HA(L)-3 Det#3 - Battle at Ha Tien - 1969


UPDATED: 28 Dec 04

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Photograph courtesy of Bill Rutledge





By Bill Rutledge, SeaWolf Gunner 

Background:  Other articles with limited information have been written about this difficult day in the lives of these brave Pilots and Gunners from Detachment Three. As in other articles I have written, I write this to add to our history and to pay tribute to those that fought these horrific battles, those Killed In Action and the survivors.  In other articles, details and participants were left out that need to be recognized for their Heroism and participation in these missions.  I have collected much of this missing history and using official documents, written first hand accounts, citations and phone conversations with individuals on scene, have for the most part been able to reconstruct part if not most of what occurred on these missions. I have not been able to contact everyone involved and apologize if some details are missing and personnel not noted.

     Until May 1970 when President Nixon legalized incursions into Cambodia , there were to be no crossing of the Border. Although there had been several large operations along and over the border, one being operations SEALORDS, many other covert missions had been executed of which the Seawolves were involved in with no after action report or one  reflecting the action being flown this side of the border. It was hard at times to distinguish which side of the border you were on and since the Cambodians let enemy units openly operate and stage from the Cambodian side, make raids into Vietnam and escape back across the border knowing we would not follow and attack. On many occasions they were in for a surprise. 

The Battle: 

       HA TIEN 23 MARCH 1969 , Approximately 10 AM. I don’t have all the details on this mission when the Navy light Fireteam of two heavily armed Gunships from HA(L)3, Detachment Three staging from Ha Tien on the Northwest coast of Vietnam near the Cambodian Border were on a scouting/strike mission to locate a local Warlord in the Da Dung Mountains area . The Warlord had been coming off the Mountains, pillaging, plundering and killing residents of the local Villages and having his troops attack military outposts. He would then retreat back into the mountains and using his 4 inch Mortar rain down havoc on the villages and any pursuing troops. With this intel. The Det 3 Gunships went out.

       The situation on Det 3 with three FTLs (Fire Team Leader) at the time was 48 hrs on 24 off and alternating the FTL after each strike.

On the first mission the Lead bird  was manned by

 LTJG Randy Miller, Fireteam Leader (FTL).

 LCDR Keyes (Copilot),

 Petty Officer Mike Schafernocker (Gunner/Crew Chief)

 Petty Officer Dan Riordon (Gunner)


 The Trail Gunship was manned by

 LTJG Dick Barr, Attack Helicopter Aircraft Commander (AHAC),

 LTJG Pawlowski (Copilot),

 Petty Officer Rick Abbott (50 Cal.Gunner/ Crew Chief)

Petty Officer Howard Meute (Gunner)

Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Second Class Robert Thomas (Recon/Observer).


The area where the strike to be put in was very near Ha Tien  and consisted of  rice paddies leading up to two mountains the Nui Sa Ky and Nui Di yung. Nui Dai Yung was the target where the Warlord operated from. As LTJG Miller rolled his Fireteam in he started taking heavy fire from both mountains and the surrounding area. LCDR Keyes and Both gunners commenced firing on the enemy positions. Miller’s Gunship was armed with 14 Rockets with Proximity fuses. The enemy fire was so heavy that when the fourth rocket was launched it was exploded by the intense enemy fire just in front of his aircraft. Not being able to fire any more rockets for fear of one being exploded immediately after launching he broke off the attack to save the bird and his crew and returned the Fireteam to Ha Tien to fix a problem with a rocket pod, rearm with PD rockets, refuel and go out again.

        On this strike LTJG Barr became FTL with his crew and LTJG Miller the cover bird. Arriving back on target and Rolling in again under the heaviest fire every seen by the Fireteam, LTJG Barr launched several rockets with all other weapons firing, his Gunship took a disabling enemy hit and  Barr called he was hit and going down to Miller. Miller followed the lead bird around and again Barr radioed he was hit, meaning he personally had taken a hit in the foot. Auto rotating to the ground from around 500 ft his bird hit hard within firing range of both mountains. The trail bird saw Petty Officer Thomas the Navy SEAL thrown a distance from the crashed lead bird. Smoke is seen coming from the wreck and no one is seen moving as Miller makes a decision to land and let Petty Officer Riordan out of his Gunship to help with the crew of the downed bird and gets airborne again positioning his bird between the Mountains and the downed crew to take the fire off them. Now with Schafernocker as his lone Gunner and LCDR Keyes using the 4, M60 external flex guns he makes pass after pass, radioing a May Day for assistance. Immediately Petty Officer Riordan is wounded in the leg, but continues on and pulls Petty Officer Rick Abbott and LTJG Barr from the wreck as Navy SEAL Thomas works his way back to Barr lying on the ground. To protect the injured Barr from the enemy fire Thomas lays across Barr’s body, grabs the only weapon available, Barr’s 45 pistol, and takes the enemy who are coming across a dike line under fire. LTJG Barr relates that Petty Officer Thomas was hitting an enemy with virtually every round. During this ground action LTJG Miller has made contact with two Army Helos from the 175th Assault Helicopter Company who were inbound. Miller seeing the advancing enemy makes a pass from behind the wreck shooting rockets over the downed bird into them, as Shafernocker and Keyes continue firing on the enemy with Miller making more rocket runs. The first Army Helo on scene is immediately shot up trying to make the rescue, with the Pilot being hit and leaves the area trailing fuel. The SEAL Team from Ha Tien have made their way on the ground to the battle zone and along with LTJG Miller and his only Gunner Schafernocker on trail bird placing fire on the advancing enemy allows the second Army Helo with Copilot Kent Graham aboard to make an attempt at the rescue. This rescue Slick was also hit numerous times with the Pilot being hit in the face and hand. With the wounded Pilot the Army bird goes in again, lands and makes the evacuation of the surviving downed Seawolves and Navy SEAL. As they are loaded up Petty Officer Thomas’s injured back gives out. Seeing an enemy soldier as he falls to the ground he turns over in one motion and with one shot blows him away at 15 yards. During the rescue LTJG Miller keeps his Gunship positioned between the rescue bird and the enemy taking the fire off them. Getting in the Dust Off the wounded are taken to Third Surg Hospital in Binh Thuy as the SEALS on the ground recover the Seawolf KIAs. LTJG Miller returns to Ha Tien with his shot up bird. Have you ever seen a dusty bare field when a hard rain hits it and makes the thousands of marks in the dust? That is how heavy the enemy fire was hitting the ground around the downed Seawolf Gunship was described. Fast Movers (Jets) arrived and unloaded rockets and napalm on the area. The down Seawolf Gunship was destroyed in place.   

  Comments from the Army rescue Copilot, Kent Graham, “The most striking part of the rescue was the way the Seawolf cover bird (LTJG Miller and his crew) stayed with his downed comrades. What we did was SOP, anyone would have done the same thing. The Seawolf Wingman (LTJG Miller) was the real hero. I have no doubt that he would have continued making attacks until he ran out of fuel. This is one of the most important lessons of my life, no matter what happens, NEVER let your comrades down, Thanks Seawolves”.

Results of the battle:

 One Seawolf gunship shot down/destroyed,

 One Seawolf Gunship shot up, destroyed in place

 Two Army Slicks from the 175th AHC shot up

LTJG Pawloski ( KIA)

 AN Meute (KIA),

 LTJG Barr (WIA),

 SEAL Roberts (WIA),

  Petty Officer Riordan (WIA)

 Petty Officer Abbott (WIA)

 2 Army Pilots (WIA).

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