By: Jack Serig, Sr.

    One mid-afternoon, fall of ’62, on a routine scheduled Otter* flight out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut International Airport, we landed at the dirt strip of Moc Hoa located on the southeastern edge of the Plain of Reeds in the delta region.  A company of CH-21 Shawnee twin-rotor helicopters were lined up along both sides of the airstrip.  This particular CH-21 unit was the first army aviation unit to arrive in South Vietnam.

    Beneath the overhanging rotors of each chopper were two separate groups seated on the dry grass.  Group 1 consisted of the 4-man helicopter crew.  The second group, a combat-ready squad of South Vietnamese Army soldiers.

    As we taxied down the strip to discharge our MAAG advisor/passenger, we observed a large group of mixed military personnel surrounded by map boards to he north side of the runway.  We pulled in to park---engine running---intending to return to Saigon after our passenger drop.

    The ‘copter unit’s commanding officer, a Major Cherney, approached to ask us if we could remain at the strip and serve as a medevac ship in the event of casualties resulting from his unit’s impending mission.  We agreed, shutting down the engine and accompanying the CO back to the group of mixed military.  We were advised that his unit was supporting an operation composed of units of the ARVN 9th Infantry Division.  The operation included liaison from local Vietnamese artillery and air force units.  The maps and other informational data pertinent to the operation contained the normal military symbols and gibberish.

    Our Otter crew accepted an invitation to lunch and joined the long line awaiting the field kitchen chow.  An old friend, Bob Corneil, the chopper unit’s operations officer, was in the line.  Before our pleasantries could be fully exchanged Bob was called away on an urgent recon mission with Bennie Potts, another CH-21 pilot.  They and their two enlisted crewmen, were briefed to check out a just-called-in sighting of enemy ground forces.  The crew loaded into their ship accompanied by the Senior III Corps Advisor, a Colonel Sinclair, followed by Colonel Frank Clay, Senior Army Advisor to the 9th ARVN Infantry Division.  (Colonel Clay was a son of the famed Berlin Airlift Commander, General Lucias Clay).  

    A white-haired bespecaled reporter from a leading New York newspaper joined the other passengers.  The recon helicopter took off, Potts and Corneil at the controls.  Their profiles could be seen through the clear cockpit canopy as they disappeared to the west.  The two enlisted crewmen were standing in the open cargo doors hanging on to the safety harnesses they had snapped into place, personal weapons at the ready, for whatever limited defensive protection they could provide.  (Machine guns had not yet been added for doorgun protection.)

    Our Otter crew finished a quick lunch and headed back to our ship to convert it into an air ambulance, just in case.  When we had completed this task we returned to the military group at the open-air operations area.  The operations radio suddenly came alive with excited voices as we approached.  The recon CH-21 had been hit by enemy ground fire.  There were wounded but the ship was flyable and enroute back to Moc Hoa.

    Eyes and ears strained toward the west for a sighting and the thwump-thwump-thwump of the twin rotors.  About ten minutes passed before the chopper came into view.  As it came closer we could see that the canopy, housing the cockpit, was broken and jagged from the missing pieces shot out by enemy rounds.  The landing was made without mishap onto the center of the dirt strip.  Crewmen from other waiting choppers left their ships to render help.

    Colonel Clay jumped out the left cargo door, limping straight for the operations center.  He was very excited and bloodied from his head all the way down the left side of his body and legs.  He exclaimed that they had sighted the first-ever North Vietnamese troops---regulars, in the delta.

    Bob Corneil, the left-seat pilot of the damaged “banana” was carried by stretcher over to the small medical aid station and attended by an ARVN medical officer.  Bob had been shot through the left foot.  His wound was cleansed and wrapped.  His left boot showed evidence of the small-arms round, entry hole in the sole, exit hole at mid-center of the boot top.  Bennie Potts, the right seat pilot who was flying the ship, had taken one small piece of shrapnel in the left side of his back.  We watched while the doctor extracted the metal, cleansed and dressed the wound.  Bennie was released back to flight duty.

