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War Stories 7
By-Bill Fitch- 4/9th 67-68
BO TUC (LAKE OF FIRE)
Since the establishment of the large forward base at Katum with an airstrip, the NVA had to take wide detours around it coming in from their bases in Cambodia. The old French stronghold of Bo Tuc stood in the middle of a major detour route that would avoid the large Katum base camp. Bo Tuc is where the 4/9 Manchus were to set up yet another road block for NVA troops crossing over from Cambodia.
On December 18, 1967 I was on one of the last lifts for Alpha Company from Katum to set a fire base at Bo Tuc. The rest of Alpha Co. was already beginning to dig in when I got off the chopper. Bravo, Charlie, Delta Company, and a battery of 105 artillery were also arriving. It was a "small perimeter' for a battalion of Infantry and 105's to occupy. There was a lot cursing and frustration of where to find room to set up defensive positions. This planning was going on in between sniper fire and sporadic incoming 82 mm mortar fire.
Because we thought a ground attack would come at any time, we had to dig in hurriedly and were not able to make as strong a bunker as we would have liked. Since they ran out of room on the outer perimeter, they moved about 6 or 8 of us (Alpha Co.) to dig 2 man fighting positions behind one part of the perimeter as sort of a mini second line if that part of the perimeter was breached. My buddy and I were digging our foxhole when the position next to us yelled, "Hey, Man look what I dug up!" He was holding up an old French helmet with a bullet hole right through the front of it. We did not consider this a good sign and I began to get a very bad feeling about this place. There were many abandoned wells all over the place and you had to watch every place you put your foot down because you could have easily fallen in one. When Charlie Company came in they had to set up around the artillery because the outer perimeter was completed and there with no room left for any more positions. I remember thinking I was glad I was not in Charlie Company because being next to 105's during a fire mission can be a "deafening experience!"
At about 3:00 AM on December 19 all hell broke loose and the mortar rounds came pouring in and we all hunkered down in our hastily dug positions to wait it out and hope one didn't drop into our hole. We only had time to put two layers of sandbags supported by some flimsy sticks we had found; so a direct hit would have caved our position in or worse. There was a brief lull in the incoming mortar fire and then the outer perimeter positions began to fire. I could not see past the front positions but from the heavy fire, I knew this was a major ground attack.
I thought we were holding on pretty good until I saw the ammo dump explode in a huge fireball and watched in horror as the business end of a 105mm shell came spinning down and landed 20 feet from my foxhole. The 105 round was glowing with orange and red colors; it was smoking and would pop and crackle every few seconds. My buddy and I started to abandon our bunker to get away from the 105 shell that we thought would explode any second. But then the ammo dump had a second explosion and it was then that I saw NVA running toward us from where Alpha Co. positions were supposed to be......we were being over run! After a quick 2 second discussion, my buddy and I decided not to make a run for it because our own guys would mistake us for NVA and kill us in the dark. We decided to take our chances with the hot 105 shell and pray it didn't explode. We thought if the 105 shell didn't get us the NVA would but we were going to fight it out from our foxhole. There was a small dirt road type path directly in front of our position and the NVA would come running down it and the suddenly veer off about 40 to 50 yards from us and head toward the artillery positions. I was not disappointed that they did not continue charging down that path until they were on top of our position! My buddy squeezed in beside me and we were both now facing the inside of the perimeter since there seemed to be more NVA inside than outside the perimeter. All night long my buddy and I would relay information back and forth about what was each of us was seeing outside and inside the perimeter. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it in my ears! We took some single shots every time the ammo dump flared up and we could see NVA moving. We didn't want to fire on full automatic because it would increase the chances of hitting our own people. The NVA appeared and disappeared so quickly, it was like shooting at a flickering shadow; there was not even time for a 3 round burst. The NVA would always duck down every time the ammo dump flared up and it was hard to get a clean shot. We never could tell if we hit one or he just dove for cover. There were explosions all night long and in every location; Bo Tuc was literally ablaze every where you looked! It was like being in the middle of Hell's Lake Of Fire. The ammo dump was exploding every 15 minutes, hand grenades exploded and rifle fire were all inside the perimeter, 155 mm and 8 inch heavy artillery from other fire bases lit up the surrounding woods of Bo Tuc, our own 105 artillery was firing round after round of bee hive shells point blank into the NVA, jets screamed in from Phan Rang and dropped bombs just outside the perimeter that sounded like rolling thunder, gun ships roared in with mini guns blazing away with rounds hitting only yards from the outer perimeter, and a small spotter plane (Bird Dog) flown by Lt. Col. Bo Harrison circled at 200 feet dropping hand grenades out the planes window into the fire storm below. In the middle of all this, by the Grace of God, the hot 105 shell finally cooled off, didn't explode, but kept us praying because it kept smoking until the sun finally came up. One F-100 was making strafing runs at what appeared to the tree top level. This particular F-100, flown by Capt. Arthur Chase, would come in repeatedly with green tracers streaking up to meet him on each run. There was a tremendous explosion during one of these runs (from a bomb or the ammo dump) and I didn't even have time to duck down before a piece of shrapnel the size of my hand came buzzing through the air and impacted into the sand bag that was 6 inches above my head; it then melted a large hole in the green poncho that I had draped over the sand bags for some camouflage. The F-100 pilot was the bravest pilot I saw during my tour in Viet Nam. He came in low, at night, and his jet was outlined in the sky by the blazing ammo dump making him an exposed target for the NVA. Yet again and again he would come in, strafe, and roll over and come around again and again. I am certain Capt. Chase's strafing helped keep the NVA at bay outside the perimeter and prevented them from reinforcing the NVA that had already made it inside Bo Tuc. His courage and low passes helped us hold out until daylight. (See citation below)
The next morning there were between 30 to 50 NVA dead inside Bo Tuc and there were dead NVA outside the perimeter also but I don't remember that count; there would be 4 dead in front of one position, 8 dead scattered in another area and so on. We did a sweep outside the perimeter and saw blood trails too numerous to count going off in all directions. This had to be a Regiment size NVA outfit and we apparently had inflicted heavy losses on them. Our losses were 10 killed, 35 wounded. This appeared to be a top notch NVA unit that had no fear of going up against us hard head on.
