The following is an excerpt from "Gone Native"; a book by retired Special
Forces First Sergeant Alan G. Cornett, who served in Vietnam from 1966 to
1973. This excerpt is located in Chapter 5 from pages 74 to 79.

"Team Viper We're Hit Bad"

29 November 1966, I watched as Sgt. Russ Bott and Sgt. Willie Stark and four Vietnamese loaded into a waiting UH-1H helicopter. Their call sign was Team Viper, and their AO (area of operation) was tucked up close to Laos and North Vietnam. Everybody was camouflaged and dressed to kill.

The weather was "dogshit", with rain showers, gusting winds, and a very low cloud ceiling. When the team left to be inserted, the flying weather was marginal, and I thought that the mission should have been aborted, but knowing how many people respected my opinion, I wasn't going to say a thing. I learned later that as the insertion helicopter got closer to the operational area, the higher elevation put the team right into the cloud ceiling. That forced the helicopter to weave around the mountains as the pilot tried to maintain a course to the designated LZ in the growing darkness. The pilots could have aborted the mission, but they were under intense command pressure to insert the team. From so low a altitude the pilots made a critical navigational error, mistaking a swollen stream for a river checkpoint. When the helicopter pilots returned to base, the consensus was that they must have missed the LZ and inserted the team somewhere in Laos. At Khe Sanh, the winds howled that night as sheets of rain blasted my tent.

Command was in the shit because of potentially embarrassing political fallout of having a United States Army helicopter land operating ground forces outside the borders of South Vietnam. An honest mistake made in the midst of high-risk combat operations was being aggravated by distorted politics.

The next morning, Thursday, an Army radio-relay plane from Da Nang arrived on station and reported that the entire operational area was socked in. Team Viper had made contact with the relay and wanted to know its exact position. They had realized that they were in the wrong area, and wanted a forward air controller (FAC) to pinpoint the team's location. During the early morning the team reported a brief contact and firefight with the enemy, but broke the contact and reported that it was moving east and north.

By midmorning at Khe Sanh, the winds had died down to about twenty knots. I could see about two hundred yards, and the clouds were at two hundred feet. A FAC plane, piloted by John Flanagan and carrying a Delta recon sergeant in the backseat, left at midday to try to locate Team Viper. After some exceptional flying by the FAC, the team was pinpointed in Laos but close to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) - and in the center of a suspected North Vietnamese regiment. On arriving back at Khe Sanh, the pilot pointed out on the operations map that Team Viper was four or five klicks northwest of where we'd thought they were. Flanagan also informed command that he had sighted numerous armed NVA around Team Viper. But the team's mistaken position on the operations map was not changed to reflect the FAC's information. The winds that night were so strong that I had to go out and secure the tent to keep it from blowing away.

Friday dawned to horrendous weather. A thirty- knot wind was blowing clouds across the Khe Sanh plateau. It was raining intermittently, but the rain was coming in horizontally due to the weather. It was extremely bad weather, and my thoughts were with Team Viper and another recon team led by Staff Sergeant St. Laurent that was also out in the storm. The radio relay plane from Da Nang had picked up a garbled radio transmission from Team Viper and understood that they had again made contact with the enemy, and in the ensuing firefight, several members of the team had been wounded. Just prior to my learning of Team Viper's new problem, one of the Vietnamese rangers had came over to me, and asked if I would remove a cyst from his leg. I removed the cyst, and as I was suturing him up, Master Sergeant Stamper came into the tent, and told me to get my aid bag and be ready to go at a moment's notice. At the same moment, Sgt. Irby Dyer walked into the tent, and Stamper told him that he would have to go, not me. That hurt.

