Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Firefly and the Dragons

It seems to me that we evacuated the aircraft a number of times. We always ended up in the Ben Hoa, Long Binh area, housed for the night with another assault helicopter company. I was flying with the Crusaders when, again, intelligence suggested that there was the possibility of a ground attack at Tay Ninh. We were ordered to evacuate the aircraft and found ourselves at Ben Hoa with the 334th Aerial Weapons Company, known as the Dragons.

Normally, we would make use of their club facilities. During one of these evacuations, we ended up with a company that had access to all sorts of good food. We all began ordering steaks. At Tay Ninh, we could get a small pizza, cooked in a toaster oven for a buck. That was the extent of the menu. There were steaks on special occasions, but not as a nightly choice. Such was the problem with being at the end of the supply chain.

When we arrived and shut down the aircraft, we were escorted to the Dragon company area. I don’t remember how it happened, but I ran into a good friend from flight school, Preston Rainwater. I had visited his home when we were at Fort Wolters for primary flight training and we roomed together while at Fort Rucker for the advanced course. I hadn’t seen him since graduation about a year earlier.

He was scheduled to fly the Firefly mission that night and wondered if I wanted to come along. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure how it was arranged. It seems to me that he told his co-pilot that he wouldn’t be needed that night. I was going to take his place.

A Huey configured for Firefly. This one was from the 1st Cav Division. The
Dragons' Firefly wasn't armed, if I remember correctly.

Firefly was set up to draw enemy fire. One aircraft, a UH-1, was set up with a cluster of landing lights in the cargo compartment. They would be directed at the ground, searching for enemy activity. I don’t remember the altitude at which we flew but I don’t believe it was any more than about a thousand feet above the ground and probably less.

That aircraft was accompanied by two gunships, one called the high ship and the other the low ship. They orbited around, at various altitudes, waiting for something to happen and when it did, they would roll in to engage the enemy.

After the preflight, and some preliminary instructions, like the closest evac hospital if someone was wounded, and the radio frequencies used by the company, we took off to search a specific area. I will assume here, that the mission was coordinated with the ground units operating in that area so that we didn’t accidentally engage a friendly force… of course, if we were fired on, that would pretty well rule out friendlies.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that we violated a couple of regulations. We, in this case me, probably flew more than eight hours that day. I had been with the flight all day and the flying time for all that was five or six hours, and often longer. Add to that, four or five hours for the mission, and I probably had eleven or twelve hours that day.

And, yes, we often exceeded the eight-hour maximum but no one actually ever said anything to us about that because there was nothing that could be done about it.

The mission was fairly boring. I spotted some firing on the ground, which is to say I saw the red tracers. It looked like .50 cal. bouncing along the ground, engaged with something smaller, given the green tracers that answered. That is not to say that I could tell the caliber by the color, but by the size of the tracer rounds. The enemy seemed to always use green or white and we always used red.

Although we circled for a few moments, there was nothing for us to do. Rainwater might have attempted communication with the ground, if he knew the unit and their radio signals. I do know that we did not engage anyone there and flew off looking elsewhere.

The Dragon Pin, which
I still have.
The rest of the night was routine. I don’t believe the gunships fired a shot, though we did use the landing lights to search the ground. As dawn approached, we returned to the Dragon company area.

With the mission finished, we all went to breakfast, that is Rainwater, me and the pilots of the Cobras. We were sitting there when some of the pilots from the Crusaders walked by and said something snide to me… sort of the ongoing joking that went on in the company because I was so young. Something like, “Does your mother know that you’re here?”

One of the Cobra pilots said, “Leave him alone. He’s cool. He flew with us.”

Before we left, I was given a pin with the company’s logo on it. I pinned it on my cap.

I don’t remember if we were scheduled for a mission that day, or if we just returned the aircraft to Tay Ninh. Seems that if we did, and I was scheduled to fly, I would have been tired, really tired. It is also possible that the crews that evacuated the flight were given the day down, with a couple of exceptions. I simply do not remember. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

From the Hornets to the Crusaders

My plan here had been to tell the tale in a chronological order from my arrival in Vietnam to my departure (DEROS). I have violated that rule on a couple of occasions because, well, I could. For the most part I will continue along that road, but sometimes will either jump forward or fall backward to cover an interesting tale.

