By Mike Austin (196th LIB 71-2) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70)
Copyright 1993

Author note: The following events were taken from my unpublished memoir Talons of Fire, and happened when I was flying a Cobra helicopter gunship with the hunter-killer teams of the air-cav in 1972 in Thua Thien province, just after the NVA Easter Offensive commenced. Details for the mission to retake Firebase Bastogne were taken from my DFC citation that resulted from the action. Again, I have changed all names except my own to protect the innocent or guilty.

"Rise and shine, Austin! Briefing in twenty minutes." Captain Scott's shout startled me out of a dream.

"I'm not scheduled to fly today," I objected, closing my eyes. This was as rude as the incident at Quang Tri, I thought. Only I wasn't drunk and hungover.

"That's been changed."

"Says who?"

"Sez me, so hustle up. We're getting ready to assault Bastogne."

Scott's words resounded like a prophecy fulfilled. One day, I'm landing on the firebase, helping a Vietnamese woman load my rockets, then I see it fall on television back in the States where I went on R&R to see my son being born. And now I'm going in on the assault to take it back! What a strange damned world, I thought, as I grabbed my knee-board, AO map and grease pencil.

Taking a chair near the back, I could sense the nervousness filling the room, as we waited for the briefing to begin. The unmistakable rumble of a B-52 strike shook the thin walls for a long moment. I looked around at the men. They were the reason I was here, not some stinking communist infested hill.

I remembered the faces that were missing too, wishing Brian and John and their crew were sitting among us, instead of rotting away in the jungle. The vengeance that had fueled my early tour returned, as I silently resolved to kill as many NVA as possible until I went home for good on a Freedom Bird or in a body bag. The unanswered question of which it would be inflamed my hatred toward the North Vietnamese even more.

Either way, people were going to pay the ultimate price.

At precisely 1345 hours on May 15th, one Huey, two Cayuses and four Cobras lifted off from Phu Bai, proceeding southwest at tree top level along Route 547 toward the mountains. A gaggle of VNAF Hueys, loaded with men from the 3rd Regiment of the 1st ARVN Division, waited in the wings as we entered into a holding pattern five miles from the firebase until the artillery prep was finished. A lone U.S. tank sat in the middle of the road below us, abandoned by the ARVN weeks before after losing one of its tracks to a land mine.

While circling, I was awestruck by the transformation of the landscape since my last visit in late March. B-52 carpet bombing had flattened much of the broad forest, leaving leering holes and raw earth in its place. The firebase itself had been bombed and shelled around the clock with such intensity that many of its distinguishable features were forever gone. Even at that, the Air Force FAC pilot flying overhead in an OV-10 Bronco reported he was still taking heavy fire.

The North Vietnamese 6th and 29th Regiments were firmly dug in and determined to hold the hill at any cost. They had surrounded the base with a lethal ring of anti-aircraft positions to defend against our expected aerial assault. The brave FAC pilot made repeated low altitude passes to intentionally draw fire so he could identify each position, while Phantom jets magically appeared from the heavens to neutralize them and make everybody's job easier. Each time, the NVA responded with more fire from a different location.

Exasperated, the Bronco climbed out of their range to direct a final mammoth blow. The 500-pound special gas-air bomb was designed to break open on impact, allowing the heavier-than-air gas to seep into holes in the ground before igniting from time delayed bomblets. The intent was to blast out anyone hiding in the deep underground bunkers permeating Bastogne's interior.

A single white-phosphorus shell, armed with a proximity fuse, exploded directly above Bastogne, signaling that the prep had ended and it was time for us to go in. The gunships started a gradual climb to be in attack position when we arrived over the base, while the scouts stayed low to the ground to mark the LZ with smoke grenades. The Air Force had done a thorough job picking out targets that survived the artillery and saturation bombing, and we expected little resistance until we neared the objective. Shortly after turning inbound, however, the entire team came under fire. The enemy had been much closer to us all along than anyone expected.

Since the fire was small arms only, coming from scattered locations, we simply reported their positions so the slicks behind could avoid them as they followed us in. The pop and crackle of machine-guns faded as we continued toward the smoking firebase. Just as we had cleared the worst of it, two fifty-one caliber guns opened up from nearby Checkmate, sending glowing balls of light across the blue sky at differing angles that opened and snapped shut like the jaws of an angry crocodile.

