March 20, 1971, was not a good day for American and Vietnamese forces engaged in Operation Lam Son 719. Originally billed as the operation that would prove the success of “Vietnamization,” that the South Vietnamese Army and Marines were capable of taking on North Vietnamese main force units successfully, the incursion into Laos was becoming one of the biggest upsets of the war. Rather than demonstrate South Vietnamese military competence, North Vietnamese superiority was on full display. As Army Aviator Major Terry Morris remembered the battle, “Lam Son 719 was much worse than they ever let on. Officially they said we lost a couple hundred aircraft, but it was really more around 1,200 or so. They would tell us before a mission that if we went down, to try and bring back something from the aircraft so they could call it ‘combat salvageable.’ But for 90 percent of those, there was nothing to salvage. They were dead.”
Lam Son 719; A Hoped-For Victory
The objective of Lam Son 719 was disruption of a possible future offensive by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The Americans hoped that a quick victory in Laos would bolster the morale and confidence of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and demonstrate that South Vietnamese forces could defend their nation as U.S. ground combat forces withdrew. Unfortunately, Lam Son 719 collapsed into a disaster for the ARVN that decimated some of its best units and destroyed the confidence built up over the previous three years.
Cobra pilot First Lieutenant Terry Morris had joined the Army in 1963, where he served in the 82nd Airborne, volunteering for Special Force in 1966 and serving as an explosives expert with the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany. His request for flight school came through in 1967. “The CO said if I would stay, he’d guarantee E-7 in six months. I turned it down to go to flight school and go to Vietnam.”
On March 20 Morris was flying a second combat tour as a gunship pilot with D Company, 101st Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, having arrived in-country shortly before Lam Son 710; he had flown missions every day of the operation. “We operated out of the Special Forces base at Lang Vei up on the Vietnam-Laotian border, though we were regularly based out of Phu Bai.” As a gunship pilot, he flew the new Bell AH-1G Huey Cobra. “The Cobra was wonderful to fly and great for combat compared to the UH-1C I flew during my first tour, but the missions were awful. We in the Cobras would pick up a formation of 30-40 ‘slicks’ (transport helos) going into Laos with troops, and the Cobras would be out to the side looking for guns. The NVA would open up on the formation, and they would concentrate on one bird. The others would spread out away from that one, and the NVAs would keep at it until they got it, then they would do the same to another one, and then another one. Below 2,500 feet, you were taking 7.62, .50 caliber, and 23 millimeter ZSU stuff. Above 2,500 feet you would take fire from the 37mm and 57mm guns, and above 10,000 feet you’d get 90mm AAA. The AAA concentrations in Lam Son 719 were some of the heaviest of any wartime operation ever, including the Ruhr in Germany in World War II. The first couple days, it was a turkey shoot for us, but then they brought in their AAA and it was a turkey shoot for them. Some of the slick units got their clock cleaned for losses. After the first two days, it was suicide going in there. If you were down low, an NVA company might just open up with their AK-47s, firing straight up, and you’d fly through it.”
“We weren’t supposed to fly more than 80 hours a month. If we flew more than that, we were supposed to be certified OK to continue flying by the flight surgeon. I had 160 hours in 20 days during this op. The flight surgeon would ask us if we had trouble getting in and out of the bird, and if we said we didn’t, he said we were OK to fly, that’s how bad things were.”
Read the article from the June 2015 issue of Flight Journal, click here