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War Stories

Centaur 40 Shoot Down - 21 Feb 68

Charlie Johnson, Mackey Webb, Bartnik, David L. Christianson, Tom Meeks, Jim Jones, Chad Payne, Bill Stribling, Bruce Powell,

Jim Moore, Tom Fleming, Dale Dow, Daniel Wright, Glen Otis, Update 9 November 2016

The Hero of this battle was SSG James D. Brown, A Troop (KIA)

There are

.......Index to major sections......

Bruce Powell (Wingman) letter home written right after the incident (Feb 1968

Charlie Johnson (Pilot) reflects after a review of all the data (Jun 2016)

Mackie Webb (CoPilot) reflects after 46 years (Oct 2014)

Bill Stribling (Razorback gunner) in support (Nov 2010)

John Jerdon Track Cdr A Troop (video)

Dale Dow (Centaur Historian) provides data from Sqdn Logs

Charlie Johnson on the Tank Commanders death

Dale Dow on near insertion of Aero Rifle Platoon

Dale Dow on input from Squadron (Bill Coomer A Trp Cdr)

Other emails

Supporting Documents: Squadron Logs,

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Charlie Johnson (Centaur 40): I could not swear to it in Court but I’m still confident that there was no rocket firing before we went down. My recollection is that we had just arrived on station and were doing some visual recon. I don’t think we were even working the doorguns yet since I did not yet know where all the Good Guys and Bad Guys were. So we weren’t firing any rockets. Probably not firing the 40MM Chunker yet either.
 
We were in the process of trying to gain altitude in a turn when all the bells, whistles, horns and sirens went off at the same time and both the engine and rotor RPM were below the minimum to maintain flight, especially with a nose up attitude in a still fully loaded HOG. All I could do at that point, about 300 feet AGL, or so, was to point the nose down and prepare for a hard landing. It is possible that we could have pulled some collective to try to soften the landing a bit but I don’t recall anything below about 100 feet AGL. For all I know I had my eyes closed and was screaming for my Mama. I do recall telling the Pilot, Mackie Webb, to get on the controls with me because the collective and cyclic controls were getting very hard to move. I recall trying to push down on the collective as I was nosing the helicopter over and felt considerable resistance in the cyclic but it was movable. The collective was already very resistant to movement. That was at about the same time that I got off a MayDay call to you and told the guys in the back, Christiansen and Bartnick, to brace themselves for a hard landing.
 
Another memory of that moment in time is that, as I was trying to nose the helicopter over, among all the red lights flashing on the instrument panel and the tachometer showing the engine and rotor speed below minimum was our airspeed indicator showing 30 or 40 knots and dropping.
 
Bartnik was absolutely the most calm and collected Air Cavalry Trooper on the ground that day. His previous experience with A Troop was a great help to us. I forget the exact number of enemy that Bartnick was able to take out but I recall him firing single rounds, not automatic fire, with an M16 and it helped to reduce the amount of incoming pointed in our direction.
 
I have mentioned in the past that I, still, have absolutely no recall of the last 100 foot or so of altitude as we succumbed to gravity. My first recall after that point is waking up or coming to or whatever state I was in and finding that I was hanging sideways from my seat belt – shoulder harness and on the high side. I was in the right seat and the helicopter was laying on it’s left side. Anticipating we wouldn’t be flying that helicopter out of there I hit the quick release on my harness and immediately fell to the lowest point in the helicopter which as Mackie Webb’s empty left pilot seat. Fortunately I had done this without removing my flight helmet because the helmet hit something hard as I was dropping that few feet.
 
I did a quick look around, saw no other crewmen, and exited the helicopter. I did see the other crewmen when I was exiting and would up near Christiansen, the Crew Chief. I quickly ascertained that we did not have any weapons with us. I seem to recall, but not with full clarity, that during that brief period of time Bartnick got back in the helicopter and retrieved an M16 and a bandolier of magazines. Shortly after he did that Christiansen got back in the helicopter and retrieved another M16 and a bandolier of loaded magazines. I recall Bartnick was working wonders with the M16 he had but Christiansen and I weren’t doing so good with the rifle that he had retrieved. Almost immediately it started jamming and he was reduced to firing one round and using the manual cartridge ejection to clear the rifle for another shot. Very shortly it evolved to he and I switching off and I recall firing the M16 and using my handy PX special survival knife to remove the spent cartridges. That worked for awhile but it wasn’t long before it jammed so badly that I couldn’t remove the spent shell. Our limited time as Aero Riflemen was over. I don’t recall Bartnick having that degree of difficulty and assume that his previous work with A Troop as helpful. I do recall wishing I had one of the old M14 rifles that I had in training. I also recall wishing I could change places with the Son Of A Bitch that had sold the US Army on how wonderful it would be if we had to use the M16. I wonder if he would have thought it was so great if he was the guy trying to get small in that rice paddy.
 
The man pinned down in the aircraft was me and; once I exited the aircraft there was no one left in it. I did not make any attempt to reenter the aircraft. When I exited the aircraft I noticed that Bartnick and Webb were somewhat together close to the tail rotor and using one of the rotor blades for cover or more realistically, for concealment. That’s when I noticed that Bartnick had an M16 and Webb did not have a weapon. I have no memory of Bartnick reentering the aircraft to retrieve the rifle since he already had it in hand and was returning fire when I finally got out of the aircraft. I do clearly recall that I did not ‘set up a defensive perimeter” but thought it made sense for Christiansen and I to remain where we were toward the nose of the aircraft while Bartnick and Webb were toward the tail rotor. Christensen made the decision on his own to go back into the aircraft to retrieve an M16 and a bandolier of loaded magazines. I do recall my amazement when Christensen got up out of the dry rice paddy we were laying in and calmly walked over to the helicopter, climbed up the side of it (remember, it was laying on its’ left side)   So, the defensive perimeter was more of an organic result of much fear and strong desire to live on the part of all four of us, not well thought out, planned and practiced command decision by a recent graduate of The Armor School for Boys at Fort. Knox.

