Thu Dau Mot
by Doug Moore, 57th Medical
Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance)
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.
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missions and relied on outdated maps and dead reckoning to find their way.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
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
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.
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.
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?”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”