It was in March that the command staff, meaning the company commanders and the battalion commander realized that there was a problem looming on the horizon. The Crusaders, that is, the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, would see many of its senior pilots, meaning the aircraft commanders, rotating home in a short time. To avoid that, some of the pilots were moved around. I was one of those.

I was told that I would be moving up to the Crusaders from the Hornets and by moving up, I mean going from a point about thirty miles from Saigon to Tay Ninh, which was closer to Cambodia and a little farther north.

I arrived there without much in the way of fan fair. I had packed my duffle bag, stuffed some other, person items in a satchel, climbed into the back of a Huey, and was flown to Tay Ninh. I really don’t remember much about that but I must have reported to the company commander and was assigned to the first platoon.

The Crusader's Officers Club. Notice the sign on the right that suggests that if you
wear your hat in the club, you must buy the bar a round of drinks. I point this out because 
it is a rule that is routinely ignored on those TV shows that feature an officer's club. 

Because I was now a new guy, not in Vietnam, just to the unit, I was again a Peter Pilot, meaning that I wasn’t an aircraft commander. I flew with the first platoon’s ACs on a number of occasions and again, don’t remember much about that. One of the ACs was a heavy smoker and had a habit of engaging the forced trim on the cyclic. That meant that if you let go of it, for whatever reason, it would return to the position that put the aircraft in a climbing right turn. The theory, I think, was that if the pilot who had actual control of the aircraft was suddenly incapable of flying it, the helicopter would not quickly spin out of control, but would enter a shallow climb, giving the surviving pilot a chance to grab the controls.

It also meant that you had to fight the cyclic the whole time because it wanted to enter that climbing turn. Rather than slight pressure to move the cyclic, it required a little more effort. I thought of it as annoying. It made the task more difficult and I know of no case in which using the forced trim in that fashion saved anything. I did find a way to defeat it so that flying wasn’t as strenuous as it had been.

The first platoon had a scheduling board and the platoon leader would put up the aircraft assignments for the next day on that board including which AC and pilot in which aircraft. One day, after about a week or so, I checked the board and didn’t see my name in the pilot slot. I thought I had the next day off and as I turned, I though that I did see my name. I looked back and found that I was assigned as the AC of Spare Two.

Each day two “spare” aircraft were assigned. Spare One, would be pre-flighted and ready to go if needed. If the flight was staging somewhere away from Tay Ninh and there was an airfield or location closer to the area of the day’s operations, Spare One, would locate there. If not needed, when the flight was released, Spare One returned to Tay Ninh if it had flown anywhere else.

Spare Two was the aircraft that would replace Spare One, if Spare One was called up to take a slot in the flight. In other words, it was fairly unlikely that Spare Two would be flying and all you had to do was remain in the company area, sleeping, reading, playing cards or whatever in case you had to replace Spare One. It wasn’t much of an assignment, but then I was now the AC of Spare Two for the next day.

There had been no announcement that I was now an AC. No one said a word to me about it. No ceremony, such as we had had at the Hornets when I was made an AC there. Just my name on the scheduling board in the left-hand slot for the AC rather than the right-hand slot for the pilot.

Of course, the next day, my name moved up and I was assigned to one of the chalk positions in the flight.  I don’t remember where it was because, I don’t remember if we had the lead or trail part of the flight, and I don’t remember if I was assigned an aircraft in the middle of those positions.

I do remember that I was assigned an aircraft, and if it was available, then that was the aircraft I would fly. If it wasn’t, then I would fly another, such as the one that I blew up on a land mine. And I had a crew, or rather, there was a crew chief and door gunner assigned to my aircraft as well. We all flew together most of the time.

For a little bit of foreshadowing, which we’ll get to later, their plan to prevent a number of the ACs leaving the company about the same didn’t work out.

  

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Bad Colonel Mission

 

Army Aviation is a strange branch because of some of the ways it operates. For example, the aircraft commander is not always the senior officer on board the helicopter. In Vietnam, appointment was based, not on rank or seniority but on experience and time in-country. Before a pilot was considered for aircraft commander, he needed to have, at least, 300 hundred hours of flight time in Vietnam. That was coupled to the more than 200 hours in flight school. In other words, before even being considered, a pilot had more than 500 hours of flight time.

