Monday, August 24, 2020

Meet the men of Turbine 33. All lost in rescue attempt, Afghan 2005

“I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.” 
US Army's Warrior Ethos
Dog tag found at the wreckage site of Turbine 33, photo of Ranger's gloved hand holding it


This report centers on getting to know the 16 rescuers aboard a MH-47D "Nightstalker" helicopter, callsign "Turbine 33," all of whom perished trying to come to the aid of a four-man SEAL team ambushed in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan in June 2005.

That SEAL team on the ground was led by Lt. (SEAL) Michael Murphy, USN, who would later receive the Medal of Honor (posthumous). Three from that team, including Murphy, were killed. One badly wounded SEAL was able to escape. He was rescued later, a story which will also be highlighted here.

To start, let's meet the 16 members of the Turbine 33 rescue team. Then a recap of the events that led to the rescue attempt, the subsequent shoot-down of the MH-47, retrieving the bodies of the Turbine 33 and Lt. Murphy's SEALs, and rescue of the lone survivor of that team, Corpsman (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell, USN.

The men of Turbine 33, all KIA during their rescue operation

Two men commanded the rescue attempt responding to the ambush of Lt. Murphy's SEAL team in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghahnistan.
  • Major Stephen Reich, USA, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), MH-47 mission commander. In charge of the flying part of the mission: upload, launch, insertion, pickup, and exfiltration.
  • Commander (SEAL) Erik Kristenson, USN, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One (SDVT-1),. Task Force commander: In charge of the task force that was to be lowered to conduct the rescue on the ground.
Readers may be familiar with the book by Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor. It presents his account of "Operation Redwing" and the loss of three of his team members. Luttrell described their mission as follows:

"Capture or kill a notorious al Qaeda leader known to be ensconced in a Taliban stronghold surrounded by a small but heavily armed force."

More on this after meeting the Turbine 33 members. That "small but heavily armed force" to which Luttrell referred is the force that shot down the MH-47 on its way in to the battle area.

There are common threads to the stories of the men of Turbine 33.

One of those threads is that each man to a man was distinguished in some way, shape or form. Each was completely dedicated to their his, job and country. Whether a college or high school graduate, each displayed boundless leadership abilities. At the same time, each heeded the necessity to follow other leaders. Each found room to exercise his own leadership talents within the margins of that requirement, plus or minus a bit of personal ingenuity that makes the US military so strong.

The need to meet these men and at least recap their rescue story emerges from these expressions of family and friends of the Turbine 33 crew.

The father of the Turbine 33 lead pilot said the book, Lone Survivor, comes up short in sharing the heroics of the 160th SOAR Turbine 33 crew.

A friend of one of the Fallen said:

"A soldier dies twice: once wherever he takes his last breath; and he dies again when he’s forgotten."

There are constant expressions by family and friends not to forget the men of Turbine 33. One wife of a crewmember lost said:

"It’s humbling for him to be remembered; to know he’s not forgotten and, in a round-about way, we’re not forgotten."

3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)

Major Stephen C. Reich, USA, 34, Depot, Connecticut, MH-47 mission commander

"Always respectful and under control, Steve was known as a fierce competitor that always wanted to do the toughest things, and was usually left alone to accomplish them because he had so much talent ... At West Point, Steve was again the star of the baseball team where he still holds records for most wins, and later played on the 'Team USA' baseball team where he was proud to carry the flag at the opening ceremonies of the World University Games in 1993 ... Steve was such a natural talent, he had great influence on the teammates and troops that were fortunate to serve and play with him. He is remembered as a wonderful, fun, happy, loyal, dedicated, dear friend .. He was just one of those guys who could just do anything ... Leadership was in Reich’s DNA — as a schoolboy, as a soldier, as a human being."

Small town boy, Shepaug, Connecticut. Star high school pitcher, pitched team to state championship in final game. Played soccer and basketball. West Point graduate. Star pitcher for West Point, "one of the best to ever come through here." Named to "Team USA" baseball team. Carried American flag at World University Games, 1993. Signed by Baltimore Orioles after fulfilling two year Army commitment. Pitched for single-A  High Desert Mavericks. Recalled by the Army. Served in Germany, Balkans, South Korea, four tours in Afghanistan.

Survived by his wife, Jill Blue

Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) 4 Chris J. Scherkenbach, USA, 40, Des Plaines, Illinois, Turbine 33 pilot

"Chris was a strong man and had a firm sense of justice. He believed in his mission and stood up for what was right ... Chris died doing what he loved ... He was very proud of being a helicopter pilot ... Scherkenbach rarely talked about himself, let alone mentioning details surrounding his missions ... He was a humble man ... He was a class act and a very loyal family member ... Every time he went overseas he would call his brothers and sisters and tell them that he loved them.”

Graduated magna cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, BS professional aeronautics. Enlisted as a communications specialist, but then entered Warrant Officer, helicopter flight training and qualified to fly the CH-47. Eighteen year veteran.

Survived by his wife, Michelle and adopted daughter Sarah, born on July 3, 2005 in China after Turbine 33 was lost.

CWO 3 Corey J. Goodnature, USA, 35, Clarks Grove, Minnesota, Turbine 33 pilot

"Corey didn’t have to say anything to make his presence felt. He was very humble. He was very selfless. He served two previous deployments to Afghanistan. Moreover, in spite of the risk, he always sounded reassuring when he talked with his family ... Corey was a quiet man who was dedicated to serving his country and family. He loved being outdoors, enjoyed hunting and fishing with his boys. Since childhood, he lived up to the family name, carrying a gentle demeanor, yet strong presence."

Graduated University of Minnesota, Associates Degreee Aerospace Engineering, Outdoorsman, fisherman, hunter. Gentle demeanor, strong presence. FGirst a parachute rigger, tyhen a helicopter pilot and Warrant Officer. Home town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, set up the Corel Goodnature Memorial Scholarship Fund in his honor to establish a permanent fund to provide scholarships in Corey’s name to youth wishing to further their education.
Survived by his wife Lori and sons Shea and Brennan

Sgt. 1st Class (SFC) Marcus V. Muralles, 34, New Orleans, Louisiana, Aerial Flight Medic

"Born to Guatemalan-immigrant parents, Marcus Muralles' patriotism drew him to the U.S. Army's elite special forces. So it was appropriate that his daughter Anna was born on the Fourth of July ... As a youngster, he was very into the military stuff ... The military was the first thing in his life. After his kids were born, they were first. They were his pride and joy. He loved to help everybody. He had an amazing heart. It's a tremendous loss for the entire family."

Served multiple times in Afghanistan and Iraq. Died on second tour in Afghanistan. Family urged him to go to medical school, but he wanted to stay in the Army and refused to leave. The plan was for him to come home for his daughter, Anna's birthday but had to replace a medic on the flight who had injured his leg. The cake and celebration went on without him. He left the Army after initial tour in infantry,  rejoined after the Battle of Mogadishu of 1993. Quite, laid back, shy. Aid station named in his honor. A mentor to others. Called his mom and dad frequently. Good husband, adored his children.
Survived by wife, Diana, son Dominic and daughter Anna

SFC Michael L. Russell, 31, Stafford, Virginia

"Mike Russell was known as the 'cocky and confident' first sergeant, who made it clear that pilots ruled the front part of the helicopter, but everything behind them was his territory ... Uncle Mike, you are still my Uncle, my role model, charming and kind to everyone in your life. You’ve dedicated your life to protect America ... Your beautiful young family carries on cheerful because that’s how you’d want it to be. All in which we hold in our hearts. This one’s for you bud."

