20th Helicopter Squadron, "Pony Express", Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base,

Udorn, Thailand, 1967-68.



The CH-3C helicopters were painted the usual camouflage colors except one, the “Black Mariah” (now on display at the USAF Museum, Dayton, Ohio). Our primary mission was classified counter-insurgency intelligence gathering flights into Laos and North Vietnam. Our secondary mission was to support TACAN navigational sites. At that time it was the 20th Heli Sqdn (before SOS) under the 14th Air Commando Wing with our headquarters in Nha Trang AB, South Vietnam. We were TDY to Udorn for awhile then PCS. Guess they got tired of us having to run back and forth for new TDY orders. The other part of the 20th (Green Hornets) flying UH-1’s were stationed at Nha Trang, SVN.


There were about 10-12 CH-3C’s assigned to our unit at Udorn. They were basic CH-3C models and not equipped with any armor like the Jolly’s HH's. Since our mission was supposed to be clandestine we just wanted all the weight/power ratio we could get. We wore the fabric (Kevlar?) flak vests and later had the ceramic chest protectors. The only fire power we had initially were the crewmember’s weapons, (M-16’s). The aircraft were equipped with the original winch/hoist setup with 150 feet of cable with the swing-out hoist arm. (The one you always banged you head on when it was swung back inside the cabin!) We retained the FOD deflector shield in front of the engines and did not carry external auxiliary fuel tanks. In late 1967 the helicopter engines were upgraded to ones with more power (from "–1" 1300 hp up to "–5" 1500 hp) and designated CH-3E. About half the pilots at that time were ex-school IP’s and the other half were conversion pilots from other type aircraft. In the spring of 1968, some dumbass in HQ decided we should have machine guns on our unarmed helicopters. The H-3 was equipped with a mount for an M-60 at the front cabin door. As far as we were concerned it was in the way and just extra weight. I don’t think it was ever really used in action while I was there. Our mission was to do it quietly not make a lot of noise. In early 1968, the 21st SOS at NKP was activated and drafted some of our pilots and helicopters.


The missions to insert recon teams usually were flown with two helicopters, a high and low bird. The low bird would do the infil/exfil while the high bird flew a ways off to act as decoy and be there for possible rescue. There was usually a couple of fixed wing “rescap” aircraft, A-1's (usually “Sandies or Hoboes”) flown by USAF pilots to cover us. Mission preparation included the usual briefing with aerial photos of the LZ, as well as a fly-over in an Air America or CAS fixed wing (mostly the Pilatus Porter and occasionally Beech Baron) to recon the LZ. Insertion was usually planned for near dusk so our troops would have darkness to hide if necessary. If we received any ground fire or hostile action upon insertion, the aircraft would pull off because the mission’s safety was compromised. Exfil’s (pickups) was sometimes another story.

There were numerous “safe” Lima sites (LS) throughout Laos that were used for staging and refueling. The helicopters and crews would spend the day there waiting to execute the mission. Fuel was pumped from 55 gallon barrels using a hand pump. At one time, gasoline-powered pumps were used to expedite the refueling, but they were so temperamental about starting that the extra weight and trouble was not worth it. Many of the empty barrels were used by the local inhabitants to build their "hootches".


At Lima Site (LS) 85 (near Ban Cha Thao) in northern Laos there was a TACAN station on top of a 5000 foot karst (rock) mountain that was staffed by U.S. personnel. The 20th helicopters brought supplies to the site. Because of the altitude and the 100 foot trees surrounding the LZ it was not uncommon to really droop the rpm when landing, especially with the –1 (C model) engines. As a matter of practice, the pilots would crank up the APU prior to approach in hopes that if they drooped rotor/engine rpm too low that the APU would continue to power the hydraulics and electronics and control would not be lost. Whether it helped or not is anybody’s guess but at least gave you piece of mind. This wasn’t a real problem once the engines were upgraded to –5’s. (This site was attacked in the summer of 1968 and the Jolly’s had to pull the people out, some were lost)



One of the “regular” staging areas was LS 36 (Na Kouang) which was 30 miles south of LS85. It had a good-sized runway and military presence. The Jolly Green’s out of Udorn also used it for rescue standby. With all the waiting there, the crews were known as the “36 for lunch bunch”. Many C-rations were consumed. An empty can filled with sand and JP4 made an excellent stove to warm up the C-rations.


