Vail Daily column: A personal Memorial Day remembrance
May 28, 2017
Memorial Day is the day of the year set aside for the nation to remember and honor the men and women of the armed forces who paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. And while all combat losses are tragic, for me Memorial Day brings with it a particularly sad memory.
On March 7, 1970, one of my squadron's aircraft (a CH-46D), piloted by Capt. Al Gates and Lt. K.K. Kimura, was flying "chase" on a UH-1 helicopter (a Huey) on a mission from Marble Mountain Air Facility (south Vietnam) to Phu Bai, a base about 50 miles north of Da Nang.
The mission was flown in inclement weather with a low ceiling and limited visibility. The Huey reached Phu Bai, but our squadron's bird didn't make it. When the Huey driver inquired into the situation he was told by an Army pilot that he had seen a '46 down in the coastal waters about 25 miles north of Da Nang.
Low-level flying in bad weather above water always presented risks; in such conditions, it's easy to become disoriented, and without a visible horizon, it's virtually impossible to tell where the sky ends and the water begins.
Flights along the coast were usually made about 500 yards off shore in order to avoid enemy ground fire and at low altitudes to remain clear of the aircraft launching from the air base at Da Nang.
Al was the HAC (helicopter aircraft commander) and the more experienced of the two, although not by much. It's unknown who was actually flying the aircraft at the time of the incident, but usually in demanding or dangerous situations (tight landing zones, coming under fire, etc.) the HAC would be at the controls.
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After the crash, an Air Force "Jolly Green Giant" and a Navy patrol boat conducted search and rescue efforts. Our squadron's starboard-side gunner survived and was picked up by a Vietnamese fisherman who dropped him off on the shore and then left him to his own devices to find his own way to friendly forces while trying to evade the Viet Cong.
The bodies of the aircraft's crew chief and the port gunner were found along the coast. About a week after the incident, K.K.'s body was found in a river a few miles from the suspected crash site. The remains of Capt. Al Gates were never recovered.
In addition to my flying duties, I was the squadron's acting legal officer and conducted all accident investigations. In this particular case, I concluded that Al and K.K. were flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and suddenly encountered "weather," i.e., fog or low-level clouds, causing them to become disoriented and subsequently flying the aircraft into the South China Sea. My official report stated: Cause of Accident — Pilot Error.
Nearly a quarter of all aircraft losses during the Vietnam War were non-combat related, which isn't surprising considering the stress combat puts on both men and machines.
More than any other experience I had in that country, this event haunts me, because to this day, I believe that if the HAC (Al Gates) had a bit more experience flying the '46 in bad weather, this tragedy could have been avoided.
So it is today I wish to honor Al and K.K., along with the other crew members who perished on that fateful day 47 years ago — Semper Fi, gentlemen — Oooh Rah!
Quote of the Day: "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion." — Gen. William Thornson, U.S. Army
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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