Fire and Ice
History of the 68th AHC
“Top Tigers, you are special.”
A brief look back at the
68th Assault Helicopter Company
John R. Cooke
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Honestly, there was something truly special, deeply heartfelt, about the way that he said those words to me. His words struck me as being absolutely sincere.
I was standing at the bar with a young Australian lieutenant in the Pacific Hotel in Vung Tau. We were enjoying our third drink of the evening when he said:
“Yes, but you guys, you guys are not just tigers. You are the Top Tigers. There are all kinds of tigers around here, but you guys are tops. Yeah, the Top Tigers. Now, that’s really special. Top Tigers, you are special.” His infantry unit was also referred to as tigers.
The time was
mid-summer of 1966 and the 68th Assault Helicopter Company—Top
Tigers—had been assigned the mission of giving the newly arrived Aussies
some training in helicopter/jungle operations. The 5th Battalion,
Royal Australian Infantry Regiment was led by Colonel J.A. Warr. We inserted
the “Diggers” into and extracted them from the jungle many times—day and
night. We were all quartered together at the Pacific Hotel (Tiger Towers),
and we enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. We had complete confidence
in one another. Looking back, I suppose one would call that professional
respect or camaraderie. “When it comes to fun and fighting the Diggers are
mighty hard to beat,” someone said. It was a relationship forged of fire and
ice; one might say the fire of combat and the ice of the officers’ club bar.
The flight path that brought us to the flight line at Vung Tau—and later to Bien Hoa Airbase—was a long and winding one. In the hazy past of the 68th AHC, there were several obscure activations, re-activations and re-re-activations that get rather convoluted and difficult to follow in the moldy faded pages of the past.
most Top Tigers came to know it—became an entity, I believe, on September 1,
1965, at Ft. Benning, Georgia, when the original Tiger Major Weldon F.
Honeycutt was assigned as the commanding officer. Major Honeycutt, often
described as a protégé of General William Westmoreland, served with
Westmoreland in the Korean War. It was General Westmoreland who gave
Honeycutt the nickname “Tiger.” Westmoreland was, of course, commander of
the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) from 1965-1968. After the 68th
AHC assignment, Honeycutt had a distinguished career and retired as a
At Ft. Benning the unit was given 30 days to organize, train, and prepare for overseas movement; and the rumor was that the movement would be to US Army Pacific Command (USARPAC). Furthermore, the word was that a trip to USARPAC actually meant shipping out for Vietnam, and the word was that things were heating up there.
The 68th departed Ft. Benning on November 4, 1965, and was flown to San Francisco. The unit departed California by aircraft and ship (the USS Geiger) and arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on November 28, 1965. There the unit was assigned to the 145th Aviation Battalion, which was quartered at Honour-Smith Compound in Bien Hoa about 15 miles north of Saigon.
The Top Tigers served primarily in support of the following units:
1st Infantry Division
9th Infantry Division
25th Infantry Division
173d Airborne Brigade
5th Battalion, Royal Australian Infantry Regiment,
various Special Forces teams,
An interesting, fascinating story involving the genesis of the 68th AHC concerns the origins of the unit logo—the colorful, prowling, lurking tiger. The following is based on information provided by SP4 Andrew Platacis who served in the unit Operations Office (August 1965-November 1966). Early on, after arriving in Vung Tau, the original Top Tiger 6, Major Honeycutt decided that the 68th AHC would be known by the radio call sign “Tiger.” However, he quickly encountered countless complaints because it turned out that there were already numerous units in country that were known as “tigers” of one sort or another. So Major Honeycutt settled on the call sign “Top Tiger” and that stuck. One day the CO approached Platacis in the Ops Office and asked him to paint the new logo on the unit’s aircraft. The CO wanted a tiger on every aircraft door (and later on the nose boxes). A picture of Tony the Tiger on the side of a Frosted Flakes cereal box first caught their attention. However, later the CO became even more inspired by the advertisement of a major oil company which suggested that we all “Put a tiger” in our tanks. Platacis said that he did his best to satisfy Top Tiger 6, and the unit tiger logo quickly started to morph into the colorful and proud image that it finally became on the unit patch and aircraft. The unit motto was “Every man a tiger!”
The tiger logo was not the only logo in our unit. In 1965 the galloping Mustang, exactly as seen in the figure representing the Ford Mustang became the symbol for the 68th gunship platoon. Interestingly, the first Mustang automobile was produced just one year earlier in March 1964 (with a suggested retail price of $2,368). This was not the first time the Mustang name had been used by the military. The World War II P-51 fighter plane was also called Mustang; John Najjar, a fan of the plane and a Ford stylist, suggested the name to Ford. The 68th gunship pilots proudly wore brightly-colored baseball caps that sported the Ford Mustang symbol on the front. (The caps were provided by Ford Motor Company.) The Mustangs—the 68th gunship platoon—was an exceedingly reliable and effective team led in 1965-66 by Captain Jimmie Hughes, Mustang 6.
