Battle at VC Lake

Journal American Aviation Historical Society, Winter, 1988

In 1962 when the gunship helicopter first went to Vietnam, it’s appearance initially caused a mild panic among the Viet Cong. But by 1970, that situation had long since changed and although the VC, along with their NVA comrades, still had a healthy respect for the armed helicopter, they were by no means intimidated by it. Heavy caliber weapons now were concentrated around their vital positions and they were quite willing to use them when directly threatened. Their helicopter tactics had been refined over the years and they were not the least bit reluctant to use any number of creative lures to bring unwary helicopters under the sights of heavy caliber weapons. One favorite tactic was to isolate an allied ground unit, surround it with heavy weapons, allow the beleaguered unit to call for help and then lie in wait for the helicopters to arrive. Such was the case during the afternoon of 15 September 1970 when the Seawolves were requested to provide escort for an Army UH-1 medevac helicopter.
Earlier in the day, elements of the South Vietnamese Regional Forces had unexpectedly encountered very formidable opposition during an operation southwest of Ca Mau. As the action progressed, it became a obvious a major engagement was developing with a well-entrenched and disciplined enemy. Located near a shallow body of water euphemistically known as “VC Lake,” one of the South Vietnamese units had taken several casualties and requested medevac of the most serious.

When it initially arrived on the scene, the medevac (call sign Dustoff 86) was unable to make a pickup due to intense ground fire. The pilot called for helicopter gunship support and withdrew to perform another mission while waiting for the escorts to become available. While refueling, the medevac again requested gunship support, this time from the Navy Operations Center at Nam Can. Seawolf 306 of Det 3 and Seawolf 313 of Det 1 were assigned to escort the medevac from Nam Can to the pickup area. Det 6 was also scrambled from Song Ong Doc to provide additional coverage.

After rendezvousing over the area, both groups of helicopters took their positions for the approach to the intended landing zone (LZ). In the distance, a smokey haze created by the escalating battle could be clearly seen along with supporting U.S. Army helicopters.

The exact circumstances of the next several minutes are, today, unclear. It appears, however, the two Det 6 aircraft preceded Dustoff 86 to suppress ground fire during the approach. The Det 1 and Det 3 helicopters followed on the wing of the medevac to provide support during the landing. As the helicopters swept into the pickup area, it ignited in heavy, concentrated gunfire hitting all four gunships nearly simultaneously. Two Seawolves were almost immediately shot down. Seawolf 312 of Det 6 went down first. Settling near the LZ, it hit a dike during the landing flare and turned what otherwise might have been a relatively successful controlled crash into a nightmare of twisted helicopter. It’s wing man, heavily damaged in the tail rotor control linkage, had to retire from the area and eventually made a successful landing at Ca Mau.

Seeing the Det 6 ship go down and amid the heavy anti-aircraft fire, Dustoff 86 broke off his approach climbing to the right. Seawolf 313 of Det 1, flying on the wing of Dustoff 86, lost it’s engine and turning away from the medevac, autorotated into the relative safety of “VC Lake,” where it’s crew climbed on the cabin roof. The fourth helicopter, Seawolf 306, commanded by LT Robert Baratko of Det 3, sustained damage to it’s fuel cells and began leaking fuel badly. Observing the formation break up, Baratko had rolled away from the medevac and followed his wing man.

Dustoff 86 wheeled around and headed for the Seawolf crew down in “VC Lake.” LT Baratko, seeing his wing man’s crew wet but otherwise unharmed and in no immediate danger, turned away toward the wreckage of 312 where he orbited overhead looking for survivors and attempting to keep the enemy at bay. In so doing , his helicopter took at least eight additional hits from the ground. Repeated attempts to make contact with Army gunships working nearby failed. Their original mission long forgotten, both LT Baratko, who was critically low on fuel, and the medevac pilot knew time was short for anyone who may have survived the wrecked 312. Darkness and the VC were not far off and a pickup would have to be made soon if there was to be any chance at all. Although South Vietnamese Army troops were in the vicinity, the volume and ferocity of gunfire directed at the helicopters from the tree lines and levies around Seawolf 312 left little doubt they would have a formidable task reaching the wreckage. With LT Baratko and his badly holed ship running interference, Dustoff 86, this time with Seawolf 313’s crew aboard, dove again into the hail of bullets. Sweeping in next to the remains of 312, the Navy men aboard the medevac quickly recovered two critically injured crewmen, one pilot, and one gunner. The other two, pinned in the wreckage and believed dead, were left behind. Only after escorting Dustoff 86 out of the LZ, did LT Baratko then withdraw heading toward Song Ong Doc, some six kilometers away where he landed with little more than fumes in his tanks.

