By Ralph Christopher
Around noon on Nov. 8, 1968, Chief Theodore Smith was leading a patrol with boat captains James Mildenstein on PBR 841 and Bloss on PBR 755, when they received a radio message to proceed to the Nga Ba River. The place, the Thi Vai - Go Ghia area, was known as a Viet Cong stronghold and had been the site of many enemy ambushes in the past. Smith was directed to steam up a narrow stream with his two patrol boats and act as a blocking force for Vietnamese commandos and their Marine advisers, who had been inserted by Army helicopters earlier in the day. During the commandos' sweep they had made contact with a Viet Cong force in a thickly forested area and were trying to flush them out. Recon of the area had disclosed one claymore mine positioned in a tree.
The PBR patrol left the Nga Ba, proceeded up a small stream, and stayed there for some time blocking any enemy escape. But the Viet Cong seemed to have evaded, bringing the mission to an end. After the troops had been extracted by helicopter, the two PBRs began to withdraw, exiting their blocking positions to go back out onto the main river. Smith on the lead patrol boat called over to the cover boat and told them to shoot down the tree with the claymore in it as a precaution. Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class David White from Alabama complied and with PBR 755’s aft .50-cal machine gun, began chopping the tree down, which took quite a few rounds to do. The lead boat then exited first onto the river. As the cover boat began to exit and turn, a rocket came barreling out of the jungle, slamming into it and throwing the crew to the deck. Seconds later, a second rocket-propelled grenade hit PBR 755 on the starboard side, slinging hot flying metal every which way and wounding everybody aboard.
The Viet Cong had set a well-planned ambush in the trees with both patrol boats taken under a tremendous amount of rocket and machine-gun fire from both banks. In the first few minutes, the cover boat had taken two rocket hits forward with everyone on the crew wounded multiple times. Bloss suffered deep shrapnel wounds in both legs and was able to stay on his feet at the helm but kept sinking in the cockpit. Seaman Molodow, who was on his first patrol training, was seriously wounded in the head, and Seaman James Lonsford on the forward .50s was hit in the arm but refused to stop firing.
Reacting quickly, White was able to make it back to his feet after being knocked down three times, and was returning fire on the aft .50-cal machine gun. Although White and Engineman Third Class John Bragg were both covered in blood from shrapnel wounds, they were still able to alternate between firing their weapons and administering first aid to the other three wounded men. White moved forward and applied a battle dressing to Molodow’s head wound. Then he unselfishly took off his flak jacket and helmet and gave it to Molodow to put on for protection. There were only enough flak jackets and helmets on board for the four-man PBR crew, and Molodow was riding as a passenger on his first day on the river. Then White went forward and put a battle dressing on his Texas buddy Lunsford.
After taking PBR 841 through the kill zone on a firing run, Smith turned the lead boat around and returned in the midst of enemy rockets and automatic-weapons fire to help the badly wounded cover boat and her crew. At first the Chief ordered Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Albert F. Johnson, from Denver, to jump over and take the helm of PBR 755 since Bloss was seriously hurt and could no longer stand. But Smith changed his mind and jumped aboard PBR 755 himself, and almost immediately was hit by a rocket which killed him instantly and wounded the rest of the crew as well. Seeing that his boat captain was momentarily stunned by the intensity and accuracy of the enemy fire, and seeing no one moving on the badly hit cover boat, Johnson immediately took command of PBR 841 and maneuvered his boat between the ambush bank and the cover boat while the crew returned fire.
With blood gushing, Lonsford had caught shrapnel in his throat and tried to cover it. Despite his own painful wounds, White again left his aft gun and rushed forward, exposing himself to intense rocket and automatic-weapons fire to aid his grievously-wounded friend who was bleeding profusely. After applying a big gauze bandage to Lonsford’s throat to stop the bleeding, White then pulled his 6-foot-4-inch friend out of the gun tub, laid him across the bow, and took his buddy’s place on the twin .50s firing away. Lonsford just lay there in pain, covered in blood, as he pinched the main artery in his own neck trying to slow the bleeding.
