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War Stories

Little Bear Crash - 20 May 1966

Robert "Bob" Graham - also see John Alto's 2014 Reunion video

Carl Burns and I first recorded this tragic accident in Carl’s book, Centaurs in Vietnam The topic has been reignited from discussions in email exchanges concerning stories of the Vietnam War and events on the time line for the Centaur Society website. The original accounts, page 60-62, were written in 2008 by eyewitnesses who did not have all the viewpoints, so this article presents some added variation and may conflict in recording memories that are 48 years old. I have no interest in resolving any contradictions, just generally what individuals say they remember as a story with different outlooks. Placing the article on the website welcomes added discussion.

Input from Bob Dunbar, John Alto and Bob Tegelman (send additional input to Bob Graham).


The Tragic crash of Little Bear Huey UH-D, 65-09623

The Cu Chi airfield was extremely busy this sunny hot May 20, 1966. There was a division operation in progress, and things were buzzing this Friday morning. I and other Centaurs had been on missions since daybreak. I had just returned from a fire-support mission near the Boi Loi Woods, refueled and rearmed. There had been a mix of fix wing and chopper traffic all morning. The Air Force forward air controllers (FAC), flying their gray L-19’s, had been in and out a number of times. An hour earlier a C-130 delivered a load of ten pallets of 2.75” rockets by the low level extraction method (LOX) for the Centaurs. During large ground operations the airfield had an extremely high volume of traffic.

Seventy-five yards away, a UH-1D slick (65-09623) from the Little Bears was on final to the resupply pad. I was at the Centaur heliport (Centaur Corral), atop a UH-1B Hog. I had just completed my preflight for the next mission call for a weapons section. What caught my eye was the extremely steep approach being made. This crew had probably been making supply runs to some hole in the jungle canopy, were empty and light on their return. Just like a kid I stopped to watch their technique.

I vividly remember I could see the crew chief [PFC George Henry Stahl Jr] sitting in the right open cargo door with his door gun stored. As the pilot [MAJ William Fredrick Winters] slowed his approach, he executed a high flare well out of ground effect. The new downwash pattern sucked a white plastic five-gallon water can across in front of the door gunner and out the door. The can caught in the big air donut of downwash as it transitioned to hovering flight. “Oh, shit,” I moaned out loud. The plastic can moved erratically in this current for a brief time and then swished along the right side of the tail cone and into the tail rotor. For another moment, caught in the tail rotor air flow, it was flailed against the vertical fin, and then at about 20 feet, the tail rotor separated.

As I watched this cascade of events unfold I felt somewhat like a person fixated, watching a high jumper going over the bar. I was trying to fly it for him. In my mind, my hand was on the stick, my other sweaty hand was griping collective, and in fact I was trying to bring the damn thing as gently to the ground as I could. No such luck. My thoughts rushed “Come on, guy: Split the needles. Power off. It’s not too late. Come on. Power off.” However, no one will ever know just what he knew of his situation at that moment. The fuselage whipped in the opposite direction of the main rotor. The pilot, trying to correct this impossible out of control sequence, pitched rather violently up and down. While still rotating, the fuselage slammed to the ground, nose low, in a roll to the right. The fuselage bounced, additional cans and boxes spilled from the open cargo doors. All of the crewmen were retained as the fuselage finally settled on to the pad. The whole event only lasted seconds. Now still, rotor gone, the Huey was a pile of trash laying on its right side. I expected to see it burst into flames.

A small number of D troopers were watching the same sequence from various locations in the corral (Centaur Parking area), many initially as mesmerized as I was. As the wreckage settled, there was only a brief pause, and a small crew of Centaurs with LT John Alto and WO Bob Dunbar in the lead began to converge at the wreck.