I do recall inspecting the magazines of M16 ammo that Christensen had retrieved to remove as much dirt and buffalo craft from them as I could before handing the magazine to him so he could reload the rifle we were sharing.

The only actions I can recall that may have contributed to us getting out of that horrible situation I had gotten us into was yelling at Mackie Webb to get back to where we were laying in the rice paddy. He was doing what our training and human nature suggested was appropriate when he started running away from the potential explosive inferno if our dead HOG had been lighted up by a tracer or RPG round. I can still recall by the look on his face how difficult it was for Mackie to make the decision to return to our location and stay with us. I believe that the exchange between Mackie and I also helped Christensen and Bartnick to decide that they would remain with us near the helicopter.
 
Writing this also brings up other memories:
Seeing M60 type machine gun rounds going through the helicopter but only being slowed down a little bit in the process. And, seeing .50 caliber tracers going through the aircraft with no apparent degradation in speed at all.
Seeing an RPG round arc over the top of the helicopter and head toward where Christensen and I were laying and seeing it sticking up from the rice paddy with the propellant still burning unevenly like 4th of July fireworks. It was probably about 2 or 3 arms’ length from me and only a little bit more than that from the aircraft.
 
God Bless SSG BROWN. He lost his life performing an incredible act of bravery that saved at least four lives. That does not include any lives that might have been forfeited during other attempts to get us out of there if his effort had not been successful. Every second that we remained alive in that rice paddy was the result of luck and a strong desire to live. I don’t know how much longer the luck could have lasted. The actions taken by SSG Brown and his tank crew were absolutely the stuff of legend. I will support any efforts to get SSG Brown's award upgraded.

Charlie - Jun 2016

Mackie Webb: Copilot (normally a Light Scout Pilot): (10/23/14)

I volunteered to be a standby co-pilot, with Chuck Johnson, on one of the gun teams. I do not remember why they were short a pilot but they were. I do not remember a briefing for the mission but I’m sure Chuck had one. If memory serves me there was a gun team already on station and was low on fuel and ammo and called for another team to replace them. I remember the call for launching another team, taking off, getting to the area and starting our runs. I remember the NVA had grass mats on their backs and would lie down when we would start our runs and the mats would cover them. As soon as we would break left they would get up running for better cover. I remember some Willie Pete being used by someone. I’m not sure if it was some of us or the jet jockeys. I remember some of the NVA would get up with their grass mats on fire. I’m not sure what caused it unless the Willie Pete set them on fire. I do not remember heavy fire during our runs but I was busy with the M5 and listening to Chuck calling out targets so I could have missed hearing them. However after our third or fourth run as Chuck was pulling out and into his left turn I did hear the rounds start at the nose and continue up the middle of the fuselage until it took out the engine. Chuck did a great job of getting us on the ground, without any one being injured, even though the aircraft was still quite heavy. When we hit the ground the aircraft rolled on its left side and the blades struck the ground and came off. The transmission stayed in place and the engine was whining and smoking as it was winding down. I had hung my CAR-15 on the back of the seat but could not find it and because of the fire we continued to take and the possibility of the aircraft catching on fire or blowing up, I kicked out the chin bubble which was cracked and crawled out through it. Once out, I was a little confused about where we were in relation to the NVA, so I started toward a tree line but heard Chuck holler to come back. I ran back to where one of the blades had stuck in the ground and took cover behind it. It was at this time I took a round across the top of my head and started holding my hands on the wound to stop the blood. By this time Chuck and the crew were out and we got to a corner of the rice paddy, still taking fire from the NVA. I remember that Chuck had an M-16, the only weapon between the four of us, and was returning fire. I have always believed that it was Chucks’ continued fire that gave us the time we needed for the tank to pick us up and keep us from being overrun. If I remember correctly, I was the last one to get to the tank and as I got on the catwalk an explosion went off under the catwalk. I do not know what it was but I always felt that it was an RPG or a rifle grenade. I do not remember how long we were there but I always felt like it was about week. We all four got in and the tank started backing up to get out of the situation and back to its line. It was at this time the tank commander was shot in the head and slumped down into the tank. He gave his life for ours and I trust that GOD has blessed his family over the years since.


We made it back to the stable and later learned that they had the jet jockeys destroy what was left of the aircraft and as they say the rest is history. I trust this will be a help to you. Tell the others Hi for me.


Mackie- Centaur 15

 

Dale Dow: Historian data:

Information extracted from Combat Operations After Action Report (RCS J3-S2), HQ, 3d Sqdn, 4th Cav, for the period 21 January – 10 March 1968.
   NOTE:  The After Action Report is based on entries contained in the Squadron’s Daily Staff Journal.
On 16 February Troop A and B closed Cu Chi. The next day (17 Feb) the Squadron went OPCON 3rd Bde 25th Infantry Division. The Squadron moved to vic XS7295.

On 19 February Troop C while returning to CP location was ambushed XS758979, returned fire resulting in 1 damaged tank, 2 US KHA, 2 US WHA, and VC losses were unknown.

On 20 February Troop D went OPCON 3/17 Cav.

On 21 February Troop B destroyed 18 bunkers, 4 foxholes, and captured 134 rounds of RPG-7, 1 RPG-2 round, 10 electric blasting caps, 4 22lb shape charges at XS702982. Troop C made contact with unknown number VC/NVA XS719922. Troop D and A reacted to the contact resulting in 3 US KHA, 20 US WHA, 1 UH-1C destroyed, 1 APC destroyed, 1 APC damaged, 135 VC KIA (BC), 3 VC KIA (POSS). That evening the Squadron CP was mortared resulting in 12 US WHA and light damage to equipment, 2 VC KIA (BC). 1 VC PW.

