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Vietnamese Heroes Saluted By Former American SpecOps Veterans
By John Stryker Meyer Soldier of Fortune Magazine
On a clear fall afternoon in Fargo, N.D., an executive jet landed to pick up three passengers: Retired Vietnamese Col. Thinh Dinh, his wife, Le, and his eldest son, James Q. Dinh. The jet whisked Col. Thinh and his family to Las Vegas for the 27th reunion of the Special Operations Association -- a group formed by ex-Green Berets who fought in America's secret war during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1972.
In addition to the Green Berets, the Special Operations Association today includes Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines, and the many air units which provided critical air support to the men running missions across the fence during that deadly war fought in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam -- Studies and Observation Group, or SOG. Among the many combat air-support units were helicopters from the Air Force's 20th Special Operations Squadron, the Marine's Scarface and Eagle Claw, the 101st Airborne Division, the Americal Division, Air Force forward air-controllers, Air Force A1-E Skyraiders and the South Vietnamese Air Force's 219th Special Operations Squadron -- code named "Kingbees."
During the Association's formal dinner in the Plaza Hotel on 27 Sept., Col. Thinh and eight former Kingbee pilots were saluted by more than 500 Special Operations Association members, and their relatives and friends, for their courage and flying skills during the secret war which was fought under a tight veil of secrecy, hidden from the public and most military personnel stationed in South Vietnam during that period of time.
Special Forces personnel who fought in the secret war suffered more than 100% combat casualties. The operations consisted mostly of six-to-eight-man reconnaissance teams led by Green Berets working with indigenous personnel running top-secret missions in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam without any conventional ground support or artillery.
For the men who ran the missions across the fence there was no element more critical to their survival than the helicopters that inserted the teams deep into enemy territory to conduct missions which ran the gauntlet from wiretaps to general reconnaissance missions.
From the beginning of SOG in 1964, Kingbee pilots flew the older, one-door Sikorsky H-34s, which were powered by a nine-cylinder Wright Aeronautical Corporation "Cyclone" R-1820 engine used in the legendary B-17s of WW II fame.
Unknown to the Green Berets at that time, the Kingbee pilots were drawn from the cream of South Vietnamese men. Most were college-educated, in good physical condition and fearless pilots. Similar to American helicopter pilots, the South Vietnamese were trained at U.S. military flight schools. The best of those pilots were selected for the elite, top-secret 219th Special Operations Squadron. As the secret war grew in size, the 219th spread its wings along with the expanded operations. By January 1968, there were six Forward Operating Bases in South Vietnam, all supported by Kingbees. All piloted the H-34. Although they were slower than the "Huey" choppers, the SOG teams preferred extraction by the old war bird because it could take more hits from enemy ground-fire. Once the recon-team members entered the helicopter, they ran to the nearest window to lay down as much fire power against the North Vietnamese Army troops as possible during those crucial, adrenalin-pumping moments of extraction from a hot target.
Meet The "Kingbees" -- And Their Legacy Of Heroism
My first operational introduction to the Kingbees was in the summer of 1968. I was the radio operator on a recon team, code named Spike Team Idaho, out of FOB 1, in Phu Bai. I was on the lead chopper with our Team Leader, Robert J. "Spider" Parks, when it suddenly cut the power and began to autorotate into the landing zone, spiraling downward toward the LZ at a dizzying rate of descent. At the last moment, the pilot flared the chopper and gently touched down on the ground, not far from the A Shau Valley. It was a perfect, albeit terrifying, infiltration into the target. What I didn't realize at the time was that most Kingbee pilots had been flying secret missions "across the fence" for longer than four years.
"The men of the 219th and their venerable old Sikorsky H 34s were perfect for the top-secret missions," said Lt. Col. Bill Shelton (Ret.), the last commanding officer of FOB 1 who worked with the various air crews who supported SOG missions for several years. "Most of the pilots had more hours flying in these aircraft than many young USAF pilots had total flying time. The aircraft had long since lost much of their avionics. And replacement parts were hard to come by. So, the pilots did what pilots have done for many years. They flew visual and by terrain recognition, or by dead-reckoning and the seat of their pants. Most of the time it worked... At FOB 1, we relied on them heavily."
On 7 Oct 1968, ST Idaho had been engaged in a fire-fight with NVA troops for several hours. When the sun set we were all low on ammo and hand grenades, when then-Capt. Thinh Q. Dinh entered into a hover a short distance from our team in elephant grass that was 6-to-12-feet tall. It took our team 10 minutes to reach the hovering chopper and to get the men aboard it. As Thinh lifted the H-34 away from the LZ the dark jungle sparkled with muzzle flashes from enemy weapons firing at us. When we landed at FOB 1, I invited Thinh into our club so I could buy him a drink to celebrate surviving the NVA hell in Laos. But he declined, saying he had to return home to his wife and children. Later, we learned his H-34 had 48 holes in it from enemy rounds.
