Submitted by John Bradford, March 2008
Another Busy Day in the A Shau Valley + 40
Late in the afternoon of 9 March 1966, I was a young, badly wounded, Special Forces Sergeant holed up in a bunker at the A Shau Special Forces Camp located in the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border. The Camp was under attack and on the verge of being overrun by an NVA regiment. With daylight fading, being unable to walk, and after watching several failed attempts to evacuate me and other wounded personnel, I knew that when the camp fell, if not evacuated, our odds of making it out were not good.
I had arrived at the camp two days earlier, as part of a contingent from the 5th Special Forces Group, Mobile Strike Force sent to reinforce the resident A Team and their Vietnamese irregulars. Known as the “Mike Force,” it was largely composed of ethnic Chinese Nung mercenaries trained and led by Special Forces Officers and NCO’s.
In the early morning hours of 9 March, the NVA flattened the camp with a prolonged mortar and rocket barrage and then launched several ground assaults. As a result, approximately 50 Nungs, 30 Vietnamese irregulars, and 2 Special Forces personnel were killed. About 100 irregulars and Nungs and virtually all of the remaining 15 Special Forces personnel were wounded. Two of the latter, including myself and the resident Team Sergeant, plus about thirty Nungs and Vietnamese irregulars, were judged by our medics to be in serious condition and in need of medical evacuation.
In conjunction with the main attack, the NVA overran several peripheral outposts and ringed the hills around the camp with 12.7 and 37mm AA sites. Due to very low cloud cover, air support was extremely vulnerable to these weapons and small arms fire. Virtually every aircraft that entered the valley near the camp or overflew the camp was hit and a number, including an A1E Skyraider, a C47 “Spooky”gun ship and several helicopters were shot down.
Around mid-morning, an Army O1 Bird Dog, piloted by an unknown aviator with some large cojones, landed and evacuated the Team Sergeant who was literally dragged to the airstrip by two Special Forces Soldiers and thrown head first, into the aircraft. Late that afternoon, a Marine H34 which tried to evacuate the remainder of the seriously wounded was hit and crashed in the Camp. Another H34, which came in shortly thereafter, departed as soon as the crew of the downed H34 jumped aboard, and made no attempt to load anyone else. After being carried several times, under fire, to the Camp LZ, only to be brought back to the bunker because an attempted medevac had failed or was aborted, it seemed that I and the others in critical condition needed a miracle to get out of the Camp alive.
The miracle arrived in the form of a CH3 which landed in the Camp with a roar of turbines and in a cloud of dust and debris. I remember a solitary Airman firing an M-16 from the door as it touched down. Despite taking fire while Special Forces NCO’s lifted the wounded, including me, over a mob of panicked Vietnamese irregulars trying to board the aircraft, the pilot held steady and lifted off only after we were safely on board. Thirty minutes later, I arrived at a Navy/Marine Corps medical facility at Da Nang from which I was evacuated to Okinawa.
I subsequently found out that the camp had, in fact, been overrun and that the survivors were forced to E & E for several days until they were picked up by Marine and Army aircraft. I also learned that Several Special Forces soldiers attempted to carry a wounded comrade as they evacuated the Camp evading pursuing NVA, but he died during the process and his body was hidden and left behind. It was never recovered.
Since that time, I periodically attempted, without luck, to identify the guys who manned that CH3. About three years ago, a friend who is a former Air Force Special Operations helicopter pilot, said that he would try to obtain the information I was seeking. He recently informed me that he had located a Frank Kelley, the pilot, and only surviving member of the crew.
I contacted Kelley and he confirmed that on 9 March 1966, he; co-pilot, Captain John T. Baggs; and crew chief, Technical Sergeant, Lyle Keller; crewed the CH3 that evacuated the wounded from Camp A Shau. During the course of our lengthy conversation, I began to realize that I had been rescued by a very special man; a real American hero that served his country during three conflicts.
Briefly stated, Kelley joined the Massachusetts National Guard in 1940 as a private in a field artillery unit; was selected as an aviation cadet in 1943; completed flight school in 1944 and was commissioned as a 2Lt. in the Army Air Corps; and flew B25's on bombing missions in Italy in 1945. He was discharged and returned to Massachusetts shortly after the end of the war. In 1953, during the Korean conflict, he was recalled to active duty with the Air Force and flew B25's and T29's that served as training platforms for student radar operators. While at Waco, Texas, Kelley saw a helicopter “take off backwards” and was so impressed that he requested qualification as a helicopter pilot. After completing the 90 day transition course at San Marcos, Texas in 1955, he remained on active duty, serving in Japan, Korea and CONUS, flying a number of aircraft including the H19, H5, H21 and CH3 on various missions.
Among the exploits Kelley related to me were ditching an H21 in the Atlantic off Massachusetts and spending several hours in a life raft - Kelley still regrets that the Boston press coverage of the incident credited him, a Bostonian, with saving the crew while ignoring C. B, Jeannes, a Texan and instructor pilot, who actually flew the aircraft and made most of the critical decisions; flying one of the first CH3B models the Air Force acquired from the Navy; and picking up the first ever Air Force CH3C following a ceremony at the Sikorsky Facility in Connecticut. He laughed as he described getting a warning light shortly after departing Sikorsky, but being refused permission to return to his point of departure because VIP’s were still present.
Kelley arrived in Vietnam in 1965 as part of the 20th Helicopter Squadron, initially known as “Pony Express”and later the “Green Hornets.” Stationed in Nha Trang, his section, consisting of six CH3C’s, rotated between various airbases in Vietnam and Thailand performing a variety of missions. He explained that on 9 March 1966, while in I Corps en route to Khe Sanh, he was diverted to the A Shau Valley to pick up the crew of a C47 “Spooky” gun ship that had been shot down near the Special Forces Camp. As he approached the valley, Kelley was contacted by Major Bernard Fischer, flying lead for four A1E Skyraiders providing air support for the Camp (Fischer was awarded the Medal of Honor for landing, under fire, on the Camp air strip the following day and rescuing his wing man who had earlier crash landed there). Fisher suggested that because of the low ceiling and the intense AA and ground fire, that Kelley follow him to the crash site. Kelley did so and, after running the gauntlet down the valley and determining that no survivors were present, headed to the Special Forces Camp. He recalled landing near the downed H34; the frantic, unwounded Vietnamese mobbing the aircraft as the wounded were loaded; how, on take off, he “wiggled” the aircraft to insure that the Vietnamese clinging to it’s undercarriage and sponsons were dislodged; and how a young GI in a tiger suit remained standing, refusing to sit or lie down after being carried aboard - unknown to him, I had been wounded, among other places, in both buttocks.
Kelley retired in 1968 and returned to Massachusetts. He and his wife, Eleanor, live in Plymouth. I suspect that most of his neighbors don’t know of his exploits and some see him as an old warhorse put out to pasture. If they only knew - this guy is the real deal, a hero that the George Clooneys, Tom Hanks and other Hollywood types portray in movies. How do you thank a person for giving you forty-plus extra years of life? When I tried, he replied “If you ever need help again, you know who to call.”
John W. Bradford
VHPA # M10806