190th Assault Helicopter Company in the Battle of Bien Hoa
MSG Robert N. Londers
United States Army Sergeants Major Academy
SGM Font/ Ms. Hollis
2 March 2015
The 190th Assault Helicopter Company was the decisive factor in the defense of Bien Hoa Air Base during the 1968 Tet Offensive. They established a hasty perimeter defense to repel the initial attacks, holding the defensive position until the gunships of the company could take off. Once airborne the gunships took a devastating toll on the Viet Cong forces, forcing them to hold up in small areas until destroyed by ground and air forces. The unit's attention to detail and training enabled them to quickly and effectively defend then expel the attacking force. Their actions enabled follow on forces to quickly secure the base and the company to continue combat aviation operations. Through historical action reports and the personal experiences of five members of the 190th Assault Helicopter Company this paper highlights the actions taken beginning January 31, 1968
190th Assault Helicopter Company in the Battle of Bien Hoa
The goal of this paper is to highlight the actions of the 190th Assault Helicopter Company during the Tet Offensive in the Republican of Vietnam, January 1968. The Battle of Bien Hoa, are the actions that took place on the night of January 31, 1968 at Bien Hoa Air Base in southern central Vietnam, sixteen miles northeast of the capital, Saigon. The 190th AHC established a hasty perimeter defense to repel the initial attacks, holding the defensive position until the gunships of the company could take off. Once airborne the gunships took a devastating toll on the Viet Cong forces, forcing them to hold up in small areas until destroyed by ground and air forces. The unit's attention to detail and training enabled them to quickly and effectively defend then expel the attacking force. The 190th Assault Helicopter Company was the decisive factor in the defense of Bien Hoa Air Base during the 1968 Tet Offensive, successfully repelling the main attack of the Viet Cong.
On October 14, 1966, the United States Army activated the 190th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), 145th Combat Aviation Battalion (CAB), at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The unit trained in the still new tactic of Air Assault, this concept incorporated flying ground personnel from objective to objective via helicopter, with an armed escort to provide cover. Before deployment to the Republic of Vietnam, the 190th AHC went through an intensive training cycle. This pre-deployment cycle replicated their mission set in Vietnam. In support of the 101st Infantry Division (Airborne) in May 1967, the 190th AHC flew over 600 hours, conducting over 2000 sorties, moving almost 5,000 infantrymen. The field training exercises worked hand in had with a rigorous training schedule that included flight operations and safety, infantry tactics, individual and crew weapon qualification, and other combat survival tasks. (Jett, 1968) This realistic, tough training led to the combat survival of the unit throughout its initial year in Vietnam and set the precedence for those that carried on the traditions of the unit.
The battalion was the first to utilize the UH-1C gunship. (Jett, 1968) (Appendix A, Figure 1) Referred to as the “Huey Hog,” the Charlie had pintle-mounted 7.62mm M60 machine guns and pod mountings for the 7.62mm M134 mini-gun, which could fire up to 4,000 rounds per minute or the MK3 subsystem that carried 24, 2.75” Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets. (Staff Writer, 2014) In the Republic of Vietnam, the UH-1C introduced itself violently to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units it faced in combat. It would be a key reason the 190th AHC and other 145th CAB elements repelled the Viet Cong assault effectively during the Tet Offensive.
Republic of Vietnam
The 190th AHC deployed to the Republic of Vietnam during July and August 1967. The company had 24 UH-1D and 8 UH-1C helicopters. (D. Bortz, personal communication, March 1, 2015) The UH-1D helicopters were primarily used for transportation of equipment, cargo, and personnel, they were armed only with the M60 machine gun in the doors. Known as “slicks” due to their lack of armament, these platoons used the call sign “Spartans,” while the gunship platoon used the call sign “Gladiators.” Additional personnel of the unit made up the headquarters section, service, and maintenance platoon. Three detachments rounded out the company, the 605th Transportation, 520th Medical, and 9th Signal; the 190th AHC became fully operationally capable on September 4, 1967. (Jett, 1968) (Appendix A, Figure 2 and 3)
From late September through December 1967, the 190th AHC provided support throughout I, II, and III Corps. In I Corps, they became the first US Army assault helicopter company to provide direct support to the United States Marine Corps. Throughout this time they supported the 1st Marine Division, 198th Infantry Brigade (Light), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Military Assistance Group Vietnam, Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), 5th Division, Army, Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and 25th Division, ARVN. The unit received over 300 awards for valor, set records for safety, and did not have any major aircraft accidents. (Jett, 1968) As 1968 began, under the guise of a truce, the enemy and the battle came to the 190th AHC at Bien Hoa.