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The 68th AHC undertook its first combat mission on December 16, 1965, with Major Honeycutt in the lead aircraft. He usually flew with Major Bob LeMaster, the Operations Officer. The unit flew a number of insertion and extraction missions that day in support of the 101st Airborne Division and the Vietnamese 52d Ranger Battalion. Although all aircraft returned safely, three ships were hit and one pilot Captain Lawrence Sutliff was wounded.
On February 11, 1966, the Top Tigers were called on for a rapid reaction mission involving ARVN 25th Infantry Division troops who were pinned down near the village of Tan Tru in the Mekong River delta. This was deep in Black Pajama Land. The first flight of choppers coming in with reinforcements was met with heavy enemy fire as it approached the peninsula tip. Several of the aircraft landed only meters away from well-dug-in enemy positions. Before they could pull out of that hotspot, four of the aircraft had taken numerous hits from small arms fire. Major George Owens and CWO Mike Lindell volunteered to return to med-evac some badly wounded Vietnamese troops. Their aircraft landed right in the thick of things. Enemy fire was so intense that it was extremely difficult and hazardous getting the wounded off the ground and onto the aircraft. In the meantime, the aircraft was taking numerous hits. Lindell later said, “Every piece of Plexiglas on that machine had at least two or three bullets holes in it.” Finally, with the wounded on board, Owens and Lindell were able to liftoff and get out of the line of fire. Back at Vung Tau the metalwork guys counted 32 bullet holes in the aircraft. The truly amazing thing about this episode is that not one pilot or crew member was hit. Both Major Owens and CWO Lindell were later decorated for their valorous performance that day. Major Owens was awarded the Silver Star Medal and Mr. Lindell was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, when Mr. Lindell was asked to explain that near miraculous occurrence, he simply gave a double thumbs-up sign toward the heavens, smiled, and said, “Ultimate 6. Some much needed support from Ultimate 6.”
The Top Tigers participated in several other operations during February 1966 including Operation Mastiff, which involved the entire US 1st Infantry Division. This operation focused on Tay Ninh Province and resulted in the capture of several tons of enemy weapons and supplies.
By early May 1966 there were a quarter of a million GIs in Vietnam. On May 6, 1966, Major Honeycutt, the CO, was wounded while leading a flight of 12 slicks during an extraction of 173d Airborne troops about 20 kilometers northeast of Bien Hoa. Hospital personnel at Vung Tau were notified and asked to be on standby at the airfield. As medics, carrying a stretcher, ran toward the CO’s aircraft, he was heard to say (in a rather gruff manner, of course) that he did not need a stretcher. As usual, Major LeMaster was flying with the CO.
CW3 John Langwasser was flying in the next ship just behind Top Tiger 6 that day. Mr. Langwasser was one of the unit’s original Instructor Pilots (IPs) along with CW3 Bill Hack. And it simply must be said that these men must certainly have been two of the most experienced and talented helicopter pilots who ever lived. If someone were searching for a pilot to do the impossible with a helicopter, they would turn to either Mr. Langwasser or Mr. Hack. Both of these men had a remarkable knack for saying a great deal in just a few words. They were good men to be associated with—men who were amiable and admirable in every way. They were explicitly trusted and respected by all who knew them.
Mr. Langwasser reported that he heard the CO say that he did not require a stretcher. However, Langwasser later recounted that when the CO stepped out of his aircraft, he fell on his face. Honeycutt had been shot in the leg near the knee and had lost quite a bit of blood. (The round came up through the floor of the aircraft.) Major Honeycutt was soon evacuated to Japan and then to the States. (However, Major Honeycutt eventually returned to Vietnam as an infantry battalion commander and played a major role in the famous Battle of Hamburger Hill—May 10-20, 1969.)
Major James H. Cook temporarily took command of the company after the original Top Tiger 6 was wounded. It was during Major Cook’s tenure that the company was relocated from Vung Tau to the Bien Hoa Airbase. Mark Twain once described the original 49ers as “unspeakably happy men.” The Top Tigers were certainly not “unspeakably happy” to leave Vung Tau, but their morale did remain unbelievably high and consistent. In a remarkably short period of time the Army Engineers had built a huge heliport on the eastern perimeter of the airbase just for the Top Tigers. Needless to say, our quarters at the airbase did not compare well with the Pacific Hotel. Major Cook was reassigned to a battalion staff position on August 5, 1966, and Major Edward B. Covington III assumed command of the 68th AHC.