Others wished they could be like him. A good friend. Great listener, "a rock as my friend." Began Army assignments repairing helicopters. Served 160th SOAR as a flight engineer. Washington Redskins football fan.
Survived by wife Annette and two daughters, Lauren and Megan

Staff Sgt. Shamus O. Goare, USA, 29, Danville, Ohio
"He was an unassuming young man ... He did not seek fame and fortune ... We are here celebrating in freedom made possible by Staff Sergeant Shamus and his crew ... Shamus loved his family, loved his country. He loved his community and, oh yes, he loved his street (hot) rods."

Fooled his mother into signing his enlistment. Became a utility helicopter repairer, then Chinnook (CH-47) repairer. Local town hot rod drivers attended his funeral, once "Taps" was finished, they beeped their horns, revved their engines and squealed their ties sending a plume of smoke billowing, all in his honor._____ 

Sgt. Kip A. Jacoby, USA, 22, Pompano. Florida

"A brilliant smile"

“Kip believed his choice of service for our country was meaningful and right ... He loved what he was doing, he knew the risks, and he was proud to be a soldier fighting so others wouldn’t have to. He made us all very proud. Even in the face of danger, he showed courage and bravery as well as a keen sense of humor. He honors us all ... His smile and need to make people laugh was amazing ... I think he thought he had a duty. I think he believed in the mission we were fighting over there.''

Enlisted a a Heavy Lift Helicopter Repairer. Served as crew chief. Sarcastic. A goofball, made everyone laugh. Guitar player. Loved cars. So too tattoos.

Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 160th SOAR (Airborne)

Sgt. 1st Class James "Trey" Ponder, III, USA, 36, Franklin, Tennessee

"Tough, dedicated and skilled warrior. ... My granddaughter just this week asked her mother the question as they were saying their prayers and asking for safety for Tre. She said, 'Mommy, how do we know when Jesus is calling Daddy home to be an angel? Faith and knowing that Tre is doing what God wanted him to do is sustaining the family ... It means the world to us when we go to the Memorial Day service and we see active-duty military there. They never knew him, but they’re there. It’s humbling for him to be remembered; to know he’s not forgotten and, in a round-about way, we’re not forgotten ... If he would have known the outcome, he still would have gone. That’s who he was,” she said.

Trey was a straight shooter, just a plain hands-on kind of guy. No nonsense. Attended Auburn University. Joined to repair helicopters. Rose to be flight engineer instructor. A Tennessee farm boy, his colloquialisms were hilariousm: "So buck-toothed, could eat a turnip through a picket fence!" An example for others to follow. When the chips were down, you wanted to follow this ghuy.
Survived by wife Leslie and two daughters, Samantha and Elizabeth

SEAL Team 10 (ST-10) and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDV-1)

Lt. Commander (SEAL) Erik Kristenson, USN, 33, San Diego, California, overall Task Unit commander

"Erik did what any SEAL would do: go help SEALs in trouble ... The complexity of who he is, to me, is bigger than his being a SEAL. He was wickedly smart, but more on the creative side. He could play the trumpet, he could sing, he could write ... Erik was funny as hell, always one of the boys ... (Erik) was doing what he wanted to do ... Erik was probably the furthest from what you would have thought of a Navy SEAL. He was a bit of a chucklehead. A down to earth, happy-go-lucky guy. He was a very a selfless guy ... He was a strong and humble leader. He could relate to the most junior guy and to a general or admiral. He was just a wonderful person. He was well-read and intelligent, into music and literature ... Erik was his own man."

Graduated with honors from the Naval Academy. Gifted writer. Attended St. John's College in Annapolis and gave English lessons while there, liked art and literature, spoke French. Left graduate school and teaching at the Academy to join the SEALs. Inteligent. Liked to quote Shakspeare, read Melville, and liked karaoke. Always put others first. Served as fire control officer on a destroyer, and officer-in-charge of Rigid Oflatable Boat Detachment. nown as "Special K" to those who served with him. His mother said, "Boys are boys. SEALs are SEALs."_____

 Lt. (SEAL) Michael "Groove" M. McGreevy, Jr., USN, Portville, New York

"Mike was known for really cutting a rug. In college he was known to dress up in '70s clothes and do all the dances. At weddings, he'd just tear it up ... He grew from a thin-as-a-rail, somewhat awkward teen, to an absolute physical stud of a man. You felt compelled to stand and salute ... Hold him up as high as you can - he was a great American and a great person ...He did well in everything I saw him do - at the same time, he was very, very humble about it and was always ready to help others."

Graduated from the US Naval Academy, secretry for his Class of 1997. Popuilar. Scholarly. Learned to speak German on his own. Determined. A runner, three miles every morning to school to get there early and do strength building before class. Ran the Marine Corps Marathon while at Annapolis. Did well in everything he did, yet humble. Ready to help others. Finished first in his SEAL class.
Surviving wife Laura and daughter Molly

Senior Chief Information Systems Technician (SEAL) Daniel R. Healy, USN, 36, Exeter, New Hampshire

 "Senior Chief Dan Healy was a great SEAL. He was fiercely determined to face the enemy on the field of battle. I know of no other man who I would want with me more when facing the enemy. All SEALs will forever be held to a higher standard because of what Dan Healy did"... "He's leaving a wonderful legacy to his family and to his children,"  ... Fun personality, liked to tease people and pull a prank in fun ... Impacted people's lives, made them better people, helped them improve themselves, provided endless encouragement, a mentor.

Entered initial SEAL training shortly after completing basic training. Attended Defense Language Institute to learn Russian. A golfer. Liked to wrestle with his kids, play ball,  frisbee and a host of others.  Once was in "Bravo platoon," known as the "misfits." Competitive, loved sports. Told his kids to be good at whatever they did and if that was too tough, always try. About one thousand people, bagpipes and all attended a tribute to him. 
Surviving wife Norminda and sons Jacob, Chris, Nathan and daughters Chelsea, Jasmine, Sasha, Nia,   

Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Jacques Fontan, USN, 37, New Orleans, Louisiana

"I went from having a happy-go-lucky life and living in a bubble to realizing the Jacques was going to be much more involved. I think it just became much more real what his job was and the danger he was going to be in. He told me we weren't going to speak for a three-month period. To this day, I still don't know where they were ... Jacuqes just said, 'We're just flying around in helicopters. It's no big deal ... Jacques was on the bird that came to get my teammates and I out of the hornet's nest. He was and will always be remembered as a warrior who never quit. My admiration for Char and all of the families who lost their loved ones that horrific day will never cease ... To the man who taught me how to swim as a fish in Jacksonville, FL. I was in his last class as 15... He rode me and I graduated with his grace and mercy of truly thriving at being the best!"

Attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Attended fire control school. Trainer for Navy search and rescue program.  Always wanted to be a SEAL.Had two puppies, Birdie and Dixie. A golfer. Made others around him better people. A big heart.
Surviving wife Charissa and daughter Jourdan

Electronics Technician 1st Class (SEAL) Jeffery A. Lucas, USN, 33, Corbett, Oregon

“He could surprise anyone. He was always so fast, so smart and so sure of himself. There was no way he wasn’t going to reach his dream ... I lost my brother and my best friend. With him, it was always easy because he’d set the bar, and you’d know where to set the bar to measure greatness ... Living in the country, the boys always had time to get into everything. They were all good boys, but every one of them looked up to Jeffrey. He was a leader and a mentor ... He was ready to go. He could not wait to get over there and fight the fight.”

In fourth grade, he wrote a paper all about US Special Forces, said one day he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. As a boy, he would sneak up on people dressded in camouflage made from the brush. He built traps to catch rodents in his yard. He was fast, smart, sure of himself. Spent time ibn the basement shooting mice with his BB gun. Known for his leadership, enthusiasm, quick wit. Guaranteed to be funny and put a smile on your face. Extensive list of qualifications, such as sniper, sniper instructor, and military freefall parachutist. Navy SEAL of the year in 2004. 
Surviving wife Rhonda and son Seth

Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (SEAL) Jeffrey S. Taylor, USN, 30,  Midway, West Virginia  

"Honest, compassionate, and giving to a fault.” She said, “He knew his place was fighting side by side with his best friends to bring peace and avoid future attacks on American soil. Jeff knew his calling ... Here I am, living my dream which extends out as the farthest-reaching arm to smash those who wish harm on my loved ones and our way of life. Sometimes the great pride is replaced with anger, followed by sadness at the loss of friends that couldn’t be here with me to fight as they also dreamed to do. As far away as I am, I feel at home here, and know this is what I’m meant to do. Not sure if this will give me the closure to move on or solidifies my place in life, only time will tell. The one thing I know without a doubt, is that I look forward to coming home to you, being the best husband I can and loving you for the rest of my life."

Strong leader. Platoon leader. Could be serious, and lighthearted. A gun collector. Killed after only three months marriage. Expert outdoorsman, loved sky diving, BASE jumping, rock climbing, adventure sports, hunting, and shooting.
Surviving wife Erin 

Machinist Mate 2nd Class (SEAL) Shane "Hatch" Eric Patton, USN, 22, San Diego, California

"Just full of life. Ready to serve his country. He wanted to be a SEAL, and he wanted to be the best. His father was a SEAL, and he figured if he joined the armed forces, he would go all the way and be the best ... His nickname was 'Cream, Hatch or Snack Attack' ... Shane was good with everything he did or tried. … He cared about his work. He cared about pulling his weight. He cared about his platoon."

In high school, star baseball player, pitching and playhing outfield. Started a band, played guitar. Surfer and skateboarder. Strong character. Loved being s SEAL, and very good at it. Modest. Believed in his country._____

Quartermaster 2nd Class (SEAL) James Suh, USN, 28, of Deerfield Beach, Florida

Academics were a priority for him in high school, but starred in tennis and swim team. Attended many classes for talented and gifted people. Earned BA from University of Florida. Goal was to be a veternarian, but joined the Navy after graduation instead, and became a SEAL. "Perpetually inquisitive" ... intellectually curious ... "Always had a question to ask" ... Dry sense of humor made everyone laugh. Loved his Navy teammates - risked his life to save them. Best friend to Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson, who was on Lt. Murphy's SEAL team - wanted to save him.

Born of Korean immigrants. Very close to his family. Prior to going to Afghanistan on his first mission, he prepared and hid birthday gifts for his father in the house. Called from Afghanistan and told his father where the gifts were hidden, unnoticed for many months. Rock-solid dependable. prepared for missions way ahead of others. Rolled with the punches. "Made of Damascus steel." __________

Operation Red Wings

Lt. Patrick Murphy and his three SEALs in the team were part of a larger, five phase operation known as Operation Red Wings.

Theirs was Phase 1, reconnaissance and surveillance of suspected safe buildings of Ahmad Shah, known as the "Lion of Panjshir." Shah was leading a guerilla group aligned with the Taliban, known to the locals as the "Mountain Tigers." His men were terrorizing the region, ruling with an iron fist. Intelligence said Shah was in the mountainous terrain near Asadabad in eastern Afghanistan, not far from Pakistan.

The SEALs were to be inserted in the area where Shah was believed to be. They were to observe and identify Shah and his men, identify specific locations, and guide a direct action team of Marines to structures in which Shah and his men were observed to be staying.

The Marines were to assault Shah, and capture or kill him and his men. The Marines and Afghan Security Forces (ASF) were to then search for more suspected insurgents in the neighborhood. Navy corpsmen were to provide medical care to the local population and determine local needs, then exfiltrate. The Marines would stay in the region for about a month, then depart.

This operation did not get beyond Phase 1.

Phase 1, Day 1, Operation Red Wings

Lt. (SEAL) Michael Murphy, USN led a four-man Navy SEAL team on June 28, 2005 meant to find Ahmad Shah.

Lt. Murphy's team consisted of the following:
  • Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class (SEAL) Danny P. Dietz
  • Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew G. Axelson 
  • Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell, USN
Intelligence estimated there were about 100-200 enemy in the area of the insertion. The belief was such a large presence was to protect a high value target, perhaps Shah.

This was a clandestine operation. The area was desolate. It was night.

Lt. Colonel Matt Brady, USA, commander 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), flew the team to the target area aboard a MH-47D helicopter and inserted the four SEALs into the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan.

Brady, shown here in later life, and his crew saw more activity on the ground than expected. A USAF AC-130 gunship was providing over-watch but had to return to base because of a mechanical problem. The rules said Brady therefore should abort his mission and return to base as well. But he decided to press on. The AC-130 crew provided its observations of the landing zone (LZ) and recommended the best approach.

Tall trees were on all sides of where Brady wanted to go. Brady positioned the team close to the target area, a dangerous endeavor to start.  He maneuvered to where his rotors were just feet away from the trees. The crew kicked out the ropes, and the SEALs fast-roped to the ground.

After the SEALs hit the ground, Brady's crew found the rope tangled up in the trees, so they cut it loose and left the area. They returned to Jalalabad to prepare to stand alert as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) should the SEALs run into trouble.

Following the insertion, the SEAL team hid the rope and walked most of the night, elevation 10,000 ft., to a place where they could hide. Then, the unexpected. Three Afghan goat herders walked by the team. One of the herders spotted Luttrell hiding under a tree. The mission was now compromised. The team surrounded the herders. The daunting question was “what to do.”

After discussion and a vote among the SEAL team members, Lt. Murphy decided to let the sheep herders go. One option, not taken, was to kill them. The goat herders walked away out of sight.

The team’s worst fears then came to pass. About two hours later a large force of about 50 or more enemy came to the SEALs’ location. The enemy attacked from superior tactical positions at night in the rain. A fierce firefight ensued, killing Murphy, Dietz and Axelson. Corpsman (SEAL) Luttrell was the sole survivor, but was badly wounded.

Prior to succumbing to his multiple lethal wounds, Lt. Murphy had successfully reported the compromise to his command and control authority by satellite radio. On a second call, he managed to request a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to reinforce them and pull them out.

