The Distinguished Flight Cross Was Awarded to Captain Richard L. Kloppenburg
By Lt. Richard L. Kloppenburg
I was conducting visual reconnaissance (VR) along highway 20, between Bao Loc and Di Linh, Vietnam. The date was about September 1966. I received a radio call from an American ARVN ranger platoon adviser. I was told that the platoon was to be on location for the night. The platoon was located about 2 clicks East of highway 20 near the Dai Binh river. The location was about 5 clicks from the sub sector headquarters at Di Linh.
The American adviser indicated that he wanted me to scout the area for any Viet Cong activity. At that point the Viet Cong began firing at the ARVN platoon. The American adviser called me and indicated that he was under small arms fire, but could not determine which direction the small arms fire was coming from. I determined that the small arms fire was coming from the direction of the Dai Binh river.
It was late in the afternoon and I could see the bad weather moving in my direction. I continued to support the ARVN Rangers trying to determine where the Viet Cong were located. Time was passing and I was running low on fuel. The American Advisor kept advising me that he had to know where the Viet Cong were located. I stayed on location much longer that I should have because of his repeated requests.
At about this time it was near darkness. I flew over the river. At that point I could see the Viet Cong swimming across the Dai Binh river. They were moving away from the Rangers in a Northerly direction. At first I did not recognize the black forms in the water. During another flight over the river at a lower attitude I determined that it was a Viet Cong squad size plus unit swimming across the river. The American adviser indicated that they were still under enemy fire. He said, “we are taking direct fire”. The Viet Cong had the American advisor and the ARVN forces in an ambush situation. “Stay longer on location and help us pinpoint the Viet Cong”. At that point I also came under fire from the Viet Cong forces. Because of the darkness I could now see the tracers from both forces. I could now see and hear the small arms fire directed at my aircraft. I made several low “passes” over the ambush area. The low passes were made from a different direction each time, because I did not want the Viet Cong to predict my direction of flight. Repeating direction of flight caused the demise of several Birddog pilots. At this point my altitude was so low that I felt extreme distress. Because of the presence of my airplane the Viet Cong forces decided to break contact with the friendly forces and flee away across the river.
It was now dark and I was in the rain and scud. I was about 30 miles from Bao Loc airfield. I had no choice but to tell the American advisor the I had to return to the Airfield at Bao Loc, because I had a severe low fuel situation and no safe flight visibility.
I turned South toward Bao Loc. After about 10 miles, I had to descend to the top of the jungle and follow the Highway 20 back to the Bao Loc airfield. At that point I determined, because it was darkness and low visibility, I must have help in finding the runway. I then called Specialist Gilbert Hartzog, on the jeep radio. I told Hartzog to position the jeep, with the lights on, at the North end of the runway so that I could number one, see where the airport was and number two see the runway to land. “Don’t turn on the jeep lights until you can hear my airplane”.
There was no alternate airfield (I had to land at Bao Loc). Bao Loc had no navigational facilities. I flew time and distance in the scud, while maintaining level flight and altitude. I had Highway 20 memorized and therefore knew where I must turn from the road to the airport. When I believed that I was near the airfield, I gained altitude and turned toward the airfield. The airplane was then in IFR conditions. After only a few seconds I determined that the time was OK to descend. I did decend and the airfield was within sight. I did not have the altitude to fly a normal pattern down wind or a base and was very low on fuel. I was only150 feet above the airfield. I was not on a straight in approach to the airfield. I had to immediately slip the aircraft to slow the aircraft down and lose altitude. I had to land the aircraft in a crab, and thus almost lost control. I knew that I had only one chance at a landing---this had to be it. When on the ground, Herzog followed me to the South end of the runway. He saved my butt. We put the airplane away, jumped in the jeep, and raced to the MACV. The 1 1/2 mile road trip to the MACV was not secure at night. That is the reason we very seldom flew at night. We used to get shot at going to and from the Airfield.
The next day I met the American advisor in the Bao Loc compound. The advisor indicated that I saved his unit from the ambush situation. I have a picture of me with a captured AK-47. The rifle was captured from the fleeing Viet Cong forces. I also have a picture of the Ranger adviser holding a web belt captured from one the Viet Cong that he shot. You can see the bullet hole in the web belt.
The Bao Loc airport was a 900 foot dirt runway. The airfield was leased from a Frenchman named Beacbeau. He owned the runway and the surrounding tea plantation. There were no improvements at the airport, no radar, no beacon, no runway lights, and deep ruts in the dirt runway.
Bao Loc was in Lam Dong Province in the central Vietnam highlands. Highway 20 is the same highway where Captain Linus Chock was shot down and KIA. This is the same highway that an Air Force FAC named Captain Wilbanks was shot down and KIA and consequently awarded the Medal of Honor. Both Chock and Wilbanks died approximately in the same location as my ARVN Ranger incident. Chock took my place when I went on R & R. The day that Wilbanks was KIA, was the day that I cannot remember the actions of the day. Highway 20 between Bao Loc and Di Linh was called “death alley”, because many people were KIA during convoys. When Chock and Wilbanks were KIA there was many soldiers, including American and ARVN, killed when the individual convoys were overrun.
by Col. Mack Gibson-Commander of the 183RD Aviation Company-1967.
Because of significant enemy activity, it became necessary for Lieutenant Kloppenburg to fly his O-1 Birddog in support of night operations underway near Bao Loc, a Province for which the 183rd Aviation Company was responsible for visual reconnaissance and other missions. It should be noted that this particular province was one of the most hostile (and primitive) areas that we were assigned to support.
On this particular mission as darkness set in, so did very deteriorating weather conditions. It was raining with fog on the surface of the field strip which had absolutely no lighting that would provide a capability for night operations. (It was a daytime primitive fair weather air strip) there was no visibility. Although he could have gone to the safety and warmth of the MACV compound Herzog elected to wait for his Section Leader, Kloppenburg to return from this unusual and dangerous mission.
The Viet Cong were moving towards the runway and were known to be at the North end of the strip. The Viet Cong were always at the North end of the runway at night. Herzog recognized the gravity of the problem, knowing full well that without some means of marking the runway that his leader would NOT be able to locate the field and land safely. He also knew that there was imminent danger from the VC. Still, at great personal risk, Specialist Hertzog drove his jeep to the other end of the runway in order to illuminate a landing spot. When he heard the aircraft through the fog, he turned the lights on so that our pilot could see them through the poor visibility. Kloppenburg's breathed a deep sense of relief when he spotted those jeep lights. He landed safely. He and Herzog then skedaddled to the MACV compound where their sweat turned into a well deserved couple of beers that evening.
Sgt. Tanksley was the Vietnamese Ranger advisor. He was the ranger on the ground that I communicated with. Two days later he came to the Bao Loc compound to thank me for saving his Vietnamese rangers. You will note that he is holding a Vietcong belt with a Vietcong hand grenade. He is holding a gun belt showing a hole, that would be from a bullet that killed the Vietcong. He also captured the Vietcong’s AK-47.