Flying John Paul Vann
One time, I had a down day from flying and was taking care of some letter writing back home and some platoon duties. A clerk from our company came to me and informed me that they needed a Scalp Hunter pilot and an LOH-6 over at Command Headquarters to fly someone up north. I thought it would be nice to fly some "Ash and Trash" (non-combat flying). Since I didn't need an Oscar (observer) I thought I'd stop by the officer's club, grab a fried egg sandwich, go by operations, pick-up the mission information and find an LOH-6 to fly for the mission.
I was instructed to radio Military Region II Command Headquarters upon reaching Pleiku Airfield. I radioed my position and they informed me to land at the VIP Pad. All right I thought, this well be fun! Within a few minutes of landing my passenger was at the aircraft, he got in, plugged in his helmet and greeted me with "Hello Captain Stein -- I'm John Vann." I said "Hello, nice meeting you and welcome abroad." I had no idea who John Vann was. I asked; "Were to" he said, "North to Tan Canh and Dak To." I said, "Yes sir" and under my breath said to myself "there goes my Ash and Trash mission."
John Vann put his hands on the controls and said "Captain, do you mine if I take off." I replied, feeling I had enough ability to get out of any unusually situation he could put the aircraft in, "You have the controls." He quickly jerked on the collective; picking up to a wobbly six-foot hover, did a pedal turn, nosing it over and took off a little side ways. I thought to myself he has flown before. At about 100 feet he said, "you have it," so I took over the controls and flew the rest of the way to Tan Canh.
Mr. Vann proceeded to tell me he had been flying around Tan Canh and Dak To and had already crashed two OH-58's and that's why he wanted to take off, in case I got shot and couldn't fly. He said, "our mission was to locate and rescue American advisors from Tan Canh or Dak To." He was talking on the radios to two different contacts. Although I'm not sure of the length of the mission, I remember that we landed at Kontum and refueled. Outside of Tan Canh, about 35 km from Kontum, I noticed we had some Navy Fighter planes at our three o'clock position. I had never seen a fighter aircraft that low with flaps down trying to fly as slow as he could without a runway in front of him. He flew on by us and I really can't remember why he was there going so slow unless he wanted us to feel safe.
At that time, Tan Canh and Dak To were under attack. In Jack Heslin's history, he mentions John Paul Vann had lost two helicopters on April 24th while rescuing six American advisors. The Stars and Stripes article mentioned "first one badly damaged helicopter and the second tipped over and crashed while taking off from Dak To II." Apparently it tipped over from too many ARVN soldiers hanging on the skids. Mr. Vann and his Pilot were evacuated back to Pleiku. Mr. Vann told me they didn't have another OH-58 and that was why they needed to use the CAV's LOH-6 and "Besides" he said, "his pilots had a hard day."
John Vann made contact with his advisors by radio. He was also in contact with Cobra gunships, I think the 361st AWC Pink Panthers. We flew in to Tan Canh or Dak To II (not sure which) and landed. I remembered four American Advisors in full gear ran and jumped into our LOH-6 and Mr. Vann telling me to "get out of this place." He then grabbed my AR-15 rifle and both he and his advisors started firing their weapons out the doors. As I was picking up to a slight -- and I mean very slight hover-- realizing that we were overloaded, Mr. Vann began telling me to take off faster before we got shot down. I calmly and professionally (sure) told him that if I made one mistake we would loose lift and crash. Slowly I nosed the LOH over and started a running take off, bouncing the skids off the ground while getting translational lift and doing somewhat of a cyclic climb. That's how we took-off in an overloaded B-Model gunship in 1970 flying with the 335th AHC Cowboys and Falcons -- but the cyclic climb wasn't a climb, it was more just lift-off.
Mr. Vann radioed someone telling of the successful rescue of his advisors. I don't remember where we dropped the American advisors, it could have been Kontum. I do remember taking John Paul Vann back to Pleiku to his headquarters.
There was another mission we flew a few days later that was about the time Dak To II was under siege. Lt. Smith and I, in different LOH-6's, rescued more American Advisors and ARNV soldiers who were in the jungle outside of Tan Canh. I almost flipped the helicopter over when coming out of the hover hole and our blades came very close to decapitating some ARVN soldiers because of the unbalanced weight created when some of the ARVN's soldiers were hanging onto the skid on our left side. My observer had to knock off all but one of the soldiers who he helped inside; by that time we were too high to drop him. We felt bad that we couldn't rescue all of soldiers. Among the ARVN soldiers there was also the largest Asian, by height and size, I had ever seen. I thought for sure that he was a captured Chinese prisoner. He wasn't an ARVN soldier. I believe we took the American advisors to Kontum because it was about the only safe place left.
I had the opportunity of flying John Paul Vann on five or six other occasions, as did some of the other 7/17th Scalp Hunter pilots.
Jim Stein <JimS@palecek.com>
USA - Monday, September 01, 2003 at 21:34:07 (PDT)