Remembering the 281st AHC
by Donald J. Taylor
Sergeant Major (Retired)
U.S. Army Special Forces

Thinking back on it after all these years, I still have many fond memories of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) pilots and crews I worked with during my two-year tour as a Reconnaissance Team Leader with Project Delta. As I remember it, when we were supported by the 281st, we knew that if we called for an emergency extraction, the 281st would frequently either recover us or die trying, and that can't be said for some of the other helicopter units that supported us.

During the Quan Loi deployment we didn't have 281st support, and an incident happened that caused us to really appreciate the 281st. Jerry Nelson was flying recovery for Edgar Morales’ recon team when shots were fired while the team was still climbing the ladders. When the pilot heard the shots, he pulled pitch and hauled ass with Edgar less than halfway up the ladder. To make matters worse, Edgar had forgotten to snap his rucksack into the bottom rung and was attempting to climb with a heavy ruck on his back. He was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It was all he could do to hang on for dear life with both hands. For him to either shed the ruck or snap in, he would have had to let go with one hand, and if he had done that he would surely have fallen off. Edgar didn't have the strength to hold on until the helicopter could reach an LZ and sit down, and he couldn't let go long enough to snap in, so he just hung there praying and waiting for a miracle.

Jerry understood all too well Edgar's plight and ordered the pilot to slow down. When the pilot refused, it is rumored that Jerry slid the muzzle of his CAR-15 up under the edge of the pilot's helmet, placed the muzzle behind the pilot's ear and asked him to reconsider his answer. (Jerry Nelson was never a man to mince his words.) The pilot immediately slowed down to 60 knots.

Then, in a trapeze act that would make any circus performer green with envy, Jerry went over the side and climbed down to Edgar, as the ladder flapped behind the helicopter in a 60 knot wind. Jerry flipped over to the opposite side of the ladder, reached through and snap-linked both Edgar and himself safely to the ladder. Edgar's prayers had been answered.

On the next deployment, out of An Hoa, we had 281st support and Kenny Wagner had a completely different experience during a very similar circumstance. Kenny had flown recovery to pick up a recon team from what had been a five-day dry hole in an AO somewhere in the mountains west of Thong Duc. However, as the team climbed the ladders, they began to receive rifle fire from a ridgeline about 200 meters above and to the front of the helicopter, and the helicopter took about 15-20 hits before the gun-ships finally suppressed the fire. But this time, with a 281st crew on board, the pilot kept his ship in a smooth hover and didn't even wobble as bullets passed by his head and flying shards of plexi-glass and metal fragments pierced his face below his visor. Only when Kenny had told the pilot that all were aboard did the pilot, bleeding heavily from facial lacerations, pull pitch, lift up out of that hole and give them a wild treetop flight down that mountain and out of the AO. My memory partially fails me on this one, but I think the pilot's name was CPT Peterson.

Probably the greatest bit of flying expertise of the Vietnam War was when CWO-2 Donald Torrini, a 281st pilot, pulled Jerry Nelson out of the A Shau Valley. It is highly doubtful that if any helicopter unit other than the 281st had supported the Project during that deployment, a pilot would have gone to such an extreme effort to extract a recon team from what had appeared to be a hopeless situation.

Jerry had been inserted with his six man recon team to "snatch" a POW, and on the second day in, he saw an opportunity to do so. He had observed two and three man groups of NVA moving down a trail in one or two hour intervals and had decided to go for it. He selected a good ambush site beside the trail and moved his team into position to ambush the next group that came along.

However, the next group to come down the trail was a 15-man point element of a much larger NVA unit, and after a brief interval of the customary claymore popping, shooting, stabbing, kicking, and grenade chunking, Jerry had destroyed the point element and had his POW. Jerry's POW snatch technique was simply to try his level best to kill everyone in the kill zone and then look for a survivor; somehow, there always was at least one.

