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Mike Sloniker: The Battle of Loc Ninh was written by the late Ron Timberlake. I just have to believe where "the cobra pilot" is referred to, it is Ron. He and I had many discussion via the phone and email on the sequence of events, which he also bounced off MikeBrown, who lived near him in Houston. I will always admire the clear writing style of Ron Timberlake. Happy Trails.

Left to right: WO1 Bob Stein, CPT Ron Timberlake, and LT Parks, an aviator that was the Blue Platoon Leader, F Troop 9th Cav. 3d Bde (Sep) 1st Cav Div.

The Battle of Loc Ninh

Sloniker note: Ron started his work with the incidents on 5 April 1972. During the 1999 reunion at Nashville I learned the first 229th KIAs were JJ Jelich and his gunner Owens from the Smiling Tigers of D/229 whose OH-6 was shot down NW of Loc Ninh on the Cambodian border. Timberlake’s work follows:

As the Hunter/Killer Teams prepared to laager at Tay Ninh East on the morning of 5 April, they monitored a dramatic radio transmission: "Attention all aircraft, this is Paris, on Guard. Loc Ninh is under tank and heavy infantry attack. I say again, Loc Ninh is under tank and heavy infantry attack. Any aircraft with armament, please respond."

F Troop, 9th Cavalry responded immediately with six Cobras and their three Scouts. A C&C Huey and three slicks full of Browns followed. Blue Max, always quickly aware of contact missions, would fly the longer distance form their base, and arrive on station by lunchtime.

The Hunter/Killer Team Leaders that morning, some veterans of Lam San 719, had more than 6,000 combat hours between the three of them and their wingmen. Even with that base of experience, the fighting they encountered at Loc Ninh was more intense than anything they had encountered. Uniformed soldiers were visible around the outside of the perimeter in the hundreds. To the north there were burned out Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and explosions were all around the compound of Loc Ninh.

The callsign of the American on the ground who seemed to be holding it all together was Zippo. He coordinated attacks, relayed information, and although we knew he was an advisor who could not order the Vietnamese soldiers, he seemed to be the cement holding together the defense. Most of us did not even learn his name until 1998, when several general officers started an effort to have Mark Smith awarded the Medal Of Honor.

The morning was extremely confusing. CW2 Tom Jones and CPT Don Gooch were asked to engage a huge formation of uniformed soldiers that seemed to be ignoring all of us, and each Cobra ripple-fired its entire load of rockets into the group. Body count and kill claims were ignored by the Troop during the heavy fighting. Supporting the defense was all that mattered.

Most amazing to any of the pilots was the volume of anti-aircraft fire. Aside from what was later reported to be nine battalions of NVA anti-aircraft, the NVA soldiers had already captured large numbers of US-made Browning .50 caliber heavy s from the APCs of the South Vietnamese (ARVN) 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment. Literally hundreds of heavy s and AAA weapons reached for any Cobra that attacked.

Zippo asked for a tank to be destroyed on the road just north of the town and compound, where the road ran past the rubber plantation. The F/9th Hunter/Killer Team on station advised him that the tank was sitting across the road and appeared to be too obvious to be an NVA tank, and the profile did not seem right. It appeared that it was either an ARVN tank or an intentional trap. Could it be an ARVN tank?

When Zippo said that the tank had killed ARVN APCs and was blocking his people from joining up from the north, the Team Leader admitted to himself that he was poorly trained at armored vehicle identification, and dove for the tank. Even from much closer it appeared that it might be an M-41, but the commander joined hundreds of his friends in shooting at the approaching Cobra before the 17-pound HE warheads actually destroyed the vehicle. There was no joyful feeling at destroying the tank, because the Cobra was very low and the volume of heavy weapons fire was absolutely terrifying.

A FAC on station had wasted no time targeting freshly arrived fighters, and rolled a flight of Phantoms in what appeared to be a move to help the Cobra escape. As the Cobra flew north from the now burning tank, an F-4 pickled its entire load of bombs on an east-west line across its path, with the bombs going directly over the Cobra and impacting into the rubber west of the road. The silence after that tremendous blast of explosives allowed the Cobra pilot to start breathing again.

Not far from where the road turned back west, the Cobra pilot saw five APCs tail-to-tail in a star-shaped defensive formation down in the rubber trees. They were not only destroyed, but were completely burned out. Some even appeared to have had fires so hot that their aluminum armor melted. The desperation of their stand left a lasting impression. The ARVN cavalry faced and fought overwhelming odds and these, as many others, had died before the American Air Cavalry troopers were even told about the battle.

Major Thomas A. Davidson, an ARVN advisor who received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Loc Ninh, later told of his relief at having that particular tank destroyed. Years later Mark Smith solved this mystery of armored vehicle identification, explaining why the tank looked like it was an M-41, and why the 17-pounders destroyed it so effectively.

The tank had been a PT-76, but unlike most of the published photos of this Soviet vehicle, the ones that morning at Loc Ninh were mounting 12.7mm heavy machine-gun on the turret for the commander, changing their appearance significantly for untrained armor observers.

Later that afternoon Blue Max lost the first Cobra and crew of the battle. On a rocket run at almost 4,000 feet just south of the town of Loc Ninh, CW2 Charles Windeler and CPT Henry Spengler were hit. Told by his wingman that he was on fire, Windeler tried to make it to the ground, despite the number of enemy soldiers in the area. It appeared that his controls burned through at about 1,500 feet, and the helicopter impacted on cleared ground on the side of a slight rise. A Cobra from F/9th confirmed that the two pilots did not survive the crash. The entire cockpit area was a crater.

The second morning, 6 April, was just as confusing, and perhaps even more frightening for the aircrews. Although it was uncertain whether the troop would laager from a camp at Song Be, or the former American 1st Infantry base at Lai Khe that was still active as an ARVN headquarters for the 5th ARVN Div, for the first sortie a team flew directly to Loc Ninh. Between Lai Khe and An Loc, the leader noticed that a rocket with 17-pound HE warhead was working its way forward out of an inboard rocket tube. Aside from the fact that he wanted all his rockets, it had worked itself into a position that would make it dangerous to shoot rockets from that pod, and in any intense maneuver the rocket might work itself free and cause rotor or tail rotor damage.

Demonstrating a perfect ignorance of the enemy’s ultimate intentions, he decided to land in a safe area to re-seat the rocket. There was a provincial capitol along the line of flight, a place where on his first tour he and his crew had not been allowed to eat because they were too dirty from flying missions for the senior advisor all day. He landed at that sleepy and safe little town of An Loc, corrected the problem by re-seating the rocket, and continued northward.

Like most of his fellow team leaders, unaware of the magnitude of the battles in other portions of Vietnam, he did not interpret the battle at Loc Ninh to be a serious push to take the country. All the pilots were extremely impressed with the size and ferocity of the forces attacking, but assumed that when the NVA took the pounding and suffered large enough losses at Loc Ninh, they would pull back across the Cambodian border as they had done in the past. From even the first day of the battle, it was obvious that enemy losses would be in record numbers, and no information had been given to the teams about ARVN losses.

The anti-aircraft fire was even heavier and more organized than the day before. During that day COL John Casey, Deputy Commander of the 3rd Brigade (Separate), 1st Cavalry Division, called an F/9th Cobra to engage without collateral damage a 57mm anti-aircraft gun firing at jet fighters from the town square in Loc Ninh. With about 60% cloud cover, the Cobra engaged the cannon from a steep dive, but the pilot was so… "distracted"…by ground fire that he unintentionally selected the less accurate outboard wing stores instead of the well bore-sighted inboard. (Normal F/9th load was HE inboard and flechettes outboard, so outboard pods did not get the attention of the ones "shot for record" every day.) Although the 57mm cannon was silenced, a nearby building was also damaged, so permission to engage was withdrawn. The pilot felt bad about the collateral damage and felt terrible about selecting the wrong stores, but was purely relieved not to have to dive back into that boiling cauldron again.

The cloud cover worked for and against the helicopters, and more against than for the tactical air support. About 50-60% cloud cover gave a feeling of occasional concealment to the helicopters flying above it, as most of these aircraft moved to ever higher altitudes. The helicopter pilots also learned that an F-4 climbing from a bomb run and popping up through the clouds must look just like a large Surface-to-Air Missile, and even when it is not coming directly at you, it certainly appears to be.

That afternoon an F/9th Cobra destroyed a heavy machine-gun set up as an anti-aircraft weapon in the drained swimming pool of the Frenchman’s villa on the west side of the airfield at Quan Loi. F/9th also shot for the ARVN units under attack at Quan Loi, and were asked to engage a force of at least 80 personnel in the open on the runway near the Frenchman’s villa. Because they smiled and waved and refused to shoot at the helicopters, all members of the team, Scout and Cobras, were convinced these Vietnamese, armed with both AK-47s and M-16s, were ARVN. Everyone was happy the team did not engage, especially the FAC who first spotted them, but when the team left to rearm, the same men started shooting at the ARVN. Later a Cobra from F/9th expended his remaining rockets into the ammo dump on the north side of the runway, to keep the ammunition from being captured. At the request of the ground personnel, the beckoning target of the POL point at the southwest side of the runway was left intact.

Plans were made to insert H Company, 75th Rangers into Loc Ninh, but those who had been on station knew that no single company of soldiers of any caliber or capability could stem the NVA attack at that point.

Air strikes that were not available for the Air Cavalry Troops to attack the NVA when concentrated inside their Cambodian sanctuaries were allocated to stop the multi-division Communist attack, but few of the strikes were allowed to be put in on actual targets developed by the Hunter/Killer Teams. Air strikes were most often allocated by staff personnel safely bunkered at Long Binh and Bien Hoa, almost a hundred miles from the battle. Fortunately, FACs on station would often divert their flights from the staff-selected targets to enemy positions actually being engaged by the men at the battle.

On the third day of the battle, Loc Ninh fell. CPT Mike Brown was near by in his Blue Max Cobra the afternoon of April 7th, and recalls the last radio transmissions from the defenders. Hauntingly, there was a baby crying in the background as the NVA captured the command bunker. It was assumed that Zippo was killed after his heroic stand. F/9th Scout Richard Dey had tried to pick up Zippo earlier that day, but the man we would learn years later was CPT Mark Smith refused to leave his post.

It was years before most of us learned that Zippo had survived his 27 or more wounds and his captivity, and he recently gave an excellent insight into what that battle actually cost the Communists, and what American advisors and American airpower actually faced in that battle. In October of 1998, Mark Smith thanked some of the participants in the effort to have his heroism recognized, and explained events many of us had witnessed. Parts of his letter follow:

"Those of you in the air had a very good view of the battle. That is probably why your statements are much more in line with the things that George and I have always said about certain events.

"There were some hard feelings about my demand that pilots and aircraft not be brought in for a rescue, unless there was a reasonable chance they would survive. That was my call and I don’t regret it for a moment. I still don’t know how Dey survived on either occasion he came in on 7 April.

"For Ron Timberlake I would like to put your mind at ease on the vehicle. After reading your statement I realized that you were referring to the tank left on the road after the Cavalry had been ambushed. Originally there had been five, but the remainder, one PT 76 and three T-54s were marshaling surrendering 1st Cavalry (Note: 1st ARVN Cavalry) vehicles to the west. The reason you initially mistook that tank for an M 41 was that it was, in fact, a PT 76. What was unusual about the PT 76s at Loc Ninh is that they had been mounted with a 12.7 on the turret. This gave them a similar ‘look down’ profile to the M 41. I know you attacked Soviet armor that day and not ARVN.

"There was another mistake about armor made on 7 April. Gentlemen, those APCs that got inside Loc Ninh were not manned by ARVN. They were 1st Cavalry APCs, but were loaded with NVA. I didn’t know that until they lowered the ramp and tried to run out and I saw them. They all died. Strangely, I believe the driver of at least one was an ARVN, because after he lowered the ramp, he swung the APC out of the gate and went full bore down the airfield and did a right over the hill and made for Highway 13, toward An Loc. I’m sure he had agreed to take the guys with guns into the compound, but as soon as they were gone, he headed for home and not back to get some more NVA.

"There has been some discussion about who the NVA were at Loc Ninh. I can assure you that you fought elements of three Divisions and not only the 5th NVA Division. I was captured by the 272nd Regiment, 9th Division at their blocking position south of Loc Ninh. They had POWs from the 3rd Battalion (all wounded) 9th ARVN Regiment, that had been captured on the first hill mass south of Loc Ninh. This told me they had been there since the 4th, in the evening. General Tra and the Division Commander were also there. This should tell all of you, that you fought a lot more folks and killed a lot more than you thought you did at Loc Ninh. We also had POWs from the 9th Division, early on the first day.

"Sometimes I wish the NVA were more like a lot of ‘Vietnam Veterans’ I run into who also claim to have been on the ground in that battle. ‘Just down the road from you.’ Yeah right. The VNA are more hesitant about revealing how much time and men they expended at Loc Ninh. But, I met General Tra in Vietnam a few years ago, before he died. When I said he had lost about seven thousand men at Loc Ninh, he said, "More than that."

"Larry (McKay) (commander or F/79 ARA, Blue Max), I was particularly happy to hear your description of the tanks rolling into An Loc. The first tanks that came at Loc Ninh and the last ones always opened their hatch covers and the commanders stood in the turret and glared at you as they came in. If you shot the commander they left. If you shot the driver they stopped. It became evident cross training was not a strong suit of the NVA Tank Corps. Why the tanks seemed to wish to operate alone and only came unescorted, I do not know. Why they only supported the Infantry from the woodline I can’t figure out either.

"I was especially touched by your remembering the baby crying in our bunker Michael (Brown). As a matter of fact, Ken and Ed also had civilians, dependents of the soldiers, in the underground complex with them also. One thing I did notice about the NVA, they did not take vengeance that I could see, on the women and children. They did use the kids from the school as shields, but I believe those were political types with the Sapper Battalion. I brought this up with General Tra in no uncertain terms and he queried all the others present about who was responsible. I don’t think that was a show.

For the reason Loc Ninh fell, Smith wrote, "We just ran out of soldiers and in many parts of the perimeter where soldiers remained, ammunition was depleted. As my little band left the perimeter we rearmed and reloaded off the dead NVA in the wire and on the bunker line. What the Air Force, Navy, Marines and VNAF did with the limited number of fixed wing aircraft available was a great feat of arms and should not be diminished with talk of ‘gaps in air power.’ What helicopter pilots did in a high threat environment was a miracle. There was every reason not to fly, but fly you good men did."

He concludes his comments about the fighting by noting, "Each of you, from the Generals on down participated in great battles in 1972. Few men, now living, ever saw such raw power and shear numbers in such a small area."

A valiant attempt was made to pick up the surviving American advisors late the afternoon of 7 April. Although referred to in some accounts as "Bay Rum", the official duty log called it "Bay run". It was essentially a test of non-lethal chemical agent to attempt to lessen enemy fire.

After delays for tactical and logistical reasons, USAF fighters delivered an incapacitating riot gas on the NVA positions. 1LT Richard Dey, Scout for CW2 Tom Jones’ F/9th Hunter/Killer Team, flew into the compound to pick up the advisors. The gas did not work as advertised, and to quote the Brigade’s official duty log, "LOH F/9 checking Loc Ninh L.Z. Took heavy 51 cal fire from E, W, SW, NE. LOH seriously shot up, going to Song Be."

The true number of NVA casualties will never be known, but more than 7,000 Communist soldiers were killed in a savage three-day battle. To the men observing and helping to create that carnage it seemed certain that the NVA forces would soon fold from the losses but on they came, to lay siege to the pretty, sleepy little Provincial Capital of An Loc.

In front of the main force of NVA in their drive toward An Loc were survivors from Loc Ninh, trying to evade or fight their way to An Loc. On a small hill by the highway, about midway between Loc Ninh and An Loc, was an ARVN Fire Support Base Smith mentioned in his letter.

Early in the morning of April 8th, a Pink Team Leader from F/9th noticed that all of the M-101 series 105mm howitzers on the firebase on the little hill were pointed south, instead of north. Characteristically, the teams had not even been informed that the base had been taken by the NVA, but he radioed An Loc, and they confirmed they were under artillery fire from the north. The Cobra expended on the firebase and the pilot, not anywhere near the top of his class at the Field Artillery Officers Basic Course the year before, actually recognized an equalibrator soar past him from one of his hits.

About halfway between that outpost and Loc Ninh, an evading group of ARVN soldiers and their American advisors trying to regroup at An Loc were pinned down near the intersection of a dirt road going west into the rubber plantations. NVA forces already sent to recon and isolate the defenses of An Loc, formed the anvil for the huge NVA hammer to the north.

The plan to extract the advisors was a complex multi-service exercise. Hunter/Killer teams had offered to pick up the advisors with their Scouts, or expend rockets on the way in and let the advisors ride the rocket pods out, but apparently Air Force logistics had caught up with the riot agent that might help to reduce possible casualties on the extraction.

