Ranger Team Kenya

An Insertion Gone Wrong
The Story of Team Kenya 25
August 29, 1970
By Randy White, With input from the L Company and 2/17 Cav personnel involved.

Few participants of long range patrol mission's would argue against the fact that the most critical time of a mission was the insertion. A missions successes or failure depended on an insertion that allowed a team to get in undetected, or at least free of enemy contact upon insertion. During helicopter insertions, the team and air crew were at their most vulnerable when suspended between the transition of full forward flight, and while flaring into the landing zone [LZ] for a touch down. These were the critical seconds when everyone involved, held their breath in anticipation of what might come. Would it be a cold LZ? Or were the NVA waiting. During the last years of the Vietnam war, it was a common NVA practice in northern I Corps to use LZ watchers on likely helicopter insertion landing zones. The hill tops and ridge lines of northern I corps were dotted with clearings made by engineers or fire power from past battles, and the enemy watched these LZs. The preferred landing zone was a natural clearing, just large enough for a lift ship to get into after a series of false insertions or other deceptions, designed to mask the real LZ and confuse the enemy. Kinda’ like a shell game, but much more deadly. Mission requirements didn’t always make it feasible to use a natural LZ, so sometimes man made clearings had to be used. When that was the case it was desirable to prep the LZ with gunships, to at least make any NVA get under cover, or at best di-di the area. As the war went on, the NVA became more proficient at detecting the insertion of small patrols and anticipating probable LZs for the teams. As a result, new methods and ideas were constantly being invented to deceive the enemy as to the insertion of these teams. Sometimes these methods proved effective, but in many cases, the results of new methods tried in a war zone were less than successful. During the summer of 1970, it was discussed among commanders, that prepping an LZ before a Ranger insertion gave away the location of the landing zone. It was decided that a method of insertion without preparation of the LZ would be tried, to confuse the NVA by a change of tactics.

The story of team Kenya really begins about a week before the mission went in. A Cobra pilot from C troop 2/17 Cav, Bruce Emerson call sign Condor 28, was performing Bomb Damage Assessments [BDA] when his scout bird found a covered hole on an LZ. This LZ eventually became the team Kenya LZ on August 29, 1970. The scout dropped a white phosphorus grenade into the hole, but no secondary explosion was observed. When this action was reported back to the 2/17 Cav Tactical Operations Center [TOC], they were told to leave the area and stop their visual recon.

During the last days of August 1970, mission order [frag order] 159-70 came down from the 2/17 Cav calling for the insertion of three Ranger teams from L Company 75th Ranger on August 29. Team Malta 12 would be inserted onto the eastern rim of the A Shau Valley, point of origin YC5098. Team Panama was scheduled to go in near YC 5983 in the Tennessee Valley, and team Kenya would be the eastern most team with a point of origin at YC 7495. The LZ for Kenya was on a mountain top called Dong Mang Chan, YC 754 956, south of Camp Eagle and due south of Nui Khi mountain where Ranger team Scotland was positioned and would act as the radio relay for teams in the field. Nui Khi was the most prominent terrain feature on the horizon looking south west from the L Company perimeter at Camp Eagle. The mission overflights were flown on the 28th and when the team leaders and their assistants returned, the leaders of the team Kenya mission were visibly upset. Neither person liked the selected LZ, and the assistant team leader [ATL] Larry Schieb said they’d never make it to the ground. It proved to be a prophetic observation.

The morning of the 29th came with a clear sky and good flying weather. Flying the first insertion that morning was the C Troop Slick Platoon Leader Mac Jones, Condor 46. Mac was the senior pilot flying the insertions that morning, and took the insertion into the A Shau area of team Malta. If trouble was coming, it would most likely come from the area of the A Shau Valley, the enclave the NVA called home. The Malta insertion went smoothly into a green LZ at 07:29. Next up was the insertion of team Kenya, consisting of team leader [TL] Dave Hazelton, the ATL Larry Schieb, scouts Mike Knappen, Harry Henthorn and Tom Sweetnam. The air crew consisted of aircraft commander [a/c] WO Mark Minear flying left seat, copilot 1st Lt. John Schiefer in the right seat, crew chief Ernest Ross and Ellion Faase as door gunner. All were flying in a C troop UH-1H tail number 67-17699, unaware of the tragic events about to unfold.

As the helicopter approached the LZ at 07:49, it was accompanied by the Cobra of Condor 28. In the critical seconds when the ship was flaring and the Cobra was starting over the LZ the NVA struck. In the same hole on the LZ that the scout pilot had dropped the white phosphorous grenade in a week earlier, a .51 caliber heavy machine gun opened up at point blank range of less than 100 feet, and at least one rocket propelled grenade [RPG] and small arms fire slammed into the aircraft. Another .51 opened up from a different position and the ship was caught in a cross fire. The enemy fire ripped into the vulnerable helicopter, the impacts puffing brownish gray against the post just behind the aircraft commander, to forward into the cockpit.

