21 November 1968
3rd Bde 4th Inf Div
Bn (1/35) Forward Fire Base
LZ Joan, Duc Co, YA 844252
A 1/35 LZ Vera, OPCON to 3/8 YA838178
B 1/35 LZ Joan, YA 844252
C 1/35 LZ Jean, YA 809234
D 1/35 LZ Jean, YA 809234
Recon Plt LZ Joan YA844252
4.2 Mortar Plt, LZ Joan
Summary: Log opened at 0001 hours 21 November 1968. Unit locations: At LZ Joan YA841251, Battalion Headquarters (Forward), B Company 1/35, C Battery 2/9 Artillery, C Battery (-) 7/15 Artillery GS, E Company, Counter Mortar Section 2/9 artillery; 1st Platoon D Co 4th Engineers Battalion, Mobile Dental Clinic from the 4th Medical Battalion; At LZ Jean YA809234; C Company 1/35, D Company 1/35, 1 CSF platoon from the Special Forces Camp at Duc Co, 1 AN/TPS-25 section from Division artillery, Counter Mortar Section from the 4/42 Artillery; At LZ Vera YA835178, A Company 1/35 OPCON to 3/8 Infantry; At LZ Oasis; Headquarters and Headquarters Company Support (S-4 Forward); At Base Camp (Camp Enari); Battalion Headquarters (Rear). C Company OPCON to the 1/14 Infantry first lift off of LZ Jean at 0857 hours, lift complete at 1012 hours. C Company will take up a position at LZ Oasis as a ready reactionary force for the 1/14 Inf operation scheduled for three (3) days. At 1340 hours B Company was alerted to have one (1) platoon on the airstrip in ten (10) minutes and the rest of the Company ready to go in one (1) hour. Company will C/A to grid YA647505 to recover 6 bodies and Confidential equipment from a downed Snoopy helicopter. First lift off the PZ at 1455 hours; first lift on LZ at 1522 hours, LZ COLD. B Company found the downed ship and bodies but they were unable to get them out without body bags due to the time element the Company was ordered back to the LZ for extraction, however due to shortage of fuel at Duc Co all the element could not be extracted, 4 lifts were taken out and approximately 8 lifts were left on the ground. B Company was informed to set up a night defensive location and the night defense was grid YA625507. Company will return to the downed ship 22 November 1968 and extract the bodies; body bags will be dropped to them. Due to communications problem a relay station was established between D Company 1/14 Infantry at LZ Mary S, hourly Sitreps were called in by B Company also a Snoopy bird was in the air most of the night over B Company night location.
Email (23 March 2000) I received from Ron Carey who was flying "Top Ship" 21 November 1968 when Gator 297 was shot down. Ron's unit was the 119th AHC 52nd CAB.
Small world. On that date Gator 297 went down. The crew chief was a good friend. His name was Billie Ontis. He was getting short about 100 days to go or so. We were flying a "Sniffer" mission. That was a machine that was mounted in the ship and it would collect air samples and somehow would give a reading of enemy troops. The sniffer ship would fly at tree top level at forty to fifty knots. You needed to travel slow to get the best readings. There would be two guys that would operate the machine. A second ship would fly above the first and as the operator told you of marks or hits you would mark the map. The problem was that if something happened the bottom ship was moving to slow and was to close to the ground to do anything. It was late in the afternoon and they were on their third or forth pass. We had gotten heavy reading in the area on a previous pass. They took heavy automatic weapon's fire. They nosed over to the left and went down. We stayed on station for the longest time waiting for other ships to come to their aid. I could tell it was not good from the way they went in. I knew they put people in that night. We found out the next morning they were gone.
Crew from the helicopter:
Martin Gehring Given, Billie Joe Ontis, Charles Frederick Rein, Robert Lee Storey, Eddy Gale Sumpter, Warren George Haugen JR
21 November 1968
Submitted by: Dave Fogg
The following is from the journal Ralph Leebert kept during his tour. Ralph was the squad sergeant for 3rd squad, 2nd platoon, B Co., 1st Bn, 35th Inf., 4th Inf. Div. 1968/1969.
21 November 1968, LZ Joan, Duc Co:
Half the day passed and everything just seemed as usual. Sam Sica and I had just returned from the creek. I had been back ten minutes when I was informed to have my squad saddle up and move light as the platoon was being combat assault lifted about six clicks from the Cambodia border to police up the bodies of a chopper crew that was shot down in the morning. This time it was for real. We were on the chopper pad five minutes when the birds came. My squad was put on the first two birds. I was going on the first ship in. We took off (seven birds) for the assault landing. We flew at 3,000 feet for about 5 minutes, circling in the air as gunships and cobras worked the area over where we were to be dropped. We were apprehensive about the landing zone because there definitely were dinks in the area. Previously a team tried to get in but snipers prevented their descent to the landing zone.
