Thu Dau Mot

by Doug Moore, 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance)

Walt Harris and I did something incredibly stupid one night and got away with it. Walt left the Army shortly thereafter to become an Episcopal Minister and later retired as an Air Force Chaplain, so I’m sure we had someone looking over our shoulders. 

In the early days of Vietnam, pilots in the 57th Medical Detachment often had to fly long distances to complete their missions and relied on outdated maps and dead reckoning to find their way. That was okay, except when the weather turned sour. Since we felt duty bound to give it a try when someone was hurt, we began looking for outside assistance.

I think it was Pat Brady who came up with the idea that led to several of us visiting the Air Force Radar Center at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Saigon to see whether they could help. We found the controllers to be very agreeable, and they began by placing a large tactical map on a wall in their operations shack.

We showed them the places we went to on a regular basis, and as time permitted, we flew over those sites at high enough altitude until they could “see” us on radar. When we were directly over one of the sites, they would record its azimuth and distance, and before long, they had a fairly good file from which to give us radar vectors when we needed them.

Since Dust Off pilots were the only ones who routinely flew at night or in bad weather, the controllers (Call Sign: Paris Control) got to know us well. It was comforting to hear familiar voices giving us headings and distance.

They also learned to anticipate how long we ought to be on the ground, especially for the night pickups. If we were on the ground longer than usual, we’d hear them calling, “Dust Off, this is Paris Control, are you off yet?”

Our radios weren’t powerful enough to reach them at times, especially when we were belly deep in a rice paddy or down in a hole in the jungle. You could hear the concern rising in their voices until we were airborne and returned their call.

One night in late 1964, Walt Harris and I stressed our newly developed system to its breaking point. About 10:00 in the evening, dense fog began forming, and Viet Cong sappers used its cover to infiltrate the Headquarters Compound of the Vietnamese 5th Infantry Division at Thu Dau Mot, a fairly large town about 20 miles north of Saigon. Once inside, they placed satchel charges at strategic locations, and then retreated to pre-determined positions outside the compound. Upon signal, they began firing into the compound. As sleepy Americans and Vietnamese poured out of the buildings to man their defensive positions, the satchel charges were detonated. As I recall, two Americans and several Vietnamese were wounded.

When their call for help came, Walt and I ran to our aircraft. We were concerned because it had been drizzling rain for a couple of hours, and the fog was right on the ground in places. While I cranked, Walt called the tower to get the latest weather. The tower said they were showing 500-foot ceilings and three-quarters of a mile visibility. We suspected it was less than that, so Walt asked if anyone else had been out recently. The tower told us a C-47 landed at Bien Hoa about an hour earlier, and its pilot reported heavy fog over the Saigon area with tops at about 3500 feet. That was all the information he had.

I took off to the north and ran into a bank of fog before crossing the main runway. I told the tower we had gone IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), so he switched us over to Paris Control. When Paris answered, I asked for permission to continue climbing to see whether we could break out on top. If we couldn’t, I told him we would be requesting a GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) back into Tan Son Nhut. The controller told us Bien Hoa Airbase was still reporting 1500-foot ceilings and 3 miles visibility, so he gave me a heading toward Bien Hoa and told me to continue climbing.

At about 3500 feet, we broke out into a brilliant, moonlit night. The visibility was unlimited horizontally and above us, but underneath us was a solid layer of clouds.  From that altitude, we could see a hole in the clouds over Bien Hoa and could see the airfield lights sparkling in the distance. In all other directions it was dark and ominous.

Since we were already on top, I asked Paris to vector us over Thu Dau Mot to see whether we could find a hole in the clouds there too. The controller gave me a new heading, and we began bumping into clouds again. He told me to climb as necessary to remain clear. Somewhere around 4500 feet, we were on top again. A few moments later, the controller told us Thu Dau Mot was 10 miles at our 12 o’clock position, so Walt switched over to the ground frequency and made the first call.

The fellow who answered said he was a former Signal Corps pilot and would remain on the radio to assist us. Walt asked him about the casualties and the weather at his location. Both reports were dismal. He said several of the casualties were badly hurt and the weather was awful. He said the fog was so bad that he couldn’t see the tops of the trees where he was standing.

A couple of minutes later, Paris told us we were over Thu Dau Mot, but we couldn’t see anything below us except solid clouds. Walt asked the ground element what kind of signal they were using and was told a large fire had been built. They were hoping its heat would cause the fog to lift over their immediate area.

Walt and I both felt comfortable flying on instruments, and neither of us wanted to declare failure yet. We began discussing a hare-brained scheme. We knew the Saigon River ran generally north and south and was located about a quarter mile to the west of Thu Dau Mot. As the river passed the southern boundary of the village, it made a ninety-degree turn to the east for a short distance and then turned south again toward Saigon. We knew the helipad was on the north bank of the river just after it made its turn to the east, and we knew Paris Control had a good fix on its location. With that in mind, we asked the controller to vector us about ten miles to the north and about a quarter mile to the west of Thu Dau Mot, hoping that would put us over the track of the river.

From that point, we intended to begin letting down through the clouds and hoped we could descend low enough until we could see lights from the village or reflections off the river. If we could find the river, we planned to follow it to where it turned east and knew we could find the helipad from there.

When I explained our plan to the controller, he was initially very hesitant to help. He said his radar wasn’t accurate at that distance and was concerned about losing us in “ground clutter” or interference as we neared the ground. I told him we could let down to 1000 feet and still be clear of all obstacles in the area, so he finally agreed to work with us.

We began our descent with the controller giving us headings to try to keep us over where he thought the river might be. At the same time, Walt and I had to decide how low we could safely go. We knew the elevation of the helipad was 42 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level), so we added 300 feet to allow for several small hills and large jungle trees in the area and surmised we could let down to 500 feet without hitting anything.

As we started down, the crew chief and medic slid their doors open and began looking straight down for lights or reflections off the river. When we reached 1000 feet, we were still socked in. I asked Walt if he was willing to go down to 600 feet and he agreed. When we got there, we still couldn’t see anything, so we decided to go a little lower. As we neared 500 feet, the medic spoke up, “I thought I saw water directly below us, but then I lost it.”

We were still in the clouds when we reached 500 feet, so I suggested we ease down another 50 feet and if we didn’t break out, we ought to call it quits and go home. Walt agreed, so I began another slow descent. We descended a few more feet before hearing our crew chief shout, “Sir, there’s a fire to our left rear!”

I looked back through the open cargo door and saw a huge fire at what seemed to be the same altitude as us. I made a quick turn to keep from losing sight of the fire and switched on the landing light and searchlight while turning. Just as I got our nose lined up on the fire, the landing light and searchlight became fully extended and illuminated the area directly in front of us. Walt and I were shocked to find ourselves looking right into the top of an enormous jungle tree. I quickly pulled in power to climb over it, but it was too late. We smacked through the top of the tree, and as we popped out the other side, we came to a hover over a huge bonfire that must have been 150 feet straight below us.

The former pilot began yelling over his radio, “Dust Off, you’re right over us! I see you! You’re right over us! Come straight down and you’ll be okay, but watch out for the radio antennae to your right!” With the crew chief and medic hanging out of their doors to clear us, we hovered straight down and finally reached the ground.

As our eyes grew accustomed to the dim lights all around us, Walt and I became totally confused. We weren’t on the helipad where we had been expecting to land! Instead, we were on the ground inside the Headquarters Compound with buildings, radio antennae, military vehicles, and trees all around us. With Paris Control’s help, I believe we had been following the river fairly well and were getting close to the helipad when we turned toward the fire. That left turn put us over the highest ground in the Thu Dau Mot area and nearly caused us to crash.

The former pilot ran to my side of the helicopter and jerked the door open while excitedly telling me he hadn’t seen us until we were directly over him. I hope it didn’t show at the time, but I was really hacked off with him because he hadn’t told us he was bringing us into the Headquarters Compound.

When I finally got an opportunity to talk, I asked why he hadn’t used the helipad. He paused for a second or two and then told me it had been captured shortly after the attack began, and the Viet Cong had a .51 caliber machine gun sitting off to one side waiting for us. He admitted he didn’t tell us he was bringing us into the Headquarters Compound because he was afraid we might not attempt a landing there.

Walt and I began surveying the tall trees surrounding us and were concerned whether we had enough power to take all the casualties. We knew we couldn’t come back, so we decided to take them all. I asked Walt to monitor the gauges and pulled in all the power I could. For a moment, I wasn’t sure we would clear the trees because the fuselage began shaking, and the EGT (Exhaust Gas Temperature) was right at the red line. Finally, we cleared the trees and leveled off to gain airspeed. We went into the clouds almost immediately, but it felt good that time because we knew the “bad guys” were manning a heavy machine gun less than a quarter mile away.

As we neared Saigon, we asked Paris Control for permission to cross Tan Son Nhut at midfield so we could follow the main streets toward downtown Saigon where the U.S. Navy Hospital was located. There was no other aerial traffic, so Paris switched us over to the tower’s frequency and our request was approved.

At about 500 feet, we broke out of the clouds and began to see the dim lights of Saigon in front of us. As we reached the edge of the city, we began seeing tanks and trucks at all the major intersections, and troops seemed to be moving everywhere. I asked the tower operator what was going on, and he calmly replied, “Oh, there’s another coup going on. It started about a half-hour ago.”

We continued descending to about 150 feet, but still had to dodge around large patches of fog to maintain visual contact with the streets below. It soon dawned on us that if we continued following the same streets, we might get our butts shot off as we passed by the Presidential Palace, especially while a coup attempt was underway. Walt gave me a quick heading change toward Cholon, and we came in from that direction.

Two Navy ambulances were waiting at the National Police soccer field. We asked the drivers if they would take all the patients to the Navy hospital, and they agreed. After a quick flight back to Tan Son Nhut, we inspected our aircraft to see what kind of damage had been done by our quick trip through the tree. The only visible signs were a few minor paint scratches behind the right chin bubble and a small limb hanging from the right skid step.

Several months later I returned from Vietnam to attend the Officer’s Advanced Course. My wife and I had to attend a Commandant’s Reception shortly after the course began. We were standing in a long line in the old Student Officer’s Club waiting to greet the Commandant when I happened to glance across the crowded dining room and saw several people sitting at a table against the far wall. I wasn’t certain, but they seemed to be looking at us. All were dressed in civilian attire, and didn’t appear to be part of the official reception going on in the adjoining room, so I began wondering why they were pointing our way.

A few moments later I saw a couple arise from that table and begin making their way toward us. Neither of them looked familiar, so I was surprised when the man asked, “Are you Doug Moore?” When I said yes, he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, this is the guy who saved my life!” That fellow was Captain Pete Bishop, a fellow MSC officer who had been serving as a Medical Advisor to the 5th Vietnamese Division when the attack on Thu Dau Mot occurred. Pete had been critically wounded that night and told me he was praying we could get in to pick him up, but said he didn’t believe anyone could land in that kind of weather.

Pete made a complete recovery and went on to serve a full career before retiring as a colonel in San Antonio. I believe he and Walt would agree with me when I say, “Someone was looking over our shoulders that night.”