It was a well planned attack; they breached the perimeter and got to the artillery which had to start firing "bee hive" rounds to defend themselves. The fact that Charlie Company had set up around the artillery seemed to blunt the attack because the NVA thought once they were inside the perimeter, they would be able to outflank all of our positions. But as luck would have it, they made a big mistake going straight for the artillery and ran head on into a second line of bunkers inside the perimeter with Charlie Company dug in around the 105 gun positions. This is were the attack was finally stopped. After the Battle of Bo Tuc, the Manchus were sent to Suoi Cut to relieve the 2/22 Infantry that had been chewed up badly in an early January 1, 1968 attack on their base. We did not know it at the time but the Manchus were one of the first American combat units to be engaged in what would be known in a few weeks as the infamous 1968 TET OFFENSIVE. A mere 4 days after arriving at Suoi Cut, the Manchus would again be locked into combat with the NVA at a place called THE HOURGLASS.
By: Colonel (Retired) John M. Henchman
4th Battalion CO
Oct. 1, 1967 -March 3, 1968
The Third Brigade's main base was Dau Tieng. Like our Brigade, they had a forward base at Soui Cut. FSB Burt, They had occupied this position for just a few days. Like us, they were astride a major road and trail network leading to Saigon- On the night of January 1, a reinforced regiment of NVA attacked and did severe damage to the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry.
The MANCHUs were ordered to immediately leave Katum,go OPCON to the Third Brigade, and relieve the 2/22 Infantry. I flew down there at once to meet with the Brigade CO, Colonel Daemes. The position occupied by the 2/22 Wantry, and other areas, were just a mess. Our battalion did better than that in a couple of hours each day.
As the lead elements of the MANCHUs got there, we began to get things organized. By late evening, we were all in, and as Bill and I walked around, we could see immediately that our guys were a whole hell of a lot better soldiers than those that had been there before.
Operations: January 3-4:
Usual stuff. Short sweeps into the immediate area. Some contact. Colonel Daemes wanted us to S&D out farther. He assigned an area for January 5 that was just 1 KM from the Cambodian Border. Because of its hour-glass shape, that is what we came to call it.
The "Hour Glass" Landing Zone - January 5:
It must be said that this was the most difficult and frustrating day I spent in Vietnam in terms of commanding an "operation". It was a deadly day for many-way too many. It is so firmly planted in my memory, I can visualize almost every detail and recall vividly some, of the words spoken.
Company A and D were sent off into another AO to do a sweep, and to be extracted in the late afternoon. It was Company C's turn to remain in position in FSB BURT. Company B was to go into the Hour-Glass using the lift ships initially used by Company A.
Bill and I had made the decision not to put preparation fires around an LZ - because it invariable brought "Charlie". The defensive fires were, however, meticulously planned, and available "on call". I did order SMOKEY in on the east, north, and west sides of this LZ because it could be seen from higher ground in Cambodia, and I knew there were base camps close by. [Hell, you could see the tin covered roofs.]
The PZ was BURT. I was overhead in the C&C. Bill was with the first lift. The first lift into the LZ landed "cold". That platoon headed off the LZ into the southern wood line per plan. The second lift was just hovering for drop off when several .51 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns swept the flight. The troops were caught in the open. One chopper crashed and burned, killing the pilot and one door gunner. The other crew members lay near the crash badly injured.
As I looked down on that horrific sight, I saw Bill STAND UP firing his carbine at those gun emplacements, and then guiding one or two members of the platoon at a time into defiaded positions on the edge of the woods. He did this ten or twelve times until all the platoon was off the LZ. [I later put him in for his first DSC for this heroism above and beyond the call]
What saved that platoon from complete annihilation was that the NVA gunners had AA parapets and could not depress their muzzles much below three feet from the ground giving an infantryman a chance to crawl under it.
