This is the story of a minor combat engagement at an outpost in South Vietnam called Hoa Binh. It is representative of Seawolf combat operations during the withdrawal of U.S. riverine forces and the turnover of naval operations to the South Vietnamese in 1971.
HA(L)-3, the only Navy attack helicopter squadron in Vietnam, was a unique concept designed to support the Navy riverine forces operating in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam. The squadron was a child of the Vietnam war, being commissioned, operated, and finally decommissioned entirely within the Delta of South Vietnam.
MACV Concept of Ops for the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta was part of the military area called IV (pronounced "four") Corps by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). It was at the south end of the country, the opposite end from the more well-known I (pronounced "eye") Corps area along the DMZ. The Mekong Delta, one of the largest and most fertile river delta systems in the world, is at sea level, is predominantly flat, and consists mostly of flooded land, largely under cultivation to produce rice, lots and lots of rice. But a significant percentage of the Delta is also in a wild state. The wild areas are split between reed and grasslands, scrub swamps, and forbidding triple canopy mangrove swamps. In the dry seasons, the grasslands and some of the rice paddies are dry. During the two yearly monsoons, virtually everything is inundated. Almost all business commerce and travel is conducted on a complex and well-developed system of canals, rivers, creeks, and lesser tributaries which criss-crosses the Delta as thoroughly as the street network of any major city.
The Mekong and the Bassac Rivers, two of the great rivers of the world, run out of Cambodia parallel to each other, cross the center of the Delta and split into numerous large river mouths as they near the sea. They combine with the major canals to form the primary byways of the area. Some of the more important canals were major projects of an awesome scale, built by the French during the colonial period. Only a few dependable roads exist. They are usually along the large flood control dikes which line the rivers, and the larger canals. The few other roads are strictly seasonal.
Accepted Army counterinsurgency doctrine, adopted by MACV, featured three steps; step 1 - control and protection of the population areas from the insurgents, step 2 - aggressive patrolling to restrict enemy movement and keep the initiative, and step 3 - sweeps of suspected enemy base areas to deny the enemy any sanctuaries. In short, this doctrine means occupation and presence, developing a base from which to project power to wipe out the insurgency.
While historians will argue the validity and effectiveness of this doctrine in I Corps and the central highlands of Vietnam, there is little question that this doctrine was successful in the Delta. But in the Delta, occupation of the "land" and control called for by the doctrine did not fit the Army organization and equipment. The problem was the Mekong Delta, there wasn't enough dry land for the doctrine to be effective using traditional Army equipment, methods, and procedures. Conventional Army land mobility did not exist. All traffic would either be waterborne or airborne. It was a unique area for combat unlike any the Army had ever encountered before, calling for original solutions.
Perhaps this uniqueness itself was the reason for U.S. success in the Delta. Conventional methods of doctrine implementation were clearly inappropriate and operations were designed beginning with a clean slate rather than being encumbered with the "baggage" of preconceived plans and opinion.
Clearly, the good guys were as dependent on the use of the waterway network as were the local population and the enemy themselves. The entire concept of operations in the Delta was tied to control of the waterways. For that, the Army needed the Navy. The Navy responded by taking a page from its own history, updating the successful riverine warfare coordinated operations of the Civil War (also known in some regions of the U.S. as the War of Northern Aggression).
An entire "brown water" Navy was created to support Army troop movement, and to implement the patrolling part of the counterinsurgency doctrine. Major lift of large Army units was accomplished by Navy riverine force transports, augmented by Army helicopter transport lift. The transport force was protected by the riverine force "battleships", monitors carrying large caliber (40-mm) guns in armored "turrets", "Zippo's", monitors with flame thrower turrets, and PBR's, the ubiquitous river patrol boats - "destroyers" of the river force. These "brown water warships" were usually modifications of amphibious landing craft, LCM's, and included interesting prototype ideas as well; water cannon turrets, air cushion vehicles, predecessors to today's LCAC. These big sweeps were carefully planned and could lay on artillery and air support in large quantities because of the set-piece nature of such a carefully "staffed" operation. Such an operation was the speciality of the Army chain of command and the staff college graduates running the show.
