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Mother's Day 1969

by Charlie Poe

Some Background

LZ Penny was hit hard on May 9, 1969 by a regiment of an NVA Division. Later it was discovered that this regiment was a guard unit of a new NVA Division whose ultimate mission was probably to attack 4th Inf Div Hq at Camp Enari. It is unclear whether the unit that hit Penny was an advance guard or a rear guard unit. (I never could find out.) B52strikes were conducted on areas of likely avenues of approach that led to Enari. After the air strikes, LZ Penney was established. The LZ positioning upset the NVA timetable for either continuing on to Enari or withdrawing from their mission. D Troop’s mission was to find and fix any NVA units that might still be in the area. We did!!

Years later I learned that our initial LZ where the Blues were inserted was close to the NVA Div Hdqtrs. From a former 4th Div staff officer, I also found out that the B-52 strikes had decimated the division. In all probability, we ran into units who were reconstituting or had not been hit by the B-52s. Our actions of ‘Mother’s Day ‘69’ in part, caused the NVA Division to withdraw to the west, thus stopping the attack on Camp Enari/Pleiku. If this is true, we helped save many American lives.

The Story

On May 9, 1969 LZ Penny, several miles Southwest of Kontum, was hit by an NVA Regiment. The LZ was defended by two companies of the 3rd BN, 8th Inf, 4th Inf Div. The two units suffered 25 KIA. This action prompted an alert order to D TRP to be prepared to conduct reconn operations around LZ Penny and as far south as we could sustain ourselves. Monitoring the operations of the 3/8 Inf and Intel reports from 4th Div Hq, we knew it was a major movement of NVA troops heading south.

I received word from SFC Bill Sweat (OPNS NCO) to report to the 1BN/50 INF HQ at An Khe for a briefing from division G3. Our orders were to go to LZ Penny and receive an update and then conduct reconn opns. Cpt. Stan Hudson (Acting Trp Cdr) told me to prepare our operations order and then fly as command and control of the mission.

We left AnKhe with two heavy teams (4 LOHs and 4 Cobras) along with for sure 5 Hueys, maybe 6. One good thing about the operation was that we were very familiar with the area. It made things a little easier for admin and log and C&C  (Command and Control aircraft.)

As we approached LZ Penny, Stan and I broke off the formation and landed at LZ Penny. The flight continued on to Kontum, waiting there for our arrival and for a current update on the situation.

The main concern of the division and that of the 3/8 Inf was there were NVA forces still gathering for another attack on LZ Penny. The first attack on 9 May 1969 was, by all indications, a bad one because the LZ was blown to hell. They were hit hard by mortars and RPGs that did considerable damage to the inner bunkers of the LZ.

We stated our reconn north of LZ Penny and circled around, moving farther out with each completed circle. This reconn found nothing around the LZ out to about 3 miles. We then started a south to north reconn using the LZ as a point of reference. There was a large open area south of the LZ with a road through the middle.

Two stories on this large area:
(1) CW2 Charles Holley (an outstanding man and scout) was flying lead scout along the tree line. He received fire…pulled away. The Cobras under Cpt John Grace ( a fine man and an excellent pilot) rolled in….the firing stopped. Charles Holley radioed that he thought he had been stung by bees. We landed at the north end of the field (knowing that it was secure). Charles had been hit by an AK47 AP round. This armor piercing round had traveled up the cushioning of his helmet and spiraled to the top, still inside the cushion. I believe he still has that helmet today.

(2) After the “Holley Bee” incident, we returned to Kontum to refuel. Returning to the field, we spotted what all Cavalry troopers craved for, enemy troops in the open! Running right down the middle of the field on the road was at least a platoon of NVA regulars- in file - brown uniforms, pith helmets and all. John Grace wanted to fire immediately - but we held off until I could account for all our A/C - mainly scouts and where a platoon from LZ Penny was located. After giving the ok to fire, we cleared the area so the Cobras could engage.

I don’t know to this day whether I was right or wrong in not letting John fire immediately. Most of our 2.75 rockets that day were“nails” (a 17 lb warhead consisting of high explosive and thousand of flechettes or little arrow like nail sized projectiles.) Once I was sure all friendlys were clear, CPT. Grace opened up with rockets and minigun fire.


After the troops in the open action, Stan and I returned to LZ Penny. We reported on the actions that had transpired up until that point. The battalion commander was worried about a company that was clover leafing just south of the open field.


Clover leaf manuever.  Used to protect front, flanks and rear of military formations from suprise attacks

One element needed reinforcements. The battalion commander was readying a platoon at LZ Penny, but it would be some time before they were ready. We were to insert our Blues (D Troop Infantry) as an interim force, fly back to Penny, load and insert their men, extract our Blues. A good sound plan, but little did we know of what was to come.

Our insertion went well. As we were inserting and during consolidation of the LZ, the other elements on the ground of the 3/8 Company were moving to our Blues to strengthen and enlarge the LZ. The Lift element did pick up the soldiers at Penny and did insert them.

While our Blues were on the ground, we did make sure to have continuous scouts (OH-6 LOH) and Cobras (AH-1G) helicopters over them.

