Sunday, April 3, 2022

Hot PZ


We often knew if an LZ or PZ was going to be hot before we arrived. Many times, we were reinforcing a unit engaged in combat operations, or we were extracting them as they attempted to break contact. Those pick ups were normally at the end of the day as the sunlight was fading.

If I remember correctly, I was flying in Chalk Eight, meaning I was at the end of the flight. Our gunships were engaged, with the C&C directing the rocket and minigun fire into the enemy positions. As we approached, I could see the ruby tracers from both the gunships and the soldiers on the ground. Lots of outgoing fire but I wasn’t seeing any green or white tracers, which didn’t mean there wasn’t incoming. It could mean that the enemy wasn’t using any tracers and I was sure that I could hear AKs firing somewhere.

As we touched down, I saw a soldier kneeling near the two-foot-high rice patty dike, firing into the tree line fifty or sixty yards away. While I’m sure others were firing, I only remember seeing this one man.

Over the radio, someone was talking about taking fire. And then another one said he was taking hits. The man near the dike leaped to his feet and sprinted toward the flight. I didn’t see him reach an aircraft because a lieutenant had scrambled into the cargo compartment. He tapped me on the shoulder and shouted something at me. I don’t know what he said because I couldn’t hear him over the scream of the turbine and all the shooting going on. Most of it was our door guns and gunships as the soldiers were disengaging.

About that time there was a snapping to my right as an enemy round smashed through the windshield. The lieutenant was suddenly laying on the cargo compartment floor. The peter pilot said, “I’m not hit.”

Neither was I.

Over the radio I said, “Eight’s taking fire from the front.”

The bullet hole in the windshield.

I had no idea if the round came from the left or right. The lieutenant was now up and the bullet had missed him as well.

Over the radio, Trail said, “You’re down and loaded.”

“Lead’s on the go.”

We took off and broke right as we cleared the PZ. The climb out was uneventful. The only shooting now was the gunships trying to protect us. They then quickly broke contact.

Once we were at altitude, heading for the LZ, C&C asked, “Who took hits?”

In Chalk order, those who had taken hits reported them. When it came to me, I said, “Chalk Eight.”

For some reason C&C asked, “Are you sure?”

I was surprised by the question and said, “Yes. It came through the windshield.”

When we got back to Tay Ninh and had parked the aircraft after refueling, I found other hits through the tail boom. In all the confusion, I hadn’t felt them hitting the aircraft, but that might have been because we were sitting on the ground. No one on my aircraft had been hit though.

Later, while I was in the officer’s club, the Company Commander came up to me and said, “I hear you’re the magnet.” He meant that if there was a round fired at the flight, it would hit my aircraft. Of course, he knew that I have blown up a helicopter on a land mine.

I said, “I don’t think that’s fair.”

And I don’t remember what his response was. All I know is that by July, I was the only aircraft commander left in the First Platoon. They weren’t all casualties of the war. Some had reached the end of their tours and had gone home. There had been an aircraft accident. No one had been killed but several of them had been wounded.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

187th AHC and the Presidential Unit Citation

(Note: Although this doesn’t fit into the sequence I had planned here, it is a story I believe needs to be told. It’s more about military customs and protocols than it is about my participation in the war, but it does have significance. I didn’t understand any of that until I began a search for more information about the 187th AHC receiving a Presidential Unit Citation.)

A number of years ago, then President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to soldiers of Troop A, 1st Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, who had earned it during the Vietnam War. They had, on March 26, 1970, broken through the jungle to rescue about 100 other soldiers who had stumbled into an enemy bunker complex. These soldiers were outnumbered about four to one. Troop A, risking ambush, land mines, and enemy attack, smashed through to assist their fellow soldiers.

The Presidential Unit Citation

It was a story that reached a national audience and I wondered what the big deal was. True, it was a unit citation given by the President but it was a unit citation and I didn’t understand the overall significance of it.

Let me explain. Almost from the moment I entered the Army back in 1968, I had been authorized to wear a Presidential Unit Citation. Not in basic training, of course, and not during flight school, but as I left Vietnam in September 1969, I was told that we had earned a Presidential Unit Citation, and a Valorous Unit Citation, for which I barely qualified. In my assignments to other units after graduation from the University of Iowa and receiving a commission in the Air Force, I was sent to Air Force units that had earned their own Presidential Unit Citations.

Here’s the kicker. Anyone assigned to the unit, even if not present for the action in which the award was made, has the right to wear the award while assigned to the unit. When I reported to the 442nd Tactical Airlift Wing at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, I learned that I could wear a Presidential Unit Citation earned by the predecessors in the organization during the Normandy Invasion in the Second World War. To me, it meant little. I hadn’t been a member of the unit that had earned the award, no one in the unit had been with it when the award was made, and few, if any, knew what had been done to receive it.

But after seeing the article in the newspaper, and after looking at the websites for the 1st Aviation Brigade, the 269th Combat Aviation Battalion, and the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, all of which mentioned that the Presidential Unit Citation had been awarded to the 187th AHC, as well as the 116th AHC, I wondered what we all had done. There was nothing anywhere on those websites that gave me the answer.

I began a search, first using Google but could only find out that both the 187th and the 116th had received the award for action that took place from 24 April to 26 April 1969. No specifics about the action and I had no memory of anything that spectacular happening at that time.

Looking at my flight records and at the little notebook I carried back then, as well as the pictures I had taken, I could find nothing to clue me in. I remembered night actions in which the ground units had been shot up badly. In one case, flying with the Hornets, we flew into a hot landing zone at night and took so much fire that the Command and Control ordered us not to land but to just get out of there. Several of the aircraft were so badly shot up that they had to head back to Cu Chi or land somewhere away from the LZ for later retrieval. But that was in the fall of 1968 and had nothing to do with this.

A search of the General Orders (GO) for 1969 and 1970 gave me no hints because I wasn’t sure when the General Order had been written. Searches using all kinds of names, organizations provided nothing, other than both the Crusaders and the Hornets had received the Presidential Unit Citation for the same action.

I tried various combinations of the names of the units, figuring that learning what the Hornets had done would tell me what the Crusaders had done, but found nothing. I concocted several plans to learn more but one night, on a lark, tried Presidential Unit Citation 187th Assault Helicopter Company, rather than 187th AHC, figuring it would make no difference because it was the same thing.

But this took me straight to General Order No. 14, dated 10 May 1973 and provided the information I needed. The Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to Company C, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division; Battery B, 7th Battalion, 11th Artillery, 25th Infantry Division; Company B, 25th Aviation Battalion [known as the Little Bears]; Troop D, 3D Squadron, 4th Cavalry; 116th Assault Helicopter Company and the 187th Assault Helicopter Company.

I now had the citation that told me a little about the battle but not much. The key, in the citation, was the line, “With full knowledge of the enemy’s intentions, Patrol Base Frontier City was constructed adjacent to the Cambodian border on 24 April 1969, directly in the path of the enemy’s intended route of advance.”

Using the search engines, I typed in Patrol Base Frontier City and learned about the battle that I had seen. I still remembered little about that special mission, but only because it was shrouded by all the others taking place in that time frame. There had been a lot of missions in support of various bases around the Angel’s Wing area of the Cambodian border and the land north of Tay Ninh in what was then called III Corps. This all was something like fifty or sixty miles from Saigon, and about half that distance to the main base of the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. The 25th Aviation Battalion and the Hornets were based there as well. The Crusaders were in the large base camp northwest of Tay Ninh.

Patrol Base Frontier City was what was known as an “instant patrol base.” It had been built in about nine hours using two bulldozers, one flown in by helicopter and the other rafted down a river to be driven overland to the site of the base. An engineer stake was driven into the ground in the center of a large, open area, and a 130-foot-long rope was tied to the stake and used to trace the bunker line.

