Saturday, June 20, 2020

UH-1H "Huey" down in Cambodia: Eight souls aboard

On May 2, 1970 a UH-1H “Huey” helicopter similar to that shown here was shot down over Cambodia and crash landed there, eight souls aboard. The crew crash landed, everyone survived the crash. But three were killed at the scene trying to escape, two died in POW camp and three made it home to see another day. The remains of all those who died were eventually returned to the US for burial. Getting that done was not easy.

This is their story.

I will say up front the reports I have researched are conflicting. I spent a fair amount of time unraveling them. I am pretty sure the following is what happened, though you will see I present their story as kind of a jigsaw puzzle.

The UH-1H aircraft and four of the crew were assigned to Company B, 229th Aviation Battalion, First Cavalry Division (Air Mobil), or 1st Cav for short. The mission carried four passengers.

Just days before the shoot-down, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and elements of the 1st Cav attacked North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and communist Viet Cong (VC) forces located in eastern Cambodia, the ARVN on April 29, 1970 and the 1st Cav on May 1, 1970. 

This has been called the “Cambodia Incursion.” The combined ARVN-US force was to search for enemy forces who had escaped to from the RVN into Cambodia, seen by them as a safe haven. 

The force was also to capture the enemy’s Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) headquarters, believed to be in this region. The main American elements were from the 1st Cav, and the 25th Infantry Division (ID) “Tropic Lightening.”

Prior to the ground incursion, on March 18, 1970 USAF B-52 heavy bombers began carpet bombing attacks against enemy targets in eastern Cambodia. This was known as “Operation Menu” and lasted through May 26, 1970, though air attacks continued far beyond that. The red areas indicate the areas bombed by the B-52s, 1965-1973.
The Huey mission on which this story focuses occurred on May 2, 1970, just a day or so after the ground incursion began. It was an emergency mission carrying tank parts and classified documents supporting attacking forces located at Fire Support Base (FSB) Bruiser.

The flight launched from Tay Ninh Combat Base, RVN, about 28 miles south of the Cambodian border to FSB Bruiser, at Ta Dath, RVN, about seven miles south of the border, near Katum, RVN. It should have been a short, 21 mile flight, shown roughly on this graphic.

But it was going to be very close to Cambodia if not inside Cambodia, depending on what the mission crew experienced along the way. As shown in previous graphics, tbhe entire area was infested with NVA, VC and Cambodian communists allied with them.

Warrant Officer 1 (WO-1) Michael B. “Vito” Varnado piloted the Huey. He had three other crewmembers: Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2) Daniel Maslowski the co-pilot; SP4 Frederick Crowson the flight engineer; and Pvt. Tony Karreci, the door gunner.

The crew was also transporting four members of 2nd Battalion 34th Armor (2/34 Armor) “Dreadnaughts.” These members were Capt. Dale Richardson, Capt. Robert Young, SP4 Rodney Griffin and SP4 Bunyan Price. The 34th Armor participated in this incursion, so these men were no doubt bringing supplies and spare parts to 34th Armor elements in the area of FSB Bruiser.

A FSB was built for one main purpose: to provide a base for field artillery to fire in support of infantry missions. Bases also fired to protect neighboring firebases, convoys traveling through their sector, and sometimes to simply fire ‘Harassment and Interdiction’ missions into the jungle where the enemy operated. The bases dotted the Vietnamese countryside, located strategically on hilltops and around pre-existing structures or airstrips to give maximum range and 360 degree coverage by the big guns. 

David Perlmutt, writing for The Charlotte Observer on April 8, 2015, said Varnado and his crew had just finished their seventh mission and were waiting for another helicopter to arrive before going back to home base. Then a call came in saying another resupply mission was needed into the “Fish Hook” area of the RVN. Varnado’s crew offered to take the flight.

 Look closley at this map. This mission was viewed as “routine,” though no mission over there was routine.Certainly not this one. They were to depart Tay Ninh, shown roughly just left of center along the route, then to an area near Katum shown at the bottom of the blue circle. You can see the areas marked in red: high concentratioons of enemy both straddling Cambodia's Fish Hook. They were going to fly into the hornet's nest. I don't know if they knew that.

They left Tay Ninh at about 1615 hours and climbed to 2,500 ft. They were not familiar with the Fish Hook region. About 10 minutes into the flight, they spotted a huge rain squall approaching. Maslowski took control, tried to skirt the squall and flew into Cambodia. Within 10 more minutes the crew could not see the end of the storm nor the ground. The crew then saw their aircraft receiving ground fire.

Varnado took the controls and took a steep dive to avoid the hostile fire. But the aircraft was hit in the tail which in turn set the fuel afire. Perlmutt wrote:

“The helicopter lost its hydraulics, and toxic fumes forced the six soldiers in the rear to the front trying to breathe good air. Maslowski sent distress calls, but got no response. As the fire spread, Maslowski took the controls again. He knew he had to avoid the thick jungle and tried to find a road.

 A huey bogged down in a rice field, shown as an example.

“Suddenly, a rice field came up, and he slowly lowered the aircraft near the city of Memot, Cambodia. At seven feet off the ground, the passengers began to jump. Everyone on board survived. But the Viet Cong were waiting.”

Later information said they received enemy radar guided .60 caliber anti-aircraft (AAA) machine gun fire which ignited materials in the rear of the aircraft. That forced everyone up toward the cockpit. 

Varnado was hit by enemy fire in the leg. Maslowski , shown here, took over the controls. He found some flat land on which he could set down his damaged aircraft. It was a clearing in a rice paddy near the city of Memot, Cambodia. Memot was at a large rubber plantation that extended from Cambodia into the RVN, owned at the time by Michelin.

The citation to accompany the Distinguished Flying Cross for Varnado amplified this story slightly differently:

“(Varnado) attempted to get around the storm, but discovered it was too large. Knowing that the cargo he was carrying was badly needed by the unit on the ground, he headed his aircraft directly into the storm in an attempt to resupply before darkness. Shortly after entering the storm the aircraft started taking fire from a .51 caliber anti-aircraft gun (probably a typo for .61 caliber). He immediately got on the controls and began evasive action but to no avail. The aircraft took many hits in the underside and tail. The ship then started on fire because the hydraulic lines had been severed by bullets. The ship was now very difficult to control with no hydraulic assists.

“The fire became so intense that Chief Warrant Officer Varnado had to relinquish controls to Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski and then tried himself to get emergency calls out. While looking for a place to land, he kept getting on the controls momentarily to help bring the aircraft in safely. With complete disregard for his own safety, he stayed in his seat and assisted Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski in setting the burning aircraft down safely. Shortly after exiting the aircraft, a fire fight ensued, in which Chief Warrant Officer Varnado was wounded and then captured.” 

Diane Turbyfull, reporting for Gaston Gazette of March 28, 2015 apparently met with now Lt. Colonel Dan Maslowski, USA (Ret.) who at the time lived in Charleston, South Carolina. Maslowski harkened back to events. He said after the UH-1H had been hit by hostile fire, 

“That thing looked like it was firing red basketballs at us. I had been fired on many times, but nothing like this.”

Turbyfull relayed,

“The men in the back gasped for air as the chopper burned. Maslowski and the other pilot landed the helicopter in a rice paddy, and everyone scattered, several of them jumping out before the helicopter was on the ground.”

Frederick Crowson, shown here when he was interviewed years after the shoot down by the Pensacola Journal, said he ended up serving 21 years in the Army and served in Desert Shield and the Persian Gulf War. He retired as a Command Sergeant Major. His fateful UH-1H flight occurred on the second day of the US incursion into Cambodia. Crowson said they had four passengers from the 25th ID along with their equipment. They were hit by a radar controlled .60 caliber gun. He said it just “tore through the ship. I never had experienced being hit by so much force.” 