    In the meantime Colonel Clay advised his South Vietnamese counterpart to take advantage of the enemy troop sighting, to load up and go engage the enemy.  Major Cherney, ever calm, raised his right hand and made a circular motion.  Simultaneously and instantly, all CH-21 crews, waiting beside their craft, jumped into action.  The pilots from each ship slipped into their cockpits and began engine start-up.  The enlisted crewmen began loading the anxious 9th Division’s infantrymen.  It was efficient!

    Colonel Clay was adamant that he would not be treated for his wounds until the operation got underway and the ‘copters lifted off.  His combat fatigues were bloodied down his entire left side.  Only his left facial and head wounds could be immediately observed.  His injuries were the result of taking shrapnel when the ship’s radios were hit by enemy smallarms fire.  He had been standing between the two pilots’ stations, next to the radio  storage area, and was peppered when the radios burst open from the rounds’ impact .  Bennie Pott’s injury was also caused by the exploding radios.

    We loaded Bob Corneil on a stretcher and fastened him into the left side of our Otter.  Colonel Sinclair, Colonel Clay and the New York reporter sat in the seats on the right.  The blood from Colonel Clay’s wounds had dried.  Although his wounds appeared superficial we were taking him back for a more thorough medical exam.  Bill Kaler and I took off and headed for Saigon-Tan Son Nhut, about forty minutes away.  We reported to Saigon approach control that we had two wounded on board and requested crash-rescue trucks alongside the runway when landing, a standard unit SOP when flying wounded.

    Turning the aircraft over to Bill , I visited the passenger compartment to check on our charges.  I had always carried, in Vietnam only, a small curved, metal brandy flask filled with good brandy, just in case something like this would ever require medicinal treatment.  The flask fit snugly in the lower zippered leg pocket of the standard flight suit.  The concave side of the flask fit the convex curvature of my leg, so it was never noticeable.  I offered each passenger a pull on the medicinal mixture.  All but Colonel Clay politely refused.  He took a long draw.
We landed at Saigon, crash-rescue  trucks following us down both sides of the runway, and pulled into the passenger terminal where waiting medical crews and ambulances stood by.  Our passengers were among the very first wounded Americans during the ‘61-’62  military buildup.


    Colonel Clay returned to his duties with the ARVN 9th Infantry Division.

    Bob Corneil was transferred to the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang where he recovered from his foot wound.  He was reassigned as Commanding Officer of a recently arrived CH-34 chopper unit in Pleiku.  He was shot down several weeks after assuming command.  He and a South Vietnamese Army major were the only survivors.  After crash landing in mountainous and jungled terrain, Bob made his way to a stream accompanied by an enlisted crewman.  The crewman complained that he could go no further and sat down by the edge of the stream.  Bob kept walking downstream and was spotted at nearly dusk when the last remnants of the sun’s rays shined on his bald head, making sufficient glare for rescuers in a searching helicopter to locate him.  They lifted him out.

    The next day a ground party hacked their way to the downed ‘copter’s position.  A. U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a passenger on the downed ship, who had been alive after the crash, had been given a “coup de grace” by the Viet Cong who had shot down the aircraft.  For some reason, the VC who had shot the aircraft down, allowed the South Viet major, also injured in the crash, to live.  
    The enlisted crew member who had started down the streambed the day before with his CO, was found by the ground rescue team where he was last reported seen by Major Corneil.  He had succumbed from internal wounds.

    It was fall season, 1962.  The war was young---and so were its casualties!

*Otter:  An 11-place, single engine De Havilland aircraft designed for STOL (short takeoff/landing capability) with 1350 h.p. Pratt/Whitney reciprocal engine.

This article was  published in the LOGBOOK, a tri-annual publication of the Army Otter-Caribou Association, March, 1994 edition.