of the infantry.
This history is dedicated to the personnel that keep the Gladiator and Cougar aircraft flying and to the men who pilot them.
January and the new year, 1968, brought the 57th AML its first disaster and its first bitter taste of the war. A North Vietnamese sapper platoon slipped into the Gladiator compound on the morning of 10 January. Executing a well planned attack, the sappers blitzed the 615th maintenance area and motor pool, planting charges in helicopters and in most of the unit's Motor vehicles. At the time the 615th Trans Det had its night shift working in that area. In the surprise attack, the sappers killed 6 members of the unit and wounded 17 others.
At 0200 the compound was shocked into stunned consciousness by the sound of gun fire and exploding demolition charges. Quickly rallying, the unit's personnel rushed to the maintenance area where the enemy sappers were quickly routed. Nine NVA were killed inside the perimeter and 10 others were found the next morning outside the fences. Dawn on the morning of the 10th found parts of the maintenance area a smoldering ruins. The NVA had destroyed 7 ships and damaged several others. The unit Armament Shop, Airframe Repair Shop and Electrical Repair Shop were completely burned to the ground. The motor pool was almost completely paralyzed. Vehicle damage was assessed in the vicinity of 3 million dollars, not to mention a much more serious toll, the lives of our 6 friends who were killed in defense of their compatriots.
As a result of the 10 January attack, an all out effort to improve the unit's perimeter was made. Bunkers were improved and added. Concertina was strung in second rows, a mine field was laid on the perimeter, lights were strung around the perimeter. The 52nd Bn sent a security detachment of 40 troops. The 57th was determined not to be unprepared again.
In recognition of those soldiers that died for their country, the 57th has petitioned the 17th Aviation Group to make 10 January the annual Organization Day. The unit has also decided to name the compound Camp Pfeister in honor of the Pfeister twins, who were members of the 615th Trans Co. The twins were working in the maintenance area at the time of the attack. SP4 Robert Pfeister was killed and his brother William was wounded. It should be noted that they had submitted a DA 1049 form (Ed: Request for Personnel Action) in order to come to Viet Nam together, even though one of them could have remained in the United States.
The missions flown during the month of January were in support of Northern II Corps. Flights in support of the 24th Special Tactical Zone, MACV, Special Forces Camps, ARVN II Corps and the 4th Division in the Dak-To area were the normal day's mission assignments. At the end of the month, the 57th began preparations for assuming the FOB II Special Forces mission from the 119th AHC. The 57th was to have the FOB missions for the normal tour of 60 days. The mission consisted of supporting Special Forces reconnaissance team which operate along Vietnam's Western border providing intelligence as to the movement of NVA troops and equipment units infiltrating the country along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail.
Following the 10 January attack, the 57th began a new policy of sleeping with one eye open. The unit's personnel began pulling 25%, 50% and even 100% alert depending on a particular night's intelligence reports. As the month of January was coming to a close, a new devastating section of the war's history was about to begin. Coming in from a long day flying the FOB II mission on the evening of 29 January, several of the unit's ships received fire as they came in over Kontum city on final for the Coliseum, the unit's aircraft revetment area.. This was attributed to the ARVN's celebrating the arrival of Tet. Throughout the night of 29 January, small arms fire could be heard from the city as streams of bright red machine gun fire brought all members of the 57th AML out of their tents and to their battle stations. The Cougars scrambled 4 gun ships while slicks became airborne to provide flare support. The compound as well as Kontum city was under siege. The Tet offensive had begun. When the main NVA attack came along the unit's eastern perimeter, the company poured M60 machine gun and small arm from every bunker. Neighboring Cavalry elements wheeled several tanks and APCs in along the norther flank and opened up with murderous beehive. Overhead, the Cougars, along with the Buccaneers of the 170th AHC, Avengers (189th AHC) and Croc (119th AHC) gun ships of Pleiku made pass after pass along the perimeter spewing hail of mini gun and 40MM fire. After breaking the ground attack, they turned to the numerous mortar positions which were spotted by blazing muzzle flashes. Rolling in on these positions with 2.75 rockets brought great satisfaction to many gun pilots as numerous secondary explosions resulted from direct hits.
As dawn broke on the Gladiator Compound and Kontum City, it appeared that the attack was over. This assumption was quickly dispelled as throughout the day the compound was subject to numerous sniper rounds. In Kontum the battle was waged from house to house. A partial police of the unit's eastern perimeter accounted for 59 enemy dead. It can easily be assumed that the actual number of enemy dead was somewhat higher.
