YH-21
 
  CH-53A  
BuNo 153283

Killed in Action on 22 FEB 1968
 
  Captain James Thomas Riley Aircraft Commander
  1st Lieutenant Cary Carson Smith Copilot
     
Mission Information:
NVA rocket hit pylon hinge at lift-off during Khe Sanh resupply.

 

Remembrances about these Marines:
Jim "Rex" Riley was married, thirty-two years old and from Zeigler, Illinois.

Cary Smith was twenty-two years old and from Kansas City, Missouri.


Remembrance: Capt. James T. Riley and 1st Lt. Cary C. Smith were killed at Khe Sanh when an NVA rocket hit the pylon hinge on the 22nd of February 1968.  Approximately two weeks before this tragic loss, I was on a re-supply mission out of An Hoa as the port gunner with Capt. Riley as the pilot -- I have unfortunately forgotten the names of the other crewmembers.  We had taken on an internal load of about 10,000 lbs. of 105 ammo and six ARVNs [Vietnamese Soldiers]. For good measure they had thrown at the end an 800 lb. pallet of fuses.  We all know that the hauling of ammo and fuses together was verboten [forbidden], but this was an emergency re-supply to an ARVN firebase.

I had the breach of my M60 open while we were on the ground and as we were rolling out for takeoff I started to throw the belt in the breach and close it.  There was an ARVN standing to the left of the port window as I attempted to close the breach.  We were straining up through about 250 ft on climb out when the port engine tripped due to a shorted overspeed switch.  The immediate result was the exact imitation of an elevator with broken cables.  We were all floating in the air and I could not get the breach shut.  The ARVN to my left was floating halfway between the floor and the ceiling and was crossing himself so fast; his hand was a blur.  Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw the crew chief swimming through the air down the cargo bay trying to get to the pallet of fuses and get it out before we hit the ground.

At this point I heard Rex (Capt. Riley), holler over the intercom "Hang on boys! We've lost the port engine and we're going down in Indian country!"  This is when I spun around in the air and saw that the co-pilot was frozen on the throttle quadrant.  Capt. Riley had his hands full trying to fly the plummeting CH-53.  I then saw Rex turn loose of the collective, karate chop the co-pilot's hands off the throttles and fire wall the starboard engine.  He then reached back down and jerked the collective up under his armpit.  We then came to a hover at about 50-ft. into ground effect, and we all crashed to the floor.  Rex found that he could not fly out of ground effect on one engine with the internal load we carried.  He then proceeded to fly back to MMAF following various rivers.

When we got to Marble I asked Capt. Riley if he could find another gunner to complete the mission in another '53.  As I was in Avionics, I said that I would stay there at Marble and change-out the over-speed switch.  I was pretty shook.  I then proceeded to go into flight ops and un-volunteered from flight status.  This incident was the fourth time I had seen my number come up.

I really respect the courage of the pilots in 'Nam.  We enlisted folks had the advantage that flying was strictly voluntary.  I had promised the lady I have been married to for the past 33 years that I would come home and marry her and it had become obvious that I was not keeping that word.

Additionally, about 15 years ago, I was in a bookstore in Houston and picked up Will Fowler's book; A Vietnam Story.  As I picked it up, it fell open to a double leaf picture of the 53 wreck at Khe Sanh showing some grunts lifting out the HAC's [pilot] body.  The cockpit is completely gone in the picture and the co-pilot's seat is on the ground about 20 feet to the left of the wreck.  When I saw the picture, I went stone cold and knew that I was looking at Rex.  I never flew again after that An Hoa incident and had heard of the incident at Khe Sanh, but never saw it.

I feel that I owe my life to the skills and abilities of Capt. James T. Riley.   That man deserved the DFC for his flying that day at An Hoa.   I really regret that he and Lt. C.C. Smith are not with us anymore.

  Submitted by Mike Amtower, former Sergeant and gunner that flew with Capt. Riley on more than one occasion.

