Shot down in Cambodia

Nineteen sixty nine was a very active year for the allied forces engaged at subduing the 9th NVA Division and it’s supporting Viet Cong units in the Mekong Delta. HA(L)-3 with it’s full compliment of detachments, or nearly so, had it’s share of the action. One of the most noteworthy was that which occurred on 28 April when the Det 3 fire team, consisting of Seawolf 305 and Seawolf 320, flying trail, were directed to and engaged a sizable force of sampans near the Cambodian border in the western delta. As the helicopters maneuvered over their target, they swept across the border and were brought under heavy Cambodian antiaircraft fire. Seawolf 320 was immediately shot down, crashing on the Cambodian side. Three of the four crew members perished in the wreckage while one gunner survived with grave injuries. Meanwhile, Seawolf 305, with it’s engine oil system damaged, made a forced landing near the remains of 320. Dismounting their weapons, it’s crew set up a defensive perimeter around their helicopter. One of 305’s gunners, ADJ1 Lloyd T. Williams, under heavy enemy fire and protected to some extent by his fellow crewmen, traversed the distance between the two aircraft and succeeded in pulling the critically wounded 320 gunner to the hastily arranged position around Seawolf 305. A short time later, responding to the initial Mayday call, an Army UH-1D from the 175th Assault Helicopter Company arrived on the scene and after several aborted attempts, managed to pick up all the survivors. But as the it was pulling away, a burst of gunfire laced through the Army helicopter fatally wounding the Seawolf 305 pilot picked up only moments before.

As might be expected, this particular action created an international incident, with a violent protest being lodged by the Cambodians who were still officially neutral in the Vietnam War at this time. Why it was that they had a large concentration of antiaircraft weapons at this particular location remains open to conjecture. Those who remember the incident today suggest a helicopter trap set up specifically to lure in and knock down any helicopters which might attempt to interfere with the sampans. While the circumstances will never truly be known, at this point in time the Cambodian Army did occasionally provide direct, active aid to VC and NVA units operating in their country. ADJ1 Williams was awarded the Navy Cross for his rescue that day. Almost a year later the Seawolves would find themselves still embroiled in the aftermath of this incident.

In the early hours of 9 May 1970, combined United States Army and ARVN elements penetrated the Cambodian border in an operation known officially as Tran Hung Dao XI. HA(L)-3 Detachments 3, 5, 7, and 9 provided tactical support for the Navy and Army units operating in Cambodia along the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, while Dets 4 and 7 assisted in the Parrots Beak operation northwest of Saigon that had begun several days prior. Aside from the initial foray of the border crossing, the majority of opposition encountered was widely scattered. Most of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were satisfied just to melt away and wait for another day to fight. From early May until 30 June, when the operation was terminated for American forces, HA(L)-3 aircraft logged a total of 1709 flight hours. The Sealords alone contributed 961 hours to the total and thus out flew their gunship counterparts by some 200 hours during the effort in Cambodia.

After completion of their initial objectives during the first few weeks of the invasion, Detachments 4 and 7 assumed a rather unusual mission for several days during the month of June. As related earlier, in April 1969 two Seawolf gunships had been shot down inside Cambodia with the loss of three men. On 20 February 1970, Cambodian officials returned the remains of these crewmen to the United States, however, subsequent examination revealed that complete, positive identification of the three could not be made. During the massive US presence in Cambodia, it was decided to search the original burial ground in hope of uncovering additional remains to aid in identification. Guided by the Cambodian officer who, a year earlier, had commanded the antiaircraft battery which engaged and shot the two Seawolves down, Dets 4 and 7 made extensive searches of the region in question attempting to relocate the crash site. A Seawolf pilot who participated in this hunt remembers that there were considerable misgivings about having this Cambodian, responsible for the death of fellow crewmen, in their midst. But, after working with the Dets for a while, this officer came to be well received, or at least tolerated, by most of the Americans. Although more human remains were eventually discovered in the general area, there was not sufficient evidence to indicate that they were even the right ones, much less make positive identification, and this exercise was terminated with the American withdrawal from Cambodia.

LTJG Hal Castle Jr

LTJG Joseph Hart

LTJG Richard Reardon

AO3 Michael Schafernocker

Email received Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998

Subject: Two Seawolves Shot Down Inside Cambodian Border in III Corps SSW Tay Ninh 1969

I read the list of Seawolf aircraft with some interest, noting that it did not contain any reference to two of your birds (Charley models, I believe) shot down just across the Cambodian border a ways south-southwest of Tay Ninh in early to mid-1969.

I was AC on a UH-1H with A Co., 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, First Air Cav, operating around Tay Ninh when a FAC bird called for help on Guard. We responded and flew to the area. Two of your ships had been shot down and were on the ground; one already destroyed and the other just sitting there with no personnel in sight. We flew into, out of, and around the area for several hours, using the FAC to provide “fire support” with his few smoke rockets and gunships from another Army unit later on during the incident. Ground fire from the treelines and a nearby village was intermittent. One gunship pilot was shot in the chest hovering in the weeds with us looking for signs of the crews. We were finally called off by authorities in Saigon after enemy mortars zeroed in and destroyed the other Seawolf bird.

Frank Angarola
former CW2, A Co., 229th AHB, First Air Cav