As soon as the two platoons were in, I had to decide: what next. The two platoons were taking heavy mortar and small arms fire from across the LZ to the north. By now, of course, I was firing evenjthing available around those platoons. I had ISSUE 11 get air in-bound; I had SMOKY continue to make passes until he was too full of holes to continue; I requested and got gun ships two at first, then more.
By now it was midmorning. I needed to reinforce the two platoons on the ground because they did not have enough combat power to make it alone. I ordered the next platoon in, but the lift was hit hard by small arms fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire. The lift commander chose to abort.
Now, my choices were limited. It was obvious that we had landed in the middle of a very sophisticated headquarters, well-defended. I had to reinforce in real strength, or get those two platoons out of there. I asked Colonel Daemes to get Company A and D saddled up wherever they were and get then ready to reinforce.
His response: "Let's wait a bit, Henchman, and see what happens here. Maybe we can handle this with what you have here." I waited, and time was not in our favor.
An hour went by-it is almost noon now. Some of B Company's guys had rescued and secured the rest of the, shot-down crew. The troops in the wood line had dug in, Bill and I were in constant contact. Their situation was precarious. But I needed more people on the ground, or needed to get those two platoons OUT!
Meantime, I had more and more firepower allocated. At about 1300, I had one SMOKY; three Cav LOH doing recon; TWELVE gunships sort of going in a big circle delivering ordnance, jets were making continuous bombing runs with GPs, 20mm, and clusters; and I had priority of Division fires that could reach this area-which was basically Daemes DS Arty battalion at BURT.
Again, I told him we should reinforce with the whole battalion. something very big - a division headquarters? COSVN?
His response: "I can't do that. We can't afford to let BURT be that undefended." I was furious. If I could have gotten TROPIC 6 on the line, I would have. He was not available to me on the net I had in the chopper.
About 1330 - 1400, one of the Cav LOH saw a bunch of weapons near positions that looked abandoned on the ground in the woods just west of the LZ. Daemes ordered me to put one platoon of Company A in there to get them. I set that up very reluctantly.
While this activity was going on, the battalion net was flooded with some Phoney Australian claiming to be operating in our AO, and all this fire was dangerous to his operation. I needed to stop it. No way! We did some triangularization on him with the choppers, and bombed him harder because he was transmitting from Cambodia. Later, I was chastised about responding on the battalion "Push" by Communication Security guys, but as I explained, they knew all our frequencies and, besides,, I was in full control on my alternate frequency.
When the A company platoon got on the ground west of the LZ, "hot" of course, it turned out that this was just a trap. I spent the next two hours, and lost a couple more choppers getting them out in one piece with only a couple WIA's.
It was about this time that the C&C was hit by a lot of ground fire, the pilot [the BLACKHAWKS C.0.] told me we were "going down". My RTO said the engine was on fire. We crash landed into an open field about 2 KM from the Hour Glass, and all of us were picked up almost immediately by Colonel Daemes in his C&C. Only now his C&C was so overloaded that we had to go back to BURT to unload. Soon as I got to BURT, I got into a slick--only thing available-and was back in about 30 minutes. Only, I did not have the good communications afforded by the C&C.
It was getting along toward 1600. Two platoons of Company B were still in the tree line, getting hit with all sorts of fire. Since it was obvious I could not reinforce, I concentrated on getting these guys out.
The first lift of slicks came in about 1630, took lots of fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire, but they made it out-just barely.
That left Hector Colon's platoon in the tree line, some dead, some wounded. All critically low on ammunition, and darkness only a little way off. If they could not be out before dark, that platoon would have been lost in the night. They did not have the combat power to survive.
BLACKHAWK 6 and ships from the 187 Assault Helicopter Company rallied to the cause, got a few birds without holes together.
I had made a very low level pass with the slick I was in and pushed out several cases of ammunition to Hector. It wasn't much, but it was all I had.
I recall giving what encouragement I could, ending with: "God bless you, Hector, and KEEP UP THE FIRE. We will move heaven and earth to get you out of this."
First try was no good. Flight aborted. Too much fire. Second try, Hector had his guys ready, carrying their dead and wounded, and got them on the choppers which took off immediately as loaded. Only problem was, two took off without a full load, leaving the last slick with a crew of 4, seven dead and four wounded, a total of 15 for a slick designed to pull out with a maximum load of 11. I literally willed that slick to fly. It barely made it over the tree line, and barely made it to BURT.
What Hector's guys did-individuany and cohectively-was gallantry in action. NO soldiers ever did better for each other. I put the entire platoon in for decorations for heroism. Some, sad to say, were posthumous. From that day to this, my respect for those MANCHUs is immense.
But the effects of that day were, not over:
The support helicopter companies were severely damaged. Three had been shot down' and burned somewhere, including the C&C I had been riding. They had quite a few WlA's among their crews, and most of the slicks needed lots of holes patched.
I was visited by the Communications Security guys from MACV who chewed my ass for communicating with the enemy on my net!!!
