For assault helicopter crews flying in and around the NVA-infested DMZ, the U.S. pullout from Vietnam in 1970-71 was a desperate time of selfless courage. Now former army warrant officer Tom Marshall of the Phoenix, C Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne, captures the deadly mountain terrain, the long hours flown under enormous stress, the grim determination of hardened pilots combat-assaulting through walls of antiaircraft fire, the pickups amid exploding mortar shells and hails of AK fire, the nerve-racking string extractions of SOG teams from North Vietnam. . . . And, through it all, the rising tension as helicopter pilots and crews are lost at an accelerating pace.
It is no coincidence that the Phoenix was one of the most highly decorated assault helicopter units in I Corps. For as the American departure accelerated and the enemy added new, more powerful antiaircraft weapons, the helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners paid the heavy price of withdrawal in blood. For more than 30 Percent of Tom Marshall's 130 helicopter-school classmates, the price of exit was their lives. . . .
From the Paperback edition.
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About the Author
When he returned to the World in 1971, he served as an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in OH-58 Kiowas, where he transitioned former air force jet pilots into helicopter pilots. He also instructed army fixed-wing aviators and foreign officers. He used his G.I. benefits to obtain a commercial multiengine-instrument airplane rating.
He lives in Pensacola, Florida.
From the Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
Sunday, September 20, 1970, Quang Tri,
I Corps, Republic of Vietnam
The “Phoenix” was Company C (Assault Helicopter), 158th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). It was based at Camp Evans, midway between Hue (pronounced “way”) to the south and the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam.
The morning of September 20, 1970, started like any other mission day. Rising before dawn, they departed the Phoenix Nest at oh-dark-thirty, to fly another combat assault. They would be carrying army Rangers, supporting troops of the 1st Brigade of the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division. The 1/5 was dispersed along the northern border with the enemy, North Vietnam. The intended landing zone was on the north side of the demilitarized zone, where the North Vietnamese troops (NVA) didn’t expect them. The Huey helicopter departed the Phoenix Nest at Camp Evans and proceeded north to Quang Tri (QT).
At the 1/5 Mechanized Infantry pad, Papa Company Rangers assembled. Killer Team 1–8 boarded the Phoenix Huey. Sgt. Harold Sides, from Dallas, Texas, was the team leader. With him were Sp4. Raymond Apellido, the assistant team leader, of Bakersfield, California. Sp4. Dale Gray and another Ranger also took their positions, sitting in the door of the Huey’s cargo bay, with their feet dangling over the helicopter skids. Team members Sp4. Anthony Gallina of Maplewood, Missouri, and PFC Glenn Ritchie of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, also assumed their positions. They were well trained and highly experienced. They were to spend six days setting ambushes and booby traps near the center of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), an eight-mile-wide swath stretching from the South China Sea to the Laotian border.
With the Rangers loaded, the Huey departed QT, climbing to an altitude of only one hundred feet. Across the panoramic landscape of Quang Tri Province, the South China Sea was visible two miles to the east. The beautiful but deadly mountains of North Vietnam and Laos filled a distant horizon to the northwest. Flying high above them was the command-and-control Huey. It was accompanied by a Cobra gunship light-fire team, two Cobras ready to dive at the slightest provocation to the Huey.
It was a classic assault helicopter operation—inserting Rangers behind enemy lines. The Rangers’ intent was to place mines and booby traps, perhaps capture a prisoner. Then to kill as many enemy as possible—creating havoc and fear, disrupting the enemy’s daily routine on his home turf.
Passing west of Dong Ha, the last South Vietnamese village and military base, they descended to twenty or so feet above the ground, below the enemy radar horizon. Continuing northwest, they passed just west of Con Thien, the site of major battles between U.S. Marines and the NVA during the mid 1960s.
First Lieutenant Al Finn, the Phoenix 1st Platoon leader, was the aircraft commander. He was flying with a young warrant officer as his copilot. Passing west of Outpost Charlie-Two, which overlooked the demilitarized zone, they descended to five or ten feet above the ground. Accelerating to one hundred knots airspeed, the Huey entered the DMZ at an altitude of less than ten feet, with a speed approaching 120 miles per hour. It was a demanding ground-level sprint across the barren mudscape. The view was reminiscent of a World War I no-man’s-land. The exit would also be as fast and as low as the Huey could go; North Vietnamese (NVA) bunkers with .51-caliber antiaircraft machine guns were dispersed throughout the area. Flying even fifty feet above ground level would assure death at the hands of NVA .51s.
For the young Rangers, the Huey helicopter was a magic-carpet ride. With their feet dangling above the skids, they looked into the onrushing air, intently observing their objective. Flying at 120 miles per hour a few feet above the ground was quite a rush.
The Huey was coming loud and mean. The whopping of the rotor blades in normal flight was casual compared to sounds of the assaulting Huey. Its speed did not compare to that of an airplane. But in the three-mile-an-hour world of an infantryman, 120 miles per hour at five or ten feet above the ground was awesome.
The North Vietnamese could hear the helicopter coming two miles away, less than a minute’s flight time, but the sound from ground-level flight was diffused enough to mask the Huey’s exact location and direction. An NVA gunner alert enough to hear it coming would have to be quick and lucky to get a killing shot at the Americans.
The crew chief, Sp4. Dan Felts, and gunner, Sp4. William Dotson, scanned the onrushing landscape. They were flexing their M-60 machine guns, cleared hot, ready to suppress enemy fire.
