Thomas E. Soma was born on February 23, 1948 in Winnebago MN. He was the second oldest child born to Omer and Avis Soma. He graduated from Winnebago High School in 1966. He was very popular during his school years. Tom played football, wrestled and was on the track team, lettering in all three sports. He enjoyed auto mechanics and electronics. He often worked on his high school friends’ cars and wired the family garage at age 16. The family home was the “after school hang out” for him and his friends with the homemade treats highly sought out.
In September of 1966, Tom volunteered for the Army. He went to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training and stayed additional time there to take engineering courses to learn how to build bridges. He volunteered for Vietnam after training and landed in Vietnam in the spring of 1967. Tom served three tours in Vietnam. His first months were spent working on bridges. He then asked to be transferred to the C1/9 CAV 1 CAV helicopter unit where he would train and serve as a door gunner and an observer. He went on several official missions and secret missions. He acquired great knowledge about the terrain and the enemy and was often as asked by pilots to fly in their helicopter. During Tom’s early years in Vietnam there were some fun times for him such as when he and a pilot would take out a helicopter and go deer hunting.
In between his three tours Tom would twice come home for his furlough, however in the fall of 1969 he decided to tour part of Australia which he very much enjoyed. His younger brother Larry, who was 8 years old at the time, recalls Tom’s last visit home. “Tom brought home a cardboard box from a refrigerator. He helped me turn it into a fort. He bought me a BB gun and we spent the afternoon shooting our mothers wooden clothespins hanging on the line. We had fun making them spin until mom saw us and put a stop to it!” (Tom would reup for two additional tours as he felt he was making a difference and loved serving his country.) In his last letters home, Tom wrote he was tired of Vietnam and looking forward to returning to civilian life.
His last mission, which occurred on December 30, 1969, SP5 Soma was assigned to fly with Loach helicopter Pilot Edd Hogeboom and door gunner James Dean Jr. Their mission was to drop weapons and supplies into a location where there were two imbedded U.S. Army officers training South Vietnam soldiers. The ground unit was under fire and one of officers was seriously wounded. As there was known to be a large number of enemy soldiers, the crew was aware it was an extremely dangerous mission.
The weapons and supplies drop was successful and as they flew over the region after the drop to search for the enemy, their helicopter came under enemy fire and was shot down. James was killed instantly. Tom was also wounded but was trapped in wreckage and only survived for about 30 minutes. The pilot Edd Hogeboom was wounded and was rescued later that day.
(An edited version of the After-Action report is attached. It is a necessary read to understand the conditions and heroics of the crew and those involved in the rescue.)
Spec5 Soma was awarded the following; Distinguish Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Military Merit Award Medal, Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Vietnam Service Medal and Marksmanship
(Dave’s note: I have edited down this after-action report for the sake of space and readability. The entire report is available at the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association site. Thank you)
Helicopter OH-6A 67-16390
Unit: C/1/9 CAV 1 CAV
OB SP5 SOMA THOMAS EDWARD KIA
G SGT DEAN JAMES ROBERT JR KIA
P WO1 HOGEBOOM EDWARD P RES
Shot down by.51 cal. killing Soma and Dean. Pilot WO Edward Hogeboon was pulled from the burning aircraft by another C/1/9 LOH gunner while under fire. The rescuer jumped from very high hover through tall bamboo, low crawled to the crash site. He was too late to save Soma and Dean but pulled Hogeboom to safety.
December 30, 1969, Republic of South Vietnam, Binh Duong Province, III Corp. Crew: Mission Observer: Spec-5 Thomas Edward Soma, KIA; Crew Chief and Gunner: Sgt James Robert Dean, Jr., KIA; Pilot: WO1 Edward Patrick Hogeboom, Scout Helicopter of C Troop, 1 Squadron, 9th Calvary, Airmobile.
In the early afternoon our Pink Team (one Cobra gunship and one Light Observation Helicopter or LOH) was notified of a platoon of ARVN’s pinned down out towards the border by heavily armed adversaries and they had two U.S. Army Advisors with one of the Advisors seriously wounded. We located the ARVN platoon pinned down in a bamboo forest. We hovered our LOH a few feet above them. They signaled that they were out of grenades. We dropped them all of our frags, concussion, and Willie Pete’s. We could see one G.I. on a litter. Our Cobra told us to recon the area out ahead of the ARVN platoon and also find any area that could be used to extract them.
Once we arrived at the potential LZ field we surveyed it by flying low level down one side of it. The field had been recently burned off so that all the ground was charred and covered with the remains of burned bamboo. I was on my second pass lengthwise down the side of the field when my Crew Chief, Jim Dean hit his mike and said, Hogie, I see gooks trying to set up a machine gun looks like a.51 cal and several gooks dressed in black pajamas scrambling around it and attempting to set it up. When I entered the open field for a couple of seconds it was quiet. Then in complete unison, five.51 cals. opened up on us from five different directions (they were in a pentagon arrangement I learned later).