By 1971, there were not many of these big sweeps happening in IV Corps. The war in the Delta had settled down into a relatively stable equilibrium. The VC owned certain areas and the good guys owned the rest. The few VC strongholds in 1971 were really strong. Nothing short of a really major action was going to dislodge them from the mangrove swamps they still held. But the VC in the Delta were not able to be a real threat to the government as long as they remained in their swamps. Apparently that was fine with MACV. All the productive portions of the Delta were under reasonable control. Politically, the U.S. had decided to withdraw from the quagmire, and U.S. forces were leaving and turning over their successful Delta operations to the South Vietnamese. Counterinsurgency doctrine was reduced to the first two steps, control of the population areas, monitoring all traffic, and aggressive patroling to complicate or interdict enemy movements. As long as aggressive patrolling and a strong network of Ruff Puff outposts was sustained, neutralizing VC influence in the Delta, there was no immediate need for sweeps into the VC strongholds called for by doctrine. During the turnover, dwindling U.S. forces remained there to man the ramparts and bolster the local forces.
The local militia, called Regional Forces and Popular Forces, and called Ruff Puffs by the Americans, were stationed so as to monitor traffic in the populated areas, and were also stationed in remote areas at key travel junctions and likely infiltration routes. From these bases they were to check papers, and patrol locally to monitor activity. They usually confined this activity to daylight hours. The VC owned the dark as far as the Ruff Puffs were concerned and night patrols were not the domain of a family man. Nobody really expected the Ruff Puffs to aggressively confront the VC by themselves. Serious patrolling was left to the VN Army regulars, the U.S. Army, and the Navy.
Because we owned the air, major enemy movement was conducted at night. And, because we owned the air, the only way for the enemy to get around was on the waterway system. Therefore, the key to patrolling was in patrolling the waterways....at night.
Friendly air support for the Navy patrolling program required night flight operations and quick reaction. Neither were strong points of Army aviation in the 1960's and 70's. Army helicopter aviation of that era, was not generally able to operate at night effectively. (Not very many Army pilots were instrument rated. Only a few units had the capability, and they were centrally located and controlled, too far from the fight to respond in the time required to make a difference).
Quick reaction was difficult for the Army, which prefered to operate from large central bases, such as Long Binh, Dong Tam, Can Tho, and a few others. To enable Army aviation to cover the remote parts of the Delta removed from the main bases, they established outlying airstrips, guarded by Ruff Puffs, which provided fuel and ammunition, for the centrally-based helicopters. The Army air support allocation system was fine for the larger scale, scheduled events typical of Army operations, but did not adequately support the aggressive and frequent patrolling which was the key to executing the concept of operations dictated by the terrain of the Delta. Patrolling generated contact with the enemy. Contact resulted in combat. Short and fierce fire fights requiring immediate friendly air support.
Another problem directly related to the quick reaction issue was the question of command and control of patrolling forces. The Army was uncomfortable with operating their attack helicopters in areas containing friendly civilians and friendly forces without the aid of qualified forward air controllers (FACs) to take responsibility, to control the strikes, and coordinate with ground forces. Add to the problem a complicating factor that the "ground" forces were Navy. Army FACs were scarce. The Army was not willing to expend limited FAC assets maintaining an alert posture or conducting continuous patrols in order to be on station when needed.
The need was for a steady supply of instrument qualified pilots who could operate autonomously from major bases, be able to work closely with the riverine forces, and who we schooled to exercise command judgement at the lowest tactical level. It was desirable that they be able to work without the requirement for forward air controllers. The solution resided in the Navy itself.
To solve these problems, in 1967 the Navy commissioned HA(L)-3, the Seawolves, flying the UH-1, and VA(L)-4, the Black Ponies, flying the OV-10, to take up the mission the Army was unable or unwilling to do. The Seawolves would be stationed and operate at remote sites and at night.