On 22 February Troop C picked up 1 VC PW WIA with AK-47 while sweeping thru the area XS719922. They also located 1 ea 7.62 type machinegun on wheels and 2 ea 9mm pistol vic same area. Troop C observed one platoon size element moving east to west XS(illegible). Engaged with artillery and spooky with unknown results.

On 22 February Troop B detonated a dud round resulting in 1 US WHA. While on search and destroy Troop A and Troop L 3/11 ACR located 2 VC KIA (BC), 1 RPG-2 and 7 rounds AK-47s, misc. web gear, and 1 PBC-25. The Squadron received heavy volume small arms sniper, automatic wpns and RPG fire, returned fire resulting in 1 US KHA, 3 US WHA, 1 VC KIA (BC). Troop C observed 15-20 VC moving behind berm, engaged with organic weapons resulting in 2 VC KIA (BC), 3 VC KIA (POSS), captured 1 AK-47.
On 23 February Troop A located and destroyed 50 bunkers XS711931, 2 damaged RPG-7 rounds, and one box of 7.672 ammo. Troop A later located a bunker which contained 1 AK-47, 1 M-16, 2 ea 9MM pistols with magazines, 2 chicon grenades, 2 lbs of documents, 1 medical kit, 1 NVA gas mask, and one field pack.
 
An analysis of the coordinates of the reported actions indicates that the ground troops were all operating in a 5 to 6 kilometer square around the CP location.  The small area of operations would have allowed for rapid reinforcement of any troop in major contact.
 
Summary: Based upon an analysis of the after action report and conversations with troopers from both C Troop and A Troop, a short summary of the events on 21 February can be developed.  A more detailed description awaits input from other troopers who have been contacted regarding the activity on 21 February.
 
Troop C was conducting a reconnaissance in force in the XS7192 area when it came into contact with a large VC/NVA force.  The troop commander (CPT Daniel Wright) had the troop pullback from the contact and called Squadron Operations for assistance/reinforcement, air support from Troop D, and artillery support.  The Squadron Commander (LTC Otis) or the Squadron S-3 ordered Troop A to move to Troop C’s location and provide assistance.  Since Troop A was working an area a short distance away, they were able to come on line with Troop C in a short time and began immediately engaging the VC/NVA.  A Troop, commanded by CPT Bill Coomer, arrived on line with C Troop before the Centaur assets arrived on station.

Since C Troop had initiated the contact and called for assistance, the C Troop commander would have been in overall charge of the operation pending arrival of the Squadron Commander, LTC Otis, at the site.  All coordination between the helicopter gunships, supporting artillery, USAF, etc. would have been the responsibility of CPT Wright until LTC Otis arrived.

Troop D scrambled a fire team consisting of one UH-1C Hog and one UH-1C Heavy Scout.  The team leader was 1LT Charles Johnson in the Hog.  The wingman was 1LT Bruce Powell in the Heavy Scout. 

After arriving in the contact area, LT Johnson, as team leader, would normally have established contact with the commander of C Troop in order to determine the type of target (people in open, people in bunkers, etc.) the location of friendly troops, and the location of the VC/NVA. This may not have occurred since LT Johnson enroute, saw a Black Pajama man in an open field waving his arms. Johnson descended to investigate. His Hog was hit with a heavy volume of enemy fire and crashed in a rice paddy between the VC/NVA and A Troop position.  The four crewmembers survived the crash landing and made their way to a large berm near the crash site. Two crewmembers were wounded.

The VC/NVA were close enough to the crash site and LT Johnson’s position that they were able to place a heavy volume of fire on the helicopter and the four men. 

After LT Johnson’s crash, the Heavy Scout gunship called for help then made numerous gun runs until its ammunition and fuel were expended. They took several hits from enemy fire.

A UH-1D slick from the 25th Avn Bn (Little Bears) came on site and attempted to suppress enemy fire with its door guns.  They were heavily hit by enemy fire.

A gunship team from a Tan San Nhut unit (Razorbacks) heard the Mayday call and came on site to assist. That team called in Air Force F4 support with 20mm fire and 500 pound bombs. One of the Razorback gunships was hit and forced to land several hundred meters from the area. The other ship continued to provide assistance as a second gun team from the Centaurs arrived on site and began making gun runs on the VC/NVA position. One of those gunships was hit hard with crewmembers wounded and had to leave the area and limp back to Cu Chi accompanied by Powell's damaged, and out of fuel, gunship.

During this time A Troop was maneuvering to the crash site and held to a dead stop by the NVA. After several minutes, a tank from Troop A took the initiative, pulled out of position and headed for the downed crewmembers.  The tank commander loaded LT Johnson and crew onto the tank and headed back toward the Troop A position. 

On the way back to friendly lines, the tank commander (SSG James D. Brown) was struck in the head by an enemy round and killed.

.........Emails..........

Charlie Johnson – Centaur 40

Pieces of this story had been told from time to time and the details had fallen further and further behind until the day in 2010 that I received an inquiry email from one of the Razorbacks flight crew that had participated in this event. He was looking for some details about what had happened to the Centaurs crew that had been shot down, wondering if any them had survived, etc.

I was able to inform him that the incident he was referring to might have been one I was involved in and sought the assistance of Bruce Powell to see if he could help provide some details to the Razorbacks veteran.

The story about how the story was fleshed out is almost (but not really) as interesting as the story itself. The Centaurs webpage caught his eye and email communications speeded up the information flowing to and from the several parties that provided information about the incident. I present the story here in the manner and sequence that it recently unfolded.