I mention all this because, as a warrant officer (W-1, the lowest officer grade), I often flew with a first lieutenant, and rarely with a captain, as my co-pilot. Such was the case when I had the ass and trash mission of hauling a colonel around so that he could inspect the fire support bases and other units assigned to his command.

The back end of a Huey and the Crew Chief near the machine gun.


I don’t remember if I was flying with the Hornets or the Crusaders at the time. My co-pilot was a first lieutenant who had not reached the 300 hours necessary to be considered for promotion to aircraft commander. This meant, that in operations involving the aircraft and crew, and all the time we were airborne, I was in command. In fact, the colonel, who outranked both of us by a great deal was under my command in operations involving the aircraft, something he didn’t understand.

When he first showed up, with his command sergeant major, he made it a point to ignore me and speak with the commissioned officer member of the crew. I just stood there and when the colonel finished his spiel, the lieutenant pointed to me and said, “You’ll have to tell him. He’s the aircraft commander.”

Given I was only 19, I suppose that I looked way too young to be an Army pilot, let alone the aircraft commander, but that’s the way it was. The colonel asked if I understood what he wanted and I said, “Yes, sir.” I mean, I wasn’t so dumb that I would antagonize a colonel because he didn’t understand Army Aviation.

We got everyone on board and strapped in, fired up the helicopter, and then took off. We landed at a base camp. The colonel jumped out without a word to us and headed off to find the local company or battalion commander. We shut down and waited with the aircraft.

When the colonel returned, he began to tell the lieutenant where he wanted to go next, but the lieutenant interrupted and said, “He’s the aircraft commander. You need to talk to him.”

The colonel looked at me, pointed at his map and said that was where he wanted to go. Once he was onboard, we started the aircraft, took off and found the fire support base. These were smaller than the base camps, were more compact, with the helipad outside the wire. Not the safest place to be.

As I, with the rest of the crew, was walking into the fire base, the sergeant major thought maybe we should wait at the aircraft. I said, probably in a snotty, teenaged way, “Why? He’s not going anywhere without us.” Besides, even though he was at the top of the NCO grades and outranked every enlisted man around, I still outranked him… probably a situation that didn’t fill him with joy.

When the colonel returned, we played the aircraft commander game again with him talking to the lieutenant and then being told that he’d have to talk to me. Not a very good way to build confidence in one another.

We took off and the lieutenant was flying. I saw an aircraft out to the left, above us and far away. The lieutenant caught a glimpse of it, thought it was much closer and on a collision course. He took immediate but unnecessary, abrupt evasive action.

I told him to ease up. We weren’t in danger. The colonel was mad, thought we’d done it to annoy him and I confess, had I thought of it, I just might have done something like that… professional or not.

When we landed at the last stop and were almost rid of the colonel, he let me know that he didn’t like the sudden dive. I mentioned the lieutenant had thought we were too close to another aircraft, but, of course, the colonel wouldn’t listen.

Later, when we returned to our home base, the company commander asked me what happened. He told me the colonel had filed a bad mission report. I said, “Well, I’d like to file a bad passenger report.” Of course, there was no such thing. However, I think, once the CO understood the situation, that he no longer cared about it. I never heard another word.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Hotel Three

 

For those who flew in III Corps, there was Hotel Three. This was the heliport at Tan Son Nhut that served the helicopters. It was a large facility that had a small terminal and those needing rides to various bases and installations around III Corps could find a flight. Nothing was scheduled, at least as I remember it. When an aircraft landed at Hotel Three, the pilots would check in with the terminal, saying they could take a certain number of people to their home stations. It wasn’t always a direct flight.

Saigon near Hotel Three, if I remember correctly. Photo copyright by Kevin Randle.

To get to Hotel Three, meant that the helicopter would fly along Highway One, finally descending to low level to fly under the traffic patterns at Tan Son Nhut. Then pop back up to altitude and call the tower for landing instructions. What was fun was there was a gap in the tree line that blocked the path, meaning you could fly between the trees. At one point, someone strung commo wire through that gap. I know this because I caught the wire with my skids, taking out about a hundred feet of it. I never saw the wire and didn’t know I’d hit it until we landed at Hotel three.

Once there, with the engine shut down, and with the field guarded, you could leave the aircraft. You could then walk out, to what we thought of as the World’s Largest PX. You could buy practically anything there, even a new car to be delivered to your home of record or your next duty station, if you knew it. Before I left Vietnam, and like so many others, I ordered a stereo system that showed up at my home of record a component at the time.

There was also a movie theater. This was a real theater with a concession stand and theater seating. It really didn’t matter what movie was showing because it was the theater experience that was important. I remember seeing Hombre there, complete with popcorn and coming attractions.

On one of the stops there, I went into the terminal and said that I was heading for Cu Chi if anyone needed a ride. Two nurses asked to go along and one guy wondered if I could take him to Bao Tri. Not exactly on the way, but not that far out of the way. I told him to come along.

Toward the end of my tour, they began to restrict the flights into Hotel Three. Too many helicopters landing there for no other reason that the let the flight crews wander around the PX or the movie theater or some of the other facilities. The exception was if you had combat damage that needed to be checked out. I think I used that excuse once and no one seemed to care… especially since I could take a colonel to Tay Ninh. (And this was after I had been assigned to the Crusaders, which meant I was going to Tay Ninh.)

There really was nothing extraordinary about Hotel Three. It was just the heliport that operated as a passenger facility. I don’t remember them having refueling capabilities. We did sometimes take passengers from Cu Chi to Hotel Three as they rotated home or as they were going on R&R. Sometimes the tower would ask if we could take someone to another location.

I just thought I’d provide a little insight to some of the mundane things. If the majority of the area hadn’t been a combat zone, no one would care.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Shot Down

 

The 269th Combat Aviation Battalion was made up of two combat assault helicopter companies; 116th AHC (Hornets) and the 187th AHC (Crusaders), as well as a Chinook transportation company, the 242nd (Muleskinners). There were other units assigned and then reassigned to other units before I arrived in Vietnam. While I was in country there were only the three companies. The area of operations (AO) ranged from near the southern border of II Corps, all of III Corps, and deep into IV Corps. It all depended on the missions, the units and where there was a need for helicopter support.

I had been an aircraft commander long enough that I was no longer assigned to the middle of the flight. I had been deemed competent and others were now flying in Chalk Three or Chalk Eight. On this mission, to extract the Mike Force from the mountains near Song Be Special Forces Camp, I was in Chalk Four. There had been no reports of the enemy in the immediate area. Contact had been broken, and it was time to return the Mike Force to Song Be. In other words, we weren’t expecting much in enemy fire, if any at all.

Song Be Special Forces Camp. Photo copyright by Kevin Randle

We flew over the camp, toward the mountains and up over the ridge line. We were flying Delta Model Hueys, which were weak compared to the Hotel Models flown by the Crusaders.  That meant we didn’t have the power that the H-Models had and we were now operating at a higher-than-normal altitude in high humidity, not to mention a nearly full fuel load, all of which made things even more problematic.

We crossed the ridge line and began the approach to the PZ. It was a crappy PZ, studded with broken tress, brushes, and other debris that could be sucked up in the rotor wash the penetrate the rotor disk, damaging the blades. It was the only place large enough for us to get into as a flight and one that had a defensible perimeter.

The gunships led us in and then buzzed around the periphery of the flight, searching for the enemy. As we touched down, it became clear that the enemy hadn’t completely disengaged. One side of the PZ erupted in small arms fire. I couldn’t see the muzzle flashes, but I could hear the AKs and the .30 caliber machine guns.

Trail said, “You’re down with ten.”

As the firing picked up the Mike Force soldiers began to crawl over one another to board the helicopters. Mortars began to explode with a distinctive crump. I saw a fountain of dirt off the right, at the edge of the PZ, too far to do any real damage to the flight. There were others falling around.

The gunships rolled in, first with mini guns and then 2.75-inch rockets. There was now more smoke and clouds of dirt and dust to the right.

Over the radio I could hear the ground mission commander giving orders to the Green Berets with the Vietnamese, directing the fire. The air mission commander was attempting to coordinate the suppression with the gunships. Our door guns, for the most part, were silent. Friendlies in the line of fire.

Trail said, “Lead, you’re loaded.

“On the go.”

Lead lifted off and began to climb out, turning the left as soon as he was clear of the trees, climbing up and over the ridge.

Chalk Two wasn’t quite as lucky. He was overloaded and under powered. He broke right, down the slope, picking up speed in a slight dive so that he could climb out and turn left.

Chalk Three apparently had no trouble and followed Lead to the left.

It was now my turn and as I climbed over the trees, we were hit with enemy fire. I could feel the rounds striking the aircraft. I was losing power. I watched as the rotor speed fell and the engine RPM wound down. I pushed the collective down. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it over the ridge. I didn’t have the power. I thought that I would follow Chalk Two, diving away to the right but couldn’t see him.

One of the enemy rounds stuck the bundle of wires for the commo. The Fox Mike began to cycle with a tuning squeal that went on and on blocking me ability to talk to the flight. I could hear nothing on the Fox Mike except that squeal, but the Uniform was still working.

I slipped down in the seat slightly. There was a two-inch gap between the top of the armored seat and the bottom of my helmet. I was trying to cover that gap.

Over the radio I heard someone say, “The AC’s dead. The ACs dead.”

Hornet Six asked, “Who’s going down?”

I reached over and turned off the Fox Mike to stop the noise. I was looking for the aircraft that was going down because I wanted to land near him for the mutual support. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I was unaware of what was happening with the rest of the flight. Over the radio I could hear the gunfire. It kept increasing in volume.

I said, “Four trying to gain rotor RPM,”

There was the ripping sound of the mini guns from the gunships. I couldn’t hear any mortars falling.  I was now far enough from the PZ, that those explosions were lost in all the firing.

I heard, “Lead you’re off with ten. Fire Received.

“Who took fire?”

Someone, I don’t know who, said, “Everyone.”

“Chalk Four. What’s your status?”

I glanced at the engine instruments again. They had crept back into the green during the dive. The rotor speed had recovered and the engine was operating at full RPM. I turned to the left, pulled in some pitch and began to climb out, to get over the ridge line.

Once I cleared the ridge, I rolled over, again diving slightly, to build up the rotor RPM again. I knew that we were getting close to the Special Forces camp. I could tell that we weren’t going to quite make it. I was still losing altitude and now had no real way to recover it. The engine was losing RPM. The engine must have taken a round or two.

I landed about a klick short of the Special Forces camp. I didn’t think we’d make it to their airstrip, and I didn’t want to attempt a low altitude autorotation. Landing under power is always better. Besides, we were far enough away from the PZ and basically under the protection of the Special Forces camp, that it made sense.

Chalk Five touched down about fifty yards behind me. I thought he was there to pick us up, but that wasn’t the case. When he approached me, he said, “I thought you were leaking fuel. I could smell the JP-4 but the bottom of my aircraft looks like Niagara Falls.”

About that time a couple of vehicles from the Special Forces camp arrived. The two sergeants looked over the damage to the aircraft. One of them traced a bullet that had hit the side of my aircraft and traveled up, into the engine. He opened the access panel and found part of the bullet embedded in the engine which explained the power loss. He dug it out, examined it and asked, “Can I have this?”

I looked it over. I thought it was just part of an armor piecing round. Nothing special about it, but the sergeant wanted it. I said, “Sure.”

The rest of the flight had landed on the airstrip outside the camp and were taking off again, heading back to pick up the rest of the Mike Force. That went off with only a little enemy fire and just a couple of mortars. In and out quickly. I don’t think anyone took any hits.

My crew, and that of Chalk Five, rode back to the Special Forces camp. The members of the Mike Force walked. It wasn’t all that far for them.

I don’t remember how we all got back to Cu Chi, but will assume that we rode back in one of the slicks. At the debriefing that night, I don’t remember any of this coming up, except that I was told to be a little quicker on the radio. I mentioned that the Fox Mike had been shot out so that I couldn’t make the normal radio calls until I switched over to the Uniform.

The question came up about who had said that the AC was dead. Turned out it was my co-pilot. He’d seen me slump down in the seat and thought that I had been hit. I looked at him and said, “But I was flying the aircraft. Why didn’t you take the controls?”

He said, “You seemed to know what you were doing.”

That brought a laugh from the other pilots because that made no sense.

At that point the SIX (meaning, of course, the company commander whose call sign was Hornet 6) moved on to other issues.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Interlude - Part One

 

I not sure if these interludes are something of interest here but I find that as I watch programs that deal with the military, I see errors that would be easily corrected if those creating the programs knew what they were doing. I’ve run into two examples in the last couple of days and thought that I would mention them. These observations are based on my military experiences, which, I think are relevant here.

First, I saw that The West Wing was available on HBOMax and since I have enjoyed other Arron Sorkin shows, I thought I’d see how this one went. The secretary to the President (Martin Sheen, if you must know), Mrs. Laningham, was not in a Christmas mood. She was asked about that and told a rather sad tale. It seems that her twin sons had been killed in Da Nang, and I’m not sure if it was at Christmas time or not. I only know, based on the story it was in 1970.

She mentioned that they had been in medical school and were preparing to be doctors. I say it this way because I don’t know if they had graduated or were in their residency, or what exactly their status was. Anyway, they received notice that they were about to be drafted and although they could have gotten student deferments as so many others did (like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump to name but two). These young men wanted to serve and they became medics. So, they deployed to Da Nang and were apparently killed together.

I say hogwash… History tells us that this wouldn’t have happened. During the Civil War, a mother, Lydia Bixby received a letter of condolence from President Lincoln about the loss of her five sons in the war. History suggests that two of them, and possibly three, survived the war. No matter here because Lincoln believed, and history suggested, all five had been lost. The government did nothing to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

In 1876, George Custer rode to the Little Bighorn with his brothers Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law James Calhoun (married to Custer’s sister Margaret) and his nephew Audie Reed. All five were killed in the battle. An article in a newspaper noted that the “unhappy Mrs. Calhoun” had lost a husband, three brothers and a nephew in the fight. It was worst loss by a single family at the time.

Fast forward to World War II. The five Sullivan brothers, from Waterloo, Iowa, joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They required, before enlistment, that they serve together, a request that was granted. All five were killed when their ship was sunk in the Solomon Islands. This resulted in a prohibition of allowing brothers or family members from serving together in a combat environment.

Fast forward to August 1968, and my graduation from flight school. You might wonder about the relevance of that but there is a reason here. Every member of the class received orders to Vietnam with a single exception. We had two brothers in that class. I don’t remember if they were twins or just brothers, but one got orders for Vietnam and the other got orders for Germany. At the end of the year, the brother who had gone to Germany would probably receive orders for Vietnam. In other words, the Army prohibited sending both brothers to Vietnam at the same time.

Yes, I know that National Guard units that deployed to Iraq often had family members serving together. This could be siblings, spouses, or parents and children. Most of those units were in combat support roles as opposed to direct combat but the fact remains that they were deployed together. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were rules that prevented this sort of thing from happening and the units discussed on the show were active duty as opposed to National Guard.

The second annoyance was an episode of Jag. An American fighter pilot fired on what he thought was an enemy position. He said that he had seen tracers fired up at him twice and on the second time, he engaged, killing three members of the Coalition. The pilot was court martialed for a variety of reasons, none of which are important here.

Here’s what I know. American, and by extension, Coalition Forces, used red tracers. In Vietnam, the bad guys used green and white tracers. When the pilot was fired on and saw red tracers, that should have alerted him to the fact the soldiers on the ground were friendlies. And, we learned, in the show, that they weren’t shooting at the pilot, but at a target that was part of an exercise (again, apropos of nothing, but an exercise using live ammunition in a combat zone?)

Tracers at night. Photo courtesy of USMC.


Yes, I know that an enemy might be using captured weapons and ammunition which would have put the red tracers into the weapons, but that would be extremely rare. Yes, while in Vietnam I did have an AK-47, which had been captured, but I also had an M-2 carbine with the red tracers.

The point here is that the red tracers should have given the pilot a reason to suspect that it was a friendly unit. And I do know that tracers looked awfully big at night even if they weren’t coming close. While in Iraq, I had one magazine loaded with all tracers because I knew of the psychological effect of those tracers when engaged in suppressive five as opposed to pin point targeting.

Sure, these are little things but they do show the lack of understanding of the military and they miss the little inside things that would lend greater credibility to their stories. I just thought I would mention these things because, well, I wanted to.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

TET 1969 - Aftermath

 

Bien Hoa wasn’t all that far from Cu Chi but by the time we arrived, it was getting light. Once we had landed, lined up on the side of an asphalt strip, we were told to meet at the mess hall. I was feeling uncomfortable because I had taken off with in only a T-shirt. The crew chief supplied a field jacket with Spec 4 strips on it. I thought nothing about the rank as we all headed toward the mess hall.

We found a table set up for four in the officer’s side and sat down. The mess hall was a little nicer than ours at Cu Chi. For one thing, rather than huge, floor mounted fans that were supposed to circulate air, they had air conditioning. The mess hall was done in a cherry looking wood, but I didn’t pay enough attention to know if it was actual cherry or plywood that had been stained cherry.

I noticed that some of the officer’s assigned there looked at me strangely, wondering what a Spec 4 was doing on the officer’s side, but I was sitting with three warrant officers, including Schaeffer and Overholt. They probably figured I was the crew chief or something and let it slide. I was fully prepared to tell them the situation, if they had asked, but no one did.

As we ate breakfast, which seemed better than those we got at Cu Chi, but was just a reflection of the new surroundings, the activities of the night, and the fact that it wasn’t our mess hall, Captain Downs circulated among the tables, giving us the news.

He said, “Muleskinners got hit last night. Charlie came through the wire near them and ran through the revetments tossing satchel charges into the Chinooks. Blew up a bunch of them.”

“How many came through the wire?” asked Shaeffer.

“Maybe a platoon, maybe a little less.”

“We got them all?”

One-six grinned and said, “There are a couple still running around inside the wire. Got everyone a little jumpy.”

“I hope we’re in no hurry to get back,” I said.

“We’ve got a couple of ass and trash missions to fly, but the early morning operations have been changed. Got the grunts in the field around Cu Chi. They just walk out the gate to begin their search.”

After we finished eating, our platoon leader, two-six walked over and asked me, “You ever been to the Air America pad?”

“You mean at Ton Son Nhut?”

“Yeah.”

“Once. I think I know where it is.”

“You have to enter through the main control tower and not Hotel Three,” he said, meaning that I’d have to land on the airfield proper rather than flying into the helipad near the biggest PX in the world just on the edge of Ton Son Nhut.

“We’ll all head back to Cu Chi, you’ll need to refuel and then fly over to the Muleskinners to pick up a flight crew and take them to Saigon. They’re going to pick up a new Chinook.”

“Okay.”

“Who’s your peter pilot?”

“Overholt.”

This surprised him. Normally, the junior aircraft commander was paired with the senior peter pilot, putting as much experience in the cockpit was possible. The problem here was that Overholt and I had been in flight school together, he’d arrived in country and at the company a week before I had, yet I had already made aircraft commander and he hadn’t. Although I wasn’t supposed to know, they, meaning the platoon leader and the other aircraft commanders thought that Overholt might resent the situation. They just didn’t want to put us together. Last night’s activities had overruled that concern.

“Okay.”

Once we finished eating, we strolled back out to the aircraft to await instructions. Flight lead, by default, was Downs. He rode up in a jeep, walked toward the nose of his aircraft and waved a hand over his head, telling us to crank.

We flew back to Cu Chi, stopped at POL, which hadn’t been damaged in the attack. The rearm point looked as if it had been hit. There were the remains of the 2.75-inch rockets, the wood from ammunition crates, cardboard, paper, smoke grenades, and other debris was scattered in front. The sign looked as if it had been hit by some of the larger ordnance. The remains still smoked but not everything had been burned.

The smoking remains of the Rearm Point. Photo copyright by Kevin Randle

When the flight took off, out of POL, I broke away from the formation and landed on the Muleskinners’ company pad. As we passed over part of their flight line, I could see the remains of Chinooks in the revetments. Here were huge, twin rotor aircraft, capable of carrying forty soldiers, reduced to a small pile of smoking rubble. There didn’t seem to be enough material in the revetments for a Chinook. Just ash with partially burned rotor blades sticking out at strange angles.

The remains of a Chinook. Photo copyright by Kevin Randle

The Chinook pilots climbed into the back. They didn’t look any worse for wear. They were both in fresh flight suits. One carried a black brief case, flight bag and a revolver in an old west style holster. The other carried a flight bag and wore a shoulder holster with a .45. Neither said a word to me, but one of them talked to the crew chief. With the turbine running, even at flight idle, conversation was difficult.

