Michael's Dispatches

White Birds in a Red War


25 February 2012

An Army Dustoff pilot studying his art ran across some interesting passages.  The book DUST OFF: ARMY AEROMEDICAL EVACUATION IN VIETNAM mentions machine guns, missiles, Geneva Conventions, and painting MEDEVAC helicopters white so that the enemy could identify them.

Excerpts begin from page 85 (highlights are mine):

The return to single-ship missions demanded a few unorthodox procedures. International custom and the Geneva Conventions, which the United States considered itself bound to observe, dictated that an ambulance not carry arms or ammunition and not engage in combat. But in Vietnam the frequent enemy fire at air ambulances marked with red crosses made this policy unrealistic. Early in the war the crews started taking along .45-caliber pistols, M14 rifles, and sometimes M79 grenade launchers. The ground crews installed extra armor plating on the backs and sides of the pilots' seats.

…only the Air Ambulance Platoon of the 1st Cavalry responded to the new danger by putting machine guns on their aircraft. At first the unit simply suspended two M60's on straps from the roof over the cargo doors. Later they installed fixed mechanical mountings for the guns. A platoon aircraft also usually carried a gunner as a fifth crewmember to handle one of the M60's….

Most of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers clearly considered the air ambulances just another target. A Viet Cong document captured in early 1964 describing U.S. helicopters read: "The type used to transport commanders or casualties looks like a ladle. Lead this type aircraft I times its length when in flight. It is good to fire at the engine section when it is hovering or landing."

Fortunately Viet Cong weapons early in the war made a helicopter kill virtually impossible. Late in 1964, however, the North Vietnamese began to supply the Viet Cong with large amounts of sophisticated firearms: Chinese Communist copies of the Soviet AK47 assault rifle, the SKS semiautomatic carbine, and the RPD light machine gun. The introduction of these new enemy weapons in 1965-66 and of the hoist missions in late 1966 caused a dramatic increase in 1967 in the rate of enemy hits on air ambulances.

Only in April 1972, however, when the United States was well along in turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, did the air ambulance have to contend with the Soviet SA-7 heat-seeking missile. This antiaircraft device was about five feet long, weighed thirty-three pounds, and had a range of almost six miles. A pilot had little warning of the missile's approach other than a quick glimpse of its white vapor trail just before it separated the tail boom from his aircraft. This weapon downed several air ambulances in the last year of U.S. participation in the war.

The missile also disrupted the most elaborate effort the Army made during the war to reduce the losses of air ambulances: a change of their color. The 1949 Geneva Conventions did not require that air ambulances be painted white, and for their first nine years in Vietnam the Army's air ambulances were the standard olive drab, medically marked only by red crosses on small white background squares. Early in the war many of the pilots thought that the crosses improved the enemy's aim at their ships, and the unit commanders had to resist pressure to remove the markings. Arguing that they would be unable to keep aircraft that looked like transports dedicated to a medical mission, the commanders prevailed, and the red crosses remained for the rest of the war.

By mid-1971, however, the high loss rate for air ambulances over the last six years produced much doubt about the olive drab color scheme. Believing that making the aircraft more distinctive might be the answer, the Army Medical Command in Vietnam secured approval in August to paint some of its aircraft white. The Command also was allowed to try to persuade the enemy that the white helicopters were for medical use only and should not be fired on. Thousands of posters were to be distributed and millions of leaflets dropped over enemy-held territory. The most elaborate leaflet read:

Some new medical helicopters not only have Red Cross markings on all sides but they also are painted white instead of green. This is to help you recognize them better than before in order to give the wounded a better chance to get fast medical help. Like all other medical helicopters, these new white helicopters are not armed, do not carry ammunition, and their only mission is to save endangered lives without distinction as to civilians or soldiers, friend or foe.



An enemy soldier still intent on bringing down any U.S. helicopter would now find the white helicopters excellent targets against a background of forests, hills, or mountains. All armaments now had to be removed from the ambulances, and gunship escorts could no longer furnish close support. Unless the information campaign were successful, the air ambulances would encounter more rather than less resistance. But the risk, while undeniable, seemed justifiable in view of combat loss statistics: from January 1970 through April 1971 the air ambulance combat loss rate was about 2.5 times as great as that for all Army helicopters. Something had to be done.

[Results of white helicopters were reported as inconclusive.]

…the enemy's introduction of the heat-seeking SA7 missile to South Vietnam put Army medical planners in a new quandary. To navigate properly, most air ambulance pilots could not fly to and from a pickup zone at altitudes low enough to enable the enemy on the ground to discern the white color and the red crosses. Except at the pickup zone, the white ambulances were as vulnerable as any other Army olive drab aircraft. Between 1 July 1972 and 8 January 1973 the enemy fired eight heat-seeking missiles at white air ambulances. The only protection against the SA7 was a new paint that reflected little of the engine's infrared radiation but dried to a dull charcoal green. In January 1973 USARV/MACV Support Command directed that all U.S. Army air ambulances in Vietnam be painted with the new protective paint. Research began on a white protective paint, but before any significant progress could be made the war ended.

Main link to:


Direct link to the quoted passages above, Chapter 4 beginning page 85.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 9 years ago
    Michael, this is a little off topic, but we are just getting the news about the Army officers killed in the Interior Ministry. How are the troops doing morale wise with the recent backlash against the Koran burning? What are your thoughts?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Barnett · 9 years ago
    I clicked on to the link and started reading the report in total, and before I gopt through the first paragraph, my overly caffeinated mental alarm started screaming "They're gonna disappear this page!!!". I hope I'm wrong, but the position of the Army has become both so entrenched and untenable that I can see something that egregiously illogical actually happening. Time to archive the page just in case... imagine how getting rid of this sort of documentation would go over if and when this reaches the congressional hearing stages.

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