An old term denoting conspicuous valor is to be "mentioned in the dispatches", and John Whitehead certainly was. The task force daily journal mentions few individuals by name, and then only for particular reasons. Brigadier General Hamlet’s succinct orders designating who would rescue whom, followed by reports from the 3rd Brigade (Separate) Deputy Commander, COL John Casey, were logged on 8 April:

0830 hours – CG: S-3 will rescue personnel from Nui Ba Dinh. DCO-A, D/229, 75th Rangers will rescue Cornish 67 from Cat Lo Bridge. CO 1/21, F/9 Cav will move 2,000 ARVN from Bu Dop to Song Be.

This 0830 log entry is as poignant as it is significant. In the real world, unlike in the movies, soldiers and missions within like units are normally either somewhat or completely interchangeable, and there is not a case of "There’s only one man who could pull this off."

The Commanding General assessed the major missions for his brigade that morning, and without any of the dramatics one learns to expect from the less informed, he designated which missions would be performed by which units and leaders. Once the missions were tasked to the particular units, it became the luck of the draw as to which particular pilots had already been assigned to be flying that day, and who would be assigned in what order. No planning the night before, no preparing the roster for a special mission. The missions were assigned to the units, and they were carried out with the personnel and equipment on hand.

So it was that John Whitehead’s unit was tasked to rescue advisors, and his job became to get them out. Had that mission fallen to the other Cavalry Troop, it would probably have been their Scout Platoon Leader, Joe Harris, who would have attempted the rescue. Would he or anyone else have succeeded as well as John Whitehead, or would he have died near the Cat Lo bridge instead of in the rubber plantation near Bu Dop?

The die was cast as the assignments were divided, and the progress of the missions were logged:

1045 hours – DCO-A: Bay run on ground at Cat Lo Bridge, putting CBU around advisors position checking with LOH after CBU.

1055 hours – DCO-A: LOH received ground to air fire vicinity of XT 7297, unknown damage. AH-1G also hit from D/229.

1110 hours – DCO-A: 3 advisors at Cat Lo Bridge rescued by D/229 and 75th Rangers. Critically wounded update to follow.

1215 hours – DCO-A: LOH used for extraction at Cat Lo took 4 hits small arms and 51 cal. Carried 3 U.S., 4 ARVN, pilot and gunner total 9 people. Pilot CPT Whitehead, Gunner SGT Waite.

Nine people on an OH-6A that had been hit by automatic weapons fire. Nine men on a LOH, with the blood flowing in the airstream.

 

 

 

John Whitehead, Dave Ripley, and Ray Waite-D/229, 8 April 1972

9 people in one OH-6A

USAF A-37s made passes low over the rubber trees to the west, dispensing a chemical agent said to be similar to CS tear gas, but also causing a temporary burning sensation and nausea. John Whitehead, a Scout in Delta Troop, 229th, may have broken the world record for the number of passengers carried by an OH-6A, when he rescued the advisors under heavy fire. Desperate ARVNs seized the opportunity by mobbing his helicopter, and Whitehead and his gunner flew out with three advisors and four Vietnamese jamming the aircraft and hanging from the skids. Here are the details:

That morning at Lai Khe, Whitehead, Smiling Tiger 16, had been briefed to lead a second empty D/229 OH-6, flown by the 1LT Dave Ripley on a rescue attempt. Ripley would be the sole person in his OH-6, Whitehead would have Waite

Responding to a call for help from three American advisors who evading south from Loc Ninh to An Loc, CPT Whitehead landed under withering enemy fire only to have his aircraft swamped by desperate ARVN soldiers seeking to escape the surrounded town of Loc Ninh. CPT Bill Leach, Blue Max 26 from F/79 AFA remembers thinking the little bird was lost in a cloud of dust and intense ground fire. However, with 9 people inside or clinging to the aircraft and enemy fire increasing, Whitehead skipped, bounced and forced the OH-6 into the air.

Whitehead had one panicked ARVN across his arms, the left front seat was empty. (If you ask John, today, who was in the left side, he will say God.) On the floor of the aircraft in the rear was an American E-8, who had 3 ARVN stacked on top of him. On the left side was an American Captain, barely in the rear compartment. On the right side, Ray Waite was held into the aircraft by a monkey strap and he was holding an American O-5 who was, sort of, on the skids.

The aircraft way was out of the center of gravity(CG) limits and would not fly level. Once clear of the fire, Whitehead landed the aircraft at Chon Thanh, and the 7 pax, 3 US Advisors and 4 ARVN were placed on larger aircraft and evacuated. The mission was flown with M-24 gas masks, because a preceding B-52 strike had mixed CS with HE, and the gas was floating over the PZ. Nobody's mask fit and it was the first time, any of the majority of the pilots and crews had ever put the protective gear on.

Whitehead was nominated, by the 3d Brigade Commander, then BG James F. Hamlet for the Medal of Honor, and received the Distinguished Service Cross. Ray Waite also received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Dave Ripley recalls: "The Battle of Loc Ninh was written by the late Ron Timberlake. I just have to believe where "the cobra pilot" is referred to, it is Ron. He and I had many discussion via the phone and email on the sequence of events, which he also bounced off Mike Brown, who lived near him in Houston. I will always admire the clear writing style of Ron Timberlake. Happy Trails.

The Battle of Loc Ninh

As the Hunter/Killer Teams prepared to laager at Tay Ninh East on the morning of 5 April, they monitored a dramatic radio transmission: "Attention all aircraft, this is Paris, on Guard. Loc Ninh is under tank and heavy infantry attack. I say again, Loc Ninh is under tank and heavy infantry attack. Any aircraft with armament, please respond."

F Troop, 9th Cavalry responded immediately with six Cobras and their three Scouts. A C&C Huey and three slicks full of Browns followed. Blue Max, always quickly aware of contact missions, would fly the longer distance form their base, and arrive on station by lunchtime.

The Hunter/Killer Team Leaders that morning, some veterans of Lam San 719, had more than 6,000 combat hours between the three of them and their wingmen. Even with that base of experience, the fighting they encountered at Loc Ninh was more intense than anything they had encountered. Uniformed soldiers were visible around the outside of the perimeter in the hundreds. To the north there were burned out Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and explosions were all around the compound of Loc Ninh.

The callsign of the American on the ground who seemed to be holding it all together was Zippo. He coordinated attacks, relayed information, and although we knew he was an advisor who could not order the Vietnamese soldiers, he seemed to be the cement holding together the defense. Most of us did not even learn his name until 1998, when several general officers started an effort to have Mark Smith awarded the Medal Of Honor.

The morning was extremely confusing. CW2 Tom Jones and CPT Don Gooch were asked to engage a huge formation of uniformed soldiers that seemed to be ignoring all of us, and each Cobra ripple-fired its entire load of rockets into the group. Body count and kill claims were ignored by the Troop during the heavy fighting. Supporting the defense was all that mattered.

Most amazing to any of the pilots was the volume of anti-aircraft fire. Aside from what was later reported to be nine battalions of NVA anti-aircraft, the NVA soldiers had already captured large numbers of US-made Browning .50 caliber heavy s from the APCs of the South Vietnamese (ARVN) 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment. Literally hundreds of heavy s and AAA weapons reached for any Cobra that attacked.

Zippo asked for a tank to be destroyed on the road just north of the town and compound, where the road ran past the rubber plantation. The F/9th Hunter/Killer Team on station advised him that the tank was sitting across the road and appeared to be too obvious to be an NVA tank, and the profile did not seem right. It appeared that it was either an ARVN tank or an intentional trap. Could it be an ARVN tank?

When Zippo said that the tank had killed ARVN APCs and was blocking his people from joining up from the north, the Team Leader admitted to himself that he was poorly trained at armored vehicle identification, and dove for the tank. Even from much closer it appeared that it might be an M-41, but the commander joined hundreds of his friends in shooting at the approaching Cobra before the 17-pound HE warheads actually destroyed the vehicle. There was no joyful feeling at destroying the tank, because the Cobra was very low and the volume of heavy weapons fire was absolutely terrifying.

A FAC on station had wasted no time targeting freshly arrived fighters, and rolled a flight of Phantoms in what appeared to be a move to help the Cobra escape. As the Cobra flew north from the now burning tank, an F-4 pickled its entire load of bombs on an east-west line across its path, with the bombs going directly over the Cobra and impacting into the rubber west of the road. The silence after that tremendous blast of explosives allowed the Cobra pilot to start breathing again.

Not far from where the road turned back west, the Cobra pilot saw five APCs tail-to-tail in a star-shaped defensive formation down in the rubber trees. They were not only destroyed, but were completely burned out. Some even appeared to have had fires so hot that their aluminum armor melted. The desperation of their stand left a lasting impression. The ARVN cavalry faced and fought overwhelming odds and these, as many others, had died before the American Air Cavalry troopers were even told about the battle.

Major Thomas A. Davidson, an ARVN advisor who received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Loc Ninh, later told of his relief at having that particular tank destroyed. Years later Mark Smith solved this mystery of armored vehicle identification, explaining why the tank looked like it was an M-41, and why the 17-pounders destroyed it so effectively.

The tank had been a PT-76, but unlike most of the published photos of this Soviet vehicle, the ones that morning at Loc Ninh were mounting 12.7mm heavy machine-gun on the turret for the commander, changing their appearance significantly for untrained armor observers.

Later that afternoon Blue Max lost the first Cobra and crew of the battle. On a rocket run at almost 4,000 feet just south of the town of Loc Ninh, CW2 Charles Windeler and CPT Henry Spengler were hit. Told by his wingman that he was on fire, Windeler tried to make it to the ground, despite the number of enemy soldiers in the area. It appeared that his controls burned through at about 1,500 feet, and the helicopter impacted on cleared ground on the side of a slight rise. A Cobra from F/9th confirmed that the two pilots did not survive the crash. The entire cockpit area was a crater.

The second morning, 6 April, was just as confusing, and perhaps even more frightening for the aircrews. Although it was uncertain whether the troop would laager from a camp at Song Be, or the former American 1st Infantry base at Lai Khe that was still active as an ARVN headquarters for the 5th ARVN Div, for the first sortie a team flew directly to Loc Ninh. Between Lai Khe and An Loc, the leader noticed that a rocket with 17-pound HE warhead was working its way forward out of an inboard rocket tube. Aside from the fact that he wanted all his rockets, it had worked itself into a position that would make it dangerous to shoot rockets from that pod, and in any intense maneuver the rocket might work itself free and cause rotor or tail rotor damage.

Demonstrating a perfect ignorance of the enemy’s ultimate intentions, he decided to land in a safe area to re-seat the rocket. There was a provincial capitol along the line of flight, a place where on his first tour he and his crew had not been allowed to eat because they were too dirty from flying missions for the senior advisor all day. He landed at that sleepy and safe little town of An Loc, corrected the problem by re-seating the rocket, and continued northward.

Like most of his fellow team leaders, unaware of the magnitude of the battles in other portions of Vietnam, he did not interpret the battle at Loc Ninh to be a serious push to take the country. All the pilots were extremely impressed with the size and ferocity of the forces attacking, but assumed that when the NVA took the pounding and suffered large enough losses at Loc Ninh, they would pull back across the Cambodian border as they had done in the past. From even the first day of the battle, it was obvious that enemy losses would be in record numbers, and no information had been given to the teams about ARVN losses.

The anti-aircraft fire was even heavier and more organized than the day before. During that day COL John Casey, Deputy Commander of the 3rd Brigade (Separate), 1st Cavalry Division, called an F/9th Cobra to engage without collateral damage a 57mm anti-aircraft gun firing at jet fighters from the town square in Loc Ninh. With about 60% cloud cover, the Cobra engaged the cannon from a steep dive, but the pilot was so… "distracted"…by ground fire that he unintentionally selected the less accurate outboard wing stores instead of the well bore-sighted inboard. (Normal F/9th load was HE inboard and flechettes outboard, so outboard pods did not get the attention of the ones "shot for record" every day.) Although the 57mm cannon was silenced, a nearby building was also damaged, so permission to engage was withdrawn. The pilot felt bad about the collateral damage and felt terrible about selecting the wrong stores, but was purely relieved not to have to dive back into that boiling cauldron again.

The cloud cover worked for and against the helicopters, and more against than for the tactical air support. About 50-60% cloud cover gave a feeling of occasional concealment to the helicopters flying above it, as most of these aircraft moved to ever higher altitudes. The helicopter pilots also learned that an F-4 climbing from a bomb run and popping up through the clouds must look just like a large Surface-to-Air Missile, and even when it is not coming directly at you, it certainly appears to be.

That afternoon an F/9th Cobra destroyed a heavy machine-gun set up as an anti-aircraft weapon in the drained swimming pool of the Frenchman’s villa on the west side of the airfield at Quan Loi. F/9th also shot for the ARVN units under attack at Quan Loi, and were asked to engage a force of at least 80 personnel in the open on the runway near the Frenchman’s villa. Because they smiled and waved and refused to shoot at the helicopters, all members of the team, Scout and Cobras, were convinced these Vietnamese, armed with both AK-47s and M-16s, were ARVN. Everyone was happy the team did not engage, especially the FAC who first spotted them, but when the team left to rearm, the same men started shooting at the ARVN. Later a Cobra from F/9th expended his remaining rockets into the ammo dump on the north side of the runway, to keep the ammunition from being captured. At the request of the ground personnel, the beckoning target of the POL point at the southwest side of the runway was left intact.

Plans were made to insert H Company, 75th Rangers into Loc Ninh, but those who had been on station knew that no single company of soldiers of any caliber or capability could stem the NVA attack at that point.

Air strikes that were not available for the Air Cavalry Troops to attack the NVA when concentrated inside their Cambodian sanctuaries were allocated to stop the multi-division Communist attack, but few of the strikes were allowed to be put in on actual targets developed by the Hunter/Killer Teams. Air strikes were most often allocated by staff personnel safely bunkered at Long Binh and Bien Hoa, almost a hundred miles from the battle. Fortunately, FACs on station would often divert their flights from the staff-selected targets to enemy positions actually being engaged by the men at the battle.

On the third day of the battle, Loc Ninh fell. CPT Mike Brown was near by in his Blue Max Cobra the afternoon of April 7th, and recalls the last radio transmissions from the defenders. Hauntingly, there was a baby crying in the background as the NVA captured the command bunker. It was assumed that Zippo was killed after his heroic stand. F/9th Scout Richard Dey had tried to pick up Zippo earlier that day, but the man we would learn years later was CPT Mark Smith refused to leave his post.

It was years before most of us learned that Zippo had survived his 27 or more wounds and his captivity, and he recently gave an excellent insight into what that battle actually cost the Communists, and what American advisors and American airpower actually faced in that battle. In October of 1998, Mark Smith thanked some of the participants in the effort to have his heroism recognized, and explained events many of us had witnessed. Parts of his letter follow:

"Those of you in the air had a very good view of the battle. That is probably why your statements are much more in line with the things that George and I have always said about certain events.

"There were some hard feelings about my demand that pilots and aircraft not be brought in for a rescue, unless there was a reasonable chance they would survive. That was my call and I don’t regret it for a moment. I still don’t know how Dey survived on either occasion he came in on 7 April.

"For Ron Timberlake I would like to put your mind at ease on the vehicle. After reading your statement I realized that you were referring to the tank left on the road after the Cavalry had been ambushed. Originally there had been five, but the remainder, one PT 76 and three T-54s were marshaling surrendering 1st Cavalry (Note: 1st ARVN Cavalry) vehicles to the west. The reason you initially mistook that tank for an M 41 was that it was, in fact, a PT 76. What was unusual about the PT 76s at Loc Ninh is that they had been mounted with a 12.7 on the turret. This gave them a similar ‘look down’ profile to the M 41. I know you attacked Soviet armor that day and not ARVN.

"There was another mistake about armor made on 7 April. Gentlemen, those APCs that got inside Loc Ninh were not manned by ARVN. They were 1st Cavalry APCs, but were loaded with NVA. I didn’t know that until they lowered the ramp and tried to run out and I saw them. They all died. Strangely, I believe the driver of at least one was an ARVN, because after he lowered the ramp, he swung the APC out of the gate and went full bore down the airfield and did a right over the hill and made for Highway 13, toward An Loc. I’m sure he had agreed to take the guys with guns into the compound, but as soon as they were gone, he headed for home and not back to get some more NVA.

"There has been some discussion about who the NVA were at Loc Ninh. I can assure you that you fought elements of three Divisions and not only the 5th NVA Division. I was captured by the 272nd Regiment, 9th Division at their blocking position south of Loc Ninh. They had POWs from the 3rd Battalion (all wounded) 9th ARVN Regiment, that had been captured on the first hill mass south of Loc Ninh. This told me they had been there since the 4th, in the evening. General Tra and the Division Commander were also there. This should tell all of you, that you fought a lot more folks and killed a lot more than you thought you did at Loc Ninh. We also had POWs from the 9th Division, early on the first day.

"Sometimes I wish the NVA were more like a lot of ‘Vietnam Veterans’ I run into who also claim to have been on the ground in that battle. ‘Just down the road from you.’ Yeah right. The VNA are more hesitant about revealing how much time and men they expended at Loc Ninh. But, I met General Tra in Vietnam a few years ago, before he died. When I said he had lost about seven thousand men at Loc Ninh, he said, "More than that."

