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The following is an extract from the
20th Special Operations Squadron
1 January – 31 March 1969
COURTESY OF JIM O’GORMAN
On 26 March 1969 our Commander, Lt Col Frank A. DiFiglia was killed in a helicopter crash. His untimely death and cause is fully documented below. Upon his death Lt Col David K. Sparks assumed Command.
During this reporting period the 20th SOS lost three aircraft to hostile fire and unknown causes. Five men lost their lives and two men were wounded. These accidents together with the loss of aircraft documented in the proceeding reporting period have placed an unbearable burden on the 20th. Unbearable, because it has severely taxed the already limited resources of men and aircraft. This problem is so acute that minor problems such as radio communications and maintenance delays pale in significance to this great loss of men and airplanes.
Despite the severe losses, the men of the 20th are dedicated to the mission. Morale remains high. Replacement aircraft have been obtained in the past by levying a demand on Strategic Air Command UH-1F inventories. This source of aircraft has been cut off. Alternative sources such, as bringing aircraft from Tan Son Nhut and Udorn would require us to drop our missions and commitments at these locations. No solution to this problem has yet been found.
On 3 January 1969 UH-1F 63-13164 was shot down by hostile fire. The crash occurred near Duc Lap SVN. Sergeant Ronald P. Zenga was pinned under the aircraft and died in the ensuing fire. The crew consisting of Major Paul E. McClellan, aircraft commander, Major Thomas Courtney, pilot and Sergeants Jess P. Rowland and Ronald P. Zenga were attempting to rescue a Special Forces reconnaissance patrol. The patrol was in contact with an unknown size enemy and in danger of being circled and overrun. After Green Hornet gunships had suppressed the enemy groundfire, a slick helicopter attempted a McGuire Rig extraction only to encounter intense fire upon coming to a hover. The slick was badly damaged and its radio knocked out. After taking eight hits the slick departed the area and again gunships suppressed the enemy fire. Major McClellan and crew then approached for a second attempted pickup. As they came to a hover above the trees enemy fire struck the fuel cells setting the aircraft on fire. They were able to accelerate the aircraft and attempted a landing in a small jungle clearing less than 500 meters from enemy forces surrounding the Special Forces patrol. The engine failed just short of the clearing and the helicopter crashed into the trees. Sergeant Zenga was pinned beneath the overturned aircraft, Major Courtney was knocked unconscious, and Sergeant Rowland was entangled in his harness. Major McClellan was able to get out of the wreckage and remove Major Courtney and Sergeant Rowland just prior to the aircraft bursting into flames. Another slick landed nearby and assisted in rescuing the downed crew.
On 13 February 1969 UH-1F 64-15492 was shot down by hostile groundfire near Duc Co. The crew consisted of Captain Ronald Andrews, aircraft commander, Major Ronald H. Guy, pilot and Technical Sergeant Jesse C. Bowman and A1C Isidro Arroyo, gunners. Again a Special Forces patrol was in contact with a large enemy force, and again 20th SOS gunships came in to suppress the enemy fire long enough for the slick aircraft to extract the patrol. On the first gun pass, the aircraft was hit and immediately fuel fumes choked the crew. Within seconds the aircraft fuel tanks were in flames. Captain Andrews landed his flaming aircraft a scant kilometer away from the hostile forces. Again another 20th SOS slick landed nearby and rescued the crew as the airplane went up in flames.
On 26 March 1969 UH-1F 63-13158 was enroute from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang with a total of ten persons on board. The aircraft crashed and burned near Duc My, some 12 minutes flying time north of Nha Trang Air Base. Of the ten persons onboard 2 survived. Dead were Lt Col Frank A. DiFiglia the aircraft commander, Colonel Donald G. Lepard, 14 Special Operations Wing Deputy Commander for Special Operations, Colonel J. B. Levesque, 14th SOW Deputy Commander for Material, Captain (Dr.) Robert W. Fields, 20th SOS Flight Surgeon, Captain Walter C Booth, 20th SOS Maintenance Officer, Technical Sergeant Jesse C. Bowman, 20th SOS Gunner, and Sergeant Antonio L. Alho, 20th SOS Gunner, also dead was Mr. Abb Greer, Bell Helicopter Company Technical Representative. Critically wounded were Sergeants James E. O’Gorman and David E. Joslin. The investigating board determined that the crash sequence began at 4 to 5 thousand feet MSL when a severe vibration or beat was noted and autorotation initiated. During the descent and forced landing, control of the aircraft was lost causing subsequent destruction of the main rotor which in turn severed the tail boom. The board determined that the escalation of events from the initial severe beat or vibration through impact progressed to a point where aircraft control was impossible to maintain. First the severe beat, then the uncontrollability, followed by the separation of aircraft access doors, subsequently the main rotor underwent violent stresses and severed the tail boom. The board concluded that the chain of events began with the catastrophic failure which was probably caused by hostile fire impacting on a critical component causing an unbalanced condition or failure leading to a severe beat or vibration.
During this reporting period men of the 20th SOS were awarded the following decorations:
2 Purple Hearts
16 Distinguished Flying Crosses
32 Air Medals
On 1 March 1969 1st Lt James P. Fleming was notified that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. On 26 Nov 1968 Lt Fleming had rescued a Special Forces patrol despite intense hostile fire and complete disregard for his own personal safety.