Tracers ricocheted and whistled by as the lead boat got underway and started making firing runs with Johnson at the helm firing an M79 grenade launcher while calling for help on the radio and steering the boat. Fireman Bill Polacek stood completely exposed on the engine covers loading belt after belt of ammo into his M60 machine-gun, pouring lead into the hostile positions throughout the entire firefight, while Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Andy Winters struggled to keep the forward .50s going and keep a steady flow of bullets directed at the enemy during the PBR’s high-speed runs laying down cover fire. Since the aft .50 of PBR 841 had been emptied on their first firing runs, Mildenstein grabbed a gun and added to the firepower as PBR 841 made another run on the west bank. Back at the operations center in Nha Be they listened helplessly over the radio to the attack, but could do little to help.
Because Molodow’s head wound and Lonsford’s throat wound were so serious, no one thought the two men would survive unless they got immediate care. With the radios out on PBR 755, an urgent call for help went out from Johnson on PBR 841 for dust-off choppers to come and medevac the wounded. But because of the high tide and trees, there was no area for a landing zone. It was also extremely hot with a tremendous amount of weapons fire being exchanged, so everyone figured not many would attempt such a rescue.
But as luck would have it, a Navy Seawolf gunship fire team from Detachment 2 in Nha Be had just taken off when they heard the distress call from Johnson coming from the northern part of the Rung Sat Special Zone. Riding in the nugget seat, the most junior spot of a Seawolf fire team, was Lt. j.g. “Hollywood” Al Billings, Seawolf 28, at the end of his tour and about to rotate back home. Loved by the enlisted men who served with him, Mr. B, as he was called, was confident and a born leader and had already proved himself many times as fire team leader. Now he was riding in the second chopper backing up the new pilot so he could get more experience. But when Billings heard the gunfire and tone of the young PBR sailor desperately begging for help over the radio, it got his heart racing. Billings had already seen one of his roommates needlessly die when he was attached to the carrier USS Bonhomme Richard, because the pilot flying the helicopter was not good enough to go down and hook up to the downed pilot. Billings was in the second seat that day also. Now here it was happening all over again, as his heart pounded listening to the young sailor describing the patrol officer dead with two critically wounded who would not make it without immediate help.
As the two Navy gunships arrived overhead, the fire team's leader in the lead bird, who happened to be the officer in charge and had just arrived in country a short time ago, cautiously orbited 1,500 feet above the patrol boats, seemly waiting for something to happen. Again Johnson came up over the radio with another gut-wrenching plea for help, while he and the crew of PBR 841 made high-speed firing runs trying to provide protection for the smoldering cover boat. This was about all Billings could handle. He could not just sit there and listen while these brave young river sailors called for help, watching their friends bleed to death. He had made up his mind a long time ago that no one was going to die on his watch.
Billings grabbed the controls and took the chopper away from the pilot, shouting, “I have the aircraft.” The pilot did not hesitate to relinquish the controls. Billings had trained him since he arrived in country, so he was aware of his abilities as a pilot and knew there was none better. Billings keyed the radio and told the flight team's leader that they had to get down there in a hurry and help. The flight team's leader responded that there was nothing they could do. This is not what Billings wanted to hear. In fact, he had heard it one too many times before and informed the leader that he was going in. The officer in charge came back over the radio in a defiant voice, “You’re not going down there. It’s too hot. That’s an order.”
Billings couldn’t remember what he said next. He was a little busy assessing the situation, but I am sure it was colorful. As he rolled in he told the fire team's leader to put continuous fire on both banks. Then he radioed Johnson on PBR 841 and told him he wanted to make coordinated high-speed firing runs when he gave the word. Then Billings dumped off half of the rockets along the bank where the lead PBR was returning fire. He rolled the chopper up into a rotor over and pickled the rest of the rockets along the other sid,e releasing a volley of rockets on the forest. The crew chief and door gunner knew Billings well and were focused and keyed on his every move, firing their machine guns out the doorways. Not a word was said to them. They had flown with him on hundreds of missions and anticipated his every move. Billings then pulled the helicopter up into a high turn and headed for the stricken PBR 755.
