War Stories 10
The Battle For Hill 376
By Marcus Pryor
Part I-The Beginning
At 0300 on the morning of May 15, 1969, I was awakened by Jim Matthews, the CQ. He told me to report to Major Dolin's hootch. On arrival, we (the other platoon leaders and I) were told that were to have our platoons reday for action at Chu Lai by noon. He stated that the Americal Division had declared a tactical emergency and the First Brigade was being sent to help out.
We arrived at Chu Lai around 1130, and were promptly put with our counterparts with the Americal. After an AO briefing, we were given our first mission. It was to fly out to Professional and try to find the unit
that had attacked the base earlier.
That began an intensive hunt for the 2nd NVA Regiment. This unit had been in Vietnam for a long time, but had been recently reinforced and reorganized, with new bases and equipment. For the next two weeks we felt our way around the Song Thien River Valley. It was a particularly brutal and hostile landscape. It had been labeled "fifty cal valley" (or death valley, another of it's nicknames) by our predecessors. This was a reflection of the numerous (at least 50 were found) antiaircraft firing positions.
Exactly one week after entering the AO, we had our worst day yet. Ted Burns had been flying up the river trying to find the trail they were using for resupply. He took at least one 12.7 round and went down. The cobra and C & C a/c had lost sight of him. I was his replacement on station, and went to find him.
As I descended, I began receiving 12.7 fire. One round went just over my loach, and another went just under. I leveled out just in time to see an arm waving from the riverbank. We threw smoke, and the next thing I knew things turned to hell. A 12.7 round went under my seat, wiped out the supports holding my cyclic, and hit Ed Barnes in the leg. I immediately lost commo, but, for some reason, the a/c was still flying.
I could lift the cyclic up and down, like it wasn't attached to the airframe. I never knew when it might quit flying, so I flew low and slow, turning toward Tam Ky north. Ed was screaming his head off, so I knew he was
probably hurting pretty bad. The hospital was at Tam Ky north, so I intended to try and get there if possible. I slowed the a/c to about 50 knots and trucked on. We flew between FSB Young and Hill 376 just a few feet off the ground. We made it out onto the coastal plain and were still flying, so I began to think we might make it. I managed to land it at the medivac pad with our cobra just behind.
Ed was wounded, but not quite as bad as first thought. he spent a few days in the hospital and eventually returned to flying. Ted and his observer Sp4 Rodriguez were sent to Japan. Ted returned 4 months later. Both aircraft were totaled and never flew again.
The action along the river continued for the next 8 days unabated. A truce was declared for the 30th in commemoration of Buddha's birthday. We were told that we were not to initiate any action. That morning at about 0830 I was scouting on the side of Hill 376, a prominent hill that rose out of the
valley. It overlooked the entire coastal plain, including the MAG 13 airstrip at Chu Lai. As far as I can tell, no one had ever bothered to look on top of the hill. At least nothing had ever been seen to be amiss.
I immediately began to notice signs of activity. Bare spots alongside rock formations suggested the possibility of bunker entrances. I had just reported what I had seen when I was amazed to see 8 NVA regulars standing in the open. They looked as startled to see me as I was to see them. I immediately called "taking fire" and swung around to get my mini in position. Two fell immediately. The others disappeared into their nearby bunker entrance. The ceasefire was officially over. The amazing thing is, a short time later a brigade scout had a nearly identical experience a few klicks away!!
Almost directly west of Chu Lai sits a steep hill that seems to spring out of nothing between the coastal plain and the Song Thien River.
In retrospect, it's strategic importance is obvious. It overlooks both the huge military complex at Chu Lai and the province capital of Tam Ky. It is listed on maps as simply Hill 376 (it's height in meters).
It sits about halfway between firebases Young and Professional. In order to get to our AO west of Professional, we flew right past it practically every day. For at least a year, no one had bothered to recon the top of the hill. As far as I can tell, very few shots were ever fired from the top of the hill at helicopters passing by. The reason would become painfully clear.
As I said in the last chapter, the cease fire had been broken on Buddha's birthday by action on the west side of the hill. Major Dolin took a good look at all the spot reports sent by pink teams and decided that the hill might prove to be an intersting recon target for the Blues Platoon.
Everyone had assumed for months that the headquarters for the remnants of the 2nd NVA Division (actually reduced to two regiments) were to the west and south of Professional. That was where the F/8th and other Americal units were looking. We had been given a Zone for reconnaisance early on called Recon Zone Alpha. This was roughly a 20 square klick box that included the river valley and Hill 376. No one but us thought a major headquarters could be in our "box".
Major Dolin approached Gunslinger (1st Brigade commander, Col Dietrich) about putting in a company of the 1/501st on the hill. This was on the June 1. The problem was that most 1st Bde assets were involved in another action in support of Americal in another part of the AO. He wanted to keep the 1/501st in reserve. He told Gary, in essence, that that was what his blues were for. If he developed something, he would then commit his reserves.
The next day we continued our recon around the military crest of the hill. It soon became obvious that we had something big. I and the other scouts told Gary we thought a battalion might be on the hill. As we began to get more and more involved in the recon, we came more and more under the fire of the 12.7s that were entrenched to the west, north and south of the hill. We had been hitting them with artillery, ADA, 500 lb bombs and everything else but the kitchen sink for almost 3 weeks, yet we couldn't silence them. It
was getting more and more obvious that they were protecting something.
Around noon on the 2nd, Gary made the decision to insert the blues. He chose a fairly open area right on top of the hill. It seemed like the safest place to insert. We had recieved no fire from right on top, so it was naturally assumed that most of the firing positions were on the military crest.
The insertion went according to plan. The Blues had been reduced to 17 by attrition, so it took only a stick of three for the insertion. At first there was no sign of enemy activity. The slicks made it out of the area
without getting shot at. Then the shit hit the fan. Lt (now retired BG) Mike Burke ordered the men to get up and move out. The first man up was cut down immediately. It suddenly looked like a firepower emonstration. The only thing to hide behind were a few rocks a couple of feet high. The platoon, (which was relatively green) simply was not prepared for this intense a firefight. One man was actually shot when he, for reasons known only to him, took out after a chicken which went runnng throught the LZ.
Sp4 Joseph (Guy) Lapointe was our medic. He was actually supposed to be on R & R in Hawaii. His replacement never showed up, so he came along with the platoon to the top of the hill. As soon as the first man was hit, he began low crawling to his side. He adminstered first aid to each man as he was hit until he himself was hit and killed while trying to cover Sgt. Reed's body with his own. He later received the MOH for his actions.
All in all, five of the 17 were KIA immediately, with 4 others wounded. When Mike called for help, Gary tried to fly into the AO in his "B" model. He was shot down immediately, and his FO was badly wounded. He was hit in the leg by a 12.7 round. I was flying around the perimeter doing the best job of suppression I could with my mini. Lonnie was firing out the other door with his Car-15. Two cobras made pass after pass firing everything they had. Two more cobras from ARA soon joined the daisy chain. Two of the loaches who
came on station took rounds and were forced to return to Tam Ky. I took some rounds but was able to keep flying.
A desperate call for ammo resupply brought help from Fernando De Pierris and another slick. Fernando (our slick platoon leader) had volunteered for the job. Amazingly, they landed in the LZ without incident!
Gunslinger made the decision to commit the 1/501st as soon as the action started. B company landed about a klick away and began the recon by fire that would bring them to the top of the hill. About 1745, the linkup and relief was complete, altho the platoon would remain on the hill until the following morning
The two remaining companies of the 1/501st were inserted on to the hill. The battle continued on unabated for about the next 15 days or so. Our pink teams continued the recon of the hill. After it was all over, it was
discovered to be the headquarters of the 2nd NVA regiment of the 2nd Division. The hill was honeycombed with tunnels, many of which emptied out at the river's edge. This, of course, explained all the 12.7 AA coverage.
The hill had been a major lookout for the regiment for almost two years. They were using it at least in part to monitor air activity out of Chu Laiand Tam Ky.
The Last Ride
For days the anticipation of the reunion of B. Company 25th Aviation Battalion had been running through my head. It would be the first time many of us had seen each other in 33+ years in Cu Chi Vietnam. It would prove to be an emotional experience. One of healing long lost camaraderie, and laughter, a weekend to remember for a lifetime.
I had worked many thousands of hours to make this happen. The men of Diamondhead were brothers like no other I had met in my life. I needed to find them, to say goodbye before I was gone back to some pile of ashes perched on a shelf somewhere without ever having had the chance.
We had fought a valiant war for an unappreciative America. We had risked our lives for each other, some of us nearly loosing it. Maybe these upcoming few days were why I was spared. On Oct 4, 1968 I should have died in a mid-air collision but for some reason was spared. Maybe this was why.
I took it upon myself to give us what we were cheated out of, to somehow make it right for us if only for a weekend. I spent more than a year locating first one member then another until I had found about 250. We needed a reunion to help heal those wounds we had inside, the ones you can't see. The ones embedded in your soul. The ones you dream about and wake up sweating and screaming with. The ones you have no one to talk to about that really understands. Only the camaraderie of Diamondhead could do that. We were a “Band Of Brothers”, and I would just have to band them together again one last time. Maybe none of them would understand the importance of being with each other one more time until it was over, but they would in the end understand.
We got no damn Parade when we came home, only jeers and abuse. I would give us the parade we needed, Our Parade, the one we never got when we came home. We deserved it. With the help of Paul Pelland, a Charleston resident and former Vietnam helicopter pilot, the details were worked out with the Citadel in Charleston S.C. We would be the guests of honor or at least one of the guests of honor at their traditional Friday parade on April 12. That was accomplished and everyone appreciated it. I saw the smiles. I saw hardened veterans starting to soften and become if just for a little while the youth they once were. To me those memories will always be priceless. Those mental images themselves had been worth all the effort to make it happen
I needed something else. I needed a helicopter. The common bond we all had of the “Helicopter War” fought in a far away place called Vietnam. It would be the glue that stuck the event together. It would be the catalyst of the re bonding that would occur.
I knew of a Diamondhead OH-6 that was being restored in Calif. I contacted the owners, and it wouldn't be ready in time, maybe for Reunion Phase II in Phoenix in June, so I would just have to settle for any old Huey. I guess that would be better than no helicopter at all.
Out of the blue about six months ago Steve Lindley a sergeant with the Anderson County Sheriffs Department contacted me and wanted to know if he could bring one of our old ships to the reunion. I nearly had a heart attack. My prayers had been answered. It was not just any Huey, it was 961 an old bird we all had intimate knowledge of. It was our old Smoke Ship. Innumerable medals had been earned in that ship. It still had the bullet holes of honor and battle scars it acquired with us in Vietnam. It had rescued LRRP teams from certain death, it had medi-vaced dying soldiers to the 12th Evacuation Hospital who otherwise wouldn't have survived, and it had rescued downed pilots and crews. Yes, she was a hero herself. She had but one more Diamondhead mission to accomplish, “Our Last Ride”, the ride that would make us whole again, the ride that would bring one chapter in our life to an end.
As Saturday morning arrived, the weather was clearing in Charleston S.C. but there was a 200-foot ceiling in Greenville S.C. 961's departure had been delayed. God could not let this happen. This final chapter had to be played out in its entirety. It could not end like our war in Vietnam half done. Finally at 1 P.M. the call came on the cell phone the weather had cleared, and they were inbound and would arrive in an hour. As time ticked away the anticipation grew.
I had for months kept a secret. I had told them the aircraft was flying in, but I had failed to tell them the old crewmembers, they would get to go flying. In case something went wrong I didn't want myself, or the crewmembers to bear the disappointment of it not happening.
In the distance we could hear that all familiar Wop,Wop, Wop that only a Huey makes. It brought cold chills up my spine. Very faintly at first but as she got closer the crescendo got louder and louder until it rattled the windows of the hotel as she settled to the grass in the vacant lot behind the Holiday Inn. As I surveyed the crowd I found Jack Mosley, and Poncho Salazar hugging each other and so many smiles you couldn't count them all. I too was smiling; my little plan was coming together and I still had the secret they didn't know safely secured in my head.
As her engine shut down, and as her blades whistled in the afternoon breeze slowly coming to a stop, her old pilots and crewmembers mobbed her. Climbing on her like it was yesterday to check out all the bullet holes and scars of honor she had earned so long ago. Poncho Salazar her old crewchief, and Jack Mosley her old gunner climbing up in the gunners wells which had been home so many years ago. Charlie Burnett once her gunner was also checking out the intimate portions of the old girl he knew. I got out the camera to capture those personal memories forever.
We had five pilots on hand that had flown this old bird on many combat missions and they to took their places in the pilot's seats and that last picture. It was beautiful and brought back oh so many memories from that distant land we all knew so well.
While everyone was taking pictures and reminiscing the past adventures of this old bird I walked over to Steve Lindley and thanked him for bringing her and presented him and the crew that flew her to Charleston with a Diamondhead patch. That would link the past with the future. Wherever they would go something of us would be with them. We discussed “The Last Ride”, which was verified and would occur. Still the secret of what would soon occur was secure in my head.
Ex First Sergeant Davison took up a collection and we sent the Sheriffs Department off to lunch in style.
Upon their return from lunch Sgt Lindley pointed at Jack Mosley, Poncho Salazar, Chuck Burnett, and myself to get in the back where we quickly staked out our favorite spots. Bob Segers was assigned the left seat. With everyone buckled in but me, the seat belt was refusing to work I don't care how far I sucked in my not so skinny old gut. Pancho was sitting in the floor with his feet dangling out the right side, Chuck Burnett in the passenger seat next to the door, Jack Mosley in the gunners well on the left side, and myself still struggling with the seat belt in the right side gunners well.
Sgt Lindley hit the starter switch and the old girl responded immediately. The whine of the starter generators kicking in, the tic-tic-tic of the igniters searching for fuel, the whoosh of ignition, the blades slowly starting to spin searching for 6000 RPM, the singing of the blades as they cut through the afternoon air. The smell of burnt JP-4
It brought back the memories of those late night missions so long ago. I remembered the good times and the bad times. In my mind I could still here the pilots of yester year “Cu Chi tower, Cu Chi tower, this is Diamondhead 961 on the Beach, scramble”, and the towers reply “Roger Diamondhead, your clear south on the active”, and then the beeping of the engine up to 6600 RPM as the blades beat the air into submission. Yes those were the times.
We lifted off and could feel the lightness on the skids, which put a huge smile on my face. Poncho's and my eyes met, nothing but smiles no words were necessary. Sgt Lindley brought her up to a 20-foot hover tipped the nose over and we were off quickly we were up to 800 feet and turned right up the river. Below I could make out a yacht, if it were only a Sampan it would have been heaven. It seemed a little odd to not have an M-60 in the mount in front of me, but that was OK. In my old age I would probably hurt myself with one. We swung out over the trees and dropped it down and buzzed along just off their tops and I caught myself looking for bunkers and spider holes. Such memories.
Over the Intercom I heard Sgt. Lindley ask Bob Segers if he wanted to fly her. I agree with Bob, that was the dumbest question of all time. In about two seconds Bob was right at home, just like he had done so many times before. We flew on for 5 or 10 minutes. We encountered a little turbulence and the blades popped as it clawed at the air. It was like music to my ears. Soon we were headed back to the LZ but Bob just had to do something fun, no straight in approach no sir, not today. A tight 360 over the Hampton Inn across the street at 500 feet almost standing her on her side was the call of the hour. That brought a group cheer from all of us in the back. I swear that lady in the swimming pool flashed us with her bathing suit top. I lobbied for a go around to make sure but was over ruled. I had flashed back to the old plantation out of Dau Tieng and the French lady we would sneak up on in the pool there occasionally. Yeah, those were the times.
It had been fifteen minutes of heaven. Fifteen minutes that would put to rest a lifetime of pain and a closing of a chapter in our life. It was also the beginning of a new era, a new chapter in our lives of new friendships, and continuations of old ones, that hopefully would grow and continue on far into the future. It had been “The Last Ride”, but what a ride.
Blast from the Past
We were attending a reunion of the 25th Aviation Battalion, the Little Bears and the Diamondheads. A very special visitor to the reunion was a Vietnam era helicopter and it was scheduled to arrive at the hotel in the early Saturday afternoon. CWO Greg Bucy, CWO Chuck Moore, and I decided to visit CWO Hayne Moore prior to its arrival.
As we were just returning from visiting CWO Moore, the old war bird approached the hotel. All three of us heard the unmistakable sound that only a Huey could make. My heart quickened at the sound and it took only a few seconds to spot it in the sky. I was so excited, I drove my vehicle behind the hotel and parked nearby. There she was, a magnificent beauty to behold, not just because she was a former Diamondhead Huey, but because she was a remembrance of the Helicopter War, fought so long ago. She had new Sheriff markings, but her lines were unmistakable. This trustworthy steed, which had flown so many combat missions, now flew with the Anderson County Sheriff's Office. It was unbelievable to see our old Huey still performing such honorable service after all these years
As the rotor blades came to a stop, she was surrounded by former pilots, crew chiefs, and door gunners. It was a very special moment for everyone. Here was a symbol of our youth and military service. Never has a helicopter had so many pictures taken of her so quickly. Naturally, I had my picture taken in both front seats.
For me, there were many memories, some good and some not so good. I flew this very helicopter on October 4, 1968 on a sniffer mission. During the mission, a Cobra crashed and this venerable chopper rescued both crewmen, one of whom, CWO Chuck Moore, the aircraft commander, was in attendance at the reunion. CWO Moore expected to die that day and instead has always believed he had been given a new lease of life that day and lived it to the fullest. He went on to become a Naval aviator and flew F-4 Phantom jets off aircraft carriers. Later he flew for a commercial airline before retiring. The other pilot, WO George Conger still flies helicopters in Saudi Arabia for an oil company.
Unbeknown to all but webmaster Ron Leonard, a lucky pilot would be selected to fly again, as well as four former crew chiefs and door gunners. Former crew chiefs, Ron Leonard & Poncho Salazar, and door gunners Jack Mosley & Charlie Burnett were honored to fly once again. While the Sheriff's crew was at lunch, a decision was made as to which pilot would fly once again. When the crew returned from lunch, I was discussing flight helmets with a crewmember and remarked I still had mine from Vietnam. He said to go get it. I complied and upon return I was informed my helmet would not work properly, as I could hear but due to impedance mismatch in the microphone, I could not talk. (Some might say “So what is the problem?) That is when I was told by the co-pilot, “You can use mine”. I did not understand until he said, “you get to fly this mission”. Immediately, my pulse shot off the scale as the adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I was so excited I was actually going up again in a helicopter I had flown so many times.
I quickly climbed in and all the other former crewmembers had already staked out their seats. As I buckled myself in, I scanned the instrument panel, and it looked almost like it did 33 years ago. A crowd was gathered around and I was thrilled I was the one to fly once again. Soon the familiar whine of the engine starting was followed by the rotor blades quickly slicing through the air. I could not tell what was going faster, my heart or the rotor blades. Soon all gauges were in the green and the collective was pulled up and the unmistakable feeling of departing the ground began. Soon we were airborne and whisking through the sky. I was experiencing feelings I had not felt in over 30 years.
The pilot asked if I wanted to fly her. I mean no disrespect, but that was the dumbest question I had ever been asked. Shortly after assuming control, he remarked, “It didn't take but two seconds for everything to come back, did it?” Hell, it took less than that. Some things one never forgets, and this most assuredly was one of them. It was if I had never left the cockpit. I turned and looked over my shoulder and saw 961's former crew chief, Poncho Salazar with the biggest grin on his face. Like me, he was transformed into a kid again. It was if Poncho had never left this helicopter, as on landing, he was seen hanging on with one arm while standing outside the chopper on the skids.
We were old in experience but very young of heart. Our faces may have been weathered and wrinkled, but the broad grins on our faces removed any vestiges of age and our wrinkles vanished. Once again, even if only for a few exhilarating minutes, we were a band of brothers transported back in time to a place far away. Our memories were refreshed to our deeds accomplished so many years ago.
As we landed a large crowd was there to greet us. We exited our old war bird with our spirits soaring higher than we ever flew that day. Even if only for a short time, we five were reborn after receiving our 15 minutes of fame.
As she flew off, we five stood at attention and saluted as she flew and disappeared from sight but not our memories. It was an experience all five us will never forget and will forever cherish. I will always maintain a mental picture of this last flight in my mind until I die. Our flight was best summed up best by door gunner Charlie Burnett, when he exclaimed, “Now I can die”. None of us could have expressed our feeling any more appropriate than that.
By - Kenneth R. Wheatley 2000©
The Cobra: Part 1 ~ Just Another Day
“I felt as if I were dead and traveling to the Spirit Land; for now all my old ideas were to give place to new ones, and my life was to be entirely different from that of the past.”
~ Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux
19 OCTOBER 1969
The day was set in motion as umpteen others were inside the strife plundered nation known then as South Vietnam. An enlisted man came into my sleeping area and shook my form as though he was attempting to awaken the dead. Moving quietly, as if he were the shadow of the night scurrying about, he arrived a few minutes prior to the sun rising over Dau Teing's horizon.
The walls of my room had been constructed from discarded rocket boxes. We emptied more rocket boxes than was our fair share. We were on the northwest directional corridor from Saigon toward Cambodia. None of us could rest easily. The enemy might come to remove our presents at any time.
It was our task to prevent the North Vietnamese from walking openly toward our southeastern capital of Saigon. It wasn't what I'd call an easy job but it was a living. I got more money than many people on our planet but felt I'd earned it much more than anyone else. Was anything really worth dying for?
Nailing our rocket-box boards into walls and rooms was our usual pass time around Dau Teing camp. We had plenty of wood left over after emptying these boxes. We had our own blowtorch together with assorted gas bottles that we used to burn the walls on their rough surfaces. Each room builder had to burn the wood differently of course so it wouldn't blend into uniformity. The crewmembers worked hard until they were pleased with their personal sense of charm and uniformity for the decoration inside their own private space. The walls were there to give us a touch of privacy and also helped us to get a sense of stability and ownership over the ever-changing theater of war where we performed daily.
Sunrise in Vietnam gave me the feeling I was nearer to my family and ranch back in Texas. I pretended that they, back home, could look at their sunset, while I looked at my sunrise, which together, could let our eyes from both worlds actually observe the same sun simultaneously. It helped remind me that once upon a time I was born far away and in a distant land, but it seemed such a long time ago. The rest of each day and night, I forgot about my family ties, and thought of two things - staying alive and killing our very capable enemy.
This particular enlisted man sent to awaken me usually lugged along a heavy flashlight that beamed brightly into my sleep filled mind and eyes. Speaking softly, so as not to awaken the others nearby, he whispered in my ear, “Sir, it's time to get up, you have a flight mission waiting for you at dawn.”
I rolled my feet around and out of bed placing them firmly on the floor. It was a dirty concrete floor and I could feel the grit there under my toes. We in the First Cavalry had no Vietnamese hooch maids as most other American units in South Vietnam. Our Division Commander, figuring properly for once, had decided all Vietnamese were spies. None could be trusted within our living area unless they were under armed guard. That way they couldn't tell the enemy soldiers later where their rockets had hit or how to walk them accurately into our important buildings. The enemy was left guessing whenever they fired any kind of explosive device into our living and working base area.
Cleaning our living environment and us was a full time job during our off times. I promised myself that I'd try and find a cheap but seldom found Vietnamese broom. A Vietnamese broom was no more than weeds bundled together tightly and tied. If I didn't get one by the time I returned later in the day, I would soon need a shovel to clean out my room.
The enlisted man's voice transformed my sleeping twenty-three year old combat veteran form into a current life of Vietnam gunship helicopter pilot.
Dressing quickly I put on my odd colored green, itchy, but much needed fire resistant flight suit. The suit made me too hot and sweaty under that already too hot of a Vietnamese sun outside during each day. I would have preferred wearing my jungle fatigues, as I once had, because they were so much cooler, but my third platoon leader had caught me wearing them and had gone to my Company Commander complaining, “One of the men in the third platoon is not following orders properly, Sir. It's that pilot, Whitley, he's flying without proper fire protection.”
Along with this itchy suit I pulled on my black leather boots and secured them tightly to my feet. As soon as I was totally dressed I went to our mortar scarred, hole infested, mess hall to grab a few powdered eggs. Those tasteless eggs matched my miserable life in this hellhole. A slice of fried Spam and a cup of bitter tasting carbon black coffee could then fulfill my breakfast tasting event.
An “FNG,” meant “Fucking New Guy” in NAM slang, because all the new guys were dumb in warfare fighting ability. An FNG would be my copilot during this up and coming day but he seemed all right. Cashon, my copilot, was a map-reading instructor who'd just arrived from “Across the Big Pond” in the USA. The big PX was another slang term used for America. Cashon was considered by all here a long timer, which meant he had a full year left to fight, while I was known as a short timer, with just six more weeks left on my tour. Time does go ticking by, but whether or not one attempts to shorten it, or tries to make it run faster, it will at that moment take in sail and drop anchor.
Cashon was starting his second tour in South Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, but it would be his first tour trying to tame the newer Cobra gunship that was inside our company. Unless one had the proper outlook, meaning a strong attitude toward success, a Cobra was not an easy nut to crack.
There are many differences between Huey helicopters and Cobra helicopters. The Cobra was tall, skinny and fast while the Huey was ponderously slow in comparison and much wider. The Gunship had tandem seating, two seats one behind the other, while the Huey, by its very name, after baby Huey in the old comic books, had super baby strength, which meant it could carry a much larger load than previous helicopters. The two pilots sat side by side in the Huey and could actually look across at one another shoulder to shoulder seeing each other completely. Inside the Cobra the front seat pilot had a tiny rearview mirror that was used to glance back and see the rear pilot's face and helmet and vice a versa.
The crew, alone, on the Huey added up to four people, two pilots and a crew chief on one side door as a door gunner and a weapons specialist on the other rear side as the door gunner. The Cobra carried two pilots aboard with no room for any one else. If we were to try and rescue anyone using the Cobra they had to ride facing backward on the rocket pods that were hanging from the little wings on each side of the ship. In an emergency, passengers could be on the outside of the aircraft, facing aft, but only two men could ride in this manner, one on each stubby side wing.
Cashon's previous combat experience while flying the Huey certainly wouldn't dishonor him in my eyes. At least he'd been in combat before. Those pilots that hadn't been under enemy fire were harder to keep calm. Their nerves kept getting in the way when the bullets flew to close. They had to learn what it took to remain together under extreme circumstances prior to learning anything else. After being baptized in rains of bullets they could then learn the Cobra's attacking abilities. A pilot who became overpowered by his own panic was usually a short lived one. I'd take this second tour man, anytime, over a first tour “FNG”.
After forcing a few bites of our early morning breakfast we went to the TOC, Tactical Operations Center, underground bunker for the days mission briefing. I'd been flying Cobra helicopters, in Vietnam by that time for eleven months which, when thought about, gave me my daily fix for extra courage. Finally, after all this time, I was actually seeing the glimmering light at the end of hell's tunnel. I could count my combat flying days left almost on my fingers and toes.
Never in my wildest dreams or futuristic fantasies could I have realized that this day was going to become a very memorable day, above all the other days, in my entire life span. This day would furnish me with a flight extraordinary. This one flight, over all others, would have the power to revisit my consciousness at will and as often as it deemed necessary.
The Cobra: Part 2 ~ The Mission
Cashon and I were assigned to a hunter killer mission. “Hunter killer” sounds rather primitive and evil but it was usually boiled down to simply the following. The flight on this date would be inside the Song Be area up toward our farthest north, Three Corp., operational area. We were lucky enough to be the only Cobra sent up there, from my unit, this day. Cashon and I were taking another small helicopter a Hughes LOH, Low Observation Helicopter, pronounced “Loach” with us, from another First Cavalry Division unit. The enemy long ago destroyed the only LOH type helicopter my company ever had. Song Be was further outside our AO, Area of Operation, so I felt uneasy about not knowing the area well.
The weather, that day, was another obstacle for us folks flying missions toward Song Be because of low ceilings and poor visibility up there. Bad weather was scattered through out their high terrain. Weather could make that type terrain and its protruding hills near impossible to negotiate. Granite cliffs hid within the ground hugging cloud decks and if crashed into, the pilot kissed his “alpha hotel,” tail end, farewell. I expected a long day of fighting the enemy and weather. My ability in handling these two conditions simultaneously would be tested, because when they worked together against me, they could sometimes unglue my emotional hinge. My gut feeling and expectations of bad things to come would not disappoint me. These acts would help explain, in my opinion, during future days, what made me aware of my psychic intuitions.
Cashon and I left our TOC and returned to our individual living areas to pick up our supply of personal equipment and weapons. I always carried the following; a six shot thirty-eight revolver, a browning pump twelve gauge shotgun, with flachett darts inside the shotgun shells, plus a bag of thirty shotgun shells, along with an M-16 assault rifle and ten taped up clips of assault rifle ammo and maps and code books.
We pilots had learned the clip-taping trick from the fighting grunts (Infantry men) who taped their clips together. In a firefight it was possible to extinguish a clip, pull out the one just emptied, flip it over handily and then push in the full one for immediate use.
The long length of these assault rifles forced a serious problem upon Cobra pilots whenever we attempted to carry them inside our cockpits. The cockpit was so small, cramped, and filled with flight controls it allowed us to bring only our revolver inside. There was simply no room for long barreled weapons inside that cockpit. The longer weapons were so unruly there; they got in the way in every way possible. My second place choice for the weapons was to place them inside the ammo bay located down below. They could be stowed and locked away there below our cockpit.
If we went down, way out there in enemy country, my peers and I had to hurry outside and arm ourselves. This was of course after being shot down or mechanically grounded for some reason. That was “if” a pilot could get out of the cockpit successfully by locating the latches, and then open the ammo bay enough to reach inside and extract his weapons & ammo.
Our cockpit doors opened on opposite sides, so that no matter which side our aircraft might end up laying on, one of us could exit usually.
So far, during this my first combat tour in country, I hadn't been forced to use this option. I'd had some close calls so I always felt those weapons down below were to far away to ensure retrieval. To stand and fight with a six shot, thirty-eight, revolver wasn't my ideal of an airtight defense. We Cobra pilots had to try and stay near our downed aircraft whether or not we expected a rescue. Staying near the crash might force us into having a firefight. A rescuer could find our aircraft much easier than a two men fleeing into the jungle canopy.
While I was inside my living area that morning I picked up my flight helmet. It was painted black in the upper front with a small white skull and cross bones. It seemed appropriate at the time. I had difficulty, from our ranking officers, in maintaining anything other than an Army issued olive drab helmet. They didn't want us pilots killing with any kind of individual personality shown. They'd brought us to our units, in the war zone, alone, and they'd sent us away alone, but the brass wanted us to look and act as if we were an ominous mass of army men in the war.
When we were ready for our day, Cashon and I went out to our Smiling Tiger, D-229th flight line to locate our assigned Cobra gunship for that day. Our aircraft wasn't the normally scheduled aircraft that I flew often and preferred. My favorite Cobra helicopter “340,” with my name written boldly on its skin, was grounded for maintenance. Each aircraft had scheduled days off each month similar to us pilots with our days off. Cashon and I checked our assigned aircraft 67-15458 carefully during preflight inspection. This bird had to take us into harms way and back home again. I had done this so often, by now, it was just a routine. I felt I'd need a beer after this day was over.
Our Cobra was loaded down heavily with fifty-six, 2.75-inch diameter, seventeen-pound warhead rockets. A mini-gun with six barrels was located in the nose turret near a large supply of twelve thousand rounds of 7.62 ammunition. The mini-gun alone could shoot four thousand rounds at the enemy each minute. She also had a grenade launcher located inside the nose turret that fired three hundred rounds of forty-millimeter grenades a minute. Each grenade had a ten-meter killing radius when exploded. The aircraft had three hundred of these grenades stored in a large round cylinder stowed just below my cockpit inside our ammo bay.
All seemed well with our aircraft so we climbed in and cranked up its powerful turbine engine. Shortly after checking all the aircraft's many and varied systems, we flew off to join our low observation helicopter. Once that meeting was accomplished in the air, both helicopters headed north toward Song Be. It was a heading that would lead me toward a new experience and a totally new attitude about life itself.
I had difficulty with the weather on the way to Song Be but low ceilings and drizzling rain wouldn't stop me. No Sir, I figured Song Be must be in trouble if they were asking our unit for help in fighting there. That was my job; go where the action was and help the American soldiers involved. Sometimes my efforts were not enough but, if it were possible, I usually helped them out of their bind.
Charlie, our enemy, preferred bad weather days to start combat. They attacked while our airplanes and helicopters couldn't fly to the rescue of American soldiers. Sure enough, in the early morning hours of this rainy day, a unit of ours was hit and men were wounded and bleeding. Medivac was called to get them out of their war zone.
“Medivac” or “Dust Off” call signs were used in Vietnam often. Hospital Huey helicopters with big red & white crosses painted on them would launch to the rescue. Many of these aircraft unarmed but there was a small number that had M-60 machine guns mounted on each side of their rear cabin doors for defense purposes.
I was standing near my Cobra inside LZ Buttons at Song Be in the drizzling rain trying hard to keep my fighting spirit from getting water logged. An operation's officer ran up and asked me, “Would you consider covering a Medivac helicopter that's going in after the wounded?”
He pointed north and mentioned information that all the other Cobra pilots on base had turned down this flight, due to bad weather. I always felt that Medivac flights were important missions. In my mind these were the most important flights when compared to other missions flown. If I were out there fighting in rain and muck up to my bloody hips with Charley I knew I'd want to be brought out quickly if wounded. I'd want to be picked up and taken to the closest hospital. Without that option being available our fighting men wouldn't fight as well and who could blame them.
So without knowing the region very well and despite the bad weather I told the officer without hesitation, “I'll take the mission.”
I felt much empathy for the guys on the ground. I still had that Hughes LOH with me, so I walked over to him, Rod Barber, and explained my intentions and asked him, “Would you like to come along on this flight?” He readily agreed. That was the answer I wanted to hear. We took flew off heading north toward where the rendezvous would be made with the Medivac. That meeting ever took place. I heard later the Medivac had completed its mission successfully without me.
In the mean time the weather was worsening as we flew north. The rolling hills seemed to become part of the walls of wallowing clouds. We were forced to fly lower and slower until we finally began flying down inside a tree filled valley. This valley was where we hoped to locate our Medivac.
It was while flying low level inside this valley that we were attacked.
The Cobra: Part 3 ~ It happened as follows…
The Hughes was a stone's throw out in front of me. We were both flying at the same altitude that seemed much too low for my comfort. Suddenly and without warning something caught my eye toward my lower left, very close. I saw a 30-caliber machine gun firing at our aircraft. The enemy weapon was making large muzzle flashes and belching out smoke halos around itself. The rain hadn't dampened their spirit it seemed. The machine gun was hiding behind its own smoke, while it threw red-hot projectiles towards us.
We were about two hundred feet away from it and I could feel its closeness enormously. The enemy machine gunner could easily shoot us down. They had set up a convoy ambush along a small road. The trap was supposed to be tripped by surface vehicles on the road -- not us fly boys. But since we were flying so low and slow we qualified as a target. The gunner had let the little Hughes helicopter pass him by, hoping, he might get the first shot at my gunship and put it out of commission quickly. He probably figured without my Cobra the LOH might flee in panic. His plan worked much better than I would have liked. I had fallen into his trap perfectly.
My first response, upon seeing the danger, was to roll my ship hard right and dive. In this action I desired to get near those treetops below us. I knew if I could get low and near enough to those treetops I might easily evade the bullets. As instantly as I had moved my flight controls the aircraft seemed to blown apart.
A tremendous explosion rocked the helicopter. All at once there was smoke, fire, dirt, and shrapnel about the cockpit. Both doors were blown ajar. Although I was strapped in the force of the blast bounced my head against the top of the helicopter's cockpit. I knew instinctively that my Cobra had been hit hard… very hard…
Time slowed down and began to tick by as if what I was seeing around me was similar to some old black and white movie jumping from one frame to the other at slow hops and starts. Shock came over me quickly. My mind immediately began arguing with itself.
“I'm dead. I knew this was going to happen someday. I knew I'd never get out of Vietnam alive…”
“No, I'm immortal. I can live through anything. Haven't I always made it before?”
Panic reigned… it was as if part of me had left the scene and a weird kind of peace came over me. “So this is what death felt like.”
This may sound all too familiar now, but at that moment, I knew what people meant when they said, “Your life flashes before your eyes.” Mine sure did. I saw my mother and my father and women I had loved and women I wished I had loved. Hell, I even saw my second grade teacher. This was it. “That's it folks.”
All was gone -- my war was over. In my mind's eye the aircraft was for sure a goner. My wings must have been in fiery pieces and I was trapped inside the burning machine without a parachute. Cashon and I were now mere prisoners heading straight down toward our certain death waiting below.
It was not a good moment to be alive.
To my immense surprise I felt little pain. Slowly as I looked down at myself through the smoke and dirt and I was still together with hardly a scratch. Suddenly I realized I was just sitting there, in shock, looking at myself.
I heard the warning horns blaring in my helmet. Overhead I quickly observed rotor blades spinning. Through the smoke and dirt, to my front, I could just barely make out numerous warning lights on the instrument panel. They were dim in their attempt to shine through all that smoke but I could see them blinking out there. Peering through that frightening haze I discovered our engine was still running.
“Damn, how could I have an engine running and rotor blades turning after that huge explosion?”
With a reason of its own my left hand darted out and began doing things as if it were a ghost limb, flipping switches and pulling circuit breakers. I pushed the transmitter switch on my cyclic stick with my right hand and yelled out into the airwaves, “I'm Hit.”
A voice came back immediately and asked me calmly, “Who's hit?” In my bewilderment I had neglected to tell anyone who I was.
“Tiger 34 is hit,” I yelled back.
I had maneuvered the aircraft at the beginning with a right turning dive just prior to the explosion. As low as our aircraft was it wouldn't take us very long to get near those beautiful treetops and safety. My war plan was back on the front burner. I was cooking again.
As I attempted to steer the ship out of its dive a terribly sick feeling of dread overwhelmed me. It was at that moment when I discovered my cyclic, the main flight stick or the main flight control of any helicopter, wouldn't budge forward or backward any and it moved only slightly to the left or right. I couldn't pull her nose up. We were diving and I couldn't stop it.
My thoughts for a few more flash frames were, “My copilot must be responsible for this control problem. Cashon up there in the front seat must be frozen on my controls, he's probably in a state of panic.” I had removed my flight gloves from my hands just prior to the explosion. During that event one of my gloves had blown up and over into his front cockpit. Cashon's first glance at my glove passing by him had convinced him that one of my hands was blown off. He assumed I was severely injured and grabbed his flight controls up front shouting, “I have the controls.”
This was a normal thing for him to say because each and every time we exchanged the controls of the aircraft the pilot relieved would say, “You have the controls,” and the one taking the controls would announce, “I have the controls.” This eliminated cockpit confusion inside the ship about who was actually flying the chopper.
I quickly shouted back at him through the Cobra's intercom system, “Get off the controls.”
Being the appointed aircraft commander meant I was the boss between us two pilots aboard. My copilot didn't have the authority to take the aircraft away from me, unless, I was endangering the aircraft or his life, by some erratic behavior.
He shouted back, “You have the controls.” I announced quickly, “I have the controls.”
This was a good sign because it meant he knew who was in charge here. During an emergency such as this was no time for pilots to duel over the aircraft's flight controls. That alone has caused many crashes in the past.
My cyclic stick was still stuck and it wouldn't budge aft. In my panic filled mind the problem still had to be with him in that front seat. My controls had always moved before so I felt as though they should continue moving.
I shouted again at Cashon, “Get off the controls.” He must have wondered why I had shouted this again?
“I ain't on the controls,” Cashon shouted back to me. Then brilliantly he held both his hands above his flight helmet. That simple act got my total attention. If his hands weren't on the controls then why wouldn't our flight stick move?
I still couldn't move the thing. I shouted at Cashon, “Get on the controls.” I wanted him to attempt to fly this broken kite with his different set of controls, up front, if possible. He tried his cyclic stick trying his best to pull us out of our turning dive and afterward shouted hysterically, “I can't pull her head up.”
We were now playing a different ball game. Even though he and I had a different set of controls they did combine into one control system as they left our cockpit areas for their journey toward our rotor head. There was a good chance if the push pull control tubes were blocked, in one place, they were blocked every place because they were all bolted solidly together from end to end. This wasn't a pretty picture.
Cashon was now fully aware of our impending doom. I knew he must have suddenly eyed the ground below us with a different meaning than he had a second prior. That earth down there was going to kill us. It was coming fast and we were gaining speed in our dive.
My miracle of operating this flying machine was evaporating before my eyes. I realized, then and there without doubt, that we were fast approaching the point of no return. This might be our last meeting with mother earth because we were nowhere near to a controlled flight.
The Cobra: Part 4 ~ How are you flyin' it?
No one had ever trained me to handle this kind of situation and it was mixed with frightening terror. This I knew was an overwhelming event, for anyone, but I had to take responsibility for Cashon, the Cobra and my own life. No one else could save us. It was put up or shut up time for this aircraft commander.
Both of these events, the control problem and the terror, were thrust into my being suddenly and out answers. I supposed when this type failure occurred pilots didn't have the chance to talk about it later. Even though the terror was overwhelming I knew it was only secondary. If I could figure out how to fly this damn thing the terror would pass.
My left hand was still busy doing things, important things, I hoped. A hand with a brain of its own? I had no idea what that hand of mine was doing out there because I had been too busy mentally to check its movements. I didn't know there could be a part of my own body that could on its own decide to go on automatic pilot. Somehow though it seemed to be doing a great job. It had turned off that damn honking horn and the defective hydraulic system and the master arm switch and was fixing to turn off the rest of the rocket and gun systems. This was, of course, in case any of these systems had anything remotely to do with our problems at hand.
What was this Cobra's major problem?
No moveable flight stick kept popping up neon. There was no time to sit, think or figure this out. The trees were getting ready to eat the nose of our aircraft.
That was when an old helicopter pilot adage came drifting out of the ether. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to bet our lives on but I bet it all while I still could. I took all our chips and shoved them to the center of our table. It was a simple old saying, “When things get tough, pull pitch.”
All helicopter pilots knew this quote, by heart, but few pilots ever used it as I was fixing to do.
For the layman, pulling pitch on a helicopter changes the angle of attack on all the rotor blades at the same time. This is the action taken which causes the wind to blow downward from all the rotating rotor blades equally and simultaneously. When the wind blows hard enough the aircraft lifts off the ground and can then hover. Since we were diving toward our death with no other obvious control option left. What could it hurt? It seemed distantly logical. “Left hand,” I commanded, “Quit whatever your doing and pull some pitch. A bunch of pitch.” I waited expectantly for this action to give our aircraft a lift out of our dive. Maybe it would fix everything.
I was unprepared for what happened because it proved to worsen everything instead. The nose of our aircraft after pulling pitch had the opposite reaction and dove the nose downward even steeper toward the ground.
I had gotten a reaction. Even if it was the wrong kind but I had noticed big time that the pitch changed the attitude of the ship. I had never been trained to use the collective for attitude. Attitude is the angle that the nose is up or down in relation to the ground.
My left hand and my brain suddenly decided together I'd better try something in reverse. I bottomed the collective pitch full down as fast as I could. Then I waited to see the final result.
Suddenly the downward collective pitch action caused the Cobra's nose to start creeping upward. Then it kept right on moving until the aircraft nose passed through level and started upward towards a tail low attitude. Slowly afterward I started adding some pitch back upward ever so slightly. It appeared this control was actually maneuvering the aircraft. It was doing things that were really helpful. Unbelievably, to me, as I inched the collective upward the aircraft began to level out. We became perfectly level when the pitch pulled was approximately fifty percent of the normal power available for flight. Luckily, for us, the helicopter could still maintain forward flight staying level at a good twenty feet above the jungle. I had done it. We were no longer diving.
But we were still turning right. I could jiggle the cycle stick ever so slightly from left to right but even when I pushed it “hard left” our aircraft kept turning right anyway. While we turned steadily around to the right I noticed the airframe was leaning over right as well.
The smoke and dirt had settled. I could see outside. It seemed we were kind of flying. That statement should be said as follows, “When an airplane is falling out of the sky, is it still considered to be flying prior to hitting the ground?”
The Hughes pilot, Rod Barber came over the radio, “What's wrong with your aircraft Tiger 34?” He must have noticed we were no longer acting proper.
I tried explaining, “Our cyclic is frozen fore and aft and the left and right cyclic is barely moveable.”
He came back, “No you don't mean the cyclic don't you mean the collective pitch?”
I answered again, “Our cyclic is damn near totally stuck.”
There was a long pause. Then in a strange voice he asked, “How are you flying it then?”
I couldn't answer him rationally at the moment because it was too complicated to explain easily. To try and show how my time slowed during this incident. This whole thing up until now, since the explosion, had taken only a few seconds.
Suddenly Rod Barber in the Hughes radioed: “Taking fire.” Charlie was shooting at him and he wasn't very far from us. I couldn't hear well since the explosion. The enemy might have been shooting at us as well without my knowledge. I didn't truly know. All I could hope for was the other ship might survive this attack. I was far too busy trying to keep us airborne at the moment. I couldn't help him, anyway, even if I tried. Rod was on his own! He could have fled and left me there but he chose to return time and time again sticking his neck out for us by trying to draw the enemy fire off us and our barely flying bird.
I loved loyalty. It's better than love at the right time and place.
The Cobra: Part 5 ~ Fire!
Cashon in the front tandem seat turned around and looked back toward the rear of our aircraft. His face appeared to be very pale and tense. As he looked behind me he suddenly announced, “We're on fire!”
I glanced quickly behind my seat trying to confirm any flames or smoke directly behind us but couldn't see back as well as Cashon could. Normally if I didn't know one way or the other I could weave the aircraft back and forth from left to right to see whether or not the Cobra was trailing smoke.
Where there is trailing smoke there might be fire. Without my main cyclic control this weaving wasn't possible. I immediately assumed Cashon was right. Why would he lie? His life was on the line here just as much as mine.
Fire, in my opinion, was a repulsive way of dying. I didn't want to die that way. Not surprisingly, I had often pondered my death while in Vietnam but thought that fate and I had agreed on some kind of deal. I could get shot, crashed or be blown to pieces but never, ever, would I be burnt to a crispy critter. That possibility wasn't in the deal for finishing my life.
This fire stuff had leapt full force out from nowhere into my brain's living room. Merely thinking about my helicopter burning back there, as we flew along, was absolutely overwhelming to my rational being. I hadn't even figured out how to fly this bird properly yet and boom, “We're on fire.” I had had enough of this problem solving already.
There was a clearing in the jungle a short way ahead of us but slightly over to the right. It looked as though our aircraft would curve round and enter the middle of that open area. There were few clearings around so I quickly figured it had to be land or burn up. I decided to plant this Cobra right in that jungle opening as soon as I could, within reason. I felt that landing this uncontrollable helicopter was nearly impossible but I knew the longer we flew, burning, the more that fire back there would grow. I feared my tail boom might soon fall off.
Time was no longer my friend. The enemy would probably be waiting for us down there when we arrived. The Hughes along with us probably wasn't strong enough, or well enough armed, to fight, land and pick us up and climb back out of that clearing. The whole plan stunk and appeared to me as if our survival was nothing more than a pipe dream.
I didn't know what else to do. My combat ability was finally coming to a conclusion. I had met my match. There in sight was the field I'd been seeking during all my months of combat. It was probably my final fighting area as well. I hoped I'd be able to stand up and fight, if uninjured, but there were no guarantees. Our ride had to end in that field. I couldn't push this aircraft, or myself, any further. I had no choice. I had to attempt a crash landing there inside my enemy's' backyard.
I used to have some personal firearms below but now I feared they may have been destroyed in that, “mother of all explosions.” I knew very soon we'd really need those firearms. Because Charlie hated us Cobra pilots with a passion. If given the chance they would take us out without hesitation, even if we were legally captured as their POW. (Prisoners of War) The biggest thing to fear wasn't the dying but how much torture they might apply prior to killing us. We had been taught orally within my unit when downed that we should expect the worst treatment and we might as well fight to our deaths. The policy was to save a bullet for ourselves, using our thirty-eight revolvers, on ourselves, as we ran out of fight.
If the enemy closed in tight we might be able to fire a few thirty-eight bullets at them then we'd have to take ourselves out. That was, of course, on whether or not we could get out of this broken fire ball we were riding in with an arm and eye left to shoot. From every angle as I peered into our future the vision came back, “You're going to be dead soon.” It made me wonder why I was trying so hard to stay alive, when, my final termination was so clearly known. Why not just give up?
We were getting much nearer to the opening in that clearing. I lowered the pitch control, gently, and the helicopter's nose started rising. I had no realistic ideal how to put the thing down. I called the Hughes pilot Rod on our radio and advised him, “I'm going to land in this clearing coming up.”
Rod asked, “Why, are you landing?”
Shakily, I responded with, “I don't want us to burn up in this thing.”
The Hughes pilot yelled back over the radio, “You're not on fire. You're not on fire. Fly it if you can. Fly it if you can.”
I suppose he repeated those words to be damn sure I heard the message loud and clear and I certainly did. He, from a close distance away, could tell that we were not trailing smoke. Therefore, I knew from his reaction, my Cobra wasn't burning. Another reprieve.
Damn, my copilot had totally misunderstood the fire issue. When the Hughes pilot had radioed us earlier about, “Taking fire,” my copilot had mistakenly thought he'd meant, “We're on fire.” As simple as this appears I've heard about and known many a good chopper pilot that died from such misinterpretations.
The Cobra: Part 6 ~ What now?
I inched the pitch power back up but this was a difficult situation. Too much power would cause us to nose over into the field, while not enough power would settle us down into the clearing. My control actions were an extension of my mind, just hoping that our Cobra might clear those trees on the far side of the clearing. The trees around it were tall indeed. The aircraft had lost critical altitude, and now, our ride and we aboard had to pay the price. While we flew forward we smacked into some small tree limbs near the treetops. A few of the smaller limbs broke off and some took a ride as part of our now bushy rocket pods. We barely kept going on this wobbling flight. Those limbs had nearly stopped our flight completely and caused great grief to me inside the cockpit. We'd lost some of the ship's critical airspeed and altitude on impact.
The Cobra staggered forward and again started turning at a lower altitude off to her right but we weren't walking just yet.
I was so relieved and overjoyed about our continued flight that I'd neglected to realize our crippled Cobra was completing a much wider three hundred and sixty degree circle. Our ride was now preparing to complete this circle from where we were first attacked. We were now heading straight, by ground path, toward the very same ambush position along side that little road up ahead.
Now we were flying back, lower and slower than our first pass, but this time we were without weapons or maneuverability.
As we returned we flew out into another field toward our enemy. Time again slowed to very near a full stop. I stared ahead at our impending doom. I wondered, “When will they open up on us with their deadly fire?” Not once did I consider shooting any of our weapons toward the enemy location. I knew our weapons were of no account and were totally useless. Any machine gun recoil or rocket blast backward from our weapons, if fired, could have forced us into a fatal dive by tucking our nose and slowing our airspeed. I knew we were lucky just staying balanced as we hovered feebly around. Our airspeed was only fast enough to maintain a deception of true flight. Our altitude clung just barely above the tallest trees. As we flew nearer to the enemy site, my brain was working near total burn out trying to figure out an exit for us but it failed to find solutions as we slowly drifted nearer and nearer to that blasted machine gun. I realized we were approaching the enemy with no cover or even less aircraft control. I felt as a bug might when it's only a few inches in front of a speeding automobile windshield. Trying to evade now was futile unless jumping out of the crippled bird might count. We were looking right down the gun barrel. I knew at that moment, “War was truly hell.” I took a deep breath and held it. We continued approaching them.
Their big machine gun was right there to our immediate front. But for some inexplicable reason they didn't fire.
The enemy had to have seen the explosion in the belly of our aircraft and they must have known we were in big trouble. Maybe they thought I was going to crash and they all wanted to watch. Possibly they thought I was coming around to get a shot at them -- so they all took cover. Maybe it was as simple as their machinegun jammed or maybe some other thing that might have been helping me, something that I still don't understand to this very day. Even if some of them had shot at us with a blooming crossbow during this face-to-face encounter I felt as though it would have been easily possible for them to hit our broken bird.
After what seemed an hour of hang time we went over their position and in a final flash were over heavy forest again. I exhaled and took another breath in what seemed a five-hour break from breathing. My skin had turned color into a pale bluish white. Then behind us in some late scattered and confusing bursts of fire I heard some shooting from some hand held AK-47 machine gun's toward our direction. I heard them underneath us in the forest shooting upward. Their sounds seemed awfully close even though at this point I still had trouble hearing well from my constantly ringing ears. I expected to hear some hits on the Cobra's thin skin but I hadn't. They simply must have missed, as we by then, had luckily hid behind solid under cast treetops.
We were still kicking, barely blowing, and slightly going toward where we had no inkling. This damaged ship couldn't fly forever. Time was still our enemy. Eventually this battered old Cobra would run out of turbine fuel so we'd be forced to crash land her one way or the other.
Still breathing but just for the time being. I couldn't forget for one moment the horrible drifting around to the right problem. I was as a child sitting on his merry-go-round pony but I couldn't steer the horse. I hoped there was a gold ring to pull somewhere during our next circle. I needed a break and fast.
The way things stood we were going to fly around and back over those bad guys again and in too short a time. I had a powerful feeling within me that we'd never survive another round anywhere near them even if we waved white flags from our cockpit. They'd be waiting for us, next time, if we were so bold as to play peek-a-boo with them again. I figured, “They know, by now, that our aircraft is in trouble and we were up here without a paddle, boat or creek.” If we go over that enemy position again we'll soon become a simple footnote in history as in Missing-In-Action or Killed-In-Action. KIA or MIA, those were the letters that would be stamped across our names in some government file someplace. “D. None of the above,” or “C. Honorably Discharge,” would have been my choice. I felt strongly I was a warrior and should be given the opportunity to die as a warrior, “fighting”, and not inside some wounded duck flopping about.
I was still scared and sick with what might happen to us. This crap was starting to get on my nerves. Somehow I had to make this hovering machine quit turning to the right. I was tired of her circle. We needed an escape route.
I couldn't just throw up my hands and quit. I knew I had to have the inner strength to continue so I had to believe in myself. That was all. Just believe in me. That's when a new ideal sprang out of nowhere.
The Cobra: Part 7 ~ Maneuver…
“Pedals,” I thought, “that's it, what about the pedals? Maybe I could force this sucker's nose around to the left with our tail rotor.” I should have already thought of it. I suppose my lack of thought was brought on because I'd been rather busy of late. There were so many nervous impulses going on inside my brain that some were being redirected improperly. I was having trouble thinking clear. I could hardly tell if my thoughts were coming out straight, crooked or bent. This emergency was lasting far too long. I had overloaded -- burn out.
The foot pedals operated the tail rotor, the smaller of the helicopter's two fans located near the rear of the tail boom. It was the smaller spinning rotor back there that controlled the helicopter's yaw. Yaw is the rotation, from left to right, of the entire aircraft from nose to tail as the body of the aircraft hangs down from the rotor. When a person turns their head from left to right, motioning “no”, that is yawing one's head.
Slowly, I started pushing the left pedal down toward the bottom, if need be, to hopefully straighten our ground track. The nose moved left as the Cobra's tail swung right during this maneuver and the aircraft rolled or leaned, further over to the right. The Cobra ended up flying almost sideways and this of course slowed her airspeed due to the increased drag caused by the sideways yawing. There had been some banging and clanging noises from her before outside the helicopter since her explosion but as the ship leaned further to the right and began flying sideways the awful sounds outside our cockpit grew worse. “To hell with the sounds she made,” I thought, “at least our Cobra was moving away from its fatal circle into an almost straight ground course while flying weirdly off center.” So what if she was flying strange. So what. I'd take that over the last few minutes of uncontrolled turning any day.
There we were blown to hell, low, slow and leaning far over to the right while the nose pointed off in a direction towards which we weren't traveling. She was making many terrible sounds outside but at long last we felt happy about leaving the combat area. If a helicopter could smile for its crew then that one had to have been.
The Hughes aircraft flew up beside us and Rod gave our bird a look-see. What he said didn't help, “Your whole belly is gone.”
I had “no” fore and aft cyclic and I had “no” idea how to land the aircraft but now all things seemed “simpler”. The weather had managed to get worse. Clouds and low visibility stayed with us through the whole flight but now it was starting to rain harder. We were heading generally south at this time but none of us, including my front seat map-reading instructor, knew exactly where we were located. I had relied on him reading our maps much more than I should have but that was a minor issue. So how in the world were we going to find the friendly base at Song Be when our maneuvering was so difficult?
“Not to worry,” I thought, “if things get tough try something, anything.”
I was beginning to figure out this important lesson I'd learned flying. “Never give up one must keep on keeping on.”
I cranked in the guard frequency on our radio so I could transmit and start communicating better. That frequency that all pilots inside South Vietnam were supposed to monitor was available if we ever ran into big trouble. I radioed the following message, “Mayday, Mayday, does anyone flying in the Song Be area have a UHF, (Ultra High Frequency), or VHF, (Very High Frequency) air-to-air radio homer? If so, please come up on our frequency.” which I rattled off. Hey, this was an emergency, I could forget about that secret codebook stuff.
An Air Force OV-10, fixed wing, airplane came up on the frequency and he said, “Hey, Tiger 34 this is Warhawk 29,” (I don't remember the actual call sign he used at the time because I was too nervous to remember anything) “I'll look for you in the Song Be area.”
I told him, “Warhawk two-niner, this is Tiger three-four, I've got a major problem with my aircraft and I want you to locate us and help point our crippled bird back toward Song Be. We're real busy in the cockpit here and we don't have any extra time to be guessing at our true course toward Song Be.”
“Tiger three-four give me a long count and I'll be heading your way.”
After a few minutes of my steady talking numbers on the radio to the OV-10 pilot he brought his OV-10 busting out of the clouds near to us. He'd tracked us by using my transmissions over the airway. He surely must have been uncomfortable coming down low and slow but there he was in living color.
He flew away from us toward Song Be, disappeared, and returned to us again. He repeated this move, often, while I flopped and banged along slowly toward the direction he indicated. Whoever that guy was I owe him big time. He was my lucky charm; may he always have luck on his side. I wish I could have known who he was but I never found out.
As the broken ship crawled along in its leaning and banging fashion, Cashon and I started to seriously discuss our soon to be “attempted landing.”
The Cobra: Part 8 ~ Landing
This was a stickler of a problem, a hard time, and a tuffy, all rolled into one big deal. What to do? How should we do it? Even more, can this be done? Cashon and I talked to each other as a team ought to but we had no training for this unknown type landing other than using just our common sense. We both knew that luck was just as important as skill on a landing such as this. We made a decision that was unheard of in normal flight. We would both try to land the ship. By this time I was feeling exhaustion and secretly wished Cashon could land it without me.
“Dear old sweet fate,” I mumbled, “don't let us down. We've come far too far on this voyage to fuel a mushroom cloud on our impact.” We needed all the help we could get and the sooner the better. I sure hoped Cashon or I wasn't due a calling from the other side. We talked and talked but nothing in our words convinced us that we could survive this soon to be attempted landing.
During this time a parachute might have saved one of us. Jumping from a helicopter had its own danger though. I could have held the ship stable while Cashon jumped but no one could have held it steady, for me, later. Parachutes were big and bulky things that we simply couldn't fit into our cramped cockpit. We didn't have one anyway. So simply put, “We had to land our aircraft or die trying.” Our mission had finally boiled down to this short sentence.
I called the control tower at Song Be airport and declared a (Tac-E) “tactical emergency.” When approved by the tower this closed the runway to other traffic until we landed. This granted emergency landing privileges. Soon we saw our goal, a long north-south runway out there waiting for us with our nearly sideways approach. We tried hard to line up our ground track with the runway.
Finally we came over the trees at the North end of the runway. We lowered our collective pitch as a team. The nose of the aircraft came up and the rate of our descent started, slowly at first, but then as we drew near the grounds surface, it began to increase rather rapidly toward the ground. The ground seemed as though it was in too big a hurry to greet us. Just before touching the runway we both pulled our pitch control, slightly upward, to level the aircraft and to slow our descent.
Although neither of us knew it, at the time, the left door of the ammo bay compartment was hanging down lower than the aircraft skid. Even though we touched the runway near level that hanging ammo bay door made contact with the runway first. This door crutched us with great force upward on the left side of our Cobra. This vector of force caused, by the door, along with the helicopters strong runway contact, forced the chopper to bounce upward and threw us into a rolling type leaping bank in that direction. I yelled out, “I've got the controls.”
There was no longer time for teamwork. Time crawled down to those extremely long seconds again. I could see the spinning rotor blades clearly as each one came around with my expectation of it hitting the runway. Watching them slowly whirl by filled me with dread. They were just barely missing the ground, on that right side, by what appeared, from my angle, to be less than an inch. It seemed to be a sure bet that we were fixing to crash onto our right side. During this scary activity the cyclic had for reasons unknown become totally loose in the left/right axis but was of no account in controlling the helicopter. I pushed that cyclic stick as far over to the left as I could but the helicopter didn't comply.
Fearing a crash, I managed to pull the pitch, high up, as high up as I could pull it, demanding the machine, to blow, and go. The over taxed turbine engine began to cry out with a loud whistling moan. That awful cry sounded, as if my Cobra's engine was bellowing, resembling the call of a dying calf that was moaning dreadfully to its mother. It fit the moment perfectly. I'd never heard a turbine engine before or since make the sounds that one made. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand to attention.
During our first initial impact with the runway the airframe started shuddering, a wave type motion, as if it was a huge tuning fork. Shaking and crying out our helicopter began moving slightly up but mostly over toward the right, faster by the moment. I was pushing the cyclic over to my left with every muscle in my body and I was looking up through the top of the cockpit but it was really sideways in the direction we were going. I saw LZ Buttons spread out before us solidly along the right hand side of that runway. Tents and soldiers in large numbers were inside the base and toward that direction.
I quickly thought, “I mustn't crash into the base camp.”
I knew instinctively that our helicopter wasn't going to fly off into any kind of controllable takeoff. We were fixing to stop flying altogether one-way or the other. The handwriting was on the wall and it was clear for me to read. I didn't need glasses. It said, “Ladies and gentlemen please place your trays in their upright position and hang on for dear life.”
I bottomed the collective pitch removing the request for power. I waited to see what would happen. Speed kills. Slowing down was a good thing. I also hoped to crash, there, in that grassy area beside the runway proper. I expected the helicopter to plow into the mud and grass on its right side. I waited and watched for a long . . . long … mini-second.
Instead of plowing in on the chopper's right side we stopped moving so fast sideways and became sort of suspended there a few feet off the ground in time and space. Nothing was holding us up or so it seemed and time had apparently lost interest in us. Suddenly the bottom fell out as if by wizardry the helicopter swung underneath the spinning rotor blades, above, as though the flying machine's body was nothing more than a pendulum swinging in the wind. The right skid hit the soft muddy ground below, first, and then the aircraft started sliding and rocking wildly forward. The aircraft was going straight in the direction the skids were pointing and we passed alone standing upright as it bounced from skid to skid, back and forth, as any pilot might have dreamed she might. We were just passengers sliding along the rain soaked grass and mud while we came to the unbelievable realization that the ship might actually survive. Our ride continued forward while tilting from side to side. Then an unexpected event, of all possible events took shape, our chopper stopped moving forward and came to rest.
She was sitting as she'd been designed to do, on her skids, in the grass, but with its engine running and rotors turning at full RPM. It was raining on our canopy overhead. Seeing the water drops sliding down the cockpit windows made me see again as I had once as a child sitting inside an old wrecked car so very long ago -- dreaming I'd someday be a pilot.
I rolled the engine throttle back to flight idle to slow the spinning rotor blades. Cashon opened his door, up front, and got out quickly, running off as fast as a track runner to the left. He went out, far away, from the aircraft.
The control tower called me on the radio and asked forcefully, “Tiger three-four please move that aircraft away from the side of the runway we have landing traffic.”
I explained, “Tower, I can't move it.”
He called back and said again, “If you don't move that Cobra, I'll send some men down there with chains and a tug and we'll drag it off.” I told him in a calm voice, “Go right ahead, I'm not moving this thing.”
After about five minutes Cashon circled the nose of the aircraft, way out, at least fifty yards away and then ran up to my side of the aircraft opening my cockpit door from the right hand side.
The Cobra: Part 9 ~ Shut her down…
I still couldn't believe we hadn't crashed. He leaned inside and said quizzically to my helmet: “Why don't you shut her down?”
I suppose I was in shock and hadn't thought of it but it sure sounded as if that action was needed. I rolled off the throttle. The blades slowly came to a stop and then squeaked as they teeter-tottered in the breeze. I pulled myself out of the pilot's seat and started climbing down with great difficulty off the Cobra's steps.
It seemed as soon as my feet touched the ground my legs turned into wet noodles. I fell face first into the mud and grass beneath me. I couldn't walk. I had lost control of me somehow. My copilot pulled me up out of the muddy mess and helped me away from the damaged chopper.
I couldn't believe we were alive. The rain was hitting my face and the fresh air blowing on me felt wonderful. Cashon placed me in the muddy green turf nearby, under a small bush and there I had a cigarette. That was the best smoke I ever had in my entire life.
I sat there in that muck and started trying to get used to the idea of living again. With a steady gaze I peered out at that flying piece of metal I'd just flown in and landed. It was a terrible yet lovely sight to behold. Grenades and linked bullets were scattered along our flight path where I had first made contact with the runway and around the area where the aircraft sat currently. Some were actually hanging out of the damaged areas on the craft that was below her belly line.
Cashon and I were later told by investigators that an estimated nine of those three hundred, forty-millimeter grenades aboard the aircraft had gone off in flight. Out of all our miracles of life and death that day the biggest one was -- why only nine? Why hadn't fifty-five or more of them exploded? Once that chain reaction started what stopped it?
My guess would be that the explosion itself must have blown the grenades away from the blast until they were no longer near enough to be exploded by any other. To us on board, at the time of the explosion, it sounded as if one large grenade had exploded. It was an all-together “big bang” thing. Nothing went off in a boom, boom, boom style as if it were a chain reaction. It was an all of a sudden thing.
I couldn't understand how we'd survived the flight. It was a greater puzzle than I could manage to comprehend. I suppose part of me died that day. The part inside my twenty-three year old self where I believed I was immortal --died forever.
I remembered in my original Cobra class back in flight school, I had personally asked, “Can the ammo below our feet blow up and kill us?” The answer they'd told us students was matter of fact, “Never.” The instructor explained, “These grenades must be fired first and then spun rapidly before they become armed. They cannot be exploded accidentally inside the ammo-bay.”
Yet, those enemy bullets had struck our grenades and exploded them just the same. I've always felt as if it was just a lucky shot the enemy had fired but it bothered me to consider that I'd been flying around in a bomb waiting for it to explode.
When the blast occurred the hollow floor between our cockpit and the ammo bay smashed nearly flat under our feet. The fore and aft push pull tubes were locked down tight within this flattened floor because they had to run the greatest distance within and through this hollow floor. I luckily replaced this fore and aft control action by using the collective pitch control. I've learned since that many of today's helicopters with collective control are totally differently than our Cobra was back then. We were lucky that we didn't have to pull extreme power to level the aircraft or that we could maintain flight -- at all. If high power were the case, forced upon us to level the ship, we might have been forced to climb until we ran out of gas and then we would surely have died.
I've never fully understood, why, I had that tiny bit of left and right push pull tube cyclic movement available, although these control rods also ran within that flattened hollow floor. If those lateral controls had been made to lock up, totally solid, from left to right, I would have lost control of the whole she-bang. I had just enough movement to survive but nothing else.
I never tried to turn our stricken helicopter right but always further left for occasional balance, which was hardly there, due to our constant right turn. That slight bit of cyclic kept our ship from rolling over into a diving crash but was not enough to stop it from turning right all together. This proved how little movement we actually had with our left and right axis. It simply wasn't much, at all, maybe two or three degrees maximum.
My great problem with understanding this left/right cyclic control came at the end of the flight when the Cobra landed harder than I'd wanted. The hollowed floor must have popped apart, freeing the cyclic, itself, during our momentary flight there, but it seemed disconnected at that time and was later found to be the case. If those floors hadn't been bent together, tightly, on those flight controls push pull tubes, we would have lost complete control of our ship.
The problem arrives with the following statement, “If I had slight left/right control movements in flight prior to the landing, why did I lose this left/right control movement, completely when the aircraft first struck the runway during landing?” In other words, “If it worked slightly while we flew along then why did it become a worthless wet noodle when we had banged her down to land?”
Were these left/right control push pull tubes actually attached from the flight stick all the way to the rotor system or were they disconnected within the floor but held so tightly there that I as the pilot could bump them back and forth slightly from left to right because of just pure luck? This seems the case. There is just no other answer that I can figure out. Our lives simply hung on a tiny thread during that whole flight of twenty clicks.
So many things kept us alive that flight that it seems over all too strange for me to believe in total. This one story begged me to write it down. So I did.
Even the rain that day had softened the ground enough for the skids of the aircraft to plow through without turning us over or breaking the skids off. During Cobra training classes back stateside, before Vietnam, we'd never actually landed on the ground in a practice auto-rotation because of the skid breaking fear. The Cobra's landing gear was lightly built because it didn't land on them very often. They were tiny compared to the much more hard worked Huey that carried heavy loads and landed repeatedly. The height of the tall skinny and top-heavy Cobra had made it prone to toppling over much easier than the Huey even on flat smooth surfaces.
It was an absolute miracle that our ship broke all rules toward our favor. It made me think of the old saying, “Fate goes with the hunter.” Fate was truly in my copilot during this flight. Even though I don't believe in giving an aircraft a soul this one seemed to have one and it was as though the aircraft wanted to survive this flight in one big proper piece. In spite of the fact that the ship was extremely damaged and the pieces left over after the explosion wanted to somehow save its crew. It did seem to be smiling, that day, as it sat out there on the muddy grass all ripped open and soggy wet at Song Be. That seemed, at the time, appropriate -- considering we were the “Smiling Tigers.”
Soon a tug came driving down the runway after our helicopter. When they were close enough. I called out to the men on it, “Before you move that ship, I think you should know, there are live grenades laying around it.”
They turned the tug around and left rather fast like. I reckoned that they went back down the runway and had informed that friendly tower operator that he could, “go down there and move it himself.”
A week later a high ranking officer from the helicopter maintenance office, over all of the regional South Vietnam's helicopter maintenance programs located near Ben Hoa, called my Company Commander with information and asked the following question, “We know what went wrong with that Smiling Tiger Cobra, of yours, that we have down here. The one that exploded recently and we also know exactly what caused the damage but we've sat around here and talked about this incident until we've turned blue and finally we decided to call your company and ask you just one question -- How did that pilot of yours land that aircraft?”