The second night of the offensive, the battle shifted to the western neighbors, MACV, Special Forces Team B24, and the 43d Signal Compound. The three units occupy a square section on the north west side of Kontum City. They came under sustained mortar and ground attack on the nights of 31 January thru 2 February. At one time the NVA took 2 bunkers on B24's perimeter. The courageous gunship crews, along with several other attack helicopter reams from Pleiku again saved the day. Two gun ships remained in the air throughout each night as the Gladiator flare ships circled overhead providing an erie day light brightness over all of Kontum City. The 57th Took continual sniper fire through the 4th of February when the city was finally cleared and the NVA withdrew. Miraculously no members of the unit were killed, though 26 were wounded, none critically. During the 6 day period of 30 January to 4 February, the body count in the Kontum area reached 785 NVA troops dead.
( NOTE: For the most part these were North Vietnamese Regular Army troops who were assisted (guided) by local Viet Cong infrastructure. This was a nation wide, well coordinated invasion by the North Vietnamese... not the "Popular Uprising" of the people is so often depicted by the news media. )
Due to the TET offensive in January, the 57th was forced to fly its aircraft the maximum amount of time physically possible. Many hours of additional blade time were logged on the company's aircraft during the early part of February in order to provide continuous illumination and protection each night. At the end of the 6 day period, the aircraft as well as the unit's personnel were in need of rest and a chance to complete some much needed maintenance. As a result, the daily requirement for the FOB mission of 11 slicks and 6 guns was cut in half. The operation continued on a limited basis through the third week of February when the operation went back into full swing.
"The unit's first combat aviation casualty occurred on 19 February. A long Range Reconnaissance Patrol consisting of 10 members was surrounded and called for extraction. Air Force Tac Air bombed and strafed the area before the slicks went in for the pick up. After the Tac Air had expended, the first slick went in and extracted half the team. The second ship, piloted by LT Richard Griffith and WO1 John Cook, followed and picked up the remaining 5 members. As they started out of the LZ they came under intense hostile fire. The ship burst into flames and plummeted to the ground. At this time the chase ship, piloted by WO John Herbold, descended into the area and was able to pick up LT Griffith, WO Cook, the crew chief and one member of the LRRP team." The crew chief on that ill fated day was SSG Melvin Dye and the door gunner was SSG Robert Griffith.....both were listed as MIA due to we were on an "over the fence" mission extracting members from a SOG mission. I saw their A/C go in and Melvin took a B-40 rocket under his seat into the fuel cell. Lt. Griffith pulled WO Cook from the burning wreck....but died of his wounds on a hospital ship. ....the crew chief that should have been on that mission was Heberlein but he developed appendicitis and was sent home and Melvin flew the mission for him... WO Herbold was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism.
The month of March saw the unit completing their rotation on the FOB mission. The 57th Had accomplished a demanding job in a highly professional manner. At the end of march, the unit was presented a plaque by the Commander of FOB II in recognition of the outstanding performance.
During the month of March the unit encountered two problems in maintaining its top notch performance. The first was weather. During this period the Vietnamese burn their fields in preparation for the growing season. The smoke from this burning creates a dense smoke which on some days reduces visibility to only 2 or 3 miles.
The second problem encountered during March was the loss of sleep due to 122MM (approximately 4.85 inches in diameter) rocket attacks. The unit was hit five times during March. Thoughout these attacks, the unit's luck held. No casualties and only minor damage resulted from the enemy bombardment. The heaviest attack come on 4 March when 233 rockets were fired. The compound was hit again on the 17th of March with 14 rockets. On the 20th of March, 8 rockets hit, slightly damaging one ship. Again on the 21st of March, one round hit a small arms ammo connex, causing several secondary explosions. On 24 March the 57th was hit for the last time that month with seven 122MM rockets falling just short of the northern perimeter.
With each attack the NVA adjusted its fire and by the end of the month were placing a high percentage of hits inside the compound. The attacks culminated in a 122MM rocket barrage on 5 April which damaged 10 aircraft and wounded 8 personnel. The following day three B52 strikes on the hills northeast of the compound put an end to the 122MM rocket threats for the next two months.
The month of April brought a combined Change of Command and Presentation of Awards ceremony. With the Kontum Army Airfield hard stand serving as a parade ground, the event took place under bright spring skies on 3 April 1968. Major William D. Gess Jr. received the symbolic unit guide on from LTC George E. Burnison. Both the 17th Aviation Group Commander, Col Smith and the 52d CAB Commander, LTC Lehman, were present at the ceremony. Following the Change of Command Ceremony, the Air Medal was presented to many of the unit's personnel. During the month of April, several battalions from the 173d Airborne Division moved into our area of operation east of east of Kontum. Headquarters for this operation was located in a vacant field on the unit's western perimeter. Throughout the month of April, the unit supported the 173d in addition to its normal II Corps support missions.