“They want to know if you know the destination?” said the crew chief on the intercom.

“Yeah. Ask them how everything is.”

A moment later he said, “They lost one man, SP4 Isaac Stringer, Jr. He was killed by an RPG in the maintenance area. They lost a bunch of their airplanes.”

He told the crew chief, who told me, that the VC had punched their way through the wire, blowing up a bunker to do it. They ran toward the Muleskinners’ area, stopping just long enough to blow up the aircraft, and then spread out, over the Cu Chi base camp, looking for targets. Apparently, they had attacked the POL, but the hit the refueling points rather than the storage area and destroyed a couple of hoses which reduced the capacity to refuel aircraft but doing no real damage. They found the rearm point and tried to blow it up, but with only moderate success.

By the time they had moved beyond that, most of the aircraft had been evacuated. The 25th Infantry, either with their infantry companies or with the military police, had begun searching the camp for the sappers. As we took off for Saigon and the Air America pad, they thought there might be as many as twenty-five or thirty of the enemy still hiding on the camp.

As we took off, I looked back at Cu Chi. I didn’t see much. The fire that always burned on the northeastern side still burned, throwing up a column of smoke that helped us navigate. I didn’t see any real damage, other than that to the Muleskinners’ Chinooks and the minor damage around the rearm point.

It wasn’t long before we had made our way to Saigon, following the standard practice of flying low level to avoid aircraft taking off or landing at Ton Son Nhut, got permission to land directly at the Air America pad, and had touched down. Sitting on the pad was what looked like a brand-new Chinook.

Saigon from the air. Photo copyright by Kevin Randle


The two pilots climbed out, thanked us for the ride, and disappeared toward the hangar. I called the Ton Son Nhut tower to take off, explaining that I was in a UH-1, at the Air America pad, and that I wanted a straight out exit to keep me out of the traffic pattern filled with jet fighters, four-engine transports, and a variety of other fixed-wing aircraft. I had to argue with the tower, operated by Vietnamese who didn’t have the best command of the English language. We finally got our instructions and took off.

We arrived at Cu Chi, refueled, and then headed for the Hornet’s Nest. I parked in the revetment, shut down, and got out of the aircraft. In operations, I learned that the enemy soldiers had all been eliminated. There had been few American or South Vietnamese casualties. The damage had been limited to the Chinooks and the rearm point, through there was some minor shrapnel damage in our company area from the mortars and rockets. That meant something had poked a couple of holes in the corrugated tin of the buildings, ripped up some of the bamboo matting, put holes in some screen, and a few more holes in the tail booms of some of the aircraft.

Our mission on the day after changed slightly, but only because the infantry conducted searches around Cu Chi rather than flying out into the Hobo Woods, the Iron Triangle, or the areas along the Saigon River. We were fully prepared to fly the next day and certainly could have met all our mission requirements. Our only problem was that the pilots had been flying from early morning and had very little sleep the night before. That was not an unusual circumstance.

Of course, TET 1969, was nowhere near as dramatic as that the year earlier. The media seemed to believe that fewer troops engaged and the scale of the attacks had been reduced significantly. In reality, the numbers were about equal, but there weren’t the initial successes of 1968. The news media was surprised in 1968, but, in 1969, they were waiting for something to happen.

Reporters said there was heavy damage at Cu Chi, but I saw nothing to support that idea. Instead, minor damage and disruption, and, of course, the death of Isaac Stringer. About the only difference I noticed was that everyone was armed on the camp. Normally, upon return from the day’s missions, the sidearms and rifles were stored.

The day after that, everything returned to normal, or as normal as it ever got. The reports I read today bear little in resemblance to the facts as I saw them then. While the attack was reported in a long paragraph in a news magazine, the situation, as reflected in that paragraph was less dramatic. The attack, while certainly disruptive to the Muleskinners had no real impact at all on the outcome of the war. It might be classified as a non-event except for those of us who participated. In the history of the Vietnam War, it will probably be little more than a footnote.

Firefly and the Dragons

It seems to me that we evacuated the aircraft a number of times. We always ended up in the Ben Hoa, Long Binh area, housed for the night wit...