(Our Maintenance Line Chief MSGT John Harwood flew on numerous missions and we shared lunch at "36"many times. Some time in about 1978 (after my retirement) I was at the Motor Vehicle Office in town and saw this guy that I knew I knew from somewhere. After a while I approached him and said "dont I know you". About the same time it dawned on both of us. It was retired MSGT Harwood. We then discovered that we lived on the same street only 2 blocks apart. Talk about a small world!)


The troops we carried were Laotian, Thai and mercenary types indigenous to the area. They were fairly short in stature and one of our pilots, Captain Allen “Hoppy” Hopkins dubbed themGomers”, like little Gomer Pyles. Thence we became “Gomer Getters”. (reading different websites and stories they referred to the VC as Gomers but these were "our Gomers"). We even adopted a logo of a round black furry critter with little legs sticking out named “I.R. Gomer”. Some of the crew chiefs made up stencils of “I.R” and on a mission might hop out and spray paint a Gomer on a rock. It probably blew the mind of some VC that might see it.


One of the sayings was “This Place Sucks” (TPS) but someone added an “R” to TPRS, “this place REALLY sucks” so if you were talking to a Pony you would undoubtedly get a “Tango Papa Romeo Sierra” somewhere in the conversation. We also had it painted in big red letters on the top of our hooch in town where several of us lived. Even though many of the taxi drivers didn’t know the street name, if you told them the “TPRS” bungalow they knew where to go.


The 20th also participated in humanitarian projects, such as hauling pipe, cement and such for a village water facility and other things. We ferried some VIP's such as Congressmen on “fact-finding” trips. Also carried Thai troops for parachute jumps on a national holiday celebration. At times, the helicopters retrieved downed aircraft. Once we even carried an Army sergeant and two attendants to re-enlist while hanging on a “McGuire rig” (a 100 foot cable with a seat). (The guy was double nuts!)


After the aforementioned "re-up" mission, we had occasion to land at a nearby SAC base at Utapao, Thailand for fuel. It was only minutes away so the tower had very little notice and we weren’t on any regular flight plan. They let us land but then proceeded to make us taxi all the way down to the far end of the ramp. Of course, we were going by all of the B-52’s and KC-135”s and taking our share of pictures. After parking our helicopters with no insignia or markings and the crews the same, the Security Police were taking pictures of us. A SAC Colonel (probably non-rated) that was Base Ops "AO" arrived and started quizzing us on “what the Hell we thought we were doing. “Where is your flight plan?” Our Squadron C.O. (Lt. Col. Martin) who fortunately was with us replied, “We don’t file regular flight plans, we are on a tactical mission”. “Well, how the Hell do they know where you are?” (You know in SAC they tell how and when to wipe your butt). Martin said, “We know where we are.” After a few more exchanges the SAC Colonel wasn’t getting any more information and finally walked off shaking his head and mumbling “Goddamn Jolly Greens” and we all had to laugh.