The rest of the time at FSB BURT-January 6 to January 18:
I sent Company B back to Tay Ninh. They were very much in need of a stand-down. On January 17, there was a memorial ceremony for those who had been killed in the Hour Glass and in other fights in the area, and then in the afternoon, an awards ceremony. An extract from Dexter's diary tells the story:
The rest of the battalion stayed at FSB BURT until January 18, conducting small sweeps since we were severely down in combat strength A, C, and D could barely muster 80 people each for operations outside the perimeter.
Air Strike Into The Hour Glass
By- Bill Fitch
I decided to write about this incident to have on record one of the many reasons why the military was not allowed to win in Viet Nam and how bravely soldiers fought and died for their country when it called them to duty. We knew that Viet Nam was not a "popular war" but I do not know of any war that was called a "popular war!" As Americans, we have a duty to protect one country from imposing its will on a weaker country by military force. Most if not all combat soldiers in Viet Nam had one if not two clear objectives:
(1) To allow the South Vietnamese people to decide on what kind of government they wanted even if it was a corrupt one.
(2) To stay alive and hope the 12- month tour goes by quickly.
American national security was not really threatened but certainly, the democratic process that the USA encouraged all countries to adopt was in extreme peril in South Viet Nam.
This tragic and frustrating military action took place on December 11,1967 within sight (3 kms.) of the Cambodian Border where the North Vietnamese Army kept large amount of war supplies, weapons, ammunition, and fresh troops. This was called Operation Yellowstone The Cambodian Border was literally a large enemy staging area and base of operations for the war in South Viet Nam. As we patrolled along the border, you could stand on a high hill and "actually see" military storage buildings covered with shiny tin roofs that glistened in the sun. However, we were not allowed to "cross over" to Cambodia (a neutral country) to destroy the enemies' supplies or food. You could actually see buildings with no doors but only two trap door openings at the top. It did not take a rocket scientist to know these were not some poor farmer's house but rather a military storage building for food (probably rice) and possibility a ammo dump. How can you win a war if you can not destroy the enemy when you locate him? In WWII, if the enemy was in another country , the US military was allowed to destroy the targets but not so in the Vietnam War.
It was late in the evening on 12-11-67 when our patrols along the Cambodian Border ended and we were instructed to dig in for the night. As we began digging out an open foxhole, we dug up numerous tail fins from 82-mm mortar rounds. Since the 82-mm mortar was the VC and NV A' s weapon of choice, we knew this area had been mortared many times before and probably already had all the coordinates for accurate fire laid in. However, due to darkness coming, we had no choice but to dig in at this suspicious open area.
The terror began at midnight with a deadly accurate mortar attack. The all too familiar sound of whomp-whomp-whomp was heard as mortar rounds were being dropped down the firing tube. However, this was "very different" in that you could hear aloud explosion as the round left the mortar tube. You do not hear actually a mortar this loud unless you very close to the mortar that is in action. This meant the North Vietnamese were within visual sight of our perimeter and could watch as the rounds hit. Their 82-mm mortar rounds fell with deadly accuracy patterns as they walked a series of volleys up and down our positions for 3 to 4 different series of mortar attacks. It took a very long time for the rounds to hit after they were fired which was an indication that they were firing almost straight up to achieve a high trajectory to hit a close target. .I huddled down in my foxhole waiting for the rounds to hit and then would hear the hissing sound like a snake as they pumbled down on top of us. The rounds hit so close to my foxhole that I could see the flash of the explosion and feel the concussion simultaneously. There was dirt and derbies being blasted down on Sgt. Jack Connell and me that stung as if being shot by a BB gun. As the rounds were walked past our foxhole, we heard more terrifying sounds. You could clearly hear the sounds of the mortar being readied for another volley. Since sounds seem to carry farther at night, it seemed the enemy was only 30 feet away from our position~ the mortar actually sounded as if was being fired from inside our perimeter. You could hear the ..click-clank" of metal hitting metal as more and more rounds were being dropped down the mortar tube, then the long wait for the rounds to hit; then the hissing sound; then the explosion and concussion. I felt more helpless to defend myself on this night more than any other time in Viet Nam. I was literally just waiting to die and that is the most helpless terrifying experience anyone can ever experience.
Since we were so close to the Cambodian border, our artillery or gun ships were not allowed to lay down suppressing fire to stop the mortar attack. The policy was that not even a bullet or piece of shrapnel was to land in Cambodian or it was a violation of their "so called Neutrality." Lt. Colonel Henchman actually had to wait and "get permission" to fire back at the enemy mortar as we were getting blow to pieces. This is one example of the flawed Foreign Policy from Washington that the Viet Nam Soldier had to deal with. So we had to just lay there and wait to die without being given the means to fight back at the enemy that was killing us. Finally after the third or fourth volley of mortar rounds, someone with an M-60 machine gun opened up and some with M-40 grenade . launchers began to return fire. The Mortar position was so close, it was within the range of a rifle; so as soon as we began to return fire, the attack ended and the North Vietnamese packed up and went back to their safe sanctuary in Cambodian where they could not be touched.
