The Story of Lam Son 719

A monument standing at one of TS Banking Group’s locations in Council Bluffs, Iowa serves as a reminder of Operation Lam Son 719. Operation Lam Son 719, was the last major military operation in the Vietnam War. During this two month invasion into Laos there was a more concentrated loss of aircraft crews in the sixty day window of Lam Son 719, then at any other time in the war. Ten percent of all the helicopter crew losses over the 15 year war occurred in this two month operation alone

The Vietnam War and Lam Son 719, through TS Banking Group Chairman, Michael “Mick” Guttau’s service in this military operation, had a profound impact on who TS Banking Group is today and how we strive to lead. Certain quotes from these military experiences echo in our company, for example: “The troops come first” and ”Turn into the fire.”

Lam Son 719 Dedication Ceremony

"Today and for generations to come, this monument will stand in honor of those who served, and those who gave their life, during Operation Lam Son 719, in an effort for us to stand here and experience unparalleled FREEDOM today. I also hope this monument will somehow be used to make known the stories of Operation Lam Son 719, and will help to fill in the gap that our government has created in our country’s history books, in which there is little to no acknowledgement of what is now known as the largest US Military operation to have occurred since the infamous D-Day of WWII." - Josh Guttau, CEO, TS Banking Group.

Lam Son 719 Monument

Duane Weirich, Lewis IA is the creator of this magnificent display located at TS Bank, 43 Scott Street, Council Bluffs, IA 51503. Much, if not all, of the material is recycled parts and material from various agriculture equipment. The statue contains numerous symbols depicting many aspects of Mick & Judy Guttau's lives, the couple who served as the inspiration for this monument. “As you stand before this majestic eagle, remember you live in a country where numerous BRAVE Americans fought for, and some gave all, for you to experience unparalleled FREEDOM today.”

If you would like to submit a story about Lam Son 719 and how it impacted your family, please email marketing@tsbg.com. We will feature a collection of stories here on this web page.

The Return to Laos – Josh Guttau

A Soldier’s Return to Laos (Operation Lam Son 719)

With his family to see where their family history should have ended, before it even started.

In July 2013, The Guttau family had the honor to follow Captain Michael “Mick” K. Guttau back to Vietnam for the first time in 42 years. He returned home in the summer of 1971 from his one-year tour as a Cobra Attack Helicopter pilot.  This return trip included his roommate from the war, his wife, two adult children and their spouses, seven grandchildren, and a veteran’s spouse who came along as a “nanny”.  The group was guided by two Vietnam veterans who have put tours together to take veterans back over a combined 50 times.  (Bill – 39, Dave – 15)

What has been written here, is captured from first-hand stories of the veterans that were with us, a book written about Lam Son 719, the letters sent each day back home to Mick’s wife and parents, and newspaper clippings collected by Mick’s Mom and wife at the request of Mick at the time, as he anticipated something big was about to happen. The letters and newspaper clippings had not been looked at once in the last 42 years. The letters show a personal and factual, though sometimes emotional and passionate view, of the invasion mixed in with feelings for those back home, fellow warriors, and those lost in battle.  Mick had told Judy he would tell her everything in the letters, this was their agreement! Technically he did, but in actuality he admits he did not provide much ‘color commentary’.  He says he does not know why this occurred. (Could it be because no one wants to write about hell at the end of a day of living through it!) 

In reading through the information while in route to Vietnam, it was quickly discovered the family had mislabeled this trip as our Trip to Vietnam, as instead it was a two- week trip geared around getting Mick, this time with his family, to the exact spot on his tactical map coordinates in the country of Laos, where his life should have ended, but for the grace of God.

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It was March 2, 1971 and 24-year old Captain Guttau found himself in the fight of his life on a day that would go down as the most intense day of his one-year tour in the Vietnam War.  As Air Mission Commander he was piloting the lead bird, a Cobra Attack Helicopter, one of the fiercest aircraft in the history of air combat.  He and his wingman were in search of the final LZ (Landing Zone) to help position the ground troops for neutralizing a huge weapons and ammunition cache near the village of Tchepone, and to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The trail was a series of paths, roads, petroleum lines, and waterways that intermingled across a 30 mile wide area from Tchepone (Pronounced Shapone), Laos down into Cambodia and what was then South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were using this route to transport goods and troops down into South Vietnam under triple canopy jungle making it very difficult to detect the trail route from the air, as the jungle was so thick one could not see down through.

