1971 Tay Ninh, Vietnam “Highjacked in Cambodia”
I participated in two invasions of Cambodia. The first was the U.S. invasion in the Spring of 1970. The second was in early 1971 (a couple of weeks before my tour of duty was over) when the South Vietnamese alone invaded Cambodia but were supported by U.S. gunship and medevac aircraft. During that second invasion, I never saw Cambodia during the day, as all of my medevac border crossings came at or after sunset.
One night while we were deep in Cambodia (North of Phnom Penh) we were hijacked by some ARVN’s (Army Republic of Vietnam) who were losing a battle. Because of the large number of casualties, the mission called for two Dustoff aircraft. I was the first bird in and CW2 Stan Shafer was right behind us with his. Our landing site was to the center of a ring of tanks and and APC’s (armored personnel carriers) located on the top of a large bare (defoliated) hill top surrounded by thick jungle. All of the tanks and APC’s were outward and engaging with the enemy. The chaos reminded me of an old Western movie where the encircled wagon train was defending itself from Indian attacks from all sides.
When we “touched down” the ARVN’s abandoned their wounded and swarmed my aircraft. My medic and crew chief started to throw the unwounded off the aircraft when the ARVN’s pointed their weapons at us. I told my crew to get back on board and close the cargo doors when they could. I tried to pick our bird up to a hover, but with all the ARVNs on board, we were well over our Gross Max Weight limits and our rotor (RPM) would keep bleeding off. Since we were sitting ducks where we were, I decided to try a running take off and attempt to reach “translational lift” by running (sliding along on our skids) down the hillside.
I was surrounded by armored vehicles, so I looked for an opening between two vehicles that was large enough to fit, but ended up clipping off both of their FM whip antennas. Once outside of the circle of armored vehicles we started our run down the hillside with all lights out except our search light (the scan of which I controlled by my thumb on the cyclic). We slid and bounced toward the tree line, slowly gaining ground speed by nursing the rotor RPM, engine RPM and Torque settings gingerly to achieve lift off. As we cleared the the tree tops, I turned the search light off and began a slow climb and increase in airspeed. I radioed Stan to warn him what he was in for and asked my crew for a head count of ARVN’s on board. My crew chief said it was a “…pile of assholes and elbows and shit eating smiles…” that he estimated the count at 17-18 or more. Then my medic shouted that we had an ARVN hanging from the skids! I immediately reduced airspeed and power to begin a descent. I remember thinking, ‘“Man oh man, now what are you going to do? You’ve got a guy on the skids and a triple canopy jungle beneath you and it’s pitch black out there and you’re in the middle of bad guy country along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”. As I continued my descent, I decided to look for a road or clearing that would allow me enough room for a “run on landing” and a “run on take off”. Shortly thereafter my medic came on the intercom and said, “Never mind, we lost him. “I immediately looked at my altimeter and saw that we were about 700 feet AGL (above ground level). I finally got through to Stan, but it was too late. They pulled weapons on him as well and I think he pulled out 18 ARVN’s as well. I radioed back to Tay Ninh for MP’s to meet us, but they were late arriving at the pad and all of the deserters disappeared into the night.