I peeled away and opened up with the Vulcan cannon as Dennis gripped his canopy lever to hold it shut. Morrison joined us, putting a volley of rockets fairly on the mark. The firing stopped, but we circled for one more pass to give the team time to mark the LZ. While I strafed the positions again, Lodge crossed Bastogne in a blur as Harkman tossed a smoke grenade. At the same time, Donnelly made a fast recon around the edge. To my great relief, neither aircraft received fire over the objective. The gas-bomb had done its job well.

Four at a time, the Vietnamese pilots discharged their jittery cargo while the guns set up a daisy chain of dry runs to be ready to fire at a second's notice. As each wave departed to make room for the next, they congregated over the flatlands to the north to wait for our escort back out of the battle zone. Finally, the last wave pulled pitch, turning west to follow us as the others fell into a trail formation behind. The enemy fifty-one's were silent as we steered away from the known small arms positions, but we were again taken under fire from previously unknown locations.

This time, the Cobras elected to engage, letting the formation go on without us. After expending, we returned to Phu Bai exactly one hour and fifty minutes from departure to stand by as a reactionary force. By then, the ARVN were having an easy time reoccupying the firebase. One of their biggest challenges was counting the dead, twenty-nine were found huddled in one command bunker alone, all burned to a crisp by the exotic weapon. We had thought of everything.

"Formation on the pad at eleven-hundred hours," Scott said loudly over the din of morning chatter in the hooch. "An' look sharp. The general's coming to pin medals on your chests."

"Say what?" third-tour gunpilot John Morrison asked.

"It's the Army's way of saying thanks for getting its firebase back."

Having never been to an official awards ceremony, I brush-shined my boots and checked my gig-line before lining up at parade rest with the others in the spreading warmth of a cloudless day. Five minutes before eleven, a Huey landed at the opposite side of the pad and out popped General Crandell, the Brigade CO, with a lieutenant and sergeant marching smartly behind and to his left.

"Ten-hut!" Eisenhower shouted, calling us to order as he stiffened and saluted the brigadier.

"Gentlemen, you are the defense of Hue," began the obligatory speech, causing us to glance at each other out the corners of our eyes and nearly laugh out loud. If only thirty men stood between the NVA and Hue, we were all in deep shit. With all the pomp and ceremony that could be assembled on such short notice, the general moved from man to man, pinning a Distinguished Flying Cross on each pilot, and an Air Medal for Valor on the enlisted men present. Just as suddenly, the slick lifted off, leaving us slightly bewildered about the decorations that caused our pockets to sag. Compared to other missions, Bastogne had been only average. Still, it was a good morale booster.

"Everybody here?" Eisenhower asked, as the men took their seats at yet another mandatory briefing. "I apologize to you men who had the day off for rousing you so early, but this is extremely important. Now, if you'll all indulge me for a moment, we can get this started." That was the major, always the polite one. "We've just received some disturbing news that the ARVN captured a new and previously unknown Soviet weapon down at An Loc. Our intelligence has classified it as the SA-7 officially called Strela which is a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking, anti-aircraft missile."

Loud chatter broke out in the group, causing Eisenhower to raise his hand for silence.

"The Strela is five feet long and weighs in at forty pounds. We know its range and flight characteristics well enough for counter-measures to be implemented. My understanding is that modifications will be made to the aircraft engine exhausts to reduce our infra-red signature as soon as the parts arrive from the States. Until then, we avoid the altitudes between fifty and ninety-five-hundred feet."

More talking, punctuated with loud whistles, interrupted the Troop commander again. "Gonna' be tough for the scouts, pulling a recon at ten grand, sir, considering their fear of heights and all," Morrison joked.

"Hey, fiddle-fart, he means you guns will be coming down to join us and see some real flying for a change," Lodge interjected to the hoots of Donnelly and the rest of the scout platoon. "Look at it on the bright side, your accuracy's bound to improve. Maybe you'll actually hit something from fifty feet."

The briefing degenerated into insults and name calling between the two platoons as Eisenhower waited patiently, understanding the banter was our way of dealing with the dismaying news that our already high odds of being killed had just risen dramatically. Order was finally restored and the major continued.

"Now, on to the second item. As you know, the ARVN and South Vietnamese Marines have kept a shaky hold at the Song My Chanh, but now they've started to cross the river and engage the NVA with limited success. To support this effort, we'll be crossing over as well." He went on to detail today's mission: a deep recon twenty klicks north of the river, where we would scout two boxes for suitable landing zones for an upcoming air assault. For the first time in the war, there was actually a line on the map we could point to, knowing with certainty the enemy was there. And we were getting ready to cross that line. Now I knew how the jet-jockies must feel every time they left their bases or aircraft carriers and headed into North Vietnam. To make it even more exciting, we would be flying on the deck the entire trip.