Bill Stribling to the Centaurs.org webmaster 08/20/2010
Hi, A friend of mine, Gene Yonke put me on your website, and I would like to get some information. I served in the 1st. Div as a grunt my first tour, 66'-67', and with the Razorbacks gunship platoon in 67'-68' During the May offensive, one of your light fire-teams was operating in the Saigon area, and had a ship shot down in an area of dry rice paddies surrounded by bamboo on all of the dikes. This was near a notorious VC village. We were on a recon, and got a Mayday call from your downed ship. His wing ship had run low on fuel, and had to return to rearm and refuel. The down 25th Div ship was on its side, with VC/NVA assaulting it. There were casualties involved, and I believe it was the crew chief talking to my pilot on the radio. There were gooks everywhere on the ground, and we were taking very heavy automatic weapons fire on every pass. On about the fourth pass, we were hit hard by a .51 cal and had to put it down in a dry rice paddy about 200 yards from the fight. We were on the ground for about 30 minutes, and took a good bit of fire from the tree line, 39 hits in all. Our lead ship stayed and brought two F-100's from Bien Hoa that made 20 MM cannon runs on the tree line. They picked us up as soon as possible, and we returned to Tan Son Nhut. I tell this story because I have always wondered if your guys made it out OK. We did our best, but they knocked us down too. I would sure like to know who those guys were, and if they made it. If you could ask around, and let me know if anyone remembers that. I later heard that there were 5 gunships shot down in that engagement. Razorbacks 67'-68'

StriblingPhoto of Bill Stribling:
SP4 Stribling pointing to .51 cal bullet hole. Ship took 39 hits in shoot down 5/68

Bruce Powell to Bill Stribling 09/11/2010

I'm Bruce Powell, Centaur Light Scout Section Leader at that time. Great to hear from you. Many times I considered trying to get in touch with the Razorbacks that helped us that day. Like many people I just put it all away and moved on with my life. Who would have ever thought we would all live so long!

I wrote a lot of letters home to my folks which my mom saved. Attached is the one I sent concerning this bright sunny day outside of Saigon (Click here.). Reading it brings back things that I'm not sure are real or maybe just conjured up in my old subconscious brain. Some things come back to me with startling clarity.

For example I remember:

...Chuck's brand new shiny Hog in the "Corral" (revetments) while we chatted before the mission. I think it was the first mission for that aircraft.

...The guy in black, out in the middle of a field between the tree-lines, waving both arms....and Chuck, flying as lead ship, calling me and saying "We're going to check this out, cover me." Jim Moore, my copilot in right seat (Jim was killed later by a rocket in the base camp) looked at me with an "is this a good idea?" look. I can still see his face.

...Chuck's hog starting in a dive, and then never pulling out

...putting out a May Day call on guard and to flight ops

...Jim being extremely panicked, more so than we were already, as he pulled out of one of the rocket runs. The aircraft jumped about. He said "I think we've taken a hit in the cyclic controls" (Don't know how many runs we made but this was probably the last of the rockets.

...a lull. We were out of rockets and mini-gun, both door guns jammed and low on fuel. Praying for a gun-team to show up and cover us for the pickup of the downed crew.

(I did not remember the Little Bear slick being the first on scene until I read the letter to Mom & Dad years later. That must have been the C&C you all were talking about. Who was in it? They filled the gap and kept the game going)

... The joy of that call when the Razorback team leader called me on guard.

...the Razorback leader was very fast in picking up my short situation briefing and rolled in almost immediately. I moved into a position to come in low, away from the tree-lines, and awaited Razorback to soften up the target and come back to cover me...Some time later Jim (Moore) confided in me that he was sweating bullets thinking that I (the known crazy son of a bitch) was going to go in for the pickup with M-16's and a .45 blazing, in a wounded aircraft low on fuel. Sure would like to hear remembrances from my other crew members.

...Razorback wingman shot up. Must be a friggin’ battalion down there.

...being extremely impressed with the Razorback bringing in the F-4's. What a show! and so smoothly coordinated.

...Fred Michelson (new Centaur Troop Commander) freaking out when he came on station in a scout bird (who was his pilot?). He just about screwed things up big time. (To demonstrate the strength of the subconscious mind: All those years I remembered that I put a burst of mini-gun in front of his ship and told him to get the fuck out of my airspace. After reading the letter to my Mom, I'm sure that didn't happen. Besides, I didn't have anything to shoot with!) I'm sure I remained on his shit list for some time.

...The FAC (Issue 12) saying "I don't know who is controlling them"

...Centaur gun team back up arriving (Woods Centaur 42 and Meeks Centaur 25)...at last, a heavy team escort Centaurs and the lone Razorback.

...Tom Meek's radio call to me as clear as day when he got shot up on the first run "Centaur One Zero this is two five, I'm hit, my copilot's hit, and I'm headed home partner!" (Read the letter to see the actual transmission).

...decision time. We were told that A Troop (ground) was moving in to rescue. I'm deep into fuel reserve with a wounded aircraft and have to leave. Can I make Cu Chi? or take the easy out and go to Saigon. We decided to cover Tom back to Cu Chi.

Pat Eastes recalled in one of his essays that the Squadron Commander (Glen Otis) came on the scene at some point and directed the ground rescue. I would like to hear that story.

My hat’s off to MAJ Chad Payne. I regret not taking the time to seek him out and thank him personally for his great leadership on that day.

With input from so many of the players the whole thing could be written up as a classic Vietnam Air/Ground Battle. Maybe a movie! .....Bruce

PS: In defense of then Major Fred Michelson. He had just replaced a very competent and popular Troop Commander (Tom Fleming), had no experience and was dealing with a bunch of battle hardened, "my shit doesn't stink" aviators. Later in his tour I'm pretty sure that it was he who volunteered to ride in the back of a LOH to assist in the very hot extraction of one of our LRRP units on the side of Nui Ba Din, and be on the receiving end my (and several other cobra gunships) rockets and mini-gun fire (Cobra 25 Rescue). He didn't have to do that.

Charlie Johnson to Bill Stribling 09/11/2010

Hello Bill. I haven't forgotten you and have just received a copy of the email that Bruce Powell sent you which passes along to you his recollection of the incident. It still amazes me how you guys who were flying over us have a much more detailed recall of what happened that day. It probably makes sense if you consider that my crew and I were concentrating on trying to be as small as possible. I mentioned to you previously that my area of interest there on the ground was about a twenty five or fifty meter square. You may recall some of the cartoons or comics from Vietnam which showed a steel pot and a pair of boots. I recall some of the 'Short Timer' comics that used that character. That was us - but without the steel pots.