Remembrance: I was the original crew/chief of YH-21 since deploying from MCAF Santa Ana in April 1967.  On 22 February 1968, my section Chief SSgt. William "Sully" Sullivan, who had an Avionics/Electrical MOS, needed flight hours for the month, and provided me a welcome day off.  Sully was well experienced in the CH-53A and had been with the Squadron from the first 53 arrivals.  My 1st Mech [mechanic] was Pat Murgallis from the Northern California area, and Pat was nearing a Crew Chief status.  I cannot recall the Gunner identity, but it was not anyone in the original HMH-463 group.

The Khe Sanh run was always a risk, and the prior day or two; I had made numerous sorties in YH-21 with internal fuel rollagons and troop replacements.  We all understood ground time was measured in seconds, not minutes during post-Tet months at Khe Sanh.  While we usually did not know the mission until the AM posting, Sully knew he drew a tough one and could have easily selected another time/mission.  This was not Sully's style; he was a great Marine & person.

During the day of the incident, we received very spotty information with the exception of the KIA status of Capt. "Rex" Riley and Lt. Smith.  Next we heard that Sully was severely wounded with shrapnel, but had pulled out both Murgallis and the Gunner from the wreckage.  We were told Sully was transferred to a hospital ship, and later back to CONUS for rehabilitation.  I lost track of Sully, but heard he retired to New Mexico where he passed on after some years.  Neither Murgallis nor the Gunner had other than minor injuries from my recollection.

I flew YH-21 about 900 hours in RVN, and Rex Riley was an absolute superb HAC and stick guy.  I flew numerous missions and maintenance test flights with Capt.  Riley; he was as good as they come.  He ensured the crew knew what our mission was, what he expected from us, and how essential we all were.

Lt. Cary Smith - I had flown with him a few times, but I can best recall his personal friendliness and sincerity towards everyone in the HMM-463.

I crewed another bird a few days later to Khe Sanh, but due to incoming we never got on the ground.  I got a few photos from about 1500 AGL, but didn't get chance to get my camera out which was stored in the cockpit center pedestal.

In either March or April of 1968, I ran into Larry Gaffney at Marble Mountain Air Facility.  Larry and I went partially through ATC Memphis, where I went Helos - Larry was sent into ATC at Glynco.  Larry had been the Khe Sanh TAC controller when YH-21 was hit.  Larry indicated they had just picked up to a low hover when the rocket hit the pylon near the hinge point.  From Murgallis's description - Sully was standing near the open ramp, which was typical for the crew/chief's position.

Thoughts that Sully took my place on a day in history that many will not forget are etched indelibly in my memory.

  Submitted by Robert "Bob" L. Miller, former HMH-463 crew/chief

Remembrance: I am Patrick Murgallis 1st Mech of YH-21 Nov.1967to 1968. The only living suvivor of the crash of YH-21 at KheSanh on Feb.22,1968.

I was searching on line the other day and came across this article on YH-21's fateful flight into KheSanh on 2-22-68. Over the years I've kept in contact with Mike McConaugney, who lives outside Houston,we were good friends in and out of VIET NAM our wives worked together in Santa Ana and I even named my first son after him. A few years ago he put me in contact with LT. Cary Smiths nephew from Florida. He wanted some information on his uncle as he lost both uncles in VIET NAM. Mike called me one day and said there was a picture of YH-21 in the book VIETNAM by WILL FOWLER on pages 94 and 95. I've found some pictures in NEWSWEEK of March 18,1968 and my wife was watching a history channel program years ago and there was a segment on KHE SANH with footage of the crash, me in a fox hole and then running to Charlie Med bunker. The program was called Gallant Breed.

When I got to VN I was assigned to Bob Miller as his 1st mech. I was very impressed with Bob he knew his job, was always thorough in pre-flights and I learned a lot from him. I always tried to be as thorough as he was when flying as a crew chief, thanks Bob! We flew into Khe Sanh a lot. At first, in the early months of November and December of 67 it was a cake run. We even took in french Nuns who were loaded with fresh french bread for the village of Khe Sanh. But with the new year things changed, the Tet. Offensive.

