A History Lesson

D Troop 3/5th Air Cavalry - Page Title
A History Lesson - Page Sub Title
3/5 Crossed Sabres

 

This article was submitted to GRUNT!by 'War Wagon 14', a Scout Pilot in D Troop 3/5th Air Cavalry and is reproduced here with his kind permission. This material is copyright of the author and of GRUNT! and may not be reproduced without prior consent.

 

It looked like it was going to be a typical day in the Delta of the Mekong River for our Air Cavalry Troop. We were based at the Army airfield near the small town of Vinh Long in the Republic of Vietnam. Out of bed at 0430, perform the three S's, grab a rusty can of Coke and head for the flight line. I made a quick swing by the mess hall. Yuck! One sniff was enough, no breakfast today; my alcohol soaked stomach just couldn't handle it. I'd sneak a box of C rations from some unsuspecting slick crew later at the staging area. I hopped in the back of the Scout Platoon's old 3/4 ton Dodge truck, affectionately called the "Loach Coach", and said my "Good mornings" to grumpy fellow "War Wagons" as we headed for the Cav pad in the dark.

OH-6A LOACHI was happy because today I would be flying "Pig Pen", my favorite Hughes OH6A Light Observation Helicopter, known throughout the Army as the LOACH. Painted flat black with a tail number of '398', it had been affectionately named after the "Peanuts" cartoon character. Pig Pen had the reputation not only as the Scout platoon's dirtiest, beat up and nastiest looking helicopter but it was also the most powerful. I had inherited Pig Pen from S***** when he DEROSed.

We needed plenty of power because of the load of combat equipment that we carried on each flight. Our unit was unique in that we did things a little differently than other Scout units that were participating in the Southeast Asian War Games in Vietnam. Not better; just different. Most Scout units operated with a gunner/observer seated in the left rear door with an M60 machine gun and an assortment of air deliverable weapons. Some units also carried an additional gunner/observer in the left front seat. The pilots flew from the right front seat. Nearly all of the other units made right hand turns while they were low level and scouting.

In D Troop 3rd  Squadron, 5th Cavalry, the Scouts, call sign "War Wagons", carried their gunner/observers in only the left front seat with the pilot in the right. With the rear of the ship nearly empty there was always room for picking up a crew that had been shot down. Each aircraft had a 7.62mm mini-gun mounted on the left side. The gunner had an M60 machine gun and we only made left-hand turns. Left hand turns required a little more power but the possibility of encountering "Hughes tailspin" was minimized. The tailspin arose during slow right turns at high power settings, finally resulting in loss of tail rotor effectiveness and the helicopter would spin out of control. Not a good condition when flying very close to the ground!

In addition to the guns already mentioned, the War Wagons carried an Infantryman's field pack filled with hand grenades. Called the "fragbag", it rested on a composite covered, ceramic "chicken plate" which lay on the floor between the gunner's feet. The fragbag usually contained twenty to twenty-five fragmentation and concussion grenades. Strands of wire were stretched across open spaces in the cockpit. Hooked on the wires were an assortment of non-explosive type grenades. Twenty or more trip flares, incendiary, smoke, tear gas and Thermite canisters hung ready to be dropped on targets. Five white phosphorous grenades were crammed under the pilot's armored seat while the compact area between the seats may contain an M79 grenade launcher plus 10 rounds of high explosive (HE) ammo or perhaps a couple of homemade bombs.

The crews also carried personal weapons. The gunners carried .38 or .45 caliber pistols. The pilots usually  brought along cut down and modified  AK47 assault rifles in addition to their pistols. Scout pilots were issued  CAR15s. These were short barreled versions of the M16 with a telescoping, collapsible stock. Most crews  found the CAR15 to be useless for our mission since it's main purpose was to be a back-up weapon for a  malfunctioning M60. The 5.56mm CAR15 couldn't bust bunkers or stir up debris while "reconning by fire" as well as the 7.62mm AK. Our customized AKs had shortened barrels and no butt stocks. Those loaded guns were secured on top of the helicopter's instrument panel.