The 1st of May saw the 173d Airborne change places with the 3d Bde of the 4th Div, who had been employed north of Qui-Khon. The 3d Bde set up its Base Camp in Kontum and began establishing fire bases west of Polei Kleng, along the Cambodian border. The 57th participated in numerous combat assaults throughout the months of May and June. At times fighting ranged fiercely. The unit had one aircraft shot down and many others were hit. Being mortared out of LZ's became quite common as the Gladiators did their best to provide the ground command with vital airmobile support. The support of the 3d Bde was characterized for the month of May by the tactical emergency, which seemed to plague the 3d Bde's LRRPS. On many occasions the 57th was called on to make night extractions which were always successfully accomplished. Providing valuable close fire support, the unit's Cougar gun ships worked quite closely with friendly units in contact with NVA. The Cougars were also called upon to come to the aid of ambushed road convoys between Pleiku and Dak To.
May saw the 615th's Commanding Officer, Major Niles C. Clark promoted to Battalion Maintenance Officer, as Cpt Hugh Smith moved from the 57th's Service Platoon Command to become the 615th's Commanding Officer.
The Gladiators had set a fine safety record, not having had an accident since arriving in Viet-Nam. In May however, the unit had its first accident. One of the unit's gun ships had an engine failure while flying convoy cover. CWO Dan Smith did an outstanding job of autorotating his aircraft into a field, however the main blade chopped off the tail boom. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
In May the unit finally received its much needed Engineer support. A platoon of the 815th Engineer Battalion arrived to construct maintenance hangar and some permanent billets in hope of beating the South West monsoon rains.
June arrived and with it, the weather began to change for the worse. Scattered thundershowers developed every afternoon. The dust in the compound turned to mud. The grass started growing and the countryside's dull brown hills changed into a lush green.
The unit continued to support 3d Bde. However, at the beginning of the month the unit supported the 101st Airborne in charge operations at Dak Pec and the 1st Bde of the 4th Division at Dak To.
By the month of June most of the unit's personnel had been in Viet Nam for eight months and had taken the well earned rest and recuperation leave. The sites of the leaves were numerous and each man swore the place he had chosen was the only place to go for R & R. During the month of July, the 57th worked with the Demons and Devils of the 154th Inf in An-Khe. Insertion and extraction of Mike Forces northwest of the base camp in An Khe was the primary responsibility of the cooperating elements. Air mobility enabled the Mike Forces to successfully harness the enemy, with the acquisition of valuable intelligence information coming as an additional bonus.
Despite hazardous weather conditions encountered in the form of low ceilings and high winds, the 57th lost neither a ship nor a crew member during this period. The completion of this mission was marked by new found respect mutually exchanged by all three participating organizations.
Additional factors contributing to the 57th's enjoyment of the stay at An- Khe were excellent facilities of the state-side like exchange, enlisted and officers clubs where juicy steaks were available, plus nightly movies.
As August arrived the 57th was supporting the 1st Brigade, 4th Division, based at Dak To. Because of the weather of the monsoon season, flying hours were held to a minimum. During the month of August, the Battle of Hill 1258, or Firebase 19, took place. To fortify the allied position, the 57th was to airlift a company onto Hill 1258. After landing less than a platoon onto the hill, intense enemy fire erupted from nearby positions. The Cougars quickly responded with highly accurate and intense fire around the friendly's position. A FAC aircraft called in jet bombers which dropped explosives and napalm on the enemy positions. Under the protective umbrella of fire provided by Cougar gun ships, and the new AH1 Cobra gunships of the 361st Armed Helicopter Company "Pink Panthers," the Gladiator second flight platoon was able to deliver much needed reinforcements and supplies.
A dust off aircraft attempted to evacuate wounded but was downed by enemy fire. One of the second platoon slicks, piloted by Captain Edward H. Gast, braved the hazards of torrential rain, fog, darkness and intense enemy fire to successfully extract the entire dustoff crew and the seriously wounded men of Hill 1258. Captain Gast's action was a perfect example of the Gladiator Cougar "Can do" attitude.
On 27 August, the leadership of the 57th was accepted by Major Robert M. Williams (ARTY) as Major William Gess Jr (ARTY) returned to the United States. The change of command ceremony, held in Kontum was attended by LT Col William Stanley, XO, 17th Combat Aviation Group and LT Col William Chamberlain, the 52d Combat Aviation Battalion Commander.
September finally arrived to the delight of the 57th "Old timers". The pilots and crew members that had come to Vietnam with the company were finally going home. At anytime during the day or night one could step outside of his quarters and hear the anxious and joyous shout, "SHORT" the 57th regretted the loss of these men; they had established an spread the reputation of the 57th AML over the entire II Corps area as being, "The Best of the Best". September marked another milestone and left the remaining men with the task of maintaining, if not augmenting the Gladiator reputation.