Two MH-47D from the 160th SOAR "Nightstalkers" were launched, callsigns "Turbine 33 and 34." This is where this story starts.

Turbine 33 rescue attempt

Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) 3 Corey Goodnature, USA and CWO 4 Chris Sherkenbach, USA flew Turbine 33. There were 14 more men aboard: six Special Operations Forces (SOF) from the 160th SOAR and eight Navy SEALs. Their MH-47 was tail number 146, affectionately known as "Evil Empire," stenciled on the ramp.

Lt. Colonel Brady hopped aboard Turbine 33 and prepared to go. Major Reich came over. Brady had only been on board with his unit for a few weeks. Reich, who was mentoring Brady, had been designated the MH-47 mission commander. He told Brady to get off the aircraft and serve as overall operations officer in the control center, where he monitored the radios and maps to follow Turbine 33 and 34 in to the target area, and exercise command and conrol authorities.

Lt. Commander Erik Kristenson, was in command of the rescue force that would leave the MH-47 to rescue the SEALs. His plan was to be inserted on the high ground as close to the SEALs in the fight as possible. Kristenson's vision was to then "fight our way down the hill." He was heard to say:

"Drop us on the high ground, and we’ll make our way to our swim buddies (SEALs)."

The plan developed such that Turbine 33 would insert Kristenson's SEALs on a ridegline above the original LZ. The MH-47 would then circle back to pick up those rescued and the rescuers.

Two Army Apache and two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from the 160th were already airborne to escort the two MH-47s. A flight of two USAF A-10 Warthog fighter aircraft, callsign Grip 21, was circling above the target area.

Turbine 33 took lead with Turbine 34 following closely behind. The MH-47s could fly at higher altitudes and faster than the Apache and Blackhawk escorts. The Blackhawks carried a group of Marines that would reinforce the SEALs on the groumnd. As a result, both MH-47s outran them and were the first to arrive at a LZ in an open meadow near the last known position of Lt. Murphy's SEALs.

At about 4:10 pm, June 28, 2005, Turbine 33 descended toward the LZ. Turbine 33's pilots approached the LZ flying at 50 ft, and had to slow to below 100 knots. At the time of their approach, the SEALs on the ground reportedly were still fighting.

A second group of hostiles showed up and began to fire at Turbine 33 with small arms and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). While maneuvering to land, and with the SEALs aboard preparing to fast rope down, the MH-47D was stuck by an enemy RPG. The RPG penetrated the MH-47 through the ramp, impacted the main drive shaft, and exploded inside. Critical aircraft components were severed.

The aircrew babied the MH-47 to a small ledge, tried to recover, but then the aircraft's nose dipped down, the aircraft slid to the left, the rotor blades began hitting each other, it then rolled right, inverted and descended down the hill. In short, the aircraft crashed.

Lt. Colonel Brady said:

"The hard landing and the palpitations of the rotors were too much for the small landing zone and weak ground. It was their time, the aircraft rolled off of the ledge on to its side and down the mountain into the valley below. Eight SEALs and eight aviators from Task Force 160th were gone.”

This is a photo of the crash site. This was the first 160th SOAR helicopter lost in combat.

With Turbine 33 down and Major Reich apparently lost, Brady instantly became the commander of the SOAR outfit. Turbine 34 had been hanging behind waiting his turn to insert his SEALs to the rescue force. Seeing what happened, Turbine 34 pulled away, orbited for about an hour, and searched for survivors. Its crew could not find any.

The SEALs aboard Turbine 34 had their guns drawn and demanded Turbine 34 set them down on the ground.

Brady ordered Turbine 34 to return to Jalalabad. He commented in an interview:

"I had to find out truly who was ready to go, and who was just saying they were ready to go, because in the end, that was going to directly affect how successful we were. And number two, I had to figure out how do we respond. We've gotten an emboldened enemy on the ground. We've got a decrease in morale and a shock to the force right now. And the weather and the terrain are an increasingly dangerous factor. And so I had to make the very heart-wrenching decision to delay for 24 hours and let the sun rise again and set again before we attempted to rescue people that were potentially left on that mountain."

The Blackhawks maneuvered around the area taking heavy fire, but got out of their reach and left. The Apaches had left as well.

Corpsman (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor. He was on the ground, but had been badly wounded and slid down a mountain-side. His face took a beating from flying shrapnel. He had a broken nose, three cracked vertebrae, metal and rocks sticking out of his legs. A bullet in the thigh. All that said, he was alive and moving.

In summary, at this point, we have 16 dead from Turbine 33 and three dead from Murphy's SEAL team, toalling 19 KIA. There was one survivor still on the ground, Luttrell.

The USAF A-10 pilots saw the shoot-down and attacked the hostile forces. But Murphy's SEALs, except for Luttreell, were down for the count. No one on the US side knew at this point that Luttrell was still there.

What now coach?

Editor's note: Before going on, I want to credit

With Turbine 34, the Blackhawks and Apaches back at Jalalabad, the SEAL commander developed a plan to go back. The Task Force commander rejected the idea. That said, there were a lot of vehicles on the ground loaded with troops. They headed out to the crash site.

In addition, five more MH-47s loaded up with SEALs, Army Rangers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) members and off they went. But the weather turned severe and visibility became extremly poor. They were ordered to abort, and they did.

The next night. the MH-47s loaded up again to try again. At the site, the SEALs, Rangers and JSOC members fast-roped in. The Chinooks returned to Jalalabad.

The men left on the ground began their search for casualties and critical equipment. They secured the site and radioed back there were no survivors. They blew out a large area with explosives to let MH-47s land when they returned.

The M-47s returned the next night and offloaded Marines to help with security.

All 16 souls from Turbine 33 were confirmed lost. Their bodies had been recovered, placed into body bags, and lined up for retrieval. The Turbine 33 crews' bodies were uploaded to a MH-47 and all the aircraft returned to base.

In addition, three of the four SEALs on the original ground mission had been killed. They had not yet been found.

A USAF C-17 was already at Jalalabad, ramp down, to take the Turbine 33 Fallen back to the US. Skovlund wrote this:

"Their war-weary faces were chiseled stone as they watched the task force solemnly load 16 flag-draped internment cases into the C-17."

The Special Operations Forces at Jalalabad and chaplains turned out for the return of the Fallen. With their special passengers aboard, the C-17 took off and departed, leaving all hands who participated in the attempted rescue and aftermath on the ground to ponder what had happened.

Then, all of a sudden a SEAL ran forth with a note that said Corpsman Luttrell was alive at a nearby village. Clearly a rescue attempt would have to be mounted to get him.

The villagers and another rescue attempt

A group of villagers had come to the scene where Lt. Murphy's SEAL team was fighting, some armed. Remarkably, they took Luttrell to their village. They fed him, clothed him, and tried to care for his wounds.

A man named Mohammed Gulab, father of six, took Luttrell under his wings. Gulab was an ethnic Pashtun. Pashtuns had a code known as “Pukhtunwali.” That meant Gulab considered Luttrell a guest. It was his duty to protect him.

The Taliban were there and they wanted Luttrell.  They and other insurgents came to Gulab's home several times but Gulab would not give up Luttrell. The insurgents knew if they attacked Gulab and snatched Luttrell, they would have to face Gulab's clan, which would have been a battle royal.