Battle of Bien Hoa
Tet is the lunar New Year holiday celebrated by the people of Vietnam. At the beginning of 1968, approximately half of the ARVN forces were on leave to celebrate the holiday. The North Vietnamese government announced between January 27 and February 3, 1968 they would cease hostilities to allow for celebration of the holiday. General William C. Westmoreland, the Commanding General, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, disagreed on force posture during the period. General Westmoreland wanted to cancel the truce and all leaves, while President Thiệu believed this course of action played into communist propaganda. President Thiệu’s decision left US forces withstanding the worst of the attack, while his ARVN forces were dispersed amongst the country on leave. (Vietnam-Tet Offensive, 1987)
“On January 31, 1968, the full-scale offensive began, with simultaneous attacks by the communists on five major cities, thirty-six provincial capitals, sixty-four district capitals, and numerous villages.” (Vietnam-Tet Offensive, 1987) At approximately 0300 hours, Bien Hoa Air Base came under attack by the 274th and 275th Regiments, 9th Viet Cong Division. (Appendix A, Figure 4) Following a barrage of mortar and rockets the two regiments of the Viet Cong assaulted the perimeter of the Air Base. The Viet Cong expected to quickly overrun the base, capturing the flight line that would prevent fixed wing aircraft from taking off. This plan enhanced the larger objectives of the surprise attack, eliminating close air and bomber support to other areas that the communists were at the same time attacking. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong commander did not take into account the Combat Aviation Battalion residing at the main gate of Bien Hoa Air Base. (Jett, 1968)
The 190th AHC and their sister units of the battalion quickly established a defensive perimeter; they placed effective fire upon the assaulting Viet Cong pinning them in the defensive wire of the base. The gunships of the battalion quickly rose to the air, while slicks dropped flairs along the perimeter illuminating the now stagnated assaulters. The Gladiators and their companions opened up on the pinned down Viet Cong absolutely destroying them. Some of the Viet Cong retreated to a rally point in Bien Hoa, while those that penetrated the wire established fought on from singular positions. (Jett, 1968) As the 145th CAB organized, they stretched and improved their defensive positions, then began offensive operations, clearing bunkers and buildings, trapping the remaining Viet Cong in a defilade that they were unable to assault. Three Viet Cong established a firing position in the water tower (Appendix A, Figure 5); they proved hard to overcome, taking until noon the following day to eliminate. The United States Air Force dispatched a F-100 Super Sabre aircraft equipped with napalm canisters, which dropped on target into the defilade, eliminating the remnants of the failed assaulters. (J. Londers, personal communication, March 1, 2015)
Although the 190th AHC and other 145th CAB elements successfully repelled the brunt of the attack, they now had to quickly shift focus back to their mission of providing direct helicopter support. The company worked around the clock to repair the damage to their equipment and facilities. (Appendix A, Figure 6) Operations were now constant helicopters had to have fuel and armaments, this further exhausted the company, but they continued to repair, maintain, and conduct mission during a highly volatile and stressful time. Much of southern Vietnam was in shambles from the surprise communist attack (Appendix A, Figure 7) and there were major combat operations still taking place throughout the country that would last throughout the month of February. From January 31 to February 29, 1968, the 190th AHC transported 24,069 passengers, flew 14,673 sorties, flew 13,380 hours, carried 7,199 tons of cargo, medically evacuated 201 personnel, confirmed killed 407 Viet Cong with another 106 probable, destroyed 676 structures, damaged 168 structures, and destroyed 70 sampans. (Jett, 1968)
The Tet Offensive, specifically the Battle of Bien Hoa is a proud memory of the men of the 190th AHC. They portrayed the utmost commitment to mission accomplishment, coming together under duress, effectively repelling a surprise attack, saving the air base. Their actions were not coordinated; they did what they had to do. Due to the fog of war, and the tactical advantage the enemy possessed there was not time to coordinate defense. The training they endured individually, then collectively at Fort Campbell and the missions they conducted in the month’s prior had them hone to a razor’s edge. The story of the 190th AHC during the Battle of Bien Hoa is a magnificent example of the importance of training and of the values of the United States Army Soldier. It is most fitting that members of the 190th AHC tell what happened.