Like Major Honeycutt, Major Covington had served in the Korean War as an infantry platoon leader, and he was the very living picture of a first-rate commander. He exuded a natural air of confidence and command. His appearance, manner, and disposition all clearly conveyed a ready sense of self-assurance and authority. In retrospect, Major Covington was considered an outstanding commander by any and all measures. Men served under him gladly. Truly, it felt good when he said, “You did a good job.”
On July 20, 1966, the Top Tigers conducted an airmobile assault operation in support of the ARVN 30th Ranger Company. The Vietnamese troops were on-loaded at the Saigon racetrack and flown to a rather open area of rice paddies about 30 kilometers southwest of Saigon. The Mustangs, the unit gunships, went in first to reconnoiter the landing zone. They received no fire while dropping green smoke and marking the LZ. However, on the final approach to land, the slick-ships started to receive heavy automatic weapons fire from dikes and canal lines scattered throughout the area. The Mustang fire teams rolled in and made a fierce effort to suppress the enemy fire. Suddenly, one of the gunship pilots came on the air and said, “We’ve got a man hit!” It sounded like Mr. Lambdin’s voice. Then within a matter of seconds there was a terrible crash and explosion as the gunship went in.
For the first time the unit had lost an entire crew. Killed in action that day were CWO Ronald Kinkeade, CWO Daniel Lambdin, SP4 David Dillon, and SP4 Walter Tate Jr. These courageous men were the unit’s first fatalities, and they were especially beloved by all. The entire company and battalion staff participated in a particularly solemn ceremony in their honor at the airbase prior to their remains being flown back to America.
On August 1, 1966, the unit flew another rather extraordinary mission. Working out of the base camp at Cu Chi, the Top Tigers were to support the 25th Infantry Division on a search and destroy mission in the Ho Bo Woods, an area just northwest of the vast American Cu Chi base camp. (The camp covered 1,500 acres and its perimeter was six miles. After the war, one Vietnamese officer estimated that the VC had approximately 200 kilometers of tunnels concealed around the Cu Chi area.) What was different with this operation was that the landing zone “prep” would not be artillery fire, but a B-52 strike. We topped off our tanks at the refueling point, loaded the troops, and then shortly thereafter we felt the earth tremble. The Ho Bo Woods was being obliterated by 500-pound bombs that rained down from a flight of mighty B-52 aircraft flying high—18,000 feet—in the bright morning sky. From the base camp it was only a short flight to the target area. We did the best we could to land in a densely forested area that was now an expansive area of cratered earth and splintered trees. Gingerly, the troops hopped out of the aircraft and searched for their assembly points while we pulled pitch and headed back toward Cu Chi. As soon as we pulled away from the heavily wooded area, it seemed as though we were flying into and over a massive hornet’s nest. We were in a flight of 12 aircraft in trail formation, and all of those aircraft took hits with the exception of the lead ship, Top Tiger 6. Six crew members were wounded and one was killed. I was flying as co-pilot with Captain Neal Early that day, and the man killed was our door gunner, PFC Richard Kitner. We landed on the Cu Chi base hospital helipad where PFC Kitner was taken and quickly examined. The doctors declared him dead on arrival. He had taken a single round through the heart.
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The Top Tigers played an important role in many of the major operations of the Vietnam War. They were involved in Operation Cedar Falls in January 1967 and Operation Junction City in February 1967. The 68th AHC was also involved in the Tet Offensive, which most historians call the turning point of the war.
Operation Cedar Falls was the single largest ground operation of the Vietnam War up to that point. Two army divisions, one paratroop brigade, as well as one armored cavalry regiment participated in the operation. Cedar Falls involved over 30,000 US and South Vietnamese troops. The primary mission of this operation was to eradicate the so-called “Iron Triangle,” a major Vietcong stronghold just northeast of Cu Chi, home of the 25th Infantry Division. The allied forces were successful in uncovering and destroying large stockpiles of Vietcong supplies, and—to some degree—the extensive tunnel complexes in the area. In the course of this operation, the term “tunnel rats” first came into common usage.
Operation Junction City was an 82-day operation that started in late February 1967. It was clearly one of the largest US operations of the war and the largest US airborne operation since Operation Market Garden in Holland during World War II. Junction City was the only major airborne operation of the Vietnam War. This was a massive search and destroy operation with the primary objective of disrupting and eradicating the enemy forces in War Zone C, a major hotbed of communist activity in a vast, isolated area of jungle northwest of Saigon. Additionally, the plan was to interrupt and, hopefully, to curtail activities on the many infiltration trails leading from the Cambodian border into the heart of South Vietnam. The staging area for the Top Tigers during Junction City was Tay Ninh, which is only a short distance from the Cambodian border.
Most historians record the results of Operation Junction City as indecisive. It was said that the primary undoing of the operation was the failure to gain the all-important element of surprise, and this was primarily the result of the massive pre-positioning of US aircraft and troops. Records list 282 US killed and approximately 1700 enemy losses in this immense operation.
