Indian Gal 69 Down

October 16, 1966

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Steve Caple's Account of the Mission

via email: 3/12/2011

We were on North SAR station on October 12, 1966 when we got a call to fly pretty far south to look for a downed pilot.

When we got on scene the RESCAP told us that they were no longer getting radio contact, but still picked up what sounded like mike clicks. We spent some time looking around the area they pointed us toward, but didn't see any sign of the pilot.

The next day (13 OCT) we went back to the same area. I think this is the day we saw what looked like a small hole burned into the jungle. Didn't look big enough to me to be a crash site. We also went back on the 14th. I think we got some small arms fire on both days; I remember firing on 3 or 4 guys in tan uniforms crossing a clearing near where we'd heard rifle fire. The first 50 rounds were all tracer and they bounced all over the place. Didn't see anybody go down, and we were very quickly past the clearing, but all the tracer must have given them a scare. Also on one of these days Murphy asked me toss out a smoke grenade to mark a spot or get a wind reading. I pulled the pin on a WP grenade and was rewarded by a puff of white smoke and arcing smoke trails in mid air. Tried again with a wooden smoke float (Mark6?). The smoke took a long while to work its way up through the tree canopy, and by then was quite diffuse. We did note a ridge covered with high grass that looked like a good LZ we'd been told to look for.

On the 15th we were met by the Shining Brass team and headed back to the area only to find it too socked in with cloud down to the deck, so we returned to Intrepid and launched again on the 16th. I remember little guys with big rucksacks and Swedish K rifle 9mm machine pistols. I recall there were three US Special Forces guys, and eight Asian guys I heard were "ARVN Rangers" - but really Nung (Montagnard) mercenaries working with the SOG. I also remember hearing this called a "White Rabbit" team, but evidently that supremely apt name was overtaken by Shining Brass (also called Bright Light in a book about Special Operations Group activities).

On the 16th both our bird (Indian Gal 69) and IG 66 did quick passes over the LZ, almost without stopping, as the team members bailed out. Then we moved off a mile or so and ran a racetrack waiting for a call. I think their radio sign was Sugarfoot. It wasn't very long before we got a call to extract and followed a DF fix to where the team was on the south slope of a ridge running roughly east west. We hovered facing into the wind, and into another north south ridge to the east that intersected the one the team was on. They were in a grove of banana trees, cutting an opening with a little Homelite chainsaw I'd seen them carrying. I lowered the jungle penetrator and they folded out the seats and got on two at once.

I think Murphy intended to pick up the whole team, but just as the third set of two were getting on the seat a lot of firing and radio chatter broke out, then fuel came streaming through the cabin past me. Vic and the team members we'd already picked up were blazing away up the ridge to port - they'd punched out the port side windows, although I'm not sure those 9mm machine pistols could reach the top of the ridge. The guys still below us radioed to get out of there before we fell on them, and Murphy asked if the guys on the hoist were clear of the trees. I told him they were clear enough and coming up, and we got out of the hover while the #1 engine was still running on what was left in the fuel control.

I closed the cargo door most of the way because we had a cabin full of guys with no way to belt in, and knelt by the open door with the M-60. We crossed the ridge to our east and I fired a short burst at a gun near what looked like a stream culvert on a dirt road, and then we were over that ridge and headed east. I think we were too low to pick up TACAN or for the PIRAZ ship to pick us up, but we knew the gulf was that way. Vic leaned out the personnel door and looked over the engine cover, and found a 7.62mm size hole just about where it would have cut the fuel line between the firewall valve and the fuel control. The usual armored engine doors should have stopped a rifle round like that, but that door had been crunched in a hangar bay handling accident on Intrepid, and we had no armored spares aboard.

Some time later, probably 15 or 20 minutes, we were coming out of the mountains over a coastal plain, and unfortunately nearly over a medium size town with a couple bridges and something we'd only seen at a distance: AAA, or flak. It was so unfamiliar that when he heard popping noises Murphy asked us on the ICS if we were firing. I told him we weren't, then opened the cargo door and looked around. Nothing forward, but smoke puffs behind us getting were closer fast. I pulled my head in out of the wind to tell Murphy but there was no need to, as the stuff was all around us and he was jinxing as best he could on one tired engine.

I knelt by the rear of the cargo hatch with the door open a couple feet, and fired a few bursts at what looked like a pattern of circles below with flashes coming from them. It was pretty hazy, and the ground was indistinct even from just 3,000 feet or so. My gun kept jamming as the belt got snagged in the feed port. I heard later that grunts solved this problem by having their ordnance guys fix a C ration can cut in half lengthwise under the feed port, making a smooth ramp for the ammunition belt. I was clearing another jam, working the charging handle, when I heard a bang that was louder and closer, probably the one that hit the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer.

The next shell hit the tail cone and cut the tail rotor cables. I saw the flash and felt the plane lurch, and looked up and back into the tail cone. Just then the third shell hit aft of the cargo door, in the bottom of the "9" in the side number, about five feet way from me and blew up just inside the skin. All I remember is a big orange ball, a funny sort of "whoink" sound, and a huge kick in the chest.