XM27E1 Armament Subsystem, M134 7.62mm Minigun With our basic load of ordinance plus 2000 rounds of 7.62 for the minigun and 1500 rounds of ammo for the M60 machine gun, we were heavy. But, after we added our side arms, chicken plates, canteens, cameras, knives, C rations, tan colored Stetson Cavalry hats, sabers and other personal gear, our average take off weight was approximately three hundred pounds over the maximum weight allowed for the OH6A. We carried no survival gear of the official type. No vests, survival radios, flares etc.

I went into our large metal storage container box (CONEX) and got my helmet out of its locker. I'd gotten soaked in the rain yesterday and there was a fresh growth of hairy, greenish gray mold growing inside the headphones. As I used an old oily, dirty rag to wipe out the headsets, I hoped there wasn't anything incurable growing in them.

I slung my flack vest, with its extra large chicken plate in the front pocket, over my shoulder and headed for Pig Pen. Sp4 R**** G****** was scheduled to fly with me and he was already at the ship doing his pre-flight inspection and getting the aircraft loaded. We had landed in the middle of a thunderstorm last night and R*****, like the other gunners, was also a crew chief and had probably worked on the bird until late last night while we pilots were living it up and getting drunk at the officer's club. Enough has never been said about the tremendous job our enlisted crewmembers did and dedication they had for getting enough helicopters flyable for each day's mission, regretfully, this morning was no different, I just said "Howdy" and started my own preflight inspection.

The flight line was alive with activity. The roar of rotors, the whine of turbine engines and the smell of jet fuel filled the humid pre-dawn air. Lots of helicopters were running, some hovering out of the protection of their revetments and lining up behind others preparing for takeoff. I could see activity in the area of the 7th of the 1st Air Cavalry, home of the Apaches, Commanches and Dutchmasters. Some Hueys from the 214th Assault Helicopter Company were just lifting off from the main airstrip. On one recent morning just like this one, a War Wagon Loach exploded during preflight, killing the gunner and pilot who were standing nearby. Preflight checks were now done very carefully.

Because of the poor condition of our Loaches, we rarely flew at night. The windshields were scratched nearly opaque from low-level grit and grime and few, if any exterior or interior lights worked. We were scheduled to take off a very first glow of dawn's light.

Our unit "hired out" to Army of the Republic Vietnam (ARVN) ground units located throughout the Mekong River's Delta region of the Fourth Military Corps. The "package" we provided consisted of a Command and Control (C&C) UH1H Huey flown by the Air Mission Commander (AMC), four AH1G Cobra attack helicopters; call sign "Crusader", four UHlH troop carrying slicks; call sign "Long Knives" and four War Wagon scout ships. The maintenance platoon, call sign "Scavenger", was responsible for the excellent aircraft availability the unit enjoyed.

Today our mission was in support of an ARVN unit in the notoriously nasty, Viet Cong infested U Minh Forest near the southern tip of Vietnam some seventy miles south of our home base. C&C with Cpt J*** S**** as AMC and the Crusaders had departed earlier. We and the Long Knives would be leaving soon although we rarely flew grouped together.

G***** and I strapped in and I fired up ol' Pig Pen, hovered out of the revetment and set the ship down and waited for the rest of flight. The four Loaches actually consisted of two teams. Each team had a Lead ship and his wingman was referred to as Trail. I was senior lead today and after we were assembled I made the radio call, "Vinh Long tower, War Wagon one four with a flight of four sperms at the Cav pad for west departure and left turn-out".

The tower cleared us and we lifted off, turned south at the airport boundary and climbed out to fifteen hundred feet. We flew in a diamond formation. I was at the head of the figure; my wingman was tucked in tight at my four o'clock position. Second lead was tucked in tight at seven o'clock and the newest Trail was doing his best to squeeze into the slot at my six. E*** G*****, my trail, radioed that we had a complete flight and I nosed Pig Pen over to one hundred knots for the forty-five minute flight to the Area of Operations (AO).

We taught all of our gunners to fly. They used foot long pieces of sawed off mop handles stuck into the copilot's cyclic stick receptacles and handled the ships really well. On this morning I was pretty well hung over as usual and gave the controls to G**** while I leaned back, smoked a cigarette and contemplated a nap knowing the other gunners were probably flying too while the pilots were taking pictures, reading pocket novels or eating, perhaps even drinking breakfast. All except the new Trail pilot. He was probably working his ass off trying to stay in formation and re-learning how to fly.

As we approached the airstrip at Ca Mau I maneuvered the flight to the refueling point (POL) where each Loach took on a full load of JP4 jet fuel. The fuel gauges on OH6s were notoriously inaccurate so we never stayed airborne for more than two hours. A scout mission or Visual Reconnaissance (VR) was normally planned for an hour and thirty minutes with the second scout team relieving the first on station to continue the mission.

After refueling we repositioned to a clear area, shut down and wandered over to where the guns and slicks were parked and tried to bum some food and maybe get a clue as to what we were doing today. C&C had flown off to meet with the Ground Mission Commander (GMC). 

My room mate R*** A*****, was the Long Knife flight leader, I visited him at his aircraft and tried begging some grub but he told me to wait until I was "really hungry" and that he had a feeling that because of the AO we were in, I'd be getting REALLY hungry later. I had recently confided in him that lately when we got a kill (KBA or killed by airstrike) that I would get really hungry. It seemed that the nastier or stinker the kill was. the hungrier I got. I was afraid to tell anyone else fearing they would think I had some kind of cannibalistic tendencies.

I noticed very little activity around the Crusaders, some guys were sacked out on open ammo bay doors, others writing letters or reading books. Some new guys were even checking over the rocket pods and just poking around the ships.

The familiar thumping sound alerted us to the C&C Huey that was coming back from his briefing. He landed at POL and stuck his arm out of the Huey's window and made the now famous twirling motion with his index finger indicating to "crank 'em up"!

While C&C was refueling, my trail and I started our helicopters. The Crusaders got their Cobras running and we all took off together. I lined up our two Scouts behind C&C in a loose trailing formation as we headed for the operational area. The two Cobras were effortlessly cruising at our altitude about a half a mile off to our right.

We received our mission briefing over the UHF radio. C&C described the area we were to recon and he explained that we were looking for remnants of an enemy unit. Their activity had been reported in the area the previous night. We were told that the "Rules of engagement" were "Specified Strike". Specified Strike  was a more stringent rule than "Free Fire". Under the rules of specified strike we could not shoot just anybody we found but had to get permission to fire on personnel based on the descriptions we gave to the Ground Mission Commander who was riding in a rear seat of the C&C Huey. Of course we were allowed to return fire when we were fired upon. Specified Strike rules were designed to prevent killing innocent civilians who may be living in the area.

The area we were going to work in was a cleared, partially cultivated rectangle surrounded by very dense double and triple canopy jungle. The clearing was approximately one hundred yards wide and three hundred yards long. The Northern long side lay along a fifty-yard wide river. The Eastern edge of the clearing was bordered by a narrow, fifty foot wide, north and south running canal that intersected the larger river. Finally the Southern portion of the area was divided by yet another even smaller canal emptying into the north/south canal. Next to the small Southern canal was small shack or "hootch" constructed with thin sticks for walls and a nipa palm thatch roof. From altitude I could see a small sampan that had been turned on it's side and leaned against one wall of the hootch.

I was cleared to go low level and knowing that my wingman E**** would have a hell of a time keeping up with me, I grinned to myself as I rolled back Pig Pen's throttle and entered autorotation. At one hundred knots and loaded the way we were our rate of descent was more than two thousand feet per minute. With a power recovery just prior to ground contact, we were m the area in less than a minute. We could come out of the sky like Simonized manhole covers!

