15 APRIL 1970
WO Albert J. Barthelme Jr. enjoying
life between missions.
Original by Donald Summers, edited
by Robert L. Noe
In March of 1970, Prince Sihanouk
was in France, and his cousin Prime Minister Sitik
Matak, as temporary ruler in his absence, was making
enemies of the NVA inside of Cambodia. He had issued
the impossible ultimatum to the North Vietnamese to
remove all NVA troops from Cambodia within 48 hours.
That left the NVA with only two possible moves to
make: 1) withdraw, which was impossible within the
time given; or, 2) take over Cambodia. The later was
their choice. The NVA, by mid-April had already seized
control over two major provinces and were planning
to take over the capitol. To assure non interference
from the Americans, a major effort was also taking
place in the Central Highlands of Vietnam around Dak
Seang, Dak Pec, Bien Het, Dak To, and small villages
up and down II Corp area. By April, SOG missions were
increased in both frequency and intensity, while in
the Central Highlands units were in constant contact
with a building NVA force. April, of 1970 was becoming
a busy month for the 170th Assault Helicopter
By the second week in April, intelligence
showed that a massive buildup of forces of NVA was
occurring around the Special Forces camp of Dak Seang,
20 miles north of Dak To. Dak Seang sat in a valley,
with large mountainous ridgelines on both sides of
it. Activity around the area had been building continuously.
Intelligence was reporting a possible Division size
NVA force had taken up positions around the SF Camp
by April 14th, and attack of the camp was
One single vantage point existed
in the form of an old NDB (Night Defensive Position)
known as LZ Orange. LZ Orange was the sole open spot
of an otherwise dense jungle mountain, and was the
highest peak of the range overlooking the valley where
the SF Camp could be seen. LZ Orange provided a perfect
observation/control vantage point for the forthcoming
battle. Saigon had determined ARVN forces must take
possession of LZ Orange.
A plan was devised where the 170th,
accompanied by Buccaneer Gunships for support, would
insert the 3rd Battalion, 42nd
Regiment of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
The 3rd battalion was to serve a dual role
in taking possession of LZ Orange. First, was to gain
the vantage point of the valley, and second, should
Dak Seang fall under siege, the 3rd Battalion
could drop down the side of the ridge, fight their
way through enemy lines around the base and hopefully
enter the camp to support the besieged inhabitants.
So it was, that at 0430 in the morning on April 15th
the flight-line at Kontum Air Field came alive with
Pilots, Crew Chiefs and Gunners busying themselves
with their pre-flight checks, mounting weapons and
loading rocket pods.
As the sun slowly rose over the mountains
turning the sky from black, to red and orange, and
then finally to hints of blue, a flight of Bikini’s
with their ARVN passengers lifted off, and headed
direct to LZ Orange. At 0600 hours the flight of Bikinis
with their Gunship escorts broke over the lush green
valley and lined up for their insertion. There was
little doubt of where they were going. LZ Orange was
a bald spot in an otherwise dense jungle mountain
range. It’s red and gray dirt contrasted each other
and stood out boldly in the bright morning sun. The
pilots concentrated on their target LZ, while gunners
checked ammo and weapons one more time to assure they
were ready for whatever lay below.
WO Alan Hoffman commanding the lead
ship entered the LZ without incident and unloaded
the first of the force. CPL Herndon A. Bivens, and
SGT Rosindo Montana sat in the doorway. Both men were
American Pathfinders with the 52nd Aviation
Battalion Security Detatchment. Before the skids even
touched the ground, Bivens and Montana were on the
ground followed by six ARVN of the 3rd
Battalion. Montana was carrying the radio and he ran
the short fifteen feet to the crest of the hill, stopping
alongside of a large bomb crater. Bivens was right
behind him and they began to busy themselves with
the task at hand, landing the flight of Hueys carrying
the ARVN Battalion . . . it was 0615 hours.
