War Stories 10

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Beginning of Medevac Meadows

By CPT Stephen F. Modica

I first met Warrant Officer Louis R. Rocco in Phuoc Vinh, Republic of Vietnam. Then a Sergeant First Class, Rocco was a real contributor - the type of supervisor who could think. Appropriately, he was assigned as an advisor to an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) medical battalion. My unit was the 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Division.

SGT Rocco enjoyed talking shop with other Americans and. visited us quite frequently to establish a closer liaison. He was a conscientious worker striving to learn our techniques that he could train his unit and not slow our extraction efforts when we picked up the wounded.

Although SGT Rocco was an advisor to a medical battalion, he was not "in the action" enough, so he sometimes replaced my medic and flew with Medevac 2 - or The Wild Deuce - as referred to by the units we served.

On I May 1970, when the Cambodian incursion began, I was sent to a Special Forces outpost to provide closer support to the incursion task force. I was assigned to support the 25th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Division. After two weeks SGT Rocco's ARVN battalion moved in to support the ARVN companies working in the area.

 Everything broke loose on about the 20th of May and for three days Medevac 2 was kept busy hustling wounded Americans back to the Special Forces camp. On the 23rd of May, I had to "chop down a tree" to extract a wounded American and then fly back to Phuoc Vinh to get a new set of rotor blades for my UH-IH. While I was at Phuoc Vinh; SGT Rocco dropped by and asked for a ride to the Special Forces camp 4 with me. I agreed to take him.

En route the next morning, Medevac Delta (Medevac base operations at the Special Forces camp) called in an urgent mission to extract several critically wounded men from one of the companies to which SGT Rocco was as advisor. SGT Rocco said that he would like to go along to help my medic. I agreed. We flew into the Special Forces camp, offloaded supplies, picked up an extra chicken plate for SGT Rocco and took off. Upon arriving at the pickup site, two AH-l HueyCobra gun birds (Precise Swords 12 and Precise Swords 12A) made contact and were ready to give me the necessary firepower being full of nails and rockets (flechette and high explosive 2.75 inch rockets). After getting a briefing from the ground troops, I picked my approach direction, coordinated with the gun birds and proceeded to make a high speed low altitude approach to the LZ (landing zone). We began taking light machinegun fire; Precise Swords 12 returned the fire as I flared the ship for touchdown. Two slugs hit my chicken plate and a third hit my knee. Upon landing, my copilot, LT Cauberreaux, looked to me in jest to tell me I'd landed rather hard - then he realized I was hit. Immediately he took command and decided to "get outta there." Pulling pitch he yelled to the gunships that we were getting out. Suddenly, the entire ridge line opened fire. I noticed our rpm (revolutions per minute) going past 5,500 and reached out to key the mike for a MAYDAY - "The Wild Deuce is going down, XU-5606, MAYDAY XU-5606!"

 The tail boom flew away from the ship and we dropped about 50 feet to the ground; the tanks of the ship burst into flames. SGT Rocco, I guess, was thrown from the aircraft, which was on its right side in full blaze. I unhooked my seat belts as SGT Rocco came clambering into the ship and bodily threw me through the shattered windshield; he then assisted LT Cauberreaux from the aircraft and returned a third time to pull my wounded medic from the fire. (One of my gunners also had been thrown free of the crash and knocked unconscious.)

SGT Rocco, realizing we were still short one man, returned to the raging inferno but could not find the other gunner who was pinned beneath the aircraft. The two gunships continued their runs against the enemy positions in an attempt to provide us cover. SGT Rocco began shuttling us to cover because the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion was still pouring automatic weapons fire toward us. I tried to run but my legs wouldn't function so SGT Rocco half-shoved, half-dragged me to the tree line and then returned to help the others. As he was leading LT Cauberreaux to cover, two enemy bullets ripped across Cauberreaux' chicken plate. SGT Rocco had led us to safety with a broken hip and wrist; additionally, while extracting the crewmen from the wreckage he had sustained severe burns on his hands. Disregarding excruciating pain, he continued to administer first aid to his wounded comrades until his wounds and burns caused him to collapse and lose consciousness.

As stated in Warrant Officer Rocco's citation for the Medal of Honor, "His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving three of his fellow Soldiers from certain death."