For his part, Luttrell entrusted his life to Gulab. James Rupert has summarized the Luttrell-Gulab story. He reported the villagers knew there was a U.S. forces base across an 8,500-foot mountain ... at Asadabad. Rupert said:

“ 'We got some paper and I told the soldier to write a note,' Gulab said. 'We sewed it inside the hem of my brother-in-law’s shirt. I sent him to the Americans to tell them that we had their soldier and the Taliban were going to attack us.' ”

In the mean time, on June 29, 2005, one day after the ambush and the shoot-down, an alert order went out to Lt. Colonel Jeff "Skinnhy" Macrander, and Major Jeff "Spanky" Peterson, shown here, 305th Rescue Squadron, "Anytime, Anywhere," at Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan. They flew their HH-60 Pavehawks to Bagram, north of Kabul.

Macrander, shown here, was flight lead. Each rescue helicopter carried a pararescue crew, known in the Air Force as PJs. They were then told to go to a small airstrip in Jalalabad, near Pakistan, about 50 miles from the action, and sit tight awaiting orders.

At the time, Peterson and his crew had only three days left on their tour. They kissed that schedule goodbye.

 They had to sit tight. A rescue plan had to be drawn up, forces had to be readied, and they had to be moved. In the meantime, air forces were aloft searching for survival radio transmissions and rescue beacons from those in the fight and in the MH-47.

The Washington Post reported that Colonel James Yants, a military spokesman in Kabul, said at the time that a "large, aggressive ground force" was moving toward the Turbine 33 crash site on June 29, 2005, a day after the crash. He said friendly forces spotted the wreckage but had not yet gotten to it, though they did cordon off the area to prevent enemy from approaching. He added:

"We are fighting our way to that helicopter, (and the forces on the ground had) 'active air cover.’" 

The slog to the site was tough. There was only one way in, by foot. This is a photo of ground forces headed to the site. I believe the ground force headed to the crash site was the one that left Jalalabad by truck. The weather remained bad. All that said, rescuers did get into Turbine 33's crash site on June 30, 2005, and recovered all 16 souls.

Macrander and Peterson flew a rescue mission in the area where the SEALs had operated in search of any survivors during the evening of June 30. During that flight they heard feint clicking on the radio, but returned empty-handed after expending all their fuel. 

It turns out Luttrell could see them, but he was in such bad physical shape he could only send clicks over his radio. They flew again on July 1, but no joy there either, and no signals.

During the morning of July 1, an elderly man headed down the hill to a US Marine outpost about five miles away (some reports said it was Gulab but I am not sure). He made it to the outpost, told the Marines his story, and the Marines called the Air Force.

Peterson and his pararescue crew came to the outpost by helicopter, picked up the old man, and took him to the nearby base at Asadabad for questioning. They had to make sure US forces were not being drawn into a trap.

Gulab carried a note from Luttrell which correctly described his SEAL tattoo. So they had a firm identification, an exact spot on the map, that was all good enough, and another rescue was on.

There was some debate about what helicopters to use, Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) or USAF Rescue. Initially, the decision was for SOF MH-47 helicopters to go in and get Luttrell with USAF Rescue flying cover, ready to extract any rescuers who might get into trouble. Then the plan changed. Macrander and Peterson were tagged to take the entire job while the SOF was used elsewhere.

Peterson remarked:

“They said ‘60s (USAF HH-60G Bklackhawks) you have the pickup’ That’s when I – well that’s when you start listening a lot harder because we’re doing it now.”

Laura Blumenfield, writing, "The Sole Survivor" published by the Washington Post on June 11, 2007, wrote about “Spanky” Peterson laughingly pulling some people's chains, complaining about having to fly with a bunch of "old farts" from the Reserves. Little did he say he had served in the Reserves as well. Blumenfeld described Peterson's crew like this:

"Peterson climbed aboard with his reservist crew: a college student, a doctor, a Border Patrol pilot, a former firefighter and a hard-of-hearing Vietnam vet."

I believe these men probably included a flight engeineer, gunners, and perhaps someone with some medical experience. PJs, who would go to the ground to search for Luttrell, were on board as well.

Blake Morlock has also written an article about the USAF rescue effort, "War story: D-M pilot's heroic Afghan rescue," published by the Tucson Citizen on September 2, 2007.

Morlock wrote that Spanky thought his flight leader, nicknamed "Skinny," would go in and pick up Luttrell while Peterson would fly cover. Peterson seemed "happy" with that decision. The truth was, Peterson had not yet flown combat, so his joking about his reservist crew wood ring a little hollow later.

As an aside, if you are going to be a military pilot, you need a nickname like "Spanky." 

To Spanky's surprise, Skinny Macrander had a different plan. Macrander decided to fly in to spot a landing site, and mark it with a strobe light, with Peterson on his tail. On signal, then Macrander wanted Peterson to land and make the rescue. USAF A-10 Warthogs and an AC-130 Spectre gunship would be there, and on the ground, 20 special forces would be in place in case the enemy wanted to have a slugfest. The rescue was to be done at night.

Both USAF rescue aircraft flew through the narrow valleys and canyons, the weather was such that it was pitch black, Peterson had some night vision issues with his on-board equipment, so he was forced to stay glued to his flight lead's butt.

Aircraft started bombing in distant hills away from the LZ as a diversionary tactic. As the two Pavehawks came in to the target area, Spanky was told there was enemy in the area. He was further told new special forces were on the ground, had the enemy in their sights, and guided in the A-10s to send respects from the USA. The A-10s were pounding the areas around the target to keep the Taliban pinned down and deter them from having any brilliant thoughts about attacking. The Warthog is very effective at this kind of work.

There was an infrared lantern flashing to mark the landing site, and the pilots could see the strobes on the helmets of the special forces on the ground. With all this, Peterson informed all hands that he could not see the landing site largely because of clouds.

Peterson remarked:

“It was dark and the weather was bad. It was a black abyss. We didn’t even know where we were going and which one (strobe light) was the right one.”

So an A-10 driver said he would dive in and light the site with his infrared but refrain from firing. Clouds were messing up everything, and Peterson still could not find the target because he couldn't see the A-10's infrared marker. At the last moment, finally a stroke of luck, a cloud broke out of the way, Peterson spotted the A-10's marker "like a flashlight from God," and Peterson was now ready to go in.

Peterson tends to sell himself short during the interviews I have seen. But the fact is that his airmanship was now the order for the day, combat experience or not. The village was a series of terraces such as shown here and Peterson had to land on one of them between a cliff and a ravine drop, shooting for a 100 ft spot while he had a 57 ft. diameter rotor on his Pavehawk. He had about 10 ft. of clearance on either side of the terrace outcropping.

Spanky's sense of humor was always there. He has offered that under normal circumstances, he wouldn't even try this during daylight. But this was not normal, and he knew he had to go in, so that's what he did, "Old Farts" on board and all.

As he descended to a terrace, his rotors kicked up enough stuff to blind him. His crew helped guide him in, they had a few last second nervous moments, Spanky focused in on a single bush in the ground to use as a guide, and he set her down about as close to the dime as he could get. He had barely felt the touch of terra firma and his pararescuemen were out the doors and off to the races to get Luttrell.