I headed for the hootch and saw that the bottom of the sampan was still wet and was about to report it when C&C radioed for us to come back up to his altitude. Nuts! We hadn't even gotten started. As we climbed out I asked what was going on and C&C said that an ARVN unit at a firebase twenty kilometers (kliks) away was in a fire fight and they needed our Cobras for close air support. We did not work low level without gunship cover so we headed in the direction of the quickly disappearing Crusaders. C&C radioed to scramble the second team of Cobras and they arrived near the clearing about twenty minutes after we had departed it. We orbited four or five kliks north of the area waiting for C&C to get back on station.

We were finally cleared to go back into the clearing and had received clearance to do "Reconnaissance by Fire" meaning we could shoot the place up to uncover clues of enemy activity and maybe draw some fire from him.

This time I took the team low level about a mile from the clearing and popped in from the North. I had great respect for the enemy and a smart Scout tried not to use the same ingress and egress routes more than once.

As soon as we were low-level I immediately saw that the sampan had been moved a few feet and was now laying upside down, flat on the ground.

In the Hot Seat!I looked all around the clearing, no bunkers, and no other apparent activity. I cautiously meandered over to the sampan and saw fresh footprints in the mud next to the boat that had not been there before. I had caught bad guys hiding under boats in the past so I had G***** fire up the sampan with his M60. The skiff flipped over and sure enough a dead enemy soldier was under it. Right away there was something very different about this soldier. He was wearing an NVA uniform. The majority of the enemy we encountered during late 1970 were Viet Cong. It was indeed a rare occasion to find an uniformed NVA soldier. I felt the illegally long hairs on the back of my neck stand up because I also knew that uniformed NVA soldiers rarely traveled alone and I wondered where his buddies were.

I reported the KBA to C&C and worked my way along the smallest canal and turned left and headed north along the mid-sized one. I glanced across my right shoulder and out the right door at the forested bank on the opposite side of the water. For an instant I locked eyes with an uniformed soldier who was standing in waist high brush about fifty feet from me. As we looked at each other I caught a glimpse of the black automatic pistol in his hand as he used it to make a chopping motion. A guy lying on the ground in the bushes opened up on us with a thirty caliber, bipod mounted weapon. His buddies joined right in with an assortment of SKS and AK and RPG fire. I vividly remember the muzzle flashes, hearing rounds go by, the WOOSH of the Rocket Propelled Grenade and feeling bullets hit the aircraft.

On the radio I yelled, "TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE"! I snapped a quick left pedal turn, shoved the stick forward, and hiked in full collective pitch while squeezing the trigger on the minigun. I heard and felt the RPG explode harmlessly off to my right side. I wondered how E**** and his gunner were doing while I was wildly zigzagging to escape. We were starting to haul ass but things seemed to move in slow motion. Just like in the movies I could see the enemy's bullets hitting the ground beside me as the gunner tried to get his range on my helicopter.

G***** was hanging out of his door, firing long bursts from his M60 to the rear. The mini-gun was great to have because it was so loud that it drowned out the sound of the enemy's guns. I had that trigger pulled all the way back which made the gun fire 4000 shots per minute. After three seconds it automatically stopped. I could still here the NVA firing so I strangled the trigger again. Between squeezes I could hear E****'s guns going and he was on the radio yelling enemy positions to the inbound Cobras. After what seemed like an eternity I heard the comforting sounds of the Crusader's rockets impacting the area behind me.

After we had escaped from the area the C&C's AMC directed us to go to altitude and to return to the staging area. The Cobras were needed to cover the Long Knives who were going to insert ARVNs near the firebase that had had been in the firefight.

Back at the staging area, E***, the gunners and I excitedly talked about what had just happened and counted the many holes in our aircraft.

I told E**** that I'd had the strangest thought while we were bugging out of that clearing. I felt that the NVA leader may have taken a page from American history and had instructed his troops, "Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes".

They did exactly as they had been told.

WARWAGON 14
AEROSCOUTS
D TROOP 3RD OF THE 5TH CAVALRY
VINH LONG RVN
5/70 - 5/71


"If we aren't willing to record our own history,
we shouldn't bitch about
the way some stranger does it for us".
  

 

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