We were being hit so hard with the heavy machine gun fire that I picked the weapon firing directly at the nose of our LOH and tried to fly directly down it’s barrel. I was screaming at our Cobra how bad we were getting hit the entire time. When our LOH made it across the field, we had a.30 cal open up on us as we got back over the bamboo and it severed our tail boom. The nose dipped towards the ground and I came back on the cyclic to prevent going in nose first and we began to climb but were spinning faster and faster. As we spun, still climbing, we began taking more fire and ultimately our main rotor mast was severed.
After we crashed (from an approximate height of 300 feet) it was obvious that Tom was seriously injured. I unbuckled and rolled out of my seat into several feet in depth of crushed bamboo. I immediately looked into the bay for Jim and he wasn’t there. All weapons, ammo, etc. was gone out of the bay. I stumbled through the hip deep bamboo to the engine area, because I could see smoke. The engine doors were gone, as was the entire tail section. There was a fire coming off the engine and I knew Soma was still strapped in his seat.
I made it around to Tom’s side of the cockpit and asked him how he was doing. He muttered that he was hanging in there. I could not get him out of his seat (and neither could the medics later and we all tried).
The only weapon available was Tom’s.45 in his belt holster. It was in pretty bad condition and I only had one round in the chamber and a jammed clip. I heard AK-47s being locked and loaded very near to my location with corresponding sounds of movement out in the standing bamboo within 50 feet of our location. I lay down alongside of Tom’s side of the Cockpit next to him. After lying there for several minutes, I checked Tom again -- got no pulse and realized he had died. I still did not know what had happened to Jim. (I learned later that I lost him while going across the field, but that he died instantly.)
I continued to lie alongside of Soma until another C Trp. Scout LOH came across my location. Shortly after that, I had a Cobra come in from my twelve o’clock, low level, do a cyclic climb right above me, do a hammerhead…reversing direction of his aircraft and walking several rockets right back towards the back of our LOH. Even though I took shrapnel from the rockets, he blew two NVA’ s off the back of our LOH. Two.51 rounds hit the side of their Cobra, they lost their hydraulics, and had to crash land at a firebase.
I was later told that there were as many as thirteen Cobras in the Daisy Chain when everyone made it to our location. The Cobras, LOHs, and Medivac that arrived at our location all put it on the line that afternoon. However, as the sun drew nearer to the horizon, it was beginning to appear they wouldn’t be able to get us out. Tom Soma died approximately 25 to 30 minutes after we went down. I could only hope that they were able to get the two Advisors and their ARVN platoon out somehow. I knew I had multiple injuries and had great difficulty moving around, but had no idea the level of their seriousness.
I saw a First Cav Medivac turned back by ground fire several times earlier that afternoon. The sun would be setting within the next twenty minutes I guessed when a C Trp. LOH made a pass over me. I guessed it was to locate me one more time before they would vector the Cobra fire to my immediate location as per our mutual agreement. (All unit members had agreed if they were unable to be extracted by nightfall that their comrades would not let them fall into enemy hands and would take terminating action.)
What I didn’t know was an E-8 known as Sarge, had taken it upon himself to jump from that LOH into the bamboo. Sarge had just been transferred in to C Trp. and had taken over as our Line Sergeant. The word we got was he was a lifer and had transferred in from a LRRP outfit of which he had been in country with for 3 ½ years. He had served in the Korean Conflict and was highly decorated at that time. After Sarge identified himself, I pulled myself up out of the bamboo where I had been lying and tried to move through the crushed down bamboo towards him. Sarge came out of the standing bamboo in front of me. He was carrying an M-16 and had a bandoleer of clips hung around his shoulders. His face and hands were bleeding and sliced up pretty badly from having jumped into the standing bamboo. As Sarge approached me, I looked at him and said, “You crazy son-of-a-bitch, we’re not getting out of here alive!” He looked me straight in the eyes and replied, “Chief, I just couldn’t let you go by yourself!” As he began to visually set up a perimeter, I informed him that I had only one usable round in Soma’s .45.
It was just moments later when I heard the blade pop of the approaching Medivac. The Medivac pilot did a quick-stop about ten yards to the rear of our fuselage. While at a hover, two Medics jumped out of the Huey and advanced towards us. I was holding on to a section of what was left of the front of our LOH and signaling the Medics to help me get Soma out of the aircraft. They checked him and verified he was dead and told me we had to go right then. They both grabbed me; one on each side and Sarge led us to the Medivac. They lifted me up into the bay and followed quickly behind me.
The heroism exhibited that day by all who came to our rescue was beyond anything I’d ever witnessed. They all knew, to a man, when they arrived on station that they were going to be facing very heavy automatic weapons fire. They all exhibited personal courage of the very highest traditions of the U.S. Army, but most especially, the very highest traditions of the U.S. Cavalry.
Two families lost two exceptional men on December 30, 1969 and I lost part of my soul. It remained forever with my comrades Jim Dean and Tom Soma. Even though we took a vote on whether or not to fly into that open field that day, the final decision, as pilot, was mine and I must take the responsibility for that decision. We were there to set up the extraction of a wounded G.I. and in the process lost two exceptionally fine Troopers. May God Bless Tom Soma and Jim Dean, Troopers in the truest sense.
Edward P. Hogeboom Cav 16 "C" Troop, 1/9, AirCav
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