SGT Keith and the 4th ARVN Battalion

In Keith William Nolan's book "Into Laos" on page 285-286 he talks about an intelligence NCO named SGT Ed Keith getting shot up badly. I actually think he was SOG or CIA. Nolan has it as a 223d CAB unit mission but he's wrong. It was a C Troop 2/17th Cav mission. We had borrowed a Huey from another unit. I thought it was another 2/17th Cav bird from B Troop but it might have been a 223d CAB bird. I was the CE on that mission and our door gunner was a guy named Hakkola (spelling). I don't remember for sure who the AC was but I think it was Captain Urick. Don't remember the co-pilot's name; might have been Gunn or Clark. Nolan has it right; we were all stunned by Keith's wounds. They were severe.

Most of Nolan's details are exactly right. Keith's mic cord was severed by the round and he couldn't tell us that he was hit. The AC shouted "Who's hit" because the inside of the bird was completely sprayed with blood, bone, and melted fat. I barely heard the “Who’s hit” over the din of my M60 but I was vaguely aware that my entire right side was very wet which I immediately assumed was my own blood. After a quick check I knew that I was not the one hit so I turned to my right to check the pilots. I immediately saw Sgt Keith lying on the floor of the Huey and he was badly wounded. Thinking that the pilots might also be hit I looked in their direction. The copilot had a part of Keith's leg in his lap and was looking pretty stunned. The A/C appeared to be unhurt and was struggling with aircraft controls. The borrowed Huey had seats and webbing installed so I couldn't get to Keith easily and besides we were taking an unbelievable amount of anti-aircraft fire so I was busy returning fire with my M60. Hakkola was facing the Escarpment and was viewing the worst of the fire. Lots of different colored tracers all around us. Once we were clear of the Escarpment I unbuckled my safety harness and climbed outside the aircraft and onto the landing skids to work my way around the seats to get to Keith. As I started to climb back in I slipped and nearly fell out of the aircraft because every surface was slick with melted fat and blood. I still wonder if he was hit with a tracer round because of the heat.

His glasses were heavily splattered with blood and he couldn't really see. His leg had been literally blown apart from the ankle to just above his knee but his foot and boot were still attached by a few white ligaments. I think that the same round that went through his leg severed the mic cord, went through his wrist, and then cut a groove in this shoulder. Could have been more than one round but I don't think so.

Anyway, he was in and out of consciousness and in a lot of pain. His ligaments kept contracting causing his foot to twist around and around in one direction resulting in even more pain for SGT Keith so I held his foot to the floor with my boot so it couldn't twist any more. I used the tail rotor tie-down to make a tourniquet and held my hand against his shoulder to form a compression to stop the shoulder bleeding. When he was conscious he would smile encouragingly at me, maybe he could tell how scared I was and figured he'd better give me some emotional support. What is amazing though is how calm and collected he was. Man, that guy was tough. That's why I don't think he was any run of the mill intelligence NCO. This guy knew Laos and had been around a lot of combat in my opinion.

Which brings me to why we were there in the first place. He was our only passenger. It was my understanding that we were looking for the ARVN 4th Battalion/1st Infantry which had been left behind as a rear guard to cover the rolling ARVN withdrawal. The ARVN 4th Battalion was hit hard almost immediately and the entire command group was killed. The entire battalion was in danger of being wiped out and no one knew exactly where they were or their exact situation. On March 17th they sent SGT Keith and us out to find them. We reached the area where the 4th Battalion was thought to be and began to circle while Keith lay on the cargo floor looking down with his binoculars. On the next pass as we flew parallel to the escarpment which was to the southwest of LZ's Lolo, Sophia, Brown and Delta when all hell broke loose. There were multi-colored tracers coming out of the escarpment wall so thick that it looked like a lighted carpet. But luckily they had misjudged our altitude and the tracers were passing just below us.

The AC took some pretty violent evasive action. I was impressed!

My eyes were as big as baseballs as Hakkola, the doorgunner, and I returned fire. But just as I thought we were going to get the hell out of there, SGT Keith got up and kneeled between the pilot seats and told the AC to go around again.

This time they were right on us. It's a miracle that we didn't take more hits. SGT Keith was hit while he was still kneeling between the pilot seats in the cargo area. The Huey received serious damage and it was touch and go if we'd make it back to Khe Sahn. I think we took a 51 round in the transmission or in the rotor system somewhere. Basically it was a race to the border before either SGT Keith bled to death or we crashed. (I wonder how many of those races to the border happened in those two months; Mac I know you had one)

Hakkola stayed on his M60 to give us covering fire since we occasionally were still taking sporadic anti-aircraft fire as we made our way back. So it was SGT Keith and me in a desperate and frightening drama of trying to keep him awake and alive. And the AC and copilot in their own drama trying to keep the bird in the air and get us across the border.

We felt some relief when Cobra gunships picked us up and gave us fire support escort on the way back. I heard that one of the Cobras actually rolled in on a 51 pit although he was Winchester, "out of ammo". After what seemed like the longest time we made a very rough semi-controlled landing at the medical bunker and the medics took SGT Keith away. I heard that they amputated his leg and that the pilots went to see him the next day. I seem to remember that they took him one of the slugs we dug out the Huey.

So does anybody remember who the copilot was? and was the AC Cpt. Urick? What became of the ARVN 4th Battalion? Nolan says in his book that of the 420 ARVNs left to cover the withdrawal only 88 were alive when they finally found them. No officers survived and 61 of the 88 survivors were wounded. They had only one PRC25 radio with which to stay in communication and direct their rescue.