Vietnam

Beginning on Five this week is a new four-part documentary series examining historic helicopter operations. The opening instalment sees a group of Vietnam veterans relive the most traumatic mission of their lives – a perilous trip into enemy territory to rescue more than 100 stranded allies. Alongside reconstructions and archive footage, the film features interviews with the men involved as they are reunited for the first time in 40 years to revisit the site of their heroics.

The Bell UH-1 series Iroquois helicopter, more commonly known as the ‘Huey’, is a symbol of the Vietnam War that has left an indelible mark on US history. The Huey carried hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to war amongst the jungles and mountains of Vietnam. For the young men flying the craft, the adventure was often a very short one.

After eight months of flight training in the late 1960s, rookie pilots Tom Baca, Larry Liss and Jack Swickard were sent to Vietnam. From their base in the south of the country, the pilots’ mission was to fly ground troops into the heart of the jungle so that they could wage war against the communist enemy. Larry initially struggled at flight school. “I was really bad!” he recalls. But within a few months of active service, he became a maverick ace prepared to put his life on the line to save others.

On one occasion, Larry was flying an unarmed VIP Huey when he saw another chopper crash-land. Despite the fact that his craft was not equipped for combat, Larry’s instinct was to fly straight in and save the stranded crew. But this heroism did not earn Larry praise from his superiors – rather criticism for disobeying orders. However, one week after this incident, Larry was to put his army career – and his life – in even greater jeopardy.

On Easter Sunday 1967, Larry and Tom were preparing for a relaxed day when they received an urgent call. Six US troops carrying out an operation on the Ho Chi Minh Trail had been ambushed and needed to be rescued. “We were the only helicopter there and they needed our help,” recalls Tom. “There was no way we were going to say no.”

With little consideration for their own safety, Tom and Larry flew their unarmed chopper straight into enemy territory. Upon arrival at the landing zone, they realised that they would have to perform a tricky, dangerous manoeuvre to touch down amidst the thick undergrowth. As they lowered the Huey, the pilots used the rotor blades to chop through the bamboo to clear the area. “We were like a lawnmower,” says Tom. Despite damage to the blades, the plan worked and Tom and Larry were able to rescue the soldiers.

As soon as they had returned to safety, however, another call came in from the front line – an entire unit of 100 soldiers had now been pinned down. To save all the men, Larry and Tom would need to make several flights back and forth. This time, the pilots had the help of an armed Huey piloted by Jack Swickard and engineer Al Croteau. “The second time round we knew how bad it was,” says Larry. “The odds were shrinking dramatically.”

Larry, Tom, Jack and Al flew back and forth for more than ten hours that day to rescue their comrades. With each completed journey, the choppers suffered critical damage thanks to the harsh terrain and enemy fire. But miraculously, none of the four were injured. “We were just amazed,” says Tom. “They were shooting people getting on the aircraft but they weren’t shooting us!”

On what had to be the last trip back to base owing to the state of the Hueys, the unarmed craft had 22 soldiers on board. But for Al, the sight of one South Vietnamese soldier they were forced to leave behind is the most vivid memory of the war. Forty years later, the four heroes meet up again and return to Vietnam to revisit the scene of their mission. For Al, however, the journey provides far more than a chance to see old friends. It emerges that Larry had managed to pick up that one remaining soldier. “I have worried about that for 40 years,” says Al. “And finally you have put it to rest.”

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