Memorable missions:

On December 27, 1967 three Pony Express CH-3E’s were flown to PS 22 near Paksong, in southern Laos for a series of missions. The aircraft and crews would remain at the staging base overnight because of the distance from home base and timeliness required during the mission. On December 28th, a company of troops were inserted using the 3 Ponies and 2 Air America UH-1’s. The troops remained out overnight to be picked up the next day. During the night of the 28th, one of the CH-3’s jumped the chocks, rolled down a slope and "dinged" one of the main rotor blades rendering the helicopter unserviceable. The CH-3’s had carried in about 25 troops but figured it should not be a problem to pick up the extra ones between the remaining two CH-3’s and the Air America Hueys. The aircrews lounged around until mid-afternoon anticipating the pickup later that day. Suddenly there was a call from the troops requesting an “emergency exfil” which usually meant they were under fire. The helicopters scrambled into the air and after several radio calls it was determined to be just a "normal" exfil. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as we continued to the LZ. Our cover of "Sandy" A-1's were coming to join us. I was lead aircraft and knew we needed to utilize the LZ space to get all helicopters in safely. As I approached into the LZ, I moved forward to allow plenty of room behind me. All was fine until the Hueys touched down then all Hell broke loose! Automatic weapons and mortar rounds were suddenly going off all around us. We called for the A-1E’s for covering fire but they weren’t quite in position due to the “normal” exfil call. We had lowered the aft ramp so the troops could enter in both entrances but when the shooting started they were delayed in getting on board and some of them began running to the helicopters behind me. This left us only half full and I knew they couldn’t all get on the other birds. About that time, the other CH-3 pilot, Major Jim Villotti, said he had taken hits in the cockpit and was full and taking off. (Major Villotti had leaned forward when a bullet came through the pilot’s window and sliced the back of this flak vest almost in two. Another round had come through the co-pilots windshield and bounced off the co-pilots vest.) I told him I would hold my position so he could "overfly" me and to "get the Hell out". I would pick up the stragglers. The Hueys also had 10 or 15 troops and took off. After they had departed, I proceeded to hover back to where several troops had set up a fire line and were shooting into the surrounding treeline. I landed not more than 15 feet from them but they never even looked around. The troops and my crew were firing from the doors and windows when my crew chief, Sgt. Martinelli, jumped from the helicopter and physically grabbed the troops on the ground to get them to onload. As they were loading I saw a movement about 20 yards in front of the chopper. I made out a guy and a gun and thought "Oh, crap" when one of our Gomers broke from the brush with an M-1 rifle that I swear was taller than he was. I said to myself "Run, Gomer, Run" and he made it to the helicopter in time. As I began my takeoff, apparently the bad guys emerged from the forest as the Sandies arrived and strafed the area near where we had been. They zapped the Hell out of a bunch of the bad guys. Miraculously, our helicopter had not taken a single hit. Of course, our shorts could use some changing! We had successfully extracted all of our Gomers.




On January 5, 1968 we inserted a team into very high “elephant” grass about 15 miles south of Dien Bien Phu. You could see the runways where MIG’s sometimes flew. That made us a little antsy. The troops would literally disappear as they jumped into the high grass. On January 10 we were called for emergency extraction of the team. They had come under enemy fire and had scattered to survive. Our guys had made contact with the team leader and had reconnoitered his position. He had started a small fire to give us smoke to find his position. I flew in to perform the extraction and as we hovered over the point where the team leader was supposed to be, we were unable to see him. About this time my crew chief, Sgt. Gene Stapleton, asked what it looked like if they were shooting at us. I didn’t know how to respond, and then he said, “Does it look like little white butterfly’s?” When I said “probably”, he replied “Boy, there’s sure a bunch of them coming from behind”. About that time it was determined that the team leader had moved because of enemy activity. They had also spotted his smoke. We immediately “hauled Boogie” out of there. As we began to fly away, one of the crew spotted a couple of guys waving at us from the top of a ridge about half a mile away. I said, “I hope they are our guys” and circled around to approach their position. They were indeed “our guys” and the crew chief prepared the hoist to pick them up. These troops were supposed to have been briefed on how to properly get on the forest penetrator and fasten the straps around themselves. My crew chief said they were on the penetrator and coming up. I didn’t like sitting exposed on the ridgetop so told him I was going to start a slow takeoff. About that time my crew chief exclaimed, “Oh no, one of them just fell off!” Apparently they had just grabbed onto the penetrator with their hands. Take in mind that we had just moved off the top of a narrow ridge top and the ground was rapidly dropping away. I thought to myself that the guy was a goner and quickly began to circle around to see where he hit. He had fallen probably over 50 feet but hit the top of the tall grass and bounced right up waving frantically. I again hovered over his position but this time held there until he was safely on board.

The next day, the team leader had been contacted again and was in the same general area as the previous day, on the north side of a long ridge. He showed his position to us on the pre-mission recon by spreading out a map which we saw from overhead. No smoke this time! We knew there were NVA still looking for him and we would have to contend with possible ground fire. I briefed the A-1"Firefly" pilots to go in right with us and strafe the area past the team leader to keep their heads down and give us time to pick him up. That is exactly what they did. They were about 50 feet above us as they advanced down the valley ahead of us firing their guns. A few seconds later, I came to a hover over the team leader and he got on the penetrator. As he was coming up the hoist I began hearing this “brrrp - brrrpp” behind me. It kept getting louder and louder and I was thinking “Oh shit, we’ve been had” and starting to squeeze the mike button to call the Fireflies when one of them flashed past BELOW me with his 20 MM going full blast. It had been him that I had heard and what a beautiful sight he was! We lifted off and on our way with our passenger without hearing a shot from the bad guys.



Other missions were memorable but not quite as exciting.


One that comes to mind is to the “Nit Noy Spot”. “Nit noy”(sp) is Thai for little. This spot was used on occasions for infil/exfils and was a very small LZ with 100-foot trees around it and a knob with stumps around for the touchdown spot. We flew there at dusk to pick up a team and as we were descending vertically into the abyss, one of the Gomers suddenly remembered that you should use smoke to designate the LZ. So he popped a white smoke flare with us still 50 feet in the air. The smoke immediately filled the LZ and with the rotor blades swirling barely 10 feet from the trees, I had to hover using the only tree I could see as a reference for the 4-5 minutes it took for the flare to burn out. If I could have found that guy I might have strangled him. I told the leader to remind his troops to use the smoke BEFORE we get there.



On one flight home after a pickup, one of the Gomers was proudly showing a hand grenade that he was carrying that had been hit by a bullet and broken off part of the top. When my crew chief informed me of this I told him get the grenade and throw it out before it blows us all to Hell. When he did this the guy was kinda pissed but who cares?




During a return flight home from north of the Ho Chi Mien Trail, one of the escorting A-1's was hit by anti-aircraft fire and the pilot had to bail out. He was going to land very close to the enemy gun emplacement and would no doubt be captured in minutes. The other Sandy salvoed his load around the site but failed to hit the AA battery. After a quick discussion by the crew, Lt. Col. Martin, pilot of the lead helicopter, began a high speed descent to try to rescue the downed pilot. He arrived over where the parachute had landed and from that position they could actually see the bad guys coming down a trail toward them. The anti-aircraft gunners had lowered their guns in an attempt to shoot the helicopter but couldn't get them low enough and the fireballs were going over it. The helicopter crew was able to pick up the downed fighter pilot and get away unscathed.


An "emergency" exfil across the "Trail" was flown by (I think maybe) Jay Oberg and Carl Crews. Anyway, our guys were under fire and had to use the rope ladder to load. It was one of rare times we had a "round-eye" (American Green Beret) on a mission. He was making his way up the ladder with a Gomer or two above him when one of them was shot off the ladder. He "snapped" into the ladder and signaled the pilot to climb out. After leaving the area, the pilots looked for a place to touchdown so the GB could get onboard but every where there was a clearing, there were also people. So they climbed up to 10,000 feet to get over the AA along the Trail with the GB hanging on the ladder. When they finally got to a safe area and let the guy down on the ground, he jumped off and was giving them a big "thumbs up". Crazy bastard...