Scramble Seawolves! Part 11

Larry Bradshaw

by Tom Phillips, Seawolf 98 | Reprinted with permission

Seawolf Det Nine was out visiting the neighbors again. This time we were down at Solid Anchor hob-nobbing with our brother Seawolves of Det One. Solid Anchor was a thorn in the side of the VC. They really hated it; much more so than the run-of-the-mill U.S. base. The reason was that it was on what they long had considered, until recently, to be THEIR turf. Waterlogged as it was, it was THEIRS!

From Saigon, at the northeast corner of the soggy Mekong Delta, the table-flat Delta spread out and down to the west and southwest in a regular series of topographical (you could almost use the term hydrographical in this swamp) transitions, roughly approximating concentric rings from west to south around the city.

Near Saigon, the wet land was cultivated rice paddies, decorative and functional tree lines framing the tracts of rice paddies, marking plantation and lesser farms with a wind-break perimeter, edging the rivers, streams, roads, and canals (lots of canals, big and little). There were plantations of palm, rubber, copra, and other stuff in row upon symmetrical row. Altogether the effect was of civilization, cultivation, and order. Highways were more or less paved, somewhat numerous by Delta standards, but clearly second fiddle to the waterway network as means of transportation.

The next concentric ring outward from Saigon was more of the same, with fewer plantations, more unreclaimed swamp, some wild vegetation patches, drowned grass and reed "meadows" (like the Plain of Reeds), and an increasing number of meandering creeks to offset the decreasing number of small canals amidst the still-numerous huge engineering projects of the "superhighway" canal variety. Fewer highways, most of them unpaved, sticking to the more civilized areas. The remote parts depended exclusively on the waterways.

The third concentric ring continued the replacement of civilization with wild. Still plenty of rice paddies, but of the less complex and extensive variety. More wild vegetation patches, more swamps of dense foliage, a lot of "second growth" vegetation (meaning not all that tall). Still myriads of waterways, but usually only the big canals. Only an occasional highway, and those probably not paved, most likely running along the dikes of the canals. All canals in Vietnam had dikes of some magnitude. They had to put the excavation mud somewhere when they dug those canals.

The fourth ring began to get bad. Not much civilization, although lots of "poor farmer" attempts to make something of some pretty wild, but still incredibly fertile terrain. Mangrove swamps began to appear, with the ever-present large canals penetrating to the very centers of the worst of the mangroves. Still some smaller canals here and there, and the "land" was becoming a lot more naturally inundated as opposed to the designed irrigation of the more cultivated areas nearer Saigon. Any roads were a pathetic joke.

Finally, at the extreme edges of the Delta was the worst of it. Vast impenetrable triple canopy mangrove swamps with the ocean on one side and the merely impassable second growth swamps on the other. These areas were still cris-crossed with innumerable creeks and rivers, and, yes, canals. The only possible means of transportation in these swamps was by boat or by air. No roads. None. Zip. Nada.

While the VC could show up anywhere, this remote outer ring was THEIRS. Abandon hope all ye who enter there.

When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became COMNAVFORV (Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam), he saw that outer ring as the next logical place to engage the VC. United States forces had done a pretty good job of controlling most of the first three, more densely inhabited, rings of the Delta, with the occasional flare up, but NO-body wanted any part of those outer provinces until Zumwalt decided to integrate the neighborhood. HIs plan was to deny the VC any uncontested sanctuary, no matter how little the government cared about the land itself (who, besides the VC even wanted this part of the country. Nobody lived there normally except a few woodcutters and charcoal makers). To take the fight to the VC sanctuary at the extreme southern tip of the Delta, he set up a floating base, called Seafloat, on a bunch of barges lashed together, anchored in the Song Cua Lon (Cua Lon River). The Song Cua Lon penetrated the "heart of darkness" that was the triple canopy swamps of the tip of the Delta, as far away from Saigon as you could get. (Sea Float was just one of his sanctuary denial projects; the legendary U Minh Forest and the Rung Sat Special Zone got similar treatment). To establish a permanent presence in the area, the Navy had to begin with a base crammed on a bunch of barges lashed together and anchored in the river because there wasn't any dry land down there.