"Larry (McKay) (commander or F/79 ARA, Blue Max), I was particularly happy to hear your description of the tanks rolling into An Loc. The first tanks that came at Loc Ninh and the last ones always opened their hatch covers and the commanders stood in the turret and glared at you as they came in. If you shot the commander they left. If you shot the driver they stopped. It became evident cross training was not a strong suit of the NVA Tank Corps. Why the tanks seemed to wish to operate alone and only came unescorted, I do not know. Why they only supported the Infantry from the woodline I can’t figure out either.

"I was especially touched by your remembering the baby crying in our bunker Michael (Brown). As a matter of fact, Ken and Ed also had civilians, dependents of the soldiers, in the underground complex with them also. One thing I did notice about the NVA, they did not take vengeance that I could see, on the women and children. They did use the kids from the school as shields, but I believe those were political types with the Sapper Battalion. I brought this up with General Tra in no uncertain terms and he queried all the others present about who was responsible. I don’t think that was a show.

For the reason Loc Ninh fell, Smith wrote, "We just ran out of soldiers and in many parts of the perimeter where soldiers remained, ammunition was depleted. As my little band left the perimeter we rearmed and reloaded off the dead NVA in the wire and on the bunker line. What the Air Force, Navy, Marines and VNAF did with the limited number of fixed wing aircraft available was a great feat of arms and should not be diminished with talk of ‘gaps in air power.’ What helicopter pilots did in a high threat environment was a miracle. There was every reason not to fly, but fly you good men did."

He concludes his comments about the fighting by noting, "Each of you, from the Generals on down participated in great battles in 1972. Few men, now living, ever saw such raw power and shear numbers in such a small area."

 

 

 

A valiant attempt was made to pick up the surviving American advisors late the afternoon of 7 April. Although referred to in some accounts as "Bay Rum", the official duty log called it "Bay run". It was essentially a test of non-lethal chemical agent to attempt to lessen enemy fire.

After delays for tactical and logistical reasons, USAF fighters delivered an incapacitating riot gas on the NVA positions. 1LT Richard Dey, Scout for CW2 Tom Jones’ F/9th Hunter/Killer Team, flew into the compound to pick up the advisors. The gas did not work as advertised, and to quote the Brigade’s official duty log, "LOH F/9 checking Loc Ninh L.Z. Took heavy 51 cal fire from E, W, SW, NE. LOH seriously shot up, going to Song Be."

The true number of NVA casualties will never be known, but more than 7,000 Communist soldiers were killed in a savage three-day battle. To the men observing and helping to create that carnage it seemed certain that the NVA forces would soon fold from the losses but on they came, to lay siege to the pretty, sleepy little Provincial Capital of An Loc.

In front of the main force of NVA in their drive toward An Loc were survivors from Loc Ninh, trying to evade or fight their way to An Loc. On a small hill by the highway, about midway between Loc Ninh and An Loc, was an ARVN Fire Support Base Smith mentioned in his letter.

Early in the morning of April 8th, a Pink Team Leader from F/9th noticed that all of the M-101 series 105mm howitzers on the firebase on the little hill were pointed south, instead of north. Characteristically, the teams had not even been informed that the base had been taken by the NVA, but he radioed An Loc, and they confirmed they were under artillery fire from the north. The Cobra expended on the firebase and the pilot, not anywhere near the top of his class at the Field Artillery Officers Basic Course the year before, actually recognized an equalibrator soar past him from one of his hits.

About halfway between that outpost and Loc Ninh, an evading group of ARVN soldiers and their American advisors trying to regroup at An Loc were pinned down near the intersection of a dirt road going west into the rubber plantations. NVA forces already sent to recon and isolate the defenses of An Loc, formed the anvil for the huge NVA hammer to the north.

The plan to extract the advisors was a complex multi-service exercise. Hunter/Killer teams had offered to pick up the advisors with their Scouts, or expend rockets on the way in and let the advisors ride the rocket pods out, but apparently Air Force logistics had caught up with the riot agent that might help to reduce possible casualties on the extraction.

An old term denoting conspicuous valor is to be "mentioned in the dispatches", and John Whitehead certainly was. The task force daily journal mentions few individuals by name, and then only for particular reasons. Brigadier General Hamlet’s succinct orders designating who would rescue whom, followed by reports from the 3rd Brigade (Separate) Deputy Commander, COL John Casey, were logged on 8 April:

0830 hours – CG: S-3 will rescue personnel from Nui Ba Dinh. DCO-A, D/229, 75th Rangers will rescue Cornish 67 from Cat Lo Bridge. CO 1/21, F/9 Cav will move 2,000 ARVN from Bu Dop to Song Be.

This 0830 log entry is as poignant as it is significant. In the real world, unlike in the movies, soldiers and missions within like units are normally either somewhat or completely interchangeable, and there is not a case of "There’s only one man who could pull this off."

The Commanding General assessed the major missions for his brigade that morning, and without any of the dramatics one learns to expect from the less informed, he designated which missions would be performed by which units and leaders. Once the missions were tasked to the particular units, it became the luck of the draw as to which particular pilots had already been assigned to be flying that day, and who would be assigned in what order. No planning the night before, no preparing the roster for a special mission. The missions were assigned to the units, and they were carried out with the personnel and equipment on hand.

So it was that John Whitehead’s unit was tasked to rescue advisors, and his job became to get them out. Had that mission fallen to the other Cavalry Troop, it would probably have been their Scout Platoon Leader, Joe Harris, who would have attempted the rescue. Would he or anyone else have succeeded as well as John Whitehead, or would he have died near the Cat Lo bridge instead of in the rubber plantation near Bu Dop?

The die was cast as the assignments were divided, and the progress of the missions were logged:

1045 hours – DCO-A: Bay run on ground at Cat Lo Bridge, putting CBU around advisors position checking with LOH after CBU.

1055 hours – DCO-A: LOH received ground to air fire vicinity of XT 7297, unknown damage. AH-1G also hit from D/229.

1110 hours – DCO-A: 3 advisors at Cat Lo Bridge rescued by D/229 and 75th Rangers. Critically wounded update to follow.

1215 hours – DCO-A: LOH used for extraction at Cat Lo took 4 hits small arms and 51 cal. Carried 3 U.S., 4 ARVN, pilot and gunner total 9 people. Pilot CPT Whitehead, Gunner SGT Waite.

Nine people on an OH-6A that had been hit by automatic weapons fire. Nine men on a LOH, with the blood flowing in the airstream.

 

In an August 1999 email, one of the Advisors at An Loc, Jim Willbanks, now a retired LTC at the Army Command and General College at Ft Leavenworth KS recalled: "For your information, the advisors that CPT Whitehead picked up were LTC Walter Ginger, CPT Marvin Zumwalt, and SFC Floyd Winlan. They were with TF 52, which was from the 18th ARVN and OPCON to the 5th ARVN. I have always considered CPT Whitehead's actions to be worthy of the Medal of Honor; what he was almost unbelievable."

CPT Bill Leach, Blue Max 26 from F/79 AFA remembers thinking the little bird was lost in a cloud of dust and intense ground fire. However, with 9 people inside or clinging to the aircraft and enemy fire increasing, Whitehead skipped, bounced and forced the OH-6 into the air.

The aircraft way was out of the center of gravity(CG) limits and would not fly level. Once clear of the fire, Whitehead landed the aircraft at Chon Thanh, and the 7 pax, 3 US Advisors and 4 ARVN were placed on larger aircraft and evacuated. The mission was flown with M-24 gas masks, because a preceding B-52 strike had mixed CS with HE, and the gas was floating over the PZ. Nobody's mask fit and it was the first time, any of the majority of the pilots and crews had ever put the protective gear on.

Whitehead was nominated, by the 3d Brigade Commander, then BG James F. Hamlet for the Medal of Honor, and received the Distinguished Service Cross. Ray Waite also received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Dave Ripley recalls: " John was my platoon leader and was indeed the lead ship in this action. He was flying with SGT Waite, who was to assist with loading the three advisors on board. When he landed, his ship was swamped by people. I was in the second loach, and as when I put down the same thing happened to me, except I had the advantage of being second in, so I stopped at a hover. One guy in particular, I remember vividly, jumped in the front and tried to pull himself in by the cyclic. I started to go left (toward the tree line full of the entire NVA Army )and down, as if in a low level left hand turn. All of a sudden, he went stiff, blood splattered across the left seat and chin bubble, and he fell backwards out of the loach. John was just struggling to get in the air. I had three guys on board, and several standing/hanging on the skid base. There were guys hanging all over John's loach, and I didn't think he was coming up, but he did. Right as we took off, a pretty wicked burst got him, and most of the hangers-on got shot, falling back to the road. I think that SFC Floyd Winlan was wounded in this particular burst. I remember thinking that I was flying right into it, but for some reason, it missed the front of my ship, and hit the tail boom and the vertical stabilizer several times.

 

In 1998, an unsuccessful effort was made to have John Whitehead’s award upgraded to a well-deserved Medal of Honor. As the Deputy Brigade Commander remarked on the day it happened, if John Whitehead had landed within sight of journalists, he would have been assured the Medal Of Honor.

Sloniker notes: Dave Ripley received the Silver Star for his action.

 

On April 8th, F/9th planned to laager at Lai Khe, but when the Commanding General tasked them to evacuate 2,000 ARVN from the imperiled Special Forces camp of Bu Dop, the teams flew to work out of the small firebase in the red clay of Song Be. The level of opposition would have been considered heavy at any previous time, but after the astounding ground fire of the past three days, it seemed almost restful there.

That afternoon a Hunter/Killer Team was bounced to respond to a request for assistance from the CH-47 unit engaged in the evacuation of the Special Forces camp across the river to the northwest of Song Be.

The Chinooks reported taking fire from east and slightly south of the camp, and the Pink Team quickly located the source of fire, then scouted and identified a clear path for the heavily loaded cargo helicopters. The annoying fire was originating from a rubber plantation on rolling terrain, and the relieving team was advised of its location and briefed on the route selected for the Chinooks. The enemy location, and indeed Bu Dop itself, was far out of range of supporting artillery, without Tactical Air or even ARA support readily available. With no way to prosecute the enemy force, and especially since it was already late in the afternoon, it was judged best to continue to screen as cavalry instead of try to develop an unproductive and unsupported contact with a force of unknown size.

By the time the original Hunter/Killer Team re-armed at Song Be, the relieving Scout was reported down in the rubber. The team scrambled back to the location, where the Cobra flown by CPT Don Gooch had experienced a complete failure of his armament systems, and CW2 Tom Jones had lost all radio communications. With no radios, Jones remained on station and fired whenever he identified a target.

COL John Casey, called The Silver Fox by his troops, arrived overhead, assessed the situation, and made assets available. Blue Max was now en route to the crash site, but had not yet arrived. The Cav pilots were unaware of what an eventful day COL Casey had already experienced.

CPT Larry Corn, a lift pilot with F/9th, hovered at the tops of the rubber trees as his load of eight Browns rappelled into the crash site. The original Hunter/Killer Team Leader put his Scout at altitude, and with Louis K. Breuer flying wingman, covered the insertion at treetop level. They kept the NVA from rushing the crash site, and drew the fire that would otherwise have been directed at the hovering Huey.

Once again, the Browns proved their value. Though under almost constant fire, they comforted the slightly wounded gunner, SP4 Neidel, and recovered the body of the pilot, CPT Joseph Harris. A short time later a Blue Max Fire Team from F/79th and a Medevac helicopter arrived. The Pink Team escorted the Medevac in, and it used its jungle penetrator to extract the Scout crew. CPT Harris’ body was to be transported to a morgue facility, but the aircraft needed fuel, so Neidel was taken to where the Troop was now located at Song Be.

Recovery of the Browns presented a dilemma for the crews on station. With the recovery of the aircrew, some considered the mission to be over. The eight soldiers on the ground faced an enemy force far too strong to be assaulted or repulsed without reinforcements, and they could not move to the closest available landing zone about a kilometer to their northeast. The sun was low on the horizon, and they would lose the light within the hour.

Eight soldiers would die if they could not be extracted quickly. The men flying in support of them did not know even their nationality for certain, and it was possible that at least some of the soldiers had fought against them at some point in the war. But on 8 April, those eight soldiers were US Cavalry, and were fighting for their lives in a rubber plantation many miles from any other support because they had rescued another Scout crew.

F Troop’s Blues had been brought forward to Song Be, and were assembling rockets and supporting the fastest possible turnarounds of the Cobras. As the Pink Team Leader rearmed and refueled, the Medevac helicopter dropped off SP4 Neidel, and the two captains talked briefly at POL. The Medevac helicopter cut short its refueling and took off to the northwest. CPT Harris was left at POL for a while, watched over by the Blues. Minutes later, with darkness fast approaching, the two Cobras of the Heavy Pink Team arrived back at the crash site to monitor a radio discussion about leaving the Browns.

Resuming the Air Mission Commander role at the direction of The Silver Fox, the Pink Team Leader radioed that he needed medical evacuation of eight "wounded" from the crash site. Surprisingly for all but two of the crews, the Medevac pilot radioed that he was on short final to pick up eight wounded. With the Pink Team circling him at treetop level, under fire the entire time, the Medevac helicopter hovered over the rubber trees, raising and lowering his jungle penetrator repeatedly.

At one point he lost power for some unexplained reason, and began to settle into the treetops. He recovered, and continued the extraction of the "wounded" Browns. With the Browns extracted after their courageous rescue, the Loach was destroyed by the Pink Team’s rockets, and the team went back to Song Be to inspect for damage.

The evacuation of Bu Dop had continued during the recovery. Sent to evacuate 2,000 ARVN, the effort resulted in the removal of 1,500 ARVN, 2,000 civilians, six 105mm howitzers, and two 155mm howitzers. Assets were available to lift out all the ARVN, but many chose to stay behind, either to be with their families and about 500 Montagnards, or to let their families move to a safer location instead of themselves.

The lead F/9th Cobra had taken hits during each sortie, with one round hitting the frame beneath the pilot’s feet with such impact that his foot was knocked from the pedals and he thought for an instant that he had been hit himself. Another hit on the left side of the aircraft directly below the pilot made a huge hole. Inspection revealed that it was only a 7.62mm round that had been fired from directly below and almost missed, but tore along the aircraft skin upward to form a fist-sized elongated hole. Although hits in the rotor blades would require their replacement, it was deemed safe for a one-time flight home. The troop flew from Song Be to Bien Hoa in the darkness.

This interesting action would be covered in the official duty logs by two entries:

1605 hours – ARTY LNO: F/9 LOH down at XV 971290 cause unk GAF (Ground-to-Air Fire) in area; Pilot trapped in A/C, gunner wounded and trying to get pilot out DCO-A enroute with gunships.

1645 hours – DCO-A: Pilot of F/9 LOH KIA, going in W/Medevac now complete at 1700.

The DCO-A was Colonel John Casey, and the 1605 entry is an excellent demonstration of the artillery chain of communications, which was reporting as F/79th was responding.

Only years later did the Hunter/Killer Team Leader realize that in three days of flying, his flight times were 10.8, 10.7, and 12.1, for 33.6 hours of the most hotly contested fighting he had seen in 2,000 hours of combat flying. And the main battle had not yet started.

An Loc

On 9 April, F/9th fielded five Cobras, which were launched from Lai Khe without Scouts for the first and only mass attack by the Air Cavalry Troop. These Aircraft Commanders were accustomed to operating on their own, usually without any support at all, and being extremely judicious in placing their rockets. A strike as a flight of five was a unique and exciting opportunity. When the coordinates were decoded and the map was checked, the leader asked the other aircraft to check to make certain. Hand signals indicated surprise at the target, and the leader asked the Liaison Officer to re-shack the grid. The second set of alpha-numerics decoded to indicate the same target, so the flight flew on.

As they approached the target over 70% cloud cover, the leader called Operations Forward, and asked for the grid in the clear, and to confirm that the target was the village just southwest of An Loc, inside the rubber plantation. None of these men had ever fired into a village except for the engagement of the 57mm at Loc Ninh, and they could not believe the order.

Liaison confirmed that the village was the target. The civilians had been run out, and had reported that the village now housed an NVA Regimental Headquarters. Lead intended to check the village from low level before firing, but began receiving fire as he broke through the cloud base. He and the other four Cobras engaged as a heavy team, with all but Lead staying above the clouds.

Because of the volume of fire, the lead Cobra stayed low level on his engagement, as the others shot through openings in the clouds to allow themselves more protection from the AAA. Fireballs rose from secondary explosions from many of the village buildings, as anti-aircraft positions fired ineffectively into the clouds.

The cloud cover made the AAA much less effective than at other heavily defended areas. From high above the clouds, the Cobras selected targets between small gaps in the clouds. They used steep diving attacks and made their breaks while still above the cloud cover whenever possible. This allowed them to engage without any weapons other than those directly around the intended target being able to see them.

CW2 Stew Scannel had a Cobra with an inoperative turret, which was the only aircraft in the Troop with Heavy Hog configuration. On this golden opportunity his rockets would not fire, but he stayed on station to make dry covering runs, and to function as the self-appointed unit cheerleader.

