SSG Dennis Neal
SSG Michael V. Kuropas
Then the call came to lay down their lives for their comrades in the afternoon hours of April 15, 1970. Would they take the call?
The 170th Aviation Helicopter Company had in the early morning hours of April 15th started inserting reinforcements on a small hill that was nothing more than a bald knob with craters
outside the perimeter of a Special Forces Camp. However, this bald knob was a strategic position, which offered a premier vantage point over the entire valley and was in demand by both the Americans and North Vietnamese. The reinforcements were to come to the aid of an isolated Special Forces Camp at Dak Seang under siege by an entire North Vietnamese Army Division. Unknown to the reinforcement element, the bald knob was already under the control of the North Vietnamese Armyís Divisional Headquarters element. The first helicopter successfully landed without incident where two pathfinders and six Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers disembarked. The helicopter departed and the two Americans pathfinders started to bring in the remaining flight of helicopters with their reinforcements aboard. The North Vietnamese waited and as the next helicopter approached and was about 50 feet from the Landing Zone (LZ), they opened up from all directions on the crew on the ground and the inbound helicopter, killing one of the pathfinders immediately. Aboard the helicopter, the crew chief was hit repeatedly as the helicopter crashed and the eight ARVN soldiers aboard were killed. The pilot, co-pilot, and door gunner survived the crash along with the wounded crew chief. As these individuals were attempting to distance themselves from their downed bird, the pilot was hit a number of times in the back and fell wounded. The co-pilot drug the pilot away from the helicopter to the side of the hill below a crater and were joined by the door gunner. The pathfinder who had survived the initial volley of fire on the ground moved to aircraft wreckage and rescued the wounded crew chief and moved back to where the wounded pilot was lying.
The surviving Americans and ARVN soldiers were completely surrounded by a dug in and well Fortified enemy. As the defenders started laying down suppressive fire so they could move about, the six ARVN soldiers ran into the jungle, deserting the Americans. Throughout the day, a number of attempt were made to rescue these soldiers to no avail. The North Vietnamese were using the trapped Americans as bait to draw in other rescue helicopters. By 1:00 pm, the authorized rescue attempts stopped due to the intense barrage of enemy fire and damages sustained by the rescue aircrafts. Even with the Air Forceís fast flyers (F4's and A1Eís) strafing and dropping Napalm around the besieged aircrew, the enemy did not lose ground and those survivors were being chocked and were at the mercy of the enemy who would taunt them by firing into the dead pathfinder, whoís body was exposed.
The weather was becoming worse and the risk to aircraft greater, soon they would be socked in and rescue out of the question. They were like mice being played with by a menacing cat, taking his time for the kill. The Special Forces Camp was under siege and the weather was now turning against them. Another negative turn of event was looming against their survival. The Army and Air Force commands decided rescue was no longer possible and no further attempt would be made sealing their fate to death.
Two other 170thís helicopters had been inserting SOG recon teams around 9:00am, their crews were listening to the radio traffic regarding the Dak Seang reinforcement and rescue attempts. They landed at Dak To, requested release from their mission so they could assist in the rescue and asked for a SOG brightlight team, which SOG agreed. Dak To made communication with CCC at Kontum for the team.. Two SOG recon team volunteered to mount a rescue attempt. SSG Dennis Neal, Team Leader of Recon Team Montana and SSG Michael V. Kuropas, Team Leader of Recon Team Vermont volunteer for the mission and without hesitation, as usual, their Montagnards also volunteered. They combined their two recon teams to form a brightlight extraction force and were picked up and arrived on station about 2:00pm where they watched Jolly 27 (Jolly Green Giant, CH-46 helicopter) crash. By the time the SOG brightlight team arrived and were ready for their rescue attempt, they were fully aware of what had happened. (Two 170th Huey helicopters had been shot down, six shot up, one OH6 helicopter blown out of the sky, one Jolly Green crashed and another shot up so bad it had to be scrapped after landing, and one A1E aircraft last seen leaving the area of operations with one engine on fire).
The brightlight team maintained a holding pattern at high altitude watching a number of other unauthorized attempts to rescue, which were unsuccessful. At about 3:00 pm, with full knowledge of what they were about to face, a decision was at hand. It was time for a last ditch effort and as their helicopters approached the bald knob LZ, they started taking heavy machine gun fire from a quarter mile out. As the helicopter with the SSG Neal and Kuropas made itís approach to the LZ, it came under intense enemy fire, the chopper was losing torque in their engine. Before the helicopter was forced down, SSG Neal, Kuropas, and the Montagnard Team members were all dead or dying from severe multiple gunshot wounds.
The helicopterís tail boom had been hit by a B40 rocket which did not detonate, but logged itself in the bindings of the tail-rotor controls. The chopper slammed onto the LZ hard, several of the aircrew that had been pinned down made it to the helicopter which was able to manage to regain enough power and torque to lift off and fall down the hill side away from the enemy, all the while taking a steady hail of enemy fire.
Of this action, SGT Rosido Montana, pathfinder, of the 52nd Avn Bn was killed with the initial volley of fire. Eight ARVN soldiers aboard the crashed helicopter were killed and the pilot, WO Albert J. Barthelme, Jr., died of wounds before the rescue aircraft arrived. SSG Dennis Neal and SSG Michael V. Kuropas along with all the Montagnards of SOG were killed before the rescue helicopter slammed onto the Landing Zone. Sp/4 Vincent S. Davies, door gunner and Sp/5 Donald C. Summers, Crew Chief, both of the crashed helicopter, suffered multiple gunshot wounds were rescued. The co-pilot, WO Roger A Miller of the crashed helicopter was attempting to retrieve the body of WO Albert J Barthelme, Jr. and was left behind as was CPL Herndon A Bivens, pathfinder, of the 52nd Avn Bn who had positioned himself in the crashed helicopter fighting off the NVA with his M60 machine gun when last seen. The co-pilot, WO Tom Bennie of the rescue helicopter was wounded. At the conclusion of the war in 1973, WO Roger A Miller was release as a prisoner of war. He relates he and CPL Bivens were captured after spending the night and while attempting to return to friendly lines the following day. They were ambushed by the Viet Cong and CPL Bivens was wounded 5 or 6 times in he chest. The Viet Cong later told him Bivens had died after a couple of hours after being wounded. In effect,
All had been either killed, wounded, taken prisoners with the exception of the pilot of the rescue helicopter, Captain Bill MacDonald.
Without the heroic action of SSG Neal, Kuropas, the Special Commandoís, SOGís disregard of commandís directives, and the men of the 170th Aviation Helicopter Company, the rescue would not have been made.
See Dak Seang for complete details of this action by Col Donald C. Summers.