By Jim Plona
50 Gunner, Seawolf 312
15 September 1970
I read with great interest the article “Incident at VC Lake”. I was there, but don’t remember much from that day. I was the .50 gunner on 312. I remember a hail of tracers, taking hit after hit, starting to auto rotate, then looking at Joe Ramos, all in about 1 second; things were happening fast. Mr. Pete (the maintenance guy), Seawolf 62, was going through the Mayday routine. Joe and I had pulled back the pilot/co-pilot chicken plates, dropped the rocket pods, and were throwing anything out of the aircraft that was heavy and wouldn’t shoot. Anything that would shoot we were saving for the ground.
As I remember it, when we arrived on scene, just south and east of “the lake”, Mr. Pete assumed the FTL role. During my tour on Det 6, Feb-Sept 15 1970, this was always a hot spot. On one occasion, Mr. Pete dropped a 2.75 hp in the front door of a hooch and got a huge secondary, on yet another occasion in February, we were scrambled there and traded tracers with Victor Charles. During the ball game, I got a rocket cap inside of my flight suit and my tee shirt caught on fire; this was the first day I had earned my seat so I remember it quite clearly, but those are other stories.
On that fateful September 15th, we formed a box, with Dustoff 86 in the middle. Det 6 would lead in, provide suppressing fire, then break off left and right. The Dustoff would go in pickup the wounded, and the Det 1 and 3 bird would provide cover fire as Dustoff was lifting off. by that time Det 6 birds would be back in place to strike again, if needed, behind the Det 1 and 3 bird.
That’s how I remember those “unclear circumstances”. A hit on the head (concussion) erases everything else. I came to a brief second in Dustoff 86 on the way back to 3rd Surgical in Binh Thuy, and took a hit off someone’s cigarette, then passed out again.
Below is a letter from George Valdaspino, aka Pappy, sent to me while I was in the hospital at Great Lakes. Pappy was in the other Det 6 bird that had the tail rotor shot up and went to Ca Mau. Right or wrong, this is how he saw those “unclear circumstances”…
12 Oct 1970
Hi Jim, I’ve been waiting for you to hit the states before I wrote just to make sure you received it.
The details of that fateful September 15th are not pleasant, but for your own peace of mind I think it best that I relate all that happened.
To begin with, you’ll remember that we were pitching horse shoes when we were scrambled. We got airborne and were told we weren’t needed as the Dustoff was going to Seafloat for another evac. We no sooner got back, our bird was shut down and the .50 bird was still turning when we were scrambled the second time. We had just reached the area north of the lake, and were forming onto Det 1’s single bird to cover the Dustoff aircraft 86 to pick up a seriously wounded VN. We no sooner formed a heavy fire team when each one of us was shot down. We were all at 1000 feet, Dustoff 86 was at 1500 ft. We were in a 4 point cross-fire of .50 and .30 cal. Rounds were coming from everywhere. They were waiting for us and they had there s___ in one bag. So we know it wasn’t VC, but an NVA unit. Your bird was apparently hit through the engine, for you went down immediately. My bird was hit from underneath, disabling our rudder controls. We headed for Ca Mau and landed safely at the long strip. It was Chinooked out the following day. Before we left the lake area I saw your bird hit hard against the dike line. She busted in two and rolled over. A Sealord tried, after several army choppers failed to get close enough to get you guys out. Joe was pinned and so was Willie Pete. Joe was under water. He had been shot several times and probably never knew what hit him. An autopsy showed he died from a crushed chest. He didn’t have his chicken plate on when they found him. So no one knows for sure if he had it on when the bird took off when you all hit the ground or what. Jim White and Smale were the guys that got you and Ford out. After night fall Harvey and Rutledge got Joe out, and the next morning Hicks and Smale found Mr. Pete 200 ft from the aircraft and the helo was right side up. The following day Chaplin Conorad held services on the helo pad at Song Ong Doc, and I’m not too proud to say I cried like a baby. On the 17th there was a joint faith service performed at the Chapel at Binh Thuy and the Chapel was packed. Short handed as we were then, I didn’t want to take R & R, but with no aircraft available I was ordered to take it.
Second day in Japan and I caught the flu and was laid up for four days. I did get to buy the stereo gear I wanted and a new camera and other optical accessories.
Back to the 15th, all total the Seawolves lost 4 aircraft. The army lost 14 and the Black Ponies had one Bronco shot up badly, but it made it back to Ca Mau. All this action took place in the pacified area north of VC Lake and south of the big blue. So much for the light side of the news.
Homer Tipton will be leaving tomorrow for his extension leave and plans to stop by and see you. I go on leave next month and aim to stop by also, so here’s hoping you recover swiftly. Mr. Daniels sends his regards and regards from some of the other pilots. The rest of the gunners are all hoping and wishing you a speedy recovery. Homer is going to bring you flowers in a vase full of vodka.
Say hello to your wife Sharon for me and give her our love. We still think she’s much too pretty for you, especially being an amphibian (aka Frog) and all. Take care of yourself buddy. I told you we both had a Guardian Angel working overtime for us and she pulled us through it again. If there are any other questions let me know and I will clarify them for you.
Sincerely your buddy