59. The Crash Of 151 And 3 Days Of E & E By Richard Tipple
Upon arriving in Vietnam, I was assigned to the 134th Assault Helicopter Company as a 67N20 (Helicopter Mechanic). I soon found that working 10 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week on helicopters was making time go too slow for me. I was going nuts! I often wondered what it was like to be a gunner, where the action was. Later, when I learned of an opening in the gun platoon for a door gunner on the hog ship (151), I volunteered for the job. The crew chief was Eddie Hamrick, an experienced gunner and crew chief.
The first few days as a gunner were uneventful. I learned to load rockets, restock ammo and other duties of a gunner. I remember my first combat assault. I don't know where we were, but I remember Eddie telling me to go hot (open up) with my M-60 machine gun. I watched as tracers from my machine gun disappeared into the trees below and was careful not to fire in the area of green smoke (our troops). Soon after the second run I had what is known as vertigo, I couldn't tell which direction was up or down and squeezed off a few rounds as old 151 was banking sharp and watched as the tracers went almost straight up in the air. Eddie was laughing at me on that one.
As the weeks passed I learned the ropes as a gunner. However, on January 11th 1970 my life changed dramatically. The crew that day was Cpt Bruce Porter (the gun platoon leader) as pilot, WO Larry Ingle (copilot), Eddie and me. We were refueling at some base that I can't remember and had a layover for a while. Eddie and I were in a small club there on base just killing time. I had lost track of Eddie when he suddenly came up to me and said we had to hurry back to the ship. A call had come in for us. I could tell by the look on Eddie's face that something serious was up. On the way to the ship Eddie told me we were going to cover a Medivac on an extraction.
It seemed like about 45 minutes went by before we met up with the Medivac ship. I didn't know exactly where we were but there was a big mountain in front of us that the Medivac went over and disappeared into the fog. On the first try, Cpt Porter could not get over the top with 151 since we were loaded to the max with rockets and ammo. Almost hitting the treetops, he made a 180 turn, went back down the mountain and took another run at it. The ship felt like it would vibrate apart as Cpt Porter pulled all the collective there was this time. We skimmed over the top this time but immediately flew into a thick white fog. It was so thick it looked like someone painted the windshield pure white, a total white out! Fear struck me like a knife.
I looked over at Eddie. He gave me a strange look and made a crucifix across his chest with his hand. I'll never forget it! It seemed like about 10 minutes went by and all of a sudden as I looked out the front windshield, trying to see between the pilots, trees came right at us. We were flying into the mountainside! I heard someone on the intercom say
pull upbut it was too late. We hit the mountain. The terrifying sound of those rotor blades chopping through the trees, the grinding of metal being ripped from the ship, the ship twisting and turning from side to side, are etched in my memory as long as I live. I remember hearing myself screaming.
The ship finally came to a rest on its side about 4 feet off the ground suspended on broken tree limbs. The engine was still running and shoved down into the cargo area behind me where the transmission had halfway ripped itself out towards Eddie's side. I could smell fuel and hydraulic fluid was squirting out all over the place. For a moment I just sat there too scared to move, afraid to look down at my body, afraid to see a leg or something else missing. Then all of a sudden a feeling came over me to get away from the ship. I panicked and started trying to pull myself out of my shoulder straps by brut force. After struggling to get free for a while I found the release ring, got out and jumped to the ground. I ran about 100 feet up the hillside, stopped and looked back, waiting for the ship to explode.
In a few seconds I came to my senses and went back to the ship. I could see the pilot and copilot, still strapped in their seats, were moving a little. As I climbed back up into the ship I saw Eddie slumped over in his seat, motionless. Looking over at the pilots I saw Porter's legs were all jammed up under the dash and Ingle was holding his chest trying to breath. As Porter tried to free himself I helped Ingle unstrap. After he worked himself loose Ingle broke the magnetic compass off the dash and grabbed a map. By this time the engine started to wind up a little and we were afraid it would explode on us so we started throwing things into the inlet to try to get it to stall out and shut down. I think Porter did something with the controls and it finally ran down. I helped Ingle from the ship and then helped Porter out and to the ground.
As they made their way a few feet from the ship I went back for Eddie. I called for Eddie to wake up over and over but there was no response. I tried to reach him without falling through the ship and could just barely touch him. I remember staring at him for a long time to see if he was breathing…nothing! I went back to where Ingle and Porter were on the ground to see what they wanted me to do. They asked me if he was ok and I said I didn't know, he might be dead. Ingle by that time could move a little and went back to the ship to check on Eddie. He came back and said Eddie was dead. I was feeling sick and laid on the ground for awhile.