Completely expended against such a rare and lucrative target, the flight headed back to Lai Khe with the lead Cobra still at treetop level. Before he was far enough away from their target to safely begin a zoom climb to altitude, he came across a UH-1H on the ground, and turned back to see if the crew needed rescue. It was a VNAF helicopter that had been abandoned intact, and NVA were shooting at him from all around the area. Without armament remaining, he reported the situation so that other assets could check it. A Blue Max Fire Team from F/79th soon checked the ship, with the same reception.

The next day F/9th was sent once more to verify the position of the VNAF helicopter, and were engaged by AAA that had been dug in around the point of interest.

The rate and speed of redeployment of the USAF to the theater of operations was nothing less than remarkable. The distinctive whine of F-4s lowering their landing gear in the pattern at Bien Hoa was soon heard again, as air power expanded sharply. The eerie whine was a comforting sound to men grown accustomed to support by the lightly armed counter-insurgency aircraft, instead of the immensely capable Phantoms.

From the levels of only two months before, compare the Order of Battle of USAF strike aircraft on 30 May 72:

Bien Hoa – 20 A-37 (3 were lost.), 2 A-1, 5 AC-119; Da Nang – 60 F-4, 5 AC-119, 2 A-1; Korat – 34 F-4, 31 F-105; NKP – 4 AC-119, 16 A-1, 4 F-4; Ubon – 92 F-4, 14 AC-130; Udorn – 86 F-4; U-Tapao – 54 B-52; Guam – 117 B-52; Takhli – 72 F-4.

On 11 April, the Brigade S-3 Journal of the 1st Cavalry recorded some rather remarkable reports. Think about what this entry says:

0900 hours – TRAC: D/229 tasked to go to Tay Ninh west and work for 25th ARVN w/mission to find 271 NVA Regiment and 24th NVA Regiment. Mission complete at 0930.

Modestly and succinctly reported, this entry says that only a half hour after the provisional Air Cavalry Troop was assigned the task of locating two Regiments of NVA, they had completed their mission. The second documented tank engagement of the battle occurred on 11 April, and was reported by BG Hamlet himself:

1100 hours – CG: F/9 Cav LOH at XT 6867 spotted footprints estimated 100 individuals in possible staging area using trails. LOH F/9 spotted fresh cuttings at XT 615745 est 10 individuals in the last 24 hours at XT 7388 F/9 Cobras engaging tank.

Hit with 17-pounders, the tank was reported damaged, but after remaining in the same position for days, it was obvious that it had been a kill.

That afternoon COL John Casey was hit in the hand and wrist by a 12.7mm, and BG Hamlet and the Brigade lost an outstanding Deputy. Still later:

1700 hours – At XT 691955 F/9found 1 tank in brush, type unknown. At XT 690952 observed 1 APC moving into brush area. AH-1G took fire, unknown number of 51 cal at 100 kts. FAC and Spectre on start to engage targets, negative hits, negative damage.

 

 

 

HEAT

The first tanks killed by helicopter during the Spring Offensive were destroyed by multiple hits from 17-pound High Explosive warheads fired from extremely close range, although HE warheads were not expected to destroy tanks. Within only a day or two, the rearm pads at Lai Khe and Song Be had small stocks of 2.75 inch rockets with warheads few of the pilots had seen or used, High Explosive Anti-Tank, or HEAT.

Manufacture date on these Korean War-era warheads was 1953, when they were used by fixed wing attack aircraft. The only upgrade was to mate them to current rocket motors with canted nozzles, instead of motors designed to be fired at high speeds, so these little six-pound warheads were propelled by the same rocket motor as the heavier warheads.

That resulted in impressive velocity and trajectory for pilots accustomed to shooting 17-pound warheads, but terminal effects did not satisfy those who needed the bursting radius of the 17-pounders. Against armor, HEAT usually made deadly little holes, but they were all but useless for other types of targets, so were not favored by the Cobra pilots in the Cavalry Troops.

In contrast, the Cobras of F/79th accomplished what should be considered some of the Army’s best work of the war with those HEAT rounds. On 13 April, as Soviet-made T-54 tanks rumbled and clanked arrogantly and without infantry support into An Loc, the situation seemed as bleak for the American advisors as it did for the ARVN defenders they were helping.

The story cannot be told better than it has been told by COL Bill Miller, the Senior Advisor at An Loc. As the tanks penetrated into the city and approached his command bunker, a Blue Max Fire Team from Battery F, 79th AFA reported on station, and called that they were prepared to engage. COL Miller did not think helicopters would have any effect on the tanks, and told them the anti-aircraft fire was so bad that if they rolled in they would not roll out.

CW2 Barry McIntyre had the F/79th commander, MAJ Larry McKay, in his front seat. A comment about McKay that says a lot for his character is that although he regularly flew the extremely hazardous missions to An Loc, he usually did so in the copilot’s position with his Aircraft Commanders. That was not because of a lack of experience on his part, since he already wore the star of a Senior Aviator on his wings. McKay responded to the senior advisor that his team was armed with HEAT rounds.

Expecting heavy ground-to-air fire but receiving almost none, Blue Max rolled, with 17-pound HE warheads in their inboard pods and old HEAT warheads outboard.

That day at An Loc, almost at the feet of the senior officer who was at the very center of the most violent battle of the war; that ultimate Infantryman to whom every senior Army officer would listen with respect; McKay and his pilots dramatically demonstrated that Army helicopters could indeed kill tanks in a hostile anti-aircraft environment.

COL Miller’s observations and accounting of the incident were riveting, and his debriefings of the battle were instrumental in contributing to the future of the attack helicopter and Army Aviation. His summation, delivered in his distinctive voice, is marvelous to hear: "The Cobras were the instruments of our salvation."

That remarkable endorsement from an Infantryman’s Infantryman, already selected to command a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and noted for his heroism and leadership in one of the most visible and significant battles of the war, could well justify the declaration that, "Colonel Miller was an instrument of the attack helicopter’s salvation."

Within days of the tactically and politically significant tank engagement, a newly developed and far more effective anti-tank warhead was delivered to the attack helicopters fighting in the An Loc area.

Arriving in-country on 15 April with a manufacture date of that very month, the High Explosive Dual Purpose (HEDP) warhead was introduced and combat tested. The rear portion of a 17-pound warhead was fitted with a shaped charge cone like the Light Anti-tank Weapon (LAW), a streamlined nose cone, and a piezo-electric fuse. The warhead casing allowed for far more explosive than the LAW, to produce the same lethal bursting radius as a normal 10-pound HE warhead.

By actual experience that month, the warhead was found to be able to penetrate a T-54 series tank from all directions as promised. On soft targets it gave the same anti-personnel effects as a normal 10-pound HE warhead, and was the perfect compromise to engage armor, vehicles, equipment and personnel.

The new rounds were accompanied by a field grade officer on temporary duty from CONUS, to ensure that the rockets were made available to the correct units, brief the pilots on the warhead’s capabilities, and learn of the results.

 

 

Jerry mentions that the HEAT round was past its shelf life and displayed a high dud rate, so his team at Picatinney Arsenal were developing a new warhead with the armor penetration of the LAW, and the antipersonnel and soft target capability of the 10-pound HE warhead.

When it was apparent that armor was a threat in the new offensive, the team produced 1,000 of these new warheads in a four-day period, and Daly accompanied them to combat. Arriving in-country on 15 April, he determined that An Loc was where they were needed most, and accompanied their delivery to Lai Khe.

Daly flew combat missions with F/79th, and his article describes in detail their engagement of tanks on 13 April, prior to his arrival. His assessment of the anti-aircraft threat, even before confirmation of the SA-7, was interesting:

"The anti-aircraft fire around An Loc was continual and impressive. Having been at Lam Song (sic) 719 last year, I can say that the fire was as high, and a bit higher around An Loc, as it was around some of the fire bases established by ARVN in Laos."

While mentioning the problem of gathering data on engagements and kills, Daly reported that Cobras equipped only with the 2.75-inch rocket system destroyed ten T54s, three PT76s, and damaged six T54s for the period 30 March through 11 May.

Though covering only a portion of the battle, his report is unlikely to have brought joy to most Armor officers, or to the men wearing blue suits and planning their version of close air support for the future.

These entries below, from the Task Force Garry Owen S-3 journal, reflect the level and intensity of the fighting around An Loc in mid-April. TRAC is Third Regional Assistance Command, Major General Hollingsworth’s unit of advisors.

15 April 1972:

0255 hours – TRAC: F/9 to stage from Lai Khe. Be prepared to depart Bien Hoa at 0700H and to engage enemy armor vehicles, conduct Visual Recon in designated boxes. F/79 to be on standby (30 min) starting at 0630H. Be prepared to engage enemy armor vehicles.

0520 hours – TRAC: Since approx 0440H An Loc had been under heavy ground attack from S-SE and taking incoming. Bounce Heavy Fire Team of F/79 AFA ASAP w/nails. Weather at An Loc is bad. All families of fighters cannot operate. Marginal weather for helicopters. Put F/9 on alert to depart 1st light. Fire skids up at 0520. 2nd team at 0550H. Notified TRAC to make sure Lai Khe fuel and ammo points are open. F/79 ships are Serpents 25, 33, 12, 24.

0625 hours – F/79 has five ships at An Loc. Serpent 26 was #5 our assets 5 MAX birds for our AO. (Note: It was unusual that callsigns of the attack helicopters would be included, especially down to identification of wingmen. Though always reported to Brigade, elsewhere in the journal even Heavy Hunter/Killer Team leaders, who were the Air Mission Commanders, are not identified by callsign. This appears to be a personal touch by whoever kept the journal that day.)

0730 hours – TRAC: Reports 23mm AA E of An Loc. FAC’s report 37mm but no location.

0815 hours – TRAC: Requested F/9 to be bounced to work Visual Recon boxes. Skids up at 0825H. Our representative at An Loc will control our assets. Approx 1000H the rest of the 8th ARVN Airborne Battalion may airlift into An Loc. May need MAX to engage Ground-To-Air Fire.

0940 hours – TRAC: LTC Fuloyer (Note: This would be LTC Niles Fulwyler, TRAC G-3 who retired as a Major General) wanted message passed to DCO-A (Note: 1st Cavalry Deputy Brigade Commander) that An Loc requested gunships support to protect Tactical Operations Center. Tanks 500 meters from the TOC. TRAC Commanding General says Cav Troop to be used to find Anti-Aircraft positions for Forward Air Controller.

1035 hours – TRAC: Troop concentrations and 10 tanks in box at XT 735894, 731885, 721905, and 716897 requesting arclights.

The Hunter/Killer Teams found, attacked, and silenced the active major caliber AAA positions, resulting in the next log entry:

1050 hours – DCO-A: Reports no 23mm or 37mm AA fire East of An Loc at this time, but great deal of 51 cal Ground-To-Air Fire.

1135 hours – Msg fr Gen Hamlet: Get 400 heat rockets to Lai Khe ASAP. (Note: This was the day the newly developed High Explosive Dual Purpose actually arrived in-country. The journal never differentiates between the old and marginally effective HEAT, and the refined HEDP, referring to all armor-piercing rockets as "heat". This is similar to the unit’s generic method of referring to any Cobra being used in the attack role as MAX.)

1500 hours – TRAC CG: At 1450 ten tanks were attacking An Loc. 9 were destroyed. CG TRAC wants more air to destroy tanks before they get into the city. They are in the city and the ARVNS are destroying them there by cluttering the street.

CW2 Ron Tusi, F-79 ARA, made real good use of those HEAT rockets. The NVA tanks were within a few meters of the 5th ARVN Div headquarters in downtown An Loc. They were close enough to fire into the windows of the buildings that had command bunkers in them. When the conditions further deteriorated the US Advisors specifically requested Cobras and not TACAY because of the proximity of troops of friendly troops and civilians. Confidant of his ability to deliver accurate fire on moving tanks, he responded immediately despite intense air to ground fire. He singlehandedly attacked the D

The last entry for the day promised that the excitement would continue:

2310 hours – TRAC G-3: Mission tomorrow is to prepare to execute an order to 1) Send 1 Heavy Fire Team to arrive An Loc by first light. 2) Send 1 Cavalry Troop to arrive An Loc area at first light. Additional guidance from 1st Cav S-3: All gunships should have at least 50% HEAT rockets.

Some sources report that the enemy tank threat was active at An Loc for only a short time. Although incomplete, the G-3 journal lists other tank activity for the next month:

24 April 1972:

1830 hours – F/9 Cav found a bridge at XT 609424 at 1710H had been used by track and wheeled vehicles last 24 hours. Will be engaged by TAC Air.

26 April 1972:

0630 hours – TRAC: An Loc SITREP: 5th Airborne received heavy incoming at this time. 8th Airborne receiving a ground attack. Spectre is engaging tanks at XT 668850.

1430 hours - …Tanks and troops massing at Loc Ninh to attack from the West of An Loc….

1655 hours – Bien Hoa Sector: VNAF reports that 80 VC are at YT 144143 with 5 X 122mm rockets and 8 X 107mm rockets, 3 rating. Request clearance for airstrike. Denied so that we could send a Pink Team.

2057 hours – S-2: Approx 120 enemy are at XT 828456, and 20 tanks at XT 878488 with intent to attack Lai Khe….

27 April 1972:

0045 hours – TRAC: At the present time numerous tanks have been sighted at An Loc. Request that F/79 AFA Heavy Fire Team have heat rockets when they arrive in the morning.

29 April 1972:

1030 hours – TRAC: APC spotted 2 km west of Lai Khe. F/9th Cav checking now.

Portions of one of the most intense days of the later part of the battle were recorded as follows:

11 May 1972:

0420 hours – TRAC: Tanks have been sighted at An Loc. Request Heavy Fire Team be on station at 0600 hours. Will have Lai Khe opened early.

0530 hours – TRAC: At 0440 hours, Intercepted enemy radio message stating that this was the last big attack to take An Loc.

0625 hours – TRAC: At the present time tanks are inside the An Loc perimeter. Launch second Heavy Fire Team. Skids up at present time.

0640 hours – TRAC: There are 200 heat rockets at Lai Khe.

0805 hours – RASH FAC: A-37 shot down 2 km north of An Loc. F/9 Cav heavy team covering downed at this time. (Note: The Hunter/Killer Team Leader had his hydraulics shot out while he was low level at the crash, but was able to slide onto the runway at Lai Khe. This A-37 was the aircraft of 1LT Michael Blassie, who would later be interred in The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier until a CBS News investigation confirmed his identity in 1998.)

0920 hours – F/79 ARTY. Three tanks at XT 715892, 5 tanks inside An Loc. A-37 shot down in item 16 was shot down by 23mm.

1025 hours – F/79 ARTY. Report total of 11 tanks destroyed by ground troops, TAC Air, and F/79th ARTY. F/79 claims 4 tanks destroyed.

BG Hamlet was particularly active that day, personally making the following reports:

1040 hours – CG: Anti-aircraft positions at XT 810902 – 37mm, XT 754865 – 37mm. XT 7585 right 1 up 1 numerous 51 cal positions. XT 7390 right 2 up 2 numerous anti-aircraft sites.

1040 hours – CG: At XT 746894 A-37s attacking 2 tanks and troops in open.

1215 hours – CG: AH-1G shot down north of An Loc, at 1215 hours at XT 755872. F/79 bird. (Note: This Cobra was destroyed by an SA-7 missile, killing CPT Rodney L. Strobridge and CPT Robert J. Williams. Their bodies were not recovered, and because of legal considerations, Rodney Strobridge was briefly listed as a possibility of being in the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.)

1425 hours – RASH: At 0937 one FAC in O2 birddog reported down. At 1120 another FAC reported missing.

1740 hours – TRAC: An Loc update total 13 tanks destroyed today. Only one penetration by two tanks and VNA platoon. Heavy buildup to the north and west of city. No ground probes in 30 to 60 minutes.

2300 hours – DCO-A: Send TOW missile section with MAX to An Loc. (This refers to the SS-11 Team, and not actually the TOW Team, who were not in that AO.)

The SS-11 Team, escorted by F/79 Cobras, actually flew to An Loc the next day but found no targets to engage, and on 14 May, they re-deployed to I Corps.

The entry from the TRAC log of 6 June (TRAC, not 3rd Brigade journal) makes reference to this time period:

  1. Passed following info to T30 Aircraft downed in the An Loc area – VNAF UH-1Km

South of An Loc:

XT 778888 US C-130 3 May

XT 732912 US A-37 11 May

XT 764875 2 US FAC (Chico 11 & Sundog 34) 11 May

XT 775875 AH-1G 11 May

XT 748868 VNAF A1-E 13 May

XT 81 75 VNAF UH-1 13 May

XT 760864 US FAC (Sundog 07) 14 May

A TRAC log entry that begs for more information was logged the night of 6 June. Remember that "slow mover" refers to aircraft:

2105 DASC reports Spectre has a slow mover at XT 655992. Is it clear to shoot. Cleared with III Corps Fire Support Element, CPT Long.

A C-130 gunship, in the dark of the night, with a slow moving aircraft far west of An Loc. Air-to-air? How could any C-130 driver not publicize an air-to-air kill? A helicopter on the ground?

The armor battles around An Loc were essentially finished for the campaign, but the missile war had already begun. Not a single Cobra had actually lost a tank engagement. Certainly, some missed their targets, but not one was destroyed by a tank or even while engaging a tank. The missiles would prove to be more costly to the Cobras and their crews, but even they would not prevail over the attack helicopter.

 

Missile! Missile! Missile!

 

As April became May, and An Loc held, the men who saw the carnage as they flew at treetop level wondered when the mauled NVA would retreat back to their "neutral" sanctuaries.

The first SA-7 fired in the vicinity of An Loc was most likely the one fired in mid-April at a Hunter/Killer Team Leader low level southwest of the town. He reported that as he turned sharply to engage what he thought was an APC, a missile streaked past him, leaving a slightly spiraling thick white smoke trail. He continued his turn and engaged the individuals at the still-smoking launch point with 17-pound proximity-fused rockets. His report was ignored, and Military Intelligence continued to insist that Surface to Air Missiles were not deployed in the area.

After 11 May, it was more difficult to ignore that particular threat. To quote the USAF report, Airpower And The 1972 Spring Invasion, "At one location (An Loc), one pilot reported ‘four of five 37mm, and the same number of 23mm weapons, all surrounded by .51-caliber weapons.’ By late afternoon on 11 May, a VNAF A-1, an A-37, a Cobra, and two O-2 FAC aircraft had been shot down."

The Air Force report resorts to wishful fiction in reporting, "All slow movers were thereby forced to stay at higher altitudes, and helicopters were banned from the area." Although Air Force helicopters with their inflexible tactics may have been banned from the An Loc battle area, Army helicopters never were.

Another item of interest that may be a bit confusing, is that the A-37 shot down on 11 May was not VNAF. It was a USAF aircraft, flown by the man whose remains would later be interred in The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier. When 1LT Michael Blassie’s A-37 was shot down, a FAC who would himself be shot down and killed later that day, saw and reported a parachute near the crash. An F/9th Hunter/Killer Team was bounced to locate the parachute, and hopefully the recently attached pilot.

Ground fire in the area was intense, so the Scout was not committed, but the lead Cobra went to treetop level to check the parachute. It turned out to be a flare parachute from an expended flare, hanging in the top of a rubber tree. In the process of gathering that information, the Cobra had its hydraulics shot out, but made a successful running landing at Lai Khe.

The Brigade S-3 Journal was compiled from third hand information. The Hunter/Killer Teams and Blue Max Fire Team Leaders made their reports by radio, and their reports were forwarded. In the case of the Cavalry teams, that chain of forwarding included an Operations jeep sitting under the rubber trees at Lai Khe. Entries at all levels relied on the understanding, fast copying, and legible writing of the radio operators involved. Consequently, it is little wonder that the journal entries were usually even more cryptic than the unit log entries, and much information was unintentionally left out, or slightly changed like the whispered verbal party game.

First Surface to Air Missile’s (SAM) in III Corps

The US Air Force reports that the initial SAM firings at An Loc coincided with the heavy attacks of 11 and 12 May, after which time "helicopters were banned from the area." A review of even the reports that made it into the journal shows that missiles had been reported earlier by Army and Air Force pilots. On 8 May a missile fired at an F/9 Cobra at 2,000’ was reported as a missile, but logged in the journal as a possible B-40. An RPG engagement at 2,000 feet?

 

 

 

 

A 9 May report from a FAC was very specific and recorded far more accurately:

0345 hours – TRAC: FAC in An Loc area reported the firing of possible SA-7 missile at 0140 hours vic XT 743865, fired from ground, left white smoke trail and went between 2 FAC’s and exploded in white flame. Negative damage.

The first really bad day for missiles was indeed 11 May, as reflected in the journal:

0720 – RASH FAC: At XT 740882 sometime this morning an unidentified rocket was fired at FAC’s.

1215 hours – CG: AH-1G shot down north of An Loc, at 1215 hours at XT 755872. F/79 bird. (Note that the journal does not show this to be a loss to a SAM. Through this date, reports of missile firings by Army aviators were completely ignored, or reported as B-40 RPG firings. Imagine the trajectory that would allow an RPG anti-tank rocket, even with airburst fuse, to burst as high as 2,000’ above ground level.)

1425 hours – RASH: At 0937 one FAC in O2 birddog reported down. At 1120 another FAC reported missing.

On 13 May the losses continued to mount. Note how consistently missiles fired at USAF assets are referred to as missiles, but missiles fired at Army aircraft, even at altitude, are called B-40 rockets, even though the reported locations and incidents are only 600 meters and 25 minutes apart:

1440 hours – RASH FAC: VNAF A-1 shot down SW of An Loc. Pilot bailed out, F/9 Cav will try to support. Possible ground to air missile. Pilot is at XT 750870.

1705 hours – F/9 Cav: At XT 750876 at 1505 hours AH-1G F/9 Cav received unknown amount of 51 cal Ground to Air Fire and one B-40 round negative hits or damage, negative response due to weather.

The toll continued on 14 May:

1650 hours – RASH FAC: Approx 1500 hours 2 kilometers S of An Loc, Sundog 7, and O-2 FAC was shot down by a SA-7. Pilot was recovered by ARVN and taken to An Loc (ARVN AIRBORNE).

It was not until 15 May that the missile threat was taken seriously enough that Army pilots were no longer told they were seeing B-40s, as Blue Max reported sightings:

0820 hours – F/79 AFA: At XT 746885 spotted a surface to air missile being fired, at F-4. TAC AIR employed.

0955 hours – F/79 AFA: Report SAM at XT 769881 being fired at C130 left tremendous white cloud and heavy smoke trail. (Note that their description of the smoke trail is very similar to the Cavalry pilot’s report the month before.)

(Mike Brown, Blue Max pilot later shot down by an SA-7, relates that pilots from his unit stated that some of the missiles observed during this time appeared to be the large SA-2 missiles, and not the shoulder-fired SA-7, and the larger missiles were fired only at cargo and high performance aircraft.)

1005 hours – ACC: Report following SAM launching sites:

TIME PLACE

0800 XT 750855

0845 XT 746885

0945 XT 769881

0845 XT 746695

Report from F/79 AFA and AF. TAC AIR is presently being employed, on firing sites. F/79 is being pulled away by DCOA. F/79 away from An Loc due to SAM situation.

(Note: This momentary agreement to move Army helicopters from the area while TAC AIR attacked missile "sites" may be the basis for the Air Force claim that helicopters were "banned from the area". This method of engagement also supports Brown’s impressions that the missiles involved were indeed SA-2s, because SA-7 "missile sites" happen to be wherever the soldier carries it.)

1700 hours – DCO-A: XT 773700 A1E while putting in air was shot down. American pilot bailed out, landed between enemy and friendly lines. Low bird from D/229th tried to pick him up, received heavy Ground to Air Fire at XT 772701 went from another direction and picked up the pilot. Pilot is OK. Request combat response from TRAC for grid of Ground to Air Fire.

By 17 May the fighting at An Loc had been so reduced that for the first time since 5 March, TRAC relieved the 3rd Brigade of the requirement to have an Air Cavalry Troop in the area. The teams still went back when needed, which was regularly, and the Aerial Field Artillery of F/79 continued to augment tube artillery.

On 24 May, Blue Max lost another helicopter and crew:

1045 hours – F/9 CAV: AH-1G from F/79Arty shot down by a SAM at XT 765785 missile firing site at XT 766788. 1-33 ARVN moving to site at this time. TRAC reports Rash saw the aircraft crash. It burned for six minutes and then exploded. 2 U.S. MIA.

1120 hours – TRAC has bounced Jolly Green Giant and one set of A-37s to respond to missile firing.

1205 hours – TRAC: 1/33 ARVN in contact near the crash site of F/79 Arty AH-1G. They have not reached crash site.

1930 hours – LATE ENTRY: 1/33 ARVN recovered the bodies of the two F/79 Arty pilots and returned them to Tam Kai Firebase vicinity XT 768773. Results 2 U.S. KIA.

A small mystery appeared in a 30 May journal entry:

1315 hours - TRAC: 33rd Regiment claim to have found a body with a scrap of paper with the name ISAAC HOSAKA on it. This body was found near the crash site of the F/79 Arty ship vicinity of Tam Khai Fire Support Base.

CW2 Isaac Yoshiro Hosaka was indeed one of the Blue Max crewmembers shot down on 24 May with CW2 John Robert Henn, Jr. The mystery continues, for while the 1/33rd ARVN reported recovering both Blue Max pilots on 24 May, the day they were shot down, a 4 June journal entry confuses the issue even more:

4 June 1972:

1430 hours – 229th AVN BN: A body has been recovered by the ARVNS and is enroute to 24th Evac. Believed to be the body of Mr. Henn F/79 AFA pilot shot down near Tam Khai.

Both bodies were reported to be recovered by ARVNs the afternoon they were shot down, and six days later a body that is not identified is found with a scrap of paper with one of the pilots’ name. Then the second body is not transported to 24th Evac hospital at Long Binh until 11 days after the loss.

The data base developed and maintained by Gary Roush shows that while Hosaka is listed as KIA, Henn is still shown as Body Not Recovered. This is the kind of disorder that existed in the turbulent and confusing times during June of 1972. The fighting was more intense than earlier in the war, with far fewer American units available to do the tasks that were previously routine. The remaining units had to rely more and more on their ARVN counterparts to carry out functions that in the past had routinely been done by other Americans.

The following journal entry documenting recovery of remains from another day and a different type of aircraft, is edited somewhat to preclude possible pain for the family, but will show why recovery efforts were sometimes so difficult to document during that period.

1730

D3 – AN LOC reports a patrol has reached the crash site of a possible (Aircraft type) (possibly [Aircraft callsign]) vicinity XT ______. Wreckage was burned. Engine was made by continental motors, some item of unknown type equipment made by teledyne # 629-XXXX, a number on the wing "TAN KCA/44-XX, a piece of equipment #RT 859/APX-72. Also some burned dog tags which were unreadable, bones. No skull returned to An Loc.

Another entry was made the next day:

1450

5XX – An Loc units found a few pieces of skull & some teeth, a silk survival net (Survival vest?) & some engine parts at crash site noted yesterday.

In the more intense combat environment, with less and less support available, recovery and identification of remains, with the technology available in 1972, was becoming increasingly difficult. Fortunately, the number of American soldiers and aircrewmen involved or actually fighting, was at the lowest point since before the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

On 8 June a Medevac helicopter from the 215th Medical Company was shot down, and after the crew and passengers were picked up, the aircraft was burned. The luxury of recovering helicopters from even disputed locations in the field with CH-47s was almost at an end.

A Company 229th had a UH-1H shot down on the morning of 13 June, with other of the participating aircraft also hit by ground fire.

As the reader has gained an appreciation for the pace of the battles, for the desperate stands and situations of the men on the ground, repelling seemingly endless probes and assaults without even the hope of American ground troops to relieve them, consider the log entry below. Read it as though you were an American advisor to the defenders at An Loc, not knowing when the next wave of tanks will again break through your perimeter. Read it with the hunger of not having a full meal in two months, with the pain of watching Vietnamese civilians who are hungrier than you, crouched in the rubble of their NVA artillery-pounded homes.

Read this entry knowing that what your boss would later say was true: "The Cobras were the instruments of our salvation." Read it with the full awareness that the Vietnamese Air Force helicopters had repeatedly declined to bring supplies or reinforcements to you, and would not do so without full support from the American Cobras.

Consider how you would have felt in the rubble of An Loc, when you read:

19 June 1972:

2140 hours – TRAC G-3: MACV has to ask TRAC for an impact statement on what would happen if TRAC lost the following assets: 5 X AH-1G; 4 X CH-47A, and F/79 AFA. Danger 79 (Note: MG Hollingsworth) and Defiant 5 have objected but it still may happen. Also message has been forwarded to MAJ Bentson. He said he would inform Danger 79. TRAC Forward has notified and will relay message to MAJ Nadal. Maj Bentson said he would concur with all aspects of the message (JDW). (Note: Because of the seriousness of this log entry, in compliance with previous instructions the officer who personally informed Danger 79 was required to enter his initials.)

By mid-June, the Spring Offensive had been won, and the NVA attack had been broken, so the U.S. was continuing its withdrawal from the war. When the North Vietnamese walked away from the Peace Table, President Nixon stepped up the bombing with a more effective target list and ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor, acts that brought immediate and positive reaction. Even as some of its soldiers were fighting battles of greater intensity than experienced previously in the war in Vietnam, America was continuing with its policy of standing down entire units and bringing them home.

But around the ever-smaller town of An Loc, 20 June was another bad day, and the log shows the different styles of those making the entries:

0820 hours – AH-1G, F/9 shot down at XT 769770, 0812, SA-7, no survivors. (CPT Edwin G. Northrup and 1LT Stephen E. Shields.)

0820 hours – AAE reported that an AH-1G of F/9 exploded in the air and crashed at XT 769770 at approximately 0815 hours. Suspected SA-7 missile shot it down. No survivors.

1LT Louis K. Breuer, IV was dead, with his copilot, second-tour CW2 Burdette D. Townsend, Jr. He and his wingman Andy Kisela, had been scouting a Landing Zone for a troop lift that was about five minutes out, when the missile turned his Cobra into a flaming projectile.

Lou Breuer had been immediately and immensely popular when he came into the Troop when the 101st stood down, and was affectionately and respectfully called Animal. He was a great companion and comrade, risking his life when he could have been playing football for Dallas. Animal spent his last birthday in my front seat, as we scouted Cambodia in March. He was, indeed, an immensely popular man.

Nor did Ghostriders seem to do well on survivability in the Troop, as 1LT James Calvin "Reb" Williamson had died with 1LT Donel Dobbs and nine others when their Huey went down from an internal explosion in March.

Townsend had been CW2 Andy Kisela’s copilot the day I was shot, when Andy landed beside me so that Townsend could fly my Cobra back to Lai Khe, as I transferred to the C&C ship and took the rest of the day off. Although at least three F/9th Cobras were engaged by SA-7s, Breuer’s was the only F/9th crew actually lost to a missile.

And the day had only started. Almost immediately, other entries document the action:

0825 hours – AH-1G, F/79, received unknown number hits 51 cal, returning to Lai Khe with escort Cobra, escort Cobra reported missing.

0825 hours – 1 AFA received unknown number of hits from unknown type Ground to Air Fire and was returning to Lai Khe when another AH-1G trailing the bird disappeared and is missing at this time.

0915 hours – TRAC, U.S. FAC sighted wreckage of AH-1G, downed 0820 hours, vic 752797.

1020 hours – TRAC: 2 bodies have been recovered and are located in the ville at XT 7677. Request TRAC to determine status of maps, SOI, & condition of aircraft.

1055 hours – TRAC: Reports that VNAF observed two Cobras being shot down this morning. 1 aircraft still missing

1330 hours – AAE reports that F/79 AH-1G has been located at XT 783762. Aircraft intact, however crewmen killed by small arms fire outside bird.

 

 

 

 

 

1625 hours – Notified Signal Brigade of possible SOI compromise because of downed aircraft.

1700 hours – TRAC: Reports that 02 bodies of F/9 Cav AH-1G shot down have been extracted from Than Kai and will be transported to 3rd Field Hospital.

The last Lou Breuer had been at the 3rd Field Hospital was when the pilots came down to say goodbye to me with an impromptu party the month before. Setting aside (Literally.) the nurse’s protests, they wheeled me out of the ward to locate a club. That night Lou offered $125 for my $26 Stetson that I brought out of my Cobra and had with me. The money would have been long gone, but that Stetson still sits on the Cav boots on the mantle.

Blue Max went back in the barrel, but a very lucky barrel, the next day.

21 June 1972:

1523 hours – GC notified that a F/79 Cobra down near road at 1510 hours. Crew O.K. Securing force on way. A SA-7 missile shot down the Cobra at XT 758773. Crew extracted, condition unknown.

1645 hours – 2 F/79 pilots O.K. 16 lifts completed. Estimate 10 lifts to go.

22 June 1972:

1030 hours – 31st ARVN Regiment recovered bodies of 2 F/79 crewmen shot down 20 June.

CPT Mike Brown was the Aircraft Commander of the Blue Max Cobra hit by an SA-7 above 4,000 feet. With his tailboom blown completely off, he and his copilot, CPT Mark Cordon, survived. His story was reported in Stars & Stripes, and he taped an excellent debrief of his actions that very day. Cordon was injured by the impact, but very much alive. Brown flew again that day, but not in a Cobra.

Brown’s audio-taped debriefing goes through an impressive list of actions he took on the way to the ground. Jettison the pods. Didn’t work. Shoot off the turret ammunition to lighten the front of the helicopter. Didn’t work. He had applied aft cyclic just as the missile hit, and that served him well all the way down to a hard landing that was slightly cushioned by impact in a clump of bamboo.

The same hit and loss of tailboom that killed other pilots in the same unit had proven, in one case, to be survivable.

 

 

Here is Mike Brown’s story:

"On 21 June 1972 I was working on a mission in support of an Arvn
airborne brigade in the vicinity of the village of Tan Khai on
highway 13 approximately 6 miles south of An Loc. We were
escorting a US slick unit that was tasked with extracting the
ARVN airborne brigade from Tan Khai for redeployment.
In support of this, we had a heavy fire team, 3 AH-1G's Cobras.
I was the AC of chalk 3. The method of support was to put one
ship low with the lift flight and two ships high to provide
overall area coverage. Chalk 2 and 3 in the heavy team were the
high birds. I was chalk 3
On my second gun run into the area, in which I was providing
suppressive fires, I broke to the right and made a pass from SE
to NW breaking right over Highway 13 and was in the proocess of
rejoining chalk 2 and taking his wing position, when I was struck
by a SA 7 missile.
So far as I know, no one else has survived in a helicopter,
anyway, this type of anti aircraft fire. I think there was a
combination of things that accounts for the fact that I am alive
and my pilot are alive. And I don't want to underestimate the
importance of luck which was the most significant contributer to
our good fortune was luck. I do feel, however, there are some
things that we did, that we had not done, the luck we had would
not have been able to save us. In describing the impact of the
SA-7, but first let me back track a little bit, I think the
single most important thing that happened was the fact that other
personnel in the area, other aircraft in the area, were able to
observe the missile being fired.
As they observed it, they yelled, "missile, missile, missile!,
over the VHF radio. I think the fact that I knew what I was hit
by, and what the aircraft should do was the single most important
contributing factor, outside of luck, in my survival.
I feel every unit, or every task force, that is operating in an
area where SA 7's are known to be, should have an SOP on alerting
aircraft when a missile is fired. They should also have posted
in such position as to advise or observe 360 degrees around the
flight as possible, so that these can be seen.
After hearing the words, "missile, missile!, I looked over my
left shoulder, I saw the signature of the missile, I thought it
was heading for my aircraft. Just as I saw the missile, I saw it
hit the aircraft. Probably at the same time as it was hitting my
aircraft, I was rolling off my throttle, and bottoming my
collective pitch.
The impact of the missile on my aircraft did not seem to be that
severe. There was concussion, but there was not as much as one
might expect. I would say judging on the way it felt to me, as
far as concussion was concerned, there was probably not more HE
charge in the warhead of the SA 7 than there was in a 40MM
grenade.

 

What happened to the aircraft as it hit, is the tailboom was
total severed, completely severed in the vicinity of the battery
compartment, which on the Cobra is directly below the exhaust
stack. The aircraft, as soon as it was hit, jostled slightly, it
seemed to pitch up and pitch down and from side to side. This
was followed by, during the autoration, the aircraft began to
spin about its mast to the right at a nose low attitude. As the
aircraft descended, it spiraled, making a spiraling descent,
continuing to spin slowly about the mast. The speed of the spin
was, I would say, about the same angular velocity as one would
experience in a normal rate pedal turn.
I did not look at any of my instruments after being hit. Shortly
after I was hit, as soon as I was hit, I lost all radio communication.
I had no radio communication what so ever. I did however have intercom with my front seat. Using the intercom, I instructed my pilot, CPT Cordoan, to empty the his turret weapons system, fire it out. He attempted to do so, but was unable to do it. My control movements, during the descent, were very few. Having been aware, for some time, that this could happen, I had
thought, pretty well thought it through, what I would do, if I
were hit by a SA-7, and my tailboom were severed. It seems to
be characteristic of the missile that it does severe the
tailboom, if it strikes you from the side. I felt the biggest
problem that I would have with no tailboom would be the CG shift.
That it would be most difficult to prevent the nose from becoming
extremely low particularly in a loaded helicopter. And this
would have to be the biggest problem I would have to cope with.
As it worked out, that was exactly the case. I told my self,
that if this were case, and prior to the crash, I told my self,
that my action would be to pull complete aft cyclic and attempt
to correct for the CG shift. This I did, it did not prevent a
nose low attitude. Those who observed my descent said I appeared
to be descending a skids level attitude, however I felt that I
was nose low. I attempted to experiment with the cyclic enroute
to the ground. I tried slight left and right cyclic movements
which did little for me, and as far as I am concerned, were a
waste of time. I feel that anybody that has the same misfortune,
that I had in flight, should attempt to only pull aft cyclic.
Their only concern should be CG. As far as cyclic movement
should be, I bottomed the pitch and I left it that way. I made
no attempt to control RPM. I made not attempt whatsoever to
select a forced landing area. There was no way I could have
controlled the aircraft to bring it to a forced landing area.
Probably if I had selected a forced landing area, I probably
would have not made anyway, even if I could have guided the
aircraft to it. I'll explain the reasons for this later on.
 
During the descent, RPM built, as it built, I felt feedback
forces in the cyclic and the collective. The cyclic tried to pull
itself forward, I pulled it back and I was able to keep it
against the rear stop during the entire descent. The collective
attempted to push it self up, I was able to keep it on the
bottom, until my pitch pull.
Also during the descent, a couple things I tried to do, were
trying to fire out my turret, I was able to see that I was not
able to adjust my CG. I attempted to jettison my wing stores, my
wing store jettison did not function. I suspected, as I thought
about this prior to my accident that it would not, since the wing
store jettison circuit breakers and your electrical power is
largely located in the forward portion of the tailboom.
So my wing store jettison capability was lost, having determined
this, I attempted to fire out the remainder of my ordnance. I
was 50% expended at the time. My ordnance, my 2.75 inch rockets,
could not be fired. With these three unsuccessful attempts, the
turret, the wing store jettison, the rocket firing, all these
failing, I abandoned all further hope of slowing my rate of
descent, by getting rid of extra weight or by shifting my CG by
getting rid of extra weight in the wrong places.
As I said before, the only control movement that I made,
cyclic-wise, was to pull complete aft cyclic and held it there
and bottomed my collective pitch and held it there.
At about 30 feet above the trees, was where I pulled my pitch. I
pulled pitch at about the same rate that I would in a normal
autoration, except I pulled every bit of pitch that I had. The
collective was full up. As I reached the ground. This
significantly slowed my descent also assisted in my CG problems.
I wouldn't say that I recovered from the nose low attitude, but
it recovered somewhat. It also begun a violent spin. At this
point, I can't remember if the spin went to the right or the
left. I do know it was violent, I do know that it was stopped by
my landing in the trees.
The second most significant thing that saved me, was the fact
that I did land in trees. I had no choice over I was going to
land in trees or land in an open area. It was something that
fate alone could determine. As I said, there was no directional
control, there was no selecting a forced landing area. But luck
was with me and I did land in trees, which helped me in two ways.
One, they stopped the spin of the aircraft, two they assisted in
cushioning my fall.
On impact there was no fire, the engine had continued to run. I
had rolled of the throttle to the flight idle position initially,
however I did not attempt to make further attempts to shut the
engine down. If I had it to do over again, I would probably do
that. I would probably attempt to shut the engine down, if I
would have had time to do so.
My concerns were, fire and my ordnance exploding, however my
impact was soft enough that the fuel cell, I do not believe the
fuel cells were broken, and therefore the fire was not a factor,
as it had been in other cases where people come down as a result
of a SA 7 strike.
 
As far as what I did on the ground, I was on the ground for
approximately 10 or 15 minutes. And I don't believe what I did
on the ground is of that much assistance to anyone else. Suffice
it to say, that I did land in a bunker complex; my front seat and
I both made attempts to conceal ourselves until friendly aircraft
got in the area, my survival radio would not operate, so we moved
into a clear area and waved until we were spotted by friendly
aircraft. At this point we concealed ourselves again to await
pickup.
Other significant things, I think that contributed to the success
here were, number one I had only had 600 pounds of fuel on board
the aircraft at the time of the crash, and I was 50% expended. I
had fired all of my outboard pod, and I beleive, a few of my
inboard rounds.
As far as feelings, I think the psychology is as important as
anything else, as how you survive this thing. There was no
question, having been around SA 7 environment, for the last two
months, there was no question in my mind, that I was dead on the
way dowm. However, I never gave up. I had enough control over
the aircraft to do something for myself. I still had a good
rotor, I still had two controls, my aft cylic and my pitch
control, and in the end, the things I was able to do, assisted in
saving my life.
I think, probably, the most critical point, is when you come to
the altitude where you should pull pitch, the 30 feet or so, you
know in your mind, or I knew, in my mind, that I had it, that I
was dead at this point on or be dead in a very short span of
time. However, I did what I thought I should do anyway, and
fortunately for me, it worked out to the best. I hope that by
putting these things on a tape and putting them in a place where
other people operating in the same environment can have access to
what i say, I hope that it will save other lives. I feel however
that all the elements must be working in ones favor, because they
were with me. I feel that, as I said initially in the tape, luck
was the biggest factor in saving my life. The aircraft did go to
a place, i.e. the trees, where ground conditions assisted in
bringing the descent to a favorable conclusion.
There is no question in my mind, that I had I gone to an open
area, that the outcome would have been much different. As I
said, also, whether I would have wanted to or not, I would have had no control over the aircraft. I will not say it's impossible to
survive this type of crash by landing in an open area, I feel now
that an important thing is as long as you continue to fly the
aircraft, no matter what your situation is, that you use every available control that you have. Every control you have is an asset, you have some chance. I do feel , however, in my case, that the violence of spin after pitch pull, and probably that fairly high rate of descent, I don't beleive we would have made out of the aircraft it had not been for the trees.
Other things that were beyond my control, were the situation
factors were the fact that I was 50% expended and that I only had
600 pounds of fuel, Had I had 100% ordnance on board, and a 1200
pound load of fuel, the situation would have been far different.
So again I conclude and say that it is my hope that this tape
will do some good, and the right combination of luck and knowing
what to do with the aircraft, in the event that this happens to
anyone e1se, that it will result in saving somebody's life.
Thank you."

Mike and Marco's story continues. The aircraft crashed into the trees, falling through the trees to a thicket of bamboo. The initial strike into the trees was extremely violent. Marco had injured his back on his first tour and this blow reinjured his back. When the aircraft finally stopped its fall, Marco was able to open his front door, crawl back and assist Mike who could not open his and was trying to break the canopy with his knife. Mike remembers there being about a foot and a half of blades left on the main rotor, the main rotor was stopped, the engine was still running,however Mike did not shut it off because he wanted to get out because of his concern for fire.

Mike and Marco got to the ground and saw lots of C-ration litter on the ground. Looking around they realized they were on top of empty NVA bunkers. Just then a Blue Max snake (Serpent 12, CW2 Ron Tusi and Cpt Harry Davis) overflew the two and saw them. Tusi immediately called out to some B/229th slicks who were coming out of An Loc paralleling Highway 13. Black 5 flown by WO1 Bill Wright answered the call. He had five ARVN bodies in body bags in the aircraft at the time. Wright took direction from Tusi and said " I can't get down in there!" Tusi said, "You gotta get in there!" So Wright began his descent into the hover hole that was not big enough for the rotor diameter of his UH-1H.

Wright had a lot of things going on simultaneously. His aircraft was heavy with the load of bodies, the density altitude was going up, since it was 1440 in the afternoon, and he was going to have to chop down some tree limbs with his main rotor to get over the AH-1G. As Wright went down into the hover hole, he keyed his mike button on the cylic passed the intercom to the UHF position and was broadcasting what was happening to everyone on that frequency. WO1 Dennis Woods from B/229 recalled watching the Cobra going in streaming a white trail beleived to be fuel and thought the Cobra was gone. Woods was now extremely excited to learn the crew was being rescued.

Mike and Marco climbed up the wreckage of 725 to get to the hovering slick. Mike got in and was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of the Arvn bodies. Marco took "forever" to get in, which was a result of his back being injured. The exit up through the hover hole was uneventful and Wright flew to Lai Khe, via Chon Thanh.

Tusi, not sure the slick was going to get Brown and Cordon, jettisoned his rocket pods, and landed close to the crash site. He told his copilot gunner to hold the aircraft, while Tusi ran through the bush looking for Brown and Cordon. Seeing the slick leave with the two, Tusi went back to the Snake and returned Lai Khe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heroism was common place, as seen by the B/229th Crew that bored a hole in the trees to rescue Cordon and Brown, and Tusi s attempt to find them after dismounting his snake. Tusi was a legend. On his third tour in Vietnam, one as a Navy UDT and one in 7/17 Cav, Tusi s was the absolute warrior. It was always satisfying to hear Serpent (Blue Max s call sign at An Loc. We were trying to fool the NVA) 12 deep voice clearly take charge of everything telling BG Hamlet the Bde Cdr where to fly, the flights where to fly and demanding minimal radio transmissions. Tusi received the Distinguished Service Cross at An Loc. Some say he got it for hovering down the streets of An Loc killing tanks with 2.75s.

During this period, D/229th had at least two Cobras shot down, with both crews and aircraft recovered.

The next loss of an F/79th Cobra and pilot was not at An Loc, and was not from a missile. CW2 John L. Dilallo was on a maintenance test flight on the night of 24 June, when the cyclic locked up, and he crashed into the Saigon River. His body was recovered.

On or about the 24th of June, F/79 and B/229th loaded up and headed to Danang to support the retaking of Danang.

 

 

DUSTOFF

Perception of any event usually depends upon the point of view and frame of reference. Although surprised that he didn’t find flying a starkly white Huey with huge Red Cross to be traumatic enough to mention, I found the memories of David Freeman, a Dustoff pilot, to be interesting:

"When I arrived in country in early October 1971, the 57th Med Detachment was involved in night missions only, for the South Vietnamese. The pilots and crewmembers of the 57th and 82nd Med Detachments had just spent several months training one of the VNAF divisions (I think it was the 259th, but not certain about that) in the Dustoff mission. The VNAF Dustoff pilots were quite experienced, but would not fly at night. They handled the day missions, we handled the night ones.

"There were occasional daylight missions involving Americans, but they were few and far between. On December 9, we attempted to pick up a downed Loach crew, but they were killed right before our eyes while we were on final to their location. This was a Darkhorse Loach.

(Note: The database shows that WO1 Lewis A Walton and SSG Richard C. Pawelke, of C/16th Cavalry, were killed on 9 December 1971, flying an OH-6A in the U-Minh Forest near Can Tho.)

"We did routine patient transfers from various places around the Delta and to Saigon or Long Binh, but for the most part, the American involvement in the war seemed over. The 82nd stood down in November or December of 1971.

"Our nights did involve a number of "hot" missions and we were in the air almost all night, nearly every night. Lots of night hours.

"In March, we moved to Long Binh, where we joined the 159th Med Detachment to become part of Long Binh Dustoff. The 283rd had been there, but along with the 82nd, they were now gone. We sent one ship to Can Tho for standby in the Delta on a one-week rotational basis. Since I was by that time a Delta AC, I did a lot of standby in Can Tho while the war was going on up in III Corps.

"Prior to April, 1972, I thought the war was about over and that I had missed much of it. That was soon to change.

"Most of my experience during the Easter offensive was as a Peter Pilot, flying with one of the Long Binh Dustoff AC's. Some of them were my contemporaries, having been in my flight school or Dustoff classes, but since they knew the III Corp AO and were qualified as ACs in III Corps, I flew PP.

"We did a lot of standby at Lai Khe. Much of the time when Sloniker's outfit was doing insertions in and around An Loc and you guys were covering them, I was either on the ground at Lai Khe, or in the air circling south of where the action was, in case any US choppers went down. Of course they did and more often than not, someone else was closer than we were and made the pickup.

"Then we started doing ARVN medevacs because the VNAF pilots wouldn't fly in the environment. You may remember the VNAF choppers sitting at Lai Khe while the US ships were doing the lifts. When we did make medevac pickups, the ship was always swarmed with non-injured ARVNs trying to flee from the area. We landed at Lai Khe one day with more than 30 souls on board. Thank God they were small souls and we had a strong H model. Our crew chiefs and medics began carrying electronic cattle prods, which was the only way we could keep the swarming ARVNs off our ships.

"If we got bounced on a mission without time to think about it, we were busy and had no time for fear. On April 9, we lost one of our pilots near Nui Ba Dinh. Soon after that, another Dustoff Huey was shot down on the outskirts of An Loc, its crew recovered, but the aircraft a total loss. Then, one of the Cobras covering my crew on a trip to An Loc was blown out of the sky by a SAM. (Still don't know who that was, as none of the dates match). That day we were flying on top of a broken layer of clouds at around 5,000 feet through black puffs of anti-aircraft fire, which we believed were radar-controlled 37 mm. We thought they were our biggest threat up high and the .51 cals were down low. That's the day we found out about the SAMs first hand.

"The biggest frustration was that VNAF and ARVN had given up, but the Americans didn't.

"Fear came when we knew well ahead of time we were going into An Loc. I can't imagine how you guys who did it every day felt, especially the CA slicks. At least in your Cobra you could maneuver and you could shoot aggressively. Danger 79 came to us one afternoon about two o'clock when I was flying with Steve Purchase (he was Robert Horst's PP when Horst was killed). We were on standby at Lai Khe. General Hollingsworth put his arms around the two of us as we walked and talked. He told us he needed us to go into An Loc that evening about dusk and evacuate some wounded who had been there for several days. Between that afternoon and pitch pull, I experienced gut-wrenching, trembling fear. At pitch pull it went away. During the mission we drew no fire at all, which surprised everybody. You may have been there for gun cover, I don't know.

"Most of it is a blur now. It amazes me how much some of you guys remember."

 

Listening in on the Left Bank

A benefit of gathering information to make this report has been learning the correct version of things I already "knew". I knew it would be interesting learning about the wire-guided missile helicopters, because of previous conversations about only TOW being engaged there, and not the SS-11 birds. I was right that it was interesting, and now I have probably seen more documentation on both teams than any one person.

On the other hand, I did not expect to learn anything very interesting about the radio intercept Hueys called Left Bank. I knew CPT Don Gooch had been on the accident investigation board for what I thought was the only one of these strange looking hybrids, but I also "knew" that there was probably nothing I cared to know about flying what had to be a boring mission of punching circles in the sky.

So when Mike Sloniker prodded Tom Matason to tell about his experiences with that mission, I thought it would serve only to help us understand our history, as boring as it must have been in those aircraft. Read how wrong I was about boring….

"Tom Matason flew the JUH-1H for Det 1(RR), Project Left Bank, 229th AHB, 3d Bde (Sep,) 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile.).

"Left Bank was what we now refer to as a Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) platform. The aircraft had a 10ft boom hanging off the nose with two loop antennas bolted to the end, a 50 lb. counter balance weight bolted on the stinger, and a 9ft retractable whip antenna in the belly.

"There were 4 JUH-1Hs, all over 100 hrs but less than 1500 hrs, six pilots and four crewchiefs. They were attached and worked for the 3d Bde, 1st CAV but reported to the 509th group in Long Binh. The JUH-1H aircraft were flying at the upper edge of the aircraft’s capability. As a result of the flight envelope, mission, and stress on the airframe, the aircraft were replaced after 1500 hours. The slippage marks on the tailbooms were checked after each flight and on occasion they found they had moved.

"Matason recalled the missions by stating they monitored the NVA radio traffic from the aircraft. The NVA were well disciplined and kept regular schedules with higher HQ. The NVA radio discipline was much better than the US/ARVN. Some or these radio stations were semi­fixed, especially across the border, but the vast majority were strapped to someone’s back The NVA used low power rigs, and always transmitted using four to eight letter code groups. Ground stations could not pick up these very low powered stations, or someone who decided to string an antenna behind a hill. Hence the need for the airborne assets to acquire, monitor, tape and retransmit, identify and pinpoint units.

"The National Security Agency had sufficient intelligence on these units and understood their code groups. Units would disappear and reappear days later 50 klicks away. Some stations would be new and they received much attention. The raw data we provided, along with the sanitized stuff from the farm, as well as data collected from various sources by the J2/G2 ended up at the evening brief. This data was later
decimated down for local posting. Left Bank followed many folks around the battlefield over those four months, and assuming the unit designations were correct, their transmitter locations were pegged down to meters. Why didn't someone blast them all over Hell's half acre? Some were, but the majority were simply too valuable because of the information gained.


"To plot a location and have it be credible, a minimum of three azimuth shots on the target. All three shots, when accurate, should cross over the same point on the ground and, the antenna, or whatever, should be there. When this technique is done from a fixed wing, one was real lucky, on a good day, to have them cross within the same grid square.

"This was 72 and all the neat electronic stuff around today, like GPS were not available. Someone in 68 or 69 came up with this bright idea and at the same time remembered a helicopter can hover out of ground effect. For Matason, whose first tour was as a scout pilot in 3/17 Cav, who said he had no clue about, beep switches, 48ft blades and such, it brought a whole new meaning to the term, settling with power, as a planned course of action.

"The interior had a pallet tied down to the cargo deck; two captain’s chairs for the operators, a full width table with 19" racks for the two Collins HF receivers, one Collins HF transmitter, two big reel to reel tape decks, one oscilloscope, two KY28s and various other smaller pieces of electronic gear. Unfamiliar canon plugs appeared from the floor at various points that went who knows where.

"During the flight the two operators, always kicked back while searching the band on the HF receivers. We would tool around above 4000 at 70 or 80 knots until a little yellow lamp lit up on the instrument panel. This was our cue to wakeup and start a steep turn in either direction. The AC flew right seat and took the controls while the PP found his map and flipped the intercom switches on (no one could stand listening to the receivers or the
operators except me, still prefer code). Mounted on either side of the instrument panel was a microamp meter with a 270 degree needle swing. The meter was wired to the two loop antennas hanging off the nose about two feet either side of centerline.


"During the turn you were looking for the needle to swing away from the direction of the turn. When this occurred, it meant the target just passed the nose and not the tail. Roll back toward the needle and start to reduce airspeed while pulling in power. Under 40knots, start walking the pedals until you had a perfectly centered needle (it was very sensitive), and near zero ground speed. At that point the AC would check the torque, and a big ole ‘I don t need glasses’ J2 compass, call the heading and immediately roll the aircraft 90 degree on its left side so the PP could get a fix on the ground. The PP would call mark, after which right pedal got slammed, the nose got dumped, power pulled back in, and off to red line for the next shot, which had to be a minimum of 15deg difference.
The time required to do all this was about the time it took to read this part, unless the target decided to quit transmitting. The first time Matason sat in that PP seat and the above sequence occurred, he almost reached over and strangled the AC.

"After awhile you can get to know an individual by his "fist". These are the characteristics associated with someone using a key to transmit; running letters together, spacing or even speed. Many had dirty or rusted keys or "off tuned" radios that "chirped or clicked" when transmitting." Made the guy at the other end quite real for Matason. All this put together, identified the who, sometimes the what, and the where. One NVA out near Katum, who figured out what we were doing, liked to play with the aircraft. Every time we started to get the nose lined up on him, he would stop transmitting and startup when we turned away. They ended up taking tail shots on him for weeks.

"Matason went down in a Left Bank aircraft. He spotted the rotor RPM climbing rapidly, at altitude, rolled off the throttle, and pulled the collective to get the rotor RPM back in the green. Two things were really banging around in Matason’s mind: High rotor rpm is going to cause important things to sling off that main rotor and he was falling like a rock. Normally, when there’s a need to roll off the throttles, the collective goes DOWN. Matason was heading the aircraft into an open area. At a time that was almost too late he got the collective down and had the aircraft level when the aircraft impacted the ground bouncing 20 feet into the air, after spreading the skids. He said on the aircraft’s next impact the aircraft rolled over. The crew of three had injuries from the impact but were able to egress the aircraft without assistance."

 

 

 

 

The Slicks

Tactics had changed for the lift companies long before the Spring Offensive. The massive air armadas were no longer seen moving American soldiers into battle, and even the normal ten-ship lift became a relic of the past. While the Combat Assault as known earlier in the war would not be successful in the face of the Communist anti-aircraft battalions around An Loc, there was a need for a new type of Combat Assault, to deliver certain supplies, fresh soldiers and leaders to the city, and extract personnel.

The history of the 2 lift companies is best told in the words of the participants. Mike Sloniker and Mike Wheeler were in A/229th. Sloniker, currently the VHPA historian, recalls:


During the Easter Offensive ‘72, I was ops officer for A/229. My counterpart in B/229 was Rick Barrett. Many of the officers and CW2s were on their second tour, with CW2 Bill Vickery being on his second tour in the same company, A/229th. B Company was commanded by MAJ Hatcher, and then-MAJ Isabell. We used call signs: White flight, Yellow flight, Red flight and Black flight. D/229th was no longer the escort company and was now an air cavalry troop on the same TO&E as F/9 Cav. Our escort birds were from F Battery 79th Aerial Rocket Artillery, Blue Max. Unfortunately, Blue Max was at Long Thanh North and we were at Lassiter Army Heliport, Bien Hoa Army Base. We only knew our protectors by their call signs and voices.

Each company had 20 slicks, sometimes more. We were constantly changing out aircraft to get newer airframes from units that were standing down. I have pictures of one A/229th aircraft with the blue diamond of C/101; another with 192 on the door. #522 was one that had the last KIA in the 174th, SP4 Max Miltovich died in it in Sep 71. That aircraft went from Chu Lai to the Delta and then showed up in A/229th in Feb 72. When it arrived I immediately went out to see if it was the same one, and it was because of the bullet hole repair under the gunner’s well. There was no need to get attached to one aircraft. We were forever cleaning them up for shipment to the States.

From May 71 to late March 1972, activity in III Corps slowed down dramatically. During this period many units in III Corps stood down; Air Troop 11th ACR, 334th AWC, 128th AHC, to name a few. It seemed like every time someone made a parts run to the maintenance facility at Vung Tau, they would see aircraft being prepared for shipment home by sea.


In March, you could stroll down the flight line a see the fancy nose jobs on the nose covers-the old granny cartoon character from Playboy magazine on the nose of a CH-54 to a vulture sitting on a perch on a aircraft from the 162d AHC "Vultures." At the bottom of the paint job were the initials "STS", which we all thought was "slicker than shit," but were informed by a 162d maintenance officer that it stood for "Set the Standard." It was unnerving to see the Cobras from the 334th taped up and ready for shipment. However in Feb/Mar rumors were raging that the Cav could be out by Apr/May, so we knew that we would be going home soon.


We were not well informed concerning the enemy situation, and often learned of how bad things were getting via the Pacific Stars and Stripes. We were very fortunate in A/229th to have Major Robert D. Evans as commander. He was a man of high intelligence matched with a strong load of common sense. We did not want to fail him; he was putting 100% into making the company as efficient as he could. He lead from the front of the combat assault, was over in maintenance constantly checking how things were going, let the NCOs do their jobs, and definitely insured the captains did theirs. He never failed to make a decision and made it quickly. In my 23 years of active duty, I never served under a more rapidly decisive commanding officer. He had everyone’s loyalty. On 8 April he would set the tone of the attitude of A/229th.


As Ron Timberlake has noted, there was a lot going on, starting in early April. At that time, we could not determine which direction the NVA were coming, but they were definitely inside III Corps and closing fast. A/229th had a lot of hurry up and wait time until April 8th. On that date, we were tasked to provide 5 slicks to retake the top of Nui Ba Dinh, near Tay Ninh. B/229th also had the same tasking with F/79 ARA providing gun cover for the slicks.


We also had one slick that I flew with Little Joe Layman that was a C&C for LTC Buster Keaton, who was responsible for the evacuation of Bu Dop. Keaton, a master Army aviator, was commanding the 1/21st Field Artillery Battalion, at the time. When he DEROS’ed, he was replaced by LTC Ira Jones. Jones was the commander of the 229th AHB, prior to taking command of the 1/21st FA. Jones replacement was LTC Lewis McConnell, who was one of the very few Transportation Corps officers who commanded combat aviation battalions.

This picture depicts the mess at Bu Dop. The Chinooks were to evacuate the members of the 5th ARVN Div at Bu Dop to Song Be, where they would be transferred to C-123s. Bu Dop was not sufficiently secure to land the C-123s there. The plan was to take out the military. Someone forgot to tell the civilians who continually swamped the Chinooks. The old A models were carrying out 100 Vietnamese at a time.

At Bu Dop, F/9 Cav’s OH-6A #67-16078, flown by CPT Joseph Richard Harris was shot down. Harris was killed just east of the Bu Dop Special Forces camp by NVA automatic weapons fire. He was flying reconnaissance missions around Bu Dop in support of the ARVN evacuation mission by the Chinooks from 362 ASHC "Fly United", 229th AHB, 1st CAV. Harris was known for his blue freckles, which he got as the result of an accident as a teenager when he was loading shotgun shells. He had not put the pellets in the shell, when the powder went off and imbedded in his face.

 

 

 

Little Joe Layman and I were over the OH-6 crash site when the crew chief was being brought up the hoist by a 1st Cav Dustoff. The Dustoff pilot received a Silver Star for the rescue that was conducted under heavy fire. Timberlake, and Breuer, F/9 Cav were gun cover on each of the three sorties. COL Casey, a Master Army Aviator and Deputy Brigade Commander was also up there directing traffic. Lots of command and control going on.

Simultaneously, at Nui Ba Din and Tay Ninh West things were getting active. Mike Wheeler(A/229th) provided the following: "I’ll try my best to tell you about Nui Ba Din. You will have to remember though I was 20, very impressionable and was 27 years, ago.

 

 

 

When we finished we got the word on the afternoons events. Again my memory might be clouded here but I seem to remember someone telling us we needed to take gas masks with us. I remember looking at Fitzpatrick and commenting that this sounded like a formal affair, chicken plates and 38’s. I also remember this being the last day anyone picked on me about wearing a chicken plate. I think CW2 Mallernee and I were the only ones in the flight that day to have them with us. (I had given Mallernee my survival pack, the kind you strapped to you leg, and the belt that I used with it. I still wear that belt today. I don’t know how I got it back.). I think every one in A Co may have fallen into a false sense of security as it had been a while since we had engaged in any serious shooting. Oh sure, there was the isolated shots fired but you have to admit things had gotten slow.

When we arrived at Tay Ninh I think we may have shut down for a mission briefing. We then loaded up and started the CA. The LZ was the old 25th Division pad, a single ship LZ. (I still remember the electric strawberry painted on it) You know, this was odd for us. In the 101st single ship LZ’s were the norm but I don’t remember many in III corps. As usual we were saddled with a pair of guns. (I don’t recall where they came from but would figure they were from the Blue Max, God how they could shoot!) Well anyway, off we went as a flight. We picked up single ship spacing as we climbed to altitude. I can still to this day remember sitting in the cockpit of that "H" model waiting our turn into the LZ while the guys in front of you got shot at and shot up. I don’t recall being scared (CPT Chad Richmond might tell me otherwise!) but I do recall a detached sense of this wasn’t going to be the usual A Co. experience at CA’s. There were the usual calls of taking fire from this direction and that. It was just real hectic.

Our turn came and in we went. I remember yelling to the door gunner to shoot some bastard who was sighting down his gun from behind a piece of overturned equipment. The gunner was busy off the right rear side of the aircraft and didn’t shoot up my way. Either the little brown guy was a poor shot or an ARVN, and if that was the case I guess it was best the gunner didn’t shoot at him! As I recall the NVA had the top of the hill, around the compound, so not only were we shot at from below and the side as we approached but from above as well. As we lifted and headed off the hill CW2 Bill Vickery and his "turtle" CW2 Gary Mallernee, started their approach. I don’t know if they were on the ground or short final when Gary got shot. But I remember the radio call that reported it. (When I went to the hospital to see Gary he kept remarking that Vic attempted to keep him occupied on the return to the airstrip by having him do before landing checks and so forth.) Gary’s wound was made worse as the round passed through the rubber padding on the seat sliding panel, so it was tumbling when it hit his elbow.

After we returned to the strip we all shut down. As they got Gary ready to load on DUSTOFF, I recall a bit of commotion over who was going to get his chicken plate. (As a side note the round went through Gary’s right elbow and then followed the curve of the chicken plate. He told me later that when they X-rayed him they thought the round was floating in his chest. They were getting him ready for surgery and cut his tee shirt off and the round fell on the floor.) After we settled down from that, we were all looking at the battle damage to the aircraft. (This was the point where I remember MAJ Evans pointing out this and that hole with, at least what I recall, some amount of glee. He had at least one hole in the tail rotor drive shaft and another in an engine cowling latch on the right side. That one might have gone into the engine had the latch not taken the shock.) All of the aircraft had damage except my (Fitzpatrick’s) aircraft. For many pilots and crews getting really hosed for the first time, MAJ Evans attitude showed them a spirit that stayed with the company the next three months.

After an airstrike on the mountain, we were off again to assault it. It was just a repeat of the first turn. You sat there waiting your turn while the guys in front took a licking. The tac air had been delivered near the bottom of the hill not around the mid section when the little guys were. I don’t know exactly how many turns we all made up there that day, but it had to have been 5 or 6.

I don’t recall exactly what it was we were asked to do, be it to take ammo up or bring down dead, I just don’t recall. Anyway Fitz and I looked at each other and because we were the only ship that hadn’t been hit all day long (I think) he and I volunteered to do the last turn. About this time the intercom went down and he and I could not talk. He motioned for me to take the controls and off we went. It was getting darker and the LZ was somewhat more peaceful than it had been on earlier turns. While we sat on the pad loading or off loading whichever we were there for the gun cover called and told us not to answer but when we came out we were to come some way other than we and everyone else had in the past. I picked the aircraft up and did a left 90 degree pedal turn and pushed over the side. There were NVA all over and the guns had a field day with them.

A day or two later I remember the awards ceremony where BG Hamlet passed out the SS to Vic, DFC’s to the AC’s and AM/V’s to the rest of us. It was all pretty exciting for a 20 year old "fresh off the farm."


Randy Stewart, and Dennis Wood from B/229 provided the following:


B/229th bounced a flight of 10 UH-1Hs from Bien Hoa the early morning the 8th of April to rendezvous at Tay Ninh. There was plenty of cloud cover and the flight had to form up tight so that we could get through the cloud cover basically IFR. En route I asked the A/C what the mission was about and I was informed there were some special forces guys trapped near Loc Ninh by the NVA and we were going to rescue them. We tuned in a ground frequency and you could hear these guys fighting it out on the ground, you could hear them shooting and saying their getting in the door and then you would hear more shooting. It set an ominous tone to the flight into Tay Ninh.


