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Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. It illustrates the risk and potential of battlefield helicopter rescue. Head-to-head battles of this size, out in the open and lasting all day, were rare during the Vietnam War. At this point, three Huey helicopters have crashed, and the commander of the American forces has died during an attempted rescue. Dozens of American and South Vietnamese troops are unable to move to safety, and one, pilot Jon Myhre, has gone missing.
Plans for a rescue haven't yet firmed up, but in the meantime, aircraft have the job of keeping the Vietcong from overrunning the survivors. Bombers and Skyraiders took turns pummeling the tree lines on the north and east. One leg of this pattern passed over the Vietcong-held tree lines. As each gunship exhausted its rocket pods, grenades, and ammunition cases, it left the formation and headed to base for more ammunition.
At the Vinh Long airfield, the time to re-arm a gunship dropped from the normal 30 minutes to 10, says Terry McDowell, who managed the reloading. Gunships were so overloaded that gunners ran alongside as the B-model Hueys scraped along the runway, gaining enough translational lift to claw into the air. Still the Vietcong gunners were firing—from slits in log bunkers concealed among the dike lines. Snipers were picking off men who showed their heads above the vegetation. Mindful of the opposition, slicks dropped ARVN reinforcements out of rifle range, on the opposite side of a tree line lying a half-mile northwest.
Adviser Rex Latham went in search of his senior officer, Tom Mitchell, not knowing his fate. Latham found that he could make his way into the combat zone by staying low and timing his movements with the aircraft attacks, when the Vietcong ducked for cover.
Finding Mitchell dead, Latham took his radio and began organizing the remnants of the first lift, grouping the wounded for rescue. Awaiting the arrival of more troops to take up flanking positions on the east, the new ARVN forces held their advance, still facing heavy fire. Vietcong spotters were using whistle signals effectively: calling the men to take cover when gunships were in sight, then summoning them into action once the airplanes had passed.