Long Journey Home
by Dave Demsey
This story is written in memory of Walter E. Demsey and his crew members George Berg, Gerald Woods, Gary Johnson, Ronald Watson, and Allen Lloyd.
The story begins on Feb. 18, 1971, the crew was stationed at Camp Eagle with the 101St Airborne Comencheros, the crew that day was pilot George Berg, co-pilot Gerald Woods, crew chief Walter Demsey, and door gunner Gary Johnson flying UH-1h helicopter. On that day the crew was flying out of Phu Bai, the mission was to extract a Special Forces team located just over the Vietnamese border in Laos. The Special Forces team was on an information gathering mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The team was monitoring the trail when an enemy soldier was spotted riding a bike, carrying documents. Shots were fired, the soldier was killed, and the documents were recovered.
The shots alerted the enemy in the area and a fire fight broke out. The team called for an emergency extraction. Four choppers were sent in and all four made a pickup and returned safely to Phu Bai. Three Special Forces team members still remained to be picked up, my brothers crew elected to return to make the final pickup. Daylight was beginning to fade and the weather in the pickup zone was closing in. The chopper proceeded down the ridge line of the west wall of the Ashau Valley in the clouds moving to the west to the pickup site just inside of Laos. The three remaining Special Forces personnel (Ronald Watson, Allen Lloyd, and Sam Hernandez) were picked up with the enemy firing at the chopper the whole time. The chopper headed to the east towards the Ashau at tree top level dragging the Special Forces team who were on ropes thru the trees. The chopper crossed over the west wall ridge line and Sam Hernandez rope broke dropping him 40 ft to the jungle floor, the chopper continued to head east into the Ashau Valley for 600 ft when the chopper made a u turn crashing into the west wall and bursting into a ball off flames. Sam survived the fall and was shaken up but was not injured, he didn’t see or hear the chopper go down and started an E&E for the night.
The 1971 Recovery Attempt
On Feb. 19, 1971 a Special Forces team was inserted close to the crash site in an attempt to rescue or recover any crew members. The team spotted Sam Hernandez on the ground and picked him up. Sam had the documents that were captured the day before with him. Sam was flow back to base. The team located the crash site 600 ft down from the top of the ridge line, the chopper had been almost totally destroyed. Berg and Woods were found still strapped in their seats, Johnson was found in a tree 30 ft from the site, and Demsey’s leg was found very close to the cargo compartment. It is believed that Demsey was thrown from the chopper when it crashed and it rolled over on him cutting the leg off and trapping the rest of his body under the wreckage.
The team placed the remains into body bags on top of the wreckage. The weather was closing in, the daylight was fading, and the decision was made to leave the remains at the crash site and to stay over night near the crash site. The team headed Northwest on the top of the ridge line and passed a cliff, the ropes were spotted hanging over the cliff with Watson, and Lloyd still attached to their ropes at the bottom. The team continued heading Northwest for hill 1528 where they spent the night. The following morning the team was preparing to return to the crash site when they were attacked. The team suffered two wounded and a covey pilot Larry Hull crashed and was killed, the team was extracted without the remains and the decision was made not to return because the area was so hot. Some of the team members on that mission were Charles Westley, Cliff Newman, and Charles Danzer all with the 5th Special Forces Group out of Da Nang.
On Oct.25, 1991 my mom called and told me she had received a call from a Wayne Jones, he told her that he was my brother’s door gunner up to two weeks before Walt was killed. Wayne was shocked when my mom told him that Walt’s remains were never recovered. Wayne had left his phone number with my mom and she called me asking me to check Wayne’s story out. I called Wayne the same night and talked with him about Walt and my desire to attempt to go to the crash site. Wayne indicated that he to wanted to go also and that he would try to make it happen. After speaking with him I felt that he would be unsuccessful in his attempt. Five months went by and Wayne called back indicating that he had written a letter to the Vietnamese Mission office in New York requesting that we could go to the crash site. Much to both of our surprise the Vietnamese said yes. The plane tickets were purchased and we were on our way in early May 92.
The Journey Over
Wayne lives in Virginia and I live in South Jersey, we both flew into New York City where we met for the first time, and we were greeted by Bob Clewell my brother’s former CO to wish us good luck on our journey. The first flight was on Korean Air from New York City to Anchorage for fuel and then on to Seoul, Korea. The 16 hour flight gave us plenty of time to get to know one another, prior to this we had only spoken on the phone. We stayed over night in Seoul and caught an Korean Air flight for Thailand in the morning. We stayed over night in Bangkok and then picked up our visa’s at the Vietnamese embassy in the morning. Then in the afternoon flew on Thai Air to Hanoi. As we circled the Hanoi airport we could still see that the war had left it scars with B52 craters on the rice patties below.
Never being to a foreign country before I was in culture shock the moment we stepped off the plane. It was like stepping back into time. We were met at the airport by our Foreign Ministry contact Mr. Knoc who was with us throughout our journey in Vietnam. He was ex-VC and went out of his way to satisfy our every need. He had a van waiting to take us to the hotel. The roads leading from the airport to the hotel were clogged with an endless thick river of bicycles and motorbikes. The horn in the van seemed to work almost automatically clearing the way of traffic.
The hotel we stayed at in Hanoi was the Bac Nam which had rooms with Soviet style decor, it was very unusual. The room was on the second floor with a balcony that overlooked a main road. The bathroom had a shower that was hand held with just a drain in the floor, no shower doors or walls. The towel rack had one towel on it with a picture of Mickey mouse on it, even Disney has broken this barrier. The first order of business was to stock the fridge with Coke and Heineken beer, it was tough to get the room maid to understand but after the first tip it was always full. The beer was fresh but the Coke had advertisements for the 1994 Olympic games on it and tasted like sweet tin.
Next job was to eat, this might sound nutty to some but we did not want to get sick during our stay so we brought two cases of MRE’s (meals ready to eat) with us to eat while we were in Nam. The MRE’s were not very good at first but once hunger set in they tasted great. I never thought cold beans and franks could taste so good. We visited the War Museum and found it to be sickening. Next was a meeting with the Foreign Minister he welcomed us to Vietnam and wished us luck in our journey to Vietnam, and also reminded us that his country had 300,000 MIA’S. The following day we flew to Da Nang on Vietnam Air. I felt much better once my feet were on the ground in Da Nang. The flight was a real eye opener. We boarded a van and headed North through Marble Mtn and China beach both areas were the most beautiful places I’ve seen on earth. The van continued north until we reached Hue. It was interesting to see the Vietnamese placing rice in the middle of Route 1 waiting for vehicles to run it over to remove the rice.
In Hue we toured the Citadel; very old and very beautiful. Next was a boat ride on the Perfume river with the mayor of Hue. I had heard that the river smelled during the war but that was not the case when we were there, it was a very nice trip. We traveled west on the river for 2 hours and stopped at a Buddhist Temple, Prayers were said and a donation was made to Buddha. We spent the night in Hue and left for the Ashau next morning.
The Road To Hell
The road to the Ashau Valley started out paved but quickly became dirt with giant potholes. It was bone jarring, in fact we had taken a case of beer in glass bottles with us and none survived the road to hell. It seemed that our van driver increased speed as the road snaked it way through the mountains headed for the Ashau. The edge of the road dropped off into steep canyons with nothing between the van and the edge. Either slash and burn farming or agent orange had stripped the trees and jungle from the mountains and canyons, just grass was all that remained for as far as you could see. The road was blocked half way to Aloui from a washout, bulldozers were trying to repair it. The van driver asked me for three cigarettes and walked up to the workers. In minutes they had plowed a path for the van to get thru. It was amazing to see what three cigarettes could do in this country.
We entered Aloui late in the day. Our room for the night was a building (hotel?) that was the staging area for the Pow/Mia investigations both Vietnamese and US teams were staying there. The room had two beds with two inch thick mattresses all others had grass mats. This was the executive suite. The bathroom was in the back of the building and was a block room with a chair with a hole in the middle, below it was a hole which ran outside. The chair was just added the week before we arrived (what luck).
Our hotel guide was a Captain in the DIA on the POW/MIA US team, he showed us the bathing spots the first was a small pond behind the hotel which was close, but he warned us that this site would have may spectators, the next spot was the executive bath which was upstream and more private (I think I’ll wait until I get back to Hue). Back at the hotel we became the local television set for the local children, always peeking in the windows trying to see what the new guys in town were doing. The kids were great fun, I had a video camera with me and took pictures of the kids and their dogs. I would play the video back in reverse on the viewfinder and let the kids watch.
The kid watched and were amazed for hours. I was surprised to find out that they could all count from one to ten and say the alphabet in English. My boy at their age would have had a tough time in English saying it. All one had to do was say one and the kids would all count to ten. Night came and the lights came on with power and lights supplied by the US team. The lights and generator arrived with the chair. The lights drew villagers like an outdoor light draws moths. They were there by the hundreds, all ages. This was the local entertainment for the evening.
One of the US team members brought out a tape player a started the western music and the dancing began. The female teenagers danced very well, I kept wondering if someone out there had a secret satellite dish and had tune in MTV. Realizing that we had no beer due to the road from hell we had sent our van driver on a trip to see if he could locate any. He drove all the way back to Hue and picked up a six pack with ice and a cooler. The older moms would bring their babies and young children up to receive chem sticks that glow in the dark, these were handed out by the US team. The party ended and we went to sleep.
At about 3 am I woke and had to go to the men’s room the sky was like I had never seen before it was crystal clear and instead of individual stars the sky was a smear of white I had never seen so many. The town was dead silent with no one outside and the only sounds were the bugs and a dog barking in the distance. The next morning we were told that our trip had been postponed until the next day due to the US team had requested a chopper to over fly the crash site and was refused by the Vietnamese due to security reasons. We were allowed to attend a witness interview which seemed like being in court. Both US and Vietnamese teams were present in a room with a female villager who claimed that she had shot down a US jet during the war with a rifle (cut me a break), she claimed that the jet crashed and the pilot was alive, she then shot and killed him and buried him in an area that she could take the teams to. The teams investigated this site but I don’t know what was found.
The Trip To The Crash Site
We began the day at 7 am Wayne and myself would ride with the Vietnamese team in a Russian Jeep the US team rode in a Jeep Cherokee. There was a light fog in the valley that morning and was a sunny hot humid day. We left the hotel in Aloui and headed south. At the old Asap or Ashau airstrip we turned and headed west crossing a stream in which the Russian jeep got stuck in the the mud and the jeep Cherokee had to pull us out. Seamed kind of odd at the time watching a Russian jeep being pulled out by an American jeep in Vietnam.
We turned behind the airstrip which now is only an over grown field with B-52 craters in it and parked at the end of the road.The field (airstrip) to the left, the west wall of the Ashau to right and a path crossing a stream in front. The Vietnamese had indicated that they had found the crash site and had cut a trail leading to it. We started walking down the trail and I turned on the video camera the border guard that was with us stopped me and said that I would not be allowed to take video due to security reasons but I would be allowed to take as many 35mm photos as I wanted so off we went.
At about a half mile down the trail we came to another stream which was leach infested we had to get in and wade down it for another half mile. When we had left the stream I was glad that the US team had warned us in advance to cover our clothes and bodies with Deep Woods Off. The Vietnamese were covered with leaches and we did not have any. Next we began to head up the ridge line on the lower part the jungle was so dense that you could not see more than a few feet in front of you. I wondered how back in the war could our troops go down this trail not knowing it the enemy was just a few feet ahead and not being able to see them. It must have been pure hell. Its a shame that more people can not experience this it would give them a greater understanding of what our troops had to go through.
Once we broke thru the dense section it opened up to mostly wooded which was easier going but the slope increased until it was 60 degrees. At the 3/4 mark of the trip I began to wonder if I was going to be able to make it. The Vietnamese and US teams gave me the encouragement I needed without it I would not have made it. We crossed a cliff by holding on to rotted tree roots I could not see the bottom of the cliff but could tell it was a long way down. Finally we arrived at the site at 1 pm, I could tell as soon as we saw the site that it was the wrong one. This site was on a 60 degree slope and the 1971 photo on almost flat ground. The Vietnamese insisted that this was the right site but the US team indicated that it was a resolved A-4 jet crash site.
The pilot of this craft was recovered during the war. The site had been totally stripped of all metal parts the only things left were pieces of plastic, plastic radio identification tags and plastic insulation stripped from copper wire. The US team used the radio tag to confirm that this was the A-4 site. The maps showed that we were about 1000 ft from my brothers site, but if we continued forward we would need mountain climbing equipment which we did not have and the only other way was up the ridge line to the top which was 200 yards away. The border guard would not allow us to go in that direction because it was Laos so that was as far as we could go. We had traveled 10,000 miles and had gotten 1000 feet from the site and couldn’t go any closer, what a let down!
While at the A-4 site we had a memorial service for the crew, we had taken an American flag and bronze plates with each of the crew members names on them. The American flag was held open and the name plates were laid on a rock. The names were called out and prayers were said for the crew that had given their lives to help save others so long ago. It was an emotional moment when even the Vietnamese team was touched. The tears flowed freely as the American flag flew for one moment in time over the west wall of the Ashau.
The Trip Back Down
After the memorial service the Vietnamese team cooked up some rice for us and the US team. I was starving and had 5 bowls, it tasted great and gave me renewed energy to make the trip back down. As we were eating it started to rain, I had mistaken thought that leaches were only in the streams. As the rain continued leaches were every where and on everything. We packed up and began our decent it was easier than coming up but dangerous because the slope was so steep that you had to run down the trail and catch trees to brake your run. Half way down the ridge line I just missed stepping on a small brown snake, he was about one foot long. The Vietnamese told me it was a two step, and that I was very lucky. The Vietnamese had no medic and I was glad to be with the US team which had anti snake bite venom with them, although I don’t know if it would have worked.
As we reached the valley floor we headed for the village of Ashau. We started to pass farmers huts and rice patties with Vietnamese tractors in them (water buffalo) as we pass the people would stop what they were doing and followed us. The more we passed the larger the group became. One of the US team members started to sing Old McDonald had a farm and the Vietnamese crowd that was with us started to sing it too, in English. By the time we reached Ashau the crowd numbered in the hundreds all singing Old McDonald it was incredible. The Vietnamese team had become nervous because the crowd was so large and told me to get in the jeep for my safety, but I didn’t see any one in the crowd that looked dangerous, there were only friendly smiles. It was now night and we headed north for Aloui. This had been the most incredible day of my life.
The Vietnamese And US Teams
The next morning before we headed for Hue I had some time to review what had happened the day before. I can’t say enough about the efforts that both teams US and Vietnamese put into making this happen. Without a lot of help from both sides I would not have had the chance to experience a part of what our troops and my brother had to endure during the war. You could not pay me enough to endure what these two teams have to do every day in their search for our missing men. My thanks to both teams, you will always be in my thoughts.
Return To Eagle
It was time to leave Aloui and head east back down the road to hell. After passing thru Hue Wayne asked to go to Camp Eagle. There has been some talk that the Vietnamese are unwilling to take you places so Wayne asked to go on a moments notice to go to Eagle. Our Vietnamese Foreign Ministry guide and the van driver had no idea were camp Eagle was, but indicated that they would pull over and ask the locals where it was. The third local they asked gave us directions on how to get there. We made a right turn down a clay road and drove for about a mile off Route one. The road opened up into a large orange clay flat area. This was Eagle my brothers home away from home.
Nothing remained of the buildings that once stood there. There was a hut down to the right and we drove down to see if the people that lived there had any thing that was left from Eagle. Wayne indicated that he would buy anything that they had. Boxes came out loaded with things that they had found, silverware that had US Military markings on it and many other things. The people insisted that we take a picture with us and them with our arms around each other. Another friendly crowd at Eagle.
After leaving Camp Eagle we head down Route One for a hotel on China Beach. The beach was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. There was no one on it except for us and the water was crystal clear and very blue. I could just picture a resort hotel and gambling casino at this location.
The Return Home
We stayed the night at China beach and returned to Hanoi the next morning. We said goodbye to our friend Mr. Knoc that had been our guide thru the journey and wish this former VC well. He had been extremely friendly and without his help and assistance the trip would not have been possible. We flew from Hanoi on Thai Air a great airline to Thailand and followed the same route home that we came.
What’s Happened Since
Since our trip to Vietnam, Wayne and Bob Clewell have stayed in touch always being helpful and in May of this year we all attended a memorial service and reunion of the Comancheros at Fort Campbell, KY. It was a chance for me to meet some of the men my brother served with in Vietnam and I also had a flight on a Blackhawk chopper, what a ride. As far as the crash site goes there have been four more attempts to reach it three from Vietnam and one from Laos which just happened in May of this year. All of the attempts unfortunately have ended the same with both sides saying that the crash site is in the other’s country.The case has been rescheduled to be investigated in the spring of 96. The weather as many of you know is bad in that area between June and December. The US has told me that they will attempt to get both countries to open their borders in the spring when they make the next attempt to visit this site.
What Does The Future Hold
I will continue to update this story as new developments occur. Once they have positively located the site, I may return to Vietnam and attempt to go to the site again. I fully realize that Walt’s remains may never make that long journey home and Walt may have got his wish, he was married to a Vietnamese nurse and felt strongly about the Vietnamese people and that what he was doing was right. Walt had indicated that he would never return to the United States until his job was done. As for my part, whether Walt’s remains come home or not I will be able to rest easy knowing that I’ve given it my best effort.
Copyright 1995 ©Dave Demsey