WO Rocco distinguished himself when he volunteered to accompany a medical evacuation team on an urgent mission to evacuate 8 critically wounded Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel. As the helicopter approached the landing zone, it became the target for intense enemy automatic weapons fire. Disregarding his own safety, WO Rocco identified and placed accurate suppressive fire on the enemy positions as the aircraft descended toward the landing zone. Sustaining major damage from the enemy fire, the aircraft was forced to crash land, causing WO Rocco to sustain a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back. Ignoring his injuries, he extracted the survivors from the burning wreckage, sustaining burns to his own body. Despite intense enemy fire, WO Rocco carried each unconscious man across approximately 20 meters of exposed terrain to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam perimeter. On each trip, his severely burned hands and broken wrist caused excruciating pain, but the lives of the unconscious crash survivors were more important than his personal discomfort, and he continued his rescue efforts. Once inside the friendly position, WO Rocco helped administer first aid to his wounded comrades until his wounds and burns caused him to collapse and lose consciousness. His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving 3 of his fellow soldiers from certain death. His unparalleled bravery in the face of enemy fire, his complete disregard for his own pain and injuries, and his performance were far above and beyond the call of duty and were in keeping with the highest traditions of self-sacrifice and courage of the military service.

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Medevac Meadows - The Whole Story

from the Amedd history

One of these hoist missions during the Cambodian operation demonstrated that the air ambulance pilots had no monopoly on heroism among the U.S. Army medical personnel in Vietnam. On the morning of 24 May 1970 a helicopter of the Air Ambulance Platoon was ferrying S. Sgt. Louis R. Rocco, the medical adviser of a MACV advisory team stationed at Katum. Since December 1969 Sergeant Rocco had served as liaison to the 1st ARVN Airborne Division's medical battalion. He had trained ARVN personnel on mission requests, use of the hoist, the forest penetrator, and the semi-rigid litter, and he also had presented classes on basic first aid. Whenever his duties allowed him the time, Rocco rode the medical helicopters on live missions to help the medical corpsmen and to practice some "hands on" medicine himself.

At 1100 on 24 May, Medevac 2 with Sergeant Rocco on board flew toward its base at Katum, in northern Tay Ninh province along the Cambodian border. A request for a pickup came in through the radio of a command-and-control helicopter flying overhead. The call was on behalf of eight urgent patients of the 1st ARVN Airborne Division. Two of the division's companies, the 61st and 63d, were on a sweep operation five miles inside the Cambodian border. The day before, the two companies had made contact with a North Vietnamese force that broke off and withdrew. The commander of the 61st Company had the small task force dig in for the night. The enemy attacked at dawn on the twenty-fourth but was repulsed by the defenders. In pursuing the North Vietnamese the ARVN soldiers took eight casualties. The U.S. advisers to the 61st and 63d Companies radioed their evacuation request through Maj. Jesse W. Myers, Jr., senior battalion adviser, who was overhead in a command-and-control helicopter. The pilot of Medevac 2, 1st Lt. Stephen F. Modica, radioed that he would take the mission as soon as he dropped off a load of supplies. At Katum, the crew threw the beer and sodas onto the pad, grabbed an extra chest protector for Rocco, and took off again. Regulations of the 1st Cavalry required gunship cover for evacuation missions if a unit had been in contact with the enemy within the past twenty-four hours. Usually C Battery, 2d Battalion, 20th Aerial Rocket Artillery-the "Blue Max"-provided this cover by orbiting a team of two AH-1G Cobras, one high and one at treetop level. Medevac 2 had already learned from the U.S. adviser with the ARVN companies that the last contact had been to the north two hours earlier. Soon the Blue Max gun team arrived on station; Modica briefed them on the situation and said he would shoot his approach from the south. When the helicopter dropped to the landing zone, North Vietnamese hidden in the trees and along the ridge line opened fire with small arms and automatic weapons. The lower gunbird opened fire at the muzzle flashes in the trees. On its second pass it used its grenade launcher; the enemy redirected some of its fire and the gunship took its first hit. On its next run it again took enemy fire.

Just before the Medevac landed, two enemy rounds hit Modica in the chest protector and one passed through his left knee and lodged against the femur. As soon as the aircraft bumped down, the copilot turned to kid Modica that he ought to practice his landings. When he saw Modica's wounds, he took the controls and pulled the ship out of the landing zone. The aircraft rose fifty feet into the air before the engine stalled and the aircraft crashed back to the ground. Major Myers later described what he saw from above in his command-and-control ship: "The [Medevac] ship seemed to land, then shot up in the air, and then fell to the ground rolling over on its side, thrashing around like a wounded insect.... Smoke was pouring out of the ship by this time...." The two gunships made low firing passes to give the Medevac crew a chance to get out, if any still lived. One Cobra gunship came to a high hover over the burning Medevac, spinning and firing at the North Vietnamese. The gunship took twenty-nine hits before its ammunition ran out, forcing it to depart. The pilot transmitted a Mayday for the downed Medevac, giving its location and identification, and then called Medevac Operations to repeat the information.

