The Captain Willbanks heroic action story in depth is as follows
On February 24, 1967, Captain Wilbanks was dispatched in an unarmed observation aircraft to assist in an operation against enemy forces who were attacking near Dalat, South Vietnam. While flying reconnaissance for a South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, Captain Wilbanks discovered that hostile units were concealed on two hilltops. He immediately called for helicopter gunship support by radio, and alerted the Rangers advancing into the area. Realizing that their ambush was being compromised, the enemy reacted with a barrage from mortars, machine guns, and automatic weapons. Captain Wilbanks received much of this fire as he marked the enemy positions with white phosphorus rockets for the gunships. Knowing that air support was not going to arrive in time, he personally began firing his M-16 rifle out of the side window of the Bird Dog. Captain Wilbanks distracted the enemy troops and momentarily slowed their advance. The outnumbered Rangers were afforded a chance to withdraw as the attackers diverted their fire against Captain Wilbanks' plane. Despite his plane being hit repeatedly by enemy fire, Captain Wilbanks persisted in covering the withdrawal. On his third pass, he was severely wounded and crashed in the battle area. The Rangers managed to rescue Captain Wilbanks from the wreckage of his plane, but he died while being evacuated to a hospital.
Medal of Honor
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As a forward air controller Capt. Wilbanks was pilot of an unarmed, light aircraft flying visual reconnaissance ahead of a South Vietnam Army Ranger Battalion. His intensive search revealed a well concealed and numerically superior hostile force poised to ambush the advancing rangers. The Viet Cong, realizing that Capt. Wilbanks' discovery had compromised their position and ability to launch a surprise attack, immediately fired on the small aircraft with all available firepower. The enemy then began advancing against the exposed forward elements of the ranger force which were pinned down by devastating fire. Capt. Wilbanks recognized that close support aircraft could not arrive in time to enable the rangers to withstand the advancing enemy, onslaught. With full knowledge of the limitations of his unarmed, unarmored, light reconnaissance aircraft, and the great danger imposed by the enemy's vast firepower, he unhesitatingly assumed a covering, close support role. Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level, Capt. Wilbanks passed directly over the advancing enemy and inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft. Despite increasingly intense antiaircraft fire, Capt. Wilbanks continued to completely disregard his own safety and made repeated low passes over the enemy to divert their fire away from the rangers. His daring tactics successfully interrupted the enemy advance, allowing the rangers to withdraw to safety from their perilous position. During his final courageous attack to protect the withdrawing forces, Capt. Wilbanks was mortally wounded and his bullet-riddled aircraft crashed between the opposing forces. Capt. Wilbanks' magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.
RICHARD KLOPPENBURG STATEMENT
I have very little to no memory of the day that the Air Force FAC named Willbanks was KIA in Bao Loc. I came back to the air field in Bao Loc to refuel during the convoy coverage we were flying in crisis mode--nonstop. This is the same area Chock was KIA. This area was the same area that I was flying in----concerning the DFC. I went into the MASH tent while Hartzog was refueling my airplane. They were operating on some ARVN soldiers. I remember seeing someone pulling hair out of a bullet hole in some ARVN¹s body. I do not like hospitals. I came out of the tent and leaned against my jeep and passed out. Hartzog thought I was shot by a sniper. He picked me up off of the ground. The stress of the ARVN MASH tent and the fact that the FAC was KIA was enough to cause my circuit breaker to snap. I woke up and went back to fly. We had a Navy MILFAB doctor in Bao Loc. I asked him if it would be dangerous to fly. He said that the body has a circuit breaker----my flipped---it would be a one time occurrence because of the stress of the day. Go ahead and fly.
Hartzog was on the airfield when they brought the AF FAC (Captain Wilbanks) in on a stretcher (I was flying solo at the time). He was shot in the jaw (they call it a golden BEBE today). Hartzog said that he looked at Captain Willbanks on the stretcher. He was still gurgling. Hartzog has post traumatic stress to this day over the events of that day. The FAC died later from the head wound. The Army and the Air Force were all performing the same mission over the convoy. We all shot rockets and shot out the window of the airplane. I do not have any memory of much of that day, consequently I have been looking for a Warrant Officer named Ronald E. Allen (I have been looking for him for 4 years to find out what happened in the balance of that day). He also was flying that day. We all did the same flying as the FAC-----the FAC got the medal of honor. I have a copy of Willbank¹s Medal of Honor citation (we all did the same things). I want to put WO Allen in or an award, if we can find him. I can still see the bullet holes in the back of Allen¹s aircraft from making low passes. We thought it was another day in the Bao Loc Chronicles. We had no thoughts of awards?? You are right----the Air Force knows how to make it happen. I have written emails to the other FAC, a Captain Westby and a Col. Mueller, with no response.
Now that I am in the Air Force channels (because of my 0-2)----I can find Air Force people. I told them that I was there that day and that I wanted to talk about the events of the day-----no response---I know they got my email. Col. Mueller came to Bao Loc that day and was the officer that wrote up the award for Willbanks. I have been told off the record, that the Air Force needed a Metal of Honor Winner.
Richard L. Kloppenburg
The only reason that he would write the story is because he believes that MACV people were underrated, and under published, with tales of their personal combat action stories. American units received all of the press and glory. Mucelli was the senior infantry advisor to MACV, Team 38, located in Bao Loc, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.
BAO LOC CHRONICLES
THE MUCELLI STORY
A TRUE BUT VERY UNKNOW STORY
THE BAO LOC, VIETNAM CHRONICLES-1967
This story is as recounted by Major Joseph Mucelli, Ret., during a dinner meeting inSan Francisco in 2005. This combat action occurred in Bao Loc, Vietnam, on the 24th day February 1967. I was anxious to meet Joe Mucelli again because the time that I lived in Bao Loc, Vietnam, was the most stressful time of my life. I was anxious to find someone that I could relate to, that could help me relive my time in Bao Loc. THIS IS THE ONLY DAY OF MY TOUR IN VIETNAM THAT I CANNOT REMEMBER ALL OF THE ACTIONS OF THE DAY! Joe related his experiences of that day with misting in his eyes. After hearing his story, it has taken nearly two years to convince Joe to write down the story. The only reason that he would write the story is because he believes that MACV people were underrated, and under published, with tales of their personal combat action stories. American units received all of the press and glory. Mucelli was the senior infantry advisor to MACV, Team 38, located in Bao Loc, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam
THIS STORY HAS NOT BEEN CHANGED. THE STORY IS THE EXACT WORDS OF MAJOR JOSEPH MUCELLI
COMBAT ACTIONS IN LAM DONG, Vietnam, 24 FEBRUARY 1967
By Major Joseph Mucelli
Infantry Advisor to MACV Team 38
This is the day that the Air Force FAC was KIA and received the Metal of Honor. His name was Captain Hillard Wilbanks. On the morning of 24 February 1967 the radio room of Advisory Team 38, which was located in Bao Loc, Lam Dong Province, received a message from Major Don Graney, Dilinh District Senior advisor, concerning a road block on Provincial Highway 20. The Viet Cong had established this road block in the vicinity of AN764803. Typically, such road blocks were used to distribute propaganda to occupants of the buses, Peugot taxis and trucks that traveled this important route between Saigon and Dalat, and to collect taxes before any goods or people could transit the area. Major Graney indicated that he and Captain Paul Van Hoose, his assistant District Advisor, were accompanying the District Chief, Captain Hoi, with elements of one Regional Force (RF) company, plus some district security troops, totaling little more than a reinforced platoon to attempt to clear the road block. Apparently the plan was to move on a route north and parallel to Highway 20, and then turn south towards the roadblock. I monitored this information with LTC Earl Sharp, the Province Senior Advisor. Frankly, I had misgivings about the possible outcome of this operation because the movement had begun before any of our FAC or Army Bird Dog pilots were airborne to observe and cover the area. Also, Major Graney had only recently taken over his position, and had no prior combat experience, having served several months at the Province level, and Capt Van Hosey was a new arrival. I later found out that Captain Hoi had been resistant to moving out with what he considered an insufficient force, with insufficient back up, but caved in to pressure from the advisors. In any case, the friendly troops were en route, and the only thing we could do at this time was to get some airborne observation over them and alert any other forces for possible employment. A short time later we received a message from Captain Van Hosey that their elements were in contact with an unknown size enemy force, somewhere to the east of Bobla hamlet. Only moments later, Capt Van Hosey sent a panicked message that the District Chief and Major Graney were hit, and to get air strikes. That was the last message received from either the advisors, or the Vietnamese maneuver units. Due to the urgency of the situation, with two advisors and the District Chief’s fate in question, the decision was made to cautiously move additional forces into the area to attempt to regain contact with any members of the previously committed units. I Notified Interpreter Sergeant Nguyen Tan Lai that we were going out on a high risk operation and to get all his stuff, plus a radio. I had worked with Lai since March 1965 and he was an utterly reliable, aggressive individual who should have been an officer in the Vietnamese army. He was like a brother to me, and I usually addressed him by the familiar “Lai Uy.” My faith in him was proven to have merit in the next few hours. We saddled up and took a helicopter to Dilinh, and picked up Sergeant Hamilton Henry from the district team. Henry was a rough hewn senior NCO who I had worked with in several past operations, and he struck me as the type of guy who would be reliable if the world turned to ca-ca. We then moved by helicopter to the area west of Bobla hamlet (AN764805), where we joined the 407thMontagnard Scout Company and another RF company, which I believe was 345 Company. I briefed the company commanders on what we knew of the situation and recommended extreme caution due to the uncertainty of the number of enemy troops we might encounter plus the fact that we could not deliver any preparatory fires due to the missing advisors and district command group. I had total faith in the combat effectiveness of the 407th scout company and their commander, Captain Tai, as I had worked with them for over almost two years. Captain Tai was a former NCO in the French army, a White Tai tribesman who had operated on the VN/China border and a professional in every sense of the word. I remember sitting with him in a bunker one night during a “cease fire” and passing a bottle of Johnny Walker Red back and forth and not thinking it was corny when he said “this is not much of a war, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” Less than a year after we set out on this operation Tai was to lose a leg in the same general area. The RF company’s capabilities were less in maneuver type operations against a determined enemy force, though there were three of the fourteen RF companies in Lam Dong who were the equal of any similar size force in any army. This unit was a competent one, but not flashy. The 407th had about 70 troops and the RF company about 65. Both units only had one M1919A6 machine gun and one 60mm mortar each, with the rest of the troops armed with M1’s, carbines, BAR’s and Thompsons. I had an M16, and both Sgt Lai and Sgt Henry had M2 carbines. We passed by Bobla hamlet, which was a fenced in Montagnard village, and the occupants could only say that there had been a road block on the highway and the sounds of an extended fire fight to the east. We moved on two parallel routes to the east, with the 407th Scout Company on the right, and the RF company on the left. I accompanied the RF company with Sgt Henry and Sgt Lai. The 407th was guiding towards a copse of trees at approximately AN768804 and the RF company moved towards the house of a French tea plantation owner, about 150 meters to the north. We briefly halted both units while I talked to the plantation owner, whose name I cannot recall, and asked him if he had any knowledge of the situation. I might add that there was no visible evidence of any combat action in any of the areas we had so far traversed. The plantation owner was standing on a small balcony, and was visibly disturbed. On being asked if he had seen any enemy troops in the area, he said “no, no” loudly and shook his head. It was obvious to me that he meant the opposite and that their presence was very close. In retrospect I believe that it was possible that he was under direct observation when I talked to him and that there may even have been enemy troops in his house. I indicated my suspicions of an immediate enemy presence to the Vietnamese and we continued cautiously eastward in a line formation, with the 407th moving along with us on the right, through the tea fields. The tea bushes were about four to five feet tall, and afforded excellent concealment from aerial observation. At this time we had Captain Darryl Westby, USAF forward Air Controller overhead in his O-1 aircraft. We had only moved about 100 meters eastward when both companies received heavy rifle and machine gun fire and went to ground. What was evidently an overwhelming enemy force assaulted to the west and proceeded to attempt to encircle both companies. Later intelligence indicated that the enemy force consisted of the 186th Main Force Battalion, the 840th Main Force Battalion and the 240th Company, with a combined strength of about 1000 troops. These units were armed with AK47 and SKS rifles and RPD machine guns as well as 60mm and 82mm mortars. Additionally, the 186th Bn had two MG42 machine Guns, whose cyclic rate of 1200 RPM made their presence in the fight immediately apparent to me! After being unsuccessful in turning the right flank of the 407th Scout Company, they drove a wedge between the RF company and them and decided to concentrate on the left flank unit. Captain Tai successfully disengaged, and moved back westward in good order, even capturing 9 rifles and a machine gun in the process. He withdrew in good order to the vicinity of the original roadblock to await further reinforcement. In short order it was apparent that the RF company, with the exception of a few individuals who broke out or were bypassed unnoticed, was encircled and being rapidly annihilated. At this point, Capt Westby had TAC air on station, and we proceeded to direct their strikes as close to the diminishing perimeter as possible. The blast effect of the large bombs produced a ripple effect on the ground that literally lifted us off the ground. While the TAC air slowed down the enemy assault it in no way provided an avenue of escape. The point was reached where Cpt Westby had TAC air assets stacked up, as virtually everything in southern II Corps was diverted to my support. In any periods where TAC air wasn’t immediately available, artillery fire was delivered in the area of hill 955, at AN776803, as it seemed that the greatest volume of AA fire was originating from this position. My communications with the FAC aircraft were made difficult at first by a bogus transmitter, who used my call sign and tried to confuse Westby, but it was not successful because we had worked together long enough that he knew my voice. The transmitter was definitely not Vietnamese, as was confirmed later. Most of the time when strike aircraft were delivering their ordnance I was flat on my face, but on several occasions I saw what looked like 20mm flak bursts around circling aircraft, so there must have been other enemy units in the area that had an AA capability. I don’t know how they never succeeded in knocking down Westby’s flimsy, low flying O1. In an interesting and somewhat unrelated sideline, somewhere in the process of pulling a map out of my pocket, about $900.00 in cash came out with it and blew down the rows of tea. The money was the result of being paid the day before by a pay officer from Nhatrang. Normally, I only received about $50.00 a month with the rest going to a bank, but a lazy finance clerk in IFFV didn’t renew my allotment request. I would have no sooner tried to retrieve this money than used toilet paper under the circumstances and some Viet Cong soldier probably profited from the day’s actions. I hope he lived to spend it. I don’t know how long the morning’s activities lasted, but I was later told that a total of 33 air strikes were delivered that day. We eventually were reduced to a group of 9 survivors, myself, Sgt Lai, Sgt Henry and six Vietnamese soldiers, of whom five were wounded. The wounded were all relatively mobile, but one Lieutenant had his arm blown off at the elbow. Some of the others could crawl a little or had to be dragged. Lai and I used all the available field dressings and then tore up our T-shirts to use as bandages. We constantly moved around in the tea bushes, but finally moved to the edge of a road that had drainage holes about the size of 55 gallon drums dug along its perimeter. They made outstanding foxholes and protected us from the air ordnance which was being delivered ever closer. At this point the large enemy force was being hit by everything we could deliver, but only a small portion of them knew exactly where we were, which was the source of the fire control. I had long run out of smoke grenades and was relying on Westby’s ability to identify our location by verbal guidance. In between TAC air passes, the enemy immediately around us would creep or rush ever closer. Sgt Henry by this time was shot three times and lay at my feet, in the bottom of our improvised fox hole. I brought the air strikes even closer, to the point where we could see enemy bodies and part of bodies flying over our heads as the bombs impacted. Some of the body parts were burning as a result of the fat catching fire from the heat of the explosions. The tea bushes over our heads were on fire as a result of napalm strikes less than fifty meters from our location. At one point, before we had dragged ourselves into the drainage holes, I looked up after an F4 made a bomb run and saw an enemy soldier who appeared to about 12 or 13 years old, with an SKS rifle, laying less than two feet in front of me. He was trembling uncontrollably and seemed to be totally unaware of anything going on around him even though we were looking into each others faces. I pressed the muzzle of my M16 into his neck and said “Dung Lai”, which means “don’t move”. The second F4 flashed over us as it released its bomb and I buried my face in the dirt. When I looked up again he was gone. After we had fixed our “last stand” position in the drainage holes it was a matter of using our rifles in between bomb drops, but eventually the only people left that could shoot were Sgt Lai, in a hole somewhere to my right, myself, and a Vietnamese BAR man in the hole on my left. I heard him yell in K’ho Montagnard that he was out ammunition, so that brought the rifle strength down to two people. At this point we were receiving machine gun fire from across the road and showers of grenades. Suddenly I felt a terrific impact on my back and it drove my face forward in the dirt, with my mouth open. (I finally found out what was meant by the term “he bit the dust”) I fell backwards and looked up at the sky, and the clouds passing overhead. It seemed like I was back in rural New York State, on a hill in the middle of the summer, watching the clouds roll by. I heard what I thought was a screen door slamming, again and again, and then, my mother’s voice calling “Joey, Joey”. In my dream like state I wondered what she was calling me for, when I suddenly realized that I wasn’t hearing a screen door slamming, but the sounds of rifle fire! I awoke from my dream with a start, and fell forward on the edge of the hole. I saw three Viet Cong soldiers less than 15 feet away, approaching. One of them was raising a PPK submachine gun. I saw something moving from my left, which turned out to be the Vietnamese BAR man. This man, whose name I didn’t even know, simultaneously pitched his empty BAR at the three men and then literally threw himself over me, to shield me with his body. I actually heard the thump of bullets hitting his body, but fortunately the relatively low power 7.62 Tokarev rounds failed to penetrate his body. He rolled forward and the three VC made the fatal mistake of not taking further action. I managed to shoot all three of them down before they could react. With the assistance of a Colt 2 ½ power scope on my M16 I killed 22 enemy soldiers with 27 shots on that day, not including one individual who I observed bayoneting wounded Vietnamese soldiers. In his case I shifted the cross hairs of the scope and blew his lower jaw off. After this encounter, I decided to relocate again, so Lai and I pulled and dragged our six companions out of the holes and crawled eastward down the rows of tea. At first I thought I was seriously wounded because when I reached to my back I came back with a handful of semi congealed blood, but later realized that it was Sgt Henry’s blood. Henry was holding up pretty well emotionally, perhaps encouraged by my repeated message that “I don’t know how the hell I’m going to do it, but I’m going to get you out of here Henry!” My last act, as we went into the tea on our last shuttle, was to spray one 20 round magazine, full automatic, laterally along the tea, across the road, about 6 inches off the ground, to convince anyone else not to follow us. Lai was carrying the radio on his back, and at this point was the only one of us who was unwounded, though he had a big piece of shrapnel sticking in the sole of his boot. Fortunately he was able to pull it out. During all these incidents we were in contact with Westby whose call sign was Walt 70, and possibly Captain Gerald Reed, the other Sector FAC, I believe call sign Walt 71, but I sort of lost track! We also had a number of very high flying aircraft at one point that heard all the transmissions and actually came over to do a little sight seeing. I also had a Major assigned to Advisory Team 38 who was inbound to Dilinh in a chopper who started reading of a supply list including how many pounds of butter, etc he was delivering. Since we didn’t have an alternate push he was on the same frequency as we were, but I rapidly used appropriate words to tell him to get the hell off the net. By this time it was obvious that if we couldn’t be somehow extracted by air, we were doomed. There was no way that Lai and I could drag six wounded men through a cordon of 1000 enemy soldiers, but an extraction seemed impossible. Westby told me that he had a 155th Aviation (Stagecoach) “slick” that had volunteered to try it. I thought it was pretty unlikely that he could do it, but he could try it. I later found out that the pilot was Captain Don Hosey, who usually was our “Sector” ship, to move supplies and people around in the 4200 square miles of Lam Dong province. Westby had a flight of Australian B57 Canberras inbound, and the plan we worked out was to involve them. We would crawl back to the edge of the road, and the Canberras would fly west to east virtually wing tip to wing tip, guiding on the plantation house and make a 20mm run on both sides of us. Meanwhile I would crawl out to the middle of the road and lay in an “X”. I told Westby that I would be the only body so symmetrically arranged, and would be easy to spot. Don Hosey would come in skimming the tea from the south up the road to arrive right after the Canberras made their gun run. He would then land as close as possible to me, and Lai and I would toss everyone in the chopper and jump in and leave. Everything worked out and Hosey slammed in next to me. Lai and I jumped up and started loading. I could see an enemy soldier standing about 50 feet in front of the helicopter shooting out the plexiglass with an RPD machine gun. Three of the five wounded Vietnamese soldiers were killed as we tossed them in. Henry was untouched. The right door gunner had his arm broken by a bullet and Hosey was shot in the leg. Everyone was in but me. For some reason I looked to the rear of the tail boom and was amazed to see a Vietnamese soldier laying by the edge of the road raising his arm. I had previously thought he was dead! I ran back there only to find that there was no way he could be picked up. His entire intestinal tract was lying beside him and I could literally see his spine from the inside. I knew that if I lifted him up he would break in half. By the time I realized that it was impossible to save him Hosey couldn’t hold it anymore and took off. I was now alone with 1000 enemy soldiers. Actually, several days later, when I got back to Dilinh, I found out that Sgt Lai, with the life giving radio on his back, saw that I wasn’t on the chopper and as it bounced along the tea before gaining altitude, jumped back off to try to rejoin me! He wasn’t successful in doing so, but had his own harrowing experience in escaping and evading, in some cases by throwing hand grenades over his head as he ran, and even managed to find two other Vietnamese soldiers who had escaped earlier and were hiding in the bushes. Meanwhile, seeing the chopper depart was my signal to get out of the immediate area and attempt to go to ground like a rabbit escaping from a hound. I dove into the tea and crawled down the rows, all the time hearing shouting of Vietnamese voices. I kept switching rows to move down and shortly came out to where I could see the plantation house. It was abandoned and unscathed. I remembered then telling Cpt Westby to avoid hitting the area around the house because of the presence of the French plantation owner who in the past had provided intelligence information to us. After an unknown time I came out in view of highway 20 and a water tank that I had noticed over the years in the area. At first I considered working my way up to it and possibly hiding inside it but rejected the idea because there would be no possibility of exit if discovered. I eventually worked my way up to a gulley which paralleled the north fence line of Bobla hamlet, which now seemed quiet and abandoned. Apparently the people had fled somewhere to the west when the air strikes started going in between them and hill 955. I crawled up to the fence, which was made of saplings bound together. Bobla was not a strategic hamlet and therefore was not a fortified defensive position surrounded by barbed wire obstacles. It did not have a Popular Force platoon which provided a security force. As I moved along the fence I heard movement on the other side of the fence. I looked through the openings between the stick fence and saw an enemy soldier crouched down over a radio. As I watched from less than five feet away he gave the customary Vietnamese commo check on the radio of “mot, hai ba, bon challoi”, which means one, two, three, four, answer. Looking west along the fence line to the forward slopes of the hill overlooking the hamlet highland rice fields I could see a screening force of well camouflaged positions which could observe any movement of ARVN forces coming from the direction of Bao Loc. I then backed up along the fence line to the east, and discovered that there was a VC 60mm mortar position in some low brush about 50 meters from the east side of Bobla hamlet. The crew seemed relaxed, and were sitting with their backs against some small trees surrounding the clearing where the mortar was set up. I realized that the time had come for audacity, and stood up and walked to the south on a line between them and the village. I held my M16 flat against my right side and hoped that with my dark hair and short stature I would be mistaken for one of their own. I noticed in my peripheral vision that one of them stood up to get a better look, but then sat down again. As soon as I disappeared over the crest of the hill leading down to highway 20 I broke into a run and crossed the highway into some scrub jungle. I then cautiously worked my way west until I saw vehicles and soldiers in ARVN camouflage uniforms and helmets standing around. The vehicles were obviously stopped because of the combat action to the west, but I carefully checked the soldiers out through my rifle scope because on more than one occasion I had encountered VC units that used ARVN uniforms as a ruse. However I could recognize a lieutenant that I knew from the 23rd Ranger Battalion, which was also the most likely unit to be reacting to the earlier combat actions. To avoid being shot by accident I hooted and waved my arms before emerging and walking slowly towards the elements of the ranger battalion. I immediately encountered Capt R.J. Wooten, senior advisor to the battalion, who smiled as I approached, and said into the handset of his PRC 25 radio that “34” (my call sign) had just returned to friendly control. R.J. was an Academy graduate and one of the best advisors the 23rdBn ever had. As we stood there talking, a toothless old lady, who was squatting down by a blackened tea pot over a fire tugged on my trouser leg and handed me a cup of hot green tea. That cup of tea tasted better than anything in my life time, before or since! I went over the incidents of the day with R.J., especially the fact that there was a powerful enemy force to the east of Bobla hamlet, and that the main elements seemed to be in the vicinity of hill 955, which highway 20 crossed. Also in question was the whereabouts of the Dilinh district command group, including the two advisors. R.J. had been made aware of the bogus radio transmissions. ARVN ranger battalions are lightly armed, but at least they had the additional firepower of M16 rifles and M60 machine guns, plus much better communication equipment than RF companies. For the second time that day I moved into the area. We moved past Bobla hamlet and the plantation house without making any contact, and found evidence of what happened to the command group and advisors near the copse of trees that had been the steering point for the 407th Scout Company. Captain Hoi was lying dead in an old bomb crater, partially submerged in stagnant water. The exposed parts of his body were charred by one of my napalm strikes. Major Graney and Capt Van Hoose were lying close together. It appeared as if Van Hoose had been shot in the legs innumerable times as he lay there. Don Graney had a major head wound. The bodies of the troops that had accompanied them were scattered around them. As per usual their boots were missing as were any weapons or radios. Possibly their own radio had been used to transmit the bogus messages. We also counted over 65 unrecovered enemy bodies in the vicinity of my earlier contact to the north, which was encouraging because VC and NVA forces made every effort to remove their own dead from the battlefield. At least we knew that they had been badly hurt, but probably not enough to render them ineffective. We made a surprising discovery in the vicinity of the plantation house when we heard someone calling for help from a well. The Dilinh district intelligence lieutenant had survived by climbing down into the well. We moved towards hill 955 with two ranger companies abreast and made no contact until we crested the hill. The VC had developed a reverse slope defense with well dug in positions and claymore mines awaiting a reaction force. These was the main positions of the enemy. I was moving forward with Sergeant Clifton Tanksley, from the Bn advisory team, and a ranger M60 machine gun team when the concentrated enemy fire power drove the lead elements to ground. Sgt Tanksley would be killed while serving with the Bn less than 10 months later. As I no longer had a radio, I could only monitor the transmissions of the ranger advisors. Cpt Wooten was talking to a FAC with the call sign of, I believe, Walt 72. The FAC had a heavy team of four 155th aviation Huey gun ships under his control. They immediately responded to the enemy fire, but shortly after they started to fire on the VC positions one of their choppers was badly damaged by small arms fire. They broke to the rear to escort the damaged gunship out of the contact area. It was always my experience that the Huey model gun ships were very vulnerable when attacking anything more than a company, especially if they were dug in. The Cobra gun ships were not widely available to non divisional aviation units at that time. Earlier, some gun ships had prepped the area and called Bao Loc for rearmament. The bogus radio station encountered earlier imitated Bao Loc tower and told them that they would have to return to BMT (Ban Me Thuot), their base station, to rearm, as Bao Loc had no ammo or rockets available. Fortunately this information was corrected by the real tower station. When the heavy team departed station there was a break in available air support. When queried by the ranger advisors about available air strikes they were told by the FAC that he had a flight of F4’s about six minutes out. At this time, and possibly as a result of monitoring the information about available air strikes, the VC force came out of their foxholes and bunkers and assaulted the two forward ranger companies with fixed bayonets. With what was probably at least a five to one advantage for the enemy the situation looked dire. The last message transmitted to the FAC, concerning the flight of F4’s was “it looks like that’s going to be about five minutes too late!” After monitoring this last message the FAC aircraft banked over and fired his remaining White phosphorus marking rockets into the attacking VC. A hail of small arms fire tracked the route of the Bird Dog aircraft, shifting much of the fire from the now retreating rangers. The plane came around again, but this time, since it was now unarmed, the pilot delivered bursts of M16 fire from the right window as he flew less than 150 feet over and parallel to the attacking troops. Amazingly he came around a third time to repeat this small arms attack, probably after replacing his 20 round magazine in the rifle. In the way of actual damage, the pilot’s rifle fire probably caused an insignificant number of casualties, but the presence of this low and vulnerable airborne target brought the forward movement of the VC to a halt and caused them to redirect all of their small arms fire at the aircraft. Pieces of the Bird Dog could be seen flying off as bullets impacted on its unarmored body. It was common knowledge that the act of shooting down an airplane was considered one of the highest levels of achievement for a VC/NVA soldier. It was one of the only acts that rewarded an individual with a leave to go home, even if it meant returning to North Vietnam. It should be noted that by 1967 there were many North Vietnamese soldiers who were fed into main force VC units as replacements. It would have been a little hard to prove who out of five or six hundred individuals actually shot the plane down, but the concept was ingrained in the individual soldier. What this did was to permit the rangers to break contact and come under the protective supporting fires of the 23rdRanger’s reserve and heavy weapons, causing the whole attack to falter. At the end of the third pass the airplane climbed abruptly and after gaining a few hundred feet, the engine began to sputter as if it was running out of fuel. It banked over and silently glided over us and crashed with what looked like relatively little damage in the tea fields at the base of hill 955. Sgt Tanksley and I started running towards the aircraft, which was about 150 meters behind us. I believe that Captain Gary Vote, assistant Bn Advisor, also accompanied us. As we approached it the VC started bracketing the downed plane with 60mm mortar rounds. When we neared the plane we kicked a hornet nest and swarms of angry hornets started to sting us. I said “for Christ’s sake Tanksley, what else can go wrong today! “ The plane was riddled with bullets but relatively upright, and we pulled the door open, and lifted the pilot out and lowered him to the ground. The first thing I noticed was his name tag, which read “Wilbanks”. Captain Hilliard Wilbanks, known to all of us as “Willy” had been a Lam Dong Sector FAC until a few months before but had then been reassigned to Tuyen Duc Province. At that time Tuyen Duc was considered a quiet province and Willy had two months left on his tour. Apparently he had been loaned to us to assist in covering the day long battle that had begun early that morning. The aircraft was riddled with bullets, but it appeared that only one round had hit Willy; a single bullet that hit his cheek and ranged upward into his brain. He still was breathing, but was unconscious. We immediately called for a “dust off”, but when the medevac came it was turned back by intense ground fire. Shortly after a 155thAviation Co slick boldly came in and picked him up. We received a radio message that he died shortly after arriving at Bao Loc. There was no question in my mind that Willy had sacrificed his life to save us as he above all knew how vulnerable an O-1 aircraft would be when flying 150 feet above and parallel to a line of attacking troops with automatic weapons. The battalion streamed back, carrying dead and wounded and assembled in the vicinity of AN765802. The decision was made that the entire area of hill 955 would be prepped with artillery and air strikes after which the rangers would conduct a night assault. By then a U.S. infantry battalion was moving into the area of Dilinh, about five kilometers east of us and artillery had also been displaced to deliver massed fires on the objective. Two Vietnamese Commando cars had also arrived and they parked adjacent to the road with their twin 30 caliber machine guns pointing towards hill 955. All afternoon and into the early evening artillery and preplanned air strikes were delivered on the target. Bombs as large as 1000 pounders were dropped, and as darkness fell C130 gun ships and flare ships continued to illuminate the objective and direct a stream of bullets from their Vulcan cannons on any potential routes of withdrawal. During one air strike with a thousand pounder a three foot long piece of bomb fragment came clanging off the front of the armored car I was standing next to. I told R.J. that I wanted to accompany the attacking troops onto the objective, but in the darkness I passed out in the bed of a 2 ½ ton truck and was awakened when the troops returned without a shot being fired. They retrieved the bodies of more ranger dead, and also recovered some wounded who had played dead in front of the VC fortifications and miraculously survived the bombardment. They told of watching hundreds of VC file by in the darkness despite the air strikes and artillery, carrying their wounded with them. They also mentioned that they saw, in the light of the flares, a Caucasian individual who was moving with the VC and assumed that he was a prisoner. Later information revealed that this was not so. The only enemy casualty remaining was an individual who was burned by napalm over most of his body, and who died as they covered him with a poncho. Once again the VC demonstrated their amazing ability to exfiltrate a position even under fire and live to fight another day. The next morning a helicopter called in to say that they were inbound to pick up the bodies of Major Graney and Captain Van Hoose. Unfortunately Cpt Wooten and I discovered that the bodies of the two advisors had been loaded first in the bed of a 2 ½ ton truck and covered with the bodies of 35 to 40 Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese soldiers who were present refused to unload the truck, so RJ and I had to do it ourselves. Finally a few Vietnamese assisted us. That afternoon the US battalion started operations along the probable withdrawal routes of the enemy units, but their operations made no contacts whatsoever. The VC, and NVA, plan their withdrawal as carefully as their attack and normally break into smaller groups and move on multiple routes to predesignated, concealed assembly areas. There have been cases in which whole battalions have disappeared into preprepared spider holes which are undetectable unless you actually step on one of the positions. Local guides are normally provided to facilitate getting withdrawing units to the right locations expeditiously. Therefore I was not surprised that the enemy had disappeared without a trace, especially considering the ponderous way in which most US units announce their intentions by displacing and registering their artillery and then conducting obvious reconnaissance overflights for visiting dignitaries who are trying to earn an air medal. In the afternoon I arrived at Dilinh, and got the opportunity to remove my shredded jungle fatigues and wash off the mud and blood from my body. I took one of Cpt Van Hoose’s T shirts to replace the one I had torn up for field dressings. I also discovered the fate some of the other participants in the previous day’s actions. Lai had made it in with his two RF soldiers. I found out that Cpt Don Hosey tried to kick off his helicopter crew and return to the area to find me despite a broken leg and a bullet riddled helicopter after he had unloaded Sgt Henry and the dead and wounded Vietnamese soldiers. Supposedly he had to be wrestled out of his helicopter. I also heard that our Advisory team security squad, which consisted of six young US infantrymen and SSG Giles Hamby, my usual “second” on combat operations, had somehow conned another slick into dropping them off somewhere north of the operational area to look for me, but were extracted after meeting with no success. I have never been able to confirm this nor will any of the participants own up to it, but if it happened it is further evidence of the incredible loyalty and courage within the human spirit, even if any sane person would consider it ill advised! On the evening of the 25thof February I walked from the District Advisor’s compound to the top of the hill and climbed the water tower that overlooked Dilinh to be alone awhile. Shortly after I settled on the platform of the 50 foot tower I heard the sounds of someone else climbing up the metal ladder. It was Captain Hoi’s son, dressed in white robes, the color of mourning clothing in Vietnam. He said he wanted to thank me for my efforts to try to rescue his father. On getting back to Bao Loc on the next day, I had the US Navy MILPHAP team check my back. I believe that Doc Dolbec checked me out, and took an x-ray. It looked like a small fragment had penetrated and then ricocheted off my shoulder blade. I told him not to submit a casualty report. I then talked to Sam Phillips, who worked as an intelligence specialist for an organization called the Central Registry detachment, about the imitative radio transmissions that were monitored during the combat actions of 24 February and the sightings by the wounded rangers of a Caucasian filing away with the Viet Cong as they withdrew. One of Sam’s principal missions was tracking of captured US personnel and it seemed possible that the individual in question might be someone who was a turn coat, like the well known Bobby Garwood. Sam received additional information from several Montagnard residents of Bobla hamlet who reported a Caucasian individual who was seen in the presence of the VC on the morning of the 24th. Several days later an officer from Sam’s headquarters flew up to our location and briefed Sam and I about an individual who had been identified by innumerable reports as a former POW who had become a collaborator. Sam Phillips, by the way, was one of the individuals I trusted to “second” me on combat operations even though it wasn’t his job. In fact he accompanied me on several 2 person night ambushes with my silenced Sten Gun about one or two kilometers from the advisor compound. Not the kind of thing you would expect an individual who normally worked in civilian clothes to participate in! Sam was killed in October 67. Some of the information provided by Sam’s organization was based on reports from former ARVN POW’s who had been released or who had escaped. The individual in question is still listed in an MIA status. We encountered what we believe to be the same individual transmitting bogus radio messages in operations in early March 1967. To me the most astonishing thing about the actions of 24 February 1967 was not the intensity of the combat, because I had several other experiences that equaled or exceeded it in the 45 months that I spent in Lam Dong Province. It was the extraordinary heroism and sacrifice demonstrated by many of the participants, both US and Vietnamese, in order to come to the aid of their comrades, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives.
Joseph B. Mucelli
Major, (Ret) Infantry
EPILOG OF MAJOR JOSEPH MUCELLI ACTIONS NEAR BAO LOC IN 1967
---Captain Joe Mucelli, is the son of medical doctor, at New York State University. Mucelli attended New York State University and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. from the ROTC. This action resulted in Mucelli being awarded the Silver Star from General Abrams. It was downgraded from the Distinguished Service Cross. General Lee, 11 Corp Senior Advisor, recommended that the award be upgraded to the Metal of Honor. The paperwork has since BEEN LOST. Mucelli served 45 months in Bao Loc. Mucelli has since passed away in San Francisco, in 2012.
---I was in Bao Loc flying my 0-1 Birddog. I was a U.S. Captain, Infantry, and a U.S. Army Aviator. If ever I have emotional or psychological scaring from Vietnam, this 24 day of February 1967 is the reason. My crew chief was refueling my 0-1 at the Bao Loc airfield. There was a MASH tent at the end of the runway, near the refueling area. I walked to the tent and entered to see operations in progress. I specifically remember a Doctor pulling shrapnel from a wound in a Vietnamese soldiers midsection. I walked out of the MASH tent and leaned against the fender of my jeep to collect my senses. The next thing I know, I was lying on the ground. I had become a silent victim of the day. I blacked out from the stress of the day. The next thing I know, one of the Sargeants was shaking me. He thought a sniper had shot me. We did have VC snipers around the Bao Loc airfield. THIS IS THE ONLY DAY OF MY TOUR IN VIETNAM THAT I CANNOT REMEMBER ALL OF THE ACTIONS OF THE DAY. There was another Army pilot flying that day---it was WO Ron Allen. After I blacked out, I went to the local American Navy Doctor Siebert to ask if I should continue flying, because I had blacked out----(Doctor Sieberts Vietnam story has been published in Vietnam Magazine. His reply was that my Air Force friend, Wilbanks, was KIA that day, and because of that and other stresses caused my blackout. He told me that the human body has a circuit breaker and that it will disconnect with too much stress. That is a normal reaction for the human body. I related that I flew much of the time alone and blacking out while flying would would end my life. Captain Richard L. Kloppenburg lives in Seattle and currently owns and operates a real USAF 0-2 (this is the 2 engine version of the 0-1). My airplane has seen battle damage in Vietnam and has real bullet holes.
CWO Ron Allen
WO Ron Allen has been located. I would like to think that WO Ron Allen and I were the Army pilots that were directing artillery during the Mucelli action. Mucelli has stated that artillery was being directed on hill 955, by someone, during the operation. I cannot remember any of the details of that day. That day is a blackout day for me.
See the bullet holes in the back seat windows of Allen airplane.The bottom picture is that of Spec 4 Roody, Allan’s crew chief, during refueling.
---My replacement--Captain Roger Sawyer was shot down and KIA in Bao Loc in the fall of 1967. Sawyer was not present during the 24 February incident. Sawyer's wife and two children know nothing about their fathers death.
---Sam Phillps was KIA in the back seat of Sawyer's 0-1. Sam was from Caldwell, Idaho. This small town is near the small town that I grew up in, Twin Falls, Idaho.
--Sgt. Gilbert Hartzog was my crew chief that day. He relates that the Air Force FAC, Wilbanks, was still alive upon arrival at the Bao Loc airfield. He viewed Wilbanks, while lying on the litter, and indicated that he was still "gurgling". Hartzog remembers that the body's of Major Granny and Captain Paul Van Hoose were stripped of all clothing on the grass of the Bao Loc compound. There were subsequently sprayed with a preservative and then positioned in a body bag for shipment home. Hartzog related these stories to me and is still traumatized by these events. Hartzog is living in Louisiana and receives some form of delayed stress related disability.
---Major Donald Graney. He was the assistant ROTC PMS at the University of Chattanooga. Upon arrival in Bao Loc he took everyone aside, including me, and indicated that we were going to win this war on his tour. He wanted all of us to "suck it up" and give a larger effort by everyone so as to accomplish that mission.
---Captain Paul Van Hosey---KIA with Major Graney. He was found dead with several bullet holes in his legs, suggesting that he was tortured and then executed by the Viet Cong. He had only been in country for less than two weeks. He was only in Bao Loc for a few days.
---Vietnamese Sgt. Nguyen Tan Lai is living in a Seattle suburb. He saved Mucelli's live. The area of Bobla Hamlet is within a seven clicks of the area on Highway 20 where Captain Chock was KIA. Chock was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. I was on R & R during that day and Chock took my place. He was covering a similar convoy on highway 20. The date was 29 November 1966. Ironically, I have been contacted by him in July of 2006. He knew nothing about his father death.
---Captain Hilliard Willbanks, USAF, was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions of 24 February 1967. He was from Georgia. Every memorial day there is a special memorial to Wilbanks.
---Captain Darryl Westby, USAF, is alive and lives in Pennsylvania I remember flying with Westby and conducting airstrikes. When the USAF 0-1 was down for maintenance we flew together, with Westby in the back seat of my 0-1.
---Sgt. Henry is alive and living in Enola Pennsylvania. Muscelli stays in contact with him. Mucelli saved his life.
---Sgt. CliftonTanksley was KIA in Kontom Province 10 months later. He was serving with the 23rd Vietnamese Ranger Batallion.
---Captain Don Hosey---whereabout unknown. His call sign was “stagecoach”. He was the Army Helicopter Pilot that tried to pick up Mucelli.
---Captain R. J. Wooten was a West Point graduate. I remember dropping empty rocket tubes with a couple of beers in the tubes to him during other operations. After Bao Loc he became the assignments office for the Infantry Branch at the Department of the Army.
---The Ranger companies were the same Ranger companies that I covered in prior operations.
---Dr. Sebert a Navy Doctor serving with a MILPHAP medical team stationed in Bao Loc. This is the person that I transported wounded ARVN soldiers and a pregnant women to his hospital. At that time we had NO helicopter stationed in Bao Loc. The Vietnamese would not take the soldier to the hospital, so I agreed to transport him lying down in the back seat. He blead all over the radios. I also transported a pregnant women to the hospital. She was having a breech birth and was dying.
---Sgt. Giles Hamby former Sgt. & U.S. Army lieutenant at one time was in Dalat. He served as superintendent of Dalat Palace Golf Club.
---Captain John Grow, was the Army gunship pilot in support of Mucelli. The gun ships were called in from another area. We had no gun ships in Bao Loc, at this time in 1967. His helicopter sustained 23 bullet holes before they grounded his helicopter. Captain Grow has been located and lives in Ft. Worth, Texas.
This epilog was prepared by Captain Richard L. Kloppenburg