South Viet Nam: The Helicopter War Runs into Trouble

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The Open Wallet. As dusk fell, the Viet Cong slipped into sampans and escaped down the darkened canal with their dead and wounded. "Everything we did went wrong." complained a U.S. adviser. A battalion of government paratroopers, assigned the job of blocking the Reds' escape route, was airdropped into the wrong position. And when government artillery at last started to shell the wooded Viet Cong positions, their rounds were zeroed in on their own troops, killed three of their own men.

Worst of all, the battered Vietnamese troops showed little interest in pursuing the Reds. Instead, they sloshed through the paddyfields, picking up their casualties—68 dead and 100 wounded—and poking through the downed helicopters. On the cabin floor of one of the choppers lay the wallet of a dead U.S. adviser—open to a picture of his wife and child. In all, three U.S. advisers—Captain Good, Sergeant William Deal of Mays Landing, N.J., and Specialist 4 Donald Braman of Radcliff, Ky.—were killed in the ambush, and six more wounded. The dead brought to 56 the number of U.S. troops killed so far in South Viet Nam.

Piecemealed to Death. The extent of the government defeat under conditions of its own choosing and the heavy losses suffered by the U.S. helicopters caused heads to snap from Saigon to Washington.

Under orders from President Kennedy, the Pentagon began to investigate ways in which the choppers can be better protected. In Saigon, U.S. advisers admitted that the day was a "miserable performance," blamed the defeat on a "lack of aggressiveness" by government troops. "They moved in slowly and gave the Viet Cong a chance to piecemeal them to death," said one American officer.

Still, U.S. advisers are pleased with the progress made by government troops over the past year. "Casualties are inevitable when you are fighting a war," said one. "The Viet Cong are improving their arsenal and techniques. We're doing the same—and on balance we're still way out ahead of them."

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