The mission risk was high, but it was accepted as their duty. The aircrew, as well as the Rangers, believed it would be a routine killer-team insertion. The Phoenix had done it successfully many, many times before. Just another day in the saddle.
Suddenly, the Huey nosed into the ground, flipping tail over nose into a flaming mass. In an instant, four helicopter crew members and five Rangers died. Badly injured, one Ranger was thrown from the aircraft.
Instantaneous calls passed between the control bird and the gunships following high above. One Cobra pilot thought he’d witnessed the Huey taking .51-caliber fire, on the right side, head-on in the aircraft commander’s windshield. The other thought the cause might have been pilot error, flaring too sharply, contacting the ground. Whichever, the Huey had impacted the ground, flipping over, in an area occupied by the enemy.
To the surviving Phoenix pilots and crewmen, it didn’t matter how or why. The final enemy, Death, had claimed two more pilots and two crewmen. The brotherhood of warriors in Company C had lost four brethren.
That evening back at Camp Evans, pilots gathered in the officers club. Adorning the small club stage was a carved wooden emblem of the Phoenix, resurrected in flames. Low voices, absent the young warrant officers’ usual bravado, offered somber toasts, interspersed with blasphemous epithets. As the night wore on, war’s reality settled in. The awareness of combat risk and one’s very personal mortality settled to the forefront of their minds.
The combat-experienced aircraft commanders and first pilots studied the new mens’ eyes. Seeking an intuitive answer … to the most serious but unspoken question: “If I go down, are you gonna come get me? … No matter what!”
Words could not matter. The answer was in the young men’s eyes: unspoken, intuitive acceptance of duty, enduring whatever burden accompanied it. For the young men, duty performed with honor, despite a declining American war effort, required that they have faith in each other. There was a very real prospect of being shot down, and the fear of being left behind was the heart of darkness. The pilots shared a deeply personal desire: to avoid capture, torture, and death. An unmarked grave in a foreign jungle, in a war we were simply leaving, departing without victory.
The young pilots and crewmen would complete their duties and, so doing, pay the price of America’s exit. The political decision to exit the conflict had been made by the U.S. Senate four months earlier, in June 1970. The toll would be paid in lives and body parts. It would also take a toll in the memories of those who returned, remembering friends lost.
Among the young pilots and crewmen, that intensely personal understanding, assured in unspoken personal bonds, helped to sustain personal calm in the most depressing of circumstances. It empowered the pilots and crewmen to go out the next day … and do it all over again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is truly one of the most insightful books I have ever read on the very end of the line for the U.S. in their 'pull-out' in Vietnam, circa 1970-1971. The knowledge the reader will gain in this book far surpasses 'Chickenhawk', 'Taking Fire' and 'Apache Sunrise'. Tom Marshall puts the reader in the helicopter cockpit for all the action that occurred while flying along the NVA infested DMZ and during the 'Vietnamization Period' where the U.S. turned over the entire war over to our ally-the South Vietnamese Gov't and it's army to fend for itself as Nixon acquiesed to a war weary public's harsh cry to end the war. Without ruining a great story, Marshall skillfully describes combat assults and string extractions 'pulling soldiers out of hot combat zones from helicopters via rope and long ladders' of trapped S.O.G. Teams (Special Operations Group SEAL Teams) that were inserted behind the lines deep in enemy territory that would have been wiped out and overrun without immediate helicopter rescue. The reader hears the AK-47 fire and can feel the exploding mortar shells shot by the communists at U.S. helicopters. Marshall details exactly what happened during Operation 'Lam Son 719' between Feb. 8th and March 25, 1971. This was an offensive campaign conducted (and like the 1970 Cambodian Incursion shielded from the American public by the Nixon Administration) in the S.E. portion of Laos by the South Vietnamese Army. Marshall carefully describes exactly how the U.S. and in particular, the Phoenix, C Company, 158 Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne, provided logistical, aerial and artillary support to the operation while it's ground forces were prohibited from entering Laotian territory. Marshall describes NVA atrocities, their tactics and ruthlessness, and how no American wanted to be the last one to die in a war this country had long given up on and abandoned. The reason he called the book 'The Price of Exit' was simply because out of Tom Marshall's 130 helicopter-school classmates, 30 percent paid the heavy price of the accelerated U.S. withdrawal pace....with their lives! Marshall also touches on how the U.S. military initiated 'smart bombs' in Vietnam, drug use in the military, racial tension, and the general feeling of futility, shattered beliefs and abandonment of American virtue. Marshall also covers the little known fact that the U.S. military dropped 'electronic sensors' via air designed to report movement of vehicles and people along the North's major infiltration route into South Vietnam, i.e. the infamous 'Ho Chi Minh Trail'. I have not come across a book as good as this in a long time. Read it!
Well documented thoughtful account
The helicopter pilots of Vietnam brought both death and life from the skies over Vietnam, Cambodia and as described in this book, Laos. Death came in the form of aerial rocket artillary and heavily armed troopers of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) (The SCREAMING EAGLES). Life in the form of DUST-OFF medevac helicopters. Not since Robert Mason's description of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in his book CHICKEN HAWK has anyone described the tension and fear , as well as the relief, brought to the enemy as 'widow makers' and the wounded as 'airborne ambulances' by the chopper pilots of The United States Army.