This particular night we had a medical physician with us, Captain Daubek, MD; which is very unusual since a medic is almost always the only medical personnel that patrols with a combat unit. Captain Daubek crawled from foxhole to foxhole treating the wounded even as the mortar rounds were still falling. Captain Daubek was wounded twice by shrapnel himself but did not stop trying to help the wounded and dying. Captain Daubek refused to be lifted out on Dust Off until the last Manchu casualty was on a helicopter headed back to a medical hospital. Captain Daubek was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery, which he well deserved. Even though I was badly shaken and totally terrified because of the numerous mortar rounds that almost dropped in my foxhole (there were two craters within three feet) of my position~ I did not know how much I had to be thankful for. The position next to mine with two of my squad members did not answer when we asked, "Is anybody hit?" A mortar round had scored a direct hit into Spec.4 Frank Essig and PFC Pete Melann's foxhole. As I looked down into the foxhole I could see Pete laying face down but not Frank. As we pulled Pete out we knew he had died instantly because of the large wound that went through the back of his flak jacket and then out the front. It was then that we saw Frank Essig lying motionless on the bottom of the foxhole. We pulled Frank out and he had major entry wounds to both sides of his chest. A medic, Doc Durphy or Spec.5 "Doc" Ruble (medic) came out of nowhere and immediately began to work on Frank. I had great respect for these two medics~ they were with me at the Battle at the Horseshoe, Song Saigon River (8-30-67) and always were the first medics to get to a wounded solider. I thought there was no hope and that Frank was dead or nearly dead. Somehow, they and I think, Dr. Daubek brought him out of shock and Frank began to moan from the pain. In a example of great compassion and courage, Lt. Colonel John Henchman called in a dustoff, for Frank who was barely hanging on to life, in the middle of the night with possibility of another mortar attack or maybe even an anti-aircraft gun waiting for an opportunity to down a chopper. Lt. Colonel Henchman was the most outstanding Battalion commander during my tour because he cared for every single solider in the Battalion and took each loss personally. Lt. Colonel Henchman was truly a 'Soldier's Commander." I would have followed Lt. Colonel Henchman anywhere because he would not hesitate to engage the enemy but would not recklessly sacrifice American soldiers~ a philosophy that not all commanders followed. I cannot begin to imagine how frustrating it was for a field officer to fight with so many restrictions imposed by the policy makers in Washington. The night of December 11, 1967 is hardly a footnote in the Viet Nam war but a classic example of things that prevent victory at the cost of many lives.
As 1967 closed out and 1968 arrived, there was a noticeable pickup in hostilities. Even though we had been busy, it appeared that every time we went up, we were engaging the enemy. They seemed to be better armed, and there seemed to be more of them. The incident described earlier where Smoky got shot down and the 35 element got shot up occurred just two days prior to what is now known as Tet of 68. As soldiers in the front, we had no knowledge of any buildup other than what our intuition told us. I do not remember getting any intelligence from our briefings that there was a major buildup of enemy troops, but it was somewhat obvious that the war was accelerating. Cu Chi and Dau Tieng were getting mortared pretty regularly, keeping us tired and irritable. Sleep was never easy except with the help of alcohol, but now even the slightest noise kept us awake. "Incoming" was a cry/curse that was even heard during the day, which was out of character for the VC, who mainly mortared us at night.
31 Jan was the Vietnamese New Year, bringing in the year of the Rat. Having lived in Okinawa as a kid, I was somewhat aware of the Oriental New Year, and how each year was named the year of the Pig, Goat, Rat, etc., but it had no real meaning for an Occidental such as myself. I knew that the ARVNs were probably getting drunk in their celebration of the New Year, just as we did on the night of the 31st of December, and
that was about the extent of my understanding. The North Vietnamese, much wiser, knew that this would be a perfect time to start a major assault on the South, while the ARVNs were down on their guard. Of course, we believed that the ARVNs had much to learn about how to fight, anyway. My experience with them was never good. They were very happy to let the Americans do the dirty work, and didn't seem to care much
about whatever might happen to their country. At any rate, the NVA knew that the alert level of the ARVN would be even lower, making their job that much easier. Their buildup had been going on right under our noses for some time, and while we knew that there was more action, we had no real idea of what was going on.
I write this from the perspective of an individual of little rank, who basically was out of the loop as far as long range goals. The generals no doubt had much more that they knew, and the history books have proven
that. But for the Warrant Officer pilot, our world was from mission to mission, not really understanding or even caring about an overview. We were trying to not get shot down, not get killed or maimed in the mortar
attacks, and make it through another mission while counting the days to DEROS. This is pretty much the plight of the common soldier in all wars; while the big guys with the stars on their epaulets direct our
lives and think about the big picture, the people in the shit just try to make do, to survive to live and fight another firefight, while thinking about where they would rather be.
