A Trip Through The 'Gates of Hell'

Early in 1971, we began a series of major attacks into Cambodia, jointly planned and carried out by American and South Vietnamese forces.

Air Cavalry support was provided to South Vietnamese ground forces who crossed over the border into Cambodia.

I had been assigned as a door gunner with the 3rd Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry. I was then just 18 years old.

Our unit received orders to rendezvous at a border base camp called Haymaker where we were to link up with a South Vietnamese armored brigade which was to proceed north and relieve the battle-weary soldiers under siege at Snoul, Cambodia. At Snoul, they were ordered to retreat south toward this armored column and to link up with them.

At Haymaker, the orders were given to begin the operation and the large column of infantry supported by the 5th Armored Cavalry Unit proceeded up the highway toward Snoul. They were to open the highway and make a safe route home for their beleaguered comrades at Snoul.

American high command gave strict orders that no American ground forces or advisers were to be used on ground operations -- an order that was never carried out due to disobedience and humanitarian reasons.

We were flying gun cover over the column, flying up beyond their rear. I remember the helicopters were as thick as bees around a beehive.

Our Kiowa and Cobra gunships were working the flanks of the jungle along the road. It was pretty heavy jungle on either side of it, kind of like a tunnel without a roof.

Armored personnel carriers (APCs) and tanks were each carrying 20 to 25 Vietnamese infantry soldiers. The column was moving fast and had no warning of what was to be their doom.

The NVA were dug in heavy on the side of the road and allowed the point vehicle to pass by. When the major part of the column moved in just right, the North Vietnamese hit them with everything they had.

Their trap was deadly, and I had a front row seat.

We were coming up the road, low leveling over the column, carrying some advisers to scout the road ahead with a Vietnamese colonel. Below us, not more than 75 feet, tanks and APCs began blowing up. Others were getting trapped behind crippled vehicles.

It was the beginning of the end for them. Tracers were flying everywhere. Armor was backing up and going forward, slamming into lame vehicles trying to dislodge them so they could somehow form a line.

Vietnamese infantrymen who were riding on the equipment ran desperately from the exploding vehicles. As I watched, trying somehow to shoot into enemy positions, I saw soldiers fall from the intense rocket and machine gun fire.

The officers and Vietnamese colonel on our ship were frantically trying to communicate to the ground forces, but everything was chaos, and they started screaming at the pilots to put them on the ground.

In a matter of minutes, 80 tanks, tracks, trucks and jeeps were sitting disabled on the red dirt road. I watched as 2,000 Vietnamese soldiers were running for their lives down the highway, some fighting back if they still had their weapons, with North Vietnamese regulars right behind them in slaughtering pursuit

Gunships of the "Blue Max" [2nd Battalion (Aerial Artillery), 20th Artillery - 1st Cavalry Division * ] were now arriving on this horrendous scene and they started to lay down a blanket of fire to cover the retreating Vietnamese. Some were shooting into the tree line, anything to stop the slaughter.

Back toward Vietnam, you could see the helicopters traveling back and forth, ferrying out wounded to the aid stations and re-arming their rockets.

At this time, about an hour into the battle, I had been carrying wounded. Several times I had to kick in the face Vietnamese who weren't hurt, because they were trying to climb on board with the wounded. Some of the cowards even fired on the door gunners who had thrown them off.

I had two inches of coagulated blood on my flight deck and still we were taking out wounded. I remember one American captain we picked up looking at me in shock. I had so much blood on me and my chopper, he threw up.

I don't think anyone can imagine the horror we saw that day. All day we were taking the wounded to the Loc Ninh hospital. That place looked like the gates of hell. There were wounded men everywhere and bodies that weren't bagged with tags on their toes and shirts.

Advisers were in shock. Men were crying. Medics and surgeons were giving up. We continued to fly all day and as the sun was going down, were ordered to fly back to our base camp.

I can still feel the air I felt that afternoon. Nobody was talking. Our chopper was a mess. It was quiet except for the whop, whop, whop of chopper blades. I remember looking at my body as though my eyes had left my head and were somehow looking back at me.

That night I laid on my bunk and thought about tomorrow. Maybe we'd fly dust off. Maybe we'd be shot down. That night, I thought maybe I'd just put a .45 in my mouth a blow my head off...

Dan Sutherland
The Register Star
April 7, 1987