The Black Ponies, limited to runways, would operate from a central base, similar to the Army, but would bring to the problem a much faster aircraft and the ability to be dedicated to riverine support from an alert status. They could get to the far reaches of the Delta three times as fast as Army helicopters and almost as fast as the local Seawolves. When they arrived, they brought with them welcomed firepower in the form of 5-inch Zuni rockets and twenty-millimeter guns that was unmatched by any Army aviation we ever saw in the Delta. Heavy artillery for the really big jobs in our little war. They were far more effective than any Air Force or carrier bombers (not that we ever saw any) because of the Black Ponies well-respected pinpoint close air support. They knew the boats, and the Seawolves. We complemented each other nicely. Throughout the Delta, Seawolves and Black Ponies were considered by all commanders to be their own FACs, an acknowledged and approved exception to MACV policy existing at the time, which required FACs to control and direct "gunships".
By 1971, the Seawolves, Black Ponies, and SEALS were the last remaining Navy combat forces in the Delta. They held the line while U.S. forces withdrew from the Delta.
HA(L)-3 Concept of Ops
The concept of ops for the Seawolves was simple. Establish several two-helo detachments and "permanently" locate them as close to the operating areas of the Navy riverine forces to be supported as conditions would allow. The det would be on continuous alert, and be able to respond to a call for help within minutes. By being located in the operating area, it would be able to be on station within just a few minutes of a scramble. It could navigate to the area expeditiously because it would be flying over as area that it patrolled constantly and knew intimately. Upon arrival at the scene of action, it would be able to effectively coordinate with the Navy units in contact because they operated together routinely, probably operated from the same or a neighboring support base, and knew each other well.
Seawolf Detachment Organization
The det consisted of eight pilots, and eight aircrew-gunners who were also the mechs for the two UH-1B helicopters. Later in the war the UH-1B began to be replaced by later model H-1's which had more powerful engines and more efficient rotor systems, the UH-1M. For some obscure reason, the Army provided HA(L)-3 with its helicopters, probably out of guilt, because the Seawolves were doing a mission they could not seem to satisfactorily perform themselves. But there wasn't THAT much guilt, they were the oldest helicopters in-country. We didn't see anything newer than the H-1 BRAVO until all Army units were flying D and H models or better, and the last B models had been attrited. Actually, the Army provided the helicopters from their largess because there weren't 30 spare helicopters available in the entire Navy which could be operated as helicopter gunships. 30 Army helicopters was a drop in the bucket and they would do almost anything to stop the Navy criticism of their lack of responsiveness to Navy close air support needs in the Delta.
The det had an O-in-C, usually a Commander or Lieutenant Commander, an assistant O-in-C, usually a Lieutenant, and six JayGees. Between the six jaygees, they held down the admin officer and maintenance officer jobs. No other REAL jobs and no make-work B.S. jobs. Virtually NO paperwork! Reasonable.
Operationally, the officers were qualified as Fire Team Leaders (FTLs), Attack Helicopter Aircraft Commanders (AHACs), lead ship copilot, and trail ship copilot. The FTL position was earned after enough time in country to become an AHAC (100 hours combat mission time, AND 500 hours total) plus another 100 combat mission hours as an AHAC. No exceptions. This meant that fire teams could be led by JayGees with Commanders for copilots. In fact, it was normal until the "newbie O-in-C" got his time. If, for some reason there was only one FTL, the det ran only one fire team until someone else got his time, or until the squadron moved another FTL to the det. No compromises of quality for the sake of "giving" a qual or filling a slot.
The basic combat unit was the fire team. Only in an extreme emergency would the det fly a single aircraft in combat. The FTL ran the mission. The lead ship copilot, the most experienced of the two non-HAC pilots (required hours not defined), was responsible for fire team navigation and determining the position cooordinates for target or landmarks. The trail aircraft of the fire team, flown by the non-FTL AHAC, was responsible for covering the FTL in a fire fight. The trail copilot was in the learning seat. He practiced nav towards promotion to the lead ship, and worked the pylon mini-gun and the M-79. He had been trained by the Army in the UH-1 on the weapon systems we used. It was thorough basic stateside training. All he needed was to learn the lessons of combat that modified the stateside training to a more usable product.