Crowson commented they lost their radios, hydraulics, power and he was certain they were going to crash into a line of trees. However he said the co-pilot Maslowski spotted a rice paddy and set the UH-1 down. But speaking for himself, he jumped out before the aircraft hit the ground. He said he bounced a few times and rolled but got up and helped the pilot and co-pilot get out of the aircraft.

Incredibly, everyone survived the crash landing. 

The aircraft was on fire but did not explode. Four escaped out the pilot’s door and four escaped out the co-pilot’s door. They decided it was best to scatter and head for FSB Bruiser which was to the west of their position. Varnado quickly warned all hands that the enemy was approaching, so the men disbursed in different directions hoping to hide in the tall elephant grass. The enemy opened fire.
Everything turned to hell following the crash landing.

The men, now on the ground, figured they had only about 30 seconds to decide what to do when the pilot said, “Here they come.” They all evaded in different directions. Only Varnado and Maslowski were armed with .38 pistols. The four passengers from the 2-34 Armor had their M16 rifles with them.

Crowson said he got about halfway across the rice paddy when he had to stop because he was ankle deep in mud, so he laid down in the paddy. Maslowski saw him dive into a ditch in the rice paddy as the enemy approached. He therefore jumped in the ditch as well. Maslowski landed on his face, about a foot from Crowson.

Maslowski then said, 

“I cocked my trusty old .38 (pistol). I looked at this guy (in the ditch next to him), and I said, ‘Hey buddy, we’re going to die.’”

The armed VC approached the ditch. They had an interpreter, who said, “Surrender or die.” At that point Maslowski dropped his .38 and he and Crowson surrendered and were captured. 

The enemy searched the two captives and led them to an enemy area located in the treeline about 25 yards from where the aircraft landed in the rice paddy. They were tied with their own bootstraps and blindfolded.

Pvt. Karreci, the door gunner, was hiding in a bush. He saw Maslowski and Crowson surrender to the VC. He then saw some enemy soldiers go over to a clump of bamboo and begin firing into it. They then dragged the wounded aircraft pilot out and dragged him in the direction of the rest of the captives. Karreci identified that pilot as Varnado.

The enemy carried Varnado on a “stretcher” as he could not walk.

As a result, Maslowski and Crowson were taken away and led through a small village to a larger one where they were held until dark. From there the two captured Americans were marched for about two hours to their first detention camp.

The enemy later brought Varnado, the third captive, to the same camp by stretcher.
Karreci remained hidden.
Both Crowson and Karreci reported Robert Young, shown here, ran toward a wood line away from the crash site firing his .45 caliber pistol at the enemy as he ran. They said the enemy captured him and brought him into the detention camp with the others. I am not certain whether he went with Maslowski and Crowson or was brought to the detention camp separately.

In any event, we now have four POWs in the same detention camp: Maslowski, Crowson, and Young, all relatively uninjured, and Vardano, shot in the leg and the side. I believe this camp was a Viet Cong (VC) camp inside Cambodia. In a sense, these men at this point were a bit lucky. While the VC had them, and the VC do not like holding prisoners, they were operating among thousands of NVA who were more likely to hold them.

The three uninjured POWs were subsequently moved out of this camp while the injured pilot was left behind.

While still hiding in the rice paddy, Crowson recounted seeing Rodney Griffin (left) and Bunyan Price (right) firing M16 rifles at the enemy troops before Crowson himself was captured. 

Karreci, still hiding under a bush, said about an hour after Varnado was captured, he saw the communists pull the body of an unconscious or dead "blond, heavyset man" from out of the bamboo and left him out in the open. Karreci was not able to identify that man, but based on intelligence analysis, government personnel believed it was possibly Rodney Griffin. 

If correct, that made him the first Killed in Action (KIA).

