Wednesday, April 26, 1972

Helo's Angels Save 9 Advisers

PLEIKU, Vietnam (AP) --"It's better to die on your feet shooting than to suffocate or burn to death in a bunker," said Col. Philip Kaplan.

Kaplan led a team of American advisers snatched from an overrun divisional headquarters in the central highlands Monday in one of the most daring helicopter rescues of the Vietnam war.

John Paul Vann, senior U.S. adviser in the central highlands and the helicopter pilot, identified only as Captain Todd, lost first one, than a second aircraft to heavy enemy fire during the rescue. They came back with a third chopper to complete the evacuation without being wounded.

Kaplan, from St. Louis, Mo., was in a bunker in Tan Canh with eight other American advisers when a North Vietnamese onslaught, spearheaded by T54 tanks, blasted into the compound.

One of the advisers, a lieutenant, tried with a light anti tank weapon to knock out an enemy tank which came within 20 or 30 feet of the bunker, but the weapon misfired.

The bunker had already taken one hit and Kaplan decided it would not survive another. Rather than risk having the bunker blown in on them, Kaplan decided to quit the position and the Americans fought their way 400 to 500 yards outside the perimeter.

Then came the helicopter rescue. With Vann in radio contact with the men on the ground, Todd brought the small four-seat OH58 observation helicopter in on the first of three trips. Each time he took out three advisers.

A few South Vietnamese soldiers, also trying to escape from Tan Canh, clung to the skids of the helicopter. Vann had wanted to fly to the military base at Ben Het, about eight-miles to the west, but feared the soldiers would fall from the skids, so twice ordered the helicopter to Dak To Two airstrip, a mile-and-a-half away.

Each time Vann and Todd went in to pick up the advisers their aircraft took hits. The first helicopter was badly damaged and they came back in a second.

This tipped over and crashed while taking off at [sic Con Tanh] Tan Canh. There were conflicting reports whether this was due to enemy fire or caused by South Vietnamese troops hanging on the skids.

Vann and Todd were evacuated by another helicopter and came back in a third chopper.

On the ground, the Americans were engaged in a small firefight with a number of North Vietnamese and killed several of the enemy. Kaplan was lightly wounded in the back by shrapnel. Kaplan, who is senior advisor to the South Vietnamese 22nd Division, was in the last group to be lifted off.

Vann, a former lieutenant colonel who has been in Vietnam for about 10 years and is known for his straight talking, intended to go back to Dak To Two to pick up the six Americans he had dropped off there.

But the airstrip was evacuated before he could get there and the Americans began walking through mountainous jungle country with retreating South Vietnamese troops toward friendly positions.

Looking weary but calm, Vann told newsmen at Pleiku he regretted that the attempt to save the lives of the Vietnamese soldiers who clung to the skids of the helicopter led to a greater risk to the six Americans who were dropped off in a more dangerous position than he had planned.

"Helo's Angels Save 9 Advisers", by Vietnam (AP), published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Wednesday, April 26, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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