Two crews stood the alert for a 24 hour period taking all calls and patrols during that time. Then the other two crews stood their 24 hours. If the action was heavy enough during a given duty period, the O-in-C would rotate crews early to keep up fighting efficiency and provide a margin of safety. The crews alternated for the entire tour. There were no holidays, no safety standdowns, no days off for the det. We flew patrols on the formal cease-fire days, such as the Tet New Year and Christmas. Saw action on those days too. It was a cease-fire in Saigon. Not in the boonies.
Seawolf Helicopter Armament
The aircraft were armed with two forward firing seven-shot 2.75-inch rocket pods fired by the pilot in the right seat. Rockets had a variety of warheads. There was smoke, of various decorator primary colors, which we didn't use much, since it would not likely hurt anybody. White phosphorous, called "willy peter", which we DID use whenever we thought a smoke would be needed because it WOULD hurt somebody. It burned through anything and couldn't be put out easily.
The most common warhead was high explosives fragmentation, or HE, standard ten-pound warhead and the heavier seventeen-pound warhead. We usually used the ten pounders because the rocket's ballistics was more predictable with the lighter payload. We didn't mix them because of the different ballistics. It was hard enough to reliably hit the target with rockets without adding to the problem by mixing warheads. The 2.75-inch rocket motor burned out long before the rocket got to the impact area, and it then flew a much more imprecise ballistic non-powered path the rest of the way. It also weathervaned into the relative wind. Throw the ball out a little and you could shoot the suckers around corners. Change pitch and they went up or down. You could clear your own LZ by firing them in an autorotation, and could send them into the next county by firing with topping pitch pulled.
Finally there was the fleshette warhead, popularly known as "nails". It sent a pattern of 2400 little one-and-a-half inch darts which could cover a football field with one dart in each square foot when fired from the proper altitude. We loved them, but didn't load them often because you couldn't use them anywhere near close enough to do effective close air support. If we didn't have a specific mission coming, and were on alert, we might load a couple of nails to be fired first. Then if the situation was wrong when we got to the scene, we would first "waste" them into a clear area and then get on with the business at hand with the remaining rockets. It was worth the waste because they were simply devastating if you found the right target. They could penetrate ten feet of water with killing force.
There were point detonating fuses and proximity fuses. We took the prox whenever we could get them, because the water and mud would absorb most of the explosive effect of a point det warhead and vent the rest more or less straight up. You had to hit in a tree or hard ground to get a good frag pattern and effective kill radius. You had to be careful with the prox fuses though. If you fired one with a prox fuse too soon after firing a preceding one, it might detonate on the wake of the earlier rocket; a jarring surprise for the unwary shooter. Because we often needed to get rockets away quickly, we would alternate prox with point detonating fuses so two rockets could be fired in quick succession. If the expected target area was wooded extensively, we would select the point det to get better penetration into the forest canopy before the fuse hit something and set off the warhead.
By 1970, the aircraft also featured a 7.62 caliber six-barreled Gatlin gun, colloquially called a mini-gun, mounted on a remote pylon on the left side of the helicopter. It was controlled by the left seat pilot. It had an arc of fire from a few degrees above the horizontal axis of the helo (mechanically stopped below the rotor arc, of course), to 80 degrees down, and from ahead out to the left another 80 degrees. It fired four thousand rounds per minute. The ammunition load was usually about 1500 rounds loaded in a feeder tray inside the cabin. It was a very finicky system and tended to jam unless the copilot was very careful with how he treated it. No sudden movements of the train control, and no short bursts of fire. You had to let it go for the three second burst which was automatically terminated by a cutoff switch in the gun controls. Then the system would usually perform without jamming. That was a plenty long burst, and very colorful at night since every fourth round was a tracer, fifty of the little darlings per three-second burst (and another one hundred fifty invisible ones). Because of all the slightly sloppy linkage of this remote-controlled gun system, the natural dispersion of this gatlin gun generally restricted its use if the enemy was too near friendlies.
The best weapons capability rested in the two door gunners. The left door gunner usually manned a 7.62 caliber M-60 machine gun, chopped down from the ground-pounder version by removing the forward stock and bipod, and the rear stock. It was fired using the pistol grip trigger. It had a second dummy pistol grip fixed to the barrel forward of the one with the trigger, and 90 degrees to it as a second handle. This allowed the gun to be handled by the gunner without the requirement to be fixed to the mount. The gun was mounted on a swivel mount, but could be, and usually was, detached from the swivel during a hot fight, and "free gunned". When free-gunning, the gunner could sweep the gun through a much wider field of fire. He could actually step down on to the skid, lean down and fire the gun behind and under the helicopter at targets even beyond dead astern the aircraft. The gunner rested the butt of the gun on top of his shoulder, rather than into it, absorbing the recoil with his arms, allowing the gun to be much more effectively held on target. The left gunner usually carried about 1000 rounds of ammo. He had a large ammunition box with all the ammo linked in one continuous belt. The box was about a foot high and also acted as his seat. The ammo fed up between his legs to the gun.
The right gunner operated one of two guns depending on the configuration of the aircraft, either a fifty caliber heavy machine gun, or a door mounted mini-gun. He also had a backup M-60 in case his primary weapon malfunctioned at a critical moment. The mini-gun had the same basic characteristics as the flex pylon mounted one on the left side. Being mounted in the door, the gun was considered more valuable than mounted on the right pylon where it had once been. Because it was aimed by the hand of the gunner, it did not need the flex mount motors for training, thus eliminating a great deal of the sloppy linkage. For this reason it was more "precise" than the pylon version, and the gunner had better control of the pattern of rounds. Also for this reason, it did not break down as often, there were fewer moving parts and subsystems. But it still broke down more often than the older, simpler, guns. When it inevitably did, the gunner could access the gun to repair jams and other malfunctions. The right door mini-gun usually carried about 1500 rounds of ammo.
Because of the tendency of the mini-gun to malfunction, the other helicopter in the typical det was usually outfitted with a fifty caliber heavy machine gun, a more reliable gun with a longer accurate range, and good penetrating power because of the larger bullet. It was able to fire armor piercing and incendiary tracer rounds as well. The other guns had only ball and tracer ammunition. Some dets were able to scrounge the aviation version of the fifty. It had a shorter barrel, and fired 900 rounds per minute as opposed to the 600 rounds per minute for the regular ground fifty. The only problem with the fifty was the number of dud rounds we sometimes encountered. Some of the ammo boxes were packed during World War II. The helo carried about 1000 rounds of fifty ammo.
The aggregate of all the ammo, about 5000 rounds sounds impressive but it amounted to about two minutes of continuous fire in a hot fire fight. The reason I say that the gunners were our best weapons capability, was because of the amazing accuracy our extremely well-trained, and proficient gunners could achieve with their hand-held weapons. They fired their basic load of ammunition at least every other day, either for real, or on training proficiency shoots at the end of an uneventful patrol. A THOUSAND rounds minimum, EVERY OTHER DAY!! Per MAN!! I have to laugh at the 300 rounds per DET per QUARTER allocation for todays squadrons and dets being sent in harm's way. Somebody is going to get harmed all right, but it may not be the intended somebody.
Much of the fire from the helo was directed to the close proximity of friendly units. Real close. Because of that requirement, the gunners knew that the first rounds had to be on target. That took some real marksmanship. Anybody who can water his lawn, can eventually get rounds on target with a machine gun that is firing tracers from an air platform. In the meantime, rounds are falling where they may not be welcomed by friendly forces. To keep up the skill to put the first rounds in the intended place, the gunners would sometimes shoot seagulls out of the air. The understood rule was that they had to have hit the bird by the fourth tracer, or let it go. That is a 1.5 second burst of sixteen rounds. Very good shooting when you can do it. Most of them could. Tough on the occasional seagull, but really tough on the VC and NVA.
In addition to the station weapons, the crew carried their own personal weapons, for use if they went down. These usually consisted of a hand gun, of wide variety, and a rifle or submachine gun, also of great variety. In the squadron armory, a modest selection of guns was available. If the armory didn't have anything to tickle your fancy, the black market gun market was easily accessible and offered an amazing selection in plentiful quantities, and the selection was exceeded only by the agreeable prices. Since we didn't have to carry them or their ammunition any farther than the helicopter, choices were made based on firepower and "style".