Plans were being made to extract our Blues when we received a call for water, ammo and C’s for the troops in the LZ. Stan and I flew back to LZ Penny and loaded these supplies and flew back to the insertion LZ. We could not land due to the stumps and debris in the area. We unloaded the supplies and started picking up the wounded to fly them back to Pleiku. Needless to say, we didn’t make it. That’s another story. Today, I am so thankful that all the wounded and crew of our Huey were not hurt any worse than they were after being shot down.

When in the LZ, appearing out of the dark was a platoon Sgt from the 3/8 Inf. This Sgt was one of ours who was promoted to E7 and had to be transferred to the 3/8 BN. I wish I could recall his name. We all called him ‘Little Man’, a fine NCO when he was with D Troop. If anyone can remember him, please contact me.

Joe McManus’ story
Mother’s Day 1969

It was “Mother’s Day” and started out like many others for “D” Troop 2nd Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment in the spring of 1969. We left An Khe in the central highlands of South Vietnam at daybreak, 4 scouts, 4 Cobras & I believe about 6 Hueys¹ loaded with three squads from the Aero-Rifle Platoon. It’s one I won’t forget, although many of the details I never learned nor cared to at the time. For example, I’m sure there was an “OPERATION” name, but I don’t remember it or never knew it.

We flew west following highway QL-19 towards the Mang Yang Pass. The OH-6’s (LOH’s) flew low and the Cobra’s flew high with the Hueys sandwiched in the middle. We knew the route well, as we passed over LZ Action and LZ Schuller near the foot of the Pass. On our right was the hastily built cemetery full of French soldiers buried high on the Mountain. They were killed in June 1954 in a massive Viet Minh ambush. Opposite the burial grounds, on the south side of the present highway was the former battleground. Dozens of rusted hulks of trucks and armor vehicles provided mute testimony to the savagery of the June battle fifteen years prior. As we flew overhead these fallen soldiers, the helicopters gently banked North... towards Kontum. Needless to say, we never liked that turning North.

Kontum was located East of the Cambodian and Laotian border area, in the West part of the Vietnam land mass. This area was known as the Central Highlands. Just west of Kontum, across the border was the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Central Highlands was the perfect place for the North Vietnamese to try to cut South Vietnam in half. Kontum stood in the way and was like a bone in the throat of the North Vietnamese Army.

It was a clear day and the view from our Huey was full of green vegetation and fantastic mountains. We always knew, however, that the view of the lush vegetation that we were enjoying was the sanctuary of thousands of NVA soldiers.

We arrived in Kontum and began our mission. The Scouts and Cobra gunships went searching for Charlie and our “Blue” Platoon sat on the tarmac with the Huey’s and their pilots ready to insert us if a Scout (OH-6 Observation Helicopter) or Snake (AH-1G Gunship Helicopter) got knocked down.

The day passed slowly as each pair of Scouts and Cobra’s played tag team recon while the others fueled and checked out their ships for their next run. Sometime late in the day (3-4 PM), our PRC-25’s (radios) picked up a firefight by an Infantry platoon from the 4Th Infantry Division (I think) that needed help. We were probably airborne within a minute. We knew the drill; we knew our role and were always thankful that the scouts and snakes were with us.

SFC Charles Penley was our Platoon Leader, a pro at the age of 26 and second oldest to PFC Gethers at 27. PFC Reasor was the youngest at 18 with most of the guys being 19 to 22. The LZ they dropped us into was a cleared area compliments of a 500 pounder dropped some days or weeks earlier by a B-52. The crater at the center was near 20 ft across and 6-8 ft. deep.

We hooked up with the guys from the 4th who had several wounded and some killed in action (KIA). Our “Doc” Tippet was the only medic; I’m not sure what happened to theirs (medic). “Doc” moved the wounded into the crater while SFC Penley spread us out in a defensive perimeter. We were on high ground that was rocky as hell. No digging here. But who needed to, we were sure we’d be out of there within an hour, you know - before dark. The area in front fell off quickly to a field maybe 40 yards wide before another tree line. Left and right of us was thick vegetation, behind us the ground sloped up, but not real steep.

Another platoon from the 4th Infantry Division was dropped or walked in for additional support and closed the defensive perimeter to our right and behind us. It was good to see them and I’m sure they were glad to see us.

Doc was doing all he could and called for a Medivac. Captain Poe & Captain Stanley Hudson (the Troop’s Executive Officer & our commander that day) were flying C&C (Command & Control) along with Sp4 Thomas Penley (SFC Penley's brother) as Crew Chief/ Door Gunner and Sp4 Dan Kavanaugh Door Gunner.

Courageously, Captain Poe having received radio contract with the ground requesting supplies returned and loaded supplies (C-ration, water stored in 105 storage cans, and ammo) from LZ Penny. The helicopter returned to our LZ about ½ hour before dusk as he maneuvered his slick (Huey) above the treetops to the left and in front of us coming low.