Ingle, Porter and I were all in shock. I learned later that Porter had multiple fractures in his legs. He couldn't walk or really even stand up. Ingle had broken ribs and a punctured lung. Somehow I escaped serious injury. I only had a broken finger on my left hand.
After a while Porter and Ingle started talking about where we were and what to do next. They decided to use the compass and head east away from the crash. The rocket pods were ripped off and rockets and ammo were strewn all over the place. We found one rifle and ammo for it. This was the only weapon we took with us. We started out into the jungle.
We started up the hillside to the east. It was raining hard and our nomex fatigues were soaked. Porter was having a very hard time just standing so Ingle and I helped him along as best we could. Ingle had made a pair of splints for Porter with some tree limbs before we left the crash site. There was another discussion between Ingle and Porter about staying at the crash site after which we decided to go on. After some time Ingle was really in pain with his busted ribs and could not help Porter very much so I would help Porter along for a while and then help Ingle. Sometimes I would carry Porter piggyback and sometimes he put his arms around my shoulders and I would sort of drag him. It was slow going.
After a short while, we found ourselves on a lightly traveled path through the jungle. We decided to follow the trail but travel above it in case the VC were using it. We moved approximately 100 ft above the trail and continued on. I would take the point for a while then come back for Ingle and Porter. After a while, Ingle would go forward at point and Porter and I would stay behind. We did this for a couple of hours or so. Many times I would see what might be a boobie trap of some kind only to find it was a vine or a stick. At one point, we were exhausted so much we all just stopped and looked at each other. This was when Porter told us to just leave him there and go on and come back for him if we were rescued. Ingle and I decided against this pretty quickly. We were all going to make it, or none of us would.
As darkness fell we heard the sound of a chopper in the distance but it soon faded away and our hearts sank. We moved a little further up the hillside away from the trail below and crawled under some brush for the night. Ingle had a plastic coated map and we used it as a shelter from some of the rain. The rain sounded awfully loud as it hit the map. Sometime in the night we heard artillery being fired from far away. Luckily, it wasn't in our direction. It seemed like we slept maybe 5 minutes at a time and then woke up for an hour or so before dozing off again. We were wet, cold, scared and miserable. I remember it was pitch black all night, I'd never seen a night so dark and rainy.
Later in the night Ingle grabbed my arm and asked in a whisper if I could hear people talking below us. We could hear a voice from time to time but could not make out anything. We whispered to each other what we should do if we heard Americans talking, how we could alert them to us so they would not think we were VC trying to trick them and get ourselves killed. As we strained to hear the voices in the darkness we could tell they were traveling on the path below us. As they came closer to our position we heard the sound of men talking in Vietnamese. We were petrified until the voices faded away down the trail. We lay there in the darkness, shivering and wet until daylight.
Soon after daylight on the second day we were on the move again. We decided to move downhill and travel along a ravine. We traveled along this route for a mile or so picking our way through the jungle. We stopped a couple of times when we heard the distant sound of a chopper but none came close to our position. Even if they would have, they wouldn't have been able to see us through the thick canopy above. It seemed there were never any openings in the canopy big enough for anyone to spot us. As we rested I saw Porter pull up one of his pant legs and remember his leg was almost completely black from bruises. As we moved on, Ingle spotted what appeared to be a boobie trap so we moved around it very carefully. It was a small vine stretched across our path very tightly.
Shortly we began to smell smoke. We continued moving along in the thick jungle and soon came upon a small clearing. As we stood there it soon dawned on us that we had walked right into a VC camp. There was smoke coming out of a small cave and pots and pans on the ground beside a smoldering campfire. We froze! I expected to be shot or captured at any moment. In my mind I had decided if we were attacked I would empty the clip and take as many with me as I could.
I don't know what Ingle or Porter were thinking, but I figured I'd be shot right away if we were captured since I was only a Spec 4 and didn't know as much as an officer. After a few seconds we realized the camp was empty. We quickly moved through the camp and out the other side. We traveled for another couple of hours when I looked down and saw what looked like a pointed hand grenade with two prongs sticking up and half buried in the ground. As we stopped and looked around we saw more and more of them all around us pointed in basically the same direction in the ground. Ingle or Porter, I can't remember who, said they might be air dropped anti-personnel mines. We carefully stepped around each one and slowly made our way out of the area.
