From Craig Tonjes 3/31/2021
Craig posted this story to Facebook
Escape from Firebase 6
This is a photograph of Firebase 6 in II Corp, at the point of the ridge that runs along Dak To, overlooking a major pass and river. It has very "special" meaning for me. It's been 50 years since I spent a day there. I've posted the following narrative before so if you're tired of it, just move on. If you haven't seen it before, it is all true. Some things fade as we age. This is a memory that won't let go.
Without question, 50 years ago today (3/31/71) ranks at the top of the list of worst days of my life.
Our company, A227th, 1st Cav was moved from Lai Khe to Camp Holloway outside Pleiku and we were redesignated as A227th, 1st Avn Bgde. My bird, 69 15051, was very near needing PE. It was either going to have to get done before the move while maintenance was packing, or wait until we got to our new station and they got unpacked. The trip was clearly going exceed the 100 hours, but she was a good bird, and well maintained, so we made the trip, parking in front of the maintenance hangar to be pulled in when maintenance was ready. On the one hand, this was okay because it gave me time off to get settled in and explore our new digs. On the other hand, I missed out on the AO familiarization flights and when March 31 arrived and our missions were to begin, my bird was still in front of the hangar.
Even though I am quite clear on the concept that you never volunteer, I was asked if I would fly door gunner on a bird (277) scheduled for chuck chuck. Sure, why not? I scrounged up a couple 60’s and headed out bright and early. We had a low cover (common in the highlands that time of year) so we sat on the bird and waited to be cleared. Suddenly the operations clerk ran out and said "crank immediately". A firebase outside Dak To was getting hit hard and we need to get to Kontum to get our “VIP’s” and get them out there as soon as possible. No sweat! We kept below the cover and followed the road and by the time we were loaded, the cover was lifted and we headed out to the area. The crew, besides me on guns, was Roger Reid, AC, Gordon Bellen, right seater, and Mike Patterson, crew chief.
If you’ve never been to Dak To, there’s a mountain ridge with a slight curl to a pass, with no-man’s-land on either side. The pass was considered to be a potential primary route for the NVA to cut the south in half, crossing the border at the tri-border area, taking Dak To, Kontum, Pleiku, and following through the An Khe Pass to the coast. At a point on the ridge overlooking the pass and the river below, was an ARVN firebase known as Firebase 6 (FB6 from here on). There were 10 American advisors assigned there. Apparently, just before daylight, the attack began. It is my understanding that a satchel charge took out three of the Americans right away, and it quickly escalated to a major assault.
After we arrived on station, we cut a couple donut holes above the base and went back to Dak To where we sat out on the runway while our packs went inside to do whatever it is big shots do under those conditions. While we sat there, FB6 was visible and we got to watch F4’s making runs on the hillside. It wasn’t long before an American officer came out and told us that they were rapidly running out of ammo at the base, and asked if we would take them some. First thought that came to mind was "are you crazy?" That said, we said OK, but we want to sling it so we could drop and DD. They set about assembling sling loads while we cranked. We hooked up and set out.
The firebase was getting hit from about 2/3 of the perimeter, leaving a gap we could use to minimize fire while we were loaded and slow, so we headed through the pass, came back across the firebase from the gap, dropped the load and hauled ass out, taking heavy fire just about as soon as we reached the perimeter. We shut down when we got back to Dak To to check out the bird. We found some holes but nothing to be concerned about, so we cranked again and headed out with our second load, followed by another bird from our company that had joined us on station. Not having much of a choice, we used the same route, necessary because while loaded down there wasn’t much we could do evasively and needed that “no fire” corridor. This time, the bad guys’ aim was better. Just about at the instant when our AC dropped our load, he took a round pretty much between the eyes, was thrown back and went into a death grip on the controls. The proverbial shit hit the fan!
I was told later by a witness in another bird in the area that we shot straight up, stalled and began a slow spiral down. My first instinct as a crew chief was to look over my right shoulder to see what was happening up front. That works fine when you are sitting in the crew chief’s left gun well. I was door gunner that day and the first thing I saw was the back firewall in the right gun well. By then we were totally out of control and the only thing I could think was "Oh Shit, I’m gonna die!"
The only thing I remember doing on the way down was take off my seat belt. We usually never wore them but Mike and I decided after our first pass that it might be a good idea to have them on in case we got hit so we wouldn’t fall out. I took mine off because all I could see was sky spinning around and when we hit, I figured the only chance I had was to get blown free when she went up on impact. When the blades hit, we dropped like a rock, about 10 or 15 meters below and outside FB6’s wire. We didn’t blow…obviously. And Mike, Gordon and I were virtually unhurt. We jumped out and put the wreckage between us and the down slope, not knowing where we were in relation to the bad guys. It turned out we were right about in the middle of the corridor where they weren’t. Looking in, we saw Roger still strapped in, with no face. Obviously in shock, I remember wondering what happened to his moustache, a prominent feature on his face. Realizing there was nothing we could do for him, we started up the hill to the wire. Still in our full flight regalia, we were concerned that we might get shot from within, which was actually kinda silly if for no other reason than I was wearing my “Captain America” painted helmet. But waiting on the other side of the wire was the Lt in charge of the advisors, Brian Thacker. He said there was a “gate” about 30 meters around the perimeter, but having taken no fire where we were, we decided to play “sapper” and cross where we were. Mike and I used our field jackets to cross the concertina and I remember as I was scooting on my back under the strands thinking that I actually got something useful from basic!
