The 35th Infantry Regiment Association salutes our fallen brother, LTC Robert Gene Kimmel, who died in the service of his country on November 14th, 1967 in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam. The cause of death was listed as Helicopter Crash. At the time of his death Robert was 39 years of age. He was from Topeka, Kansas. Robert is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Panel 29E, Line 95.
The decorations earned by LTC Robert Gene Kimmel include: the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation.
Robert is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Ironically, he was a Plt Ldr with B, 1/35th during Korean War.
At the time of Colonel Kimmel's death, the battalion was attached to the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne during Operation Wheeler in Quang Tin province. On November 4, 1967 the 1/35 became attached to the Third Brigade, First Air Cavalry Division while participating in Operation Wallowa in northern Quang Tin and southern Quang Nam provinces. At this time, the 1/35 was operating in, or slightly outside, the Que Son valley. That valley is 24 miles long and is nestled on the borders of Quang Tin and Quang Nam provinces. Surrounded on three sides by double-canopy jungled mountains, the valley was home to 60,000 people and very fertile rice paddies. With the twin attractions of a large population to recruit from and an excellent source of foodstuffs, the valley was coveted by the VC/NVA and was hotly contested for the duration of the American involvement.
The four rifle companies though usually operating in the same general area so as to be somewhat mutually supporting, were usually separated by several kilometers. In addition to distance, the difficult terrain made the helicopter indispensable for the Battalion staff. Using the helicopters as a mobile command post, each company could be visited daily, if required, for consultation with individual commanders. Also, the "big picture" view from above during an actual fight afforded the Battalion staff the advantage of seeing nuances not always as readily noticeable to beleaguered troops on the ground.
The events leading to Colonel Kimmel"s death began unfolding on the morning of November 13, 1967. A six-member First Air Cavalry Division Blue team from the 1/9 was operating in western Que Son valley. A Blue team was in essence a self-sustained reconnaissance unit. They would fly around looking for "hot spots", had helicopter gunship support and additional infantry support prioritized to them, and also could call in the regular line companies if the action was too big for them. On this particular morning, the Blue team spotted an NVA standing in the middle of a rice paddy and making gestures as if he wanted to surrender. Coming closer for a better look, their chopper was shot down by an NVA anti-aircraft battalion dug into a nearby village. The NVA's weapon of choice for such encounters was the 12.7-mm machine gun, their equivalent of our .50 caliber. The NVA's ultimate goal that morning was not the Blue team but rather the choppers sent to rescue the team and to attack the village. Reliable reports fix the number of helicopters shot down that day at between fifteen and twenty. As the day wore on the Blue team's position became more and more vulnerable. They were pinned-down with scant cover in a rice paddy outside the village and running very low on ammunition. Their parent unit was spread very thin trying to provide security at every downed chopper. Being the closest available line company, we (Company A, 1/35) were ordered to prepare to move by helicopters to their aid. Our sister company Bravo was also involved in securing a downed chopper and crew approximately one kilometer from the Blue team. They in fact suffered the lost of one lift ship on the way in resulting in four deaths.
At that time, we were located several miles to the west still near the site of a major engagement a few days before on November 9. Supported by a squadron of Armored Personnel Carriers (APC's), we had assaulted a suspected NVA hospital complex. The engagement lasted from dawn until dusk with much heroism shown on both sides. The Executive Officer for the APC's, James A. Taylor, was awarded the Medal of Honor that day and the NVA fought to a standstill a total of three American infantry companies supported by armor. Colonel Kimmel, was overhead that day coordinating air strikes and lifting-in two other companies in an effort to completely cordon-off the complex.
The choppers picked us up at about 1730 hours and flew very low on the way in so as not to tip-off the NVA gunners of our approach. We still drew heavy fire as we neared the trapped team, the air being filled with green tracers from the 12.7-mm guns. Several of our lift ships took hits but, miraculously, we landed unscathed and were eventually able to reach the Blue team and spent the night with them in the rice paddy. During the night the NVA managed to get close enough to hit the Blue team's downed ship with a recoilless rifle. The ship burned all night with ammunition still on board "cooking-off" at frequent intervals. In addition, the trip in had flown us completely off the field map Captain Chaplinski had; as a consequence we had no communication with our battalion Net and could not even call in artillery. All in all, it was a very restless night spent in that muddy, damp paddy.
At around 0730 the next morning, Colonel Kimmel's Command and Control chopper (C and C) appeared overhead. Rain had moved in during the night and the morning remained dark and dreary with low-hanging clouds. Aboard with Colonel Kimmel were Major Wynn, the artillery liaison Captain Michael Casp, 1Lt. Randy Shaffer, plus two pilots and two door gunners. Their chopper had just left B, 1/35's position.
Colonel Kimmel was talking to our company commander, Captain Charles Chaplinski, by the radio. Apparently a large group of NVA had been spotted to the north and the colonel wanted us to move-out in pursuit of them. Captain Chaplinski replied that we were first waiting for the Blue team to be extracted. The colonel insisted that we move-out immediately but Captain Chaplinski refused, noting that he did not want to leave the Blue team by themselves. The exchange grew very heated and finally the captain agreed to at least start one platoon moving toward the new objective.
All during the radio exchanges we could see green tracers from the southeast rising toward the C and C ship from quite a distance away. Though the NVA had deserted their original position in the village, they still had a presence in the area. Captain Chaplinski repeatedly warned Colonel Kimmel that they were taking fire, "Sir, you are taking fire, sir please be advised that you are taking fire from the south east." The colonel finally acknowledged the danger and replied, "We will attempt to rise above it." Now the 12.7-mm had a range of about one mile, so that was easier said than done.
Shortly after Colonel Kimmel's last transmission, we heard a loud "ping" and looked up to see that the rear rotor had come-off the C and C ship; undoubtedly shot-off. The rear rotor was held on by a large nut, referred to by the helicopter mechanics as the "Jesus Nut." It seems likely that a 12.7 round hit that nut. Without a rear rotor a helicopter has no lateral stability and is nearly impossible to control. However, it appeared for a few seconds that the pilot might succeed in landing it. At this point Major Wynn came on the radio and said, "We are coming in." Captain Chaplinski replied that they were over our perimeter and they should attempt to come down where we were. That was the last transmission we heard. Shortly afterwards, the tail of the C and C ship swung completely around, the ship went into a spin, and spiraled, nose-first, straight down.
It hit about 75 yards from our perimeter; there was a brief fire on impact but I seem to recall it being out by the time we reached the helicopter. Lieutenant Shaffer's body was outside and the others were in the wreckage. One of the door gunners had apparently tried to jump clear of the ship, his body was found in a clump of bamboo about 100-150 feet from the crash.
In addition to Colonel Kimmel's staff, the following men were also on the ship.
Sp5 Paul Johnson,Age 24,Lookout, Kentucky Door Gunner
Pfc Russell McLaughlin, Age 20,Wheeling, West Virginia, Door Gunner
WO Frank Murrietta,Age 22,Phoenix, Arizona,Pilot
WO Stephen Thornton,Age 20, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Pilot
(Dick Arnold, A, 1/35) firstname.lastname@example.org