The U.S. Navy literally sailed in one day, anchored, threw out outposts on the adjacent banks, started tearing down the adjacent forest to create fields of fire, and waited for the neighborhood welcoming committee to organize a housewarming in their honor. Once the VC recovered from the shock of the sudden arrival of the new neighbors, the fireworks began. There was a lengthy and noisy welcome but Seafloat was there to stay. Once anchored properly and the fields of fire established, the floating base was relatively safe, not that it didn't receive regular short flurries of harassing mortar, rocket, and sniper fire, and sappers attempting to swim up and sink the whole shebang. It was a logistical nightmare to move weapons and troops in that area, being severely difficult to just move around, much less move military equipment around clandestinely. Mere travel was a hazardous undertaking all by itself without the possibility of there being an enemy around somewhere. Add to that the aggressive patrolling and nightly ambushes set by the SEALS and by the river patrol boats, and VC harassing operations were almost not worth their effort.

Once Seafloat was installed as a more or less permanent fixture, the next step could be taken in Zumwalt's ambitious plan to establish a really unsinkable base.

The Navy barged in enough sand and dirt to actually build a base on the banks of the Song Cua Lon, which Elmo named Solid Anchor. Solid Anchor was a Navy combat base with its own Army artillery, it's own Navy air (helicopter gunships from HA(L)-3, Seawolf Det One), it's own SEALS, it's own Seabees, and it's own miniature navy; PBRs, Tango Boats, Zippos, Douches, CCBs, Monitors, and the other mutants of the riverine force, for hauling and supporting the Army infantry, who were also tenants. It had all the necessary "rear echelon" types (YNs, PNs, DKs, etc) to provide the amenities and administrative harassment the Navy combat forces required to make them truly happy warriors. Except THESE rear echelon guys frequently manned the bunkers and knew as much about claymores, grenades, pop flares, machine guns, and other assorted stuff as they did about xerox fluid, typewriters, staplers, and Navy forms in triplicate.

The river boats were a marvel and a fine example of U.S. Navy ingenuity in Vietnam. Developed specifically for the Vietnam war, they were a modern page from a proud history, a throwback to U.S. Navy riverine operations in the "Late Unpleasantness" also called the War of Northern Aggression (1861-1865), in which the Navy conducted very effective joint operations with the Yankee invaders who used the rivers of the South as indestructible routes of supply.

A whole scaled down "fleet" was created. PBRs were the destroyers of this navy (river patrol boats). The rest of the fleet was built on the keels of medium landing craft, LCM-6 and the slightly larger LCM-8. They were the legendary bow ramp boats of D-day film footage. Known when unmodified as Mike boats, they were converted into CCBs (command and control boats), Tango boats (troop transports), minesweepers, and monitors. Monitors were the "battleships." Heavily armored with bar armor, they were also heavily armed with mortars, machine guns, 20mm guns, and revolving turrets containing their main battery; either 40mm guns, 105mm howitzers, flame throwers (Zippos), and 3000 psi water cannons (Douches) which were great for literally washing away bunkers. HA(L)-3 Seawolves were commissioned to be their close air support, and could use the "flight decks" built on some of the Tango boats when necessary. Deck was just big enough to fit the skids of a Huey. Both the nose and tail hung over the side and there was only a couple of feet of deck on either side when a Huey perched on one. The Black Ponies of VA(L)-4 were also commissioned to provide the "heavy" air support, flying OV-10s.

Solid Anchor was long but not deep. It ran along the north side of the east-west river bank, had a single road running the length of the place with sandbag-armored, plywood and screen hooches lining both sides, and fighting positions on the river and on the "landward" side facing the triple canopy across a killing ground of felled trees; a modern day abatis on a grand scale. The trees had been simply blasted down, cris crossing each other, liberally doused with Agent Orange to make sure they stayed dead, and left to rot. The whole blasted mess was half submerged and would have been virtually impossible to cross by any large numbers of assaulting sappers against the fire of the defenders. The Det One niche was at the extreme western end so they would have a clear path to take off. They could take off to the west, swing over into the river and have a clear flat run to build up life-protecting speed before they got to the trees. The only problem was that the trees marked the VC turf. For all its hoopla, Solid Anchor only controlled the area within small arms reach of the defending bunkers. Every takeoff, no matter what the direction, took you to the enemy. Patrols, mines, seismic sensors, random artillery fire, and "mad minutes" coinciding with takeoff were all necessities to keep the Seawolves, or any other departing helicopter for that matter, from being an easy target as they climbed out heavy and slow.

Approach to Solid anchor for landing was interesting. Arrive overhead at high key, above a thousand feet, being careful to stay in the corridor of the moment which was not being used by the outgoing arty (who always had the right of way), commence a spiraling autorotation straight down into the perimeter of the base, pull out, power on, roll into a tight turn to decelerate and button hook to a touchdown at the helo pad at the end of the compound.

