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A Helicopter War

Updated: Oct 14


Above image is the author, in Vietnam, 19y71.


Blog author: Larry Freeland, author of "Chariots in the Sky," to be released in the winter of 2020.


During the Vietnam War, helicopters played a vital role and were central to the overall strategy of fighting the war. Over the thirteen years that Americans served and fought in Vietnam, approximately 12,000 helicopters from all services saw action, with the United States Army being the main force. Forty-two percent of the helicopters that saw action in Vietnam were destroyed, numbering 5,086. Many of the remaining helicopters flown in Vietnam sustained some form of battle damage. There were over 40,000 helicopter pilots and 60,000 crew members who served in Vietnam. During the war, 2,165 helicopter pilots and 2,712 crew members were killed. Many more were wounded. When totaled, the number of pilots and crew members killed represents over 8% of the men and women whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.


During February and March of 1971, in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, an operational campaign code named Lam Son 719 was underway. This operation would become the costliest period in the Vietnam War for American helicopter pilots. I was there and flew Chinooks, CH-47’s, as part of the 101st Airborne Division Combat Aviation Group.


Lam Son 719 was designed to stop the flow of men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Southern Laos. The job of the 101st Airborne Division’s helicopter force, numbering over 600 helicopters, was to support the South Vietnamese forces in Laos. The 101st Airborne Division's air assets were augmented by other U.S. Aviation units in South Vietnam. South Vietnamese Armor and Infantry components, numbering over 20,000 men, were to make a deep thrust into Southern Laos along Route 9. Along the way they set up several Firebases and LZ’s on the highest ridge lines and peaks. Their purpose was to guard their flanks as they moved deeper into Laos and engage enemy units in their areas. In essence, South Vietnamese forces did the groundwork and fighting inside of Laos, and the Americans provided their air support. Lam Son 719 was supposed to last 90 to 120 days. It only lasted for 60 days, and was the first real test of Vietnamization, which was President Nixon’s plan to turn the war over to South Vietnam.


During Lam Son 719, U.S. planners believed that any North Vietnamese forces opposing the incursion would be caught in the open and destroyed by the application of American air power. This air power consisted of tactical airstrikes and air mobility. Although American air power played an important role, it was not a decisive one. American air power prevented a defeat from becoming a complete disaster, but at a terrible cost for American helicopter crews.


During an April 7, 1971 televised speech, President Nixon claimed that "Tonight I can report that Vietnamization has succeeded." At Dong Ha, South Vietnam, President Thieu addressed the survivors of Lam Son 719 and claimed that the operation in Laos was "the biggest victory ever."


Although Lam Son 719 set back North Vietnamese supply operations in southeastern Laos, truck traffic on the trail system increased almost immediately after the operation ended. The American Military was not that optimistic about the operation as it had demonstrated the inability of the South Vietnamese to plan, organize, motivate and lead their forces. For the North Vietnamese, Lam Son was viewed as a complete victory.


It is difficult to ensure complete accuracy related to various categories of statistical information compiled over the entire time span of the Vietnam War. However, the figures presented here are believed to be reliable.


The number of helicopters involved in Lam Son 719 was over 750, most of which were assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st had 84 of its aircraft destroyed, and another 430 damaged (20% of those were rendered inoperable). Combined helicopter losses totaled 108 helicopters destroyed and 618 helicopters classified as having sustained battle damage. During the two months of flight operations, seventy-two helicopter crew members were killed, fifty-nine were wounded, and eleven were missing when the operation was officially declared over on April 6, 1971. During Lam Son 719 American helicopter crews had flown more than 160,000 sorties.


It is against this backdrop that I chose to write a novel about American helicopter pilots at war in the later part of the Vietnam conflict. (To be published in the near future.)

  1. Above image is the author, present-day.


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