This trail assisted the NVA to bypass much of the US Military ground troops, who were not allowed by Congressional law to go into Laos. The law, known as “The Cooper-Church Amendment”, passed as the politicians and protestors tucked safely back on American soil were screaming for the US military to not expand the war out of Vietnam.  What they could not see, or chose not to see from across the Ocean were their actions and political decisions were costing thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese lives, as the soldiers were politically-handicapped in their efforts to push back the communist military forces, although the U.S. and South Vietnamese  were militarily much stronger than.

In early February 1971, the US and South Vietnamese launched a joint military operation on the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), inside the Laotian border.  A top secret mission, known later as Operation Lam Son 719, so secret that even Captain Guttau, who would become the lead helicopter over the objective of Tchepone, was not told where he would be returning to when he came back from R&R.  In late January, Captain Guttau was leaving for a five-day R&R (Rest & Recuperation) with his wife, Judy, the girl who after 45 years of marriage is one of the very few Vietnam wives who still defines the true meaning of her wedding V.O.W. (Vows): Vietnam Original Wife!

As Captain Guttau left his unit, he was handed a slip of paper with a phone number on it. His unit was moving out to relocate near the DMZ (North Vietnamese Border), and when he returned from R&R, he was to call the number and he would then be escorted back to where the unit was being relocated to, and his chopper would be waiting for him.

Knowing something big was in the works, maybe they were getting ready to invade the North, and with the thoughts running through his mind of “This is going to be a governmental three ring circus trying to get back to my unit”, he departed to Hawaii, for what should have been the last moments he would ever spend with his wife of less than three years. Unknown to anyone, but God, it was His perfectly orchestrated timing of ‘renewing this young soldier’s passion’ for living and to help maintain his focus just days before the “battle of and for” his life would occur. Although his wife was requesting for them to conceive a baby, so if he did not make it out alive, she would have a lasting part of him; he would not agree because he felt she would have a better chance of finding a second husband if she was childless.

With the war dragging on, the troops sensing the lack of support from Washington, D.C. and their own countrymen back home, with military units away from the front lines being swallowed by drug abuse (50-55% shot heroin or smoked marijuana),  and with the occurrences of “Fragging” at an all-time high (refers to the act of murdering another member of the military, often a commanding officer who is viewed by the troops as one who is putting their troops too much in harm’s way), the young commander needed every last reminder that there was a reason to still live in the Hell he was living through, and why he had to maintain his focus while in combat, and his beautiful wife was just that reason he needed!

 As he parted ways with his wife five days later, for what very likely could be the last time, but with the mental hope hanging onto the plans of their second R&R in Hong Kong just three months later, Captain Guttau arrived back in Vietnam to find that his secret phone call was not the three ring circus he had imagined...”Yes, Captain Guttau, we have been waiting for your call. We have a flight for you tomorrow morning at 10 AM.”  “Where am I going?”  He asked. “We cannot tell you that!”

 The next day he was reunited with ‘the guys’ in his unit, those special men that had only known each other for weeks or months, but had a bond that would not allow any of them to ever leave each other behind.  He soon learned he was being given the assignment of being the lead helicopter, out of over 600 helicopters used in the operation.  His helicopter would be the first to go out over enemy territory to identify the four LZs that would allow the other helicopters and ground troops to leapfrog themselves to Tchepone in less than 45 days, and take out the objective.

This mission was NOT just another battle in Vietnam, it was ‘THE battle of and for’ the Vietnam War, and Captain Guttau’s unit was selected to lead the air attack, because of their past demonstration of success.  Some called them the most fearless air unit in Vietnam as they were the B Troop, 7th Squadron, 1st Air Calvary.  As one of our Tour Guides, an Army 101st Airborne Ranger, and I were walking back from a site visit to our bus, he commented to me in private “The missions your father flew as a Cobra pilot were absolutely crazy, those guys were our heroes, they kept us alive!”