The commander had decided to launch a rescue extraction. Involved were a pickup ship, a spare pickup, a command-and-control (C&C) helicopter, and two gunships. Stamper went back to the TOC to monitor the radios, and Dyer went to the helicopter pad. He was to be the belly man on the extraction helicopter. More important, he would be able to help with the wounded. I quickly finished up with the Ranger, then hurried over to listen with Stamper to the radio transmissions between the rescue ships and Russ Bott. We could only hear the C&C's portion of the radio transmission as it repeated what was being transmitted by Team Viper. The team was asking if the choppers had launched, and reported that one American (Willie Stark) was badly wounded, and that the team was unable to move. A short time later, we heard another one-sided conversation. Team Viper was receiving sporadic fire. By then they had one seriously wounded, and two others with lesser wounds. That news was fueling our anxieties. Adding to Team Viper's problems was the fact that the rescue ship couldn't locate the team. Occasionally, the team w could hear the sounds of choppers, but they couldn't figure out which of the five helicopters they were hearing. Finally, a radio transmission was relayed back to Khe Sanh, asking if the FAC (John Flanagan) could fly out in his aircraft and pinpoint the team.

Some incredible brave flying was done that day by Flanagan. With Delta recon Sergeant Tommy Tucker outfitted in ass-kicking gear in the backseat, they took off into a vicious shearing wind. The winds at Khe Sanh were gusting to fifty knots. When Flanagan arrived in the operational area, the helicopters had only twenty minutes of fuel left. Talking to Team Viper, Flanagan recognized Russ Bott's voice immediately, and he heard the background chatter of automatic weapons and grenades exploding as a vicious firefight was in progress. Bott told Flanagan that Stark was hit bad, that the Americans had become separated from the three Vietnamese on the team, and were completely surrounded. Flanagan told Bott to key the handset on his radio so that the FAC could home in on the signal. Guided by the signal, Flanagan overflew Team Viper's position, and Russ Bott gave him the codeword "payoff." Flanagan then told Bott to pop smoke so that he could direct the rescue ship in. Purple smoke was observed and confirmed, and Flanagan saw that the team was located in elephant grass on the crest of a small knoll. When Flanagan overflew the team's position, he drew no ground fire, so he cleared the pickup helicopter in. When a rescue helicopter came to a hover about ten feet above the team, the whole world exploded. The elephant grass parted, and from dozens of camouflaged spider holes and gun emplacements, vicious automatic weapons fire was brought to bear on the helicopter. It had been a trap, and Team Viper had been the bait.

The FAC launched a marking rocket so the gunships could pour fire into the enemy positions to protect the pickup helicopter. But the pickup helicopter rose, banked left into the air for about two hundred feet, then continued banking to the left, finally rolling over, and plunging straight down, auguring nose-first into the ground. It burst into a ball of flames as it continued to roll down the small knoll, killing the two pilots, the two door gunners, and Sgt. Irby Dyer in the process. On the second pass, the lead gunship had its fire control system shot out. That was a bad day for our Project Delta.

Back at Khe Sanh, we were catching bits and pieces of the horrible drama as it unfolded. We heard the commander order Team Viper to break up, and escape and evade. Then the helicopters transmitted that they were at critical fuel levels and returning to base. The team was being abandoned, and not by choice. It was a gut-wrenching moment, and I could see gears churning in Master Sergeant Stamper's head. He looked at me, and voiced something like "We've got to help them." I knew then that I was going to be a part of it.

Meanwhile, above Team Viper's position, Flanagan was witness to a heartbreaking moment. The last radio transmission from Russ Bott was, "FAC, please help us, we're hit bad." It was from a brave soldier that wouldn't abandon his best friend even though he had been told to do so. Alone, armed with only marking rockets, and smoke grenades, Flanagan tried what he already knew was futile, but try he did. He expended his rockets on the active gun emplacements, and then flew a wide turnaround back over the team's position. All he saw was trampled grass. He found no sign of the team. When he flew over the downed helicopter, all that he saw was a wisp of smoke rising from the charred hulk of the helicopter wreckage. There was no movement, and no sign of life. Flanagan flew back to Khe Sanh. I witnessed the hair-raising landing he preformed in a vicious fifty-knot crosswind.

 

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