At night it was a little easier. The VC couldn't see you. Turn off all your lights, and spiral down in powered flight in tight spirals, but not as tight as the autorotation spirals, and wrap it up to a modified quick-stop and landing, keeping your lights off for the whole evolution. Plenty of lights were on the perimeter pointing out, blinding the denizens of the forest. You approached and landed within the perimeter of those lights which afforded some shielding from prying eyes, but provided no armor to stop a bullet, B-40, or RPG.

Det One was down as a fire team, one of its birds having taken some battle damage beyond the det's ability to repair by themselves. There was not an immedaitely available replacement from the main Seawolf maintenance facility in Binh Thuy. Funny thing about battle damage, the maintenance personnel couldn't plan for it under phase maintenance, and sometimes a replacement aircraft wasn't always ready for swap. For serious scheduled maintenance, say a major phase inspection, the bird was flown to Binh Thuy. The det merely flew the bird in, picked up a replacement, and flew back to det. Hardly any down time for the det that way.

Our det had been repositioned to Solid Anchor to fill in for a couple of days until a replacement could be generated for the unscheduled Det One casualty. We were selected to pinch hit because our AO was experiencing a relatively peaceful spell, compared to the legendary "wild and wooly" Solid Anchor.

Det One's layout was simple. There was a square helo pad of Marston matting PSP big enough for four birds (so the det wouldn't have to take off every time somebody came to call).

On the north side was a plywood hootch set up on blocks (to keep the floor above water). Around the hootch were conex boxes for storage, revetted fuel bowsers and munitions storage, water buffaloes, workbenches, and sandbags wherever these other things failed to provide some protection to the hootch. To the south of the pad was the Song Cua Lon. To the west, north, and east, the half-drowned abatis swamp, which went from the river, around clockwise, down the length of Solid Anchor to meet the river again beyond the little base to the east. To the east of the pad, running parallel to the river, stretched the main drag and the rest of the base. The pad was bordered by waist-high revetments on the south and west, with bunkers beyond, both serving to break up the silhouette of aircraft and people on the pad, and protecting them from direct fire. In effect, the whole pad was revetted, by either legitimate revetment walls or sandbagged plywood buildings.

The hootch was also simple; plywood walls and floor, tin roof. Two rooms; the "front room was the ready room/bar, and the back room was the crib (sleeping quarters). The ready room had a bar the length of the west wall and there were tables and chairs scattered around the room. The place was briefing room, dining room, cards parlor, lounge, movie hall, all rolled into one, and sometimes all at the same time. The crib had double pipe bunks, aligned ship-fashion (parallel to the passageway) as opposed to barracks-fashion (perpendicular to the main passageway). The passageway went down the middle leading to the "back door." No windows. Out the back door, down the steps and take an immediate right and you could dive into the hiding bunker (as opposed to a "fighting" bunker). A few yards beyond the back door were the fighting bunkers embedded into a mud wall, and occasionally crowned with rather low watch towers.

Many of the amenities of civilization had been procured for the hootch. The bunks had mosquito netting and fans. The place was air-conditioned (sort of). There was a radio in the bar; a military radio for communications, that is. There was also entertainment radio (which could receive no station that far from civilization, but seemed like a good idea when purchased), reel-to-reel tape deck, amp and speakers; all Westpac "specials" procured in the local exchanges, or bought through the far east military exchange catalog. And there was a ton of booze, all kinds of it. Across the outside front of the hootch (the south side, facing the pad) above the door, was hung a surveyed rotor blade, painted to proclaim "Seawolves Det One." It was still a makeshift lash-up, however. For instance, the back door had no doorknob. Instead, it had a big ten-penny nail sticking out where the knob should have been. It was a serviceable door handle; it would do in a pinch. But not in an emergency. It opened inward.

Det Nine had brought two crews to man our bird which would fly trail on the Det One bird during any operations. On our first night at Solid Anchor, my crew was the off crew and we had all settled in for a good night's sleep. We had spent the day getting briefed on the AO and the likely operations we could expect. We had also been briefed on the GQ SOP. Should there be any attacks on the base, the fire team would scramble. The Det One off duty crews would man their stations in the perimeter bunkers bringing their several machine guns to the fray. Being the new guys, we had no defensive responsibilities. For good reasons; we didn't know the layout of the base well enough to be running around during a night attack and we didn't know the organization, callsigns, and capabilities of the defenders enough to be of significant help. Not the first night. If anything happened, we were to get in the hiding bunker until somebody with a clue told us to do something. Fine with us. Good plan.