Apparently two men dressed in Afghan clothing ran toward the helicopter. The HH-60 crew could not identify them so they drew their weapons.This is an art6ist's concept of what the scene was like.

Peterson said:

“I was shaking. The guys are all hollering outside ‘Spanky! Spanky!' They had no idea how close it was and how we almost crashed. All I wanted to do was talk to my wife.”
Luttrell and Gulab were on the ground, fighting off the rotor wash. Following some rescue formalities which included a code to which only Luttrell knew the answers, to assure Luttrell was Luttrell and not a bad guy, the crew pulled him and Gulab into the aircraft, Peterson pulled his Pavehawk up and away, and they all got out of there in a hurry.

Once they landed, I think at Bagram, Gulab and Luttrell separated. Luttrell grabbed Gulab, and said to him:

"I love you brother."

In keeping with his down-home attitude, Morlock quotes Peterson saying how he felt after landing at Bagram:

"That's when it starts. I started shaking." 

The old-timers on his crew, the “Old farts.” however, were about as jubilant as one could be. Spanky told it this way to Morlock:

"They're (his crew) jumping around and banging the windows saying 'You the Man, Spanky!' " 

Well, that's right, "You the man, Spanky."

Peterson said:

“God’s hand was in the rescue of Luttrell.  Being chosen to be the pilot was not luck. We really should have crashed.  I thought all was lost.  God’s hand was with all of us.”

Luttrell was rescued on July 2. The bodies of Murphy and Dietz were recovered on July 4, 2005 in a deep ravine. Some 300 troops and many aircraft continued operating in the area where the SEALs were located looking for Axel and hunting down enemy through at least July 6.

They found Axel on July 6 date and recovered his body.

This means that everyone involved was recovered, though only one was rescued.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Korean "Blue Dragon " Marines in Vietnam

The 2nd Republic of Korea (ROK) Marine Brigade "Blue Dragons" landed at Cam Ranh Bay in early October 1965, shortly after the ROK Tiger Division arrived in Qui Nhon.

The ROK Marine Corps was only formed in April 1949 with an initial strength of 380 men, mostly volunteers from the ROK Navy and Coast Guard, with outdated Japanese weapons left over from WWII. It grew to two battalions by the end of 1949.

When the North Koreans invaded in June 1950, the allies were forced south to the Pusan Perimeter where they held. While that fighting was underway, in August 1950, a 3rd ROK Marine Battalion was created. The three battalions were organized into the 1st Korean Marine Corps Regiment and attached to the US 1st Marine Division (MARDIV). Following the Inchon landings, the ROK Marines occupied Inchon, enabling US forces to move toward Seoul.

In the spring of 1952, a decision was made to use ROK Marines to defend islands in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. There are many of them, if you study a good map, and you'll see that many lie astride North Korea. As a result, the ROK 2nd Marine Regiment was formed with three battalions, two deployed to the Yellow Sea islands, one to the Sea of Japan islands.

Several US Marines have commented that while the ROKs were there to defend the islands, they frequently conducted raids into North Korea, not content to sit still on an island. Many of the islands are fairly close to the North Korean mainland, and have been a bone of contention and source friction.

The Corps quickly established itself as a potent fighting force in the Korean War, called the "Ghost Busters" by some, "The invincible Marines" by others, and "The Legendary Marines" by still others.

The Blue Dragon Brigade, evolving from the 2nd Marine Regiment, was also organized around three infantry battalions (1st, 2nd and 3rd) supported by a composite artillery battalion, a heavy mortar company, an aviation detachment, and the normal support.

Fast forward 12 years. The Blue Dragons are headed to fight communism in Vietnam.

The 2nd ROK Marine Brigade deployed to Cam Ranh Bay in late September and early October 1965, Brigadier General Yun Sang Kim, ROKMC, in command (shown next).

All the Blue Dragon brigade's officers had been trained by the USMC at Quantico or San Diego. One US Marine colonel at Hoi An is said to have remarked some years later:

"We taught them everything we know, and now they know it better than us." 

Brigadier General Lee Bong Chool, ROKMC, told reporters after the Dragons debarked in Cam Ranh Bay.:

“We have only one purpose here—combat.”

He added his Marines would fight the Communist Viet Cong (VC) “anywhere, anytime.”

The brigade remained at Cam Ranh for a couple months. The Dragons then deployed to the Tuy Hoa area to lend a hand against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 95th Regiment, which had disappeared for a while but then reared its ugly head in the rich rice regions around Tuy Hoa. 

When the 9th ROK White Horse Division arrived in fall 1966 and got settled in, it took responsibility for Tuy Hoa. That enabled the Blue Dragons to move farther to the north, into I Corps, the responsibility of the III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF). I Corps straddled the DMZ and Laos. The Dragons were positioned in Quang Ngai Province south of Chu Lai, #5 on the map, the southernmost province in I Corps. 

In August 1966, the Chu Lai region was added to the Dragons' area of responsibility (AOR).  Each of these moves to the north enabled US Marines to go elsewhere.

The Blue Dragons constructed and occupied Fire Support Base (FSB) Ky Tra, northeast of Chu Lai. It was surrounded by booby traps, with only one safe trail down the hill. This is a photo of the FSB in 1971.  It is typical of a ROK Marine FSB.

For example, this photo shows a ROK Marine site south of Danang. In their book, US Marines in Vietnam, The War that Would Not End, 1971-1973, Major Charles Melson and Lt. Colonel Curtis Arnold, both USMC, said:

"The Korean camp and outposts were examples right out of a field manual —immaculate in every way with every sandbag in place. It was apparent to Major Dyer that the "Blue Dragon" Marines were thoroughly professional: they kept their hair cut close, wore their uniforms with pride, and appeared physically ready."

The 5th ROK Marine Battalion arrived in 1967, to reinforce I Corps, which at that time was being strained by heavy NVA infiltration across the DMZ and from Laos. They arrived just in time. The year 1967 was a very hectic and active year for the allies in I Corps, and the Blue Dragons were in the thick of it.

Let's review a few of the battles in which the Dragons were engaged. Lt. Colonel James Durand, USMC, writing, "Korea's myth-making Marines," addresses more battles than are highlighted here. I commend his article to you

Battle of Tra Binh Dong, February 1967 

Col. Durand  has presented an inspiring account of this battle. It was the first major battle for the ROK Marines.

Tra Binh Dong was a village in the Chu Lai region. A 1,500-man NVA regiment attacked about 300 ROK Marines of the 11th Company. The enemy attacked from two directions and  breached perimeter defenses. 

SSgt Bae Jang Choon and his first squad, 3rd platoon, rather than abandoning their position, fought with bullets, then grenades, then entrenching tools, pick axes, and finally fists. Pfc Kim Myong Deok killed 10 enemy with his rifle as the enemy advanced on him. Sgt Lee Hak Won took hand grenades in both hands, waited for the enemy to approach, and at the very last moment, threw himself and the grenades on the advancing enemy killing himself and four NVA. Pfc Lee Young Bok lured the enemy to his position, slipped into a spider hole, then released several grenades as the enemy entered the trench.