That question was and is still today very complicated. In my opinion it's closer to being a purely spiritual thing. Even the written words on my Broken Wing Award that I received for this flight were difficult for the safety officials to write. How does one write on an official safety award document what appears to be nearly impossible to ones own peers and then have it read believable?
I received, “The United States Army Aviation Safety Broken Wing Award,” for bringing that aircraft back in one big broken chunk. I never really thought about saving that helicopter while I was trying to land it. I believe if I'd had a parachute with me I would have used it. Helicopter pilots within the Army, at that time and today as for as I know, never have worn parachutes or had them available.
When I flew out of Song Be later that fateful day as a passenger on a Huey helicopter I mentally looked back at the day's events while flying toward my home base. I'd found a new respect for the enemy, the aircraft, my copilot and lastly for myself.
Cashon had at least hung in there trying most of the flight instead of screaming or weeping. He had helped me, as much as he possibly could, during our wild adventure. I had made many copilots freeze up or even cry out in terror during perilous flights. So Cashon was one, in only a few, that tried to hang in there with me -- until the bitter end. Thanks again, Cashon, I know you'll always remember that day, as I shall.
Some of my peers later advised that I should have jettisoned the rocket pods before attempting a landing. They figured the explosion during a possible crash landing might have been lessened after that type action. Maybe, I should have, but since there was no crash, I'll take the results the way they turned out. After all, what if one of those fully loaded rocket pods had not jettisoned properly? That extra bit of weight might have thrown the aircraft into a fatal plunge.
For many years now I've flown and re-flown that flight in my mind. The details are always the same in each event or flashback, except in my dreams, where I always crash and awaken sweating. I can't sleep after being awakened in such a manner.
I will never have another rush of adrenaline as powerful as that flight ever again. Once one climbs, “the Mt. Everest of adventure,” most other frightening events are just bumps and bruises.
I knew that night after the incident as I lay my twenty-three year old combat bruised body down on my bunk thinking over the day, I was no longer just a wing commander in the First Cavalry, D-229th Cobra Company. I had become someone and something else entirely.
Cashon and I were truly the only ones who, really knew, what we'd faced that day and survived. Who would'a thunk an ole country boy could have pulled that off? Victory was as sweet as honey poured over puppy love.
To this day I love rainy days. The sound of water falling is truly my lifesaver from my version of heaven here on earth. Rain had softened and allowed us to land. Without soft ground that day our aircraft would have surely rolled over and crashed into an exploding fireball.
If given the opportunity, I'd tell anybody and everybody, that might listen, “That to be truly alive one must know and understand death.”
After the Huey dropped us off at Dau Teing base that late afternoon I lugged the ammo bay door toward our Warrant Officer's hooch. The twisted ammo bay door was the one torn off from our aircraft with the impact on the runway at Song Be. When I arrived at the hooch that evening, I walked in with it, and threw the bent and distorted aircraft part down on the concrete floor. It hit with a loud bang in front of several Cobra pilots standing there to welcome us home. I informed them, “Gentleman, there is a chunk of 458 the aircraft I flew out of here this morning.” While they stared down at the broken piece of chopper, I went to get that beer (and a broom).
Mole City- A Perspective
By -Ron Leonard
Since Thanksgiving 1968 our whole AO of III Corp. had started seeing enemy activity on a slowly escalating scale. The doldrums of TET were over. Charlie seems to have his wounds licked and healed from the ass kicking he endured during the TET offensive. From his Cambodian sanctuaries another round of attacks are about to begin.
For weeks the tenseness in the air had been building and could be cut with a knife. Charlie had refused to commit large numbers of troops to the fight, just an ambush here and there mostly of platoon-sized action. This was aggravating the higher ups at Division and in Washington D.C. The body counts were slipping and something had to be done. With this in mind they developed a new strategy “The Patrol Base”.
The principal of the “Patrol Base” was to establish a very small Fire Support Base right under the VC and the NVA's nose. To this end, “Patrol Base Mole City” would be the first in a series of these bait and trap operations.
“Mole City” was located in an area that had been untouched by allied ground forces in over a year. The area straddled one of the busiest infiltration routes from Cambodia in all of III Corp. This route serviced the NVA with men, equipment, and supplies that would operate on the III Corp, Saigon, and War Zone C battlefields.
It was tiny, barely 100 yards across in any direction. Circular in nature and positioned but a couple of clicks from the Cambodian border it would prove to be the ultimate lure It would have a defending force of 500 men made up of three companies of the 4/9th “Manchu's of the 25th Infantry Division.
On the morning of 18 December 1968 the men of Manchu began the task of preparing this tiny oasis 91/2 miles south of Tay Ninh City into a fortified position nick named “Mole City”. In a single day Company A. of the 25th Infantry Divisions 65th engineers transformed 186,000 pounds of building material hauled in by 27 sorties of CH-47 helicopters into a well fortified position. The engineers with the use of bulldozers constructed the perimeter berm, and the men of Manchu would dig the bunkers spaced 20 yards apart linked together like a giant spider web with deep connecting trenches to act as fighting positions. The bunkers consisted of deep holes covered with PCP steel and a layer or two of sandbags on top to shield any direct hits from mortar, rocket, and RPG rounds. A prefabricated guard tower was flown in to cap off the construction effort. Needless to say there was a sense of urgency.
By nightfall of 22 December 1968 the concertina wire had been strung, the claymore mines set, personnel sensors were positioned in the tree lines, fields of fire established, listening posts had been dispatched to the northeast and southwest, and the artillery had set their coordinates on the tree lines. They were ready. These brave men had no idea what would soon be in store for them.
The Manchu's themselves had endured a hard month. A few days before Thanksgiving they had lost two-thirds of their experienced troopers in one all night firefight south of Trang Bang. The units were now made up of new replacements with no prior combat experience, virgins to combat, and a few seasoned veterans. It would prove to be for many their last night on this earth.
This sets the stage for the unraveling of events that will be forever etched on my brain. This battle would prove costly for the NVA/VC (North Vietnamese Army/Viet Cong). It was also very costly for the heroic men of Manchu and many more. They would still be paying for this battle 34 years later.
In the “Diamondhead” scramble shack you could sense something big was up. No one was saying anything, but with the rumblings in the company area, the franticness of the maintenance crews in the hanger trying to get another fire team flyable. When our flare ship and our sister company Little Bear's counter mortar ship were put on three-minute standby at 6 P.M. you knew. We had all seen it before.
At 11P.M. in the “Little Bear” ready room the “Counter Mortar Crew”, which was made up of the aircraft crewchief and gunner, the artillery “Forward Observer”(FO), the “Aircraft Commander (AC) CWO Mitch Wilhelm and the co-pilot (PP) WO Ed Rodgers had just settled down to go to sleep, when a messenger burst through the door stating in an urgent voice, “let's go you guys, you have a mission.” The gunner and crewchief were already on their way to the aircraft to make it ready for take off along with AC CWO Mitch Wilhelm and the (FO). The (PP) WO Ed Rodgers was hurriedly writing down the mission coordinates, artillery information, and radio call signs of the ground commander.
As WO Ed Rodgers approached the aircraft the engine was already at 6600 RPM, the guns were mounted and the crew was on board and ready to go. In moments they were headed southwest towards a rendezvous with “Hell”.
We in the Diamondhead “Scramble Shack” were doing our usual thing, some were watching the 11:30 TV program “Gun Smoke” and still trying to figure out if Matt Dillon flinches when he draws his gun in the opening scene of the program. Some of the crewmembers were playing cards, and the gunners were asleep, all of us waiting for the phone to ring. The signal the mission had started. It was a long restless night. At 0020 the phone rang. We all sprang into action and raced to the ships. The last pilot CWO Greg Bucy answered the telephone and got the radio frequencies of the ground commander and coordinates of the mission.
As I got to the ship I untied it's blade, gave the clear signal and the pilot hit the starter. You could hear the whining of the turbine as it started spinning. You could hear the Tic! Tic! Tic! Of the igniters searching for fuel and the Whoosh of its ignition. As the RPM's increased you could hear the methodical singing of the blades as they gained momentum searching for 6600 RPM. The gunners and crewchiefs are mounting the guns, and getting into their protective chicken plates. CWO Bucy finally arrived with the mission information and gets in and buckles up in his seat. It is time to Rock and Roll.
“Cu Chi Tower, Cu Chi Tower this is Diamondhead Light Fire Team on “The Beach” (Our designated portion of the flight line) “Scramble”, the Fire Team leader CWO Hayne Moore broadcasts. “We are enroute Hoc Mon”. “Be advised Diamondhead of heavy arty in the area” breaks in the tower. “You are clear to the south. Contact Hoc Mon Arty for approach to the area”. Moments later we hovered out of the protective revetment and head south down the runway, the heavily loaded gun ships, frantically clawing at the air for translational lift. Soon we were on the way into the cool night. The lights of Cu Chi slowly fading away as we steadily gain altitude up to 1500 feet and level off. It should be but a short flight of 15 minutes to Mole City.
As the gunships cut through the darkness, the rhythmetic popping of the blades gave the night a feeling of tranquility. This tranquility would be shattered moments later. As we approached the Oriental River just south of Go Dau Ha, still three to five clicks south of our objective an NVA .51 caliber anti aircraft gun opened up on the lead gunship. We had positioned ourselves slightly behind and to the north of the lead ship, so we had a front row seat. As the tracers ascended towards the lead ship they appeared to curve towards them, like chains of orange Christmas tree lights. Over the radio came a transmission “Taking fire, taking fire”. CWO Larry King my (AC) instinctively had WO Roy Thomas (PP) reach up and pull the navigation light circuit breaker and go blacked out. We immediately rolled in and attacked the NVA .51 cal below with several sets of rockets and the doorguns as the lead ship broke hard to the right to avoid the anti-aircraft fire from below they also killed the navigation lights and went blacked out. This one pass seemed to silence the .51 so both ships still blacked out head back to the river.
“Diamondhead 20, this is Diamondhead 10”, CWO Hayne Moore broadcasts, “go Diamondhead 10” CWO Larry Little replys. “We are at 1500 feet and are going to go steady dim on the nav lights. Suggest you stay blacked out and below us”,”Roger that Diamondhead 10”.
In the distance you could already see the eerie glow of the parachute flares fired by Artillery howitzers somewhere in the Vietnamese night, and the occasional ricochet of a .51 cal tracer high into the night sky. I thought to myself, “damn not them 51's again. I hate those things.” If you got hit in the chicken plate it wouldn't even slow it down. It would make a thumb size hole going in and take out the whole back of your chicken plate exiting. If you got hit in the hand it could just rip off your whole arm.
As we got closer CWO Hayne Moore was back on the radio contacting the ground commander. “Recast Uniform one four, this is Diamondhead 10 Light fire Team, please advise situation”, our ETA is five minutes. “Roger Diamondhead 10. We are getting the shit kicked out of us. We are surrounded and I don't know how many there are but they are everywhere, and we are in danger of being over run. We have enemy in the wire and on the north/east sides they are in the open. We are taking recoilless rifle fire along with RPG and automatic weapons. Be advised we have two LP's (Listening Posts) out one to the southeast about 200 yards in the tree line, and one to the northeast about the same.” “Roger Recast Uniform one four”. As we neared station, we could make out the automatic weapons fire. It was ferocious, red tracers going out, white and green tracers going in towards the perimeter, and the occasional streak of an RPG seeking out a bunker and it's occupants.
The night was hazy with all the smoke and dust in the air from impacting ordinance of the friendly artillery and rockets and mortars from the NVA. The glow from the flares made it a surrealistic vision.
As we orbited the battlefield, the fire Team leader “CWO Hayne Moore” tried to quickly access the situation on the ground, and to formulate an impromptu plan of attack. The entire perimeter was under siege, and it was paramount to assist the hardest hit portions as soon as possible. It was decided to split the fire team Diamondhead 10 would work the north side of the perimeter, and Diamondhead 20 would work over to the west and south sides. As we started our first run, and we started down and punched off one set of rockets, here came the damn .51's. They looked like orange basketballs and they just whizzed by inches from their mark. I thought,” that was way to close”. My gunner and I hosed the position the best we could with the M-60 machine guns leaning out the doors and made a mental note of the location. As we broke right we were over the open area to the north and there were so many NVA soldiers it looked like a bunch of ants attacking a picnic. I don't care where I shot the M-60 I couldn't miss. There were to many of them. As we circled around and made another pass we expended all of our rockets, mini-gun ammo and 2000 rounds of M-60 door gun ammo from each gun in the open area. The M-60's were so hot they glowed cherry red and had a translucency to them You could see the bullets going down the barrel.
“Recast Uniform one four, this is Diamondhead 20. We are fully expended and headed to rearm, we will be back ASAP”. “Roger Diamondhead 20, just make it fast”. With that transmission made, we nursed all the speed we could get out of the old Huey. The blades flailing at the air to get all the speed it could muster from the old girl, the deafening whine of the engine, and the whop, whop, whop of the blades shattered the night as we hurriedly flew toward the re-arm point at Tay Ninh since it was closer than Cu Chi. Fuel could wait for later. “Tay Ninh Tower, Tay Ninh Tower this is Diamondhead 20. After a short pause Tay Ninh Tower replies, “Roger Diamondhead 20, go” “We need clearance to the Tay Ninh re-arm point direct, ETA five minutes”. “Roger Diamondhead 20 you are clear direct”. In the distance I could make out the lights of Tay Ninh City. Just to the north would be the base camp. The air was cool and soothing as it rushed by the open doors, my nerves were rattled and for the first time I noticed I was drenched in sweat. The combination of the heat of battle, fear, and adrenaline had caused it. I, for a few moments as the adrenaline subsided could recollect what had just happened. This was the most intense battle of MY war. To say I wasn't scared would be futile, and a lie. The tracers had come up so fast and so often at times I had been afraid to breathe for fear of inhaling one. I thought to myself, I don't know if we will get out of this one, this is bad. Then I thought about the grunts on the ground. I wouldn't trade with them for a million dollars. Whatever I had seen from above was ten fold worse down there in the trenches. Somehow the thought of their plight made my situation acceptable. It was our job to get the grunts out of this, to see them through. They were our grunts. They were our sole purpose of living. We could never let them down.
As we were inbound to the re-arm point I noticed the Little Bear Counter Mortar ship had just finished refueling, lifted off and hovered over to the headquarters pad near the Division como bunker. The engine had remained at flight idle, the crew had stayed on board except for CWO Wilhelm the AC who had went inside.