Condor 28 in the Cobra was well into his run over the LZ, and could do little more than wrap into a tight orbit and bring his turret weapons to bear upon the hidden NVA. The carnage created by a .51 caliber at that close of range was terrible. The copilot Schiefer was killed instantly, the bullets passing through him and his armor plate and seat, and farther aft into the cargo area killing Henthorn and Schieb of L Company. Though mortally wounded by the enemy fire, WO Minear had enough strength and presence of mind left to pull back on the controls and crash land the ship below the LZ, and out of the deadly cross fire. This single act probably saved the survivors from complete annihilation at the hands of the NVA on the LZ above them on the mountain top. When the helicopter landed it hit hard, but landed on it’s skids a couple hundred feet below the peak. Knappen had lost his weapon while still in the air, hit by shrapnel from an RPG. When the ship crashed, he landed on top Schieb, and Henthorn landed on top of Knappen. Hazelton pulled Henthorn’s body off of the wounded and weaponless Knappen, and then Knappen grabbed Schiebs CAR-15 as he was leaving the aircraft.

Sweetnam had multiple wounds from the RPG and small arms, seven holes in his body in all. His CAR-15 had been blown from his hands and he was the last survivor to leave the destroyed ship. Without a weapon to defend himself, he made an attempt to go back to the chopper to find a weapon, but was called back by Hazelton. The Ranger team leader told him to use the grenades he still had in his web gear pouches, to keep the NVA at a distance. When the aircrew and Ranger survivors took cover behind some tree stumps and logs, the NVA dropped a couple 82 mm mortar rounds on them for good measure. Their aim was poor and the rounds impacted without doing further damage. The now assembled group of survivors could hear movement and voices down the hill from their position and fired the three remaining weapons the group had, and threw hand grenades in that direction. Dave Hazelton got busy on the radio to the command and control [C&C] ship and all the necessary Cav assets were set into motion as soon as the ambush was sprung by the NVA. By 08:10 a reaction force from the C Troop Areo Rifle Platoon“, the Blues”, consisting of 18 infantry personnel were lifting off the pad at Phu Bai. A request for 10 slicks had also gone out for further reinforcement, for the pick up and insertion of D Troop 2/17 Cav. As all this was happening Dave Hazelton went back to the chopper and managed to get Mark Minear out of the demolished helicopter and away from it in case it started to burn. As he struggled to do what he could for the mortally wounded pilot, he had to restart his heart while they waited for the Medical Evacuation [MEDEVAC] chopper from Eagle Dustoff, the 326th Medical Battalion. As the Cobra of Bruce Emerson began to suppress the enemy fire, the Cav C&C ship from Headquarters Troop [HHT] swept into the hot LZ depositing Captain David Ohle, the L Company Commander. Armed with only a .45 caliber pistol, Ohle joined the survivors and acted as another set of eyes, and helped out with coordinating the air support and radio traffic.

The C Troop reaction force was then inserted at 08:22 to reinforce the survivors and the Medevac arrived and lifted out WO Mark Minear on a jungle penetrator. The brave pilot, who’s last conscious actions probably saved the remaining personnel, died a short time later at the hospital in Phu Bai. By 09:25 the 54 members of the D Troop reaction force were inserted and a sweep was made of the area. A .51 Cal heavy machine gun, enemy ruck sacks containing .51 ammo, and NVA personnel gear was recovered. The helicopter that carried team Kenya and the air crew was rigged for extraction by Carl Trapp and other members of the 507 Transportation Company. It was lifted out by a CH-47 from the 159th Aviation Battalion and returned to the Phu Bai airstrip where it was later cannibalized for spare parts. While awaiting a chopper for the recovery team's extraction, an aircraft from B troop had engine failure during approach and crashed into the busy LZ further injuring a member of the recovery team. Now the team had another ship to rig for extraction and a wounded soldier to Medevac. This was accomplished, and C Troop “Blues” and D Troop were reinforced at 15:25 with A Company 3/506 Infantry, and all elements remained in the general area throughout the night. A Reconnaissance In Force [RIF] taking place the next day with negative findings.

The Long Range Patrol Report that was written on September 30, and covering this mission and time frame says the following Lesson was Learned: “All pre cut landing zones on a high terrain feature where the enemy could have a decided advantage of observing incoming aircraft, should be prepped with fleshetts by a Cobra prior to the insertion. Fleshetts make very little noise upon impact and do not compromise the landing location as do high explosive rockets.”

This was something the pilots already knew. Too bad it had to be written in blood before it was set in stone.

As another tragic side note to this story; During preparations to insert the C troop Blues, Brian Jay was killed when he was hit in the head by a spinning rotor of a C Troop OH-6. Brian just stepped a little too high when the call went out for help.

If any former member of L Company would like to view reports about a mission he was on, and a copy of a 1:50,000 map of the recon zone, please contact me. All I ask for is your story in return, and if available, copies of any of the team photos.

Comments

I was the crewchief on this mission and I remember things a little different then the story reported. AS we approached the LZ I asked WO Minear if I could prep the LZ and he replied no "Supression for Supression". As the helicopter crashed it landed on the left side and I was thrown out and landed on the back of one of the rangers who had been sitting in the doorway on my side, he had taken a round thru the forehead. As the action continued I was the one that that had gotten WO Minear out of the copter and I tried to get the engine shut down. I do not remember a jungle penetrator, I remember Minear being extracted on a strecher onto another UH-1 and I flew out with him.