Lam Son 719 was the last major military operation in the Vietnam War, and during the two month invasion into Laos, on a color plot map it is shown that there was a more concentrated loss of aircraft crews killed in this 60 day window as compared to the rest of the entire Vietnam War (15 years).  Of all the helicopter crew losses over the 15 year war, 10% of those occurred in Lam Son 719.  The color plot map appropriately shows each incident as a red spot over the map of Vietnam, as the color and density of dots appears as blood on the page, appropriately reflecting the meat grinder that Lam Son 719 would become, while becoming the largest US Military operation since D-Day of WWII. 

Any American who has sat through history class knows “of D-Day WWII”, but “no one”, not even the flesh and blood of one of its heroes knew the significance of Operation Lam Son 719. My sister and I grew up hearing the “short story” on the invasion into Laos, but until we returned to Laos with my father Captain Guttau, and three other veterans, to the hallowed grounds of where our family history should have ended, did we truly know the magnitude of what had occurred. 

What I believe the reason to be for Americans not ever learning about this operation was because for many in the states, the political message was the Vietnam war was winding down; and just 60 days before the top secret invasion was to occur, US Congress passed a law that prohibited any US Military ground forces from setting foot onto Laotian or Cambodian soil.  Because of this politically motivated move, only the less skilled South Vietnamese military ground forces could be used, while American Air-combat soldier’s lives would be put at an even greater risk while they operated naked, without ground troops, in the skies over Laos.  The more experienced U.S. troops would not be on the ground taking out the anti-aircraft weaponry of the North Vietnamese that had long been in place, awaiting the offensive moves of the US Air Attack, nor would they be there as a helicopter pilot’s last safety net as they were the ones that would often rescue downed pilots from enemy capture, when their helicopter was shot down.

As the books record, for a number of days, the push into Laos was easy, as there was no enemy fire and limited sightings of contact with the North Vietnamese, giving a false sense that maybe the North Vietnamese were not setup in Laos like had been thought.   My father’s letter reflected the same thinking.   March 1, 1971, one day before the final LZ mission that would turn into ‘Hell over Laos’, he writes: “Today was a good day, went real deep into Laos like about 45 clicks (Kilometers). Didn’t get shot at once…Tomorrow will go on a photo recon mission – probably pretty deep into Laos again…”.

His letter goes on to say “I think today was the beginning of a new 7-day all-out thrust search and destroy the trail, then pull back. We need a new approach-we’re getting the $&!# blown away-that’s pilot talk for things aren’t too good….The Cav mission is recon and intelligence or search and destroy, and we are usually in front.” 

The planners of this operation knew it would be a campaign that would cost many lives, as the NVA had already established an elaborate defensive position and they would literally be fighting with their backs to the wall, the wall being North Vietnam, with Laos being the last buffer between the war and their homeland.

The false sense of early days, quickly gave way to reality, as the NVA had allowed the air attack to move into the web, much like a spider sitting frozen and watching its prey crawl towards the middle of the spider web.  Captain Guttau on March 2, 1971 was put in position to be the NVA’s ‘first’ prey as he launched out to find the final LZ to set up the area for 300 helicopters to do insertion of ground troops as they took out the village of Tchepone in an attempt to cripple the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the NVA’s attack on South Vietnam.  

As Captain Guttau maneuvered his chopper into the area of Laos near Tchepone, just 60 miles from the Vietnam Border, where on his military map he had labeled the place “the burn”, the same map he carried with him 42 years later as he returned with his family”. At this exact place, he and his wingman encountered what would become a day that earned them Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), for the bravery that was shown in putting down fire and white phosphorous to keep the march towards the objective alive. The sky was full of .37 and .57 mm air bursts as enemy gunners zeroed in on the aircraft, and endless rounds of anti-aircraft weaponry from the ground were encountered.  With the choppers climbing in altitude to try and escape the fire, the Aircraft would run out of altitude before the artillery would, and the commanders had to “turn their Cobra Gunships into the fire” to get themselves positioned to launch the white phosphorous (WP) into the ground to clear the LZ area. The problem was these rockets had a short travel distance before they lost velocity and would aimlessly drift to the ground.  So while dodging enemy fire, they positioned themselves to drop the WP at the right position where gravity could carry it into the right area for the clearing of the LZ, as it would ignite upon impact.