An aircraft was also typically armed with at least one M-79 grenade launcher, a shoulder fired weapon which broke down like a shotgun for loading a 40 mm genade. We carried the M-79 because it could fire CS, an industrial strength tear gas which was helpful in flushing reluctant VC out of undergrowth and bunkers and into the open where we could shoot them. They didn't like to be in the open when helicopters were around. Contrary to the movies, VC caught in the open by helicopter gunships, even a large number of VC, usually resulted in all the VC becoming dead or incapacitated in a very short time, with little or no damage to the helicopter. The M-79 was also useful as a hand weapon for defense until rescue arrived, if we were downed. It could fire a shotgun round, an illumination flare, and the standard grenade round as well as the CS. We also carried "pop-flares" for illumination at night. They were hand-fired by hitting the butt with the heel of your hand. There was also a supply of smoke hand grenades for marking targets and determining the winds. The M-79 rounds usually were stowed under the copilot's seat, and the smoke grenades were usually hung where they could be easily reached on the sheet-metal wind deflectors (which had handy louver holes in them) riveted to the door posts.
There was also added to this heavy load, "chicken Plates", chest armor for the pilots, body armor and butt armor for the gunners. The pilots sat in armored seats. The gunners sat on a chicken plate over their ammo boxes. There was no other armor protection for aircraft parts such as engine, transmission, or tail rotor drive. Since the aircraft was single engine, the det "never" went into combat except as a two aircraft fire team. Two aircraft provided mutual covering fire support during engagements.
An interesting side note from the Army. Rumor was that they told the Navy that a door mounted mini-gun would not work, and that the aircraft could not be made to absorb the recoil of a fifty. It would tear the aircraft apart. They didn't arm their Hueys with such weapons. At least I never saw any armed that way.
With the above armament, the outstanding accuracy, and the wide field of fire provided by the door gunners, the riverine forces said that they preferred the Seawolves to the more glamorous Army Cobras.
The Army FACs were the best Army pilots available, or at least among the bravest. They flew little L-19, high-winged Piper Cubs, that could seat one passenger. They were as slow as we were, and had no guns. They did, however, have two rocket pods under each wing which they loaded with smoke rockets to mark targets. We would work with them whenever they asked. They patrolled as we did, the only visible Army presence in the realm of offensive patrolling that we could see.
The normal drill with the FACs was for a FAC to spot some suspicious activity somewhere, and call up the local Seawolf det for a strike. We worked with them a lot because the other Army helos were so slow and unresponsive to the discoveries of their FACs. They apparently had bigger fish to fry and couldn't get to the scene before the FACs were out of gas or before the situation had changed and the opportunity to hit the enemy had passed. We were local and would respond with a scramble.
When we arrived and joined the FAC, he would swoop down in his piper cub L-19, and shoot a smoke rocket into the target area, pulling up in a steep climbing turn seemingly right over the target. He would go in much closer than we normally did, and was always more accurate with his smoke than we were with our HE. We never could figure out why the Army just didn't replace his smokes with HE and let him do the job himself.
They held our respect without qualification, along with the Army "Dustoff" helicopters. Dustoff was the common Army callsign for Medevac helicopters. They flew "D" and "H" model Hueys, stretch versions of the Hueys we were flying. They were prominently emblazoned on the nose and on the doors with large red crosses on white backgrounds, which were to identify them as medical aircraft, protected from hostile fire by the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention also prohibited these helicopters from being armed, even for self-defense. In Vietnam, the Geneva Convention markings seemed only to serve as better aim points for the enemy, and the prohibition on guns only prevented the Dustoffs from returning the hostile fire which was frequently directed at them. The fat bullseyes and the lack of guns never seemed to deter the Dustoffs from braving hostile fire to evacuate the wounded. They went in regardless of the hostile fire unless it was of such intensity that no helicopter could be expected to survive it. Sometimes even that fire did not stop them. They would go in where gunships feared to tread. We set them apart, along with the FACs, from the rest of Army aviation that we encoountered in the Delta.
Scramble Seawolves! Part 2
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips