BY JOEL MCGINNIS
Editor’s note: Joel McGinnis flew 200 hours in Vietnam with former Barton County Commissioner Don Cates who died April 22 in a plane wreck. Cates earned the respect of his comrades, and McGinnis wrote this remembrance. McGinnis was his Observer and Scout in the helicopter that Cates piloted.
My name is Joel McGinnis and I was Don’s Observer the day he earned the Silver Star. Don’s military service with the 1/9th Calvary was something very special, and it gives me great satisfaction to share it with you.
1st Cavalry Division(Airmobile)
In the spring of 1965 President Johnson announced, “I have ordered the airmobile division be sent to Vietnam” to increase our military forces there to fight communism. That division was designated 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and so began what was later to be called the “Helicopter War”. The division would be Air Cav and helicopters would take us in and out of the places we had to go.
There were three infantry brigades within the division and each with supporting units such as aviation units, engineering units, medical units etc. which enabled them to accomplish their mission. Seek out the enemy and destroy them. Within a short period of time, the 1st Air Cav had proven the effectiveness of the helicopter concept and earned the respect of both our friends and foes on the battlefield. Our troopers became known as Skytroopers, and our ability to manage our assets on the battlefield was extraordinary.
A Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (Don Cates unit in Vietnam)
By 1967 the 1st Air Cav had become an experienced and creative fighting force thanks in a large part to its reconnaissance unit the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry. The squadron consisted of five troops, Headquarters, A, B, C, and D Troop. A, B, and C Troops provided aerial reconnaissance with one troop for each infantry brigade within the division.
When Don was assigned to A Troop in the spring of 1967 he joined us at our base called LZ Dog, which was located in the Central Highlands near a town called Bong Son.
Phan Thiet (Operation Byrd)
Located about eighty miles northeast of Saigon, Phan Thiet was a coastal city on the South China Sea. The 1st Calvary Division had been assigned the mission of securing the city and opening the roads which were controlled by a large number of VC units. All supplies and materials to the city were delivered by boat with the exception of those items and personnel that arrived by Army and Air Force planes. A battalion of infantry supported by a scaled down artillery, aviation, engineering, and reconnaissance configuration would be established and together they would utilize Air Cav tactics to drive the enemy from the area.
The 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry was the infantry unit. Eight Scout ships, six from A Troop and two from C Troop, 1/9th Cav would conduct their reconnaissance. Together along with a number of other support groups they would successfully take back control of the area during the second half of 1967.
The Scouts at Phan Thiet were supposed to have eight complete crews: pilots, observers and crew chiefs. Usually we had four to six of each due to a variety of reasons, which meant when we had flyable helicopters we flew many hours on a daily basis.
Our daily responsibility was to conduct First Light activities which required a Scout team to leave before sunrise to locations that were attacked during the night to track down the enemy units they were seeking safety in the mountainous area west of Phan Thiet. Another daily responsibility was to conduct Last Light activities which required the Scouts to evaluate intelligence reports by scouting the area to identify if it appeared enemy activity was indeed indicating something could happen that evening.
The most important responsibility we had was to protect the infantry units. Our job was determining if LZ’s were safe for insertion of the 7th Cav troopers, scouting the area around them for enemy activity or possible ambushes, rushing to their aid when they were engaged in a firefight, directing artillery and air strike support and when thing got real hot, putting ourselves between the enemy and our troops to give them suppressive fire support. Each Observer carried an M-60 machine with 1200 rounds linked and fed from a wooden ammo box that was placed at his feet. It is amazing how effective two OH-13 helicopters can be flying at tree top heights or lower at 30 miles per hour in a tight circle over a bunch of bad guys.
During Don Cates’ time in Scouts, he along with Terry (Stick) Stickradt as his Observer engaged and killed forty five enemy soldiers using this close battle technique. It’s hard to believe that is essentially what all the 1/9th Scout teams did daily-find the enemy, engage them, and call for help when needed. That help was usually our gunships or our infantry platoon. If the battle got too big, the Division would send in their units and take control of the battle.
Nov. 22, 1967
On the morning of Nov. 22, a Scout team lead by Warrant Officer John Craig with “Stick” as his Observer and the wingman team of WO Jim Pugh and Sgt. Underwood were searching an area about 20 miles northwest of Phan Thiet. In order to cover more ground, the two ships went to separate search areas and conducted their activities. After some time they became visually separated, and the quickest way to hook up was to drop a smoke grenade identifying their location. Normally we would use a WP (white phosphor) grenade but Pugh didn’t have any left, nor did he have any white smoke grenades so he dropped a RED smoke grenade which made the Viet Cong in the area think they had been spotted.