We arrived in Tay Ninh and were briefed by the Commander. The plan was to load every other Huey with troops (US) and the empty slicks would be used to haul out the Special Forces guys. Now before we went in, the Air Force was going to lay down 4 layers of CS and 6 layers of delayed fused concussion bombs. So we could expect to hear explosions and not to think we were taking incoming. We would have to fly with gas masks on to keep from the effects of the gas. The Blue Max would be covering along with some jet support.


So we went to the ships and tried on gas masks and generally ambled around no one really wanted to talk because you didn’t have to tell anyone this was going to be bad and hot. You could have dropped a pin and heard it. We sat there for along time it seemed and then finally we could see the Loach (I’m not sure if this wasn’t H/16th guys or not) and Blue Max guys starting up. After they departed we were given the start up orders and to form up. We didn’t have the gas masks on yet.



We took off and shortly after departure we were instructed to mask up. So my A/C had me mask first then him. As soon as I took the controls I realized you had no depth perception with these masks on, in fact you could see our nice little tight formation was going to Hell in a hand basket real quick. We were now all masked up at first there was quiet but the formation was getting dangerous. Finally I told the A/C this was so much B.S. and I took my mask off. We informed the flight what we had done and it was quickly decided this was the new plan one pilot with and one without. I got to fly the formation without mine.



We started circling just south of the insertion point and were monitoring the Loach’s progress he said something about seeing some gooks sick and puking, you could hear the concussion bombs going off in the background. Then you heard the shooting he started taking massive ground fire lots of screaming and then he pulled out the Cobras were giving him fire support but it was just too hot. We heard the Loach driver say he was pulling out.


The next conversation was between C&C, the Cobras, and the Air Force. It seems there was a mess up and the Air Force had only gotten 2 layers of gas and 3 layers of concussion bombs down and that is all that was coming. Our flight lead at this point told C&C we would go in any way for the rescue, what a dumb sh**. I said right then and there, there was no way I was going into that LZ. The C&C thought about the flight leads suggestion for it seemed an eternity, I know I would have gone but it would have been suicide. The C&C called off the mission and we returned to the staging area.


The Special Forces guys were all captured. I never stopped thinking of those guys how they did and if they survived. After I was out of the service I watched the prisoner releases and the news paper listings and found everyone of those guys came home. I still think to this day what would have happened if we had gone in there and how many of us would have been killed, a bunch!


Dennis Wood wrote:

Yes, I do remember that rescue operation and was it ever messed! But we were young and stupid and at the time it seemed like it was going to be loads of fun; Saving Americans and getting shot at.


I remember the AF High Birds saying there was a whole bunch of guys running north away from the camp down the road. The FAC made a low pass and radioed that he thought it was an American in the lead with a bunch of Vietnamese troops following him, all running like hell. There were NVA close behind. Several days later John Slack and I were running a two-ship operation. I remember landing inside the wire of this small village with some Vietnamese troops. After we touched down, we were in a big hurry cause things were very hot and we had no gun cover. Someone in my ship said, "Holy shit, man there’s an American! I looked out the right door, past my CP (copilot), and there he was running like crazy, paralleling the ship at 70 to 100 ft, maybe more but visibly an American. He was running towards the opening in the wire, the wire that surrounded the landing area. I radioed to John who was flying lead, to wait. The American ran through the wire and jumped in Johns ship. Man, he was all smiles. I was flying tight echelon right and he has jumping for joy in the back of John’s ship (B/229th Platoon leader), from one side to the over, looking over the side. He was the American that had escaped. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.


A and B Companies were extremely fortunate. Not one crewmember from either was killed, although we did have some wounded. From 11 April to 25 June, both lift companies were tasked with a lot of standby’s to go to Lai Khe. On 11 April, both companies put in all the reinforcements at An Loc. Lots of folks got their first taste of being hosed in a slick. We called it getting your cherry busted. We picked up the ARVN at Dau Tieng, flew them to An Loc, to the soccer field, went to Lai Khe for fuel, returned to Dau Tieng and did it all over again. Lots of boredom followed by some real excitement, sometimes sheer terror, as the lift companies made the run from the RPs to An Loc. Bill Neuss was asked once what he was doing on VHF, he replied, "just hacking the load," and overnight we had new patches with "Loadhackers" on them on our flight suits.


Initially the flights were flights of 5 covered by 3 Blue Max, with aircraft loads (ACLs) of 11 ARVN. In May/June, going into An Loc got a lot hairier, and the approach might be a high overhead in and low level out. VNAF flights of Hueys were in the mix, and took their share of the fire. Also in June we started going into the city with flights of 2 Hueys and were escorted by anybody with a Cobra, not just F/79, but also F/9 and D/229. We absolutely felt like and believed we were up there everyday, but the write up for Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to the 229th in 1974, shows the slick companies were up there between 15-20 days during that period of about 80 days.

 

 


On June 13th, things got too close for comfort in A/229. At 0905 hours, UH-1H 69-15095 at XT 763 790 flown by WO1 Josh Dunigan/CPT F. John Bowers was shot down. Dunigan was "White 2" in a flight of 5 UH-1H’s. The flight was inserting troops in the vicinity of Tan Khai and took fire in and out of the LZ. White 1, WO1 Bill Nuess/CPT Jim Orahood flared hard into the LZ because of the speed needed to outwit the NVA gunners. After dropping the ARVNs the flight made a left turn out of the LZ for a southerly departure. The aircraft were in a loose 100-knot treetop gaggle when White 2 was hit. With the aircraft losing power, the cockpit filling with smoke, Josh Dunigan initiated a high speed low level autorotation, which was successful to a point 3 feet above the ground. Because Josh could not tell the depth of the elephant grass he had pulled all available pitch at an altitude of 3 feet. 095 slammed hard vertically and spread the skids, with the only injury being crew chief, Mike Lynch’s back. Josh immediately informed lead that "White 2’s down in the LZ." Dunigan and his crew were immediately rescued by "White 5," CW2 Vickery. Within minutes Comet 67, the OPS officer for F/9th, was in the vicinity of the crash site with a pink team, and the "Browns," ready to initiate aircraft recovery. However, the intensity of the ground fire and the condition of 095, made recovery too dangerous for the slow lumbering procedure required when the Chinook hovers over the downed aircraft for recovery. 095 was abandoned, but her crew survived. This entire sequence is on audio-tape made by Chad Richmond. Chad put a tape recorder between his left seat and console, plugged the earplug into his ear and captured all the sounds of those days. The LZ looked somewhat like this one:

 

The "Blues" from the Air Cav Troops normally provided security for aircraft recovery. Other than the aircrews and the advisors, no other Americans were allowed to be on the ground during this battle, so ARVN were used in place of the "Blues" and were called the "Browns."

In summary, the lift companies were heavily tasked from 8 April 72-25 June 72. Bravery that was commonplace in the two cavalry troops and Blue Max showed up in both companies as a common experience. As for me, I never ever wanted to sit in a slick in an LZ for 5 seconds offloading ARVN in a hot LZ relying on somebody else to do the shooting. I set myself a goal to make sure that never happened again. In Nov 1975, I got an AH-1G transition and realized that goal.

I spent 23 years in the Army. My favorite experiences were in A/229 where I saw WO1s in leadership positions displaying maturity that belied their young years on this planet. WO1 Bill Neuss’ calm leadership, attention to detail, and superior airmanship stays with me today. It was an honor to have served with him. There were many, many like him that were in both lift companies, the Black Bandits, aka Loadhackers, and the Killer Spades, known to A Company as Brand X because of the high competition between two highly competent, professional, courageous units.

These two units were never mentioned in the book "Trail by Fire," by Dale Andrade, but heavily mentioned in the Presidential Unit Citation write-up. So what do you want, a PUC or a paragraph in a book? Hopefully this fills up some of the void and it is the responsibility of the participants to update it via Mike Sloniker and the Historical Committee of the VHPA. When Lam Son 719 was published in the 1994 directory, updates poured into Sloniker. Hopefully this history will follow that trend.

 

In April, a C-130 trying to airdrop supplies to the defenders at An Loc crash landed northwest of Lai Khe. The crew was almost immediately rescued by the F/9th C&C ship and a Hunter/Killer Team, and the aircraft was destroyed by rockets.

It was interesting that during the Spring Offensive, the higher ranking officers frequently placed themselves in harm’s way, while their subordinates carrying out the staff functions of planning the attacks never saw the combat. BG General James Hamlet and his Deputy, COL John Casey, of the 3rd Brigade (Separate), 1st Cavalry Division, were often on station over the fighting, and COL Casey was shot through the hand by a 12.7mm.

Danger Seven-Niner, Major General James Hollingsworth, was commander of Third Regional Assistance Command. Despite the risks, his gruff voice with the distinctive accent was probably heard more often than any other over the battle area.

At the time, many of us wondered if his long radio transmissions to his advisors engaged in the ground battle were too unrestrained, and possibly gave the enemy more information than they should have been allowed. It was not until 1998 that I learned, with personal embarrassment and a little shame, the reason for his long radio talks.

I did not share my misgivings when I interviewed MG Hollingsworth’s aide, Russ Russell. Russell sat in the helicopter beside Hollingsworth, as they exposed themselves to the enemy for hours at a time, by flying over the hostile area to direct the battle. Russ mentioned how the situation was so desperate for the men on the ground, and how so many of them were convinced that no matter how well they fought, they were about to be overwhelmed and overrun.

That gruff voice of encouragement and bravado may have been the decisive factor in the decisions of the various advisors to stay and fight, and to rally their counterparts. That old warrior knew what his officers and men needed to hear, and he exposed himself to the enemy in order to let them hear it.

Earlier in the battle, as MG Hollingsworth made his noted radio speech about how the NVA (Referred to, as I recall, as "little bastards".) were whipped and running, and we were just trying to kill as many of them as we could before they escaped into Cambodia, CW2 Tom Jones and I were engaging a large and hostile force that was moving east, not west.

On our internal frequency, Tom asked, "Timber, you wanna call that dude and tell him we’ve found some of his little bastards that are running the wrong way?" Uncharacteristically, we exercised the better part of valor, and our only external radio transmissions were to make a spot report and provide target information to a Chico FAC.

On the afternoon of 5 June, the TRAC log records a rather interesting reason that the ARVN forces trying to reach An Loc from the south, were encountering such fierce opposition:

1550

T30 – COL Cu, CO 32nd Regiment states that the reason that the NVA are fighting so tenaciously between the 70 and 73 grid lines is that they are chained to their bunkers. COL Cu states they will take photos and get them back ASAP.

NVA tank crews had been found chained to their tanks destroyed inside An Loc. Normal methods of increasing troop morale and fighting spirit seeming to have failed in other areas, these field expedient methods were utilized with varied levels of results.

This information and more ominous predictions had already been addressed by a TRAC Military Intelligence report for the period 1-29 April 1972, portions of which follow:

d. Morale: Enemy morale in MR3 and Cambodia prior to the current offensive was quite low. Communist troops were displeased with leaders who would rather absorb constant attacks by B-52 and TAC air strikes than suffer the losses in action where they might at least inflict like casualties on allied forces.… …there was much friction between NVA and VC troops, and there was much tension existing in rear areas….

…PW reports indicate that the limited success they have enjoyed thus far serves to reinforce their morale as the enemy expects greater victories to follow the wihdrawal of US forces. Communist troops expect only limited success militarily at the present time, but the political expectations are far greater and are believed to have been at least partially realized by enemy forces.

…enemy forces are hungry, tired, sick, and disillusioned by the lack of food and friendly air power. This, together with approximately one month of sustained combat operations, is beginning to take a toll and reduce the enemy’s morale and his combat attitude. Evidence to this effect is found in recent incidents of enemy tank personnel being chained to their vehicles in BINH LONG (P) and enemy infantrymen being chained to machine guns in the vicinity of BEN CAU (V) (XT 2329). The enemy is using forceful measures in an attempt to ascertain a lower desertion rate.

There have probably been few battles fought by the U.S. Army in which the casualty lists were so rank-heavy. During the Spring Offensive, it was ordinarily not the young American privates or PFCs who died. The casualties were overwhelmingly the experienced officers and NCO’s serving as advisors, pilots, and more senior officers in the C&C aircraft. Even our enlisted helicopter crewmen died in fewer numbers than earlier in the war, since most of the helicopter crews lost were from attack helicopters.

In May a team was sent TDY to Vietnam from Ft. Bragg, with UH-1C gunships mounting the French SS-11 wire-guided missile system. Because so many engines and transferring aircraft were available at the time, the helicopters were upgraded immediately upon arrival to UH-1M configuration, with the same –13 engine as the UH-1H.

Two of the pilots had left F/9th only months before., and were greeted as old friends when they arrived at Lai Khe. Unlike the American-made TOW, the French-developed SS-11 was a first-generation wire-guided missile, which had to actually be "flown" to the target by the gunner, using a little "joy stick" to "fly" the missile to impact with the target.

This team made one or two sorties to An Loc, escorted by Cobras, but they never engaged a tank there. When tanks were found in or near An Loc, they were killed by the rockets of the Cobras of the teams that found them. Considered too vulnerable in the high-intensity AAA atmosphere, on 14 May, the SS-11 team re-deployed to I Corps, and Jim McKnight will describe the action there.

The battle of An Loc is said to have essentially been won on or by 12 May, with the outcome never in doubt from that time on, but one sees from the log entries how many major contacts were fought even in June. At least two more Blue Max Cobras and an F/9th Cobra were destroyed by SA-7s in June, and at least two UH-1s destroyed by ground fire. Despite the unprecedented opposition, the attack helicopter not only survived, it remained effective because of the adaptability of the crews, and the willingness to change tactics to apply to the current situation.

The tactics of the earlier years of the war were no longer effective in the face of massive enemy air defenses.

As a dinosaur edging toward the tar pits of aviation history, I would like to make some personal observations about the how and why of the battles around An Loc, that may apply to the other areas of fighting as well.

While we have been taunted that even a monkey can be taught to fly a helicopter, the fact is that most people are not well suited to be a helicopter Aircraft Commander in combat, much less in such an intense setting. Aptitude is extremely important, but in being successful, training and understanding are essential elements.

As a 23 year-old captain with about 2,100 combat hours by the time I was shot, and with almost two years as a Tactics Instructor between combat tours, I thought I understood what we were doing, and why. Over the years I’ve come to realize that while I had a wonderful grasp of specific tactics and the use and integration of our weapons systems, I had very little understanding of how we all performed our missions within the overall mission.

I resented our Troop Commander when he did not unleash our Cobras to attack targets en masse, because I thought we could do that very effectively, as we proved on the one occasion when it was necessary. I had never had a lesson on the true roles of cavalry, such as screening, economy of force, and shock action, but as I learned those lessons later, I saw how he had insisted that we almost always be employed in the correct manner.

The key to both of the Cavalry Troops’ success during the battle was that we changed tactics quickly, sometimes as often as between two missions. Within minutes of arriving at Loc Ninh the first morning, F/9th assessed the AAA situation, and climbed to higher altitudes than we had ever used. But when engaging very high value or highly defended targets, we would most often take our gun runs to treetop level and directly out of the target area.

When it was obvious that a recon box we were assigned was too hot for our Scout, or we felt too exposed circling him, we would have the Scout move out of the area and make a low pass or two with the lead Cobra. Results were not as detailed as they would have been with a hovering LOH, but we learned what we needed to know, with less risk and more immediate destruction of what we found. Our Scouts were not left behind, but stayed nearby, ready to come in and lift out the crew when necessary.

In mid-May, F/9th began to fly some recon missions without an OH-6, with two Cobras and a UH-1H C&C. The C&C would be very high, maintaining visual contact with at least the high Cobra (The low Cobra is surprisingly difficult to see from the air.), and copying the spot reports of the low Cobra. C&C would also obtain clearances and with the new F/9th Commander, MAJ Hewlett, was the aircraft that gave me a ride when I was shot.

When I met Coleman J. McDevitt again two years later, he was commanding a Cavalry Squadron at Ft. Campbell, as a Lieutenant Colonel. As we prepared a briefing for General Maddox, he mentioned some of his reasons for employing his Troop the way he did.

He pointed out that a Hunter/Killer Team Leader could be an Aircraft Commander in an AFA unit or gunship company after a three minute briefing, and lead a Fire Team in a day or two. He pointed out how long it took the Troop to teach even the incoming second-tour aviators all the things they had to know to be Hunter/Killer Team Leaders. Consequently, the Brigade and TRAC were extremely reluctant to risk losing trained Hunter/Killer Team Leaders on non-cavalry missions.

The battles at An Loc, and indeed the Spring Offensive, could not have been won without the massive support of the USAF. Though not always efficient, the support was effective, and the men who were actually risking their lives over the target areas cooperated with each other magnificently.

The immediate deployment of aircraft to the theater of combat and the increase in close support, interdiction, and supply sorties was nothing short of phenomenal. But the battles could not have been won with even double the USAF assets, without that evolving tool of battle, the helicopter.

 

Double exposure picture was taken by CPT Chad Richmond of a D/229 Gun at the refuel point at Lassiter Pad, Bien Hoa Army Base, 1972.