The Tet Offensive has often been described as a gigantic and perilous—some say desperate—effort by the communist to win the war with one great stroke just before the death of Ho Chi Minh. Tet, the Lunar New Year, is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam, and traditionally, peace is observed during the New Year celebrations. However, on January 31, 1968, the enemy achieved total surprise when they suddenly initiated their massive attack. When the main communist operation began, the offensive was countrywide in scope and extraordinarily well-coordinated. More than 80,000 communist troops—both Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA)—struck more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals among them Saigon. In some places the attacks and battles went on for months. Although both sides suffered a large number of casualties, it was finally considered a military victory of the allied forces. However, it was said to be a major psychological victory for the communist forces. And today the Tet Offensive is usually referred to as the turning point of the war.
Major Bobbie Pedigo had the honor of being the last Top Tiger 6. He took over as CO of the 68th on October 10, 1970, just as President Nixon’s program of Vietnamization was swinging into high gear. Over a three-month period Vietnamese pilots and crews from the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) were trained, and the Top Tiger aircraft were transferred over to them. All Top Tiger insignias were supposedly removed prior to the transfer. However, a few remaining Top Tiger aircraft were transferred—with the tiger still on the nose—to US units that were heavily engaged in combat operations in I Corps. These units were supporting the US firebase called the “Rock Pile” near the former demilitarized zone and flying missions near the Laotian border. Major Pedigo said the hard-pressed men who received these aircraft expressed no interest in inspecting them saying, “It doesn’t matter so long as they’re flyable. Most likely, they’ll be shot down within hours anyhow.” According to Major Pedigo the 68th Assault Helicopter Company was officially deactivated on December 31, 1970. Major Pedigo had a truly unique experience in that he was involved in selecting officers and warrant officers to be assigned to the 68th AHC while he was serving in Germany, and six years later he had the distinction of being the unit’s commanding officer when it stood down in Vietnam. In subsequent discussions of his role with the unit, he said that he could not help but feel as though he “represented both the alpha and the omega of that fine organization.” In April of 1970, Major Pedigo returned the colors of the 145th Aviation Battalion to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where the unit was deactivated.
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So, the Top Tigers endured the days of Vietnamization, and on to the end of the war and stand-down. Although they were terribly short of personnel during the final days of the unit’s existence, they soldiered on in the best tradition of the US military. Through the thick of it all, the Top Tigers continued to fulfill their missions with enthusiasm as they whirred about in the shadow of the Sacred Mountain, Nui Ba Den, the haunting and fabled Black Virgin Mountain. They hauled tons of ash and trash, pigs and rice. There were CAs, rapid reactions, monsoon scrambles, riverine force support, LRRP extractions, C & C and Firefly missions, Eagle Flights, Smoky assignments, and Civic Actions. They squirmed restlessly behind their “chicken plates,” but pressed on. The Top Tigers withstood all of this—Tet and all of the ash and trash that followed—in a positive, professional, and truly admirable manner. Solid, steadfast, and forever up-beat, shirkers and whiners were not to be found in their ranks.
On March 29, 1973, the last US troops
left South Vietnam ending America’s direct military involvement in the
The Vietnam War is now history, but the spirit exhibited by the Top Tigers is timeless, as old as the ancient vestiges of war. And that spirit will live as long as our nation produces men and women who are ready and willing to step forward to meet the challenges of the unknown, the trials and tests of war—that pestilence Stephen Crane once called the “red animal.” Serving as a Top Tiger came to mean a great deal to many who fought in the Vietnam conflict. The Top Tigers became a unit, a group of pilots and crew members, with a distinguished and unique reputation. These men became known as an organization that was always prepared to deal with the unexpected. Top Tigers were always ready for a challenge; these pilots knew the difference between a mission that was risky and a mission that was impetuous or foolhardy. The Top Tigers became known as clear-eyed professionals—a team of aviators that one could count on to put their lives on the line and get the job done right the first time. These men personified the American adage “CAN DO!” Fire and ice: it was in their blood—the fire of combat and the ice in the cooling system that always brought them back for more. The spirit of these men simply could not be suppressed or surpassed.
Many times I heard a ground commander say to a Top Tiger leader, “I wish I could buy you some beer. Honestly, I feel like I owe you. Yes, I owe you a great deal.”
One commander said, “You guys were the answer to my prayers. We were down to about two bullets per man when you showed up.”
“You guys are the Top Tigers and you are really special,” the Aussie lieutenant said.
“Every man a tiger!” That, my friend, says it all.
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This article was written by John R. Cooke who served with the Top Tigers from June 1966 until January 1967.
|Fire & Ice by John R. Cooke|
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