The two helicopters started taking heavy automatic weapons fire and withdrew from the area. Low on fuel, they started their return to base and informed the 7th Cav of the incident. It was agreed the 7th Cav would insert troops into the area and WO Craig and his Scout team would return to facilitate the insertion and give support if necessary.
“The first lift went in green. When the second lift was on short final all hell broke loose from the 53 bunkers that were around the LZ,” Craig recalled.
At the time of the insertion, Don Cates with the other pilots and myself were listening on our radio and monitoring the events. It was very intense and very fluid. The infantry had many casualties and alternative LZ’s could not be easily located due to broad area the enemy controlled. Craig’s team was still with the 7th Cav providing them with suppressive fire support where critical, but was running low on fuel and had to depart before Don and his wingman Jerry Cogdill could reach the battle site. Craig and his team would make another trip out later that evening.
Flying to the battle scene, about a 30 minute trip, gave Don an opportunity to start coordinating with the units we would be working with, primarily the infantry platoons that had been inserted. From what we understood, many were pinned down. Our route was a straight line over flat terrain. We flew at about 40 feet above the ground as fast as our OH-13 could go, maybe 80 mph. About mid-way, we received some light automatic weapons fire and probably to a hit or two in the rotor blades.
Normally we would come right to start circling the shooters and have our wingman follow our lead. However, we continued on and shortly we were again taken under fire but continued to the aid of the infantry troopers. Unfortunately, our wingman Jerry Cogdill ‘s helicopter was hit with heavy automatic weapons fire and became unflyable. Jerry’s courage to try to make it back to base on his own gave Don the opportunity to continue his flight to the battle.
Our normal practice when coming into a situation like this is to visually identify the positions of the friendly troops. As Don flew into the area, we rose to about 60 feet and headed north parallel to the tree line. We observed 15 to 20 troopers not moving in a dried rice paddy about 50 feet from the tree line. Don tried to determine their condition but the firefights intensified, and our radio traffic became confusing when a number of units came up on our frequency.
Don did make contact with the 7th Cav operations and they gave him an overview and a request. They needed him to suppress the enemy’s heavy fire from the bunkers located just inside the tree line so the wounded Americans could be pulled back and quickly Medevac’d. If we could keep the enemy’s head down, some troopers were going to run out to these guys and get them. Otherwise they would just have to wait. Don and I discussed the best ways to provide that support but we really needed more information. Don flew the entire battle area making a grease pencil map on the helicopters bubble. We were taken under fire numerous times, but we located all the friendly’s positions and successfully escorted another insertion of reinforcements to an LZ we determined was safe. Now everyone is getting an understanding that we are engaged with the 482nd VC Battalion, a force that probably exceeded three to four hundred soldiers and pretty much had all the 7th Cav troops pinned down. We also learned a South Vietnamese armored column coming to our aid was ambushed and would not be arriving.
We flew back to the southern part of the tree line where the pinned down troops were and agreed that without a wingman our only chance of providing effective cover would be to focus on just the last several bunkers as opposed to the entire 200 yard complex. Don flew us directly to the spot we wanted and brought the helicopter down to about 10 feet above the ground. We moved back and forth 5 to 10 feet at a time always staying with the last bunkers. Don utilized a number of pedal turns which gave us excellent coverage of the entire area. After approximately two or three minutes we released and moved off. The soldiers were recovered and medevac’d in a timely manner.
At this point, the VC had such fire superiority the need for air strikes was apparent and had been requested from an Air Force Base in Phan Rang, approximately 100 miles north. While waiting, Don suggested we draw fire from the tree line to determine where the enemy is most concentrated. We made several passes in front of the tree line at 50 to 60 feet high and marked on our bubble where we saw the most intense firing. I recalled when we first arrived seeing some of our troops that were pinned down being shot in the back. Don said he would fly the length of the tree line at 10 to 15 feet, and I could determine if the firing was eye level. If so, we had snipers in the trees. Don started his run, and we confirmed the VC had placed many soldiers with automatic weapons in the trees. We made several more passes and took out a number of them but the VC still had the fire superiority, and the battle field was shifting. It appeared there were many more VC locations than initially thought, and the 7th Cav needed Don’s knowledge to prevent a possible disaster. Don landed our helicopter near the last infantry insertion and met with the company commander. We received sporadic small arms fire during the meeting and eventually got driven off when the VC mortars began to fall. At one point, a machine gunner from the infantry came over and asked if I could give him some ammo. Knowing he couldn’t get resupplied, the landing zones were closed, and that we were low on fuel and would be leaving shortly, I gave him everything but two hundred or so rounds. I wanted to have something for the trip back to base.
