Special Forces (The Green Beret) was head quartered in Nha
next to to where the 281st was based. As more and more
was needed about certain areas before a major push into that area more
and more units were beginning to send out small teams whose purpose was
to gather information about the area that would help save lives.
They were not suppose to have a shoot out with the enemy. They
there just to see where the trails were, find where Charlie's base
were, and to count things. After 3 or 4 days of just eyeballing
would be pulled out and the information used to aid in the planning of
the push into that area.
Because this was such a critical job and the fact that many teams were not making it back a school for this kind of thing was set up in Nha Trang. The school was called "Recondo" and was only a few weeks long but was it ever intense. In short it taught what worked and what didn't and what the choppers could do for them and what they could not do. They learned hand signals, what water was good to refill canteens and what was not, how and where to hide, how not to make noise, how to evade contact and much more. All these things had to be standardized so everyone would know what everyone else was doing. When the men completed their training they would pass this learned information back to their units in the form of little schools of their own. Though the 281st provided the ships for this training and actually supported it in the field there were many other chopper units that supported this kind of work.
As the teams were concluding their training they would be put into the local area jungle for their final "test-by-fire" evaluation. We would put them in and take them out unless they walked out themselves. Though Charlie was all over the place the area they were being put in was considered pretty quiet. One of these insertions was quite memorable for me because it was no doubt the most impressive area I have ever landed a chopper in.
It was during my first few weeks in the 281st that I went on my first training insertion. I think Skarr was the AC. We were to put the team in just west of the huge Cam Ranh Bay Air Base. Just a few miles from the ocean the mountains jutted up fast and had formed countless valleys with beautiful white water streams gushing from them. I don't know if all the valleys were like the one we went into or if that was the only one of it's kind but it sure made an impression on me.
Where the stream came out of the jungle canopy there was a small opening that a chopper could get in. Once we cleared the small opening I was in awe at what I saw. Upon clearing the canopy opening we found ourselves inside what I can only describe as a huge tunnel that followed the stream up the mountain side for as far as I could see. The stream was more like a small white water river that was maybe 30-40 feet wide. The trees seemed to start a short ways away from the edge of the white water. I can only assume that was that way because during the monsoon season any sapling that tried to take hold would be easily washed away by the torrent of water during that season. The top of the tunnel was about 80' up with no hanging vines. I guess the rule there was no limbs under 80' because there were none. We were in a natural tunnel under the jungle canopy that was created by the flow of that water coming off that mountain and you would have never guessed it was there.
The AC flew her up a ways and finally put a skid on one of the larger rocks to our right that would make a good exit spot for our team. To the left was white water. The two guys on the left side of the ship took one look at that white water and decided that they best go out the other side of the ship. With the team out we just did a pedal turn and flew on out. I wonder how many other chopper crews go to see something like that.
During my time with the 281st one of the training teams came upon a tiger's den and had to shoot the mother. Inside the den were two small cubs. The team scarfed them up and brought them out with them. The cubs were named Bonnie & Clyde and became part of the 5th Special Forces tradition. I wish to note here that Teddy Roosevelt use to tiger hunt out of Nha Trang. My Thanks to Steve Matthews (281st web master) for the use of his picture of one of the baby tigers.
Just off of Nha Trang were several islands that made up the deep water port there. Hon Tray island was the largest and had an Air Force missile base on top of it for the protection of the air base below in the city. Hon Tray island was also the place where they trained newly arrived officers in how to handle teams. When a newbie officer had finished his initial training he was given a team of Vietnamese commandos and placed on Hon Tray island for a few days of scouting around. Since there were no streams on the island there was no drinkable water and time and again the water rations were always underestimated. That meant the Lt. had to call in a resupply.
On one occasion we were called in for just such a resupply. The team we were to resupply had the option of signaling us their whereabouts by either a signal mirror or a bright orange popping panel/cloth which was extremely easy to see. The Lt. chose the mirror. Though he apparently knew how the mirror worked he did not know what it's effect on the chopper was. When we spotted the mirror we would usually turn on the landing light for a second or two to let him know we had him spotted or we would tell him so on the radio. This one Lt. just kept the mirror on us and about blinded us all, it was like trying to land to the Sun it was that bright. We made two approaches to the spot but had to turn back because of that darn mirror. Sun visors down and sunglasses on didn't help either. We even tried to come in sideways but still it was just too bright and it was tearing us up. We decided to give it one more try, after the white spots went away, when the resupply guy in the back seat, a Captain I believe, broke radio silence and told him to put that damn mirror down. With the mini-sun gone we made our approach to the team.
Unbeknownst to me at the time was that a person's first request for resupply was somewhat of an initiation. Though we could have easily have set down on the edge of the small beach we were instructed to remain at a low hover so as to force the Lt. to have to reach up for the supplies. As he was reaching up the man in back poured a rather large pitcher of water on the Lt.'s head. The Lt. gave the guy a thumbs up then we landed and finished the remainder of the resupply. In the pictures below you can see the Lt. getting ready to give the guy in the back a "thumbs up" after getting poured on. The picture on the left shows the tree the team was hiding under just before we landed.
With their training over
newly trained men would head back to their units to pass along what
had learned at the Recondo School. There were not enough trained
Green Beret or enough 281st ships to do all the work so others took
as well. My hat sure goes off to those men because they were
as brave as they come. These men were now called "Special Ops"
and were looked upon with a high degree of respect even though most
they were crazy to be doing what they did.
Most of the teams that we worked with gave us little problem. Things would get exciting though when one of them got spotted. Charlie got bonus points for getting LRRP (long range recon patrol) folks and got extra points for getting the chopper that was trying to pull them out. Charlie even had hunter killer teams just to try and track these guys down.
When we had a team compromised and they began the run for their lives we tried to get to them as fast as we could. As the North Vietnamese became more adapt at tracking down the teams, with some even using tracking dogs, we saw more and more "Hot" extractions.
When a team was on the run they would constantly be in contact with the little radio plane we called FAC (Forward Air Control) who usually had at least one flight of 2 jets just circling above for just such an event. When the jets got in the area the team popped a smoke grenade and when the color was verified by the FAC the jets were turned lose to drop their bombs in relation to the smoke. Sometimes the FAC would shoot in one of his 4 white phosphorus marking rockets to mark the site also. Though the bombs were meant to kill the enemy the main intent was to buy time for the team to get a little further away so the choppers could pick them up.
As chopper pilots we would have liked that pickup LZ to be one we could actually land it. With those you are usually on the ground only about 10-20 seconds and then you're out of there. With a team on the run things change quite a bit. With triple canopy all around you and NVA on your tail an LZ becomes any place under that canopy that you can see sky. With that we have to find that 2 ft square patch of hole in the trees and then hover over it. Early on we only had McGuire rigs to let down through the hole. A McGuire rig was 3 thick ropes with special loops at the end and a sand bag for weight to get it down through the limbs. The crew chief would let it out between the ship and the skid and 3 of the guys down there would get on. When given the OK the pilot would then pull in power and try to go as straight up as possible. This often meant taking directions from the guy in the back seat so as not to drag the guys through the trees and get hung up. As soon as the AC started up "Rescue 1" would start his approach to the same spot and try to get there just as the other ship started forward.
The second ship did the same thing but time was extremely critical. The last 3 coming out had no one covering for them and Charlie was probably very close. All this time the guns are trying to shoot their rockets almost straight down so they would not be wasted blowing up just the upper canopy of jungle. If you keep Charlie's head down you might just buy enough seconds for everyone to get out. On the above emergency extraction the team was surrounded but they were one of the first to use the dogs. That dog found the hole in the enemy's line that they were able to get through which bought them enough time, to get enough distance between them and the NVA that were after them, in order to get away. That team made it out OK heading in the direction of the left bottom portion of the picture. Charlie was under the smoke and to the upper right.
The ride back for those 3 guys was something else. Can you imagine dangling from a rope some 100 feet beneath a helicopter that was going at 60 mph and probably spinning you around to boot? The above picture of the 3 soldiers gives you an idea of what it was like for them. This is the only picture in my stories that I could not find the owner for though I do believe it's owner would be please to see it used as it now is. I do know that it was taken in Nha Trang during Recondo School training and I have been told it is in the book "Uniforms of the Vietnam war".
The later version of the McGuire rig was called the Stabo Rig which eliminated the spinning once in the air. While I was there the electric hoist came into play but with the older D model ships you still could only take 3 out per ship. When the newer H models came in one ship could pull out the entire team which saved quite a few seconds and teams.
The picture at the left showing an actual team extraction was taken by door gunner Tony Ruiz. If you look at the picture closely you notice that they are ducking the main rotor blades and that they are on what appears to be a large boulder. From a pilot's stand point I would have to say that they were on the edge of a cliff and that the main rotor blades were making "salad" as some would say so they could be picked up. The closer you could get the ship to the team the shorter your exposure time and that usually meant you were out of there before Charlie could get to you. I would estimate that this team took all of 15 seconds to get on. My "Thanks" to Tony for the use of the photo. For stories from the LRRP's point of view go to http://www.wgallion.com/Vietnam/
The long range recon patrols were not the only teams we put in and pulled out. There was another team few knew about and they were call "Road Runners". The Road Runners were pretty much the cream-of-the-crop of the Vietnamese army. It was my understanding that they were all volunteers. They were trained by the Green Beret and based out of Nha Trang next to the 281st. These guys looked like the bad guys and would dress up as NVA soldiers would be that were coming down the Ho Chi Min Trail. Once in the jungle (usually 3 of them) they would try to make contact with any unit they found. Their cover story would be something like a jet found their unit and was bombing them, they got separated from their unit, and now were lost. They hopefully were be taken in and stay with that unit on their trek to where ever they were going. They even had recently captured paperwork with them to collaborate their story. The only things that could compromise them was a secretly hidden popping panel that the choppers could easily see and a cleverly disguised radio for contact with the FAC aircraft for when they wanted out of there.
After several days of listening to what was being said and obtaining the information they needed to know they would leave the unit and call for a pickup. Now it's one thing putting these guys into the jungle but it's a whole nother ball game pulling these guys out. Sometimes they were close by and sometimes they were a hundred or more miles away depending on how long it took them to get their information or to find the opportunity for all of them to break away from the group. When you went in to pick them up there was a Green Beret in the back that knew all the guys and if he didn't give you a visual ID on short final it was the job of the door gunner to mow them down. As far as the pilots were concerned, we were landing right on top of the bad guys and believe me we were mighty concerned about that. If the team had been discovered and it was now the bad guys calling us in then it came down to who started shooting first and if that transmission would stay together because we would be pulling everything that ship had and more to get out of there.
To this day I can still remember my first pickup of a road runner team. They were on my side of the ship and all 3 could just barely be seen just inside the tree line. The guy on the left was popping the International Orange popping panel to show us their location but in doing so he was covering his face. The other two were looking down in anticipation of all the debris the chopper's down wash would bring in. I could easily see their NVA uniforms and AK-47s and we were landing right next to them. On short final the guy in the back was saying something like, "wait, wait, wait", because he couldn't ID their faces. I guess we were only about 50 or so feet out before he gave us the "OK" and boy was that a relief. They got on and we were out of there. I glanced back for a final look and reaffirmed my initial thoughts that they sure did look like NVA to me.
I was on several insertions and extractions of road runner teams as a peter pilot and believe me all were with great concern. I don't remember once getting the controls for any of these missions because of the seriousness of the situation. It was the AC's ball game and he wasn't about to risk letting a new guy put his butt in a bind with things as critical as they were. Bringing those guys home gave you a special sense of pride through because you were working with the Best-Of-The-Best and that meant something. And they put their trust in us.
My time in Vietnam found me taking part in some very interesting changes. I was there for the change over from the under powered older D model ships to the load-em-up H models that replaced them. I was there for the changeover from the McGuire rigs to the electric hoist. I was also there when the dogs started being used by the teams and when that happened we started coming home with a lot less holes in our ships.
Our teams used German Shepherds and each dog was trained in hand and tap commands. As I was told the dogs would never bark but would let the handler know Charlie was near by and in what direction by certain body movement . The dog would get his command by hand signal or by tapping the dog on a certain spot of his body. When we pulled out a team the dog was usually the first in and would automatically go the back wall of the ship and lie down up against it. As the team came in their packs would go over the dog giving them as much room as possible.
I can remember one occasion when Condrey had to pull out a dog team next to a little river. We could not pick up the team by hovering directly over the river because the river was more than likely covered by Charlie and it also afforded Charlie a very long and clear shot at the ship. Instead Condrey picked out a low spot in the trees that allowed us to get within about 20 feet of the ground. After the crew members cleared the tail, out went the ladders and up comes this one guy without gun or pack. He immediately lets down a special rope that has a D-ring on it. I got to watch all this because Condrey was on the controls, I was too but I could still turn my head. Next, the guy reaches as far down the rope as he can and gives it one monstrous pull. As the rope comes up he pulls it in as fast as he can so it won't go into the blades. At the end of the rope is the dog and just before the dog is about to go into the blades the guy snatches him in mid-air and throws him inside the ship. The dog then goes to the back of the ship and does his thing getting ready for the packs to be tossed on him. I believe they had put a special little harness on the dog just for that purpose. Up comes the rest of the team, in come the ladders, and away we go. And I got to see all that first hand.
To change the subject a little our unit had a dog and his name was "Grumpy". Grumpy was a medium sized overweight brown dog that belonged to the 281st. Grumpy was no team dog. Once Grumpy got Americanized he seemed to hate the Vietnamese that worked on the post. He would take off after them in a heart beat for a good bite on one of them. It was my understanding that almost every unit had their own "Grumpy". Our dog was unique though because he was probably the stupidest dog in all of Vietnam. This was proven more than once to the new guys by the older guys. When the occasion was just right the guys would place grumpy inside a tight circle they had made with about 6-8 people. One of the older guys would then have one of the newer guys pet Grump which was something Grumpy liked. When the guy was through petting Grumpy and stood up one of the guys near Grump's tail would grab his tail and give it a really hard yank. Grumpy would instantly lunge forward and bite the heck out of the closest leg to him. All but one found this to be extremely funny and we got a good laugh out of it.
Grumpy knew when everyone was leaving for the field. When he saw all the personal things being stacked inside the choppers he knew it was time to explore new places. There we would all be with the choppers all lined up and ready to fly and here would come Grumpy. He didn't have any special chopper he would hitch a ride with, he just would hop in the closest one to him and nothing was ever said.
When we got to where we were going, just as we were toughing down, out he would jump. We would not see him again for a couple of days. He knew there would be a Vietnamese jungle village close by and that meant female dogs to him. He always knew when we were leaving the field and going home. He would always be there for his ride back home.
Grump did have some close calls. I remember at least three occasions where the camp guards caught some Vietnamese trying to smuggle a struggling Grumpy out of the compound in some sort of bag or box. The Vietnamese considered dog a very special meal and Grumpy, as fat as he was, was a prize in deed. Two years later, when I got to Korea, I found "Me Too", their dog, was the same way. More on that coming up later. Special thanks to Kevin Farrington for his permission to use the above picture of "Grumpy" on typical "Guard Duty" providing additional security for the choppers.