When the two Pathfinders reached
their position, the second bird carrying eight ARVN
soldiers, was on short final to the LZ. Inside the
second bird was veteran pilot WO Albert J. Barthelme
Jr., his second WO1 Roger A. Miller, who was in his
second week in country and flying his second mission;
SP4 Vincent S. Davies as Gunner, who was nearing the
end of his first tour; and, SP5 Donald C. Summers,
as Crew Chief, an ex-Ranger, who had submitted his
request for his third tour. Like the first aircraft,
the second helicopter was approaching the LZ without
obstruction. Bivens raised his hands to direct the
bird on final, and Montana busied himself with the
radio. WO Miller was in control of the helicopter,
and was less than fifty feet from the LZ when the
NVA opened up from 360 degrees.
The first volley of fire dropped
SGT Montana where he stood. Montana dropped to his
knees, and managed to get a single transmission out
that they were taking heavy concentrated fire from
left and right sides of the LZ, when another volley
of fire concentrated on him and he folded like an
accordion into a fetal position, dead.
Bivens dove into the crater, rolling
out of the line of fire. He came back up to the crest
of the crater returning fire to the wood line. He
was out of ammunition in a matter of minutes. The
six ARVN soldiers ran to the back side of the hill
below the crater to another crater some twenty feet,
or less, from Bivens’ location and sought cover. None
of the ARVN soldiers returned fire.
Aboard the aircraft Summers was struck
repeatedly in the left shoulder and side, slammed
against the bulkhead to his right, then down to the
left. He struggled back up and had just grabbed his
M60 and started to return fire when the bird pitched
violently to the left, then right and crashed, coming
to rest on its side some ten feet or so from the dense
jungle. Summers was buried under the bodies of the
ARVNs who had all been killed in the initial volley.
Vincent Davies opened fire immediately from the left
side, laying down a sweeping return while avoiding
the Pathfinder’s position with his fire. The thrashing
of the bird caused him to stop firing and when the
bird came to rest on its side he was able to escape
over the side, and down onto the ground.
WO Hoffman had just leveled off his
aircraft when the radio reported what was happening
behind him. He swung his helicopter around, holding
to the hillside, returned to the LZ, popping up even
with the downed helicopter. He saw Al Barthelme wrestling
with his harness, Roger Miller starting for the broken
chin bubble opening, and reported that they were alive.
The volume of fire descending on his aircraft prohibited
another landing on the LZ, and Hoffman was forced
to bank away and depart the LZ area.
Miraculously, neither Miller nor
Barthelme was wounded or injured in the crash. Al
Barthelme being on the low side of the aircraft, escaped
the bird through the shattered chin bubble, with Roger
Miller following suit.
Bivens, out of ammunition, left the
bomb crater and ran to the wreckage as soon as it
came to rest to help with survivors of the crash.
As he approached, Al Barthelme was shot several times
in the back and fell. Miller grabbed Barthelme and
drug him away from the helicopter to the side of the
hill below the crater. Miller then took up a position
along the side of the hill between a bomb crater where
the ARVN soldiers had run to, and Al Barthelme. Davis
ran to where Barthelme lay and the two lay flat as
gunfire continued to sweep across the hillside.
Bivens meanwhile climbed to the top
of the chopper and looked inside. Summers was just
emerging from under the bodies, spitting and cussing.
Buried under the dead ARVN passengers, Summers had
several bodies across his chest and face. The body
which had fallen across his face had an open stomach
wound, and it had been seeping intestines and blood
into his mouth as he had struggled to unbury himself
from the wreckage. Bivens reached down and pulled
Summers the rest of the way out, and the two crouched
for a moment inside the gunners well as gunfire continued
outside. After a brief discussion, Summers jumped
down to check the battery in the nose of the aircraft
and found it was shot full of holes. Taking more fire,
he returned to the gunner’s well with Bivens.
They decided that their best defensive
position was on the backside of the hill where Miller,
Davies, and Barthelme lay. The crater on the top where
Bivens had been was within twenty meters of a fortified
bunker with a machine gun and no less than three NVA.
Summers and Bivens reviewed the situation. They were
totally surrounded by fortified positions and NVA
soldiers; a crossfire existed between the bunker Bivens
had seen, and another positioned along the ridge line
west of the LZ. This allowed for all approaching aircraft
to be caught in a crossfire on final approach; Al
Barthelme was laying still and had gaping holes in
his back, but he was alive; Miller was unhurt at that
point; and Davies was injured but functioning. Summers
had been hit several times in the shoulder and side.
The M60 on the topside of the aircraft was still usable,
but the weapons of the ARVN troops, who were in the
bird, had either been thrown clear or were dug deep
into the dirt, shattered by the crash. Six ARVNs were
armed and laying in the bomb crater some five feet
from where Miller lay. Bivens gave Summers two hand
grenades and Summers left the bird. Bivens manned
the M60 and, using the gunner’s well for cover, laid
down suppressing fire, while Summers carrying the
grenades sprinted to Millers’ position. Summers then
went to the ARVN position and took an M16 and several
clips from one of the soldiers and returned to Miller.
As he did, all six of the ARVNs got up and ran into
the jungle, deserting the Americans.
Bivens left the aircraft and sprinted
to Montana’s body. He checked the radio and found
it had also been shot beyond repair, and he returned
to the aircraft to man the 60.
As the men on the ground were taking
position on the hill, Buc Gunships formed a circle
around the LZ firing their miniguns and rockets. As
they did, the next two aircraft in line for insertion
attempted to get into the LZ. The first helicopter
flown by WO Don Johnson, started taking fire immediately.
Bullets ripped through the windshield striking Johnson
three times in the breast plate. The third round ricocheted
and struck a smoke grenade in his survival vest setting
it off and filling the cockpit with yellow smoke.
The aircraft received multiple hits in the transmission
and dropped to the left diving for the valley floor.
Lt Larry Leonard, who was also with the lift, fell
in behind Johnson following him down watching as yellow
smoke flowed out of the aircraft, believing it to
be on fire. Johnson regained control as he reached
the valley floor and leveled off, turning and immediately
headed for Dak To for an emergency landing.
The second aircraft did not fare
any better. Within a quarter of a mile, was force
to turn with main gearbox damage. He too, headed for
Dak To. CPT Gary Knight, Buccaneer Leader, watching
as the two slicks limped away, decided the LZ was
too dangerous, and he pulled his aircraft back. Bikini’s
from the scheduled lift returned to Pleiku, dropped
off their ARVN passengers, and refueled. Meanwhile
more Bikini’s were arriving on site to attempt rescue
of the downed men on the LZ.
Around 0900 hours two Bikini’s other
and their escorts, the Pink Panther Cobra Gunships
of the 361st, were returning from a SOG
mission, to the Dak To staging area, when they heard
the radio traffic of their fellow Bikini’s 20 miles
to the North at Dak Seang. WO James Lake followed
by WO William MacDonald landed at Dak to and immediately
went to SOG Command to request their release from
SOG standby to go to assist with the downed aircraft.
MacDonald had attended High School with Barthelme,
joined the Army with him, and gone to flight school
with him. MacDonald explained that not only was Barthelme
a friend, he and Summers were regular SOG mission
flight personnel, and were part of the SOG Operations.
SOG released Lake’s and MacDonald’s ships, along with
two Pink Panther Cobras who also asked to be released
to support the rescue efforts. Lake and MacDonald
also requested a Bright-Light team, and SOG Command
contacted Kontum. MacDonald and Lake left Dak To for
Kontum to pickup a team at 1000 hrs.
In Pleiku, CPT Knight and his flight
had been told to remain at base. The Air Force had
been notified and they were sending air rescue and
fast movers to the site. Many of the Bikini’s refueled
and returned anyway, as did all of the aircraft who
had gone to Dak To for refueling. At this point, all
rescue efforts, other than the Air Force SAR efforts,
were on individual pilots own initiative. Command
had made the determination that rescue of the downed
crew was not possible without an unacceptable loss
of men and aircraft.
WO Hoffman had returned to site and
was circling the LZ to the west when a C123 screamed
past him low level over the ridgeline. It’s door was
opened, and a loadmaster stood in the doorway. As
it overflew the LZ, Hoffman watched as the Load Master
kicked a large crate containing a radio, weapon and
ammunition out of the door to the LZ, but they had
overshot the hill, and the much needed supplies landed
on the side of the hill in the jungle away from the
LZ and the Americans on top.
Another Bikini decided to try and
get to the LZ, this time coming up low level from
the valley floor with a Buc Gunship on each side.
Halfway up the mountain the three ships were taking
crippling fire, and soon had to break off their approach.
Three OH6 LOH arrived at LZ Orange.
No one in the flight on site knew who they were, but
with little fanfare or discussion, one began an attempt
on the LZ. He low leveled across the valley floor
and up the side of the mountain towards the LZ. Half
way up, the small aircraft suddenly broke from the
approach and sped away to the valley floor, his aircraft
riddled with bullet holes and in critical condition.
Another Bikini bird arrived from
having refueled at Dak To, and aboard was a single
SGT from the SF Strike teams (unidentified to date)
with a radio. They too made an approach to the LZ
with the intent of dropping the SGT off and establishing
communications from the hill. Within a quarter of
a mile of the LZ, they abandoned their approach, the
SGT badly wounded, both crew members wounded, the
aircraft critically hit, and they made their way to
the Dak To Airfield.
On the ground, things were not progressing
any better than the rescue attempts. Only Summers
with a few grenades and an M16 with four clips, and
Bivens with the M60 from the gunner’s well of the
helicopter had weapons. With each rescue attempt someone
would fly over the LZ, and each time the men would
wave, including Al Barthelme. By late morning though,
Al had stopped waving and was now laying still, dying
from his wounds. The NVA were repeatedly firing at
Bivens’ and Summers’ positions. Several probes had
been made by the NVA and each one repelled. By noon,
Summers had used both grenades and was out of ammo
for the M16. Bivens and the M60 was now their only
defense. Enemy positions were less than twenty meters
from them on three sides, and the ARVNs had abandoned
them. Between engagements with rescue attempts, things
would get quiet on the hill. After a few moments of
quiet, the NVA would fire into SGT Montana’s body
and the radio, as if using him for target practice.
Several times shots spat up dirt from between Summers
and Miller, or were concentrated on Al Barthelme.
At SOG Headquarters in Kontum, SSG
Dennis Neal, the Team Leader for RT Montana, and SSG
Michael V. Kuropas, the Team Leader for RT Vermont,
had volunteered to form a compliment of Montagnard
to serve as a Bright Light team to insert on the LZ
and affect a rescue of the downed men. During their
briefing, they were informed that the LZ was a real
bad one and that it was now known it was a Division
Headquarters for the NVA, surrounded by fortified
positions. Both men and their Yards were determined
to go in, and shortly after noon boarded WO MacDonald’s
aircraft and headed for Dak Seang.
The flight of two, with the SF Team,
arrived on site just as two F4's from Pleiku strafed
the surrounding hillside, and four A1E Skyraiders
dropped napalm. Two Air Force Jolly Green Giants from
the 37th ARRS, stationed at Da Nang were
on station and ready to approach the LZ. The Bikini
aircraft who had been on site for hours warned the
aircraft that the standard approach they were taking
to the LZ was too risky, but the SARs continued to
align themselves for approach.
Jolly 27 was in the lead, commanded
by CPT Travis Scott. His co-pilot was MAJ Travis Wofford,
and Flight Engineer Jerold Hartzel and Pararescueman
L.E. Davis were aboard. Jolly 27 reported taking fire
at over a quarter of a mile out from eleven o’clock,
followed immediately by reports of more fire at two
o’clock, and at a quarter mile from 360 degrees. As
soon as he reported fire from 360 degrees he proclaimed
hydraulics failure, and Jolly 27 dropped into the
jungle hillside bursting into flames. Jolly 29 went
down to retrieve the crew from Jolly 27 taking crippling
fire. They retrieved the body of CPT Travis Scott,
who had died of gunshot wounds, and the rest of the
crew, Wofford, Hartzel, and Davis. All three were
badly burned. Gerald Hartzel later died in the 71st
Evac from his wounds. Jolly 29 returned to Pleiku,
and the bird was scrapped as beyond repair due to
damage from the volume of fire taken.
WO MacDonald with the Bright-Light
Team, and WO James Lake were both circling at a high
altitude above the LZ watching the attempts by SAR.
Another Bikini decided to make a run for it. This
time the crew had donned full body armor and laid
Breast Plates under their seats and in the nose bubble
of the aircraft to protect the pilots. They came close
to the LZ, but were forced to abort and with their
engine on fire. They crash landed in a small clearing
southeast of the LZ. Another Bikini was able to follow
them in and extract the crew safely.
Radio communications between aircraft
was depressing. No one could figure how to breach
the fire power of the NVA to get to the LZ. To make
the situation even more dangerous, bad weather was
moving in and dark clouds were starting to form. Soon,
the weather would render any attempts impossible.
Bill MacDonald declared he was going in.
MacDonald was flying the aircraft.
Sitting beside him as co-pilot was WO Tom Bennie.
After notifying Neal, Kuropas, and the crew they were
going in, Macdonald dropped the Huey into a steep
dive and headed to the valley floor. WO Jim Lake with
WO John Kenny, copilot, was right behind them as chase
ship. MacDonald leveled off above the valley floor,
staying low and fast up the side of the mountain to
the LZ. Immediately he reported extensive fire from
360 degrees, but he pressed on. As he reached the
LZ, MacDonald was taking extremely heavy concentrated
small arms and RPD fire from all sides. Behind him,
Neal, Kuropas, and the entire Montagnard Team lay
dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
As the bird slammed into the LZ,
Summers, Miller, and Davies ran for MacDonald’s ship.
Behind them a squad of NVA broke through the jungle
and into the clearing, firing and pursuing them towards
the bird. On the other side, Bivens, in the crashed
helicopter, opened fire with the M60 against another
squad of NVA who also rushed towards the second downed
Bikini from the opposite side. On their way to the
rescue ship Summers was struck twice more, once in
the lower back and another creased his left leg. Davies
received multiple wounds as he sprinted to MacDonald’s
ship, and finally collapsed inside with bullets in
his jaw, hands, and back.
Miller in the meantime was unscathed.
He helped Davies aboard the aircraft, and then got
back off and returned to Al Barthelme’s body, grabbing
him by the left arm and hoisting him up, dragging
his body towards the aircraft. Miller was screaming
for someone to help and Summers started off the aircraft,
but was knocked back inside by the Crew Chief who
was still firing steadily into the advancing NVA.
Summers grabbed a weapon from one of the Montagnard
bodies and started joining in the firing at advancing
NVA on the opposite side of the ship.
While this was going on, MacDonald
and Bennie were calmly working at keeping the aircraft
together under the increasing barrage of fire, holding
on to allow the men on the LZ time to board. The advancing
NVA were sending a wall of bullets through the canopy
attempting to take out the two pilots, and the interior
echoed with the sounds of bullets ripping the floor,
walls, windshield, and instrument panel. Tom Bennie
caught a round along the underside of both legs, cutting
a severe grove through his legs and taking a large
gash from his rear.
When MacDonald landed he had 1100
pounds of fuel, forty-five seconds later, he calmly
reported he was down to 400 pounds of fuel and was
lifting off . He had waited until the last possible
moment. Fuel was pouring out of a large hole in the
fuel cell, and the barrage of small arms fire was
threatening their ability to lift off. Faced with
no alternative, MacDonald pulled up and nose the aircraft
over the side of the mountain. He immediately reported
to Lake that he had lost all tailrotor control. Unknown
to MacDonald, an unexploded B40 rocket had wedged
in the boom, and frozen tailrotor controls. Banking
to the south, he aimed the crippled aircraft towards
the Dak Seang compound.
As MacDonald’s aircraft left the
LZ, Bivens, still in the crashed aircraft’s gunner’s
well, covered the extraction by laying down a steady
wall of fire at advancing NVA. Roger Miller had been
unable to get aboard before MacDonald was forced to
leave the LZ.
As MacDonald, followed by Lake, flew
through the valley towards Dak Seang, the aircraft
continued to take ground fire. Both door gunners were
laying down continuous fire. Davies lay behind the
left seat shot up and unable to move, while Summers
was to the right next to SSG Dennis Neal who was sitting
slumped against the back of the pilots seat. Summers
recognized Neal from his SOG missions , and he tried
to revive him but quickly realized he was dead. He
grabbed another weapon from the floor and continued
to assist in returning fire to the ground as MacDonald
began to approach Dak Seang.
Lake followed MacDonald through the
valley, and swung around to approach Dak Seang from
the opposite direction as MacDonald. On approach both
aircraft came under heavy concentrated small arms
fire. Lake landed nose to nose with MacDonald and
watched as bodies fell out of the aircraft from the
crew doors. Bullets shattered the windshield, and
ripped through the instrument panel. The two Bikini
rescue aircraft had landed in the middle of a ground
attack, and hundreds of hard corp NVA were within
100 meters of their position firing and advancing.
Summers exited MacDonald’s aircraft
and stumbled in between the two birds and stopped,
turning and frowning at the NVA shooting at them.
John Kemper, who was prior Special Forces on his third
tour in Vietnam, exited Lake’s aircraft and directed
Summers towards Lake’s ship, and Summers stumbled
over and boarded Lake’s aircraft. Later Summers told
Lake and others he was standing between the two helicopters
thinking that was just his luck, to be rescued from
the hill only to take part in a major ground attack.
Kemper ran to MacDonald’s ship and grabbed Davies,
carrying him back to Lake’s bird.
The attacking NVA concentrated their
fire on Lake’s aircraft which was positioned between
them and the camp defenses. As his crew loaded wounded,
Lake watched bullets flying through his aircraft instrument
panel, while outside bullets kicking up dirt all around
his crew and the wounded men. Lake was taking constant
direct hits on his aircraft.
In the meantime, Bennie had managed
to get unstrapped, and fell out of the door of his
helicopter and onto the ground, injured far worse
than he had realized, he was having trouble standing
or walking. He and MacDonald finally managed to dive
into a nearby bunker.
With his aircraft full of wounded,
and under a barrage of small arms fire, Lake was able
to lift off from Dak Seang, and headed for the 71st
Evac in Pleiku. He turned and surveyed the wounded,
and was surprised to discover Al Barthelme was not
among them. Until that point, he had believed both
Barthelme and Miller had gotten off with MacDonald’s
aircraft. Summers informed him that Barthelme was
dead, and that Miller and Bivens were still on the
Lake delivered the wounded men at
the 71st Evac in Pleiku, and immediately
took off again, returning to LZ Orange. His intent
was to make another extraction attempt of Miller and
Barthelme. Lake arrived over Dak Seang as nightfall
was settling over the valley. The weather had moved
into the LZ rendering any extraction attempt impractical.
With the knowledge there was no hope for another attempt
to rescue the remaining men at LZ Orange, Lake returned
to Kontum Airfield.
WO Miller was captured by the Viet
Cong and eventually moved to Hanoi and was released
in Operation Homecoming in March 1973. When he was
released, he reported that he and Bivens had spent
the night on the LZ and on the morning of April 16
attempted to return to friendly lines. At an unknown
location they were ambushed by two enemy squads. WO
Miller saw that Bivens had been wounded in the chest
5 or 6 times by small arms fire. After their capture
they were separated and given medical attention. The
last Miller saw of Bivens was when he was taken from
the site of the ambush on a stretcher. At that time,
Bivens was still undergoing medical treatment. About
four days later, the camp commander where Miller was
being held told him that Bivens had died about 2 hours
after capture. On April 29, 1970, a U.S. search and
recovery team was able to examine the crash site and
recover the remains of WO Barthelme and SGT. Montana.
The only identifiable thing about Barthelme was the
green St. Mary's County-shirt he wore. Herndon Bivens
has been missing nearly 20 years and there can be
no question that the Vietnamese know precisely what
happened to him, but they deny any knowledge of his
fate. Further, even though WO Miller knew that Bivens
had been captured, Bivens is classified Missing in
Action rather than the more appropriate category of
Prisoner of War. His name did not appear on Henry
Kissinger's discrepancy case list at the end of the