It was a dark and moonless night. . . . . No it wasn't. It was a bright and moonlit night. A big moon, a bright night, clear skies washed clean by the pure monsoon rains of the day. We were running a night patrol, looking for trouble, spoiling for a fight, name your cliché. . . .
Soon after moving into the new AO down by the mouths of the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, we had flown around to meet the neighbors. We were the only local, night capable, air support and it was a good idea to get the lay of the land in sunlight so we could better provide the night close air support to friendly bases, if it became necessary.
One of the most important stops on this area fam was at a fire base which was the local district headquarters and was home to two U.S. Navy advisors to the local forces, LCDR Dick Watkins, and LT Jim Barnett. They were shoes. With the district being adjacent to the coast, one of their problems was infiltration of supplies from the sea; a mere trickle thanks to the success of Operation Market Time, but still a problem. The area was Mangrove Swamps under triple canopy riddled with rivers and streams. A few were large rivers, easily navigable by medium sized ships, some of them were big enough to float an ocean-going junk. Virtually all of them could handle sampans and the indigenous canoes (which reminded me of small Venetian gondolas without the fancy paint work).
Watkins knew the infiltration of supplies from the sea was happening, but the patrolling of the local garrison of VN forces, mostly "Ruff Puff" (RF-PF Regional and Popular forces) local militia, had yielded no results. U.S. ground combat forces, including surface Navy units, had been withdrawn from the area by this phase of the war; (the bug-out phase). He saw our arrival in the neighborhood as an opportunity to try a new approach to interdicting the supply process. The ocean junks brought the goods inland at night, as far into the mangrove as they could navigate, to distribute to smaller boats for dispersal into the deep, dark, protective depths of the mangrove swamp fastness. Maybe air interdiction would work, now that there were some night fighters available. He talked us into giving it a try, providing the general coordinates of the suspected transfer area.
So there we were, on patrol shortly after moonrise, myself as the FTL (fire team leader) and Steve Hanvey as the trail AHAC (attack helicopter aircraft commander), hoping that the local bad guys might be out and about, especially since this area had probably never seen aircraft at night, at least not in the memory of any of the good guys here. We hoped that night helicopter operations would be a novelty to the local VC also. We didn't want to spook them so we waited to try a night patrol until we had worked out a mission plan which had promise., We developed a search plan based on the condition of the moon. We had consulted a somewhat perplexed navigator on the LST which was our base. He understood the time of moonrise to be of normal interest to night flyers (especially commanders), and he easily found that data in an almanac, but we also wanted to know the bearing of moonrise. That took some actual celestial navigation computations, so he enlisted the expertise of his best quartermaster to answer our question.
We wanted to use the light of the silvery moon to illuminate the waterways during our search. We wanted to be downmoon at moonrise so we could use the low angle moon beam to illuminate the search area like a big search light. We would sweep the area by virtue of our rapid transit perpendicular to the bearing to the moon. Our flight path would sweep the moonbeam across a swath of the search area, catching, we hoped, a hostile craft silhouetted against the surface of the water. We felt it was important to perform the sweep as soon after the moon was high enough to reflect on the waterways as possible, and before the obvious bright bath of a high moon might drive the night crawlers to ground. Being in position would involve a long transit since moonrise was in the east and so were we. We had to get over to the west of the op area, get refueled (we had such pitifully short legs) and be ready to sweep the area with our "moonbeam night vision contrast device". This time in history was before common availability of NVGs and, anyway, our needs covered a much large area of sweep than the capability of the night vision devices of the day, which were called Starlights. Starlights were not much good beyond a few hundred yards, and absolutely useless from a helicopter. The range was way too short and the vibrations, of even a well-tracked Huey rotor system (an oxymoron), sent the picture into a frenzy of oscillations which made the image useless. I approached the area at an altitude of 3000 feet, with my wingman, Hanvey, ahead and below at 2000. This way we swept two swaths of reflected moonlight during the same pass. It also put us a good distance away from the area under observation (about five to ten miles), making us somewhat covert. By being in trail myself, unusual for a fire team leader, I could direct my wingman in to the attack while controlling the tactical situation.
No sooner had we started our sweep than Tom Cleverdon, my co-pilot, spotted and reported a small black dot disturbing the surface of one of the distant streams illuminated in the moonbeam. "Nine-nine, Nine-eight, we've got something, steer one one zero and take her to the deck, we'll direct you."
