498th Dust Off

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Pleiku/Tan Cahn/Cambodia

Pleiku was one of our ‘field sites,’ a satellite Dust Off operation. Going to work at a field site was voluntary, so when they asked if any one wanted to go to Pleiku, I volunteered. I spent my time at Pleiku working the radios in a small anteroom, just off the operating/emergency room at the 71st Evac Hospital.

While I was there I managed to get myself on a ship that was heading into Cambodia for a pick-up. Nixon had ordered US forces to strike back at the sanctuaries the North Vietnamese had established just across the border in Cambodia, and Dust Off was called in to pull the wounded out.

I rode along as a "door gunner." According to the Geneva Convention, ambulance helicopters couldn’t be armed with mounted weapons, but someone carrying a weapon could ride along. I did a lot of this while I was with the 498th--just to break up the monotony. I logged over 20 hours of flying time and was awarded my "Wings" (US Army Aircrew Wings). Flying along as a door gunner on a Dust Off mission was done strictly at the pilot's discretion; and they’d only let you go if it was a "routine" mission, not a “hot” (enemy contact) pick-up.

While at Pleiku I volunteered to spend a week manning the radios at an outpost called Tan Cahn, located about 40 miles north of Pleiku, and just 20 miles from where the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all come together. The area was known as the Golden Triangle and it was a major ‘off ramp’ for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

My call sign while I was in Tan Cahn (everyone there called it Tin Can) was “Crusader Dust Off.” I liked that, it had a nice ring to it.

Tan Cahn sat at the north end of a 20-mile long series of Fire Support Bases known as Rocket Ridge. Tan Cahn and Rocket Ridge were crucial to the security of the Central Highlands.

Tan Cahn was a no-nonsense, bleak, and scary place. There were no frills at Tan Cahn. We ate lurps (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol meals) and slept in an underground bunker with our weapons close by.

There were no perimeter lights, so at night it got very dark. It was a nervous kind of dark. The kind of dark that would allow a whole battalion of NVA soldiers to walk right up to the wire without being seen.

The night sky was so dark there that I saw more stars at Tan Cahn than I’d ever seen before or since. Compared to Tan Cahn, Lane AHP was like Times Square on Saturday night.

We were short on entertainment at Tan Cahn but each night they’d launch a weather balloon with a small can of burning fuel attach. We’d set back and watch as the balloon, with its flickering flame, floated silently off into the night sky. During the day, we’d get to watch, across the valley, as unseen B-52’s dropped their massive bomb loads on enemy positions. We’d see the devastating explosions, and then count the seconds before we heard the earth shaking impact of the bombs.

On March 30, 1972, just 15 months after I’d gone home, the North Vietnamese communists invaded South Vietnam in a three front assault. One of their objectives was to capture the of Provincial Capital city of Kontum (located midway between Tan Cahn and Pleiku). Tan Cahn would become a critical target for the communists in their effort to capture Kontum. On April 24, 1972 Tan Cahn fell to the enemy.

For more on the battle for Tan Cahn check out THIS LINK or read John Paul Vann’s book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.


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