As we landed and shed our helmets and protective equipment there was a sense of urgency to complete the re-arming as quickly as possible. The Manchu's needed us desperately and we knew it. The pilots and crewchiefs humped rockets and loaded them into their launchers while the gunners re-armed the mini-guns and door guns. Moments later our wing ship appeared out of the south and landed next to us in the re-arm point. They to would go through the same ritual of rearming as we did. Little did we know, that this ballet would be played out over and over for the next seven hours non-stop. The Little Bear counter Mortar ship also joined us, hovering over from the Division como bunker
CWO Hayne Moore and CWO Larry King the Diamondhead 10 and Diamondhead 20 AC's, along with CWO Mitch Wilhelm the Little Bear AC assembled near the lister bag of drinking water that was at the re-arm point to map out the best way to support the Manchu's, and develop a plan to protect the Little Bear ship on this upcoming mission.
The briefing in the como bunker was for an emergency resupply of ammunition, which was being loaded by the re-arm point personnel. If we didn't get it to the Manchu's quickly they would be out of ammo and over run, which would mean hundreds of deaths. There was no possibility of putting additional troops in before daylight, so CWO Wilhelm talked to his crew, and understanding the dilemma and danger involved they all volunteered to make the ammo resupply
After kicking several scenarios around they decided to stack the ammo in a pyramid in both doors. The re-supply would be a challenge, since “Mole City” was laden with obstacles. There was a tall radio antenna and an observation tower near the center of the compound where the drop zone was to be concerned with, not to mention they would be going into the center of a blazing fire fight which would make it prohibitive to land so they would just come to a hover and kick the ammo out the door. This plan also created a problem; they were two men short to off load the ammo. The gunner and crewchief needed to man the guns for self defense.
Two young troopers from the re-arm point were busily loading the last of the ammo, when CWO Wilhelm walked up to talk to them. He asked them if they would mind going along to kick out the boxes when we got where we were going. Neither one had been in a helicopter before nor did they know anything about them, or the mission. They jumped at the chance and replied, “sure man, this ought to be a trip”. Little did they know, this would be a trip to last a lifetime. They boarded the “Little Bear” helicopter and took positions crouched down behind the ammo boxes. CWO Wilhelm shouted to them over the whine of the turbine engine, “Stay hunkered down behind those ammo boxes until I tell you to, then just kick out the boxes and we will be out of there”. There were no headsets or helmets to give the two troopers where the pilot could talk to them directly in flight, so he would have to relay the instructions via the gunner and crewchief.
The pilots were gathered around discussing tactics as us crewmembers just stood back and listened to the plan. They were discussing the best way to pull off this re-supply. It was going to be dangerous on the re-supply ship. Almost like a suicide mission. I'm glad I wasn't on that slick tonight, and I felt really sorry for those kids from the re-arm point. They didn't have a clue what was going on out there in Indian Country.
“Look Mitch, Larry and I have been out there all night”, Hayne Moore stated.. “The anti- aircraft fire has been very heavy, we have taken care of most of the .51's and now it is mostly small arms fire that seems to be slowing some. If we come in from the north and hang a hard right and head west I will turn on my landing lights to draw the fire away from you as best I can, and Larry will cover your ass. It ain't a great plan but it is all we have. The Arty is pounding the east and south so we can't go there. The west is really Indian Country so we don't want to start from there.”
Everyone thought about it for a minute, and couldn't come up with a better idea, so the consensus was “Let's do it”.
We all headed for our ships and began the ritual of getting the chicken boards, helmets and other gear squared away, checked the door guns one final time and climbed aboard. I glanced again at my watch and it was just after 2:20 A.M.
The Little Bear ship left first as we had afew little things to attend to, but moments later we slowly lifted off into the night sky heading back to the inferno of “Mole City”.
In the distance we could see a single light of the battle, a glow in the southern sky. The closer we got the glow began to separate itself into many little lights. The flares dropped by the Spooky gunship overhead, the artillery flashes, the red almost laser like stream of tracers coming Down from the mini-guns of the Spooky gunship, and the tracers going up at the aircraft. Through our headsets on the radio we could hear the din of battle raging in the distance. This just heightened the adrenaline flow coursing through our veins.
Over the radio we could hear the Little Bear ship coordinating the re-supply with the ground commander, and arranging for a temporary halt to the artillery fire missions.
Moments later we were there at 1500 feet above the raging battle and joined the Little Bear ship in a clockwise orbit above the battle.
“Little Bear, this is Diamondhead 20”, “go Diamondhead 20 replied the Little Bear pilot”. “Pull out of this orbit and make a big swing to the northeast, we will join up there. Presently we are at 1500 feet enroute to that location. When we get linked up kill your navigation lights and get down on the deck and make your approach north to south. When you get parallel to the center of the Drop Zone make a hard right and we will escort you in. I will turn on my landing lights to draw fire away from you, then we will be blacked out on the way in.” “Roger that Diamondhead 20”.
The three ships started their southerly approach towards Mole City. The Little Bear ship just barely skimming the tree tops flanked on one side by Diamondhead 10. Diamondhead 20 was at 1000 feet and turned on his landing light. That drew and immediate response and the torrent of anti-aircraft fire was horrendous. He quickly turned off the Landing light and blacked out his navigation lights as he descended to occupy the left flank of the Little Bear ship. The three ships in tandem made the right turn inbound to Mole City.
The gunships barely seventy-five feet on either side of the Little Bear ship blazing away with their rockets and door guns, the Little Bear ship withholding fire for fear of hitting one of their escorts. In the distance a flare was fired to mark the Drop Zone, with a little adjustment the re-supply ship was lined up on the Drop Zone. As they neared the outer perimeter, the gunships peeled of to the right and left leaving the re-supply ship unprotected and on her own. The intense small arms fire hammered the lone ship on her final hundred-yard journey. You could hear the ting-ting-splat of the enemy rounds piercing the thin skin of the aircraft.
On short final to the Drop Zone CWO Wilhelm was in command of the ship, but WO Don Rodgers had his hands and feet on the controls also in case CWO Wilhelm should become shot or killed. His job was to also monitor the gauges in case some vital component of the aircraft was hit with hostile fire. Within seconds the Little Bear ship was over the Drop Zone and had come to a hover just afew feet above the ground. Through the intercom CWO Wilhelm screamed to the crewchief and gunner to tell the two guys in the back to kick out the ammunition boxes, which they did frantically. It took but afew seconds, but with the murderous hail of enemyfire it seemed like a week.
As quickly as they had arrived, they were gone. As they crossed the perimeter wire through a hail of enemy small arms fire WO Rodgers broke in on the intercom “The engine oil pressure is dropping and the engine temperature is rising!”
It was decision time, either put it down immediately in Indian Country in the black of night and 10 miles from any friendly troops, or hope they can make it back to Tay Ninh, since it was the closest friendly installation. After discussing the dilemma quickly they voted to try and make Tay Ninh and put as much distance as possible on this little piece of “Hell”.
As the blades frantically beat the air into submission, and the whining of the engine reached a deafening roar the gauges continued to worsen. Soon the lights of Tay Ninh were in sight. Praying as they went, they soon crossed the perimeter wire and put it on the nearest landing pad that they found, which was the re-arm point. After shutting the engine down and thoroughly checking out the problem of the gauges, a round had severed the main oil engine line.They had been flying with no oil for a while. They all were relieved, and very lucky to have made it back in one piece. The ship was shot full of holes, but just that one lucky shot had hit aanything vital.
Through their heroic deeds the Manchu's had the needed ammunition to withstand the NVA onslaught.
Back at Mole City CWO Moore and CWO King had decided to keep the fire team split into two separate ships and fight individually as there were to many targets, and the Manchu's needed suppression on the entire perimeter. We would assume our previous position on the west and south with CWO Larry Kings Diamondhead 20 gunship. CWO Hayne Moore and the Diamondhead 10 gunship would again work the area to the north.
The Little Bear ship had been gone but seconds as we continued to expend our ordinance on the enemy below, after two passes we were totally expended and we to were in route to Tay Ninh to rearm and refuel. CWO Moore contacted the ground commander, and let him know our intentions. “Recast Uniform one four, this is Diamondhead 20. We are fully expended and headed to rearm, we will be back ASAP”. “Roger Diamondhead 20, just hurry”.
Several Minutes later looking over the pilot's shoulder through the windshield, the soft red glow of the gauges breaking up the darkness of the cockpit I could make out our lead ship. It's red and green navigation lights evident, along with the incessant blinking of the red rotating beacon. In the distance the discernable glow of Tay Ninh City was quickly approaching.
“Tay Ninh Tower Diamondhead 10”, “go Diamondhead 10”. “Request straight in to POL, need a little gas in this old beater”. “You're clear at your discretion Diamondhead”.
Descending into the POL area we turned on our landing lights to locate the pumps. Having found them with a little effort, both old Huey's flared and settled slowly to the ground. The engines running at flight idle, the crewchiefs jumped out, removed the gas cap and started the refueling process. It would take but a few minutes. The heavy gunships could only take on 1000 pounds. If we put more fuel, and a full load of rockets and ammo they would never get off the ground with their underpowered engines.
When we had our 1000 pounds of JP-4 on board, we obtained clearance from the tower to hover the few yards over to the re-arm point to begin our re-arming ballet once again.
This time we had some help. The local rearm point guys that had been loading the ammo in the Little Bear ship gave us a hand building the rockets, and helped us tote them, and place them in their launchers. We were exhausted, hot, and sweaty.
The lister bag was once again the center of attraction. We couldn't get enough water tonight to kill the thirst. We talked about the re-supply run as the rearm point guys finished loading the rockets, and what a crazy bunch of bastards they were. To pull that off in one of the biggest fire fights of the war.
Soon we were climbing back aboard and headed back to the war. There was silence in our souls as we had a chance to gather our inner most thoughts, and dwell on them for just a few moments, to have discussions with god and make silly promises, to see images of our family in our mind, and contemplate our fate to come.
In the distance we could see the familiar flares casting their eerie light on the landscape below. We could make out the navigation lights of an Air Force Forward Air Controller in his OV-10 Mohawk, and a Command and Control UH-1H slick that had one of the division upper level officers aboard to supervise the battle. They had arrived on station during our absence, and were orbiting counter clockwise high above the action below.
As we neared the battle the intensity of the ricocheting tracers became more distinct caroming high into the air. You could make out explosions around the perimeter of the tiny enclave. It was going to pick up right where we left off. I just gritted my teeth, checked the M-60 to make sure it was ready, and thought to myself, “You want me screw it come and get me you little bastards”.
“Recast Uniform one four, this is Diamondhead 20, please advise situation”, ETA two minutes. “Roger Diamondhead 20.” “Charlie has broken through and taken over three bunkers on the north side and they are in the wire. I will mark our position with a strobe light. It will be the bunkers to the west of the light. Just start there and go anywhere you want. Get them suckers off our back”.
“Diamondhead 20 this is Issue 15”, “Roger Issue 15 go”. I have a flight of two F-4's inbound now ETA 10 minutes. I suggest you stand off to the north when they drop these hot potatoes. They will be making their pass from west to east”. CWO Larry King replied, “Roger that Issue 15, just call again when they're inbound”
We settled in on the west side and from 1500 feet began our run from the north punching off rockets in sets of two as we watched the tracers going in all directions below. The pungent odor of cordite was heavy in the Huey as we watched them impact in the wire, our M-60's finding their marks on the enemy caught in the open with nowhere to hide.
The roaring sound of the mini-guns cut through the night as their laser like trajectory-belched fire on the unsuspecting enemy below. It was like a replay of the previous trip the enemy tracers headed skyward searching for their tormentors our door guns again glowing cherry red and raining bullets on the NVA below. The NVA were everywhere but we had slowed the onslaught. At the end of the run we searched for altitude and again circled around to make another run. Once again the rockets found their marks in the groups of NVA. You could see them fall in groups some blown into body parts yet others were nailed to the ground and posts in the wire from the fleshettes.
We were under constant small arms fire, and The Manchu's were in a battle for their lives. The artillerymen with the Manchu's had lowered their 105's to chest high and were shooting beehive rounds point blank into the faces of the enemy.
“Diamondhead 20 this is Issue 15, flight of two F-4's are on location and beginning their runs west to east”. “Roger that Issue 15 CWO King replied”. We immediately held off to the north. As the F-4's came by all you could hear was a hiss of the fuselage cutting through the air, then the roar of their engines as they screamed by and dropped the napalm canisters which made a ball of fire that went 200 feet or more into the air and engulfed the landscape for several hundred yards into a fiery inferno. The NVA that were caught in the open would be fried to a crisp.
This was the scenario until 4:15 in the morning. Rearm, refuel return to the perimeter of Mole City. At 4:15 we spotted 50 to 60 NVA southwest of the friendlies trying to escape back toward Cambodia. We rolled in with the rockets and door guns and cut them to ribbons halting their impromptu retreat. After expending our rockets we orbited the area and let the door gunner shoot up what ammunition he had left into the fleeing throng of NVA. When the door gunner was expended on ammo, the C and C ships door gunners took over while we returned once again to Tay Ninh to rearm and refuel. At daybreak contact was lost and we flew around the pattern and inventoried the damage it was a sobering sight. The fleshettes had nailed NVA to the posts in the wire, to trees and anything else including the ground. Bodies were strewn everywhere, it seemed like hundreds of them scattered about with a multitude of weapons both personal and crew served. The napalm had fried many alive.
We remained on station until the wounded had been removed, and provided cover for the dustoffs. When it was all done, we had been in continuous action for 7 hours, and had played a decided role in the outcome of the battle for Patrol Base Mole City. It will be hard to ever forget.
The battle claimed 106 NVA lives that were counted and many more had been drug off the battlefield from the 272nd NVA regiment, and the 9th NVA Division. Bodies of dead NVA soldiers would continue to show up for days buried in shallow graves throughout the area. The Manchu's had been hit with the full force of a 1500 man NVA regiment. Out manned three to one they had fought with great courage and had won a monumental battle.
Never On Sunday
Command and Control: MACV-SOG.
Area of Operations: Laos.
Codename: Prairie Fire
Mission: Primary--General recon.
Secondary--Find major NVA POW underground complex where U.S. POWs are held. Complex located near major intersection of Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
Alternate--Cancel mission if opportunity to capture live NVA soldier arises.
