Please welcome my guest, former Major James S. Mathison of Leavenworth, Kansas, who witnessed this incident and then wrote about it. Thank you, sir, for contributing your article and allowing me to publish here on my website. We also thank you for your service and Welcome you Home!
Republic of Vietnam, May 1970
Background: I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in August of 1969 as an armor major, bound for IV Corps to be the senior advisor to the 9th ARVN Division’s organic armored cavalry squadron. Upon arrival in Sa Dec, however, I was informed that the division’s policy was that everyone served in the infantry first. As a result, I did not get to the ARVN 2nd Cav until toward the middle of April. I had only a short time to get to know my counterpart, Major An, before we moved out for the area up by the Cambodian border. He had just assumed command of the squadron, although he had been in the unit for 14 of his 16 years of service.
Photo taken of helicopter flying north of the DMZ in 1970
The incident: 1 May was the date that we entered the area that we called the Parrot’s Beak, and encountered a large force of folks who did not want us there. We indeed found the logistical and command facility that we had been told was there, and 3 days of intense fighting followed. We were supported by just about everything that could fly, and, in fact, had a disastrous mid-air over our area on the second day.
I am no longer certain on which day the incident in question happened, but I do remember that it was during a lull in air activity. I was sitting on top of the squadron command M113 when I saw a helicopter heading toward us from the wrong direction. He was coming from the interior of Cambodia! As soon as he got close enough to identify, I could see that it was a Soviet designed MI-4, which NATO had called a Hound. The Hound was a very distinctive bird, with fixed, wheeled landing gear instead of skids, looking very much like a US H-19. I remember it as being black, with no markings showing.
I was right next to Major An, and told him what the craft was, and suggested in the strongest possible terms that we shoot the sucker down. (We had several weapons that would reach the target.) The exchange went something like this:
Me: “That is an NVA helicopter, and we need to engage it.”
An: “It might be US or VNAF. We need to get clearance.”
Me: “There is no question about what it is. I have seen them in Europe, and there is no friendly helicopter like that in country.”
An: “You call your people, and I’ll call mine. We must be certain that it is not friendly.”
At that moment, I only had control over a .45 pistol, so taking matters into my own hands was not an option. Meanwhile, the Hound, which was flying low and slow, landed behind a treeline. A few minutes later, it lifted off and landed again a couple of hundred meters away. After a short time on the ground, it lifted off again, and went back the way it came. Ironically, at a time when the sky was normally filled with our air assets, I had no contact with any friendly air that might have been able to pursue the Hound.
Photo of Soviet built MI-4 introduced in 1953
Why didn’t we shoot? The contributing factors were several:
Major An was a brand new commander, and at that stage was not prone to taking action without approval.
I had only been the senior advisor for a couple of weeks, and we had not yet established the close working relationship that we developed later.
Since we owned the air, it was difficult to process that a helicopter might be an enemy.
I viewed this incident as an opportunity lost, and in time, Major An came to agree. The major question that remains in my mind is “what was so valuable that they were willing to risk one of their few helicopters?” I have done some cursory research, but have never found anything that might point to an answer. If anyone has a suggestion of places to research, I would appreciate hearing your ideas. Please contact me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
During my research (Pdogg), I came upon a blog thread from 2007 on the website, Armchair General, which was discussing the same issue. One source cited the following from former intelligence documents:
“In 1969 a Soviet Mi-6 Helicopter was ambushed in Darlac
Province, killing 7-Soviet crewman. Intelligence sources confirm
that Soviets piloted choppers delivering troops and supplies into
Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.”
“In June 1968 north of the Ben Hai River, near the DMZ, between
9 and 12 Soviet built and piloted Mi-4 helicopters, carrying
Soviet STYX missiles were tracked on U.S. radar. U.S. Navy
Phantom jets shot down all of the helicopters. General Cao Van
Vien’s staff said, “There were Russians aboard these Helicopters”.
“A Pathet Lao defector (identity withheld) told of Soviet
officers at Pathet Lao headquarters complex at Ban Na Kay Neua. He
confirmed that Soviet manned helicopters flew between Hanoi and
Soviet built MI-8 HIP introduced in 1967
An Indian air force Mi-8 Hip helicopter rolls along a taxiway at an airport in Bangladesh. Indian, the U.S. and nations are sending aid to Bangladesh in response to the severe flooding in that country.
Driving their M1114 High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) past the remains of an Mil M-4 Hound display helicopter a convoy of US Air Force (USAF) and US Army (USA) personnel enter the main entrance of an abandoned helicopter Iraqi Air Base (AB) to perform a site-survey during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
What do you think about this? Ever witness NVA flying Russian or Chinese helicopters? In 1975, NVA pilots flew Huey’s that were captured in the northern provinces of South Vietnam…who trained them? Your thoughts?
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