While Dustoff 86 was on the ground, two Sealord UHIL’s, responding to the “Mayday” call from Det 6, had arrived overhead from Nam Can. One, Sealord 3, was piloted by LT Bill Beltz. Amid the confusion and gunfire, it had been difficult to positively determine the status of the two Seawolves left on the ground. Deciding it was necessary to go down to the wreckage of Seawolf 312 to fully confirm their suspicions and to make a better attempt at recovering the bodies, LT Beltz circled above while his wing man proceeded to Song Ong Doc for fuel and to pick up a contingent of HAL(3) volunteers to serve as a ground party.

After 20 minutes of trying, LT Beltz succeeded in contacting the Army helicopters operating in nearby, but was refused help because of the intensity of the antiaircraft fire at the crash site. Meanwhile a third UH1L with the HA(L)-3 commanding officer arrived almost simultaneously with an element of OV-10A’s from Navy squadron VA(L)-4. Denied firing clearance because of the reportedly close proximity of friendly troops, the OV-10’s could do nothing but orbit the scene.

LT Beltz picks up the story: “I was the only slick that had door gunners so I decided it was worthwhile to make the effort….I made a low pass…to see what kind of fire there was, and boy there was some! Coming out of the tree lines on both sides! I went back up and figured I had most of the fire pinpointed.”

In the meantime, two Army AH-1G Cobra attack helicopters (call signs Crusader 32 and 29) of the187th Assault Helicopter Company had arrived after being scrambled earlier at the request of Dustoff 86. They formed up with LT Beltz’s UH-1L to cover his landing attempt. LT Beltz continues: “So I went down again and made my approach; the aircraft had flipped over into a canal, about chest deep water. My crewmen got out, waded over to the aircraft and confirmed both remaining men were dead. The pilot was jammed in so tightly his body could not be removed without major effort. The other man was floating freely so my crewmen dragged him over to my aircraft while I was hovering…they climbed in and we took off.”

“During the stay on the ground, my copilot was returning fire to the tree line with his M-16. I took off; the two guns (Cobras) followed me out and one of them (Crusader 32) was shot down right behind me. The fire was extremely intense. I remember it being almost a solid sound….one solid roar. Fifty caliber tracers looked like big basketballs coming up….we took a number of hits but got out of there. The gun that was shot down behind me was immediately rescued by an Army medevac (Dustoff 80) that had arrived while I was on the ground. He followed that gun right on down; as he autorotated the medevac was right beside him and the crewmen immediately jumped out of the gun and into the medevac….they probably weren’t on the ground 30 seconds.”

The following day, both downed Seawolf UH-1B’s were destroyed in place due to the close proximity off enemy activity. However, the downed Cobra as well as the body of the Seawolf 312 pilot were successfully recovered.

Over the course of the next several days, it was determined that the South Vietnamese had stumbled into the headquarters of the NVA’s 95th Regiment. Evidence later surfacing through intelligence sources indicated this combat resulted from a carefully executed helicopter trap. Unknown at the time to the Navy, Army helicopters taking the initial assaulting force had suffered heavy damage and the local commander had ordered that no other aircraft were to penetrate the immediate area because of the intense ground fire. This somehow had not been relayed to either Dustoff 86 or the Navy Operations Center at Nam Can, and was part of the reason why the on-scene Army commander refused LT Beltz’s request for assistance.

Bitter feelings surfaced between the Army and Navy over this incident. On the Navy side, they held the Army responsible for not properly alerting them to the dangers of the area and for not rendering immediate assistance to the downed aviators. From the Army side, they blamed the Navy for blundering into a area they had no business being in and for further complicating an already complex situation. The pilot of Seawolf 313 was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts in rescuing the injured survivors of Seawolf 312 while LT Beltz received the Silver Star for his part in the “VC Lake” mission. As for LT Baratko, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions on 15 September 1970, but the award was subsequently downgraded to the Navy Cross.

A little more than a month later Det 6 was again in the thick of things as the base at Song Ong Doc was brought under intense bombardment on the night of 20 October 1970. Det 6, which used the base for night staging, was scrambled after the first rounds began falling and immediately began placing strikes against the attacking positions. The detachment suffered no losses and eventually the attack was repulsed, but the base was almost totally destroyed and this, coupled with the possibility of a renewed attack, forced Det 6 to relocate to the USS Garrett County (LST-786) standing by offshore and continue their missions from the ship. This incident serves to illustrate at once the hazards faced by the remotely based Seawolf detachments as well as their extreme mobility.