On 31 Dec. 1971 Team Charliehorse 26 launched from Phu Bai Viet Nam to conduct reconnaissance near the tri-border area of Viet Nam where north and south Viet Nam come together with Laos. That team consisted of a UH-1H command and control helicopter, two AH-1G Cobra gun ships and a OH-6 scout helicopter. The UH-1 was commanded by Cpt. Noel Harvey with 1LT Neil Flynn as a co-pilot, SP/4 Robert Lee Denmark as crew chief and SP/4 Ronnie A. Mickle as door gunner. Also aboard was a ranger team commanded by Sgt. Fernando Figueroa and consisting of SP/4 George F. Cobb, and PFC’s Dennis Trimble and David W. McMillon. The mission of the rangers was to be prepared for ground insertion to rescue any member of the team who might be shot down.
While enroute to the combat area, the team had to fly under the cloud cover in the Ba Long River valley and came close the hill mass south of the abandoned Marine base camp at Khe Sanh. Suddenly an NVA antiaircraft gun opened up on the flight and the Hueys engine was shot out. Entering autorotation Cpt. Harvey aimed at the only flat area he could see on the side of the hill to his front. He could not know that the area was a base camp containing over 300 NVA regular soldiers positioned for the assault on South Viet Nam that was still three months away.
The Huey slammed into the 10 foot high grass and jungle remarkably intact and the crew piled out to set up a hasty defense. As Crewchief Denmark dismounted his M-60 machinegun an enemy soldier rose up from the high grass and killed him with a burst or AK-47 fire. The NVA was killed at the same time from a bursts fired by Rangers Trimble and McMillon. On the other side of the ship gunner Ronnie Mickle was dismounting the Huey when he was hit by a burst of fire and fell seriously injured with a head wound. As the initial smoke cleared both of the helicopter’s machine gunners were down, and four rangers were defending the four helicopter crewman . The aeroscout commanded by WO Major Herrick came to a hover over the downed aircraft to provide suppressive fire, and his gunner, SP/4 Neil Wade Jones was immediately killed by a burst of 51 caliber fire that damaged the OH-6. Herrick subsequently crashed 1 kilometer away on the old Khe Sanh strip. In less than two minutes Charliehorse 26 and Charliehorse 14 were down.
I was scrambled from Phu Bai in command of the Charliehorse reaction team of 6 AH-1G Cobra gunships and a UH-1 containing another ranger team. I took four Cobras to 26’s location and sent the Huey and two Cobras to rescue WO Herrick's crew who were not in immediate danger.
We very quickly laid down suppressive fire around the downed Huey and called for the “Jolly Green Giants” of the USAF at Danang. The HH-53 was the AF standard rescue helicopter and was capable lifting all the stranded soldiers. It also carried two Pararescue Jumpers or PJ’s that could be lowered down to the site if necessary. Along with the Jolly came four A-1H Skyraider prop fighters, callsign “Sandy”, to provide escort, fire support an to coordinate the rescue forces.
Sandy 7 took command of the rescue scene and directed me to command the Army forces and to work the hill mass the South of the survivors and his fighters would work the area around the survivors and to the North. We began to lay a ring of steel around the stranded crew.
On the ground, the rangers were exchanging gunfire and hand grenades with the NVA at a distance of less than 10 yards. Cpt. Harvy talked to Sandy 7 and me on the radio while Lt. Flynn, armed only with a 38 pistol moved from ranger to ranger offering encouragement and redistributing ammunition and grenades.
After about an hour and a half the situation seemed right for the rescue. Sandy 7 briefed JG-21 on the ingress route and the big helicopter came out of altitude and headed for the survivors. Sandy 7 & 8 laid a smoke screen between the enemy and the survivors and the JG came to a hover over the stranded crew. As the rescue basket hit the ground the enemy opened up with all they had and JG 21 was hit hard. Aborting the rescue, he limped to Quang Tri Airfield and executed an emergency landing. He was out of the fight.
JG-65 commanded by Captain Rodney S. Griffith was scrambled from Da Nang and we continued to saturate the area around the Americans. For 2 1/2 more hours we prepped the area and the rangers continued to fight in tall grass surrounding the Huey. As an enemy soldier would attack the rangers from all directions, he would be killed by gunfire from one of the four rangers, each guarding a side of the Huey. As daylight faded and ammunition ran low, a chilling call came from Cpt. Harvey. “Get us now or we are out of ammunition.”
We had added two more Skyraiders to our flight and with 6 cobras and 6 Sandies in the air, we decided for another try. Ringing the survivors with smoke, high explosives, riot control gas, and machine gun fire, JG-65 started in. He came to a hover over the crew and lowered his basket. The ground fire was immediate and continuous. With security provided only by PFC McMillion who alone engaged the enemy in all directions, three rangers and two pilots loaded SP/4 Mickle into the Stokes litter. Once hoisted, the body of Specialist Denmark, and the helicopters machineguns and radios were hoisted aboard the JG. Switching to a jungle penetrator that had two foldout seats, Rangers Trimble and Cobb came up next and the last off the ground were PFC McMillon and Sgt. Figueroa. During the hoist, the JG crew was firing 7.62mm electric Gattling guns from both side mounts and the rear ramp, spewing out a combined 9000 rounds a minute.
Upon entering the rescue helicopter PFC McMillon moved to the rear ramp with PJ TSGT Chuck Salome and continued firing his weapon at the enemy. As the HH-53 was preparing to depart the area, and enemy gunner raised up directly below and behind the rescue helicopter. He was killed with a burst of fire from McMillons rifle.
JG rose from the jungle floor with all 8 Americans aboard.
It was the largest single rescue of aircraft
crewmembers from one location of the Viet Nam war.
They were combat saves number 692 through 698 for the 37th ARRS.
On arrival at Da Nang airfield, the rangers had less than one magazine of ammunition between them.
Twenty days later, on 20 January Sgt. Figueroa was again in a rescue Huey shot down and he was killed in the crash. Ranger Trimble, also aboard lost his foot. Ranger Walter “Buddy” Moran of Nevada, Missouri was also killed, all other aboard were burned. Two bodies were never recovered. On 30 Jan, 72, I was shot down in my cobra and the rangers of Charliehorse came to my assistance rescuing my copilot and me. I was combat save number 700. Cpt. Peter Chapman, the first JG pilot to attempt to rescue David McMillion, and PJ Billy Pearson who was one of my rescue PJs were killed on 6 April 1972 attempting the famous Bat –21 rescue near the DMZ. Cpt. Rodney Griffith who commanded the successful rescue of McMillon would participate in the Desert One rescue attempt at the Iran Hostages and then retire in 1982. He died last year of cancer. PJ Chuck Salome who saved Ronnie Mickle’s life in the JG and who retired as the USAF’s most senior combat pararescueman, would fall from a tree in his yard and die in 1999.
The four rangers on the ground that day were all awarded the Bronze star for valor but they were never presented. Our unit stood down and ceased to exist in February of 72 and most personnel actions were never completed. It is my great personal honor to correct that oversight today. I am the senior surviving officer of D troop 3rd Squadron Fifth US Air Cavalry, call sign “Charliehorse” and the senior Army officer present that day in 1971. I was 23 years old. David McMillion was 19.
Hugh L. Mills Jr.
LTC, ret US Army