The eastern sky was beginning to brighten as we hovered to the edge of the pad, where we would park and wait for Eisenhower to attend the high-level briefing. Looking around, I was surprised to see six Soviet T-54 tanks lined up near the pad, along with a substantial collection of other captured NVA weapons. After shutting down, we gathered around to examine the novelties. Luke jumped up and grabbed one of the tanks' gun barrels, swinging back and forth by his arms, while Morrison and I crawled up the back of another to have a look inside. A stale, burnt smell seeped out of the open turret.
"Check it out," John said, pointing to a small, molten hole in the side of the tank. "That's where the LAW penetrated. By the looks of things, they had a secondary. It must have been like being inside a pressure cooker!"
The Light Anti-tank Weapon's 66mm HEAT round was capable of penetrating nearly a foot of steel. It seemed to have detonated one of the shells stored in racks along the tank's interior walls. The results were devastating. When I reached down to what was left of a radio with its cover blown off, the blackened wires crumbled into ash at the slightest touch. The cabin was littered with broken parts and unidentifiable debris. John noticed it first: a chain and shackle welded to the floor, gripping a portion of leg bone. A badly burned canvas boot containing the detached foot lay in the corner. The rest of the former prisoner-soldier and his crewmates had been blown out through the hatch.
"That tell you anything?" Morrison asked. "Obviously, they don't wanna' be here any more than we do."
"Maybe less," I said. I thought back to an incident I'd heard about a couple weeks before, when the ARVN found an NVA soldier with his legs blown away from a B-52 strike. Medevaced back to a hospital, he was lightly interrogated by a U.S. intelligence officer. He was a 44 year-old father of 11 children who had been a professor at the university in Hanoi. He said North Vietnam had widened its draft of eligible men to fill the void from the incredible losses they suffered in the invasion. He believed he was pressed into the military because of his suspected pacifist views. Among his possessions was a small book of poetry, written while he lived in the jungle on a handful of rice each day. His last request before dying was for the intelligence officer to see that his writings were sent to his family in North Vietnam. The officer promptly turned the book over to the Red Cross to carry out his wishes.
"Looks like the dinks have a serious morale problem all right. Just hope Scott don't see this. I wouldn't want him gettin' any ideas about simplifying the scheduling board," I said.
Our laughter caused the others to look over our way before resuming their investigation of a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun. Playing with the gun was more like it. McConnel and Grey sat on the side-seats spinning the wheels to move the twin barrels that were still covered with fresh vegetation used to camouflage them. Sherman looked through the sights, shouting "ack-ack-ack."
Some unflattering "Hanoi Jane" remarks followed, referring to movie star Jane Fonda's picture published recently on the front page of the Stars and Stripes. In it, she was sitting on a radar-guided version of the same weapon, located near Hanoi, while a smiling North Vietnamese gun-crew looked on. She was pretty, even in a pith helmet, as she looked up at the sky, ready to blast a U.S. jet to smithereens, I supposed. In the caption Fonda was quoted imploring American pilots to stop bombing the North because "you don't know what you're doing."
Where was a Wild Weasel when you needed one, I wondered, referring to the F-4 Phantom when equipped with anti-radar missiles.
"Fellas, look what I found."
Everyone moved over to Hawkeye, who was shouldering a long tube, flared on one end and with a pistol grip mounted underneath. This time there was no joking: we were looking at a loaded SA-7 Strela anti-aircraft launcher.
"Confirms they got 'em up here too," Hawkeye said, although none of us ever doubted the reports, especially after our back to back losses in the scout platoon in early June. Some said an RPG could have hit them, fireballing like they did twenty minutes apart. But I found the idea unbelievable that the dinks could have hit both with the cumbersome RPG, considering they were flying at cruise speed when it happened. The evidence pointed to this insidious thing Hawkeye was holding.
We left Sally to do a day long recon for the ARVN, who were slowly battling their way north behind a heavy barrage of B-52 Arc Light raids. By now, the NVA were being pushed from the coastal corridor with great success, even retreating in areas. Things remained pleasantly quiet throughout the morning, as we worked in front of infantry elements, aggressively moving ahead to exploit the situation. By afternoon, we had shifted the recon west, closer to the foothills that still hid substantial numbers of NVA.