WO Bob Dunbar (Centaur 26) remembered, “I was one of the first people, (probably the first person), to get to the wreck. It was easy to be there first, since John Alto and I had just landed in the Hiller OH-23. John had been my observer on a recon flight. I had just shut down the helicopter and was getting out. 
“I looked up to see the UH-1D flying by really low, obviously landing, but in a radical crab as if no pedal control, then started spinning, and it crashed in front of us less than 75 yards away.
‘‘As I recall, I ran to the aircraft. It was a miracle that it was not already on fire. I could hear one of the crew screaming in the back of the helicopter. It was on its side, (left side up I believe). I pulled the door release of the copilot compartment, and crawled into the aircraft and cut one of the pilot’s shoulder harness and seat belt with a big Randall knife that I always carried. I think I kicked out the windshield then. Some other folks had arrived by then as I pushed the one pilot out and others pulled him from the top of the now hot, smoky JP-4 smelling wreckage. I can remember someone with a fire extinguisher spraying across my back to keep a fire from starting. I think I also cut the other pilot’s harness off, and others were pulling him out of the helicopter. By that time I just about passed out from the heat and exhaustion of the extractions. There were quite a few other persons showing up by this time, and I can remember just lying down on the ground to get my breath. Someone checked on me thinking I was one of the occupants of the wrecked helicopter.” 

LT John Alto ( Centaur 35) related “We were all concerned that there would be a huge fire as JP-4 was on the ground and leaking from the crashed Huey. Through the windscreen I could see a number of empty containers piled upon the two pilots. I could hear crewmen moaning in pain. It was obvious that the pilot was pinned in the right seat. I yelled for everybody to get a grip so we could at least try to roll the tangled mess back upon its skids. It was really strange as there were weird snapping and crackling sounds coming from the Huey. It was like it was making its last living sound. It was amazing that the skids were still on, but they did make it harder to right the fuselage.

“The gang of about a dozen Centaurs struggled to right the Huey. The door gunner [E4 C. A. Chavis], obviously dazed, exited with assistance. The crew chief was badly injured, and he appeared to be lifeless. The copilot in the left seat [MAJ J. L. Evans] was weakly struggling to get out of his armored seat, but initially could not get the left door to open. Finally, with the fuselage at about forty-five degrees, we were able to extract the body of the pilot. WO Dunbar slashed his restraining harness with the big belt knife that he always carried. It was then that I noticed the other pilot had been freed.”

As I arrived the Centaur crew had righted the fuselage enough by brute force to extract the crewmen. The fuselage was again lying on its right side. The pilot and the crew chief were unconscious. The crash and rescue crew arrived and stood ready for a possible fire. There was really nothing for them to do but hose down the smoking wreckage. The Centaurs on the spot had everyone clear of the wreckage. An ambulance arrived and took the Little Bear crew to the 12th Evacuation Hospital. It was later confirmed the both crewmen [crew chief and pilot] on the right side of the Huey perished in the accident

My personal thought about the outcome: all the crewmen had to do was shut the door or tie down the loose stuff. Little short cuts, big price. After the accident it was found that the essential tie-down materials were in very short supply. Common rope, cargo straps and small cargo nets were not readily available. A true tragedy of war.

LittleBear2 Bear3 bear4


Robert L Graham, Centaur 3, a Hog section leader at the time.

From Bob Tegelman: Was a witness to the crash with the Aero Rifle platoon. We were standing in ranks and saw the water jug come out of the right rear door and hit rear rotor. The chopper spun around and just fell, hitting the ground damn hard. We broke ranks; I think Alto was the first person to take off; and then we all ran over to try and help and pull it over back on to its skids.

The last picture above was taken that evening or the next morning

My recollections about the aircraft commander/pilot being MAJ Winters (flying the right seat vs the left) was due to my belief that he had date of rank over MAJ Evans.

Original draft 01/25/08 Robert L Graham; Updated with John Alto’s comments 05/08/02104 and Bob Dunbar’s Email of 055/19/22014. Consolidated into one Article about the event for Centaur Web Site, plus Little Bear Historical data.

There may be an account of this on the Little Bear website.
MAJ Peterson had not yet taken command of D Troop.
It would be good to have an account from others that were there.