On the night of 31 Jan, I was detailed to fly a LRRP extraction. The LRRPS (Long Range Reconaissance Patrol) were along the Saigon River, north of Saigon, and they were reporting large enemy troop movements in their area. They rightfully were scared of being detected, and made their way to a spot where they could be picked up by one of our slicks. I flew gun cover, and I don't recall any problems with the extraction. Put yourself in the place of the slick crew, however. LRRP extractions were usually hot, you are landing in a spot where your only point of reference is a flashlight or strobe, you cannot use your landing light for fear of being shot, at any second you could be fired upon by unseen VC who are just waiting to be the proud soldier that got an American helicopter, and all the while the people that you are picking up are
speaking in frightened tones because they are surrounded by enemy troops. All I had to do was give gun cover; the slick had to make the approach, get the LRRPS, and get out in one piece. NO FUN!
During the extraction, we saw ARVN compounds all around the area welcome in the Year of the Rat, pointing their weapons skyward and firing tracers into the air. Of course, with us being IN the air, we weren't
too impressed with their lack of concern for our safety, but at the same time, the show was impressive. On our return to Cu Chi after the completion of the extraction mission, we took a wide berth around any
ARVN compounds so as not to become a casualty of their drunken revelry. About 0200, while we were trying to get some Zs, we were awoken by huge white flashes accompanied by tremendous explosions. My first experience with the NVA and their 122mm rockets was just what they hoped for; something that would scare the crap out of us, put us on edge, and generally disrupt our lives. As those first rockets started to fall, we in the Centaurs who were not assigned to fly made a mad dash to trenches which were in the process of becoming bunkers, but now were merely holes in the ground. We lay there, covering up as best we could, listening to a sound that in the next few weeks become all too familiar; the WHOOSH of the incoming rockets, followed by the deafening explosion and flash that made night into day for a millisecond. The enemy was evidently targeting the flight line and runway, and since we lived on the flight line, our area was nailed by the rocketeers. As the rockets came in, it became easy to judge when they were going to land close or pass us by, and as the close ones were about to hit, we hugged mother earth and hoped/prayed that it wouldn't be the last thing that we ever heard. The initial attack was over in a few minutes, and then, giving us a while to think that maybe it was over, another barrage ensued. By the second attack, I was in flak jacket and pisspot, but hearing the intensity of the explosions, there was little comfort in wearing such protection. As yet, I had not seen the crater that a 122 left. When I did, in our troop area and in the Corral after first light, it was obvious that if you were anywhere near the point of impact you could kiss your ass goodbye. All of a sudden, mortar attacks seemed almost fun in comparison to rockets.
Dawn of 1 Feb broke, showing overcast skies, weather indicative of our moods after surviving our first rocket attack. The craters left by the 122s were about 10 to 12 feet across, and maybe 6 feet deep. One had hit near my aircraft that I had flown earlier that night on the LRRP mission, and the helicopter would not be flyable for some time, having numerous holes ripped in it from the rocket. We dug part of that rocket
out of its crater, seeing ChiCom markings on it. As we were looking at it, the SCRAMBLE horn sounded from Operations. I didn't have an aircraft to fly, but went to Ops to see what was going on. Our Ops officer was giving the Number One standby team their mission; a large NVA force was attempting to overrun Tan Son Nhut Airbase, and they were to respond to give air support to the ground forces.
NVA!? Up to now, we knew that we had been fighting some NVA regulars, but most of our contacts were thought to be with VC. LRRPS had seen large movements of troops just Northwest of Saigon; that's why we got them out last night. Now Tan Son Nhut is being attacked. We always thought that TSN was out of the war; I had been to the Air Force Officer's club there once, and everybody looked like they were stateside. They seemed to regard us, in our worn fatigues, unshined boots, and "bush" odor as some kind of apparition. Now, they were getting attacked. At first, it almost sounded funny, and we could picture these guys in their starched fatigues or TWs(tropical worsteds) scrambling around, getting some of what we got, and not liking it.
Our Number One team cranked up, took off, and while still enroute to TSN called back and told Ops that there were NVA everywhere and that all available gunships needed to respond. All I could do was sit there,
having had my ship damaged by the rockets. I sat in Ops, listening to the battle, and heard Doc saying that he was going in near the perimeter of TSN. Our squadron commander, LTC Glenn Otis, had gotten one of our slicks to use as his C and C bird, and they went in and got Doc and his crew. I will not get into specifics of what happened with the 3/4 Cav ground troops on this day, other to say that they literally saved Tan Son Nhut from the NVA, and LTC Otis, with his leadership and bravery under fire, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in directing the ground units in their run from Cu Chi to Saigon. Without his actions, it is likely that the NVA would have taken TSN, at least initially. Other books have described what happened there, and did it much better than I can. My hoochmate, Mike Siegel, received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions as Aircraft Commander in flying Col. Otis' bird. Acts of bravery that day were numerous, and many were no doubt unheralded.
Meanwhile, I sat in basecamp, a spectator in the first actions of Tet. That morning was long and, to understate, stressful. Those of us without aircraft to fly got sandbags and constructed makeshift bunkers.
It seemed, after events of that night, that we might be needing them in the near future.
By that afternoon, I got assigned to relieve one of the other ACs, who had been on station most of the day and was more than ready for a break. I had heard that on every run there was intense return fire, but I had also heard that we were giving out heavy casualties to the bad guys, and while scared, I was ready to get in the action. As I lifted off and started heading towards Saigon, the smoke and fires from the battle were evident all along Highway 1. When I got on station, I was told that we were needed to fire on a warehouse just off of TSN, in the Cholon section of Saigon. Other fire teams were in the area, shooting up the world. It seemed really strange to be rolling in on buildings in the city of Saigon, but it was happening, none the less. At this point, such things as "no fire zones" were not applicable..everything was a fair target, because the NVA were seemingly everywhere. As I started my run on the warehouse, we received heavy AK fire from it, and we returned with rockets, minis, and door gun. As we expended our weapons into the building, it quickly became a smoking hulk, looking a lot like pictures that we had all seen of WWII bombed out buildings. Whoever had been in the building was no longer returning our fire after our passes. And from the look of the building, it was not a healthy place to be.
We returned with rearmed aircraft and continued our assault on the city of Saigon. We were directed to targets of opportunity by the ground troops, and worked in conjunction with the "Razorbacks", the gun platoon of the 120 AHC, whose home base was Hotel 3, the Tan Son Nhut helipad. They lived in villas, and in comparison to us had a pretty good life, but they were in the War now, and they gave a very good account of themselves. We also worked with some Air Force "spookies", C47s equipped with several minieguns that were operated by hand by their crews. As we received more and more fire, with a lot of 50 cal. mixed
in, the Spookies climbed higher and higher, until their tracers were burning out above us, not doing a lot of good to the ground guys except moral support. In fact they put us at risk several times from being shot down by their fire.
Try to picture this scene; there are the Spookies, circling the fight at maybe 5000 or 6000 feet. Below them are helicopter flareships, dropping flares to illuminate the area in their eery glow. We are below the
flareships, along with one or two other gunship fire teams. All the guns are flying blacked out, in order to make less of a target for the 50s. We in the guns are dodging flares, Spooky fire, the other fire teams, and the 50 cal and AK fire that showers us whenever we make a gunrun. On the ground are many diverse units of US and ARVN troops, who are trying to stay out of our way and direct our fire on the best targets. The NVA are seemingly everywhere; whenever we make a pass on a target, Charles opens up on us from another position, not to mention those who we are shooting at returning fire at us in a most convincing
manner. Fires are all around, from burning buildings, vehicles and the like. And while all of this is going on, our helmets fill our heads with radio chatter from the grunts, the Spookies, the other fire teams, our wingman, and our own crew, calling out such niceties as "we just received 50 fire from that building" or "the gooks just RPGd that APC down there!". All in all, the confusion of war was all around us. The whole thing seemed at times to be surreal, like you were in some sort of dream but couldn't awake from it. It wouldn't get a lot better for a long time.
Upon returning to Cu Chi, we found that we had been rocketed again. This, too, was to be an unpleasant fact of life for the next few months. Not chancing what seemed to be inevitable, we went to our makeshift bunkers to try to get some sleep. I had just dozed off when another rocket attack started. Laying in a ditch, wet, tired, scared and pissed off does not make for deep sleep. Guns on the perimeter opened up in force. The gooks must be attempting to breach our wire. I really don't need this shit, I say to whoever is closeby, being the master of the Obvious that I am. The guys on the wire are really shooting now, and the rockets are still falling. I hunker up, trying to become small, but knowing that a direct hit on my bunker and I am little
more than a pink mist. I just hope that the odds will go my way for this attack. Although I know that I will never get used to this, in the months ahead I actually got to where I could sleep through a rocket attack unless they were landing right in our troop area.
The next day brought little relief. I flew in support of more troops on the outskirts of Saigon, mostly Saber units that were cleaning up small patches of ground, retaking what had been ours a couple of days ago.
Each fight was fierce, and while we didn't get shot down, we got many holes in our aircraft, requiring some immediate repairs for such things as the tail rotor driveshaft that was nearly severed by a 50, radios
being shot out, and replacement of rotor blades when they got more than three holes in them (or, one 50, which would cause the aircraft to vibrate badly). On one of these numerous missions that all seem to run
together, my chopper lit up a "Hydraulics" warning light. On a UH 1C, there are two hydraulics systems which allow for a backup system in case of a failure of the other. Charlie models cannot be flown with no
hydraulics, unlike their other Huey brethren, because their larger rotor blades are just too powerful to be moved by humans. So, when we got the Master Caution light, our next procedure was to put the aircraft on the ground ASAP. We were only a short way from a Saber laager position, and as the bright young Warrants that we were, we decided to see if we could turn off the only functional system and see how the aircraft would handle. I had the aircraft, and my Peter Pilot turned off the switch for the number 2 hydraulic system (number one was the one that was inoperable). The helicopter immediately went into a violent right climbing turn, and I could not budge the cyclic, as much as I wanted to. As I was yelling to get the operable hydraulics turned back on, the Peter Pilot was reading my mind. As he flipped the switch back on, we both realized that if we should lose both hydraulics, we were screwed. We put the bird down at the Saber laager, hitched a ride back to Cu Chi in a passing slick, and left our aircraft to be towed back by a Chinook.