You asked how the tank commander got killed during our extraction. After picking us up he was directing the tank out of the kill zone, driving backwards of course so the front of the tank was facing the bad guys, and firing the TC's .50 caliber when he was struck by one round at the base of the skull. I just happened to be looking up at him when the round went through his spine/skull from right to left, bringing bone fragments with it. He died instantly of course. I still carry with me a mental picture of him looking down at me for the second it took for his brain to recognize that he was dead and his body collapsing into the tank. That image, which is still burned into my brain, and the feeling that he might not have been killed if I hadn't screwed up and gotten shot down leaves me with a real strong 'survivors guilt' as you can imagine.

I'm guessing that the round that got him was one of those 'lucky shots' you hear about that was sent downrange by some NVA soldier who was as scared as we were. My door gunner had served in one of the Armored Cav troops before extending his tour to get a door gunner assignment so he had experience in the tanks and was able to take over the Tank Commander's position and direct the tank back to where it was safe (enough) for us to exit the tank. I also recall that, after dismounting from the tank and moving to an area behind several of the APCs awaiting a helicopter to pick us up, there were so many rounds flying through the air (and occasionally through one of the APCs) that I thought it might be better to get back inside the tank!

I trust you will not mind if I copy this email to several of the Centaurs veterans. In particular, Bain Cowell and Rick Arthur who are working on a unit history project. The information you have been able to provide, along with the details that Bruce Powell has noted, may be of some help to their project.

Regarding some of Bruce's flash memory items:

That was the first combat mission for that shiny new hog as I recall. My recollection is that it had fifteen or seventeen hours on it. I recall with clarity that it was a 'factory overhaul' ship that had been Zero Timed at the Army's Corpus Christi, TX aviation maintenance facility. The previous flights had all been maintenance and weapons certification flights.

As an aside - I recall signing a document that confirmed the facts of the loss of the helicopter (it was bombed by the Air Force as I recall and all that was left of it was the vertical tail fin) and included on that document was a listing of the equipment that was lost with the ship, such as the door guns, the weapons systems, radios, etc. However, the Troop Service Platoon/Maintenance Officer (Captain Blair) recalled that some other items were lost when the helicopter was shot down including a couple of tool boxes, some calibration equipment, more machine guns, etc. etc. One of the jokes around the Troop was that we weren't shot down, we crashed due to the aircraft being several thousand pounds over max gross weight!

I don't recall the name of the AC of that Little Bears C&C slick but I do recall him coming over the Centaurs troop area to thank me after the Flight Evaluation Board returned him to full flight duty after the FEB (Flight Evaluation Board) despite the allegations made by the Brigade Commander. It must have been difficult for a young Warrant Officer pilot to ignore the direct order of his O-6 passenger to leave the area. I still owe him some cold beers for his actions that day.

Thanks again for your help that day and for making the contact with us after all these years. Charlie Johnson


Bruce Powell to Charlie Johnson 09/11/2010

The new maintenance officers name was CPT Bill Blair. Sure would like to find him. He and I have some stories to share.

I also seem to remember that that was not your normal crew. W.O. Mackey Webb was a LOH pilot right? And wasn't Bartnick a gunner from scouts? I remember we flew so many hours over Saigon that we used even cooks and clerks to fill out the crews. And wasn't Webb the one that got hit in the chicken plate with an AK round and still landed his OH-23? Jesus, where do these memories come from? Bruce


Tom Fleming to Bruce Powell 09/12/2010

Great write up. On the one hand I wish I were there on the other, glad I wasn’t. The Squadron CDR at the time was Ltc Glen Otis. Congratulations to you, your crew and all who participated on a daring, brave successful action. Glad you kept you letters home. Tom

Charlie Johnson to Tom Fleming 09/12/2010

Thanks for your comments Tom, and for confirming that the Service Platoon Leader was CPT Blair. I remember him clearly but I couldn't get his name to pop back up. I was a young 1LT at the time and I clearly recalled his first name was Captain and his nickname was Sir, but couldn't dredge up his last name. He was a good man though and an excellent Maintenance Officer. Bruce Powell sent a reply to me recent email in which he noted the Maint. Off. was CPT Bill Blair. Bill seems more right than Bob but I don't recall either with any certainty.

I do recall CPT Blair on a particular post maintenance test flight where I flew as his pilot because he wanted me to show him what we put the helicopters through on a typical gun run. After I made several simulated gun runs in an empty Hog, which he said scared the crap out of him, he said they were going to have to look at the gunships much more thoroughly than they had been doing. He had no idea of the strain we routinely put on those overloaded C models when breaking off a gun run and pulling the guts out of them trying to get the hell out of the kill zone. I assume that you learned much the same thing during your time with the Service Platoon. Charlie


Charlie Johnson to Bruce Powell 09/12/2010

Good morning Bruce. Thanks for the reply email.
Mackey either was, or had been, a light scout pilot but I don't recall his actual assignment at the time of this flight. I recall, very shortly after crawling out of the helicopter, seeing Mackey running across the rice paddy to get away from the helicopter. I could also see a whole lot of bad guys with guns in the woods toward which he was making a beeline. I yelled at him several times before he heard me and when he looked back toward us and the helicopter I was able to convince him we were better off staying closer to the helicopter and, more importantly, staying away from the tree-line. I was aware of our training to get the hell away from a crashed aircraft so we didn't get toasted when it blew up or burned up but I felt less concern about what the helicopter 'might' do to us than what I knew the NVA/VC definitely 'would' do to us if we got too close to them.