The adrenaline flow was beginning to peak, with bullets flying through the air in every direction as they slowly came in making their approach. Billings could feel the vibration of the aircraft as he started to maneuver into position to hover over the PBR. The chopper felt heavy, so he told the crew to get rid of anything they didn’t need, and they started pitching things out the open doorway. Now Billings focused on the damaged patrol boat, watching the winds of smoke billowing off the deck into the sky. He radioed the fire team's leader in the lead bird and told him to keep a continuous stream of fire on the bank while he was over the PBR. The lead bird circled well above the skirmish, but did comply and laid down cover fire as Billings had requested.
Since the PBR was just under 32 feet long and the UH-1B Huey was quite a bit larger, Billings knew it was going to be a tricky maneuver. As he came in for his approach he told the lead PBR crew to start their firing runs and to make sure they kept Charlie’s head down. The lead bird was circling overhead with its door gunners hanging out the sides pouring continuous fire on the banks while PBR 841 made firing runs with the crew unloading everything they had on the enemy. Johnson had fired all the M79 rounds he had and began emptying his Colt .45 pistol while in the coxswain flat steering. Winters yelled out that the forward guns were down and Johnson yelled back to grab anything and shoot, which Winters did. The roar of the boat engines growling at high speeds, mixed with the whipping of the chopper blades and the thunderous amount of fire being exchanged, was deafening as all hands were now concentrating on laying down cover fire and saving the wounded men's lives.
Power on the chopper engine was critical if Billings was going to pull this off, so he told the co-pilot to give him an update on the power settings as he came into hover. He then maneuvered the helicopter down so the left skid was on the bow of the patrol boat, which White had turned into the wind. They could all now plainly see that the top of the PBR had been blown off and men were down and bleeding. As the rotor wash of the chopper started to blow the PBR around, Billings was somehow able to keep contact with the boat so they could make the transfer. The Seawolf crew chief, Petty Officer George C. Heady, covered their right flank with the twin .30-cal machine guns, firing out the doorway and making them sing. Billings then instructed door gunner Airman Glen R. Smithen to go down into the boat, grab the wounded sailors and get them aboard.
Smithen without hesitation bravely climbed down, and with the help of Bragg and Heady lifted and pulled Lonsford up into the aircraft while Lonsford held his own neck to control the bleeding. Then Smithen went down onto the damaged PBR again and grabbed Molodow, helping him into the chopper. Smithen was a strong man, built like a football tackle, and within minutes he had both the wounded men aboard the chopper. While all of this was going on, Billings kept his focus on maintaining contact with the PBR, which was being blown around in the water by the wind from the rotor blades. He fought the controls and somehow was able to do this. All the while, the lead PBR crew continued making firing runs with their .50-cal muzzles blazing in combination with the lead chopper, which was also pouring fire onto the jungle. It was an impressive display of firepower, to say the least.
After the injured sailors had both been pulled aboard and Smithen started to climb back into the chopper, Billings hollered at the co-pilot to give him the power settings, which were critical for takeoff. Billings yelled a second and third time while he struggled to keep the helicopter steady. But the co-pilot seemed to be in some sort of trance, staring out the window. Billings glanced over at the power settings and could see he was losing RPMs. He feared they would go into the water, so he slid the helicopter down off the PBR hoping to get some help from the ground cushion off the surface of the river. But it didn’t work and the chopper settled into the water. Not knowing if the enemy was setting up for a better angle to fire on them, Billings headed downstream with the current with the aircraft still in the water as he tried to gain power and pull it out of the river, while the chin bubble filled with water that mixed with the blood. Billings told the crew to throw everything out, and about that time the co-pilot next to him came to and started shouting, “Lighten ship, lighten ship,” over the radio.