Well, when we went in we had trouble for some reason with the birds and so the six of us had to jump from fifteen feet. We were glad the dirt was softened up from the rockets, to make our drop much easier. After everyone was on the ground we started on the trek towards the downed bird. It took about an hour to reach the area and find the bodies. The bad part about the operation was that we did not have the equipment to get the bodies out. Captain Towers wanted us to return to LZ Joan before night so we had but one alternative, we had to hump at quite a fast pace. Unfortunately our attempt was in vane and daylight vanished. We continued to walk into the night. Without a moon the darkness in the jungle was doubled.
The stage was set for the dinks to spring an ambush. The terrain was hard walking in. The vines were catching everyone around the neck and tangling up the whole body, plus trying to get an M-16 through made things worse. And if an infantryman with a rifle had it bad, think of a machine gunner carrying an M-60. Fate was with us though again and we set up without having trouble with the dinks.
Setting up was a minor problem, but definitely caused concern for everyone involved. We were unable to get Delta Tango (Dak To) fired to set up a defensive fire by artillery. We had no way of digging in and we were vulnerable to a mortar attack, ground attack, or and kind of attack. It appears this is going to be one of those long nights in Vietnam again.
22 November 1968:
Everyone was so tired last night that we were not worrying about too much except to return to LZ Joan. The night was miserable for all. We humped so late that by the time we set up everybody was soaked from sweat. Being wet and having nothing to cover up with, we literally froze. We all shook so bad during the night that sleep was impossible, no matter how tired we were. It was just another miserable sleepless night. Yet, one less for all of us in the Cacti in the Nam.
As soon as the sun was up enough we continued on to the LZ where we were yesterday. Apparently we were closer than we thought because in a short time we had reached it. Our thoughts were about getting back to LZ Joan and have a good breakfast, due to not eating since yesterday at noon. Still there was a job to be finished that we were sent here to do. A bird was brought out to leave body bags and C-rations. We gobbled down our food as everyone was starved. As soon as we finished eating, we saddled up and returned to the wreckage.
The two door gunners were the easiest to get. They had been thrown from the bird and were up the side of the hill, while the remaining four bodies were down at the bottom. Not that I enjoy writing about men being killed in Vietnam, but I want to explain the day's activities. My squad was placed in charge of policing up the four men that died in the chopper. Getting the four dead men out of the wreckage was the hardest. They were all burned badly. There was no way of recognizing them at all. Had two of them not been wearing dog tags, identifying them would have been a problem. The bodies were very brittle and great caution had to be taken when picking the bodies up, as to assure the bodies stayed intact. The smell was not the most pleasant and that contributed to the horrible ordeal. Eventually we had all the bodies ready and a bird came and dropped two ropes to lift them out. We hooked the body bags up and off they were taken. (Note, Ralph Leebert did not document that one of the body bags, while being extracted, caught on the canopy and broke open spilling the remains. The remains were later recovered and extracted. Ralph told me he just could not write that account, it was too troubling at the time.)
If just doing the above wasn't enough, what else could be expected? On our way to the wrecked chopper, we were given overhead cover or protection by two small birds (called Cayuse). No sooner had they arrived and were buzzing over us when one positioned to the rear of the platoon came down too low and hit his rear blade on a tree. At that moment the pilot tried to jerk up but it was too late. The bird rose, spun around a couple of times and down she came. The bird hit about fifteen feet behind me and Dave Fogg. Sam Sica and Sgt. Rigsby who were bringing up the rear had to scatter to avoid the chopper and having it fall on them.
Again my first thoughts were to help the pilots but someone yelled, "Don't go near the bird as it might blow up." All the more reason to get the men out! But the pilots were able to flee from the bird. At once a slick was at our location and the three men were lifted out and taken in to be treated.
Perhaps the person who had different thoughts might have been the commanding officer. The platoon RTO (Avoline) called him and told him what had happened. The conversation was brief but went as follows:
Avoline: Lamas 66 Charlie, this is lamas 92 Charlie, over.
CO: This is 66 Charlie, over.
Avoline: Roger, this is 92 Charlie. A bird just dropped in behind us, over.
CO: This is 66 Charlie, good, over.
Avoline: This is 92 Charlie, it crashed, over.
CO: Oh, No!
Wondering what his reaction was without being present was represented in his last statement. He did not give his call sign.
After the bodies were taken back to Pleiku and the other bird was picked up to be salvaged, we were finally picked up and we arrived back at LZ Joan around 2:30 in the afternoon. It was a hectic day and one half for us but meant that much less time in the Nam. Always in missions like this, we go in and retrieve bodies, and I never can get names of those we were able to bring back to be sent home to their families.