With these preliminaries carried out, twenty-four pre-packaged bunker kits were flown in and dropped onto the perimeter. There was a shaped demolition charge with each kit and that was used to excavate the bunker. The soldiers then squared the resulting crater off and used the other materials that included pierced steel planks (PSP) and bundles of sandbags, to finish each of the nine-foot bunkers.

The first equipment arrived at about 0800 hours in the morning and by 1700 hours the patrol base was ready. It included a prefabricated observation tower, radar, starlight scopes, two 105 mm howitzers, concertina wire and claymore mines. There were ammunition pits and an unobstructed field of fire out to at least 100 yards. One company was airlifted out and Charlie Company assumed control of the base.

There was no action that first night. The enemy, elements of the 271st and 272nd NVA Regiments, were spotted moving around the perimeter in small groups, but made no attack. These enemy units, a klick or more from the patrol base perimeter, were engaged with artillery from fire support bases in the surrounding area.

Aerial photograph of Patrol Base Frontier City.

The next day, April 25, 1969, was spent reinforcing the perimeter, adjusting the fields of fire of the crew served weapons, and finally extracting the two bulldozers by heavy helicopters. Alpha Company, flown in for the purpose, made security patrols, but there was no contact with the enemy. Late in the afternoon, they were extracted.

At 1945 hours, about dusk, the radar picked up company-sized unit moving to the southwest of the base. The target was not engaged. Major Harry Ray, the senior officer present and the 4th Battalion Operations Officer, wanted to let the situation develop. There was no firing from either side.

An hour later, about 2100 hours, a platoon-sized unit was spotted through the starlight scope. It was setting up RPG launchers about 1000 yards or a klick away. Ray ordered that the enemy position marked by flares and the perimeter illuminated with pre-placed smudge pots. Two cobra gunships from the 25th Aviation Battalion attacked the enemy. A helicopter flare ship began to drop better illumination creating a scene of strange color with dancing shadows.

At that time, artillery at the nearby fire support bases began to fire rounds from eight-inch guns, 155 mm and 105 mm howitzers, and another helicopter gun team was called in. The area to the south of the patrol base was brought under heavy direct and indirect fire. The base’s two howitzers joined in, and rounds were now dropping from about fifty yards from the perimeter out to about 1000 yards. By 2330 hours, the firing had slowed and then ceased and it was momentarily quiet.

The enemy had not withdrawn and just after midnight, they opened fire with both rockets and mortars. Gunships from both the 25th Aviation Battalion and the 3rd Squadron of the 4th Armored Cavalry began their attacks, as did Air Force gunships that carried multiple miniguns and heavier weapons. The area about the patrol bases was peppered with aerial and ground-based artillery and with fire from miniguns that looked like ruby red rays playing across an alien landscape.

At 0100 the enemy rocket and mortar fire tapered off, and a battalion-sized attack was launched from the south. A Bangalore torpedo was used to blow up a section of the wire and during the assault that followed, eleven of the enemy soldiers reached the interior of the base. The claymore mines were detonated, and several of the American soldiers ran from their bunkers to engage the enemy. The company commander, Captain Ramon T. Pulliam, manned one of the M60 machine guns during the assault. The two howitzers lowered their tubes and fired at the enemy at point blank range using flechettes, that is, firing rounds that contained dozens of small metal darts designed as an anti-personnel weapon.

Gunships from both the Hornets and the Crusaders began working the area, backing up the teams from the other aviation units. An enemy .51 machine opened fire on one of the gunships as he rolled through the area.

A cobra pilot called, over the radio, “Can you roll through again to draw the fire and I’ll suppress it.”

The response was quick from the C model gunship. “No, you roll through there and I’ll suppress the fire.”

The gunships, working to stop the assault, seemed to break the enemy’s back. Air strikes, heavy artillery, and the artillery and machine gun fire from inside the patrol base were too much. The enemy’s crew served and heavy weapons were destroyed, and the battalion strength assaults had failed to overrun the perimeter except for the small hole in the southern wire that was quickly filled. The enemy soldiers there were overwhelmed and forced to retreat.

By 0330, the enemy was attempting to disengage.  Helicopter gunships and artillery harassed that action. The enemy left 214 dead on the battlefield. Six others were taken prisoner. Sixty-four individual weapons and thirteen crew-served weapons were captured or destroyed. One American on the ground was wounded.

Looking at the interior of the camp from outside the wire.

The citation that accompanied the award of the Presidential Unit Citation said, in part, “With full knowledge of the enemy’s intentions, Patrol Base Frontier City was constructed adjacent to the Cambodian border ... directly in the path of the enemy’s intended route of advance. During the early morning hours of 26 April 1969, the patrol base was attacked by an enemy force estimated to be two reinforced battalions of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. Although the enemy fought savagely to seize the base, the defenders repeatedly repelled the determined, combined artillery and infantry assaults on their position. Purposely permitting the enemy to approach within a thousand meters of their position before bringing them under fire with artillery, mortars, machineguns, small arms and air strikes, the brave defenders devastated the enemy attack. Enemy forces were able to breach the perimeter wire at only one point, but were trapped in a blistering cross-fire and were unable to exploit their gain. The attack was completely stopped and the enemy forces were routed with heavy losses of men and equipment. Totally defeated, the enemy was forced to withdraw to sanctuaries in Cambodia, leaving behind a large number of casualties, numerous weapons, and a large amount of ammunition.”

But that wasn’t the only testament to the soldiers. According to an after-action report on the 25th Infantry Division website, “By late May the division was able to move freely throughout the area without fear of small unit contacts. Civic action teams went into the villages to find a new confidence there in the allied ability to defend. Vietnamese civilians, no longer faced with the fear of enemy reprisals cooperated with the American and ARVN soldiers by pointing out booby traps, supply caches and enemy bunker complexes.”

Three weeks after the battle, on May 14, 1969, Patrol Base Frontier City was torn down by the same men who had defended it. Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry provided security for them. It had been erected as a temporary stronghold, served its purpose, and then ceased to exist.

So, now I knew what had happened and why the Presidential Unit Citation had been given to the units named. But there was one other thing that I hadn’t understood, and that was the significance of the award.

According to Army regulations, “The Presidential Unit Citation is awarded to units of the Armed Forces of the United States and co-belligerent nations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy occurring on or after 7 December 1941. The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and espirit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism required is the same as that which would warrant award of a Distinguished Service Cross to an individual. Extended periods of combat duty or participation in a large number of operational missions, either ground or air is not sufficient.”

The battle for, and around Patrol Base Frontier City, is not of major significance in the overall picture of the Vietnam War. Fewer than a thousand soldiers on either side were engaged and the American media took no notice of it. The battle was fought within sight of the Cambodian border, there was a single American casualty and he was only wounded. No one outside of those who took part even knew about it and it certainly hasn’t made any of the major books about the war. But it did mean a lot to the men who were there and who were recognized for their courage, even if that recognition came four years after the battle and certainly after the majority of them had left Vietnam, left the army, and never knew that they had received the award.

I certainly fit into that category. I had only heard that we had been awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, but no one seemed to know what it was for, and while I left Vietnam in September 1969 believing that the award had been received, the General Order was dated 1973.

Given what I know now, given the research I have done, made so much easier by the Internet, I can tell the story of that brief little fight in the dark of April 25 that was over before the sun rose on April 26. The fact that so few know about this, including those of us who were there, just reinforces the public perception of Vietnam. But here was a fight with the Americans outnumbered, using their technology, communications, and courage to repel an enemy force that badly outnumbered them, an enemy who then retreated across an imaginary line on the ground to an artificial sanctuary. Now, however, many more of us know what happened, and we have one more reason to be proud of the Army that did a thankless job in an obscure place in a war that so few understood. 

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.

Hot PZ

  We often knew if an LZ or PZ was going to be hot before we arrived. Many times, we were reinforcing a unit engaged in combat operations, o...