JOHNSON, GARY LEE

Name: Gary Lee Johnson 
Rank/Branch: Specialist/US Army 
Unit: Company A, 101st Aviation Battalion, 
101st Airborne Division 
Camp Eagle, South Vietnam 

Date of Birth: 07 June 1948 (Culver City, CA)
Home of Record: Malibu, CA
Date of Loss: 18 February 1971 
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 160431N 1071910E (YC481785)
Click coordinates to view (4) maps

Status in 1973: Killed/Body Not Recovered 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: UH1H "Iroquois"
Other Personnel In Incident: Gerald E. Woods; Walter E. Demsey; George P. Berg; Allen R. Lloyd and Ronald L. Watson (missing); Samuel Hernandez (rescued) 

REMARKS:  KIA CRASH - REMS TAGD - NO RECV - J

SYNOPSIS:  By early 1967, the Bell UH1 Iroquois was already the standard Army assault helicopter, and was used in nearly every “in-country” mission.  Better known by its nickname “Huey,” the troop carriers were referred to as “Slicks” and the gunships were called “Hogs.”  It proved itself to be a sturdy, versatile aircraft that was called on to carry out a wide variety of missions including search and rescue, close air support, insertion and extraction, fire support, and resupply.  It usually carried a crew of four.

MACV-SOG, or Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, was a joint service unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (though it was not a Special Forces group) through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA), which provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the location and time frame, "Shining Brass," “Salem House,” “Daniel Boone” or "Prairie Fire" missions.

On 8 February 1971, South Vietnamese President Thieu announced Lam Son 719, a large-scale offensive against enemy communications and supply lines in that part of Laos adjacent to the two northern provinces of South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The mission was to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam.  The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) would provide and command ground forces, while US forces would provide airlift and supporting fire.  Phase I, renamed Operation Dewey Canyon II, involved an armored attack by the US from Vandegrift Base Camp toward Khe Sanh, while the ARVN moved into position for the attack across the Laotian border.  Phase II began with an ARVN helicopter assault and armored brigade thrust along Route 9 into Laos.  ARVN ground troops were transported by American helicopters, as the US Air Force provided cover strikes around the landing zones.

Ten days later, on 18 February, the first reconnaissance team (RT) of six was inserted into the infamous A Shau Valley in support of Lam Son 719 to tie down NVA forces and gather intelligence for when the ARVN returned along Highway 922 coming out of Laos.  The A Shau Valley had never been hotter.  Captured documents revealed the North Vietnamese had moved eleven counter-recon companies there to reinforce LZ watchers, trackers, dogs, rear security units and infantry battalions.  Additionally, they had 2 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries defending the valley with one located at each end of it.  The A Shau diversion was initially assigned to the 2000-man strong 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.  However, the specter of heavy US losses forced the planners to reconsider using the airborne brigade.  In the end they made the decision to give the mission to MACV-SOG instead.

Early in the afternoon of 18 February Capt. Ronald “Doc” Watson, team leader (also known as the ONE ZERO); Sgt. Allen “Baby Jesus” Lloyd, assistant team leader (ONE ONE); Raymond L. “Robby” Robinson, radio operator (ONE TWO); and 5 Bru Montagnard strikers comprised one of the MACV-SOG Command & Control North (CCN) teams being inserted into the extreme southwestern corner of the A Shau Valley to conduct a road interdiction mission.  The team’s name was “RT Intruder.”

SFC Samuel “Sammie” Hernandez and SFC Charles Wesley were also assigned to the team as “strap hangers” to support the mission and evaluate the team.  They would determine if the American team members of RT Intruder would receive approval for specialized HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) training and subsequent missions using that method of insertion.  Both SFC Hernandez and SFC Wesley were HALO qualified and needed team members who were trusted for these difficult missions.

The location of the road interdiction mission was on the extreme west side of the infamous A Shau Valley, a region of northwestern South Vietnam that was probably the most NVA infested area south of Hanoi.  This valley was not a place for amateurs, and a road interdiction mission was doubly hazardous.  Because this road interdiction mission required the team to go in a little larger than usual, the addition of SFC Hernandez and SFC Wesley was welcome.