My guess is that Ed Marsyla automatically reached for the power levers when the tail rotor cables got cut, although the only engine we had left was already at full power, and that's when he got hit in the right forearm, just behind the wrist, by that third shell, although it might have been from fragments hitting the cockpit area from bursts outside the bird.

I woke up probably ten minutes later, halfway forward up the cabin, resting against the port side wall with Vic dabbing blood out of my eyes and telling me we were going to ditch soon. I don't know if I was blown there or more likely got dragged there. My chest was really sore, and I could see a large chunk of metal sticking out of the right chest of my flak vest. It was round with a jagged piece sticking up, about the size of a silver dollar; I think it was the base of a 37mm shell. I ripped open my vest and checked my chest, but found only a hell of a bruise that later turned all sorts of shades of purple and green and yellow. Smaller pieces, and mostly skin metal blown around by the blast, had cut the bridge of my nose and one eyebrow, and a couple were in my scalp a little above the hairline. Luckily the only big pieces that hit me hit my flak vest or my M-60. The gun was pretty torn up, with the receiver cover twisted up and around like it was foil. I wish I'd saved that vest for a souvenir, but our thoughts were on getting folks out of a bird that already had a half foot of water over the back of the cargo hatch. I had my life and my sight thanks to that M-60, that flak vest and a lot of real good luck.

One of the Nungs had a bad thigh wound, probably the most serious wound of all on board. We'd grouped all six team members in the middle of the cabin and stood the couple of extra flak vests we had on board around them like a stockade, but a chunk got through. As I recall the HF and the crew ICS console also got hit and had caught fire, but I just heard that second hand as it happened before I woke up. I put my Mae West on the badly wounded Nung, and tried to find the inflation toggle on the 6 man raft. It had been against the port side of the cabin just behind me and was pretty torn up. Vic and Marsyla got it launched and inflated, at least as much as it would - it was pretty floppy and leaky. I recall Vic telling later how Marsyla was sitting in the sagging raft keeping his wounded arm elevated and hollering "paddle, dammit" at the uncomprehending Nungs. They drifted aft of the bird toward one of the whaleboats from the frigate (DLG-10, USS King?) and destroyer (DD-730) that we had ditched between.

I put on one of the little passenger flotation vests and strapped on the seat pack raft from the remaining sonar crew seat in the SAR birds. I stepped out the cargo door into bathtub warm water, and went surfing past the cockpit window where Dave Murphy was still flying the rotor system. I remember watching either him or Ed Marsyla pumping the rotor brake handle for all it was worth, but it had been hit by shell fragments and all the fluid was gone. Murphy kept working the collective as the bird rode the swells, keeping the blades from hitting the water. He remained there until we were all clear and then bailed out the window and swam clear himself. I called out "Nice landing, Mr. Murphy" as I floated past. I heard later that he was pretty amused by that, but I really meant it: that ditching was smooth as can be, for all the big splash the tail made due to the torque spin when he pulled collective.

I floated farther away forward of the bird, and popped the seat pack raft and climbed in. I hadn't been in it more than a few minutes when a Hukey Tuke (UH-2) from the frigate approached. I think they'd started to pick up Vic and he waved them off to me. I bailed out of the raft and held up both arms to show I could get into the sling without help.

You guessed it: about 8 or 10 feet up I started whipping around on the end of the cable as the raft, still attached to my belt by a lanyard, came clear of the water and caught the rotor wash. Somewhat embarrassing, but they dunked me back down and I cut the cord and rode on up. They picked up Vic and then landed on the frigate. I started to climb out and the crew and Vic insisted I wait for a stretcher because I'd been knocked out and probably still looked a little loopy. The scariest part of the whole day, because I had time to think about it, was going down a steep ladder headfirst in a basket stretcher.

In the frigate's sick bay they stripped off my fatigues and started picking little pieces of skin metal or honeycomb that were stuck in my eyebrows, sternum (got through the zipper flap on the vest) and left leg, and put a butterfly bandage on the cut on my nose and generally dabbed disinfectant around. Afterward we got clean new orange flight suits (with a big "HC-2" on the back), and at Vic's inspired urging we buttonholed every corpsman that came by asking when we'd get our medicinal brandy. Thanks to all those pockets the three miniatures we each snagged didn't clink. We got flown back to the Intrepid, and I shared a couple of the little brandies with some of our Det Charlie mechanics in that little cage off hangar bay 3.

Within the week we got flown by COD via Chu Lai or Danang and on to Cubi Point, then to Sangley where an HS-6 detachment was setting up for the Seven Nation Conference. A friend of Vic's was the club manager there, and drinks were on the house. The next day we got ferried by H-3 up to Camp John Hay, at Baguio City -  7,500 feet up in the mountains of Luzon. Cool pine forests, soft beds, food and drink for a week. After the week was up Roy Powell and I took an amazing bus ride down the mountain. We rejoined the Seven Nation Conference det, and even got those nice souvenir Zippo lighters with LBJ's signature on one side.

Updated 04/02/11