We had already coordinated with the province senior advisor and gotten clearance to fire on any boat traffic found in the op area, which was a free fire zone that night. A declared free fire zone meant the zone was clear of all friendly forces, and off limits to civilians. We had checked in with him, once on station, and were good to go. No one in this area was out boating for any innocent purpose. Hanvey's aircraft fell away in a spiral under us until he got down to tree top level and turned to one one zero. We slowed to sixty knots and started to S-turn to keep the target silhouetted in the moonbeam, yet stay clear. We were probably five or six miles away from the boat, but the silhouette was starkly crisp and the wake was also visible disturbing the smooth surface of the water in the moonbeam. Nine-nine was now running at max speed down on the deck, while we basically held our course with no maneuvers. If the VC boat crew saw anything, it was a distant helicopter at high altitude plodding along, not an unusual sight in the Delta. Our position to the west of the boat was also in the direction of "civilization" where all the government forces and aircraft lived and routinely operated, never venturing out to the coastal mangrove swamps except in daylight and then only in force. It was perfect.
With a few small corrections from us, Steve swept over the treetops towards the boat and we maneuvered and commenced a glide to keep the boat in the light while closing.
"Approaching the target. Looks like a big ole junk, high stern, high foc'sle, well deck. It's the next big stream. I'm bringing you up astern of this guy. When you hit the stream, a hard right sixty'll line you up flying down the river and he'll be right off your nose."
"Click, click. . . . ."
"Nine-nine, the jig's up, he's turning for the bank!" Steve didn't need our guidance any more; he was close enough to take care of business. We therefore pushed over to a steeper glide to coax even more speed out of the overloaded Bravo. I thought back to Hoa Binh and the flight controls hydraulics lock which almost sent me home in a box. (See "Scramble Seawolves," Part 5}
"Tom, we'll have to slow down before we make any tight turns here." "Rahjah."
He knew what I meant; we had discussed that hydraulics hardover many times during normal rocket runs, yet here we were diving at max speed again. At least we didn't anticipate any hard turns before we would be able to slow down, minimizing the chances of repeating Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Hanvey's helicopter reached the river bank and rolled into a steep right turn to line up with the course of the river. Right ahead was the boat, now port beam to the onrushing helo as the helmsman tried desperately to get to the shadows under the trees and out of sight. He wasn't going to make it. From our higher altitude, my crew and I could see the red tracers of the copilot's mini-gun and both door gunners as they opened fire on the boat directly off their nose. The tracers poured into the boat, some ricochetting into the night, as always. Geysers rose, short of, and beyond the junk, obliterating the sharp black silhouette which had just previously been starkly contrasting against the smooth water. The helo flashed past the boat and most of the tracers ceased except for the stream from the left door gunner's M-60 which also stopped as Hanvey reefed the Bravo into a low altitude night rotor over as he clawed back around to the right, trading airspeed for the energy to complete the turn.
Jeez Steve, be careful! I thought as I watched the helo complete a 270? turn and come back up the port side of the boat, which was just reaching the bank. Flames were visible on the boat. A new stream of tracers erupted from the starboard door gunner. No rockets; too close, too low, pilot too busy flying to shoot them. No gunfire from the copilot or left gunner, they couldn't bring their guns to bear in a pass this close to the position of the burning junk.
Nine-nine passed by the boat again, his starboard gunner pouring a continuous stream of .50 cal into the hull and superstructure, and started a moderate climbing right turn designed to keep the fifty bearing on the target and the rotors out of the way of the outgoing fifty-cal. rounds, while spiraling out, opening into a low circle around the target. This extend also receded the unlighted helicopter back into the dark, making the black-green Seawolf virtually invisible, except for the muzzle flashes of the fifty. No sense in overstaying the welcome in close. And no sense in maneuvering wildly that close so as to mask his own gunner's fire as he opened. To stop firing that close in was to invite somebody to take courage and return fire with the helo visible and close enough to offer a good chance to connect. Transitioning into a circle also allowed us to join in the festivities. We were fast approaching.
The boat blew up. Hollywood style.
Huge red and black fireball mushrooming up from the well deck. The superstructure on the stern burst into flames and the windows and portholes on the sides and stern lit up from inside like a giant jack-o-lantern. It glided into the river bank as I joined Nine-nine in the gun circle.
We tightened the circle and closed in for a better look, being careful not to get opposite each other in the circle (ricochets). We were no longer firing. The gunners had just naturally stopped when the junk exploded. We saw no people anywhere. Now that we were down on the deck, the moon was too low to illuminate anything, and the flames from the bonfire that was once a sea-going junk had quickly destroyed our night vision. Either the crew was immolated on board, or they were in the river, invisible to us.