RT Intruder was inserted by helicopter into a small clearing along a steep ridge on the valley’s west wall just inside Laos.  Threading their way through the jungle, the team disappeared into the forest.  Traveling east RT Intruder soon crossed the Lao/Vietnamese border and arrived at the westernmost ridge of the A Shau Valley.  This ridge was heavily canopied.  Hidden from view underneath the overhanging boughs and safe from aerial observation was a fully developed road big enough for a large truck to travel along it without difficulty.

Capt. Watson, with the concurrence of SFC Hernandez, directed the team to pull back to wait and listen.  Less than 2 minutes later one of the strikers on their left flank signaled “people coming,” then a 6-man NVA porter party came into view.  The team killed two NVA instantly and the others fled abandoning their loads.  The team quickly gathered up the enemy’s cargo and radioed the onsite Forward Air Controller (FAC), call sign “Covey,” for an extraction.  Shortly a flight of four Huey helicopters arrived equipped with STABO rigs to accomplish the extraction.

The captured documents, which included an NVA courier’s pouch, had been stored in the team’s duffle bags that would be suspended below them during the recovery operation.  Each helicopter had 4 120-foot long STABO ropes anchored to the aircraft’s floor.  The first helicopter extracted Charles Wesley, Robby Robinson and two of the Bru.  However, because the first Huey struggled to gain altitude in the thin mountain air with the added weight of the four men and their gear bags, the decision was made for the second helicopter to pick up only three.  Capt. Watson sent the three remaining Bru team members out on that helicopter.

When the last helicopter hovered overhead, Capt. Watson, Sgt. Lloyd, and SFC Hernandez snapped themselves into the STABO rigs.  In addition to his own gear bag that would be suspended below him, Sammie Hernandez had a second bag belonging to SFC Wesley to bring out with him.  Throughout the extraction operation progress, the Americans heard the NVA moving through the jungle and closer to their position.

CWO2 George P. Berg, aircraft commander; WO Gerald E. Woods, pilot; SPC Walter Demsey, crewchief; and SPC Gary L. Johnson door gunner; comprised the crew of the extraction helicopter (serial #68-15255), call sign “Commancheros,” that recovered the last three members of RT Intruder.  After snapping into the harnesses, Capt. Watson, Sgt. Lloyd, and SFC Hernandez signaled they were ready.  As the helicopter lifted up and away, it came under enemy gunfire that was immediately answered by Walter Demsey’s and Gary Johnson’s door guns.

Hanging from the STABO rig below the Huey, Sammie Hernandez heard gunfire erupt from directly underneath him.  He later stated he “was high enough almost to run across the treetops,” and “the next thing I knew, I’d come back crashing through the trees” falling 30-40 feet into double canopy jungle below.  SFC Hernandez’s rope had snagged in the trees and snapped under the added weight of carrying the two gear bags.

SFC Hernandez crashed into the double canopy jungle at the same time the Huey sustained accurate ground fire from  NVA anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire.   Fatally crippled, the aircraft traveled forward approximately 600 feet before abruptly making a u-turn, tipped upside down, crashed into the side of the cliff and fell in flames into the dense foliage below.  Dragged behind the Huey, Doc Watson and Baby Jesus Lloyd STABO ropes entangled in the trees and snapped free of the Huey at the edge of the cliff.  As the helicopter continued over the edge, the two men were slammed into the side of the cliff killing them instantly before suspending them in mid-air out of view of the other aircraft.

As darkness approached and weather conditions deteriorated, Sammie Hernandez heard NVA troops moving through the surrounding jungle.  He hid in the dense undergrowth and went undetected.  By the next morning he had returned to the small clearing used the day before to insert the team.  When he heard a nearby Huey, SFC Hernandez crawled into the open and signaled it with an escape and evasion panel.  In an hour, Sammie Hernandez found himself back at the team’s base camp at Phu Bai.

Other aircrews witnessed CWO2 Berg’s helicopter crash, and reported they saw no survivors on the ground and heard no emergency beepers.  The crash site was located in the rugged jungle covered mountains of the A Shau Valley approximately 1 mile northeast of the South Vietnamese/Lao border, 10 miles south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), 29 miles west-southwest of Hue/Phu Bai Airfield and 57 miles west of DaNang, Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam.  Under the circumstances, all six men were immediately reported as Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

On 19 February, another MACV-SOG team, named “RT Habu,” was inserted into the crash site to search for and recover the remains of the aircrew and RT Intruder.  Cliff Newman commanded RT Habu.  Other team members included Charles Wesley and Charles Danzer.