But now, Jerry had a company plus of pissed off NVA after him, as he drug his badly wounded POW toward his extraction LZ. As luck would have it, Jerry found his route blocked by a flanking NVA element, while the main NVA element pushed him towards the river and away from his LZ.

When Jerry arrived at the river, he found himself facing a 75-meter wide river too deep to ford, too swift to swim with gear and surrounded by triple canopy too thick and too high for either ladder or McGuire rig extraction. Near the river, the canopy thinned just enough for Jerry to obtain a "shiny" fix from Sheriff, and an extraction helicopter flown by Torrini, already on station, immediately descended into the trees to recover Jerry and his team. Torrini attempted to chop the treetops out with his rotor blades in order to get down low enough, but he failed.

By this time, Jerry was in a fierce fire fight to his front, most of his team was wounded, his back was to the river, extraction appeared to be impossible, and the enemy was too close to effectively use TAC air support. All seemed to be hopeless for Jerry and his team, but Torrini had not given up.

While Torrini had hovered high over Jerry's position trying to get down low enough to extract him, he had noticed that the trees, though thick along the river bank, only hung over the river and there was space enough under the tree branches and along the surface of the river for his helicopter to narrowly fit. Torrini flew up and down the river looking for a hole in the tree canopy over the river large enough for his helicopter to drop into until he finally found one about 500 meters down river from Jerry, and he dropped into it. Torrini put his skids in the water and flew his ship up river and under the overhanging tree branches, with his rotor blades, at times, only clearing the branches above by a few feet.

Jerry could not believe his eyes when the helicopter suddenly appeared behind him in the river, with its skids completely submerged, its troop deck awash in the swiftly moving water, and the M-60 delivering over head fire into enemy positions to his front. Torrini moved his helicopter as close to Jerry's team as possible, and with the rotor blade tips chewing into the bark of the tree trunks along the river bank, and the door gunner's M-60 firing closely over their heads, Jerry swam his team, with POW, the short distance out to and into the waiting helicopter.

But now there was another problem to deal with; there was not enough room to turn the helicopter around, and Torrini would have to back the helicopter out in reverse hover to return to the hole in the canopy that he had previously entered. As the gun ships made repeated runs down each side, Torrini slowly backed his helicopter down the river. All along the way, NVA continued to appear on the riverbank and were met by fire from the door gunners and from Jerry's team. By the time the helicopter finally reached the hole in the canopy and Torrini lifted them up and out of the river, both door gunners and Jerry's team had expended all of their ammo.

The helicopter was so badly shot up, and the rotor blades, transmission and engine were so badly damaged from tree strikes and enemy fire that Torrini determined that it probably would not make it back to Phu Bai. So he sat his faithful helicopter down in a clearing, transferred his crew and Jerry's team to other helicopters, and the brave little bird was destroyed in place; it was the only U.S. casualty of the day.

Who of us will ever forget being shot out of the hole and being extracted by McGuire rig? As the extraction helicopter was laboring to gain altitude and we were hanging helplessly on those ropes 120 feet below the ship, we would look to our front and see a 281st Charlie model gun ship coming straight at us with its mini-guns blazing. At first we would think, “Oh my God, he doesn’t see me down here,” but then we would notice that his tracers were passing under our feet and impacting on the LZ we had just departed. About that time he would pass under us so closely that we couldn’t resist the urge to pick up our feet to let him by.

These 281st gun ships would continue making passes under us until we were at a safe altitude and well away from the hot LZ. If an enemy soldier had wanted to take a shot at us, he would have had to do it while dodging 281st bullets. When we were hanging there helpless and unable to defend ourselves, the 281st would place themselves between us and those who would do us harm. No soldier could ever ask more from another.

Many other 281st extractions came close to the ones I have just related, and some were near disasters, but these are the ones that best represent the 281st support that I choose to remember. We were quite a team, Project Delta and the 281st AHC; the world will probably never see another like it.
 

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