The most northerly air base in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War was Da Nang Air Base which was located only 85 miles south of the demilitarized zone (17th Parallel) that demarcated North and South Vietnam. Once a limited airfield inherited from the French, it wasn't until the early 1960s that the South Vietnamese expanded Da Nang into a modern military air base. The first US advisors with the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived in 1961. Over the next three years as the US military presence ballooned, Da Nang AB became a vital base for close air support for the US Marine Corps operating in I Corps, the military operating area just south of the DMZ that was centered on Da Nang. With it became necessary to increase the USMC aviation presence in I Corps, Da Nang AB was practically over capacity and a second air base had to be built in 1965 about 56 miles to the southeast of Da Nang at a location called Chu Lai. Elements of Marine Air Group 12 (MAG-12) were based at Chu Lai, including Marine Observation Squadron 6 (VMO-6) and their Bell UH-1E Iroquois "Huey" helicopters. During the Korean War, VMO-6 was the first Marine Corps helicopter squadron in history to enter combat, flying observation, reconnaissance, and escort missions at the Pusan Perimeter in 1950. VMO-6 had just converted to the Huey in 1964 and commenced operations at Chu Lai AB in September 1965.
Marine UH-1Es looked like this 1965 example at Chu Lai. By 1967, the yellow warning stripe was removed as well as the US insignia with "Marines" titles in black to reduce their visibility in combat.
It would be a four-man UH-1E flight crew from VMO-6 in 1967 that would become the most decorated flight crew of the Vietnam War. On 19 August 1967, an Army Boeing/Vertol CH-47 Chinook was enroute to Chu Lai AB with a load of injured soldiers. Twenty miles out, the Chinook came under heavy small arms fire from Viet Cong in the area. They set down on a beach where the the Song Tra Khuc River empties into the South China Sea to assess the damage. While several of the crew were outside of the helicopter examining the damage, Viet Cong troops in the area laying in wait opened fire on the helicopter. In a rush, the pilot took off, leaving four crewmen behind on the beach. He radioed immediately on the emergency guard channel that his aircraft was all shot up and he was trying to make for a safer location adding "I still have four men on the ground, the VC are trying to take them prisoner or kill them; God, can somebody help them?"
Captain Stephen Pless was flying an armed UH-1E with the callsign CHERRY SIX on a medevac escort mission when he received the transmission of Americans in immediate danger. Pless discussed the radio call with his copilot, Captain Rupert Fairfield and Pless decided their original mission, escorting the medevac of a single injured Korean Marine, didn't need their escort services and they flew to the location of the trapped men on the beach. Overflying the area, Pless noted that the trapped men were under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Seeing three jets overhead as well as four Army Hueys orbiting offshore, Pless noted they were all reluctant to move in on account of the heavy fire coming from the VC advancing on the beach. He then asked his crew "How do you feel about going in?" getting a thumbs up from Captain Fairfield and his two crew chiefs, Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Paulson and Lance Corporal John Phelps.
Stephen Pless was no ordinary Marine officer. He joined the officer corps from the enlisted ranks but he still had great affection for his enlisted men. He frequently socialized with the Marine enlisted at Chu Lai and it's said he spent more time in the enlisted quarters at the base than the officers' quarters. He had several hundred missions under his belt already and some of the Marine crew chiefs had flown secret missions with him into Laos. Pless knew his men would follow him down to that beach with no hesitation and anyone would have done it with Pless as their commanding officer.
On their initial approach to the trapped men, the first elements of the VC force of about 40 to 50 men were already upon the men, disarming them and hitting them while the rest of the VC moved out from the treeline onto the beach. Since the VC soldiers were too close to use their rockets, Gunnery Sergeant Paulson opened up with M60 machine gun, scattering the VC soldiers. As they ran back for the safety of the treeline, Pless fired white phosphorus-tipped rockets into the mass of fleeing VC. Wheeling the Huey around for several passes, Pless fired more rockets as well his side mounted guns into the treeline, taking heavy small arms fire in the process. On most of his attacks he was less than 50 feet above the ground, in some cases so low that mud thrown up from his own weapons splattered the Huey's windshield. With his rockets nearly expended, Pless then landed his Huey near the trapped men, facing the ocean using his helicopter as a shield between the VC and the trapped men.
|Emblem of VMO-6 "Tomcats"|
As several VC tried to approach the helicopter, Lance Corporal Phelps fired his M60 from the left side while Gunnery Sergeant Paulson jumped out and ran to the trapped men- he was able to get the first man aboard as he was still able to walk and Paulson then ran back to the next man while under heavy fire. Captain Fairfield then exited the cockpit to help Paulson with the second man. As he jumped out, Fairfield saw three VC only 10 feet away. He quickly unhooked one of the M60 machine guns and killed all three with a short burst. He then ran to Paulson to help get the second man aboard while Lance Corporal Phelps provided cover fie with his M60. Getting the second man aboard, Fairfield and Paulson then ran for the third man, but he was heavier than the other two- Phelps gave his M60 to the first injured man, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Allen, who was propped up against the back of Pless's seat. He cradled the M60 with his injured arm and continued providing suppressive fire with his good arm. With Fairfield, Paulson, and Phelps carrying the third man to the Huey, a single VC with a hand grenade approached. Phelps dispatched that soldier from ten to fifteen feet away with six shots from his service pistol. Fairfield and Paulson also fired their service pistols as well as they carried the third man to the helicopter.
With the third man aboard, Fairfield and Paulson ran back for the fourth man but he was already dead. As they jumped back into the Huey, Pless began to takeoff but the three extra men made his helicopter significantly overweight. With the only reasonable avenue of departure being over the ocean as the VC small arms fire intensified, Pless bounced off the waves repeatedly until the helicopter had enough airspeed to climb away from danger. He then had the crew jettison or throw overboard anything that wasn't needed to get to Chu Lai only 20 miles away. Enroute, Paulson and Phelps rendered medical aid to the three injured men.
Unbeknowst to the crew of CHERRY SIX, one of the Army Hueys Pless observed orbiting offshore made a run in to provide additional covering fire. Flown by Warrant Officer Ronald Redeker, he made multiple strafing runs with his door gunners until their ammunition was exhausted.
|The flight crew of CHERRY SIX: (L-R) Phelps, Pless, Fairfield, and Paulson|
(Defense Department/Valor Remembered)
Seven days later, the commanding officer of VMO-6 wrote a letter that passed up through the chain of command to the Secretary of the Navy recommending Captain Stephen Pless for the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the same letter he also recommended Captain Fairfield, Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Paulson, and Lance Corporal John Phelps for the Navy Cross, the second highest award from bravery after the Medal of Honor. The awards were all approved- not only making Captain Stephen Pless the only Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, but also making the entire crew of CHERRY SIX the most decorated flight crew of the Vietnam War.
Sources: Marine Air: The History of the Flying Leathernecks in Words and Photos by Robert F. Dorr. Penguin Books, 2007. Assault from the Sky: US Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam by Dick Camp. Casemate Books, 2013.