As they emptied the helicopter, Billings pulled in the power and struggled to lift the chopper out of the water, but it didn’t work. With the additional weight of the water and wounded men in the aircraft it was impossible, so they threw some more equipment out the door. Then Billings pushed the nose forward and pulled in the collective, and with the combination of the river current helping was able to break free from the suction of the river and lift the bird up and out of the river. It was a miraculous save and one that not many pilots could have made, but thanks to Billings, the helicopter started gaining altitude with the river water draining away.
They got up to speed and hauled ass, with the chopper redlining the whole way as they radioed ahead to the Army 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon and reported the condition of the wounded. Heady took out their first aid kit and he and Smithen administered care as best they could, treating Molodow’s head wound while applying pressure to Lonsford’s neck. Billings had nothing but praise for his crew that day and, when asked, said he was glad they could help.
Glen Smithen commented, “We were flying a routine cover mission and running low on fuel, so we headed back to Nha Be to refuel. As soon as we touched down the call came. The PBRs were being attacked from both banks and had two seriously injured people. Medevac helicopters were dispatched, but when they arrived their response was that it was too hot for them to pick up the wounded. Our pilot, Lt. j.g. Al Billings, called and requested permission for us to go pick them up, which was denied. Mr. Billings decided to disregard the commander’s direct orders and pick up the wounded anyway. Surveying the area, there was gunfire everywhere, and the PBR in question was just sitting dormant in the middle of the stream, at the Viet Cong’s mercy. My biggest fear was that Mr. Billings was going to use my side to pull them into the chopper, and I was correct. At this point I was completely terrified and just knew we weren’t going to survive the mission. I was only 20 years old at the time and didn’t want to die in Vietnam. In our favor was our pilot, Hollywood Al Billings. If I had to do it, I wouldn’t want to attempt it with any other pilot. He was amazing at his job, and I always had the utmost confidence in his abilities and judgment. The first thing we needed to do was lighten up our chopper to accommodate the two wounded. So we started tossing out our ammo and anything that had weight to it. Then Mr. Billings proceeded to go down. It would not be easy, due to the high wind and its direction. As we approached the PBR, the gunfire started increasing in intensity, but we all stayed focused on our task. Mr. Billings steadied the chopper next to the boat and placed the skid on the deck. At that point, I jumped out and grabbed the first wounded and literally tossed him into the chopper. Bullets were hitting all around us as I grabbed the second wounded soldier and tossed him into the helo. My guess was they both weighed between 180 and 200 pounds, but my adrenaline was so charged it was like lifting a small child. I jumped back into the chopper with gunfire still ringing around us and we flew off. The first wounded sailor was wounded in the neck with blood pumping out at a steady flow. I applied pressure to stop the flow. The second sailor was wounded in the head and I honestly thought neither was going to survive. When we arrived, the sailors were taken away and we found out later that they both survived. To this day I thank God that none of our crew was injured. I’m not sure how, though. Later everyone was congratulating us, and I was still numb with fear. I drank myself to sleep that night and many other nights and prayed to God for letting us save our comrades and sparing our lives.”
After Billings got back to the Seawolf compound, he got an ass-chewing from the officer in charge, who threatened to try to take away his wings for disobeying a direct order. Billings just stood there, not responding, wondering why the man was so pissed. Was it because he disobeyed his order - was it that terrible of a stunt? - or was it because it was something he should have done himself but didn’t? At this point Billings didn’t care anymore what the man thought. He knew in his heart that he had done the right thing and that his crew had performed brilliantly, saving the lives of two sailors. As the officer in charge started to run out of things to say to him, Billings turned and walked away.
Later that evening a group of Iron Butterfly chiefs came over to Billings’ hooch. As they walked in, they wanted to know who Seawolf 28 was. Billings stood up and introduced himself and his crew. One of the chiefs held up a bottle of Jack Daniels and a box of cigars. “This is for you. We understand it was quite an exciting rescue.”