Mackey was OK with us staying close to the helicopter until somebody bounced a round off his head. He was laying down next to a rotor blade when he got hit. He yelled out that he was hit and I looked over toward him, noticed that his head and face were covered with blood and all I could do was tell him it didn't look that bad and he was going to be OK. I assumed at that moment, based on the amount of blood on his head/face that we would lose him before someone could come get us. Fortunately, what I told him turned out to be more correct than what I really thought was going to happen.

I have learned more from you about what happened than I could ever recall by myself. Stay in touch. Charlie Johnson


Bruce Powell to Charlie Johnson 09/12/2010

Thanks for the informative reply. I wish I had realized years ago how important this comparing of notes and memories is to all of us. They help eliminate the hundreds of questions that have been lurking in our subconscious minds all these years and rekindle a camaraderie that is extremely rewarding. You and Dale in particular have been trying so hard to wake us all up to this. I genuinely appreciate and respect your valiant efforts to bring us all back together. We all owe you a lot and I intend to try to make up for it by contributing where ever I can. I finally bought my new iMac computer and have just loaded the HD movies I shot at the Reunion. Tom Meeks is going to help me get the whole thing together onto a DVD in hopes that it can be used to get the word out to the other Centaurs that we want and need them to participate. I’ll send you and Dale a draft before we finalize it to get your input and approval. Bruce

Dale Dow had this writeup

When the Centaur 40 gunship was shot down the Aero Rifle Platoon prepared to execute one of it's normal missions: air assault into the location of the downed helicopter, set up a perimeter, defend it while the downed crew was extracted - followed by the extraction or destruction of the helicopter or it's destruction in place.

Dale's story:

The remembrances of a lowly AeroRifle Platoon Leader and Charlie’s unplanned landing in the middle of a bunch of bad guys.

When the Troop Operations got word of Charlie Johnson and crew going down, the Rifles were scrambled to go out and “rescue” them. The only info I had before takeoff was that Charlie had gone down. I didn’t hear anything about the situation on the ground. I think John Whitehead was in the right seat of the lead ship. He didn’t know too much either.

We were only a few minutes from the crash site when Whitehead waved at me and said we were going back to the Corral. He said something about a tank going in and pulling Charlie and the crew out.

Bruce said something about the new Troop Cdr arriving on site and trying to take command of everything. I don’t know if he was trying to be the BMFIC or if he was trying to get things under control so that the Rifles could come in and land. With all the fast movers and gunships in the area, it would have made for a somewhat crowded insertion.

I don’t think it would have been a good day for the AeroRifles if we had gone in. After reading what has been written about this incident I think we could have lost some slicks and a whole bunch of Infantrymen - perhaps even worse than the horrific situation that Bill Mosenthal and the AeroRifle’s got into in the HoBo Woods on 29 Jan 68.
Dow ©2011 Dale Dow Centaur Society

Charlie Johnson additional input:

I did not give any thought to the AeroRifles coming to our rescue when we were laying next to our broken aircraft in that rice paddy because the situation was so much bigger than our Rifle Platoon could have handled. I don't doubt for a minute that the AeroRifles would have done their best to help us get out of the desperate situation we were in. All Centaurs air crewmen knew what would happen when one of our aircraft made an 'unplanned off airport landing' - every flyable slick would have a load of Infantrymen on board, every flyable gunship would have pilots and gunners on board, and all of them would be enroute to the crash site within minutes. I'm glad the Aero Rifles were called back from the extraction mission. I am confident that the Aircraft Crewmen and the Infantrymen would have made every effort to help us but the most likely result would have been horrible losses for the Rifle Platoon.

 

Dale Dow to Squadron (19 Oct 2011)

I took a look at the time line on the Trp A web site.  I found an entry for 21 Feb 68 that says a gun ship was destroyed and a SSG James D. Brown from Alpha was KAI. Does anyone remember that incident.
 
I am asking these questions as an effort to put together the history of the Centaurs during the Mar 67 – Mar 68 period.  The shooting down of LT Charles O. Johnson’s UH-1C Hog is going to be one of the bigger stories in the history and I am trying to get things in line.  I have one set of messages that indicate the shoot down was in late Feb 68 and another that says it was in May 68.  Since Lt Johnson and his crew owe their lives to a tank crew from Alpha, I want to make sure that they are included in the story.

Bill Coomer (A Trp Cdr) to Dale Dow:- 21 Oct 2011
Re: Squadron Daily Journals
 
The correct date is February 21.  As verification I believe by May 68 D Troop had turned in their UH-1C''s and they were replaced with Cobra's.  Two ground troops were on line  engaging an enemy position approximately two hundred meters away in a tree line.  We were assaulting the position, when the gunship went down about midway between.  I have no recollection of the cause of the gun ship going down. Our progress was very slow to minimal do to heavy enemy fire.  Suddenly, SSG James D. Brown, on his own went forward of A troop to pick up the gunship's crew.  He accomplished this but while returning to friendly lines he was  killed by small arms fire.   I recommended SSG Brown for award of the DSC but  it was downgraded to a SS.  This was the most courageous individual action that I personally witnessed. My recollection is, one of the door gunners was a former member of A Troop.  We did not successfully eliminate the position that day, but swept the area the next day finding substantial numbers of spider holes, discarded equipment, and possibly some enemy bodies. - Bill Coomer

Bruce Powell to all: (Oct 2011)

The A Troop website entry confirms Dale Dow's research. My letter home said the mission was Wednesday, 23 Feb 1968, so I had always assumed it to be correct. 

I looked for an award for SSG Brown online, but found none. Maybe when we get caught up with our current missions we could join forces with the A Troop guys and get a Medal of Honor for his family. What a gallant Cavalry man.  

Some of Bill Coomers recollections could possibly be a bit off. "A Troop" was definitely near by, but if they were in a battle, we should have known about it. Maybe we did and I just forgot. Maybe they were the reason we were sent there; I don't remember. Does Coomer remember calling for Centaur Guns?