We learned more than we ever wanted to know about NVA 50 Cal. antiaircraft machineguns during this time. They were really 51s, being 12.7mm, but who was counting. The NVA were very good at setting up
triangulated AA positions, and when we would roll in on one, two others would open up from other directions on us. When the bullets went by, there was a loud "POP", and I swear that the tracers looked as big as
basketballs when directed at us. On one mission, I remember getting shot at by 4 different 50s from four different directions at the same time, with the tracers crossing each other and our ship as their intersection point. When the aircraft took a 50 hit, it wrenched violently, where with AK fire there might be a bit of noise and possibly you could feel the hit through the cyclic. With a 50, there was no doubt.
I know that on at least three different occasions that I destroyed 50 cal positions. Once, on a night flight in support of ground troops, we rolled in on the enemy which was engaging our grunts. As I touched off
the first rocket, two 50s opened up on us. One of them was almost on line with my line of attack, and with a small adjustment, I put the ship right on this particular gun crew and dumped all my rockets right on top
of him. At the same time, my wingman took on the other 50, nailing him with rockets, as well. There was no more fire from either of those positions, and I knew that my rockets had been on target. Another occasion was when we were again fired upon by a triangulated position, and one of the positions had the misfortune of being directly in front of me as I started my gun run. He, too, got several 2.75" rockets poured on top of him. This one was in the daytime, and not only did we not get any return fire, but we also got a secondary explosion, which indicated that the NVA also had other armaments in that position.
Another time, also during the height of Tet, we got scrambled to assist an ARVN company between Cu Chi and Saigon. It was reported to us that they were pinned down in a villa, and needed air support. When we got in the air, we made contact with the ARVNs US advisor via FM radio. As soon as we talked to him, we learned that he was wounded, laying in the courtyard of the villa, and that his ARVN troops had retreated to a safe area. They refused to make an attempt to retrieve the wounded American, wanting us to soften the enemy. We learned from the advisor that there was probably a platoon sized NVA element in a villa building about 30 yards from him, and as we made a low pass over the American's position, we received heavy AK fire, and a single 50 opened up on us, as well. We told the American to take whatever cover he could, and made a pass directly at the NVA building, breaking back over the wounded soldier. Again, we and our wingman took heavy fire, and my aircraft was rocked by a hit from the 50. But now we had the 50's position, and on my second pass I placed about 6 or 7 rockets right on top of him. The American, who could see what had happened from his very close position, told us that one of the rockets had been a direct hit on the 50 crew's position. The AK fire lessened, as well, and we called upon the ARVN to go after the advisor. They weren't about to budge. The American was trying to maintain radio contact with us, but it was plain that he was badly wounded, and our orders to the ARVN leader became more and more demanding that they go after him so that we could get him medevaced to Cu Chi, which was only a 5 minute flight away. No, they would not go after him. It was at this time that we seriously contemplated rolling in on the ARVN troops, since the cowardly little bastards were not about to save the poor American. Not wishing to be courtmartialed, we decided that we would not kill our supposed allies, but it was Oh so tempting. Our crew was fuming, screaming every kind of obscenity at our Brothers in Arms, who were going to let that American soldier die because of their cowardice. We flew ever lower and slower over the wounded American, firing miniegun and door guns at the NVA position until there was no return fire. Even then, the spineless bastards refused to retrieve what was now the body of an American serviceman, there in their
country to save them from Communism. We left, helpless, without ammo, furious, and hoping that the NVA would kill every cowardly ARVN in that contingent. When I returned to our Operations, I gave an angry account of our allies' fighting ability, which I was assured would be forwarded to a higher authority. I don't know if anything happened to that ARVN unit, but I hope that they were all killed. They richly deserved it.
Tet rolled on. Day after day, the battles, rocket and mortar attacks, sleepless nights and constant contact became a blur. It is amazing that when under this type of combat stress, the body seems to be on auto
pilot, and exhaustion from lack of sleep becomes almost normal to the point that we seemingly could still perform well for days on end. I am sure that our combat readiness suffered badly, but we were all so tired
that nobody seemed to notice. The Offensive lasted a month, and during that time my unit alone was in on the deaths of many, many VC and NVA. Our losses were zero killed, but several wounded. In the war of
attrition, there can be little doubt as to who the victor was. While we decisively won the battles during Tet, and put such a crimp in the enemy that the VC were virtually wiped out during the time, the press corps
and the anti-war protestors gave the victory to the North. The political ramifications were harmful to the war effort, and the high officials did little to make it better. Tet became a political victory for the Communists, despite them getting their butts severely kicked militarily. Those of us who were doing the fighting and saw how both sides were faring never could understand how the NVA/VC got one in the Win column for this fight, but that is how the history books record the Tet Offensive.