The scramble during a shelling was not just an unnecessary bravado or over-aggressive pseudo-heroics. There were a number of good reasons for taking this risk. First of all, the faster the aircraft could be moved, the more likely they would escape damage. The helos were always a prime target in any attack. Second, once removed from danger of being caught on the deck, they became the hunters, and the attackers were quickly obligated to cease fire or be subject to discovery by the airborne gunships, which would be followed by swift and devastating retribution. Third, if the birds lost the race to get airborne, Solid Anchor would be subjected to a prolonged shelling with no aircraft to give the enemy reason to cease and desist. Counterbattery would not be nearly as effective in forcing the VC to abandon the shelling.

So a shelling was always a high stakes race, in more ways than one. The VC setting up mobile indirect fire weapons in the swamp, could not accurately register their weapons without a certain number of ranging rounds, adjusted by a distant observer without any elevation to make his job quicker. Before the VC gunners could walk the fire into the helo pad, we bet our asses that the birds could scramble. A cocked and ready fire team could be in the air in less than two minutes easily. A Seawolf det was "cocked and ready" while in their bunks. The longest part of the two minutes was the run to the revetment. Then it was battery - ON, starter - ENGAGE, rotor system - 100%, generators - ON, lift. Elapsed time from first butt hitting seat to all butts airborne, less than one minute . . . .

. . . We Seawolves were settled in for the night, the duty crew to grab some sleep while the grabbing was good, the off-duty crew finally winding down after old home week with our buds from Det 1, relatively drunk, pretty tired, and ready for a good night's sleep. All was quiet. WHUMP! . . . .

Eyes pop open. Not breathing. What was that? Some stirring from some of the other guys. . . could that be incoming, or is it outgoing? I cut my eyes over towards the other bunks in the bottomless void of a room protected with blackout curtains. What are the home boys doing? They should know the difference between outgoing and incoming. I'll take my cue from them rather than embarassing myself by acting like a jumpy Newbie. You know the old saying? "I'd rather die than look bad."

WHUMP! WHUMP-WHUMP

Incoming, thinks I, confirmed by dirt falling down on my face from above.

"INCOMING!" somebody yells.

Springs jounce. Bodies hit the floor. Oh shit. I tear the sheet back, rip back the mosquito net and vault out of the rack to the deck.

I bend over to grab my boots and get sideswiped by somebody trying to run by. Down to my knees I go and the runner staggers, and squats a little regaining his balance. I look up and see LCDR Jim Long, the Det One O-in-C, vault out of his rack and land right on the shoulders of the guy who had just bowled me over. His legs went on either side of the guy's head and he instinctively grabbed the guy's head (the only possible handhold) to keep from falling ass over tea kettle to the deck, and the guy grabbed his legs, staggered, regained his balance, and kept running!

WHUMP - WHUMP! OOHAOWWOWAWOHHOWOWOWW

"Faster!, Faster!" yells Jim locking his legs around the guy's back and they careen down the aisle towards the back door. Everyone is running, some trying to get to the back door to man the bunkers (the hiding bunker and the fighting bunkers), some trying to get to the front door to man the helos, all occupying the same space at roughly the same time. The extra crews are clogging up the normal frenzy to get out of the hootch.

WHUMP OOHAOWWOWAWOHHOWOWOWW

The first guy to the back door has a critical job; open the door. The door did not get opened.

The first guy fumbled with the handle, the next two stopped very close behind the first, bumping each other slightly, and the chicken-fight team of Jim Long and mount piled into the group, unable to stop in time. The back guy was clipped down, the "horse" fell over him, Jim fell backwards off his mount right into the arms of another guy behind him, and they sagged to the ground, and I, having forsaken my boots and havingbuilt up a head of steam in anticipation of a world-class floor exercise out the door and into the bunker, fell over them. Now the door was effectively wedged shut, as the doorman, knee-deep in bodies, tried to pull the nail out of the wood. The Keystone Cops had nothing on us.

OOHAOWWOWAWOHHOWOWOWW

WHUMP - WHANG Ooh, CLOSE one.

Close enough to rattle the hootch and reverberate the walls. Close enough to rattle US too. The intensity of molecular motion went up exponentially as everyone tried to get up at the same time.

For a few seconds the effect was not unlike a mess of puppies in a box. Lots of profanity. Someone laughing hysteriaclly. Someone else helpfully screaming, "OPEN THE G-DAMNED DOOR!" We sorted ourselves out as time stood still. It was as if we were all underwater, and the faster we tried to go, the slower our motion. I was jerked to my feet by some unknown samaritan who literally snatched me off the pile and set me on my feet. After an eternity, we finally ripped open the door and performed an inspired Fleur-de-Lis, peeling off for the hiding bunker and the several fighting bunkers nearby. We poured into the bunker, whose exact dimensions were unknown to us visiting firemen, and were unseeable in the stygian blackness, and once more ended up in a pile as the first man in "measured the distance to the rear wall with his nose, propelled by his shipmates sequentially piling into the mass ahead. By the time we sorted ourselves out again, we could hear the now-spooled-up helicopters taking off. Our eternity had only lasted less than two minutes, two very long minutes. All clear was soon passed. We returned to the Seawolf hootch, too keyed up to sleep, so we opened the bar and. . . . convened a mishap board. These were the finding, paraphrased, and not in the approved format. With apologies for the damage to proper Navy format protocol for mishap reports, the findings are published here for the first time in hopes that someone out there may benefit from the "wisdom of the elders of the clan."

  • - Inadequate brief
  • - Failure of leadership
  • - Faulty procedures
  • - Appalling training documentation
  • - Questionable qualifications
  • - Material design flaws
  • - Alcohol abuse
  • - Breakdown of crew coordination

Here is the detailed reconstruction of the events based on post-mishap analysis, lubricated with liberal libations to loosen the lips and get to the very heart of the matter (a technique which has been proposed in frustration on numerous other, more formal, mishap boards, once peace broke out. Its effectiveness has, sadly, never been tested in the kinder gentler post-Vietnam Navy, although many believe that it may have merit).

The evolution was not properly briefed. Specific duties were not assigned. There is no record that any of the participants had been trained in the procedures. None of the participants were properly rested. There had been consumption of alcoholic beverages well within the established time limits before operations. No one would admit to having had sex within recent memory-therefore fatigue from having had sex was not a contributing factor to THIS mishap. However, stress from abstinence could not be discounted.

In retrospect, based on the lessons of recent sexual awareness training, sexual misconduct may have been a factor (Although there were neither women, nor homosexuals present, no modern Navy inquiry would be complete without some finding of sexual misconduct in order to placate the feminist lobby. We probably just didn't realize that there was such misconduct, being, at the time, in a state of ignorance on the subject.)

The participants could not recall whether they had had a balanced, nourishing, meal before the mishap. (By the time the mishap board secured in the early hours of the morning, several menbers could not recall what country they were in, so there is little surprise that the mishap crewmen were unable to recall what they ate on the mishap day. It is possible that, given sufficient aspirin, liquids, and rest on the following morning, these facts might have been ascertained, but the board had, by then, lost interest.)

Although the procedure was recognized by leadership as likely to occur, a requirement for training for this event was not recognized (supervisory). The brief was altogether too casual, specific duties relating to the evacuation of the hootch (excuse me), barracks, and the manning of the bunkers, were not clearly assigned, the training was not logged, training reports were not made. The first guy to the door, (hereafter referred to as the Door-man, whose actual identity shall die with me, was the key player, and he failed in his responsibility. We are not here to assign blame, but to learn and profit from the experience. This was, after all, a safety mishap board, not a CYA-hunt-down-the-innocent-like-dogs-in-the-street JAGMAN investigation). Post-mishap reconstruction established that Door-man swiped at the big nail (design flaw), which served as the door handle (unauthorized substitution of parts for designed and approved parts) and missed it the first time (inadequate training), or lost his grip on it in his haste (technique). Either way, the result was that the door was not immediately opened in the critical split-second required to facilitate the headlong stampede of a half dozen energized and adrenalin-pumped cowards. This was, of course, the critical first event in the chain of events, which, as we all know, create mishaps, and which, if broken by proper awareness and supervision, prevent mishaps. The mishap board faulted this design flaw, and the contributing design flaw that (as you may recall if you paying close attention), the door opened inward. When Door-man failed in the performance of his duty, the Det One O-in-C, LCDR Long, did not properly supervise and correct his subordinate, despite his spontaneous and creative attempt to place himself in a position to overlook the evolution. After Door-man's failure, his fellow crewmen provided no help in rectifying the problem, neither did they assert themselves, nor articulate their concerns in any constructive way (breakdown in crew coordination).

Had this episode been in the nineties, we could also have convened a TQL sing-along and reported the findings to the Executive Steering Committee who would have removed us from the flight status and sent us home forthwith from the war. Too bad we didn't have TQL in those days.

Seven Phases of Every Exercise/Operation

  • 1. Confidence and Enthusiasm
  • 2. Dispair and Disillusionment
  • 3. Panic
  • 4. Search for the Guilty
  • 5. Punishment of the Innocent
  • 6. Awards and Ceremonies for Non-participants
  • 7. Post-Ex, Lessons Learned and Critique by the Uninformed.


Copyright © 1997,1998, Tom Phillips