Squadron Flag courtesy of Bill Nevius, Delta Troop
The transcript and picture below is from the 1st Aviation Brigade's Hawk magazine. Ed Conger has sent me a hard copy of the publication for our records.
Fellow 3/17th Squadron sites are allowed to link to this page without permission.
3/17 Air Cav Rescues
Soldier Held for Year
From 1st Aviation Brigade Hawk magazine, 1969
[Courtesy of Silver Spur, Ed Conger]
Three men from C Troop, 3d Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry recently rescued a trooper from the 79th Engineer Group who had been captured and held by the Viet Cong for more than a year.
Specialist Five Thomas H. Van Putten, who was captured while working on a road in February 1968, started signaling an OH-6A Light Observation Helicopter flying a visual reconnaissance mission in Tay Ninh Province.
According to WO1 Gary D. Gray, Ketchum, Oklahoma, pilot of the helicopter, "We weren't sure this wasn't a VC trick, so we took our time looking the man over before we went in for him." As soon as they were sure the man on the ground was an American the Air Cav Pilots set the LOH down and picked up the wandering soldier. Van Putten had escaped from the VC early in April and had been roaming the jungle for nearly three weeks looking for friendly forces.
The rescuers, WO1 Gray, 1LT Claude M. Nix, Dalton, Georgia, and SP4 Dale E. Wampler, Lake Stevens, Washington, were flying their mission in support of the 25th Infantry Division when SP4 Wampler spotted Van Putten wandering aimlessly in the jungle below.
Crew chief Wampler said, "When we sat down to pick him up, boy he was really in rough looking. He jumped inside, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, 'I love you' ." The next thing Van Putten said was that he was hungry. After a quick snack of canned fruit he told the crew his story.
"Boy that guy sure was happy to be back," reported the sharp eyed crew chief, after the Air Cav team had turned Van Putten in to the 45th Surgical Hospital in Tay Ninh. [End of transcript]
POW bio of Van Putten
[Courtesy of Homecoming II Project]
VAN PUTTEN, THOMAS HARRY
Name: Thomas Harry Van Putten Rank/Branch: E4/US Army Unit:
Date of Birth:
Home City of Record: Grand Rapids MI
Date of Loss: 11 February 1968
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 112120N 1060100E (XT100750)
Status (in 1973): Escaped POW Category:
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: Road grader
Other Personnel in Incident: held with: James U. Rollins; Charles K, Hyland; Norman J. Brookens; (all released POWs)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, published sources including "Civilian POW: Terror and Torture in South Vietnam" by Norman J. Brookens.
REMARKS: 690417 ESCAPED
SYNOPSIS: In the early morning of January 31, 1968, a 15-man Viet Gong suicide squad blew a hole in the tall masonry wall surrounding the U.S. embassy compound. Within seconds, the VC were inside the walls. After hours of fighting, five Americans, five South Vietnamese, and 15 Viet Gong were dead.
Saigon was not the only city struck by the Viet Gong. The communists had launched the Tet Offensive. The Viet Gong penetrated 13 cities including Saigon, Da Nang and Hue; the latter being the longest and bloodiest of the battles.
Five days after the attack on Saigon -- on February 4 -- Richard Utecht, a maintenance officer for General Service, USAID, left to pick up a tire from a nearby U.S. Army compound to deliver to one an AID bus that had gone out of service. It was 11:30 on a bright Sunday morning, and a maintenance employee, Norman J. Brookens accompanied him.
Brookens and Utecht left the apartment and took a side street to the compound. They stopped when their way was blocked by a cycle (a small motorcycle with a seat mounted on the front for passengers). Within seconds, three Viet Gong armed with U.S. carbines moved in on Utecht's Jeep.
Assuming that their vehicle was being confiscated, Utecht followed VC orders directing them out of the city limits to a small village. It was here that the two men were bound with dynamite wire and they knew they were in trouble.
Brookens and Utecht were marched to Cambodia, a 50-mile trip. The Americans endured taunts from villagers and were hidden from U.S. military. They were bound so tightly that their arms swelled twice their normal size.
Two days after Brookens and Utecht were captured, an Australian businessman named Keith Hyland was also captured very near the village where the two USAID employees were captured. He also was marched northwest, and shortly joined with an American civilian, James U. Rollins, who had been captured on February 4 at Cholon near Saigon.
Around mid-March, they arrived at a camp with a group of grass huts in the middle of a field. Outside the huts, 14 VC guards were watching over 10 captured ARVN soldiers. They were allowed to wash in a shallow, dirty water hole, and given plain rice to cook. After several days at this camp, two more civilian prisoners were brought to their hut -- Rollins and Hyland, who had been captured the month before.
The punishment for speaking to one another was buffalo iron shackles and starvation. The men began to lose weight fast. They dreamed of food and escape, but with shackles on their ankles 24 hours a day, it seemed impossible.
Before long, the prisoners were moved again. It was a mental challenge to try to keep track of their location, and at this time, they believed they were in Cambodia. They later they walked to a trail which they believed to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the journey they were held in cages or in deep holes.
On April 22, the four POWs dared an escape. They had secretly learned to remove their chains, and on this rainy night they made their break. Within seconds of their freedom, they were soaked. It was impossible to walk in the thick jungle, so they crawled on hands and knees. They immediately became separated, and had had barely reached the camp border when they were surrounded and recaptured.
For the next ten days, they were given only several spoons of rice and a pinch of salt. They were chained and bound with ropes so tight their arms and legs went completely numb. The ropes were removed after a month, but the chains remained. The four were rotated between a cage and a pit. Brookens remained in the pit for several months, lying in his own body waste.
In mid-July, the prisoners were moved to another camp, but Keith Hyland was left behind. Hyland was released on November 26, 1968. For the first time, State Department learned that Brookens and Utecht had definitely been captured.
For the next three years, the Americans were moved frequently as U.S. air and artillery strikes came closer. The journeys were pure torture, and the POWs were often chained to trees while cages were were built for them. They were sometimes held in swampy areas teeming with snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Some of the marches occurred during monsoon season, and the prisoners, still wearing leg chains, walked in neck-deep water. During the frequent U.S. strikes, some of them thundering B52 and artillery strikes, the men hid in bunkers. During one such raid, a camp was completely destroyed. (1)
The POWs' health began to reach its limits. Brookens was suffering from dysentery and beriberi from which he never completely recovered. In April, they moved again, living in the jungle until a new camp was built in Cambodia.
In early April 1969, an American prisoner escaped. Army Cpl. Thomas H. Van Putten had been captured near Tay Ninh as he operated a road grader on February 11, 1968. After making his way to friendly forces, Van Putten tentatively identified Brookens as one of the POWs held by the Viet Gong in his camp.
In July 1969, a POW committed a minor offense for which the entire camp was severely punished for 30 days. The prisoner who caused the commotion was later taken from the camp. Some POWs reported that they last saw the man, who was only 21 years old, laying on the ground near his cage covered by a piece of plastic. They believed he was dead. The other prisoners said that the man had died of torture, starvation and lack of medicine for his ailments. [NOTE: Brookens does not give the name of this POW who apparently died in July 1969.]
On April 29, four new prisoners [unnamed in Brookens' account] joined the group. They eventually reached a nearly-completed camp with above-ground cages, which they believed was northwest of Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border. Brookens and Utecht were put in the same cage, and it was the first time Brookens had had a chance to talk to an American since the aborted escape attempt two years before.
By June, encroaching artillery forced the POWs westward into Cambodia, but on July 14, they returned to the border camp where they remained until December 1970. At this time, they were moved deep into Cambodia. Again they were chained while cages were built. The POWs remained here until April 1972, when they were moved to a new, and final camp.
The POWs were in terrible condition -- painfully thin, with all manner of skin ailments, dysentery, and malaria. Brookens was so physically depleted that he could barely walk without the aid of walking sticks. Then on the morning of February 12, 1973, the men were told they were going home. There were 27 in all, five of them civilians. The group was taken to a small airport outside Loc Ninh, and after 11 hours of waiting, finally started for home,
Norm Brookens had lost 55 pounds since his capture, and was treated for a ruptured colon, a heart condition, jungle rot, malaria and beriberi.
Thomas H. Van Putten resides in Michigan and had a leg amputated in september 1990 as a result of complications stemming from injuries during his captivity. [End of bio]