First Hand Perspective
Five members of the 190th AHC graciously provided first hand accounts of their experiences during the Battle of Bien Hoa. The first is from a pilot of the Spartan platoon.
CPT Joseph Cancellare
CPT Joseph Cancellare, call sign Spartan 16, led the 1st Lift Platoon of the 190th AHC. Before deployment to Vietnam, his home station was Fort Bragg, North Carolina with the 191st Assault Helicopter Company. After their arrival, he moved to the 190th AHC in an effort to spread out the departure dates of unit personnel. As the bulk of the 190th AHC arrived in August 1967, they would depart in August 1968. CPT Cancellare logged mission details from December 29, 1967 until January 26,1968 detailing the many missions the unit conducted just before the Tet Offensive. The logs detail the incredible attention to detail of the 190th AHC and are an excellent collection of after action reviews by him and his crews. The leadership focus is evident in these logs; he documented what went well and what need improvement, always endeavoring to become better. This attention to detail focus permeated throughout the unit as displayed by their actions during the Battle of Bien Hoa. (J. Cancellare, personal communication, February 14, 2015)
CPT Cancellare awoke to the mortar and rocket attack at 0300, January 31, 1968. He moved to a covered position, joining in the defense of the base. He remembers that Viet Cong guerillas infiltrated the Vietnamese Air Force barracks further down the flight line, killing many in their bunks before the main assault. Around 0500, the depot on Long Binh, a few miles down the road, exploded. (Appendix A, Figure 8) The shockwave hit them first; they could see it moving towards them. Seconds later, a loud explosion was heard and a giant mushroom shaped cloud rose into the sky. Soldiers on the ground believed that a nuclear strike happened due to the surprise attack, they discovered later that the depot received indirect fire igniting a chain reaction of the munitions stored in it. (J. Cancellare, personal communication, February 14, 2015)
As the defense of the base gained momentum, he recalls the gunships getting airborne destroying the Viet Cong along the perimeter wire. In his opinion, the Viet Cong plan only included infiltration. Upon their repulsion at the wire no exfiltration plan existed, the Viet Cong’s only plan was to overwhelm the base. Failing to accomplish their objective they retreated to a rally point in a rubber grove outside the city of Bien Hoa. Viet Cong intelligence failed once more, two days prior an engineer unit cut down the rubber grove, leaving them stranded in an open field, where the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) found them. They arrived as the quick reaction force for the besieged Bien Hoa, destroying the remnants of the Viet Cong in place. The gunships of the 190th AHC and 145th CAB destroyed the plans of the Viet Cong, as explained by the pilot of one. (J. Cancellare, personal communication, February 14, 2015)
CW2 William Shipp
CW2 William Shipp entered the United States Army in 1965 from Marietta, Georgia. He deployed to Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina on March 2, 1967, transferring to the 190th AHC in September. The day before Tet he was preparing to depart for rest and recuperation leave in the Philippines. His roommate woke him when the rocket and mortar attack started, they moved outside waiting for the attack to subside. He noticed the 190th AHC alert fire team departed, pondering the destination of the team an immense display of tracer fire began. (Appendix A, Figure 9) Not being able to depart and seeing others return from Saigon with bullet-riddled luggage, he prepared to fly his gunship.