When we arrived, I don't remember any other gunship activity in the area. It was a beautiful and uneventful day as I recall. When you saw the guy on the ground, out in the open, waving his hands, I did too. I still have a visual of it in my head. I doubt if you would have went down to "check things out" if there had been a battle going on. We would have done a quick reconnaissance and contacted any known ground units first. I assume we didn't do those things because we did not know of any ground units in contact in that area. But I was flying wing, not lead, and may not have been totally up on the mission.

Jim Moore was my pilot. Even though I had already made him an Aircraft Commander and Team Leader, we still often flew together. He was so hungry for knowledge and quizzed me all the time about why I did this and why I did that. I remember that because of the look he gave me when you called that you were going down to investigate. It was the "This doesn't look right to me" look. Seconds later your brand new Hog was crumpled on the ground. The rest of the story is pretty well written up in your "I Remember" notes section. (Jim was killed about a month later by a 122 rocket in the company area; 25 Mar 68).

We still need to hear from the rest of your crew WO Mackey Webb, Crew chief SP4 Christianson, and door gunner Bartnick. Webb and Bartnik were from the Baby Scouts. We were so short of crew members that I remember using even some admin people on our 24 hour cover of the Tan San Nhut airfield. 

I wish I could remember my other crewmember names. I have so many questions for them. We took several hits on the right side of the aircraft, so maybe that clue will lead us to a tail number. 

Bruce Wood, leading the Centaur standby gun team (Centaur 42), could add a lot. Maybe some of his crew will turn up. His wingman (Centaur 25) was hit on the first gun run (Tom Meeks and Jim Jones) and had to return to base. But Bruce stayed on and replaced the Razorback wingman who was also shot up. I would sure like to hear Bruce's story of that mixed unit team in action.

Issue One Two was the Forward Air Controller (birddog) on station. He didn't know what was going on because someone else was directing his fast movers. I'll bet that later on he collared those pilots and found out how they came under control of the RazorBack Team Leader. We always thought that it came about thru the good ole boys at the bar net. You know; If you are ever in a jam here is my frequency and skip the protocol. But it could have simply been the "Guard" call that brought them together. Either way I would love to hear the story. They really busted things up and made the rescue possible.

Here is another missing piece: Pat Eastes wrote up an article about the battle from what he had heard and he mentioned that the Squadron Commander Otis came on scene and directed the battle and rescue. If that occurred it must have been after Centaur (Fred) 6 arrived and I left. Maybe someone will see if Otis is still around and recalls the mission. Bill Coomer should have some notes on this.

My May Day calls on guard frequency were answered by the Razorbacks (love those guys) and the brave Little Bear slick that ran the gauntlet at a perfect time when we had no other cover. Our call to Centaur 65 (opns) would have led to the Centaur 6 response, the Bruce Wood gun team, and notification of Squadron. It was also Centaur 65 that told me A Troop was in the area and moving in for the rescue. It was the final factor in my decision not to risk my crew on another landing attempt. 

I am glad to hear that you and Dale are bringing the A Troop guys in on this. What a job they did!

This message is copied to the Society for any additional information or assistance at getting more information on this huge battle.

Thanks to you and Dale for your continued efforts to gather supporting data from our brother units.

PS: Only six of D Troops UH-C's were replaced with Cobras starting in March 68. I was told that the "Diamond Heads" of the 25th Division sweet talked the Division Commander out of the other 6 Cobras we were to receive. Turned out to be a good thing. Had we not had the "C" model guns we never would have been able to start flying night missions with the Cobras. The Cobra instruments were not accurate and became uncallibrated after one Cobra maneuver. The landing lights were unusable because they totally blinded the pilot. The sunscreened canopy reflected the instrument lights like a mirror, again impairing the pilots vision. Your choice was to either see the instruments (lights on) or see where you were going (instrument lights off) but not both. So initially, on night missions, the Cobra would fly wing on the "C" to and from the mission site. Review Tom Meek's story on the Centaur Brothers DVD of his night crash in a Cobra. The Cobra was leading, in bad weather, which was okay, if carefully coordinated and you also have a wingman who can be counted on to tell you if he looses sight of your aircraft. 

(It was my understanding that the Diamond Heads had terrible troubles with their ill gotten Cobras; breaking one in a revetment, and other things that delayed their mission ready status for several weeks, maybe a month. Our Maintenance Officer, Bill Blair would remember). Bruce Powell (Centaur 10 on the mission),

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Letter home from Bruce Powell describing the shootdown the evening after it happened.

23 Feb 68 - Dear Mom and Dad,

You've probably heard of the trouble at Saigon lately; rocket attacks and all. We fly all night every night around Tan Son Nhut (Saigon Airbase) with 3 gunships. Don't have much time to do anything else. On Wed 23 Feb LT Chuck Johnson (weapons section Ldr) and I got into a fight with an NV A Battalion. We got shot up pretty bad, nobody in my ship was hit. Chuck crashed. All 4 crewmen survived and fought off the lOO's of VC on the ground.

Every time I tried to land I was forced to turn back by intense automatic weapons fire. LT Moore was my copilot. Two rounds ripped through his side (right side) of the ship on the 3rd try..... I could see the enemy fire kicking up dust around the 4 of them all huddled in the corner of a berm (little dikes around a rice paddy).

A Little Bear slick came on station when he heard my "may day" call on guard (universal radio frequency) all my guns were either empty or jammed. My door gunners were using M-16 rifles but were about out of ammo for those also. The "slick" tried to help us pin down Charlie while Alpha and Charlie troop 3/4 Cav Mechanized (500 meters away) tried to get to the downed crew. The "little bear" slick got shot down on the first pass, but managed to land in a secure area.

A Razorback gun team came into the area and offered to help (We were 5 miles off the south end of Tan Son Nhut runway) I told them to hit any hedgerow in the area and they would kill Charlies. I also told them to attack high and not over fly the area. But they were pretty gung ho to get Charlie.