In order to reach the crash site, the team members had to rappel down the sheer cliff.  Once on the ground, they found WO Woods and CWO2 Berg dead in their seats and one leg of SPC Demsey, the crew chief, very near the burned out cargo compartment.  The recovery personnel believed that Walter Demsey had been thrown from the helicopter when it crashed and it rolled over on him cutting the leg off and trapping the rest of his body under the wreckage.  SPC Johnson, the door gunner, had also been thrown from the Huey and was found dead in a tree 30 feet away.  The aircrew’s remains were placed in body bags and then laid on top of the wreckage for extraction.

The weather again was closing in and daylight fading when RT Habu made the decision to leave the remains at the crash site and stay nearby over night.  The team members moved northwest along the top of the ridgeline.  As they passed a cliff, they spotted two ropes hanging from the trees.  They investigated the ropes and found Ronald Watson and Allen Lloyd still in their STABO rigs roughly 50 feet down the cliff with their sling ropes hanging from trees at the top of the cliff.  RT Habu members tried to secure their remains, but the men’s ropes were just out of reach.  The recovery team continued north to Hill 1528 where they set security and settled in for the night.  The next morning t RT Habu prepared to return to the crash site when it was attacked by a large NVA force.

RT Habu immediately contacted the onsite FAC informing the pilot of their predicament and requesting an immediate emergency extraction.  US Air Force pilot 1st Lt. James L. Hull, pilot; and SFC William Fernandez, MACV-SOG observer; comprised the aircrew of the O2A Skymaster.  As they directed the extraction operation, the FAC was struck by enemy ground fire and crashed into rugged double canopy jungle approximately 6 miles northwest of the Huey’s crash site.  The downing of this aircraft further complicated the overall mission and delayed plans for retrieving the remains.  Another reconnaissance team was inserted into the Skymaster’s crash site shortly after its loss.  They found both crewmen dead and were able to extract the body of SFC Fernandez.  However, they were unable to recover 1st Lt. Hull because his body was buried underneath the aircraft wreckage.

That night a reinforced NVA company pinned the members of RT Habu against a sheer drop and likely would have overrun them at dawn.  The team, with half its men wounded, escaped by jumping off the cliff, then made their way to a designated area for their own emergency extraction.

For months the NVA left the body bags containing the remains of George Berg, Gerald Woods, Walter Demsey and Gary Johnson as well as leaving the bodies of Allen Lloyd and Ronald Watson hanging in place in the open and in plain sight hoping a MACV-SOG ground team or helicopter crew might attempt to recover their friends and countrymen.  In the end, no such attempt was made.

In early May 1992, Walter Demsey’s brother, Dave, and a friend of Walter’s, Wayne Jones, traveled to the A Shau Valley in an attempt to visit the Huey’s crash site.  Their trip was approved and assisted by both the US and Vietnamese governments and they traveled with a US POW/MIA team from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and its Vietnamese counterpart.

After an arduous journey half way around the world, Dave Demsey and Wayne Jones found themselves at the crash site of a US Navy A-4 1000 feet from the Huey’s crash site.  They learned the Navy pilot had been recovered during the war.  According to Dave Demsey’s journal, “If they continued forward directly toward the site, they would have needed mountain climbing equipment, which they did not have, to climb the sheer cliff.  The only other way was up the ridgeline to the top that was some 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!”

The case was rescheduled for investigation by a joint team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) in the spring of 1996, and then again in the spring of 2002.  Two members of RT Habu were to accompany the last JTFFA team due to the fact that the area in which the wreckage fell is exceptionally well concealed in the rugged jungle covered terrain and the best chance to find it is with the assistance of those who were at the crash site originally.  Unfortunately, within a day of leaving for Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese cancelled that field investigation stating, “the region was unsafe to visit due to clashes between local warring factions.”

For every insertion like this one that was detected and stopped, dozens of others safely slipped past NVA lines to strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information.  The number of MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969.  It was the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history.  MACV-SOG’s teams earned a global reputation as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.

While the aircrew and patrol members died when their aircraft was shot down, there is no doubt the communists had access to their remains.  Further, there is no question the Vietnamese could return them to each man’s family, friends and country any time they had the desire to do so.  Above all else, these men have the right not to be forgotten by the nation for which they gave their lives.

For other Americans, their fate could be quite different.  Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government.  Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured.  It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.