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Sunday, February 01, 2009
Film recounts heroism of N.M. helicopter pilots in Vietnam
By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday in the rolling hills, rice paddies and rubber plantations that dotted the landscape near Bien Hoa — at least as quiet as Sundays could get in war-ravaged Vietnam in 1967.
Warrant Officer Tom Baca, a young UH-1D "Huey" helicopter pilot from Albuquerque, was assigned to fly a chaplain from Long Binh to several nearby camps that day so Mass could be said for the troops.
At an airbase a few miles away, another Huey pilot from New Mexico, Warrant Officer Jack Swickard with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, was tasked with ferrying a paymaster to allied bases in the area.
With a tenuous cease-fire in place, both pilots were hoping for an uneventful day.
That day — which turned out to be anything but uneventful — is now the subject of an hourlong documentary on helicopter warfare planned for broadcast this spring on the Smithsonian Channel and National Geographic's international channel.
"It's really interesting to be an observer of something you did" four decades ago, Swickard said in a telephone interview from Roswell last week. .
Baca, twin brother of former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, is now director of the New Mexico Transportation Department's Aviation Division. Swickard, who now works in public relations, was a New Mexico newspaperman in Roswell, Farmington and Albuquerque for many years, before and after the war.
Both pilots — who barely knew each other in Vietnam — are featured in the opening episode of the four-part series produced by London-based Windfall Films.
Promotional materials for the series says "Helicopter Warfare" recounts "the heroic stories of the most daring helicopter missions ever flown." The four episodes cover helicopter warfare in Vietnam, the Falklands War, Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's a real privilege to hear firsthand the testimonies of the men who fought in some of the most iconic wars of the past 40 years," Hannah Beckerman, commissioning editor for Five television in the United Kingdom, said in a news release. "Through drama reconstruction and fantastic (computer graphic imaging) these stories are brought to life."
Baca spent the morning of May 14, 1967, ferrying a chaplain — whose name has faded from his memory — to makeshift altars at bases in central South Vietnam where handfuls of troops attended Mass.
As Baca landed his unarmed VIP chopper at Cau Song Be (cow-song-bay) — a Special Forces Camp located about 45 miles north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) — he told his copilot, Capt. Larry Liss of Philadelphia, that he was going to attend Mass with the chaplain.
"We landed at Cau Song Be and I was going to go to Mass," Baca said Monday during an interview at his Albuquerque home.
"I got out and started to walk with the chaplain toward the Special Forces camp when they ran out and said they needed a medevac (military lingo for a medical evacuation) and could we do it. There were no other aircraft available. We figured, one time in and one time out, no big deal, let's do it."
"But I had an unarmed helicopter," Baca said. "I had no machine guns. All I had was my M2 carbine and a pistol. Larry had an AR-15 (semiautomatic rifle) and his pistol. We had a crew chief, but I don't remember whether we had a gunner."
Still, soldiers needed help, and Baca said he wasn't about to say no.
They quickly rounded up a medic and raced toward the coordinates called in by the pinned-down troops who were about 8 miles away.
In reality, a company of about 100 Civilian Irregular Defense Forces — Vietnamese citizen-soldiers similar to National Guardsmen and led by a pair of Special Forces soldiers — had walked into a hornet's nest of Viet Cong soldiers.
As Baca's Huey approached the thick stand of bamboo where the firefight was raging, all he could see was a narrow trail snaking through the tall green stalks.
"There was a trail that was about as wide as the fuselage of a Huey," Baca said. "Trouble was, the bamboo was like 25 feet high, and if we were going to land, we were going to have to chop down bamboo. ...We weren't sure the rotor blades could take it."
With the situation below growing desperate, Baca lined his helicopter up with the trail and began lowering it through the bamboo like a giant lawn mower — a job the composite rotor blades were not designed to do.
"We went into that stuff, and I was concerned about the tail rotor," Baca said, noting that the tail rotor is what keeps the helicopter from spinning out of control.
"I was concerned about getting shot. I was concerned about the engine air intakes getting clogged with bamboo pieces, so I kept asking the crew chief to check the inlet filters and to watch the tail rotor."
The Huey picked up about eight soldiers and sprinted back to Cau Song Be, knowing their simple medevac was about to turn into a mass extraction of an entire infantry company under heavy enemy fire.
As Baca returned with the eight rescued soldiers, another Huey was landing at Cau Song Be. It was a "slick," a lightly armed chopper used for medevacs and to ferry troops and supplies. Unlike Baca's VIP Huey, the slick was armed with two .30-caliber machine guns, one on each door.
The slick's pilot was Jack Swickard.