Second Lt. Shin Won Bae, the 1st platoon commander, and his platoon sergeant, Gunny Sergeant Kim Yong Kil, gathered a force together to destroy an enemy mortar position. When they approached within 20 meters of the target, they threw grenades and advanced, threw more grenades and advanced, and kept doing so until they reached the objective and took the mortar tubes with them back to their own positions, leaving the dead enemy behind.

The NVA attacked with flame throwers, and the Koreans moved toward the flames, firing machine-guns and throwing grenades, killed the enemy and took the flame throwers.
Here you see 
Lt Gen Louis W. Walt, Commanding General (CG), III MAF, speaking with Capt Jung, Commanding Officer, 11th Company, the morning following the battle, surrounded by Brigadier General Kim Young Sang and other senior Marines. Around their feet are plenty of dead enemy. It's hard to read facial expressions, but General Walt appears to be acting like Capt. Jung's coach, or even dad, and Capt. Young looks mighty proud.

And it just kept on like that until the Marines finally zeroed in their artillery, brought in USMC A-4s and some attack helicopters, and finished the battle. The NVA left 243 dead behind. There were over 100 NVA dead within the perimeter, and another 140 dead enemy straddled on the wire.

Time magazine would say this in its article, "A savage week," February 24, 1967:

"It was knife to knife and hand-to-hand—and in that sort of fighting the Koreans, with their deadly tae kwon do (a form of karate), are unbeatable. When the action stopped shortly after dawn, 104 enemy bodies lay within the wire, many of them eviscerated or brained." 

The US Marine Corps History and Museums Division, in a booklet entitled, The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973, talks about this battle this way:

"The heroic defense by the ROK Marine Brigade's 11th Company against a regimental-size attack southwest of Chu Lai triggered a series of actions, which resulted in the destruction of much of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment and perhaps some of the 21st NVA Regiment. With the enemy fixed in the hook of the Tra Khuc River, two ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) airborne battalions were heloed into position to the west and behind the enemy, more ARVN blocked along the river to the south, a battalion of the 5th Marines went into position in the foothills to the northwest, and the ROK Marines pushed southwest from their base camps along Route 1."
It should be mentioned here that by April 1967, General Westmoreland decided that considerable focus had to be shifted to I Corps. There was friction between Westmoreland and the US Marines, and, in fairness, the NVA was infiltrating through the DMZ and from Laos at increased rates. 

Task Force Oregon was deployed to the corps, consisting of three Army brigades of six infantry battalions sent mainly to Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, the two southernmost provinces, freeing the Marines to focus their attention on the northern three provinces in the corps. Task Force Oregon, by October 1967, would be reorganized into the Americal Division, the seventh Army division fighting in Vietnam. So the Army was now in Marine Country.

 While the Marines didn't like the Army coming into their territory, the Army's presence enabled the Marines to concentrate farther to the North.

During the summer of 1967, the 2nd NVA Division and VC units were conducting major operations in the southern three provinces of I Corps, the southernmost being Blue Dragon Country. By this time, nine US Army battalions were operating in and around Chu Lai. Along with the three ROK Marine Battalions just to the south of Chu Lai, these combined units forced the NVA and VC main force units to withdraw from the populated areas and move back into the mountains. They continued to cause problems for allied forces from the mountains, but at least they were out of the major population centers.

The enemy trawlers
During July 1967, US Navy (USN), USMC and Korean Blue Dragons had been watching movements by a NVA trawler (labeled Skunk Alpha) suspected of being loaded with ammunition sailing slowly southward along the coastline.

 Early in the war, the NVA enjoyed moving massive amounts of supplies to the RVN by boats along the coastline. The legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail from the NVN through Laos to the RVN and Cambodia was still in its infancy, though it grew quite rapidly.

The USN's "Market Time Northern Surveillance Group" had been tracking the trawler for several days, mainly using P2V Neptune patrol aircraft from Patrol Squadron One.

When south of the Paracel Islands, "Skunk Alpha" turned directly toward the Blue Dragon coastal area, headed toward Cape Batangan (also known as Batagnan Peninsula) south of Chu Lai and Danang. She was spotted on July 11 fairly close to the shoreline. Skunk Alpha then turned away eastward, then northward back toward the Paracels. Then on July 13, she turned south again, then west and headed straight for Cape Batangan yet again.

The USN prepared a major operation to get this boat, wanting to do so before her crew could blow up the ship, a routine practice for the Skunks.

The 174th AHC "Dolphins and Sharks" was called in to support the operation. The Shark gunships would provide close air support while the Dolphins would bring in a ROK Marine air assault force to be used as needed. The details of the operation, along with very interesting photography and graphics, can be viewed in the article, "Sa Ky River Victory."

Once the trawler turned to shore, apparently hoping to off-load her cargo to VC waiting there, various naval vessels worked exceedingly hard to trap the ship, get a firm identification, and identify her destination. Once that was done, the appropriate USN Swift boat patrol craft were tasked; the 174th Shark gunships were given directions; the 174th Dolphins carrying ROK Blue Dragon Marines were told their beach assault destination; and USN and RVN ships were positioned, everyone waiting for Skunk Alpha to enter the 12 mile limit.

The weather was bad, it was night, seas were running at 8-10 feet, the winds were blowing above 30 knots, and Skunk Alpha was trying to get into the smooth waters of the Sa Ky River, get to the nearby VC reception point, unload and escape under the cover of lousy weather and darkness.

The enemy, attempting to get to shore, spotted approaching ships and opened fire. Swift boats accurately targeted the pilot house, killing the crew, and preventing the enemy from blowing up the ship. Shark gunships also opened fire and dropped flares to light up the area. Shore-based Blue Dragons opened up with artillery fire.

Following a short naval battle that required some pretty good coordination and seamanship in the rough waters, Skunk Alpha was disabled. It became apparent its entire crew was dead or very badly wounded, and she went aground on the rocks.

The 174th Dolphins were airborne carrying ROK Blue Dragon Marines. They air assaulted in to secure the beach site, and clear out any VC waiting for their ship to come in.

This is Skunk Alpha "berthed" at a dock at Chu Lai. The disabling hits on the pilot house were devastating to the trawler's crew.

Here you see a portion of the cache of weapons and ammunition the trawler was carrying to enemy waiting on shore. 

Raul "Bean" Herrera provided some interesting background on Skunk Alpha to Vietnam Magazine, published in February 1996, and revised by Larry Wasikowski. He said this


"Skunk Alpha had been well suited for her mission. Her holds were lined with fiberglass between the hull and its sheathing. She was also equipped with a high-capacity pumping system. Her engine was muffled for silent running. There were also 2,000 pounds of TNT strategically located aboard the vessel that could be set off to self-destruct if she were to fail in her mission. Luckily (BM2 Bobby Don) Carver's mortar round had knocked out the detonation button. He saved thousands of Allied Forces' lives, including those of his crew. PCF-79 (patrol craft - Swiftboat) surely would have gone down in that explosion." 