The fate of Price has long been a mystery. Maslowski and Crowson always believed Price had been captured, but they never saw him in the detention camps in which they were held. There were plenty of rumors. One ARVN POW who escaped said Price was captured by the Khmer (Cambodian communists). Furthermore, a VC soldier identified a photo of Price as resembling the American prisoner whom he had seen in June 1970. Furthermore, in June 1971, three ARVN soldiers who escaped from the B-7 Detention Camp identified a photo of SP4 Price as the American held for a year in the same camp with them. 

As I indicated earlier, the reports about this Huey mission were tough to put together and deconflict.

At this point I am certain Griffin was KIA and I'll say why in a bit. Recall Griffin and Price were both seen running together firing their M16s at the enemy. Therefore there was cause for me to believe Price was also KIA, the second one. This all got fuzzy when I read a report saying Griffin and Richardson were running together firing their weapons. That would have put Richardson as a possible KIA as well, and lent some credence to the notion Price may have been captured. 

The Columbia Daily Tribune reported on March 5, 2015 that Griffin and Richardson “were last seen running into the jungle, returning enemy fire … Last week, in the jungles along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, human remains were found not far from the overgrown site of a helicopter crash that happened almost 45 years ago. DNA proved the identity of these two American soldiers: Sgt. Rodney Griffin and his buddy Capt. Dale Richardson.”

Many had thought Richardson had been captured. But based on the DNA evidence, Griffin and Richardson were two KIAs. 

So Price’s fate remained a mystery.

A moment on Richardson. One report said Maslowski thought Capt. Richardson was interrogated by their Viet Cong captors about a top secret document they produced. Maslowski indicated the document was last known to be in Capt. Richardson's possession.

As events transpired, according to The Charlotte Observer of April 11, 2015, Price’s remains were found in 2014, buried with the remains of two others. This article said "the remains of the other two were never identified … The aircraft landed burning in a rice field and all eight survived. But three, including Price, were likely killed that day by attacking Viet Cong and buried in a grave. Their remains were found last year.”

Jim Wooten, reporting for The Mexico Ledger said Griffin's remains "had been identified from among the remains of a group of servicemen found near the site of the crash in Cambodia." CBS News reported on April 26, 2015 "Griffin's relatives were told in February that his remains had been found in a grave near the crash site, where two other men killed in the crash also were identified."

David Bauer reporting for the Jacksonville Journal Courier said a military team located a burial site in 2012 "and recovered human remains and military gear from a single grave." I believe "single grave" could have meant a single grave in which three bodies were buried.

Based on my research, I do not know beyond question that the three, Price, Griffin and Richardson were buried together. I believe there is a high probability that is true. One report indicated it is likely local farmers buried them. 

The reality is the three were killed, their remains were found, and they returned home for burial. But, they did not die in the crash. They died as the result of enemy fire while they tried to escape.

In sum, there were three KIAs from this UH-1H crash: Griffin, Richardson and Price. There were four POWs: Maslowski, Crowson, Varnado and Young. Two of the POWs died in captivity, Varnado and Young. That’s seven of the eight, leaving Pvt. Karreci hiding in the bush. His is an amazing chronicle, which I will hold until the end of this story.

I now want to turn to what happened in the POW camps to the four who were captured. 

Referring again to a report on Capt. Young, it said,

“WO1 Maslowski recounted seeing WO1 Varnado two months after capture. The wound in the pilot's side had healed, however, the wounds to his leg and knee were badly infected and he was being transported in a hammock by the communists because he could not walk any distance on his own. Shortly thereafter, the Viet Cong took Michael Varnado to their hospital for medical treatment where he died on 21 September 1970. 

“His side wound had healed, but the leg wound, in the kneecap, was badly infected. He could not walk, and he told Maslowski that the Viet Cong had been transporting him in a hammock. The Viet Cong had told Varnado that he was to be taken to a hospital to have his leg taken care of. The Vietnamese stated that he died two months after Dan (Maslowski) saw him in camp (about 4 months after capture).