The praises and thanks went on for an hour or so, then the chiefs left with an open invitation to the Nha Be CPO club. Billings was made an honorary member and would not have to buy another drink till after he left Vietnam. On the other hand, the next morning a couple of reporters with photographers came to the Seawolf compound looking for the pilots of the daring rescue they had heard about. Both the fire team's leader and the other pilot got up and started taking credit for the rescue while Billings set quietly with his friends playing cards. He never saw the reporters again but did hear that the other pilots got their names in a few newspapers. But Billings blew it off, as he usually did. The following day a couple of the Iron Butterfly chiefs brought a Navy Times reporter over and pointed Billings out, saying that is the man who saved our people. Billings was cool and played it down as he normally did but answered their questions and was happy that nothing had been said of taking his wings.
A couple more days went by and Billings was told to report to his commanding officer in Vung Tau, which he did with no idea what it was all about. The CO, a Navy captain, was a big man. He sat behind his desk and looked up when Billings entered the room and snapped to attention, saluting. “Lieutenant Junior Grade Billings reporting as ordered, sir.”
The captain looked to be in his forties and had a stern face as he eyed Billings, who had never met the captain before and so he had no idea what to expect. He flashed back, thinking his aviation career in the Navy was over but hoping there was a light at the end of the tunnel to save him. Then the captain picked up the Navy Times, handed it to him and asked, “Is this you?”
Billings looked at the paper briefly and replied, “Yes sir, I believe so.”
The captain spoke. “Let me tell you something, son. I don’t ever want to read about my men in the newspaper without knowing about it firsthand, is that understood?”
“You tell your officer in charge that I want to know about everything that goes on in that detachment.”
Then Billings and the captain had a good talk, with the captain asking about the rescue and complimenting Billings on a job well done. Then he wished him well, and Billings left the room believing he had escaped losing his wings. In fact, the captain called Billings’ Officer-in-Charge and told him to put Billings in for a medal, which he did. Billings was awarded the Silver Medal for his gallant rescue on Nov. 8, 1968. Heady and Smithen were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
Everybody went down to the docks to meet the boats when they came in. One of the boatswain’s mates jumped into the cockpit of PBR 755 to get Smith’s body, and immediately recoiled out of the boat with his arm up over his face. Smith was a hard charger and very popular with the men, and it was painful for them to see what had happened to the leader whose orders and bravery were never questioned.
Normally after a firefight, even if there were light wounds, everyone laughed it off, and if it was a sailor’s first firefight, they snipped the loop on the back of his black beret. It was fun and the guy whose beret was snipped paid for the beer. But after a death like Smith’s, everybody sort of went his own way. It was an eye-opener and brought home the fact that it was a serious business they were all in. There was little reminiscing except to reassure each other that their shipmate died quickly and never knew what hit him. People took comfort in the fact that their friends went immediately and did not suffer. If they were hit with anti-tank fire, which was usually the case with river patrolmen, they went fast. It was not like the infantry where a man could be wounded and pinned down for a long time on the battlefield. The river patrolmen actually felt lucky in that respect. It was a way of dealing with the war to keep their mental state intact so they could go back out on the river the next day and face the enemy.
A memorial service for Smith was held at 1300 hours on Nov. 11, 1968. Prayers and words of praise were offered by his many shipmates, who echoed their sorrow. He will always be remembered as a true professional who took the well-being of his crew as first priority. He gave his life trying to help those crewmen who were wounded on PBR 755. His devotion to duty and his courage earned him wide fame throughout the Rung Sat Special Zone, with many hearing of his fate replying that he would be sorely missed.
For gallantry on Nov. 8, Smith was awarded the Silver Star and a second Purple Heart posthumously for his mortal wounds. He had already received a Bronze Star for bravery and aggressiveness under fire earlier. He left behind a wife, Eiko, and a son, Rick, and was the first Iron Butterfly sailor killed in combat, sacrificing his life for the unit. And for a short time, the Iron Butterfly did weep.