Khe Sanh hill battles, enemy prisoners

Throughout much of 1967, the NVA moved major force levels across the DMZ and from Laos into northern Quang Tri Province, most especially toward the Marines' Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The "Hill Battles of Khe Sanh" were fought throughout the year, an intensive and very difficult prelude to the major NVA assault on the base in 1968. The Marines assessed that as many as 12 full strength and fully supplied NVA divisions led by the 304th NVA Division intended to attack KSCB and destroy the US Marines located there. This was one of two major NVA objectives for 1968: Tet and Khe Sanh. 

The Blue Dragons sent in a detachment of ROK Marines who specialized in jungle warfare. Their mission was to capture as many NVA regulars as possible for interrogation. The Blue Dragons did this with considerable dispatch, operating only at night. Marines write that the Dragons would always come back with prisoners.

This USMC CH-46 from HMM-263 is heading back from the DMZ, returning with Korean Marines and seven or eight Viet Cong captured by Korean troops, taking them to Da Nang, April 1968.

A South Korean Marine from 1st Battalion, 2nd ROK Marine Brigade (Blue Dragon Unit) escorts three Viet Cong prisoners captured during a search-and-destroy patrol near Tuy Hoa on April 15, 1966. The prisoners were caught setting booby traps on a trail.

Legend has it that it was not a good idea to be caught by the ROKs. For sure it was not a good idea to get into a fight with the Blue Dragons.

Tet Offensive 1968

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was, of course, everywhere. On January 30, 1968, General Westmoreland sent a telegram to Admiral Sharp, CINCPAC and told him, among other things, the following:

"The events of the past 18 hours have been replete with enemy attacks against certain of our key installations in the I and II CTZs. The heaviest attacks were launched against Danang, Kontum, Pleiku, Nha Trang, Ban Me Thuot, and Tan Canh in the Dak To area. Lesser attacks were made on Qui Nhon and Tuy Hoa ... The ARVN Corps Headquarters came under enemy mortar and ground attack by an estimated reinforced enemy company. An attempt was made against the Danang bridge by underwater swimmers ... Timely warning of the attacks plus rapid reaction by US/ARVN/ROK forces has brought the situation in the Danang area under control at this time. Casualties so far list 89 enemy KIA and 7 friendly KIA. Noteworthy among the counteractions launched in the early morning hours was that of the ROK Marines, who, in response to an enemy ground attack in the Hoi An area, inserted a force by helicopter, engaged the enemy, killing 21 with no friendly casualties."

Hoi An - "Victory Dragon"

"Ham Salad Alpha" was a Korean Marine position south of Da Nang. Daily resupply missions were flown bymHMM-265. In the Spring of 1968 it was one of the hottest zones in I Corps. It took gun ships and fixed wing aircraft to get in and out.

Pacific Stars and Stripes reported on March 20, 1968, that Brig. Gen. Yun Sang Kim, commander, 2nd ROK Marine Brigade, said that his troops arrived in the Hoi An area of Quang Nam Province one day before Tet. He decided that instead of bombarding the city, he would draw the enemy out of the city and then attack them. During the Blue Dragon effort in this area from January 30 - February 29, his forces killed 609 enemy, with his losses at 50.

The Blue Dragons conducted six "Victory Dragon" operations during 1968 in Quang Nam Province, and 12 more in 1969. Edwin H. Simmons, Brigadier General, USMC, has written a summary of "Marine Corps Operations in 1968" for the USMC History and Museums Division, in a booklet entitled, The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973, and he writes this about these Victory Dragon operations in 1968:

"The ARVN had stood up to the test of the Tet offensive well. In 1968, they accounted for 26,688 enemy killed, more than double the 12,488 attributed to them in 1967. The ROK Marine Brigade in its Victory Dragon series had killed another 2,504 enemy. Added together, the Free World Military Forces in I Corps in 1968 had killed over 100,000 of the enemy, taken nearly 35,000 weapons." 

It's worth noting that an enemy sergeant from the 31st NVA Regiment told his interrogators in 1968 that the mission of his unit was to "attack Hoi An, five times if necessary, and set up a liberation government." Their attacks failed.

"Operation Defiant Stand"

Barrier Island, about 34 miles south of Danang, RVN, and just south of Hoi An, had long served as a haven for enemy units. It was fortified with bunkers, tunnels and fighting holes. Marines had fought there before and would fight there again. I have been unable to specifically locate Barrier Island. That said, I do know it is one of the islands shown on this satellite image of the Song Hoi An River just south of Hoi An, flowing west to east into the South China Sea.

In May 1969, HMM-362 lifted the 1/26 Marines to the island, setting them down in an area boxed off on the land side by the ARVN, Blue Dragons, and elements of the Americal Division. The Operation, known as "Daring Rebel," yet again proved the concept of large-scale cordon-and-search operations in disrupting the VC.

Then, on September 11, 1969, the target was once again the Barrier Island. The Washtenaw County, US Navy tank landing ship LST-1166, participated in the first combined US-ROK amphibious landing combat operation since 1953, the first ROK Marine amphibious landing in its 20 year history, and the last Special Landing Force (SLF) operation of the war. The assault was known as "Operation Defiant Stand."

Several units participated in this combined operation, including: USMC HMM-265 (from the ROK Blue Dragon standpoint appropriately nicknamed "The Dragons"), Brigade Landing Team (BLT) 1-26 Marines, the 3rd Battalion Blue Dragons, South Vietnamese patrol craft, and several 7th Fleet ships.

Just prior to the amphibious assault, the USS Vancouver group feinted an amphibious operation about 10 miles south of the real target to draw off defenders at the target. 

HMM-265 lifted BLT 1-26 and some Blue Dragons aboard CH-46Ds from the USS Whetstone to the far side of Barrier island. The USS Whetstone was the primary control ship, controlling the landings across Red Beach. The USS Taussig, a destroyer, provided offshore fire support.

The Blue Dragons set up a blocking position across the island. The 1/26 Marines landed just south of that blocking position and moved north to join the Dragons. Then the Washtenaw County brought US Marines and the 5th and 6th Companies, 3rd Battalion Blue Dragon Brigade, ashore by amphibious assault on the northern edge of the island. This force then swept south to the USMC-ROKMC blocking position. In all, 293 enemy were killed.

Vietnamese patrol craft cut off escape routes from the island. 


About 1,200 Blue Dragons left Da Nang, Vietnam on December 4, 1971. This group of Dragons shown here was the first element to leave. The rest were out by February 22, 1972.

Among the Dragons who served in Vietnam, some 1,076 were killed and 2,884 wounded. The 2nd Marine Brigade was deactivated on March 10, 1972.

A Marine Gunny Sergeant, worked with ROK Marines in Korea, and would tell his son:

"Those guys are so hardcore one of 'em could get shot and think it’s a mosquito bite."

Let's finish with this proud photo of Blue Dragon Vietnam veterans.


The combat legends of the Blue Dragons are not to be denied.  They were fierce fighters. However it has to be noted that some of them have been accused of atrocities. The allegations have caused great consternation and debate in the ROK. Many Koreans did not want their forces to go to Vietnam. 

Furthermore, after Tet 1968, in large part because the US had announced it would withdraw from Vietnam, all ROK forces decided to remain along the coastal regions and not engage in major combat. In turn this created difficulties in US-Korean relations. That said, US Marine Aviation assets that supported the Blue Dragon troops withdrew completely in May 1971 while the combat role of Korean troops continued.