"I was flying a Special Forces paymaster around to different camps that day ... and a major came up and asked if we could help out" Swickard said.
He scribbled his radio frequency onto a piece of paper and had it delivered to Baca so the two could coordinate the rescue.
Over the next 2 1/2 hours, Baca and Swickard returned to the firefight five times, shearing bamboo and picking up as many soldiers as the Hueys could hold — and unavoidably tempting death.
Because the soldiers they were evacuating kept moving during the firefight, they had to relocate them each time they returned, burning precious time and fuel.
"We should have been killed," Baca said matter-of-factly. "They (Viet Cong) were shooting people getting onto the aircraft. The perimeter (of the battle) was like 30 feet away, and each time we went in to get people, there were fewer left to defend the LZ."
Swickard said he kept thinking that each trip back into the bamboo would be the last for him and his crew.
"What I kept thinking was, OK, I know they're shooting people in the back of the aircraft, so at some point they're going to figure out that they ought to be killing the people at the front of the helicopter — the guys flying it," Swickard said. "I was waiting for a head shot, to tell you the truth."
As the two Hueys made their final trip out of the battlefield, Baca had 22 people onboard, some standing on the skids and clinging to any hand hold they could find.
The overtaxed Hueys — designed to carry a maximum of four crewmen and eight passengers — lumbered back to Cau Song Be on fumes.
"I know when we got back we were running out of fuel," Baca said. "We were landing with the low-fuel light on." Swickard has vivid memories — and memory lapses — about that day.
"You get very focused in the cockpit with what you're doing, and you don't see what other people see," he said. "But I remember turning around and seeing people dying in the back of the aircraft."
A report filed by Army Medic James Dopp quantified the results of the harrowing rescue: 87 Vietnamese soldiers rescued, including 42 wounded and 12 killed before and during the rescue; one Special Forces soldier killed and one wounded.
The pilots' extraordinary efforts that day earned Baca, Swickard and Liss the Distinguished Flying Cross — the military's seventh-highest award — and an unexpected invitation to put their story on film 41 years later.
Richard Max, who produced the Vietnam and Afghanistan segments of the documentary for Windfall Films, said the mission flown by Baca and Swickard was among the most compelling he had found.
"We investigated quite a lot of medal-winning missions through the Distinguished Flying Cross Society and the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association," Max said in a phone interview from London.
"I think the fact that Tom and Larry's helicopter was unarmed, and they went in — and kept going back in five times — was extraordinary," he said.
"And I think the technical feat of chopping the bamboo down ... knowing that it was the only way they could land, was almost unheard of. If you speak to any helicopter pilot today, they would never attempt to do that. It would never cross their mind."
Max, who has met with Baca and Swickard on three continents in the past year, said the two pilots "were writing the rule book and doing extraordinary things that may never be repeated again."
"There are lots of other ingredients to the story which made it interesting, such as the fact that the people they were saving were South Vietnamese allies. It wasn't U.S. military personnel on the whole that they were rescuing ... and they still behaved in a selfless manner," Max said.
Initial filming for the documentary's Vietnam segment took place in July at the New Mexico National Guard headquarters outside Santa Fe, Baca said.
Liss, whom Baca had not seen in about 40 years, was flown in for the filming, much to Baca's surprise.
Additional filming took place in Vietnam in October 2008. Baca, Swickard, Liss and their wives made the trip, as did Swickard's gunner, Al Croteau of Andover, Mass.
'Fog of war'
Reconnecting with some of the people involved in the rescue at Cau Song Be has given Swickard and Baca a better understanding of what was accomplished that day.
"One of the things I really enjoyed was hearing them recount, through their eyes, what they saw that I didn't see," Swickard said. "There were a lot of things I didn't know about it: I attribute that to the fog of war."
While watching a screening of the documentary in London in early January, it occurred to Swickard that, "Gosh, maybe it's a bigger deal than we thought it was at the time."
Baca, who also attended the London screening, said he has enjoyed his involvement in the documentary.
"It's kind of an honor that they called up and asked for a kick-ass mission for the first hour of their documentary, and they (the Distinguished Flying Cross Society) sent them ours," he said.
"If nothing else, I'll have something to pass along to my kids and grandkids."
Where to watch
The helicopter rescue documentary featuring New Mexicans Tom Baca and Jack Swickard will be shown on the Smithsonian Channel, but no date has been set, said Stuart Zakim of the parent company, Showtime Networks.
Locally, The Smithsonian Channel is available on DIRECTV and DISH Network, according to its Web site.
National Geographic Television will televise the documentary only outside the United States.