It was good to see them pooping out rockets and M-5 ( 40mm grenade launcher mounted on the front of a hog gunship down the hedgerow. I felt sick and helpless; I was out of mini-gun ammo, both door-guns were jammed beyond repair, no rockets were left, and our personal weapons were about out of ammo. Jim (LT Moore) says "I think they hit one of the cyclic control rods." That settled it; I wasn't sure how much longer we could stay airborne. I wanted so badly to land but of course it would have been suicide. Even if I did make it in to them and the aircraft held together, we would never make it out with 8 people on board (too heavy); besides that there were too may automatic weapons and anti tank weapons that could fire at us point blank.

At this time I didn't know whether Chuck (LT Johnson) was alive or not. We saw two people moving, 2 others lying still. The mechanized unit (3/4 Cav) was maneuvering closer but was also in a heavy battle itself. The "Razorback" gun team was doing a great job. They called for F4 fighters (Air Force) to help. I've never seen such close coordinated support. As soon as "Razorback" hit and broke from south to north the F4's would roll in at super speeds from east to west with 20 millimeter. On their break they would dump a 500 pound bomb just long of the area to shake old Charlie up. What a sight!

Apparently the F4 pilot (Jet Jockey) and the Razorback pilot (gun-driver) must have gotten together in the Saigon Officers Club and worked out this routine for just such and occasion... When our new CO ( Commanding Officer) came on station, he came tooling right thru where the F4's were hitting. About that time swish! An F4 goes whipping by at about 300 knots with 20 Mike- mike's (millimeter) blazing; then KA WHOOM!, a 500 pounder on the break. I bet that's the first time he ever crapped his pants while he was flying (The CO, I mean (MAJ Michelson». Boy, was he in a state of confusion. He's trying to play the role of the great leader, but he doesn't have it.

“Centaur one zero this is Centaur 6, what's going on here, who's controlling this mess?" he gruffly transmits to me. Oh boy, I sighed, just when things are looking up, "General Custer” himself has to waddle into the middle of it. "Call off those damn jets before they kill someone!” He transmitted again. "This is one zero, I don't have commo with them" (one zero, that's me). About that time a FAC (Forward Air Controller) who normally controls the Air Force jets from his small Cessna (Birddog) came overhead. "FAC on station over downed aircraft this is Centaur 6 on guard, (universal frequency, everybody listens to guard) call off your jets!” "This is Issue One Two, I have negative contact with them; I don't know who is controlling them." Just to add to the confusion 2 more gun teams and a few other aircraft came on station. They only wanted to help, but they just added to the confusion.

The next jet that whizzed through the middle of everything scattered them all off. Boy was Centaur 6 burning. Mr . Wood (centaur 42) and his wingman Mr. Meeks (centaur 25) came on station and called me (they're both my people). I rogered and told them to come up on Razorback push, that he was controlling and would give instructions; I gave them a short briefing.

"Centaur four two (Mr. Wood) this is Centaur 6, don't you change frequencies, I'm controlling here!"... "Centaur 42 this is centaur 6, over " No answer. Centaur 10 (one zero) this is six, why is blazes did you have 42 (four two) change frequencies!" "This is one zero, Razorback knows where the downed crew is located. He knows where the heaviest enemy positions are, he is apparently controlling the Air Force jets, and he's in heavy contact. Since it would not be apparently convenient for him to change to our frequency, I decided to have four two go to his frequency, over". I switched to Razorback frequency to monitor. They had called off the jets and were making low passes. The wing aircraft got shot up on the next pass and limped towards Tan Son Nhut (Saigon Airport).

Centaur 42 got his briefing from Razorback lead and began his first pass. It was just like when I tried to go in. Nothing but a wall of bullets coming up. WO Meeks (wing) took rounds thru the front windshield, on the first run. He was hit (Meeks) in the left leg and left hand. His right control pedal was shot off. He looked over at WO Jones our newest gun pilot (just transferred from slicks to guns) and he was hit in the face. Jones just had a nick in the cheek and he flew the aircraft home to Cu Chi. Tom (WO Tom Meeks - called me. "Centaur one zero this is two five I'm hit, my pilot's hit, my aircraft is hit, we're OK, and I'm going home "POT NA " (That's "partner" with a Texas drawl).

Christ! I would have given anything for some rockets and ammunition to kill those buzzards on the ground! I followed Tom back to Cu chi to make sure that he made it. The Razorback joined on with Mr. Wood to make a team. I missed out on the rest.. I heard the details from Chuck Johnson later. He climbed out of the wreckage and started to head for cover. When he realized no one was with him he returned to free the others. They were beginning to receive fire from all sides. They crawled to the corner of the rice paddy berms. They had only 2 M- 16 rifles. Bartnik the door gunner killed two VC who charged over the berm within spitting range. Then two more, then three. Bartnik killed eight for sure. Chuck killed another two.

They began receiving hand grenades and RPG fire ( small anti-tank rocket launcher like a Bazooka). WO Mackey Webb got grazed right across the top of his head with a 30 cal round (it took many stitches, too close for comfort). SP4 Christenson, the crewchief was grazed by a bullet on the left temple (it missed the artery)- " Alpha " troop was moving up on the east and taking casualties in the process. They couldn't get to the downed crew.

One tank broke formation and went in under intense fire. He fired one round from his 90mm cannon that was so close to Chuck and his men that it partially deafened Chuck in the left ear (temporarily). The tank shot up the tree line and hedgerows with everything it had. The tank commander jumped out and helped the crew into the hatch. It was on the get away that the tank commander was shot thru the head. It made them all sick that he had to get it.

...Chuck said the gunship support was beautiful and that Mr. Wood (Centaur 42) had killed or wounded 6 VC with one pair of rockets that he personally saw. The 20 Mike-Mike was so close it kicked dust on them and the 500 pound bombs rattled their teeth; but boy were they happy to see it....... - Bruce