We went to the command bunker where Brian gathered our names to report, and we just kinda sat there for about 20 minutes when we were advised to get up to the pad on top of the base. One of our ships had broken ranks to get us out and was nearing final. Talk about noise! In addition to the anticipated whop whop, all hell broke out with mortars dropping in amongst the small and medium arms fire! Taking too many key hits, our rescuers became in need of rescue themselves, but not before I had deplaned, jumped into a hole for cover and snagged my foot, resulting in intense pain. It felt like I broke my ankle but I wasn’t about to take off my boot to find out for sure.
Now there were 7 aviators, in addition to the surviving advisors and the ARVN’s. What was particularly unsettling while we were there was the total lack of coordination by the Air Force, VNAF, and Army gunships providing cover, in addition to the surviving advisors and the ARVN’s. They would jockey the Air Force, VNAF, and Army gunships providing cover. They would jockey around making runs for a little while, then all disappear at once, not returning for at least a half hour at a time which is when the NVA advanced. More than once, the command bunker where we were assembled got hit with a flame thrower, lighting the rafters which we extinguished by throwing sand from the floor on them. It was harrowing at best.
As was to be expected, the ARVN’s caved. They were streaming through the “gate” into the jungle to get away and we had no choice but to follow. Not knowing whether my ankle was broken or not, I was really in a bind, but I learned very quickly what a great pain killer adrenalin is! We followed the ARVN’s through the gate. On the way to the tree line, I managed to stumble causing my glasses to go flying (they were those aviator style ones with the bows going straight back with nothing to hook on the ear), leaving me both lame and semi-blind! As I reached the tree line, I looked back and there was Lt Thacker still on top, holding off the bad guys until we reached the tree line.
There was a long line of ARVN’s we were following in the general direction of Dak To. We were being chased and the NVA were working their way ahead of the column to set up ambushes. Fortunately, they got anxious and would hit the column sufficiently far ahead of us that we could take a detour. They also were dropping mortars in our direction. As we progressed, we passed through some areas of bunkers, and commo wires, indicating just how well established they were prior to the invasion.
It was afternoon when we “hit the trail” and we just kept on plodding ahead hearing the crackling of the brush behind us from our pursuers. It was getting late, and dark, and a drizzle had begun when we finally heard that familiar whop whop. It was a cobra returning with their flight over our area. They knew we were down there somewhere and decided to take a shot at finding us. We had only one emergency radio with us, and it had a weak battery, but it was strong enough to reach the cobra. The pilot couldn’t find us until the last flare we were carrying, but when he did, he directed us toward a clearing where we could get extracted, and we headed that way while he started making runs on the bad guys behind us.
We and the Bell Angels reached the clearing at about the same time. I use the term “clearing” loosely as it was covered in shrubs and small trees that prohibited the slicks from getting to the ground, but close enough to reach. I was told one of the ships had a ladder…not the one I got to! I had to jump up to grab the skid on the right side, but lacked the strength to get farther so I kinda stepped on an ARVN’s face to kick my legs up and wrap them around the skid. The crew chief from the bird that tried to rescue us at FB6, had gotten up and in and saw me hanging under the skid. He grabbed my arm, trying to pull me in. He was holding my right arm. My legs were wrapped around the skid which then passed under my left shoulder. I was kinda stuck and the door gunner was yelling at me to get the hell in. I yelled back I was in enough and secure, so they should get the hell out of there…which they did with me riding under the skid.
We on that ship were taken to Ben Het and deplaned so the bird could try to find more to rescue, and the “adventure” was over. We were picked up a little later and flew straight back to Camp Holloway. I was immediately taken to the clinic where it was determined my ankle was not broken, but it grew to the size of a cantaloupe as soon as my boot was removed. The next day at our debriefing, they indicated that we had run about 15 clicks, based on where we started, where we were finally extracted, and the terrain. It was also determined that the base had been hit by two regiments of NVA Regulars.
As was to be expected, FB6 and the surrounding area was pretty much leveled with Arc Lights, and about a week later, it was taken back and reoccupied by the ARVN’s. A miracle, as it were, was when about 9 days after the overrunning, Lt Brian Thacker emerged from the jungle where he had been laying low, waiting for the good guys to come back. He had been classified as MIA, but had survived eating berries and whatever else he could find and gathering water from the leaves covered in dew in the morning. Certainly, with my approval, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving our asses, and his story can be found quite easily by googling his name.
Mike Patterson had gotten injured as we “played” E & E (Escape and Evasion). He was taken to the hospital at Pleiku, then to Japan and home. We reconnected in 2000, and got together a few times, but lost touch. I was in contact with Gordon Bellen through emailing but we never got together. He died not too long ago so that will never happen. I have the email of the pilots in the ship that tried to rescue us and have been in limited contact, but have been unable to find the GIB’s (guy in back) from that ship.
I went back in 2000. I stood on the remnants of the runway at Dak To where we had stood then, watching the sorties hitting the hillside. I could see them all over again. The jungle is gone, clear cut for the lumber, leaving only grassy mountains. But the ridge still looks the same, as does the point where FB6 once sat. After the chills and emotion got under control, I realized that I was OK! As may be obvious by this narrative, I can still see and relive that day often. But it always comes out the same way.