As the second day of Tet began, operations issued coordinates to proceed to and a radio frequency to make contact with the troops on the ground. The ground troops would tell the gunships where they required fires and the gunships complied with request to the best of their abilities. In his opinion, Tet was the period in time that they had always wanted to have happen; the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had come out to fight. He reiterates that, “we would just do what needed to be done.” The gunships needed only map coordinates, a radio frequency, a call sign, and someone to support, be it a ground force, forward observer, or another airborne asset. (W. Shipp, personal communication, February 16, 2015) CW2 Shipp’s experience was vastly different from the Airfield Duty Officer, the night the attack began.
WO1 Leland Cranmer
WO1 Leland Cranmer entered the United States Army from Hyattsville, Maryland in July 1967. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967, initially assigned to the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. He voluntarily transferred to the 190th AHC in December. After a day of flying a USO troop around, he reported to the operations building to start his tour as the Airfield Duty Officer. (L. Cranmer, personal communication, February 15, 2015)
As soon as the rocket and mortar attack started, he received a call from the 145th Bn. Duty Officer ordering him to take off and start dropping flares. The only instruction he received was orbit the airbase and drop flares. The Air Force and Army air traffic control towers were empty and the only radio contact he had was with the 145th CAB headquarters. Due to the ongoing battle at Bien Hoa he diverted to a base to the southeast, Bear Cat, to refuel and reload with flares. He landed at Bien Hoa in the morning just in time to see and feel the shockwave as Long Binh depot exploded. After nearly 24 hours of flying an exhausted 20-year-old WO1 tried to get some sleep, shortly thereafter he flew again in relief of the other besieged areas. (L. Cranmer, personal communication, February 15, 2015) Not all members of the 190th AHC came out of Tet unharmed; a crew chief for one of the gunships had a very harrowing experience.
SP5 Martin Alexander
SP5 Martin Alexander entered the United States Army at age 18 in Chicago, IL during March 1966. After training, he went to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, assigned to 187th Aviation Company (Air Assault) in September 1966. From there, he deployed to Tay Ninh, Vietnam in March 1967; the unit then reflagged as 187th Assault Helicopter Company. In September 1967 he, along with other personnel transferred to the 190th AHC to stretch out the departure dates of the unit’s personnel. (M. Alexander, personal communication, February 19, 2015)
His gunship conducted a search and destroy mission on January 30, returning to Bien Hoa at approximately 1700hrs. He recalls that, it should have been the beginning of a three-day truce due to the holiday. As they flew over the town, it was nearly empty of citizens. He recalls seeing three or four people walking about, but a significant change from the crowds observed beforehand, he brought this to the attention of his aircraft commander. Upon landing, the pilots went to operations and the gunner and SP5 Alexander stayed with the aircraft for refueling and rearming. At 2000hrs they began duty as part of a stand-by fire team (two gunships), nothing unusual occurred and they were released at midnight to return to their barracks, and the primary gun team remained on stand-by. (M. Alexander, personal communication, February 19, 2015)
He awoke at 0305hrs to the sounds of men moving about in the aisle-way, of explosions in the distance, and the words, “get out, we're getting hit." They left the barracks by the rear stairs. As they reached the ground level, a large explosion occurred to our right. The ball of fire was huge, and it knocked them to ground, rendering SP5 Alexander unconscious. When he regained consciousness he moved to a bunker, then evacuated to the medical facility. He was shaking uncontrollably, the medical personnel believed his lung was punctured and triaged him accordingly. A short flight to Long Bien brought him to the hospital, among many others who received wounds. The last thing he remembers is the medical personnel putting an IV into him, until he awoke on February 1st, having been unconscious for the previous 30 or more hours. (M. Alexander, personal communication, February 19, 2015)
He chose to recover in Cam Rahn, vice evacuation to Japan. He had only 40 days to go before DEROS, and he believe his wound were so serious that would prevent him from going back to the 190th AHC. Three weeks later, he returned to Bien Hoa, he learned from his gunner that their gunship received damaged during the Tet attack and was sitting in the hanger for repair. Due the extent of damage, it fell to cannibalization of parts for other aircraft to make the mission capable. SP5 Alexander departed Vietnam just a few weeks later. Arriving at the San Francisco Airport, he could not purchase a beer, as he had not yet turned 21. (M. Alexander, personal communication, February 19, 2015) The final perspective is also, what happened on the ground during the Battle of Bien Hoa.