“On August 1, 1989, it was announced that the Vietnamese had 'discovered' the remains of Michael Varnado, and returned them to the U.S. His remains were positively identified, much to the relief of family and surviving comrades. Michael Varnado could finally be buried with the honor he deserved. The remains identification did not contradict that Vietnamese' statement that Varnado died four months after capture.”

I’ll interject a personal story from my time in 1972-1973 flying over Laos, Cambodia and the RVN. The scuttlebutt was this. If you bailed out and should get caught, the best case is to be caught by the NVA. If caught by the VC, Pathet Lao or enemy Cambodians, the odds of ever seeing home were very low. Those three did not like the burdens of holding captives. Among the three, the VC were most likely to turn you over to the NVA, though that was a coin flip. In this case, it was more likely they would turn them over to the NVA or at least protect them in some fashion since there were so many NVA around.

On with the Huey story.

Turbyfull conveyed Maslowski’s description of conditions:

"Life wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t what Maslowski would call abused or tortured. When their captors said it was time to move, they walked miles at night. Captured service members were kept in wooden cages, and malaria became a vicious enemy. Some men came down with the disease every couple of months. Many died as a result.”

Maslowski did not know Price, but he knew his remains had been found near the crash site. He said he could not speak with certainty about Price, but suggested he could have been killed by the NVA and buried by them or local farmers.

Maslowski received the Silver Star for his service in a POW camp. Interestingly, his citation says he was in a Viet Cong POW camp in Cambodia. The citation provides very informative information about Maslowski, Crowson and Young:

“Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski was one of a contingent of American prisoners who was held captive by the Viet Cong in Cambodia that were being moved from one prisoner of war camp to another prisoner of war camp. During the long and arduous ten-day forced march, he consistently aided other members of the group of prisoners of war. When one individual was having difficulty with his pack and was overly fatigued, he took it upon himself to carry the other individual's pack while giving encouragement for him to continue the march. 

“Later during the march, Specialist Five Crowson was having extreme difficulty in keeping up with the group. He was suffering from malaria and had not been able to properly eat for several days. Therefore, his physical condition was extremely poor and he finally fell to the ground. His captors started dragging, prodding, and kicking him. Later they placed him on a bicycle, facing backwards, with legs straddling the support bar. Both hands and feet were tied so tight that circulation was cut off. 

“To prevent recurrence of this, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski persuaded the interpreter into letting him help Specialist Five Crowson. Even with the help of Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski, he was unable to continue for more than a few hours, and although both tried desperately, Specialist Five Crowson finally collapsed. When the guards started to threaten, prod and kick Specialist Five Crowson again, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski became enraged, removed his pack and with complete disregard for his own safety, slung his pack into the stomach of one guard and pushed another aside and at the same time condemned them for their actions. Then without hesitation, he reached down and placed Specialist Five Crowson on his back in a piggy back fashion and carried him nearly one full mile over rough terrain. 

“Upon reaching a place to rest, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski placed Specialist Five Crowson on the ground and fell to the ground himself in complete exhaustion. When it was discovered that Specialist Five Crowson's pulse could not be found, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski immediately started giving him heart massage and other life saving measures for about an hour before Specialist Five Crowson responded. 

“During August and September 1972, Captain Young was extremely ill and it was evident that he would die shortly if he did not receive medical treatment. Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski continually demanded that the enemy give Captain Young a special diet and medicine but to no avail. For this, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski was intimidated, humiliated, and threatened, but he never gave up.

“About three days before Captain Young died, he was moved to a make-shift shelter outside. On 17 September 1972 Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski and Chief Warrant Officer (James) Hestand (shown here) were released from their chains to serve food to the other prisoners. Shortly after they started the detail, Captain Young asked to be covered because he was cold and Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski covered him and gave him words of encouragement. Within a few minutes after this Captain Young lurched suddenly and his body became rigid and then he relaxed, gasping for air. Immediately they rushed over to Captain Young, and finding no heart beat, Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski immediately started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Chief Warrant Officer Hestand started a heart massage. The medic and doctor were summoned by the guard and shortly after the doctor arrived, Captain Young died.

“Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski and Chief Warrant Officer Hestand continued to administer life saving steps for approximately an hour before they gave up. Then Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski and Chief Warrant Officer Hestand were returned to their bunker. As Chief Warrant Officer Maslowski started to enter his bunker, he turned and condemned the doctor and interpreter for letting Captain Young die.

“The next day, he was called before the Viet Cong camp commander and political officer and was told if he did not change his thinking and attitude he would not be released.

According to both Dan Maslowski and Frederick Crowson, and substantiated by the VC's list of prisoners who Died in Captivity, Robert Young died of illness in the presence of the other prisoners, and in Dan Maslowski's arms, on 17 November 1972.

Another report indicated nine POWs who were repatriated said they saw Capt. Young die.
Therefore, out of the four POWs from our Huey, only two survived, Maslowski and Crowson. That means out of the eight who survived the crash, five did not make it home: Griffin, Richardson, Price, Young and Varnado.

 Maslowski made a rosary out of parachute cord and bamboo while in the POW camp. It served as a daily source of strength. It is shown here.

Crowson said they never stayed permanently in one place, usually not longer than a month. Part of the reason was the area would be bombed or hit with artillery and the enemy forces had to move. 

Crowson said it took time to get used to the food. He got moldy rice with worms and rocks, fish heads, fish bones and insides of fish, they ate monkey, lizard, snakes and dogs. He said they lived off the jungle. 

He commented he had to fight with himself every day in order to live.

This photo shows nine of the 27 American POWs held in Cambodia by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), formed by the NVA as a shadown government. These men were released at Loc Ninh, South Vietnam, on 12 February 1973. Top row, left to right - Frederick Crowson, Gary Guggenberger, Raymond Schrump, John Dunn, James Hestand, Daniel Maslowski. Bottom row, left to right - Felix Neco-Quinones, Richard Springman, Bobby Johnson.

Let’s now turn to Tony Karreci, the only one of the eight to escape back to US hands. Jesse Bogan, reporting for the St. Louis Dispatch, did a story on his escape. Karreci was a private in the Army, according to Bogan “a high school dropout who enlisted in the Army to get his life back on track.” He was the door gunner on the UH-1H. He was new to the crew and did not know them well.

He had been fortunate to have attended a jungle survival school.
Karreci hid under a bush near an irrigation ditch. He said the enemy went right past him and did not detect him. He waited there until dark, and then “laid low in the murky water and crawled until he saw the fireflies.”

He then got out of the water and found he was covered with leeches. Bogan reported:

“He ripped them (the leeches) off and then, oddly, ditched his wet combat boots. He thought they’d slow him down, a lesson he learned out of necessity as a child of Italian immigrants. He grew up on a ranch near the Snake River in rural Idaho, where his father was a field hand. Young Karreci used to run wild, often barefoot, to prolong the life of his shoes.”

During his first night, he found what looked like an abandoned village with homes on stilts. He kept moving, staying away from the roads. He hid from workers in the rice paddies, sucked water from the leaves and drank from a bomb crater.

On the second night, he found himself in a very thick reed swamp and could barely get through. He decided to stay there and he slept for the night. Then he saw a helicopter flying low and walked toward it. It was his lucky day as he came upon a US base being built next to a rubber plantation.
Now free, he continued to fly but was injured on the base from a mortar attack a few months later.
He left the Army and became an alcoholic. He went to a detox center which fixed him up, and Hogan said Karreci had been sober for 27 years. Karreci said:

“We go through life and experience stuff. We can either dwell on what happened and use it as an excuse to abuse alcohol, drugs, squander your life — self-pity is what that is — or pick yourself up and start moving forward.”

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