Friday, September 5, 2008

Mid-air Collision

Posted for J. M.

One of my most vivid memories of my tour in Vietnam was a mid-air collision between two helicopters – an American Cobra gunship and a Vietnamese UH-1H on May 2, 1970. As an advisor to the Vietnamese, I had been spared the pain of seeing Americans die, and for all these years later, I often thought of the two men on that Cobra. As I got ready to visit the Moving Wall in Lenexa, I realized that I did not know the names of the men.

After a search of the web, I discovered the names of the two crewmembers. They were WO Donald Parker and 1st Lt. Frank Rice. I looked them up on the Virtual Wall website and posted the following on each man’s page:

Jim M
Witness to the midair collision.

We saw it happen
On 1 May 1970, I was an Army Major serving as senior advisor to a Vietnamese armored cavalry squadron, and our incursion into Cambodia began. On that day, my senior NCO advisor looked at everything that was flying and said "Somebody had better get a handle on all this stuff, or we are going to have a midair." The next day it happened - a Cobra clipped the tail boom of a Huey right in our area. The Cobra crew never had a chance. Tonight for the first time I discovered who the crew members were - 1st Lt Frank Rice and WO Donald Parker. This week the Moving Wall comes here, and I will pay my respects to them. May you rest in peace, Heroes.
Sep 10, 2007

On September 14, I received this email:

Mr Mathison --

This evening, i came across your message Frank Rice was my husband.

Would you please tell me exactly, honestly, what happened on 2 may I am presuming that since you have posted this message with your address, that you will not mind my inquiring.

I trust so

Some twenty-five years ago or so, a dear friend, tom griffin, (now retired as ltg) did some investigating for me in doing that, he talked with Col Ted Mathison, who was flying with the team that day. Col Mathison, graciously and generously, asked if he could meet me.

So Tom arranged that in his office.

Apparently the south vietnamese general's helicopter flew into the path of the cobras.

I have read one incident report.

Your view was from the ground up, what did you see?

I seldom look at these sites -- for several reasons. The only one i always see is the one posted by our daughter on -- it is my home page
but tonight, I was looking for information on the reading of names in November -- she and my grandchildren are reading his name and while doing this, I looked at the different sites.

I was stunned when I saw your entry.

C M Rice

By coincidence, one of the men who was with me on the ground also lives in Leavenworth and I called him to confirm some details. After that conversation, I composed the following response to Mrs. Rice:

Dear Mrs. Rice,

I know that my message on the website has reopened your wounds, and for that I am sincerely sorry. I am sure that Frank can never be very far from your thoughts, but you did not need any reminders of that tragic day.

First, let me say that my first view of the accident was a second or so after the impact between the two aircraft. Two people who worked for me did, however, see the whole thing, and they related what happened to me. I have just called one of the two men who were with the unit that was being supported, and he reminded me of a few details that I had not remembered.

This was our second day into a place called “the Parrot’s Beak”, on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The area that we were attacking was a heavily fortified logistics complex, and we were using every asset that we had available to dislodge the VC who were defending it. Because it was such a critical fight, the Vietnamese IV Corps Commander was on the scene in his helicopter, a UH-1H “Huey”, flown by a Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) crew. We were notified that a flight of 4 Cobras was in the area and available to attack the bunker complex where the heaviest fighting was.

Our troops marked the location of the enemy, and the Cobras started their attack runs. One or more of the ships completed their attacks without incident, and it came the turn of Frank and Mr. Parker to attack. They completed their run and, as they were pulling up, their main rotor hit the tail boom of the VNAF ship. Frank’s Cobra lost its main rotor, and they had no chance to survive. The VNAF ship came down spinning, but under reasonable control until moments before it impacted with the ground. Witnesses agreed that the pilot lost it at the last moment, and the helicopter plummeted to the ground, killing all aboard except for the crew chief.

Our 2-2 Troop dispatched a platoon of 3 armored personnel carriers, including one of my advisory team members, to render any aid possible and secure the site. It was this group that recovered the crew chief and reported that there were no more survivors.

It was apparent even to us non-rated soldiers that Frank and Mr. Parker were in the right, and that the IV Corps Commander’s Huey was down at a level where it did not belong. My first assignment in Vietnam was seven months with a Vietnamese infantry unit, and I flew on combat missions almost daily. I came to understand that there were rules and conventions within the aviation community regarding which levels aircraft should fly. The gun ships had to be allotted enough space to do their jobs, and the command and control ships were to stay out of their space.

Now, may I tell you how this all started, and how I came to post my message on the Virtual Wall website? My older son lives in the Kansas City area, and called to invite me to go with him to visit the Moving Wall this weekend. Although I have been to the Wall in Washington, I have never visited the Moving Wall. It seemed to be important to my son that we go, so I agreed to do so. I began to take stock of who, in particular, I wanted to pay my respects to. I graduated from West Point in 1961, and my first thoughts were of my 12 classmates who died in the war. Some of them were good friends and all were young. I remembered a fellow advisor, a captain who was killed on May 3, and I found his full name and his location on the Wall. Then I recalled that horrible moment of May 2, and realized that I did not know the names of the crew of the American helicopter.

After a lot of research, I found the names – Frank and Mr. Parker – and the accident report. In the course of reading the report, I learned that a Lieutenant Colonel Mathison was in the air over our area. That the only two field grade officers on the scene, this LTC and myself, shared a fairly uncommon last name was a remarkable coincidence. I located the other Mathison in Maryland, and I called him. He remembers that day like it was yesterday, and told me of meeting you when he was stationed in the Pentagon.

So, there you have it. I don’t believe that I have left anything out. I may have said more than you wanted, but I leave that to you to decide. When I go to the Moving Wall tomorrow, I will visit Frank and the others, and remember you and your daughter.

God Bless You,

Jim Mathison

Today, I received this response from her:

Thank you, Col Mathison.
Thank you

Most sincerely,
C M Rice

I received an envelope from Mrs. Rice, containing pictures, newspaper articles, and a letter. In the letter, she apologized for bothering me. I answered with the following email:

Dear Mrs. Rice,

On the contrary, I did not have the thoughts that you supposed. I very much enjoyed looking at the pictures, and reading the articles. You do have a handsome family.

Perhaps you would be interested in knowing a little more of what was behind my posting what I did on the Virtual Wall. I was influenced by the work of a young lady named Tracy Tragos, who is about the age of your daughter, and who also lost her father in Vietnam. Tracy's mother had never been very forthcoming about her dad, so she set out to learn about him. She told the story in the PBS show "Be Good, Smile Pretty." Perhaps you saw it. If not, I recommend it, although it is not easy to watch. The show was first telecast in 2003, but there are still articles and links at

I resolved to try to share anything that I knew if the opportunity ever presented itself. Once again, I hope that, in some small way, our correspondence has helped.

Jim Mathison