"Nine-nine, did you take any fire?"
Pause. Probably while Steve checked with his gunners. He was a little busy to be checking for muzzle flashes himself during the aerobatic derring-do of the gun pass and honking return. (I'd have to remember to talk to him about his mortality when we landed and debriefed. He also needed to be reminded that the ground had a Pk of 1.)
"Well, what do you think?"
"Explosives. Nothing on a normal boat could make that kind of blast, not even the fuel tank. It went up like a tinder box too. Probably more low order burning. Wow! What a show. . . Say your state." "Bout fifteen minutes. Time to head for the barn."
We refueled and returned to the area, finding nothing more that night.
By morning, LCDR Watkins had embarked his Ruff Puffs in a small flotilla of sampans, escorted by PBRs, to move to the site of the burned out wreck. We flew cover. It was the first time I had flown escort cover for a riverine force since we had left the Plain of Reeds, several months ago. It was new to the rest of the fire team, except for the senior gunners. Air cover for a river transit was a dicey mission. If the VC were on the ball, they couldn't help but know where the force was going. In this case, the Ruff Puffs were going from their base to the site of last nights fireworks. There could be no maskirovka (Russian for operational deception). Would they have time to set up an ambush? Would they be organized to do it? Would they be motivated to do it? Had we hurt them last night?
A fire team convoy escort is torn between two tactical tasks; overhead cover and close support in case of ambush, or a reconnaissance sweep ahead to discover and preempt an ambush. Overhead presence was important because an ambush might be prevented with the gunship's presence, or failing that, cover for instant close support was important because a set ambush would be short and quick; open up, overwhelm immediately, and break off quickly if it became a stand-up fight. The rapid response of the helicopters would suppress an ambush quickly and could save the convoy.
Reconnaissance was not necessarily an effective preventive tactic. In this triple canopy, the foliage made detection of disciplined ground troops virtually impossible. It would be very hard to sight ground troops themselves, but the water and mud nature of the ground under the canopy, however, made transit of open ground by even one man almost impossible without leaving tracks in the mud or a muddy trail through the shallow water. Sampans also left muddy trails in the shallow water, unless the rain had recently silted up the water. Daylight transit in deeper water, which would leave no signs of passage, opened the movers up to sudden encounters with allied PRBs or helicopters which could be conducting high speed sweeps of the larger waterways, especially in a free fire zone being showered with allied attention. VC daylight boat operation in the major waterways was considered a form of suicide by 1971.
Because the time between the sinking and the convoy's departure had been so short, the VC would need to be taking some risks to set up a trap in time along the likely routes. So recon of the approaches to the convoy route was of some value. Unless the VC were already along the route. Then it would be a waste of time and would take us away from the convoy for critical minutes. It was a dilemma. Which task to do? We couldn't do both because we would never split up the fire team. The answer was to get more assets, so we scrambled another det. Until the second det arrived, we flew the standard lazy eight pattern behind the convoy. The lazy eight (the fire signal on the flight line) was oriented with its lobes perpendicular to the convoy track and a little behind the convoy. It was a good escort pattern, if you had to fly escort. Both turns were toward the direction of the convoy motion. The aircraft were spaced so that one was turning in along the flanks of the convoy while the other was crossing from one lobe to the other. Neither aircraft was ever more than 90 degrees from a rocket run, and both aircraft were in position to cover and support which ever one initiated the first run on target. As a change of pace to try to not be too terribly metronomic, we could pass up one side of the convoy and set up a lazy eight a little ahead of the convoy for a while, turning back towards the convoy at the ends of the lobes. Any ambush would immediately take fire from the air escort to support the boats clearing the ambush zone. If the VC wanted to fight, we were waiting for them. Obviously. SO if they started something, they must think they were in a good situation, which means that any fire fight which flared up was likely to be a nasty one with some undesirable surprises for us somewhere.
This defensive posture was not a comfortable or happy situation. The element of tactical surprise was clearly not with us, and we were asking for a stand-up fair fight. We were glad to see Det Three arrive to take over while we reconned ahead toward the burned junk. They changed the tactical situation much more than the mere presence of additional guns. We could now both protect the convoy and aggressively range ahead with the potential to upset the enemy's plans. Not that a route recon of a telegraphed track was much better. We were now unchained from the restrictions of the covering perch and the prospects of a setup fight on the enemies terms, but were operating at tree level, scouting the river edge for signs of an ambush. A case of possibly leaping out of the frying pan into the fire. It would take some skill and work to keep from flying right into the mouths of any guns set up along the river. Flying along the river bank at low level in one continuous sweep was simply asking to be shot down. We had to use another way.
We started by scouting behind the river banks, looking for tracks leading up to where ambush positions would be sited to fire on the river. In some places the foliage was thinned enough to be able to see the deck for signs. In the places where the ground was really open, there was no point in even looking. No VC was going to set up an ambush position with his line of retreat across an open area if he had the option to avoid it, and in this forest, he certainly did. The boat drivers might have gotten a little sloppy last night being lulled into incaution by an historic lack of night air patrols until our det moved into the area, but their leaders didn't survive all these years of guerilla warfare in the Delta by being stupid. The stupid ones were either long dead, or were too young and junior to be in charge.
After a good look at the approaches to the banks, with no joy, we had to take an actual look at the banks themselves. This required getting low and close to see under the overhang. By approaching the river banks from the depths of the forest, right on the tree tops, we could minimize any chances for VC to shoot at us from any direction except directly below. In other words, hostile fire was minimized to a factor of luck. With the morning sun at our backs as we approached the edge of the trees, we could see across to the other bank and under the foliage overhang, which was bathed in sunlight instead of immersed in shadows. This technique gave us almost as good a look as flying right along the bank in the middle of the river (possibly between two fields of fire) would have done, and gave us a much better situation should we take fire. We would approach the river at about a 45 degree angle and turn before actually getting out in the channel, fly along the forest edge for a short distance scanning the far bank, and swing back away from the bank to make another approach a little farther along. This took care of looking at the sunny side of the river bank.
To get a look at the shady side, we would cross to the other side, drop the lead into the river bed for a short stretch to get a quick look, and then skip up and over to the upsun side, putting trees under the bird and minimizing the enemy field of fire except when down in the river. there was a good shot from the sunny side of the river bank, but that side had been checked once, hopefully an effective check. While the lead was down in the river, the trail flew almost abeam and slightly behind, closer to abeam than the normal trail, in an extended parade, but positioned to open fire immediately on the opposite bank from a relatively safe position over the trees. The trail could fire across behind the lead aircraft and into the river bank on the shady side. This would present the VC with a little problem while trying to concentrate their fire on the closer helicopter, the leader, since the trail would be in a position to deliver accurate fire without receiving much in return unless the enemy divided his fire, a desirable outcome considered in the design of the tactic.
The other ace we held, an ace of trumps, of course, was the skill, and volume of fire, of our gunners. Let's get real; the best thing going for any helicopter in a fire fight, at any altitude, was the ability to rapidly suppress enemy fire with instant, noisy, plentiful, and accurate, gunfire. Smart formation allowed both birds to get fire on target without getting in each others way. Even a momentary obstruction could be detrimental, or even fatal, to the fire team. If we took fire at this low level, the response from our very experienced gunners would be our best card; a very good, and trustworthy card indeed.
We found no signs of VC, and the friendlies were not ambushed. When they arrived at the scene of last night's one-sided fight, we covered the local troops while they surveyed the wreckage. They found no bodies, but the boat was full of burned weapons, explosives, and supplies. Nothing had been salvaged. Good nights work.
As we expanded our protective circling of the area, we discovered footprints in the mud. They led across a small mud flat into a large second growth of bush. The patch of bush was isolated from the trees surrounding the mud flat by a few yards of telltale mud. They went in but didn't come out. Interesting. I cleared AE2 Solomon to open up on the brush to see what we could flush. His door-mounted mini-gun fire disappeared into the brush and made large potholes in the mud, as expected, but also spawned off a much higher number of ricochets than we should have expected from soggy bushes in mud flats. While Nine-nine circled, I set up for a rocket run and placed a 10-pound proximity fuse 2.75" rocket into the tangle. It blew away enough foliage to see the outlines of a structure under the branches. Not a reinforced roof bunker, but a small thatch hootch partially dug into the natural rise of a small mound. We saturated it with gunfire from low altitude and close aboard, receiving none in return. A mini-gun does an amazing number on a small thatch hut. It reminded me of nothing as much as a Saturday morning cartoon of a house being attacked by termites. It literally shook and dissolved in midair with dust and chips flying everywhere and finally collapsed in on itself. Whoever was in that hootch was either riddled with bullets, or in a very deep hole under the collapsed detritus of the hootch. Not too deep though, the water table in this area was virtually at the surface. We moved on.
Within just a few minutes, Steve's aircraft sighted a large junk under the trees, covered with camouflage netting and natural brush cuttings woven in. Moving in for a look, I spotted another within a few feet. We had stumbled on a whole squadron of big junks and medium sized sampans in a labyrinth of inlets and creeks within a thousand yards of the scene of the attack. We shot them up, setting fire to a few, and guided the local troops to the site where the rest were destroyed. Five junks, eight sampans, fueled, stocked, but abandoned. Hastily abandoned in all likelihood since there were no booby traps. Serendipity. Nothing but luck would have gotten us close enough, low enough, and slow enough, to have found those boats without the intense interest in the area generated by our moonlight good fortune.
The night patrol was a successful practical application of celestial navigation skills for the purpose of "finding our way." Well we found the enemy "our way" using the nautical almanac. Not exactly what it was designed for, but in combat you use all the assets, advantages, skill, resources, and cunning you can get. We searched the river taking advantage of the natural conditions extant; the sun, shadows, the mud and the shallow water telltales. We "hid" in the trees. We hid in the low sun. We worked hard to mutually support each other and to expose ourselves no more than necessary to complete the mission. We did not present the enemy with a good chance for a fair fight.
Using all the advantage you can get, and setting up your mission based on a GOOD plan, you may find yourself "luckier" than the next guy, which may translate to staying alive instead of getting dead, which is considered to be very UNlucky, by definition, and not very good planning.
Postscript: My SPOTREP (Enemy spotting report, predecessor to the OPREP-3 no doubt) for the day's work reported the sinking of the infiltrator, and the destruction of the other junks and sampans we had discovered. A month later, I saw my exact words, with the count of the junks and sampans, quoted in a news magazine, lamenting that in a single day, the mighty United States Navy had nothing better to do than sink these indigenous boats, harass the poor innocent civilians who owned the boats, and otherwise run amuck in Vietnam. Little did the righteously indignant little socialist journalist know that his numbers did not represent the efforts of the entire Navy, but merely the efforts of a single Seawolf detachment and some friends. Boy! Would he have been pissed if his source had been able to give him the entire war's worth of destruction for the day? (Inset box)
Visiting the potpourri of home-made bases revealed some interesting architecture and scenery and made for some interesting landings. For, example, the most prevalent design for helo pad in the rural sections of the Delta was a small circle of concrete or crushed gravel enclosed by a ring of expended 105 mm howitzer shell casings driven into the mud, open end down, to form a containment ring.
("Battery A, this is headquarters, fire another eight rounds of H&I, gunner, we're not quite finished with the new helo landing pad.")
Much of the in-country building improvements made use of common materials left about carelessly unguarded. Need concrete or galvanized corrugated aluminum sheets? No problem. About the only material easier to lay your hands on than corrugated aluminum, was flattened beer cans (we didn't have much of a recycling program in those days). It was completely normal to see civilian hooches sided with beer cans, and roofed with corrugated aluminum, the "yards" fenced with barbed wire in creative designs, and the ditches bridged with sheets of marston matting. We also found the same building material in VC camps which we discovered from time to time.
("To get to the Ben Xe Moi market, follow the highway to the corner with the Pabst Blue Ribbon hootch next to the Carling Black Label hootch, and turn right, go down to the Schlitz. . . They were almost always carefully sorted by label, no tacky mix of brands.)
The local province chief's headquarters was interesting; an old French-style farm house nestled in a grove of trees, an island in a sea of rice paddies. It was built in the French colonial design made famous by movies of the '30's and '40's. The house was surrounded by about a half dozen concentric rings of concertina wire with the helo pad OUTSIDE the wire. The pad was of the 105-howitzer-shell style with concrete. This particular pad also featured a concrete sidewalk, one man wide, which led through the wire into the headquarters. Grass had grown up within the concertina to about waist height creating the effect of the house appearing bunkered; buried half way up the windows. It appeared quite formidable on first impression.
The effect was spoiled by the presence of several cows in amongst the wire circles, wandering at will, apparently unimpeded by the wire, contentedly feeding on the succulent and tender grass, which, as we all know, is always greener on the other side of the concertina. Upon closer study, other signs that the place was not so secure became evident: the gates through the wire were unlocked. No sign of a lock. The bunker guarding the path was in such disrepair that the guards were sprawled on chairs on the dirt mound that once was the bunker wall when the bunker had been new and kept in good order. And finally, the evidence, which struck me in the heart; it was sedate enough around the area for the locals to park their helicopters OUTSIDE the defenses of the site. Sign seen at the helo pad:
NO PARKING SUNSET TO SUNRISE
ANYONE LEAVING THEIR VEHICLE OVERNIGHT
WILL RISK HAVING IT POUNDED
Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips