LEFT FOR DEAD
It was almost 2100 hrs on 29 January 1968, the night before the “Tet Offensive” when Wendell Skinner’s helicopter crashed in Cambodia attempting to extract a Special Forces (SF) Long Range Patrol Team that had come in contact with a large force of Viet Cong and NVA.
The Landing Zone (LZ) was a burned out area in the jungle that was covered with ashes. As the helicopter made its approach the ashes flew up around the aircraft blinding the pilot and he made a hard landing resulting in the pilot being thrown through the windshield still strapped in his seat almost tearing his arm off. The co-pilot and door gunner were thrown against the dash and suffered broken bones.
Skinner was thrown under the Huey as it rolled over and started to burn. Thinking Skinner was dead, another Huey picked up the wounded crew and the SF Team and left the area leaving Skinner.
Major Earl Carson, CO of the 195th Assault Helicopter Company was awakened shortly after midnight and told of the crash and the loss of Skinner. Carlson was outraged. “You don’t leave a soldier, dead or alive, behind.” He had never lost a man under his command. He gathered a crew together and went to find Skinner. “I was just doing what a commanding officer is supposed to do.”
Throneberry: We are going to talk about an incident that happened in 1968. This is about a helicopter crewman who crashed and was left out in the field. We are going to go back in time to the 29th of January, 1968, the night before the Tet Offensive occurred. Tell me about the mission you were on and what happened.
Wendell Skinner: We had several teams out along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We were watching a movie and just as the movie ended, the siren went off. If I remember correctly, we didn’t even have anyone go to the operations tent to get the coordinates. We just got on the chopper. It was me, Frank Miller, Woody Woodworth who was my pilot, and Tom Campbell who was my co-pilot. We took off and Woody was hitting the coordinates as we were flying to the side.
As we were going to the side, we also got in contact with the team and they were whispering on the radio which meant that VC was right on top of them. They told us they were putting deep back in the jungle and they were trying to get back to the LZ. They had a blue strobe light and they would hit that thing just to let us know where we were at. We were just flying in a circle to wait until they told us to come in.
When we got the word to come in, I remember we were taking a little bit of fire and there was so much going on. I looked up to Woody to say something and all of this stuff came flying over the windshield. The next thing I know, I’m lying in a bunch of wires and I had no clue what had happened. What happened is that area had just been burned out. Woody’s recollection was that he had lost contact with the ground. He thought he was close to setting down that he just cut power and bam – we hit real hard.
He went flying out of the front windshield and his one arm almost got torn off. I was laying underneath the helicopter and not knowing what was going on. I kept waking up and then passing out and hearing all this chatter outside. I kept hearing the gunship flying around and circling. Then all of the sudden, the chatter stopped and then I heard the slow wind of the chopper motor winding up and then the helicopter took off. Then about 5 or 6 hours passed. All I could think of was if the VC come inside the chopper and find me all torn up, they would just shoot me.
Throneberry: Your leg was hurt pretty bad?
Skinner: I was pinned under the helicopter sitting in an upright position. My knee and thigh were completely crushed by the helicopter. Believe it or not, I wasn’t feeling any pain. I never heard Major Carlson’s helicopter come up because I was in and out of consciousness. Then someone came up into the chopper and looked down at me and said “Huh, we thought you were dead.” I remember being put on the evac helicopter which Major Carlson was flying and going to the 930 evacuation hospital. When I woke up the next e morning I was in a ward of amputees. I thought, I’m not looking. The doctor came in and I asked “Am I in one piece?” He said “Yes, but you will never walk right again.” From there, I went to Japan and then ended up at Valley Forge VA Hospital for a year.
Throneberry: I want to go back to the night you were shot down or crashed. I want you to imagine you are driving in a fog and you can’t see the ground and you suddenly stop 10 feet short of where you wanted to be and then let it coast forward and crash into the wall. That is similar to what happened. I’m sure Woody got a little vertigo and wasn’t sure what was up and what was down and thought he was close to the ground and would land because of all of the ash flying around. He brings it in hard and the pilot goes out the windshield, seat and all. There was a lot of panic and concern on the ground because you not only had a helicopter hit the ground and roll over, you had Special Forces trying to get everybody out and get them on one helicopter because they were getting shot at at the same time.
Skinner: Woody and I were talking about this the other night and we had a belly man that went out with us. He was actually a pilot that wanted to come along and experience a night extraction. We think that when they found him, it was me. In the meantime, Woody got out of his seat and he heard me screaming and he was trying to dig me out. Then he passed out from loss of blood. It was pitch black and I’m not sure if these guys had flashlights. Another thing, where we were at was a big buildup of the Tet Offensive in that area and I’m sure that the VC did not want to compromise their position by coming in there and just killing everybody.
Throneberry: Major Carlson, tell me what happened around midnight that night.
Carlson: From my unit, we had half a dozen aircraft up to a place called Long Bay Mound. It was a place off the peak of a mountain and the Special Forces camped there. That is where we went. I put all our people up there on a 2 minute notice. You sleep by your aircraft and as soon as the first mortar comes, if the enemy should choose to take us, within 2 minutes I expected every aircraft to be airborne. We knew that there were tens of thousands of people coming through the jungle down south toward Saigon.
I felt that we might be attacked at any time but that we were going to make them pay a price for it. The night before Tet, in the afternoon before, we got a call back to Saigon where the helicopters were meeting the Special Forces there. That night I was sleeping and after midnight this kid woke me up and told me we had lost an aircraft.
We had some pretty good battles at that point, but hadn’t had any loss of life or aircraft. One of my questions was did we get all of our crew back? He said “Yeah, we got everybody but one who was trapped underneath the aircraft and left for dead.” I thought, the first order of battle among soldiers is you never leave your people for dead. I was furious with the pilot and co-pilot that they would go off and leave him there. What I didn’t find out until a year ago, the pilot and co-pilot and the other member of the ship were as bad as he was and I couldn’t understand that they were passing out from time to time just like Wendell was. It was a terrible scene there.
I got a co-pilot and got up in my chopper and went to the scene. It was a full moon and the trees had been burned out. The ground was covered with ashes. It was like something out of a Boris Karloff movie, like a ghost scene. It was pretty obvious to me as we were coming in that we were going to be flying blind and I told the co-pilot to watch carefully what I do and get your mind set on where you are and what your rate of descent is so that you can get down to the ground and you are not going to have a lot of road on the aircraft so you won’t have to worry about stalling out and crashing. I’m going to get out and bring back Wendell. We made a really good landing there and I was surprised because we were blind for about the last 50 feet going in.
Of course, we were risking another aircraft and crew but we often take chances in combat and you do what you have to do. I was sure I heard this loud piercing scream that made my hair stand up and I recognized that he was out there and still alive. So I got the crew chief and we piled out of the aircraft and I told the co-pilot to take it up and wait for a call. We also recognized there could have been anywhere between 10-20,000 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) out there. We got a hold of the tail section of the aircraft and far enough for Wendell to slide out from underneath the aircraft. I called my co-pilot to bring it in and we got all we could off the aircraft and took Wendell back. Wendell may not know this but they came out the next morning with the helicopter wrecker crew and lifted it out of there and took it back to salvage.
Throneberry: So you got Wendell out?
Carlson: Yes, I took him to the medevac hospital that was not very far from our base.
Throneberry: Wendell, you were sent to a medevac hospital and then Major Carlson had to deal with another project the next day around 3am. Can you tell me about that?
Skinner: I was actually in the hospital the next day when the Tet offensive hit and I think they overran the air base at one time and they came and got all of the patients and put us in a bunker with no weapons and nobody was there with us and I thought, if they get in here, it’s going to be a mass slaughter.
Skinner: I will say something about Woody, he talks about this every time we talk. He has a lot of guilt about the way things went. He lost sight of the ground. I’m sure he has a lot of problems thinking it was his fault that everybody got screwed up. I never once had a problem with what he did. Like the Major said, when you are in combat, there is a certain amount of chaos and Woody did what he thought he should do.
Throneberry: Wendell had been shot down and the aircraft rolled over on him and Major Carlson had gone out in the middle of the night and got him out of there. They just met up with each other last year after almost 42 years. Major Carlson, I wanted to ask you about the Tet. When they did over run Bien Hoa and Long Binh, how long were they able to hold the land and were we able to fight them off at the time?
Carlson: Long Binh was oriented as a north and south base and we were on the west side of that airfield. They had an evacuation hospital about ½ or ¾ of a mile, it was nothing but brush and underbrush and little hills. At 3am, all hell broke loose. The mortars started going off and machine gun fire everywhere. I was afraid we were going to run out of ammunition because our communication wires had been cut and we lost contact. They were shooting at us and I told the men that if they see something out there, just don’t waste the ammunition. They said they saw a couple guys jump up there and we opened fire and then we got a lot of fire back. What I surmised was that a couple of these kids walked in there, one had a pink shirt on and one had a blue shirt on, and they were jumping up to draw fire. Then the fire was going to the hospital and the hospital was firing back with us. I radioed the hospital and told them to please stop firing for 15 minutes and I would do the same so we can see what is causing this. Then it was complete silence. I wasn’t sure if that was the same hospital I took Wendell to or not. Then there was this big explosion that rattled the windows and building. Everyone hit the floor. I jumped up and ran across the bodies and got outside just in time to see a nuclear weapon cloud go up. I thought, here we are surrounded, we have no chance of getting out of here, we are going to be outnumbered and they are giving up on us. Then I found out about 2 hours later, a million gallon tank of JP4 had been set off by choppers and that is what I saw.
Throneberry: Any last words?
Skinner: I’m just thrilled I got this story out there and soon I’m going to see Major Carlson and give him a big hug because without his efforts, I would not be here today.
Carlson: I would like to say this, for all the guys and particularly the young men who were drafted in our unit, that first mission we had, that was a scary night. A lot of young boys became men. It was one heck of a site and from there on out, we were solid.