In mid January we did a typical re-supply, cork screw, into the base left off cargo and picked up about 8 or 10 marines and flew straight down the valley. I remember the pilot was Capt Scott and he had a rookie LT and I heard him say " this is usually a hot area I'll just sit back in the seat ( which were armored plated for protection). I was on my M60 pointing it down when we started taking heavy fire from all over the valley. My gun was pointed directly at one of NVA positions I emptied the 1st can of ammo and Bob Miller was there loading the second can on my gun.

As I looked around every Marine on board was firing there M16s out every opening we had. The NVA must have thought we were some kind of gun ship, little did they know these guys were on there way home and weren't planning on staying. We took a number of hits and some went through the blades, so we made it to Dong Ha and left the bird there until the next day when we flew back with new blades, I say new they were probably cannilblized from some other bird.

The last flight of YH-21. We were flying in a group of three birds that day on one of the other 53s was my friend Mike McConaugney and they got word it was to hot at Khe Sanh to fly in but we were carrying full bladders under our bird and the Marines were in desperate need of fuel.

The other two 53s landed at Dong Ha or Camp Carroll and continued on with other runs. We flew into Khe Sanh. Sgt Sullivan was standing in for Bob Miller that day. Sully was a real pleasant guy and very sharp in avionics.

He was laying down looking out the hell hole to dump the cargo and it was too cumbersome to wear the heavy flack jackets that flight crews were issued.

So he removed it for easier movement. After we dropped our load, which only took seconds due to the heavy incoming, we lifted off and circled. Khe Sanh control radioed saying they had Med-Evacs to get out.

So instead of leaving we kept circling trying to set down. Every time we got close to setting down the NVA gunners zeroed in on us and we lifted off. This happened about 6 or 7 times. All during this time Sully was in the back of the helicopter and had not put his bullet bouncer back on, it would be a difficult task at the time. Sully was standing in the back with the ramp half way down to expedite the loading of the Med-Evacs and I was at the front door at my gun.

THE CRASH...

With Sully standing in the back, ramp part way down I'm looking at him eager to get the hell out of here, all I can see is incoming all around us, then a big flash and explosion at the back of the plane. Sully falls to the floor the hydraulic lines are raining red fluid down like a monsoon storm and thing seems like slow motion at this point.

Capt. Riley wants to know what happened. I tell him we took a hit in the tail, hydraulics are raining down, Sully has been hit we need to set it down right now. I start to the back to help Sully and either Capt. Riley did not hear me or felt there was some other alternative but we are up in the air 50 feet or so off the deck going with our starboard side almost facing the ground and I can see Marines looking and waving frantically at us as we were very close to there bunkers. The last thing I remembered was making my way back to Sully.

The next thing that went through my mind was " now I'm dead laying inside this Helicopter", I really thought I was dead. From the back of the plane to being smashed against the front bulkhead in less then a second.

Then Sully grabs my arm and says " let's get out before this blows up".

We get to the door, which has greatly decreased in size due to the crash, and Sully collapses. I carry him a few feet to a fox hole for protection as the NVA has yet to cease firing. I call for a corpsman and some Marines come to our aid, I told them there was one more guy inside ( I can not remember who he was since he just came to our squadron and was new to us) The corpsman took Sully away on a stretcher and put a flack jacket on me.

Sometime between the crash and getting out my flack jacket came off. I looked back at the helicopter and saw the pilots with most of their heads crushed or cut off, I'm sure I was in shock by then. A couple of Marines grabbed me and we went running to Charlie Med, my wounds were limited to some shrapnel in the head and leg, Sully took the brunt of the shrapnel in the stomach. The other door gunner took a piece in the leg. I was in Charlie Med for a few hours and watched as they worked on LT Smith to no avail, he was in real bad shape. I never saw Sully again until some time later in the States. I remember making back to the squadron late that night and Mike McConaugney heard we were all killed, he thought he saw a ghost when I came walking in.

Recently my brother gave me a book called "WEST DICKENS AVENUE..A MARINE AT KHE SANH' On page 141 it describes YH-21 being shot down and crashing in detail apparently we got hit twice according to this account.

Also he mentions finding another CH-53 a couple miles out side the base intact. It appeared to have made some kind of emergency landing as the wheels were down. Vines were already growing on and around it but no evidence of crew or passengers. He mentions this when the Marines were leaving the base after the siege of Khe Sanh was over. As I recall we were missing two Helicopters that were never found.

I've been to the wall and taken pictures of both Capt Riley and LT Smith , also my good friend Gary Gordon, a quiet guy, who was killed in a 53 over DaNang. I am going to look into getting William Sullivan's name on the wall since he eventually died due to his wounds and qualifies to be among those remembered there on the WALL.

  Submitted by Patrick Murgallis, Fmr. Sgt. USMC, HMH-463 Murgallis@hotmail.com

The Prelude...

A few days before his death Rex [Riley] and I were sitting in the sun after a very thorough preflight of the 53. Rex was an Assistant Maintenance Officer, very smart with extreme knowledge of the aircraft. He was just sitting there staring at the bird, waiting for the crew chief to finish his endless tasks. He broke the silence with words to this effect. "You know someday a round's going to take out one of the blades, the whole rotorhead's going out of balance, and the blades are going to slice through the cockpit." He had predicted exactly how he was to meet his terrible fate only a couple of days later.

Additionally, about 8 years ago my son called me from his high school and asked me to come down to the library, he had a photo to show. I, of course, could not tell whether it was Rex, or his co-pilot, the inimitably wonderful Cary Smith, who was being pulled from the wreckage. Of course it stunned me, having no idea such a photo would or could be published, but it is to this day the most dramatic and chilling depiction of modern war so drastically changed by the helicopter.

  Submitted by Paul Ellis, squadron mate to Capt. Riley.

SILVER STAR CITATION *RILEY, JAMES T. (KIA) Citation: The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) to James T. Riley (0-95179), Captain, U.S. Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a Pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron FOUR HUNDRED SIXTY-THREE (HMH-463), in the Republic of Vietnam on 22 February 1968. Captain Riley was assigned the mission of resupplying the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Despite intense enemy fire, he maneuvered in and out of the landing zone delivering vitally needed cargo, about 8,000 pounds on each sortie. Informed of several seriously wounded casualties on the ground, Captain Riley, disregarding his own safety and the devastating mortar and artillery bombardment, volunteered to attempt the medical evacuation. Realizing that the casualties would have to be embarked at the air freight ramp, a target known to be registered by enemy artillery, he immediately directed ground personnel to prepare the injured Marines near the ramp and make all necessary preparation for their expeditious embarkation. When enemy fire subsided, he began maneuvering his aircraft into the hazardous area. Shortly after the helicopter landed and before the wounded could be placed aboard, it was taken under intense enemy mortar and rocket attack. Disregarding his own safety, he held his aircraft on the ground in a valiant effort to embark the casualties, until an enemy round damaged the aircraft. Quickly assessing the situation, he ordered the evacuation effort to discontinue and attempted to save his aircraft and crew. As he maneuvered to lift out of the landing zone, severe vibrations developed, forcing him to land. As the aircraft settled to the ground, the vibrations of the helicopter increased causing the main rotor blade to sever the cockpit from the fuselage and he was mortally injured. By his bold initiative, gallant fighting spirit and loyal devotion to duty, Captain Riley was an inspiration to all who observed him and his actions reflected great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Thanks to Paula Gibson for for finding this Silver Star Citation for Captain Riley. Now to find the DFC Citation he so rightly deserved for the An Hoa mission.

Born: June 23, 1935 at Zeigler, Illinois

Home Town: Zeigler, Illinois

 

 
We welcome relevant remarks and/or photos of our squadron-mates who were killed in the above action.   We also welcome your comments on the above incident.  Please contact HMH-463's web developer  with your name; relationship to our squadron-mate(s) or the action above; and your contact information.
 
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