The ground meeting ended, and Don contacted the Air Force spotter plane. The AF pilot got an over view but wanted to know where the bombs needed to hit. Don volunteered to fly the tree line pointing out the heavy concentration of fire as we returned fire with the last of our ammo. Again, we moved off to a safe area and waited to see how this air strike would take place. As I was talking with the infantry on the ground, Don was speaking with the 7th Cav Commanding office who now was on station in a command helicopter flying high over the battle field. When we both returned to our intercom system he explained the only way the 7th Cav troops had a chance to avoid significantly more casualties was to put in an accurate bomb strike. He felt that if we flew over the bunkers, as opposed to the tree line, we could drop smoke grenades into the actual bunkers. Probably we would take out a few bad guys with our WP grenades. But the infantry would not use any smoke before the air strike so when the jets came over to plan their bomb run, our smoke grenades would clearly identify the target and there would be no confusion. I remembering telling him we were out of ammo for the machine gun, and I wouldn’t be able to keep anyone’s head down. We talked about how we would do it and what were our options, and the consequences. Don thought it best to go into the trees where it might be possible to get lower but he wanted to glide over the bunkers with both of us dropping smoke grenades.
For me it was the right decision. After seeing the wounded and killed troopers still being repeatedly shot in the back, I knew we would do anything to help them so I was really supportive of Don’s plan. It was possible we could be shot, shot down, or shot down and captured, but Don Cates was willing to risk his life so others could live. I have never been more proud of anyone in my life. When the jets came on station Don flew us to the northern most bunker, and we started our run. I had pulled the pins on several smoke grenades and we worked out a system where Don could fly and also drop grenades. We started receiving fire immediately but the WP’s and frags mixed in with the smoke grenades must have worked because we made it.
Out of fuel and ammo, it was time for us to return to base. Our helicopter was not flyable. There wasn’t any part of that ship that didn’t have some damage except for the two of us inside. Don gets all the credit for keeping us safe.
Nov. 23, 1967
2nd Lt. Don Cates was presented the Silver Star for his heroic actions which are credited with turning the battle into an American victory and saving the lives of many 7th Cavalry troops. The significance of Don receiving the nation’s third highest award the day after the battle is that his actions were so extraordinary there was no panel or review board required for its approval.
The first email arrived on April 22, “MAC- Didn’t know if you heard Don was killed in an aircraft accident today. Give me a call-Stick”, then on the 23rd another. These messages took me back to a time when a trooper’s death was announced with few words and fewer facts and the mourning period would be brief and final. That time was 1967 and the place was Vietnam.
Terry “Stick” Stickradt , who flew many missions with Don as his Observer, Jerry Cogdill, and Lance Catlin both fellow pilots with Don in the 1/9th Cav spent time with the Cates family on Friday evening before the funeral. It was significant that the four of us were in attendance. It was 46 years ago that “Stick” and I had last seen Don, but the special bonds that were formed in combat are as strong today as they were then. Now, we would make time to honor one of our fallen and demonstrate to his family and friends why his was held in such high esteem by some of the most distinguished combat veterans from the Vietnam war. As a Scout and Gunship pilot in the 1/9th Cav Don saved the lives of many American and friendly forces. He also contributed to the many victories we realized.
As the church services began I realized I knew nothing about Don after our separation in 1968. I planned on driving out and surprising him one day. Unfortunately, Don went too soon. The number of people who attended Don’s services filled the church which clearly signified the love and respect Don and his family enjoyed from the community. Student athlete, Army helicopter pilot, commercial airline pilot, amazing family man, and a county commissioner. The was only one part missing. That’s the part I know and the part I can share.
We know you are proud of Don for many reasons and now we know you can add American War Hero.
Learn more about the 1/9th from the book “Flashing Sabers” by Bert Chole. Also, on You Tube, select 9th Cav and find the 1st Cav 9th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam.