“When the Sky Fell at Ha Thanh”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by William Gritzbaugh

In August, 1970, I was Executive Officer of the Special Forces ‘A’ Team (104) at Camp Ha Thanh in I Corp, the northern-most of our four military regions in South Vietnam. Our camp was located in a mountain valley astride a major infiltration route for North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops that threatened the many heavily populated areas of Vietnam’s coastal plains.

We were an isolated operation accessible only by air since the effort to keep the one road from the coast open would have been prohibitive in troops and material. As such, we depended on resupply from helicopters and fixed winged aircraft, the latter landing on a crude airstrip to the northwest of the camp. That summer, weather and erosion had turned the airstrip into a muddy and gullied quagmire that could no longer handle aircraft landings. Thus, helicopter sling loads and fixed wing parachute drops of our supplies became routine, with the airstrip itself often used as a drop zone.

Eventually, a construction team of Navy ‘Seabees’ was assigned to regrade the strip and cover it with ‘PSP’ (Perforated Steel Plating), which could then accommodate the C-123 Providers and C-7A Caribous that the US Air Force used for such short-strip missions. Before they could start their work, however, an Air Force assessment team needed to determine exactly what repairs would be necessary. The Air Force captain and first lieutenant choppered out to our camp wearing starched flue fatigues. We had a cordial cup of coffee and then I loaded them in our broken down M-151 Jeep and drove out of our camp perimeter a quarter mile to the strip.

Ha Thanh’s airstrip was notorious with the Air Force due to a tragedy that occurred a few years before, when an incoming C-7A was hit by an out-going artillery round fired by our camp’s 105mm howitzer. All on board were killed. That was before my time, but the fuselage of the aircraft still lay alongside the strip as a sad reminder.

As luck (bad) would have it, while the Air Force guys and I were walking around on the strip, a Caribou began its approach to make a resupply drop of pallets loaded with 100-pound rice bags. We had the good sense to move ourselves and the Jeep to the edge of the strip given that a parachute is not exactly a precision instrument for delivery of either men or cargo.

We watched as the Caribou slowed down, dropped to 500 feet, then lifted its nose and powered back up. Four pallets came flying out the back end of the Caribou. Incredibly, none of the four parachutes deployed but, merely streamed out behind the falling pallets. Making matters worse, the pallets were headed right toward us. For a second at most, each of us assessed his ‘fight or flight’ option and then bolted away from certain death, leaving the Jeep to its fate.

The pallets hit the ground with unbelievable explosive force. Bracketed by two pallets, the Jeep bounced on its suspension springs, but was otherwise undamaged.

We didn’t fare quite as well. The impact sprayed us with a shotgun blast of rice kernels, mud, and pallet debris that drew blood on the bare skin of our arms, necks and faces.

Anyone who’s served in an Airborne unit will have heard stories of parachutes that were purposely rigged to deploy improperly or not at all. I served with an NCO who had a parachute malfunction requiring him to deploy his reserve. Upon later inspection he found the chute had been packed by ‘Mickey Mouse’ and inspected by ‘Donald Duck’. Whether those cargo ‘chutes were rigged to malfunction I’ll never know, but incompetence in any endeavor, military or civilian, is never in short supply.

After making sure none of us was badly injured, we retired to the team house to have a beer, tell the tale to our comrades and send a platoon of our CIDG troops down to recover what they could of our the scattered rice supply.