Target Team: Spike Team (ST) Idaho.
Date: 6 October 1968
Launch site: Phu Bai, FOB #1, South Vietnam
Insertion Aircraft: Vietnamese-piloted Sikorsky H-34 helicopters. Kingbees.
Lead Ship: 10-U.S. team leader, 11-U.S. assistant team leader and 01-Vietnamese team leader.
Second Ship: 12-3rd American, 02-team interpreter and 03-point man, Vietnamese team.
Third Ship: Backup.
Assets on site: two A1E skyraiders, one 0-2 covey, two UH-1B Huey gunships and Phantom F- 4s on call.
I always though Sunday was a good day not to run missions, especially when the target area was in the deadly Prairie Fire AO (area of operation).
However, for several days prior to 6 October 1968, the weather had been cloudy and uncertain, which prevented any Forward Operating Base (FOB)-1 teams in Phu Bai from launching into Laos AO. FOB-1 sat along Highway 1, north of Phu Bai airport, on the north side of an ARVN training compound, just south of the tiny village of Phu Luong, about 10 miles south of Hue.
When there were no teams on the ground, the brass in Saigon got nervous. Hence, in the mornings the first thing the team leaders did was to check the mountains west of Phu Bai. If they were clear, the brass would try to get a team or a Hatchet Force inserted in Prairie Fire.
On Saturday, 5 October 1968, the weather had broken enough for ST Idaho One Zero (U.S. team leader) Staff Sergeant Donald W "Don" Wolken to fly over a VR (visual reconnaissance) over the target area. Wile Wolken was flying, Sau (the Vietnamese team leader) and I inspected the team.
Sunday morning, the weather was crystal clear, nary a cloud in the sky. Wolken and Sau quickly inspected the team: each American carried a minimum of 25 magazines for their CAR-15s, the Vietnamese carried 20 magazines. Wolken and I both carried sawed-off M-79s, 21 HE rounds and one tear gas round. Wolken also carried a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol with a suppressor. I carried the PRC-25 radio and a bunch of hand grenades, while Robinson and the Vietnamese carried several claymore mines and extra batteries for the PRC-25. Sau and all Americans carried URC-10 emergency radio also.
Shortly before we left, the team posed for a photograph, over the strong protests of Sau and our interpreter Hiep. They said we'd jinx the mission.
A few minutes later, we were on the H-34s flying west on the hour-plus flight to Laos. Those long flights to the target area were peaceful and memorable because we were flying high, where the air was cooler, looking at the dark, lush greens of the jungle. From 4,000 feet, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were beautiful. During these flights, I often thought about my grandfather's farm in Belle Mead, New Jersey.
As the H-34s churned westward, my vision always seemed better, aided by the adrenaline that was flowing, anticipating the unknown. Once over Laos, the doorgunners test-fired their .30- caliber machine guns.
Then, the Kingbees went into a dying swan spiral, spinning madly toward the earth. The G-force pushed my stomach upward into my chest. At the last second, the pilot flared out and hovered a few feet off the ground. The right wheel of the Kingbee touched the bomb crater that was our LZ. While we were descending, Wolken sat in the door, looking at the LZ itself. I squatted behind him, with my hand on his left shoulder, watching the perimeter of the LZ for any enemy movement.
Now the blood was pounding through our veins.
As the Kingbee wheel again touched the lip of the bomb crater, Wolken jumped out and promptly disappeared in the elephant grass. I followed. When I landed on the crater, I started slipping down the outside lip. The angle alongside the hill was much steeper than I had realized and the ground was muddy and slippery. I started rolling down the hill, the same way Wolker had. Robinson and the Vietnamese successfully landed on the crater's lip and laughed at Wolken and me. It took us several minutes to rejoin the team.
I radioed Sergeant First Class Robert "Spider" Parks, who was flying overhead in the 0-2 Covey, and told him that we were OK. Spider said he'd stand by for 10 more minutes before releasing the assets. Ten minutes later I broke squelch three times for the final team OK.
As we moved away from the LZ, Phouc was walking point, with Sau behind him. Wolken was third in line. I was behind him, Robinson was behind me while Hiep brought up the rear. We took a break as Phouc, Sau and Wolken applied mud to their bee stings.
About half an hour later, Phouc signaled that he heard a lot of activity in front of him. Within seconds we all heard the noise. At first, we thought it was an NVA regiment charging toward us. I got behind a log and pulled a pin from an M26 frag grenade, only to realize that we were being overrun by a chattering group of monkeys.
After being overrun, we went into the standard move-10 minutes, wait-10 minutes pace, on the principle that in the jungle you can learn more from hearing than seeing. Then around noon, we heard the first shot fired by an enemy tracker. By 1400 hours they sounded like they had located our trail. By dusk, the trackers had moved through the thick jungle quicker than we had and were closing in on us. We kept moving until last light, then we finally set up our RON (Rest [Remain] Over Night) site. As I moved out to place a claymore mine on our eastern perimeter, the tracker startled us b firing one last round, which sounded like he was less than 10 meters from our southern perimeter.
Because the trackers were so close, we didn't eat until midnight, after I radioed a team OK to the airborne command center that flew over Southeast Asia 24 hours a day. Sau and Hiep went right to sleep. Between 2000 hours and 0200 hours the next morning, I listened to the tracker skirt our team, ending his travel in front of my claymore mine.
I wasn't sure if he had located it or not, so I detonated it and woke up the team and half the jungle with the explosive roar. For the rest of the night, there was no more movement around our perimeter.
At first light, we moved on. When Spider flew over, I gave him a quick sitrep (situation report). Through the morning, we heard no more tracker shots or any obvious enemy movement. The only thing that concerned me was the fact that Sau's eyes began to get bigger as the day progressed. By that time, he had been running missions for five years. He could smell the NVA. During one break, he said, "Beaucoup VC, beaucoup VC." That scared me, because I hadn't heard or seen anything to corroborate Sau's intuition.
At noontime, I gave Spider a team OK, but told him Sau was nervous. Spider reminded me to trust Sau's instincts and said he'd return at 1600 hours.
By now, Sau and Hiep had swapped places, with Sau in the rear and me in the number five slot next to him. Around 1300 hours, I heard Sau hiss like a snake. Across a ravine, on the hill we had just descended, were two NVA soldiers, armed with AK-47s and smiles.
What kind of game was this?! They didn't raise their weapons or make any hostile moves. They just smiled at us.
Because they were no more than 45 yards away, I pulled out my sawed-off M79, indicating to Sau I'd like to permanently wipe the smiles off those smirking faces. Sau said, "no, beaucoup VC, di, di! (go, go)."
I told Wolken what happened and immediately we headed by high ground. Within an hour, we were atop a knoll big enough to hold ST Idaho. Wolken told me to get the PRC-25 and get Spider back over us ASAP.
By now, Sau's eyes were bigger than saucers. I put the long antenna on the PRC-25 and made several calls on the primary, secondary and alternate frequencies, to no avail. I turned on the emergency beeper on the URC-10. That distress signal was on a channel which was supposed to be monitored at all times by all aircraft flying over the Prairie Fire AO.
No one responded. I opened a can of apricots and was sipping the sweet nectar when all hell broke loose.
Suddenly, the green jungle around us erupted with deafening full-automatic blasts from NVA-held AK-47s. Sau, Phouc, Hiep and Wolken responded instantly.
The crack of AK-47 rounds never sounded louder or closer. All I could see from our perimeter was the smoke, the red and orange blasts coming from the darker-than-ever green jungle, and green AK-47 tracers, which were flying over our heads.
The thunderous fury of dozen of men blasting away at each other on full automatic, within 10 or less feet of each other, kills all sounds. Numbs all eardrums.
Then, just as suddenly as the roar had begun, it stopped.
Everybody ran out of bullets, except for me, and I emptied my magazine toward the most intense area of enemy fire.
The only sounds audible through hurting ears were the metallic clicks of magazines being slammed into hot rifles and gunbolts sliding shut to resume the apocalyptic death roar.
ST Idaho won the reload race. Nobody was faster than Sau and Phouc at getting the first magazine out and the second one in. Within seconds we had gained fire superiority. At that instant, at the peak of the fire-fight, those brief, tense adrenaline-pumping seconds made all the other games in life seem like patty-cake. You miss your man here and you die.
The majority of the enemy firing was coming at us from the south and west parts of the small knoll. Wolken and I chucked a couple of M26s down the side of the knoll, in between blasts of full auto on our CAR-15s.
As soon as we gained complete fire superiority, I turned on the URC-10 beeper and started screaming into the PRC-25.
The small knoll saved us. The jungle was so thick and the knoll so small, only a score of NVA could rush us at once.
Soon they were stacking bodies and firing at us from behind their dead comrades. A lot of NVA soldiers died in those first few minutes of hell on earth.
For more than an hour, my cries and screams into the radio and URC-10 beeps went unanswered as the NVA mounted more mass attacks.
But the hill, the jungle and our CAR-15s worked against them as they continued to pile up or drag away more bodies. With no help around, conserving ammo while keeping Charlie back became a top priority.
Waiting several hours for help in the Prairie Fire AO after making contact with the NVA was not unusual. In fact, any time a team got help in less than an hour or two, people boasted about it as though it were a minor miracle because the AO was so far from Vietnam.
Finally, I heard Spider on the radio. He said an F-4 Phantom returning from a bombing run in Northern Laos had heard the beeper and called him.
I told Spider we had a "Prairie Fire Emergency," which diverted all airborne assets in the AO to our target, including any F-4s that were heading north. Spider also said he had called the Judge and the Executioner--an Americal Division gunship team that was temporarily attached to our operation. Within minutes, Spider was over our position. He told me to pop smoke, Spider said he saw two yellows, which meant the NVA were monitoring our frequency.
We changed frequencies and I popped a violet smoke. A few minutes later, the first A1E Skyraider arrived on target and made a gun run on the western perimeter. He made his first napalm run on the south side and said, "Put your heads down. I'm going to make you sweat."
He brought it so close we could feel the heat from the deadly jell. A few seconds later we smelled burning flesh. As he dove toward us a third time, the pilot said, in a quite Southern drawl, "It's crispy critter time."
When the NVA heard the old World War II plane making another run, they charged us in a desperate attempt to get close to us in order to avoid the Skyraider's deadly ordnance.
Then we blasted away and pushed them back down the hill, and the Skyraider pushed them back toward us, like a death dance. Right then and there I thanked the Lord for Uncle Sam's Air Force.
By now, each team member had developed lanes of fire down the hill. At one point when I was talking to Spider, I though I saw something moving in my lane of fire. All I could see was the ass of an NVA soldier crawling up the hill. I told Spider, "Wait one" (second). Then the NVA stuck up his head to se where he was, and the last thing he might have seen was a puff from my CAR-15 as his head exploded like a coconut.
For the next few hours, Spider and I worked numerous fast movers and A1Es, hitting the southern and eastern perimeters hard. The Air Force dumped thousands of mini-gun rounds, 20mm rounds, several 500-pound bombs, numerous napalm and CBU (Cluster Bomb Unit) canisters on the dauntless NVA troops. In between gun runs, Wolken and I would fire our M79s upward, like mortars, thorough one small opening in the jungle canopy.
About half an hour before dusk, Spider told us the Kingbees were on their way. And by that time, the Judge and Executioner had refueled and reloaded and were returning with them.
Ten minutes before the Kingbees arrived, Spider was like a master conductor, running F- 4s and A1Es around our perimeter.
The Judge and the Executioner led the Kingbees into and L which was about 10 yards west of our perimeter. Spider had spotted a little ridge from our knoll to a knoll covered with elephant grass and small trees. The Kingbee could not land, but Captain Thinh roared in, chopping the tops off several small tress, and hovered 10 feet off the ground.
ST Idaho ran to the chopper. That wasn't as easy as it sounded. It took us 10 minutes to cover those 10 yards.
The ground was wet and muddy. The elephant grass between 6 and 10 feet tall and thick. Because the grass was so thick I went first, trying to blaze a trail through it. When I fell, Wolken ran, literally ran over me, and plowed forward. When he fell, I returned the favor.
As we moved slowly toward the chopper, the activity around us heightened to a frenzy. The NVA knew what the Kingbee was doing. The NVA knew that they knew we were vulnerable. He directed the Judge and Executioner through gun runs along the eastern perimeter while the Kingbee hovered on the western edge.
Sau and Hiep covered our frantic, desperate drive to the chopper. As the Kingbee hovered about 8 feet above us, Wolken and I threw the other four members into the chopper. At some point during that craziness, I looked up at Capt. Thinh, and he was sitting there as cool as a Rocky Mountain breeze, keeping the aging H-34 hovering while taking numerous hits (the next morning, the maintenance crew counted 48 holes int he ancient ship).
Finally, Wolken told me to get in. By now, my adrenaline was roaring through my body like a berserk subway. I grabbed Wolken by his fatigue jacket and threw the 220-pound staff sergeant into the Kingbeee. Then I threw my rucksack and jumped up onto the ladder, where Wolken grabbed me by the shoulder while telling the gunner to get the hell out of there.
As Capt. Thinh lifted the Kingbee, Hiep and Sau blasted away out of the port windows, Phouc and Robinson blasted away out of the starboard window and Wolken and I emptied our last magazine into the dark jungle, which had dozens, if not hundreds, of muzzle flashes lighting up the darkness. As we ascended skyward, I fired my last M79 round and dropped my white phosphorous grenade, which looked spectacular against the quickly fading jungle.
Seconds later, the hell and fury and death of the LZ were behind us.
Suddenly, the cool night air hit us, as Wolken and I watched the final fleeting moments of the sweetest sunset we had ever seen in our lives.
We had survived. How many NVA hadn't survived?
Capt. Thinh flew us back to Phu Bai. Before he returned to his base at Da Nang, I climbed up to the pilot's seat and thanked him for saving our lives and told him he never had to pay for a drink in the FOB-1 club again.
Because it was late, I went to the mess hall and got some chow for Sau, Hiep and phouc and ate with them. Sau appeared as though nothing unusual had happened. I had never been so close to thunderous death before. Our meal was somber. Later I went to the club, where an Australian floor show was in progress. A lot of the guys wanted sex. I was happy to be alive. Later, when talking to a friend, I realized I had killed a man, perhaps more than one. The line from an old Doors song surfaced in my mind: "The war is over for the unknown soldier...bullet struck the helmeted head." Silently, I thanked the Lord for sparing me, again.