SFC Penley was standing to make sure all of us were down (we were) and yelling to keep looking for Charlie. The helicopter approached the LZ for the drop off. The helicopter came into a hover and someone from the Aero-Rifle Platoon came up on the right side, and spoke to Captain Poe thru his window and asking if he would take out the wounded. Captain Poe looked over to Captain Hudson and then stated yes they would. Both Sp4 Penley and Sp4 Kavanaugh after unloading supplies helped move two wounded personal into the helicopter before hearing then seeing automatic weapon fire from what looked like their two o’clock position. The helicopter went into a spin tilted causing the blades to strike the ground braking apart with flames shooting from the exhaust stack.

It was surrealistic as the Huey started whining and I caught a glimpse as it started to tilt and spin. NVA automatic weapons were firing from the tree line in front of us raking the Huey with fire. We had six M-60 machine guns with us with three facing the tree line. I know Schmid and Tatum were on two of the machine guns as we all returned fire. Suddenly, an NVA RPG (Rocket propelled grenade) airburst caught SFC Penley and set off his white phosphorus grenade  (Willy Pete). Reasor took some shrapnel in the back of the head, Schmid and Stuecklin and a couple of others took shrapnel in the legs and back.

Captain Poe did not have his most graceful landing as his slick crashed through the trees to our left about 10 yards out in front. The helicopter went into 360 degree turns before impacting the ground were it came apart throwing Sp Kavanaugh out of the helicopter, and entrapping both Captain Hudson and Captain Poe within their seats until they could be pried out. Sp4 Kavanaugh returned to the helicopter tried to drop back Captain Poe’s seat but could not, and seeing that his foot was trapped between the floor and peddles jumped out, and long with others broke out the bubble to free his foot. Sp4 Thomas Penley along with other helped get Captain Hudson out of his seat. While all this was going we were taking fire. I think the NVA soldier that hit him was right near where the ship hit and probably just outside our perimeter. I was down on the right with Petruska who was firing 79’s quicker than I ever saw him move. It was over that fast.

Sgt. Gruber took over the Platoon and coordinated with Captain Hudson and the other platoon leader(s) our night defensive position. Nobody was going anywhere that night. Capt. Poe was moved to the crater along with the other wounded. Doc had taken some light shrapnel on his arms and in the face, but never stopped moving around the crater dealing with wounded in the dark.

Gruber took what was left of 3rd squad (3 guys) and put them out on an LP (Listening Post). SFC Penley’s brother, the Crew Chief Thomas Penley, was running around looking for him. He was carrying his previously aircraft mounted M-60 with the butterfly triggers and no barrel guards and with 2 or 3 belts of 7.62mm ammo over his shoulder. John Wayne would have been proud. Gruber had me take him and position ourselves uphill behind the LP. I think it was Stevens, Stroud and West. I could be wrong, but I know the skinny, entertaining and always talking Stevens from West Virginia was one of them.

Gruber told me to keep Crew Chief Thomas Penley quiet and not let him know that his brother had been killed. I think he knew something was wrong but was satisfied with my explanation that Sarge was down the other end doing his job. We set up his M-60 resting between 2 rocks and on a log facing left of the LP. Sp4 Kavanaugh along with his M-60 took up position along side a tree that had fallen over. It was the beginning of a long night.

I know the Cobra helicopters stayed on station till after dark (not a good move for them) and then Spooky or Shadow showed up later for a little mini-gun demonstration. Fortunately, it was a quiet night and the LOH’S broke the morning silence at daybreak. I can’t remember, but I think another company of the 4th arrived shortly later and we began the medivacs. I don’t know how many guys were hurt, I don’t know what Platoon we went to support or what their casualties were, nor do I know the other platoon involved or where this all happened, except it was near Kontum. I do know, “D” Troop pulled together and did their job with the Blackhawk spirit. Captains Poe & Hudson and their crew risked everything to help the wounded. “Doc” Tippet never flinched given his awesome responsibilities of caring for a crater full of wounded, Sgt. Gruber stepped up at a crucial moment, and Tatum, Thompson, Stevens, West and many others looked to their buddies as family with the determination to protect that family.

I’ve been to “The Wall” in Washington many times and pause to remember SFC Charles Penley and many of my high school buddies. Like all of us, it’s not “The Wall” that makes us remember – that’s there for others to understand the sacrifice. Our memories are chiseled deep and triggered by a simple breeze or a view of some mountains in the distance. For me, I often think of and remember SFC Charles Penley who was looking after us that day. I think of my buddies and the many others that gave the ultimate sacrifice, especially on “Mother’s Day”.


The Helicopter - 80 hoursTotal Time when lost

Rear view tail boom broken off


Main rotor destroyed


Nose section crashed on a stump


Side view illustrating nose damage where Cpt. Poe's feet were trapped 


Another side view 


Map showing locations of events

Platoon Sergeant Charles Penley 1 Aug 1942-11 May 1969

Helicopter Losses on 11 May 1969

Helicopter Losses on 12 May 1969

The Helicopter in Question


Captain Hudson at An Khe with marauding tiger (Pre Mother's Day)

                    Charlie Poe                              Stan Hudson                       




Joe McManus                   Dan Kavanaugh



Dan Kavanaugh demonstrates door gunner duties to his grandson during a recent VHPA Reunion


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