The LZ was burned clear by the white phosphorous from the Cobra Gunships, to lead the way for operations such as the following: “On the morning of March 6, the helicopters began gathering on the Khe Sahn airstrip. Three hundred choppers sat in the fierce glare of the sun and swirling red dust, while their crews waited. It would be the most complicated air move of the operation, an hour and fifteen minutes required for each helicopter lifting off, flight, insertion of ground troops at the LZ, and return. As the helicopters awaited takeoff, 122mm artillery shells started impacting the perimeter and bombardments began hitting the airstrip. As the aircrews rushed to lift off, all three hundred units amazingly got airborne above the artillery without a single loss of a gunship, but two lives were lost on the ground.

Two days after the mission that earned him the DFC, his letter home to his wife Judy…”I want to be with you so badly, but I know that time will come soon, I’m very confident it will. For some reason I have the feeling God has something else planned for me than death over here. Maybe I’m confident or egotistical I don’t know. We’ll see what he has planned for our lives…”

What happened at the end of their 8 hour “Hell over Laos” mission on March 2, 1971 reflects the tone of the prior words from Mick’s letter to his bride:

After they landed, the pilots exited the cockpits, and with their mechanics at their sides they walked around both my father’s and his wingman’s Cobras to inspect how bad the fire bursts from the enemy had torn up the choppers. On this day as they inspected the Cobras, a young Captain Guttau, witnessed first-hand the glorious power of a Supernatural Being, because although he had experienced the heaviest fire he would ever encounter right at the heart of the most intense 60 days of Air Combat during the 15+ years of the Vietnam War, unlike other days, not a single fragment had penetrated their aircraft. 

This was the moment when, at the age of 24, a life-long question became deeply seeded in Captain Guttau’s inner being… “Why?, Why did I survive? Why do I get to live the life I have, when so many others lost theirs?”…It is a question that still is a powerful force today that he continues to run missions of “recon and intelligence and search and destroy” through his mind as he lives a life to discover the answer.

He has come to discover after 42 years, that this is a mission he will not conquer while on this earth, as it is not understandable, nor comprehendible to a mortal. BUT, he knows “It is real and I am still here.”.  His Pastor’s response to his mission seeking question is “Mick, if you understood God, He wouldn’t be God” - and then he pauses and in his deep hearty laugh he says - “or Mick, YOU would be God and we know that is NOT true!”.

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During the return trip to Vietnam, it was observed that the country has ‘turned beautiful’. 

The landscape is a lush green, with very few noticeable scars of the destruction that occurred. 

The people are a beautiful group from their physical looks to their cultural ways.

The political ways are becoming more beautiful, as the very force, communism, that was not allowed to be overcome by a politically-handicapped military movement, is today being eroded away with modern day technological communications (satellite dishes and mobile phones all across the most remote areas) and capitalism (allowance of citizens to own their own business and pay a fee (tax) to the government.  And also, as my father states, the “New” Communism allows citizens to practice their religion fulfilling the purpose of why I believed I was in the battle , with that purpose being: “So that these people could practice their belief in God.”

The two Vietnam Vets who were our tour guides have witnessed a vast change because of these elements over just the last fifteen years, as fifteen years ago there was a very strong sense of the communist presence, but it has quickly eroded away to the point that it is not felt first hand by tourists on a day-to-day basis while in the country, except for the comically scripted propaganda in “their” American war museums, and while leaving and entering the country, but those are for another story!

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In closing, this son of a military veteran and war hero, their family’s trip has had the following three concepts further instilled in him: A greater love for our country, a greater respect for those who have served in our military to provide us with an un-paralleled freedom, and a greater hatred for our corrupt government who no long is a representation of freedom when looked at through my new ‘war-educated’ lenses!

Scribed by the son of Captain Michael “Mick” K. Guttau, Joshua M. Guttau