My Environmental Control Unit (ECU) quit in the middle of a mission. Unlike the Huey, we couldn't open our windows in flight for ventilation and the Cobra's green-house interior quickly heat up past 110-degrees. I wrapped a bandanna around my forehead to catch the perspiration dripping from my helmet, temporarily holding back the sweat from stinging my eyes. My flight suit was growing wetter by the minute. Adding to the discomfort, my heavy chicken plate and survival vest were pinned tight against my chest: flying this low, I had taken to keeping my shoulder harness locked all the time.
The cockpit grew hotter, until it seemed the vents were blasting air straight from the jet-turbine's combustion chamber. I saw spots for a moment. Felt light headed. Finally, I could stand it no longer. Slowing to forty knots, Grey and I opened our canopy doors, unauthorized in flight since they could be ripped off by the wind and carried into the tail rotor. Flying at forty knots was foolish enough, making us an easy target for small arms fire, not to mention the SA-7. But the heat was too unbearable to ignore; the threat of passing out with heat exhaustion too great. We flew on for a good five minutes, drying out in the relatively cool 95-degree wind.
After returning to Phu Bai, we were halfway through shut down procedure when we heard a radio call from an Air Force pilot transmitting on "guard," the emergency frequency.
"Bronco flying southbound near Tan My, you're left wing's on fire."
The Bronco was too low to be heard by us, but a break in the squelch meant he'd responded to the warning. Tan My was just a stone's throw from Phu Bai, and we could be on the scene in minutes. I switched the transmitter to guard.
"Aircraft calling Bronco, this is Blue Ghost Two-Three. We're an Air Cav team standing by at Phu Bai for assistance."
"Roger, Blue Ghost, this is King, wait one. Break-break. Bronco, understand you're gonna' put it down in the drink?" Once again, all we heard was breaking squelch for the stricken pilot's reply. After a few minutes of silence, I called the aircraft again to remind him we were ready to launch if he gave the word.
"Roger, Blue Ghost, have a Jolly Green due on station momentarily, but thanks for the offer."
Hearing our invitation declined, we all shut down. I left the master switch on to stay tuned to the rescue, hoping I could make sense of the one-sided conversation.
"He's down... Jolly Green inbound... I see one in the drink."
Even though the Bronco held a crew of two, I was confident the Air Force had the situation well under control. Anxious to get out of the hot cockpit, I cut throttle and turned off the master. Luke was getting out of his ship about the same time; so we walked together over to join the gathering around the outdoor club. Flying without the ECU had left me parched and miserable. I needed a beer to cool down before going to chow.
Sherman reminded us that this was the 196th Light Infantry Brigade's last day of service in Southeast Asia, officially disbanding June 29th. Departing three days after the 1st Cav's 3rd Brigade pulled out of An Loc, the Chargers were the last infantry brigade to leave Vietnam, finally ending America's ground involvement. Once again, F Troop had been left behind as an independent unit. Morrison raised his can in a toast. "Here's up ours, gentlemen!" he shouted. We acknowledged by guzzling our beers and belching loudly.
I left the group to drink and ponder our future without my help. My first stop was a glorious unheated outdoor shower, where I rinsed for twenty minutes. My next mission was to find maintenance officer Grissom. I caught up with him at the hooch, and angrily vowed to red-X my aircraft if the ECU was still broken the next day. Even if I had to break something the Army considered "important."
The threat worked. Grissom had come through by the time we prepared to leave for Camp Evans the next morning. He had swapped ECU's with Seven-One-Four, grounded for engine problems. And because he was there so early, he received a bonus by being tapped as McConnel's front seat. It seemed Gillette woke up vomiting blood from an ulcer he said he'd only recently developed.
We waited at Evans for pre-planned B-52 strikes to go in, at which time we would depart for a BDA of the blast zone. Then we would hang around to provide cover for the ARVN air-assault. A convoy was assembling outside the gate when the order to crank came at 0930. Once again, the ground rumble signaled an unmistakable Arc Light in progress. As we hovered for departure, the ARVN convoy took off heading southeast on Route 601.
After lift off, we turned north to follow Highway One. Immediately, the convoy screeched to a halt, causing a series of near collisions. The men in the leading jeep frantically waved as we picked up speed in the opposite direction. "Must think we're flying their cover," Thomas laughed. Cruising just above the road, the flight caused a bicyclist to steer toward the ditch as we roared overhead. Dipping and climbing; banking left and right; popping over treelines with inches to spare; we cultivated the art of nap-of-the-earth flying as our only means of defense against the heat-seekers and radar-guided anti-aircraft weapons.
Eventually, the fields gave way to thin jungle. I split the difference between two snags about fifty yards apart, pulling a hard turn to follow a ravine and keep the team in firing position. The going was hot and fast, and might have been fun had I not remembered the reason we were hugging the deck in the first place. Movement caught my eye as we crossed a clearing. I was stunned to see dozens of North Vietnamese soldiers running for cover, equally shocked by our unexpected encounter. In seconds it was over. We flew clear without firing or receiving a single shot.
"Keep going! I'll call air on 'em later," Allison called from the C&C ship. Fine, I thought, not particularly keen on the idea of engaging them anyway. Undoubtedly, they would be prepared by the time we got turned around to attack.
A few miles ahead, we caught up with a group of ARVN advancing across an area of low, rolling hills covered with tall grass and spotty trees. The insertion would be four miles farther north, in a move to trap the enemy between the two forces and crush them. I didn't like being this exposed, without jungle or terrain to hide behind, especially after running into the NVA only moments before. My breathing quickened as we zoomed over the top of the weary soldiers and on toward the pall of smoke from the Arc Light strike, hanging like a dark curtain of ruination over the land.
"Okay, move in and let's give 'em a good BDA," Allison commanded.
Brandon punched into the smoke with Kelly close behind. It was dark with lingering bomb smoke and grass fires, but nothing like the problems we encountered from the 130mm incoming that time on the big lift. Continuing north, we weaved back and forth like drunken sailors to make it difficult as possible for their missiles to lock onto our exhausts. The visibility began to improve, causing me to wish we were back in the obscurity to hide our presence. I became obsessed with the thought of being hit by a heat-seeker, now that I had held one in my hands.
So far, the BDA had produced nothing to show for the immense tonnage of dropped bombs, but neither were we able to examine things too closely at ninety knots. Staying wide to the right of the team, I glanced over at Morrison and McConnel to check separation as I started a turn in their direction.
The two explosions that sent my ears ringing seemed to come from inside the aircraft as the cockpit filled with smoke and the aircraft began to wobble slightly. My mind blanked for a second, paralyzed by the thought of being shot down.
With little time to react, I pushed the collective down and simultaneously pulled hard on the cyclic, popping up to one hundred feet to bleed airspeed before making the forced landing. At the same time, I keyed the mike to tell the others to come pull us out after we landed. "Two-Three's going down..." To my indescribable relief, I realized the engine was still driving the rotor system and the wobble had disappeared, instantly changing my call. "Taking hits. Negative tally. Let's di-di outta' here!"
Now at full power, I banked right toward the coast and opened up with the Vulcan, shooting at every bush and tree in our path to clear a way out for the team. There was no telling where the fire had come from. After thirty seconds of sustained shooting, the big gun jammed, forcing me to switch to rockets. I began releasing pairs at timed intervals to keep the fire going as long as possible until the other gunships could join me.
The air in the cockpit was beginning to clear as I called back to check the status of the team, since I couldn't see behind the ship. Just then, Morrison shouted he was taking hits, followed by a like call from McConnel. Believing they were right on my tail, I braced for another explosion, but it never came. At last, we were safely feet-wet, heading down the coast for Camp Evans.
I was surprised by the intensity of the NVA's opposition, considering the punishment they'd just received from the B-52's. Upon further reflection, however, I realized they probably had little choice in the matter, chained to their weapons as some undoubtedly were. As soon as we landed, I crawled out to inspect the damage. I found it was from a high-explosive round from an anti-aircraft gun, not a missile strike. A clean hole had entered the nose of the Cobra just above the turret, where the projectile then traveled inside the wall a few feet before exploding between the copilot and me.
Fortunately, the blast was directed outside, ripping a fist-sized chunk from the aircraft's skin. The mangled air-conditioner piping explained why the cockpit had filled with smoke. And I had a sneaking suspicion the wobble we experienced was induced from my habit of jerking collective when I took fire, causing an over-torque condition until I dropped power to enter autorotation. Walking around the ship, I saw the second explosion had blown the fuse off one of the flechette rockets, damaging the tube assembly as well.
"Damnit, Austin, you coulda' warned us!" Morrison's shout and angry expression puzzled me as he stomped over. "You just took off and nobody could figure out what the fuck you were shooting at until my canopy exploded and..."
"I did make a call! Told everybody to get the hell out since I couldn't see where the fire was comin' from!"
His expression softened. "White's radio cut you out then. All we heard was a squeal. Sorry I jumped in your shit."
I noticed tiny beads of blood forming on his nose and cheeks as he spoke. "What happened to your face?"
"Canopy exploded like I said. Shit, I'd be blind if my visor wasn't down. Woulda' made the landing real interesting, huh?"
McConnel then waved us over, pointing to his canopy where a bullet had grazed it, leaving a foot long gash along the side. Grissom was sitting in the back as we walked up. Pulling the hatch shut, he stuck his hand through the inch-wide slit and waved. We then walked over to a Cobra that had been sitting on the east side of the pad when we landed. Its markings indicated it belonged to F Troop, 4th Cav, who had recently moved up to assist us. The opened cowling was riddled with .51-caliber holes. Two rounds had penetrated the transmission case.
"Guess we weren't the only ones gettin' our asses kicked out there," Luke observed. I straddled a pool of transmission oil to get a better look. Morrison nodded in agreement, dabbing the blood from his face with a handkerchief. He rubbed his chin lightly, checking for more Plexiglas splinters to pluck out.
McConnel and I determined our ships were airworthy enough to make the trip to Marble, saving maintenance the trouble of flying up to get them. As a precaution, we would leave the frontseaters behind and go single-pilot. They could catch a ride in one of the slicks going back to Phu Bai. Morrison suggested I jettison the outboard pods after reaching the ocean. Otherwise, EOD would have to be called to dispose of the damaged rocket when we landed. After departing, we switched to a private frequency and headed for the coast.
"Ready to blow the pods over the blue here, Luke."
"Roger, wait'll I get my camera."
While McConnel retrieved his 35-millimeter Nikon from behind his seat, I broke the safety-wire holding down the red switch-cover and selected the outboard position. Since none of us had ever jettisoned our pods before, we were both interested to see what would happen.
"Ready?" I asked.
I lifted the switch to fire the explosive charges that would break the mounting bolts and blast the pods harmlessly into the South China Sea. Nothing happened. Believing the selector might be defective, I switched to the "Both" position and tried again. The right inboard pod fell away with a bang, leaving the damaged pod still securely attached on the left.
"Guess it likes me," I sighed.
"Roger, I'll call Ops and have EOD standing by," Luke laughed.
McConnel and I waited at Ops the next morning to pick up two more Cobras and return single-pilot back to Phu Bai. Spotting the latest copy of Stars and Stripes in the ready room, I laid on a bunk and opened the newspaper. "OV-10's Fateful Flight" jumped out at me from page two, and I began reading about the same rescue effort I had volunteered our help for at Phu Bai.
The Bronco had been struck by an SA-7 during a FAC mission near the Z, igniting a fire that was hidden from the pilot's view. Lucky to still be airborne, the pilot turned back toward Da Nang for some reason, instead of heading to nearby Phu Bai airstrip where we were. The call we overheard was from a passing aircraft alerting him to the seriousness of his situation.
Fearing structural failure, or an in-flight explosion if the flames spread to the fuel tanks, the pilot elected to punch out and forfeit the doomed aircraft for a ride out on a Jolly Green. But the observer's parachute had been damaged by the missile strike and wouldn't fire. That's when the pilot decided to put it down in the South China Sea.
The forced landing ended in a crushing deceleration, as water broke open the fuselage, causing the aircraft to begin sinking almost immediately. After escaping the wreckage, the observer surfaced and saw he was alone. Taking a deep breath, he dove under to see what had happened to the frontseater. Too late, he watched helplessly as the aircraft slipped silently away, carrying the already dead pilot into the murky depths.
The story moved me deeply as a classic tale of one man losing his life in order to save another. Unpopular though it was, the Vietnam War was filled with such accounts of heroism and personal sacrifice by Americans and Vietnamese alike, often for one another. I passed the paper to McConnel, who read the article without comment.