All the Medevac crew were stunned at first and unable to move. Finally Rocco dragged himself out and crawled away. He had a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back. As soon as he realized that the crew was still inside, he went back. He pulled Modica through the shattered windshield and carried him across twenty meters of exposed terrain to the ARVN perimeter. One by one he brought the unconscious crew out. All were in bad shape. Modica had his serious leg wound. The copilot, 1st Lt. Leroy G. Cauberreaux, had a broken collar bone and fractured ribs. Sp5c. Terry Burdette, the medical corpsman, had a broken shoulder and a broken leg. The gunner, Sp4c. Gary Taylor, who sat in the right door, was crushed and burned when the ship crashed and rolled, and Rocco severely burned his hands trying to find him. The nearby ARVN soldiers could not help because the enemy was shooting at anyone who moved. The two bullets that hit Cauberreaux in the chest protector as Rocco carried him toward the ARVN perimeter did no further damage. Rocco had saved his three comrades from certain death.

At Quan Loi, the Air Ambulance Platoon's base, Capt. Henry O. Tuell III, aircraft commander of Medevac 1, yelled to his pilot, 1st Lt. Howard Elliot, that Modica had been shot down. Elliot was in the shower; he grabbed a towel and ran to get his clothes, scattering soapy lather as he went. By the time he had thrown his clothes on, Tuell had already cranked the aircraft; off they flew, Elliot lacing boots and fastening zippers. Although several other aircraft were in the area, Medevac 1 was the first evacuation ship on the scene. Medevac 2 was still burning, throwing off blankets of black smoke, Medevac 1 made its approach straight in and the enemy tried for another score. On each side of Medevac 1 two Cobras fired flechettes, machine guns, grenades, and rockets; but enemy rounds still hit the ship. One came through the left door and hit the armored seat just below Tuell's hand. Shrapnel and shattered porcelain from the seat peppered his hand and wrist. Elliot took the controls and nursed the ship back to Quan Loi where a doctor cleaned, stitched, and dressed Tuell's injuries.

Two hours later, after several air and artillery strikes around the perimeter, the pilot of Medevac 12, Lt. John Read, had his gunship escort lay down a heavy rocket preparation as he tried a high-speed, low-level approach to Medevac 2. The North Vietnamese, still safely bunkered behind 1 1/2 feet of concrete, blasted Medevac 12 out of the area before it could land. Bullets punctured the fuel cells and disabled the engine. With his tachometer falling, Lt. Read managed to land his ship safely in a nearby clearing, where the crew was immediately picked up.

Back at the crash site Modica remained conscious despite loss of much blood, and talked to the aircraft orbiting helplessly overhead. The American adviser with the ARVN forces, S. Sgt. Louis Clason, told him that the ARVN soldiers had not been resupplied in two days and were running out of everything, including water. Modica told him, "Hey, listen. We have one case of beer in the tail boom of the aircraft. You run out there -at least that's something to drink." Clason told him, "Lieutenant, you don't even know what your aircraft looks like. It is burned completely to the ground." About 1800, Modica radioed the nearby aircraft that the ARVN defenders might not be able to hold on through the night. After an hour of continuous friendly shelling around the allied perimeter, Medevac 21, piloted by CWO Raymond Zepp and covered by gunships, made the third attempt to reach the downed aircraft. The Cobra fired a 360º pattern with rockets and miniguns, but enemy fire still riddled the Medevac, knocking out its radios and starting an electrical fire. Like Medevac 12, Medevac 21 landed in a field 500 meters to the west; its crew was quickly pulled out. Nightfall prevented any further rescue attempts.

During the long hours of darkness, the enemy launched three assaults on the small perimeter. Flares overhead illuminated the area and allowed the Americans to call in artillery and gunships to break up the ground attacks. By nightfall Rocco's injuries had immobilized him. After pulling his crew from the burning ship, he had treated their injuries and the ARVN casualties he could get to. Soon his injured hip and hand stiffened, making any effort to move excruciatingly painful. Finally he passed out. Modica's leg swelled to twice its normal size and the pain immobilized him too. Cauberreaux moved about and lit cigarettes for the men, but with his crushed right side he could do little else. Since they had no morphine or other painkiller, they had to suffer.

At Quan Loi, planning for an all-out rescue attempt continued well into the night. The plan called for two Medevacs to go in and evacuate Modica's crew and any South Vietnamese possible. A third would hover nearby to extricate the crews if trouble developed and to evacuate any remaining ARVN casualties. Since all their Medevacs were shot up, destroyed, or committed elsewhere, the 1st Cavalry had to borrow three non-divisional Dust Off helicopters. At 0930 next morning ARVN and American howitzer batteries started laying a barrage of smoke rounds in the area to create a screen for the upcoming rescue. just before the operation began, four Cobras fired more smoke rounds. At 1145 the flight of three Medevacs with three cobras on each side started into the area. The first ship in loaded Modica and his crew and flew out. The second extracted several ARVN wounded and also safely left the area. An enemy rocket hit the third ship as it took off with two remaining ARVN casualties, but the crew brought the ship down without further injuries and was quickly rescued.

The next day nine pilots and crewmen involved in this rescue received Silver Stars. Sergeant Rocco was awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in saving Modica and most of his crew.

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