Two months earlier, Thinh pulled ST Louisiana out of an A Shau Valley target after it had been overrun by NVA soldiers. The team leader had called in an airstrike on his team from an A1-E Skyraider to break the NVA attack. The gun-run broke the attack, but it killed one indigenous team member, peppered the team leader with shrapnel while severing radio operator Tom Cunningham's right leg. The medic, John Walton, led the team to an LZ, where Thinh pulled out the team while under extremely heavy gunfire. (Again, see last month's "One Day In The A Shau Valley.")
On Christmas Day, 1968, our team was on a small hilltop, surrounded by NVA troops who torched the vegetation around the hill and were attempting to burn us off the hilltop. At the last moment, as our entire team was choking on smoke and ashes, then-Capt. Nguyen van Tuong piloted his H-34 down a steep mountainside to our LZ. His rotorwash pushed back the flames until our team boarded the chopper. As he lifted-off, flames consumed the area we had vacated.
In June 1968, then-Staff Sgt. Pat Watkins was the team leader of Team Lion, a recon team based at FOB 3 in Khe Sanh. It was in a target named O-8 -- one of the worst targets in SOG history because two major highways intersected in the area west of Khe Sahn and north of the A Shau Valley. Watkins' team was in O-8 because it was the base of operations for the NVA's 559th Transport Group which oversaw security on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and it was a major supply depot on the trail. Watkins team had been engaged with the NVA for several hours, when light began to fade as the sun set. With his team running low on ammo, two Marine gun-ships from Scarface and Eagleclaw roared over the team, hammering the NVA on its perimeter with 2.75 mm rockets and mini-guns.
Watkins team was in a bomb crater. He detonated the claymores around the bomb crater just as the Kingbee piloted by Maj. Nguyen quy An swooped down and hovered in the bomb crater.
"I'll never forget it," Watkins said in a recent interview with SOF. That Kingbee "was the best sight in the world." As it hovered, "I could see it was taking small-arms hits. But it just hovered over us. I looked up to see Capt. An, one of the best of the best, was flying the copter with no co-pilot and just a door-gunner who was shooting-up the place with his old 1919 A-6 machine gun."
Watkins' team returned to FOB 3 with no major casualties. "It was a miracle that we got out of there ... It was just another day in the life of a Kingbee pilot. You ask any SOG recon man and they'll tell you that they loved the Kingbees.
"Hell, when I was on the ground, I had American units refuse to pull us out. But, the Kingbees always came for us."
Bill Shelton said, "There are so many stories of daring-do on the part of the Kingbees. There are legends among their pilots, "Mustachio," "Cowboy," Captain Tuong, Major An, Colonel Thinh, to name only a few. I can tell you that when a team [was] on the ground, the sweetest sound they heard on the radio was when a Kingbee pilot would say, 'Kingbee go down now,' as the pilot spiraled-down to the team under a hail of fire. Some Kingbees didn't make it back."
Today, there are former SOG Green Berets and indigenous team members who are alive only through the heroics and flying skills of Kingbee pilots. I'm one of those fortunate men. Others include Pat Watkins, John Walton, Tom Cunningham, and John Plaster, to name only several. But, few of us realized at the time that while our tours of duty in SOG were generally for one year -- the Kingbee pilots flew the deadly missions across the fence for eight years -- if they survived.
Additionally, because we were participants in a secret war, few took notes, fewer took photographs of those days and, the pilots and team members weren't provided with opportunities for fraternal functions. This was a fierce war, and there was little time for socializing.
At FOB 1, the Kingbee pilots would spend limited amounts of time in the Green Beret Lounge between resupply flights and operations.
A Tragic Postscript
There's one more tragic element to the Kingbee story: After 30 April 1975 -- the day Saigon fell to communist forces invading the city -- many of the Kingbee pilots were incarcerated and sent to "re-education camps."
Kingbee Maj. Thu X. Huynh, who is senior among Kingbee pilots for time served flying special operations because his service in that unique arena of top-secret missions continued after SOG was closed in 1972, was fortunate on that fateful day: "I told the other pilots that we had to fly out to the ships, or we'd go to jail. No one listened to me. On that day, I flew my Huey out to the U.S.S. Midway with my family and some friends. We had 22 people on that helicopter."
Thu and his family eventually arrived in Vista, California, where he is now a financial consultant who also operates a dry-cleaning service with his wife and family.
Others, were less fortunate. Captain Tuong was incarcerated for eight years, before he escaped. Today, he lives in Santa Ana, California. "When I was in jail, I never told them anything. If they knew who I was and what I did, I would have been in much longer."
Colonel Thinh was incarcerated for 13 years. It was Col. Thinh who led the nine Kingbee pilots to stand at attention before the dais in Las Vegas at the Special Operations Association banquet, where they were saluted and given numerous standing ovations.
SOA President James Hetrick presented each pilot with an SOA salutation and coin commemorating the occasion. SOA is sending those commemoratives to the 58 remaining known Kingbee pilots.
After the reunion, Col. Thinh and his family were flown back to Fargo, N.D., by John Walton, 35 years after the Kingbee pilot had heroically pulled him and his recon team from the jaws of death in the A Shau Valley.