|This article was submitted to 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 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.
I 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.