Not quite sure what to expect, my gut tightened as we passed over the river, continuing northbound at maximum speed on a wavering course that carried us over abandoned fields and hamlets. The emptiness was a great deception, however, and we knew they were down there waiting. Suspicious shadows lurked in every clump of brush, but the ground streaked by so quickly that I could only guess if they were real or not.

Being relative newcomers to this low-level flying business, Luke and I followed the scouts' lead, staying between twenty-five and fifty feet off the ground while using the treelines for cover by popping over them at the last second and quickly settling back down on the other side. Each of us was keenly aware that we flew in the "dead man's curve," where reaction time versus speed and altitude equated to probable disaster in the event of an emergency.

"That's the area. You're coming up on it now, White," Allison said. As the guns slowed and began circling the two loaches, I quickly discovered how difficult it was going to be to keep the unpredictable scouts inside of any pattern. Lodge unexpectedly banked hard directly toward me, causing me to veer equally as hard to stay in position. This wasn't going to be easy, I said to myself, as the radios suddenly came alive with calls of fire from both scouts.

"Get out, White, get out!" Allison ordered, as he swung south to stay clear of the fire. McConnel and I began firing blindly to open a path out of the box, as more calls of fire rippled back and forth through the team. At last, we crossed back over the My Chanh into friendly territory.

"I think the results of yesterday's recon were sufficient to tell us that we have to take a different approach," Scott said, pointing out that as long as we were flying north there wasn't a problem, but as soon as we started working the area, they opened up and continued firing while we were southbound.

"I know my sufficiency's quite suffunctified, sir," Morrison rasped. Scott ignored the remark.

"Today, we'll fly feet-wet up the coast and penetrate right here below the second box." Scott drew a short line on the map with his finger some twenty-five klicks north of the river. "Then we'll VR it south to north, and fly back to the coast a couple of klicks from where we entered, returning feet-wet. Maybe this way we can avoid the shooting gallery. Once again, keep low to avoid the SAMs and triple-A. Let's be cranked and ready to go at oh-seven-hundred."

Skimming over the wind tossed South China Sea, we banked west on Allison's command and headed toward the low beach a mile away. Once across, we covered the seven klicks to the box in minutes. This time, Lodge wasn't screwing around, making the recon at full speed, which made the gunships work harder than ever trying to contain him within our field of fire. As we overflew a treeline, ground fire erupted from our front and we once again shot our way out, not knowing nor caring who or what we might be hitting with the deadly fire, so long as we escaped.

The next week, we probed progressively deeper into enemy territory, taking heavy fire more than not, and putting the new scouts' hurried training to a brutal test. Each time, we somehow managed to escape serious damage and made it back with the team intact. If Lady Luck had seen fit to spare us more war casualties, the complex Cobra reminded me again that not all the danger was on the battlefield.

I test-fired the turret from the back seat one afternoon while enroute to a box at tree top level. As I sighted ahead and fired the chunker, the high-explosive grenades immediately began impacting directly below us, peppering the ship's belly and rocket pods with shrapnel. Instead of stowing in a straight-ahead position when the pilot-override switch was engaged, the turret had malfunctioned and depressed the guns fully down. Fortunately, I made it back to Camp Evans without suffering the ultimate humility of shooting myself down.

Since the threat of heat-seekers had recently forced us to adopt a radical change of tactics, we were struggling to adjust to flying the mission low-level. It was all we could do to stay out of each other's way, and frequent near collisions were causing as much danger as the enemy's bullets. It was also apparent by now that gunships didn't belong on the deck with scouts in the first place. We were clearly out of our element. Our effective coverage was limited, and we couldn't see beyond the next rise or treeline. We had essentially become scouts ourselves.

Learning to shoot while flat level instead of diving toward the target was another matter. If the nose was too high, the rockets sailed a mile overhead; too low and the explosions were dangerously close to the team. Even a simple maintenance problem that would receive a mere write up in the log book, if it occurred at two-thousand feet, could become deadly at twenty-five. All things considered, the odds were not in our favor as we prepared for the biggest mission to date.

Another harbinger of doom occurred June eighteen when an Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship carrying a dozen souls on board was shot down near the Laotian border west of Hue. After repeated attempts to access the crash site, the 'Force reclassified them as missing, presumed dead. The same day, a Navy pilot disappeared over the North and was never recovered.

With less than three months remaining, I could see now I still had a long tour ahead of me.

Copyright 1993
By Mike Austin, Blue Ghost 23 (196th LIB 71-2) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70)