( Note: Subsequent history has proved that the reputation of the Gladiators grew exponentially in the years to come )
During the last week of September the 57th began the FOB II mission. The FOB II mission is the insertion and extraction of Long Range Reconnaissance patrols. By October the Gladiators and Cougars had completely taken over the FOB II mission from the Ghost Riders and Avengers of the 189th A.H.C. Aircraft requirements for the month of October included 8 slicks and 4 gun ships for the FOB II mission with the remainder of the 57th's Hueys allocated to miscellaneous missions.
Although the monsoon season was nearly over, it's dying throes forced the Gladiators and Cougars to abort several missions. During the final weeks of October, the 57th's Aircraft commitment for the FOB II mission was lightened as a direct result of support received from the 361st Armed Helicopter Company. The Pink Panthers of the 361st daily provided a pair of lethal cobra gun ships to aid the Gladiator Cougar team, and the 57th's commitment was cut to 4 slicks and 2 UH-1C gun ships.
The end of November marked the completion of the demanding FOB II mission. The men of the 57th had again displayed their outstanding professionalism, but had paid a costly toll. Two aircraft, 167 and 449 were lost to enemy fire, while aircraft 173 was returned to the United States for vital repair. Although four men were wounded during this two month period only one, WO1 Rick Phillips, was injured seriously enough to require hospitalization in the United States.
November also saw many improvements made in the physical make up of the compound. Wooden, semi-permanent billets were constructed to replace the tents which had housed the personnel of the 57th. Also, security was improved as guard towers were erected in key positions on the perimeter and a counter mortar radar unit from the 2d Brigade, 4th Division was placed in the TOC bunker.
December's mission included support of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division at Dak To. Special Forces 24th Special Tactical Zone, MACV and numerous other miscellaneous units.
This final month of 1968 was some what less than enjoyable. The elusive Viet-Cong, after a two month respite, hit the compound with mortars and rockets. Attacks were launched on the 14th, 21st, and 22d. As a result of these bombardments, a portion of the officer's billets was destroyed, the runway was slightly damaged and Lt Donald Richards was wounded so severely that he required evacuation to the states.
Disaster again struck on 30 Dec as a Cougar gun ship crashed in the revetment area. Fortunately, no on was injured, but the aircraft was destroyed and an outstanding safety record of 231 accident free days was shattered. In retrospect, every man was secure in the thought that he contributed to the company's accomplishment that stood second to none. Many hazardous missions had been completed, a first place number of hours in the battalion for the past year had been flown, and an esprit of corp of the highest caliber had developed.
ARMOR, LOYDE D. SP4 - 10 JAN 68
CARPENTER, THOMAS JR. SP4 - 10 JAN 68
DEVINE, RICHARD D JR. PFC - 10 JAN 68
GOMES, ANDES A. PFC - 10 JAN 68
MUNCY, ROBERT W. SP4 - 10 JAN 68
PFEISTER, ROBERT SP4 - 10 JAN 68
COOK, JOHN W. WO1 - 19 FEB 68
DYE, MELVIN C. SSG - 19 FEB 68
GRIFFITH, ROBERT S. SSG - 19 FEB 68
FECTEAU, GENE E. PVT - 11 JUL 68
First Helicopter UH-1H was shot out of LZ... LZ was extremely hot... permeated with NVA Regulars. A call for fast movers to strafe and bomb area around LZ. Four to eight, 4th Divsion, troops on the ground wounded or KIA. RTO killed... Lt. crying over radio, stating he didn't have many of his squad left. CO started yelling at LT... heard over intercom. More fast movers and support needed immediately states Lt... NVA in the trees and dug in ridge line.
57th AHC plus other units joined in... we circled to the north west of FB-19 for what it seemed like a half hour... 67-17264 was second or third Helicopter into LZ... not until we (264) had dropped off our 5 packs (soldiers/grunts), and lifted 30 feet off the ground, turned and headed NW toward Dak To did we receive fire... UH-1H was hit numerous times and started to billow smoke... Shake... hard to control... pilot radioed for rescue helicopter. 264 was crippled and landed at bottom of valley NW of FB-19 approximately 1/8 of a mile away.
At least one Medivac Unit was shot down during rescue mission, and the 57Th AHC and support units worked into the night to evacuate wounded and did resupplying.
As the crew of 264 disembarked the crippled chopper, mortars were being walked down the valley in attempt to hit the chopper and the crew. Rescued by either a Buccaneer/Dragon ? slick around 1630 - 1700 hours.
Sheet metal repaired 52 holes in the body of 67-17264.
Body's of KIA were picked up following morning. I saw at least 8 if not more. Records were fudged in my opinion. We transported at least two loads of bodies in BB. SNAFU
I also went down in Laos on April 7, 1969, but not mentioned. Ship a total loss. AC Paul Brannon, PP Jim Kawa, CE Jim Carriere, G Tony Hernandez. 51 caliber NVA took us out.
Jim Carriere - Gunner 67-17264