We kept moving that day till darkness started to set in. We came upon what looked like a cave, probably 6 ft wide, 4 ft tall and 6 to 8 ft back into the hillside. Actually it was a rock overhang with big boulders on each side of it. We decided to stay there that night. Two or three times one of us would crawl out and look around, I guess our nerves were completely shot. After feeling around in my pockets I found a half pack of M&Ms. There was enough for us to have 2 or 3 each. This was all we had to eat in two days.
As we settled in for the night, we were all shivering from being wet all day with rain and sweat. Ingle was really having a hard time breathing and couldn't lie down for any length of time. He had to sit up to breath so I sat behind him and rested my head on his shoulders to try and stay warm with our combined body heat. We were so stressed out and exhausted that we fell asleep within minutes.
At first light on the third day we left the cave and continued moving through the jungle. As we traveled that day the mountainside became steeper and made things tougher getting around. We talked in whispers as we moved along about how we had to find some kind of clearing to be able to be spotted by any rescue choppers, especially since it had stopped raining and the weather was beginning to clear. We came upon a waterfall on the steep hillside, so steep we wondered how to get across it as we were at the top of it and the rocks were very slippery. The water over the top was not deep, maybe 6 or 8 inches, but it was about 20 or 30 feet across. We thought about climbing uphill to try and find a way around it, but we knew Porter would never make it with his legs so bad. Ingle went first I think, inching across very slowly. I then made my way across, carrying Porter on my back, I still don't know how we did it, but somehow we managed to make it across.
We traveled on that day until late afternoon when all of a sudden we came to a clearing on the side of the mountain leading to a valley below. The clearing was V shaped and we were at the top point of the V. There was grass about 2 to 3 feet tall. I think our hearts jump started as we looked down the clearing below us. We knew we could be spotted here by an aircraft. We made our way approximately 50 feet out into the clearing and laid down in the grass and waited. Not much time went by before we heard the sound of a chopper in the distance and almost immediately Ingle said he heard something at the edge of the jungle behind us. I listened and heard what sounded like someone whistle as if to get someone's attention. Fear gripped all of us. We figured if they were friendlies, they would know we were Americans with our flight suits on, so they had to be VC.
We could now see the chopper coming our way but it was still far off down the valley. Once again we heard something behind us in the jungle, only this time we could very clearly hear people using vocal sounds to signal each other. Not speaking to each other, but using vocal signals, like trying to disguise their voice. Then it made sense, they not only wanted us but maybe any chopper that tried to pick us up too. We crouched back down in the grass and watched as the chopper we heard turned away from us maybe a mile out. Our hearts sank, but then it made a 180 degree turn and came our way once more. We could now hear more and more sounds behind us. Ingle watched behind us with the rifle pointed at the jungle.
Once again the chopper turned away, did a large 180 turn and came our way again. This time it came right at our position. Ingle quickly removed his flight jacket and turned it inside out with the bright orange side out, stood up and started waving it as I watched the jungle with the rifle this time. The chopper came right over us maybe at 100 ft up. I'll never forget when the door gunner looked down. It seemed he looked right at us for a few seconds then turned to say something to the pilot. He then stuck his head back out and waved at us. They had seen us! We were saved!
The chopper was a slick and I'm a little fuzzy here, but I think it had a Cobra as an escort. It could have been a hog escort. I really can't remember since my eyes were on the slick as it made one more slow 180 and came in to pick us up. Ingle took the rifle and back peddled as I helped Porter to the chopper. The chopper hovered about 3 to 4 ft along the sloping hillside. I'll always remember that big smile on the door gunner's face as he pulled me and Porter into the slick with Ingle right behind us. As soon as Ingle was in, we all started hollering for the pilot to get out of there. Ingle pointed to the tree line and opened up with the rifle. As we lifted off the door gunner also opened up, spraying the tree line with his M-60. The door gunner was Ronnie Poarch, the pilot was Major Hensley (our company commander) and copilot was Cpt Campbell as I remembered it that day.
Editor's Note: Cpt Porter was evacuated back to the US. WO Ingle spent a few weeks in the hospital at Qui Nhon and on convalescent and then returned to the 134th. SP4 Tipple had a splint put on his finger and returned to the 134th that day, initially on light duty and then in the maintenance area. A few weeks later SP4 Tipple was awarded the Soldiers Medal for his efforts in saving the two injured pilots from almost certain capture.
|Last modified: Saturday March 18th, 2023|