SP4 James Londers
SP4 James Londers entered the United States Army from East Providence, Rhode Island in September 1966. The lone Generator Mechanic of the 190th AHC he arrived at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in January 1967 as the unit formed. He took part in the extensive pre-deployment training highlighted previously and deployed with the 190th AHC to Bien Hoa in August 1967. (J. Londers, personal communication, March 1, 2015)
He awoke at 0300hrs on January 31 to the rocket and mortar attack. Along with the other personnel in the barracks, they quickly departed to the backside of the building. As they formed a defensive perimeter on the ground, he distinctly remembers the bugle calls the Viet Cong used to keep their lines and attempt to instill fear. He recalls that someone called out that they should go to the bunker; he along with many others did not think this was a good course of action. They instead moved to a ditch to expand their perimeter and provide effective fire onto the attacking force. The gunships were soon in the air and they began to take their toll on the Viet Cong attackers. As day broke he saw, felt, and heard the massive explosion of the Long Binh depot. The ground forces continued to expand their perimeter and began clearing operations, neutralizing the water tower threat and forcing the remnants of the Viet Cong into the defilade to be napalmed. (J. Londers, personal communication, March 1, 2015)
The quick reaction forces started arriving, neutralizing the remaining threats outside of the base, allowing the 190th AHC to quickly move into helicopter operations. He recalls that the United States Air Force personnel became much more friendly after the Battle, the 190th AHC taught them methods to improve their defensive positions and a bond of friendship was forged in the fire of battle. (J. Londers, personal communication, March 1, 2015)
Each of these perspectives are unique, they are not all-inclusive but highlight the major points of the Battle of Bien Hoa. Throughout their correspondence, the same themes emerged. The 190th AHC had a strong sense of brotherhood, attention to detail, and commitment to each other, to the unit and mission accomplishment. The training time invested garnered huge dividends when they faced enemy actions on their base.
The 190th Assault Helicopter Company was the decisive factor in the defense of Bien Hoa Air Base during the 1968 Tet Offensive, successfully repelling the main attack of the Viet Cong. The 190th AHC portrayed a culture of excellence in all that they did. They have a climate of brotherhood that is alive and well today. This unit showed absolute commitment to the unit, mission, and each other. The second and third order effects of their defense of Bien Hoa were tactically and strategically significant. By repelling the Viet Cong forces effectively, it allowed them to quickly hand over defense of the base to follow on forces. This enabled them to shift directly back into helicopter operations, providing direct fire support, transporting personnel and cargo to besieged areas throughout the area of operations.
Jett, M. (1968). 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, Pictorial History, Vol. II.
Staff Writer. (2014, February 26). The UH-1 Huey became the symbol of American involvement in the Vietnam War. In Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) Multi-Role / Utility / Attack / Transport Helicopter. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=42
Vietnam-Tet Offensive. (1987, December 1). In Library of Congress Country Studies. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from
Figure 1. UH-1C Gunship.
Figure 2. 190th AHC Guidon Bien Hoa Air Base.
Figure 3. 190th AHC Hangar and Helicopters.
Figure 4. Battle of Bien Hoa Tactical Map.
Figure 5. Bien Hoa Water Tower
Figure 6. 190th AHC Hangar damaged during Tet Offensive.
Figure 7. Bien Hoa City, Post Tet Offensive.
Figure 8. Long Binh Depot Explosion.
Figure 9. Bien Hoa Tracers, Tet.
Figure 10. 190th AHC Spartan Pocket Patch.
Figure 11. 190th AHC Gladiator Pocket Patch
MSG Robert N. Londers
(Son of James Londers)
U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy
2 March 2015
Personal Interviews with:
CPT Joe Cancellare
CW2 William "Irby" Shipp
WO1 Leland Cranmer
SP5 Martin Alexander
SP4 James Londers